Pentagon Chief To Visit Allies Amid Heightened Russia-Ukraine Tensions
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was due on April 10 to embark on a series of overseas meetings with U.S. allies amid rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia and what Washington calls Moscow's "destabilizing behavior."
During the week ahead, Austin is due to meet with government and military leaders in Israel, Germany, at NATO Headquarters in Belgium, and in the United Kingdom. .
A Pentagon statement late on April 8 said Austin will "meet with his counterparts and other senior officials to discuss the importance of international defense relationships, and reinforce the United States' commitment to deterrence and defense, burden sharing, and enduring trans-Atlantic security."
The Pentagon says Austin's April 14 meeting in Brussels with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will focus on "how the Alliance is tackling destabilizing behavior by Russia," as well as "rising China, terrorism, and global challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change."
On April 13, Austin is scheduled to meet in Berlin with German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Chancellery Foreign and Security Policy Adviser Jan Hecker.
The Pentagon says the agenda of Austin's Berlin talks include "combatting the malign influence of our shared strategic rivals, and continued dialogue on U.S. force posture in Germany and elsewhere."
Austin's embarkation comes a a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken consulted the German and French foreign ministers about the need for Russia to cease its military buildup in the occupied Crimean Peninsula and near Ukraine’s eastern borders.
Washington has accused Russia of "provocations" in eastern Ukraine and using “inflammatory rhetoric."
A statement from the U.S. State Department said Blinken spoke separately with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian about the need for stepped-up consultations among NATO allies as fears grow of a major escalation in the eastern Ukraine conflict.
Kyiv and the West blame the Russia-backed separatists holding parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions for a recent spike in hostilities, while Moscow has pointed the finger at Kyiv.
A recent accumulation of photographs, video, and other data has revealed major movements of Russian armed forces toward or near Ukraine's borders and into Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.
That has fueled concerns that Moscow may be preparing to send forces into eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin has rejected Western calls to pull back its troops, denying they are a threat while adding that military movements within Russia are an internal sovereign issue.
On April 9, the Kremlin issued a stark warning that Russia could take steps to "protect civilians" in the region in the event of a resumption of full-scale combat operations there.
The first stop on Austin's four-country tour is Israel where he was due to arrive on April 11. During his two-day visit there, Austin is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz.
The status of indirect talks in Vienna between U.S. and Iranian officials was expected to be on their agenda.
The Vienna talks are focusing on steps that the United States and Iran each need to take to get back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers -- which the Trump administration abandoned in 2018.
The final item on Austin's agenda, after visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels, is talks in the United Kingdom with Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace.
The Pentagon says the purpose of that visit is "to reaffirm the continuing importance of U.S.-United Kingdom defense cooperation to meet global security challenges."
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
Schools Evacuated In Bulgaria Because Of Bomb Threats
Dozens of schools in Bulgaria were evacuated on March 27 after bomb threats were e-mailed to the schools. Schools in the capital, Sofia, and the cities of Burgas and Varna on the Black Sea were among those affected. Students were told to line up with their backpacks and jackets before being evacuated, and police were sent in to search for explosives. No bombs have been found. Bulgaria is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on April 2, and voting takes place mainly at schools. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, click here.
Iranian Lawmaker Says New Hijab Plan Prohibits Physical Punishment
An Iranian parliamentarian says the government's new strategy to enforce the compulsory wearing of the hijab will eliminate physical punishment for women and instead carry financial and administrative penalties that have been approved by the leader of the Islamic republic.
Iranian parliament member Hossein Jalali said on March 27 that the new plan includes a financial penalty of up to 30 billion Iranian Rials ($60,000) for those who breach the compulsory hijab law, while additional penalties consist of revoking a person's driver's license, canceling their passport, and prohibiting Internet access for those women who do not adhere to the hijab requirement.
Under the new proposals, physical punishment will not be allowed, Jalali said. Violators instead will be punished according to a predetermined table.
To help limit physical confrontations, surveillance cameras will be used to monitor public spaces for women not wearing the hijab and offenders will be tracked down and punished afterward. Police and judicial authorities will be tasked with collecting evidence and identifying violators, Jalali said.
SPECIAL REPORT: The Protests That Shook Iran's Clerical System
The Cultural Commission of the Iranian parliament said earlier that shop owners and the operators of businesses such as shopping malls and accommodation centers will also be responsible for implementing the rules.
Officials have recently moved to seal off the businesses of some "violators," including this week when a hotel in the city of Kashan and a shopping center in the capital, Tehran, were closed because employers were not observing the mandatory hijab rule.
The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.
Long-simmering tensions boiled over after the death in custody in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained for allegedly wearing the hijab improperly, with Iranians flooding streets across the country in protest. Women and even schoolgirls have put up unprecedented shows of defiance in the unrest, one of the biggest threats to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters. Rights groups say more than 500 people have died in the protests.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
As Expected, Kazakhstan's Ruling Party Takes Majority Of Seats In Parliamentary Vote
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- As expected, the ruling Amanat party won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan earlier this month, official results show, in a vote the Central Election Commission said had several "minor" violations but that some opposition politicians claimed was marred by issues.
The Central Election Commission said on March 27 that Amanat received 53.9 percent of the votes to win an allocation of 40 seats of the 69 seats on offer in parliament through the party list distribution system. In addition, according to the commission, candidates nominated by Amanat won 22 of the 29 seats on offer in single-mandate contests.
The March 19 vote followed a referendum in June 2022 that marked the end of special privileges for long-reigning former leader Nursultan Nazarbaev and snap presidential elections in November that handed 69-year-old incumbent Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev a fresh seven-year presidential term.
It was the first vote since 2004 in which candidates without party affiliations could stand for seats in the lower house, called the Mazhilis, as part of a package of electoral reforms initiated by Toqaev in the wake of the unrest in January 2022 that left at least 238 people dead.
The second-place Auyl party won eight seats in the party-list distribution after it took 10.9 percent of the votes; the Respublika party won six seats with 8.59 percent; the Ak Zhol party won six seats with 8.41 percent; the People's Party of Kazakhstan won five seats with 6.8 percent; and four mandates were handed to the opposition Nationwide Social Democratic Party (JSDP), which had 5.2 percent of the votes.
The return of single-mandate district races added some dynamism to a ballot dominated by system candidates in a country where no elections have been deemed free or fair by international election monitors since Kazakhstan gained independence more than 30 years ago.
But several opposition-minded figures were excluded from races at the parliament and city council level on administrative pretexts, while others complained of government pressure on their campaigns.
Several candidates said after the elections that they would not recognize the results because of "various violations" of voting laws and that they would launch a court appeal because "the votes of independent candidates were stolen."
The various violations include improper counting of ballots and government pressure on public employees to vote for certain parties.
The Oraganization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted after the vote that "limits on the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms remain and some political groups continue to be prevented from participating as political parties in elections."
While the voting "was organized in a smooth manner overall," the OSCE said "significant procedural irregularities were observed."
Of the seven parties to compete in the elections, the most well-established is the ruling Amanat party, a renamed version of the Nur Otan party led by Nazarbaev, who remained powerful even after stepping down and allowing Toqaev to succeed him in 2019.
Last year’s crisis effectively ended the political career of Nazarbaev, who relinquished his remaining positions to Toqaev, while denying rumors of a rift with his protege.
Suicide Attack Near Foreign Ministry In Kabul Kills At Least Six
At least six people were killed and 12 others were wounded on March 27 when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Khalid Zadran, a spokesman for the Taliban's security command in Kabul, said security forces spotted the bomber and shot at him but could not prevent him from reaching a checkpoint in Malik Asghar Square, where he detonated his explosive vest.
A Kabul hospital run by Emergency, an Italian NGO, said on Twitter that it had admitted 12 wounded patients, including a child, and two people were dead on arrival.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far, but after returning to power in 2021, the Taliban has been targeted by Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an offshoot of the Islamic State militant group that has emerged as the Taliban's main rival in the war-wracked country.
IS-K has staged several attacks in Afghanistan recently.
On January 11, an IS-K suicide bomber killed at least 10 people when he blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry, not far from the site of the March 27 attack.
IS-K also claimed a bombing near a checkpoint at the Kabul military airport on January 1 that killed up to 20 people and an attack in December on a Kabul hotel frequented by businesspeople. At least five Chinese nationals were wounded in the December attack on the hotel.
In September, two Russian Embassy employees were killed in an IS-K suicide attack outside Moscow's mission in Kabul.
The Taliban has responded to the attacks by stepping up raids on suspected IS-K hideouts.
Last month, Taliban security forces said they had killed two senior IS-K members -- Qari Fateh, the regional IS-K intelligence and operations chief, and another senior leader, Ijaz Amin Ahingar -- in two separate raids in Kabul.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa
Poland Detains Man For Allegedly Spying For Russia
Poland has detained a foreign citizen on charges of spying for Russia, prosecutors said on March 27, as the largest country on NATO's eastern flank finds itself increasingly targeted by Moscow's intelligence services. Prosecutors in the northern Polish city of Gdansk said in a statement that the suspect had been detained on March 21. "The findings made in the case show that the suspect acted for the benefit of Russian intelligence by obtaining and collecting information...on critical infrastructure in the Pomeranian and Kuyavian-Pomeranian regions and on the activities of services and bodies responsible for security," they said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
IOC Should Stick To Ban On Russian, Belarusian Athletes, Poland Says
Russian and Belarusian athletes should be banned from the 2024 Olympics in Paris unless Moscow pulls its forces out of Ukraine, Poland said on March 27, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it plans to let them compete as neutrals. "We strongly believe that now is not the time to consider the opening up of a pathway for Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to the Olympic Games in any status," the Polish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Saudi, Iranian Foreign Ministers To Meet During Muslim Holy Month
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have agreed to meet during the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi state news agency SPA said on March 27, under a deal to restore ties. Both ministers spoke by phone for the second time in a few days, SPA said. "The two ministers also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting between them during the ongoing month of Ramadan," SPA said. Ramadan is likely to end on April 20. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Zelenskiy Makes Surprise Trip To Zaporizhzhya, Meets IAEA Chief
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise visit to frontline positions in the region of Zaporizhzhya, where he also met with UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi to discuss the protection of Europe's largest nuclear power station as fighting rages with invading Russian forces across the eastern flank of the country.
Zelenskiy's office said in a statement that the president on March 27 spoke with troops "in frontline positions" in the area and presented them with state awards, while also being apprised of the "operational situation in the relevant areas of the front [and] the provision of ammunition and equipment."
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.
Soon after, Grossi, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), tweeted he was in Zaporizhzhya and had met with Zelenskiy to discuss safety issues around the nuclear plant, which is held by Russian forces and has been forced to switch to emergency diesel generators on several occasions as fighting nearby knocked out power lines.
"I met with Zelenskiy today in Zaporizhzhya City & had a rich exchange on the protection of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and its staff. I reiterated the full support of the IAEA to Ukraine's nuclear facilities," he said.
Grossi said he would be visiting the plant "to assess first-hand the #nuclear safety & security situation at the facility."
Meanwhile, heavy fighting continued unabated in the Donetsk region, the Ukrainian military said, with the Russians keeping up the pressure on the ruined city of Bakhmut, the focal point of Moscow's offensive in the east, and also increasingly targeting Avdiyivka, another city in Donetsk.
Two civilians were killed and 29 injured in Russian shelling of the city of Slovyansk, local officials said.
Zelenskiy released a video of the shelling in Slovyansk on his Telegram channel, describing the attack as "terrorism."
Ukrainian forces repelled more than 60 Russian attacks in Bakhmut and its surroundings, the General Staff of the Armed Forces said in its daily report, as the invading forces continued to indiscriminately bombard both military and infrastructure targets, causing damage and casualties among civilians.
"The probability of missile and air strikes on the entire territory of Ukraine remains high, as the enemy uses terror tactics," the General Staff said, adding that Russian attacks mainly targeted Avdiyivka, Lyman, Kupyansk, and Maryinka.
Russia has repeatedly denied it has targeted civilian infrastructure since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 even as residential and cultural buildings across the country have been constantly hit during the war.
The situation in Bakhmut remains "continually difficult," the commander of Ukraine's Ground Forces, General Oleksandr Syrskiy, said during a visit to the front line on March 27, according to the Defense Ministry.
IN PHOTOS: Following months of brutal assaults spearheaded by Russia's Wagner mercenary troops, Ukraine's military claims to have stabilized the beleaguered eastern city of Bakhmut.
The current fighting in and around Bakhmut has reached "the most intense phase," Syrskiy said, adding, "The enemy has suffered significant losses in human resources, weapons, and military equipment but continues to conduct offensive operations."
Ukrainian military officials say Russian forces are appearing to also be turning their focus on Avdiyivka, less than 100 kilometers southwest of Bakhmut, where incessant Russian shelling has shut down all public services and municipal workers have been evacuated from the city. Only about 2,000 civilians have been left out of a pre-war population of some 30,000.
Avdiyivka is some 20 kilometers northeast of Donetsk, the city that has been under Russian-backed forces' occupation since 2014.
Vitaliy Barabash, head of the city's military administration, said on Telegram on March 26 that Avdiyivka has been turned into "a place from post-apocalyptic movies" by intensive Russian shelling.
The latest fighting comes amid the international fallout of an announcement over the weekend by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he had reached an agreement to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a close ally that borders both Russia and Ukraine.
Putin likened his move to station nuclear weapons in Belarus to Washington's policy of placing such weapons with NATO allies and claimed it did not violate terms of the decades-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Despite Putin’s comments, the White House said it saw no indication that Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons. It said, though, that "Russia's reference to NATO's nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments," including the NPT.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russia Defeats Iraq In First Home International Soccer Match Since Ukraine Invasion
Russia eased to a 2-0 win over Iraq in a friendly on March 26 as it played its first international match on home soil since November 2021, after being barred from global competitions over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Official attendance at the 68,000-seat Gazprom Arena in St. Petersburg was 23,818. The stadium had been due to host last year's Champions League final before Russia was stripped of that honor. Both European soccer body UEFA and global governing body FIFA decided in February 2022 that all Russian teams would be suspended from their competitions following the invasion. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russia Claims Ukrainian Drone Downed In Tula Region, Three Injured
Russian air defenses halted a Ukrainian drone attack on a Russian town on March 26 in which three people were hurt and apartment blocks were damaged, the Russian Defense Ministry said. Kyiv did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has previously denied Russian assertions that its drones -- also known as unmanned aerial vehicles -- have flown into Russian territory and caused damage to civilian infrastructure. The Russian ministry said the attack on the town of Kireyevsk, in the Tula region 220 kilometers south of Moscow, involved a Ukrainian Tu-141 Strizh drone. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Pakistani PM Accuses President Of Acting Like Opposition
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has accused the country's president, Arif Alvi, of abandoning neutrality to criticize his government as if he were part of the political opposition. In a five-page letter, Sharif said Alvi was failing in "certain legal duties." He suggested that Alvi was demanding similar actions as ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf party. Sharif's letter came in response to a letter from Alvi urging the prime minister to organize elections in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, click here.
- By AP
Pakistani Ex-PM Khan Sets Out Economic Rescue Plan At Rally
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan led a rally in the eastern city of Lahore in the early hours of March 26, setting out his ideas to revive the country's spiraling economy and accusing the government of lacking a rescue plan. Local authorities warned Khan not to hold a public rally in view of a possible terrorist attack. The 70-year-old politician, who was ousted as prime minister in a no-confidence motion in April 2022 and is campaigning for early elections, blames the government for being part of a "regime-change operation" against him. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Afghan Women's Protest For Education Halted In Kabul By Taliban
At least 20 Afghan women marched in the capital, Kabul, on March 26 to demand the right to education for women and girls before being rounded up by a Taliban patrol.
The demonstration comes amid UN and other international condemnation over ongoing strictures under the Taliban-led government to keep women and girls out of schools, jobs, media, and other aspects of life since the hard-line militant group took power after U.S.-led international forces left in 2021.
Participants in the demonstration told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that Taliban enforcers arrived shortly after they began their planned march from the Red Bridge area in western Kabul and corralled the protesters to prevent them from continuing.
Video footage shared on social media showed around two dozen veiled women marching with small signs with "education is our right" written on them.
The demonstration was organized by the Afghan Women's Political Participation Network.
Organizers reportedly planned to march toward the Asif Mayel Girls' School, one of dozens of schools violently attacked by Taliban fighters or sympathizers.
"For almost two years, the future and fate of Afghan women have been taken hostage and we have been completely removed from society," one of the protesters, Momine Eftekhari, told Radio Azadi.
"Education is a standard with an educational curriculum that is the right of everyone. Not only is it the right of boys but girls, but unfortunately we have been deprived of education, work, and sports for more than 19 months."
She said the situation was "no longer tolerable [and] that's why we took to the streets."
Putin Arrest Warrant Gives Russian Journalist Hope For Resistance
Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova said the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin has given her "some sort of hope" that resistance might be sparked within the country's elite. Ovsyannikova worked for the Russian state broadcaster Channel One for more than 10 years before she decided to stage a protest against the invasion of Ukraine. Ovsyannikova fled Russia and is now living in Paris. She made her comments to BBC One's Sunday program.
Taliban Claims Delegation Visited Afghan Consulate In Neighboring Tajikistan
The Taliban-led Afghan government's foreign office has claimed a delegation traveled to an Afghan consulate in Khorugh, the capital of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan region, although no Tajik official sources confirmed any such visit on March 25. Relations are strained between the Taliban leadership in Kabul and Dushanbe, which has been outspoken in its demand that the unrecognized Afghan government boost inclusiveness since it took over after the withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops in August 2021. The Taliban said its delegation was surveying repairs to the consulate following an avalanche that killed 16 people and buried dozens of buildings on February 15. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.
Kazakh Journalist Who Rejected Election Results Launches Hunger Strike In Jail
Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim has launched a hunger strike as he serves a 25-day jail term over his plan to hold a rally to protest the official results of this month's parliamentary and local elections, his lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeiisov, said on March 26. Mukhammedkarim was cleared as a candidate in the March 19 elections to the national parliament only after protesting his initial disqualification. He announced his refusal to recognize the results, which awarded a majority to the ruling Amanat party after a process that international observers said showed some progress over previous votes but the opposition said was undemocratic. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Pentagon: No Indication Russia Plans To Use Nuclear Weapons
The U.S. Department of Defense said on March 25 that there were no indications that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons after Moscow's announcement to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. "We have seen reports of Russia's announcement and will continue to monitor this situation," it said. It added that "We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance." To read the original report by Reuters, click here.
U.K. Says Iran Resupplies To Russia Of Kamikaze Drones Fueling More March Attacks
The British Defense Ministry said on March 26 that Russia had "likely launched" at least 71 Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones against Ukraine after a two-week letup in late February. The resumption suggests that "Russia has started receiving regular resupplies of small numbers of Shahed" uncrewed aerial drones, the U.K. military added in its daily intelligence assessment. It said Russian forces were probably launching the Iranian drones from the Krasnodar region in the east and Bryansk region in the northeast, cutting down flight times in the north to further "stretch Ukrainian air defenses."
Putin: Russia, China Not Creating Military Alliance
Russia and China are not creating a military alliance and are hiding nothing in terms of their military cooperation, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with state television broadcast on March 26, news agencies reported. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping professed friendship and pledged closer ties at a summit in Moscow early this week, as Russia struggles to make gains in what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine. "We are not creating any military alliance with China," Interfax quoted Putin as saying, adding, "Yes, we have cooperation in the sphere of military-technical interaction."
- By AFP
Tehran Condemns U.S. Strikes On Iran-Linked Groups In Syria
Tehran has condemned U.S. air strikes on Iran-linked forces in Syria that reportedly killed 19 people, which Washington said it carried out following a deadly drone attack on U.S. forces. The Iranian Foreign Ministry late on March 25 condemned "the belligerent and terrorist attack of the American army on civilian targets" in the eastern Syrian region of Deir el-Zor. Washington said it launched the retaliatory raids after a U.S. contractor was killed -- and another contractor and five military personnel wounded -- by a drone "of Iranian origin" that struck a U.S.-led coalition base in Syria.
North Macedonia's Military Backs Sending Mi-24 Helicopters To Ukraine
The General Staff of North Macedonia has backed the transfer to Ukraine of 12 Mi-24 military helicopters that it purchased from Kyiv two decades ago, Macedonian Defense Minister Slavjanka Petrovska said on March 25. The transfer still must receive government approval. Petrovska said Skopje will procure eight new, Western-platform rotorcraft to replace the Mi-24s. She said the military equipment being supplied to Ukraine was "under our plans...reaching the end of its service life." Petrovska said that "the transfer of helicopters to Ukraine will not weaken Macedonia's defense capabilities, as some of the helicopters have not been used for some time." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Turkmen Electoral Authorities Validate Polls For Rubber-Stamp Parliament, Despite Reports Of Violations
Turkmenistan’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) has validated the March 26 elections for the members of a newly unicameral national legislature amid reports of widespread election violations in the authoritarian Central Asian state.
None of Turkmenistan's elections has been regarded as free or fair since its exit from the Soviet Union in 1991.
CEC chief Gulmurat Muradov told reporters on March 27 that turnout was 91.12 percent out of almost 3.5 million eligible voters. The results will be announced within seven days, he said.
There have been reports of gross violations of the secrecy of voting.
An RFE/RL correspondent who went to vote in the capital, Ashgabat, said they were given a total of 12 ballots for the four members of his family that had the right to vote.
The correspondent also noticed that voters were instructed to acknowledge that they had voted by signing on lists written on separate A4 sheets of paper.
"This opens up the possibility of manipulation," the RFE/RL correspondent said.
Another RFE/RL correspondent reported that they had visited several different polling stations and that there was very little activity inside, despite the claim of more than 90 percent turnout.
He said it was very common for just one family member to show up and vote for multiple relatives.
Before the election, RFE/RL reported, authorities publicly urged voters to also cast ballots for their family members who were living abroad.
The parliament is expected to mostly rubber-stamp moves initiated by "national leader" Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in an unelected Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) and his presidential successor and son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov.
The elections on March 26 also included local and provincial assemblies.
The elder Berdymukhammedov has spent years further quashing dissent and independent media in the gas-rich country of around 6 million people after taking over controversially following the death of the country's first post-independence dictator, "President-for-life" Saparmurat Niyazov.
For years, critics have warned that 65-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's moves were made to secure his lifetime leadership and the succession of presidency to his son and grandchildren.
The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) sent a small election-assessment mission for the March 26 balloting but said it "will not carry out systematic or comprehensive observation of the voting [or] counting and tabulation on election day."
Its members planned to "visit a small number of polling stations on the day," it said.
Turkmenistan's bicameral National Council voted in January to convert the upper house into a People's Council of appointees with the elder Berdymukhammedov in charge and broad prerogatives.
The reform was proposed by the elder Berdymukhammedov around 10 months after handing the presidency to his son and less than two years after he created the upper house.
Under the hastily imposed reforms, the People's Council is the "supreme power" with authority to change the constitution and is separate from the legislature.
Its powers extend to domestic and foreign policy.
Nearly 15,000 candidates were nominated and registered for the elections across the country. Two hundred and fifty-eight were competing for the national parliament, or Mejlis.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has continued to meet with foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, since passing the presidency to Serdar Berdymukhammedov.
The Turkmen economy is heavily dependent on China, Russia, and Iran.
Reporters Without Borders ranks only Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea worse than Turkmenistan on press freedoms.
With reporting by AFP
Fighting Rages Around Bakhmut As West Assails Kremlin Plan To Place Nukes In Belarus
International condemnation has intensified over Moscow's plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, even as fighting raged in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, with the ruined city of Bakhmut continuing to be the focal point of Russia's struggling war effort.
The Ukrainian military said on March 26 that Russian offensives were centering on Bakhmut and a handful of other eastern areas, as Western analysts and others said Moscow's monthslong assault in the area -- led by the Wagner mercenary fighters -- was stalling, beset by heavy troop losses.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that a drone sent by Ukrainian forces was intercepted near the Russian city of Tula and crashed into the town of Kireyevsk, injuring three people.
Ukraine did not comment on the claim, and the report could not be independently verified.
The fighting comes amid international fallout over plans announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 25 that he had reached agreement to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a close ally that borders both Russia and Ukraine.
Kyiv condemned the plan and called for an urgent UN Security Council session and urged the international community to "take decisive measures" to prevent Moscow's possible use of nuclear weapons.
"Russia once again confirms its chronic inability to be a responsible steward of nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence and prevention of war, not as a tool of threats and intimidation," Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said.
The secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said that fellow post-Soviet republic Belarus was falling "hostage" to Moscow by allowing the stationing of nuclear weapons on its soil.
NATO assailed Putin for "dangerous and irresponsible" nuclear rhetoric, while Germany condemned the move, saying it served to bring nuclear arms closer to the European Union.
"NATO is vigilant, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia's nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own," a NATO spokesperson said.
An official in Berlin told AFP that it was "another attempt at nuclear intimidation by Russia."
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted: "Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions."
Despite Putin's comments, the White House said it did not see any indications that Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons. It said, though, that "Russia's reference to NATO's nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments," including the decades-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Putin likened his move to station nuclear weapons in Belarus to Washington's policy of placing such weapons with NATO allies and claimed that it did not violate terms of the NPT.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Ukraine's General Staff said its forces continued to hold positions in Bakhmut, where a Russian encirclement effort continues, but Ukraine's top commander said this week the situation was being "stabilized."
It cited Russian attacks in the Donetsk areas of Lyman, Maryinka, and Avdiyivka and said Ukrainian forces had repelled 85 Russian attacks over the past 24 hours.
In its daily update, the British Defense Ministry said Russia "most likely wanted to stabilize its front lines and would adopt a more defensive operational stance."
Kyiv also said Russian forces were conducting "defensive actions" in the areas around Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, where shelling has raised fears over a captured nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said its director-general, Rafael Grossi, will make his second visit of the war next week to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, where he and other nuclear experts have repeatedly warned of the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
The Kherson city council on March 24 advised residents living close to the Dnieper River to leave for "safer areas."
The Ukrainian Army said the occupiers in the city of Berdyansk, in the Zaporizhzhya region, issued a decree forcing local residents to seek passes to move freely in the area pending background checks.
Russian forces and their separatist allies have conducted wide-scale "filtration" operations to vet civilians in occupied territory since early in the full-scale invasion that began in February 2022.
Ukraine's General Staff also claimed that the Russian side had suffered 170,000 casualties so far in the all-out invasion that began in February 22.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm casualty claims by either side or battlefield developments in areas of intense fighting.
In his regular video address late on March 25, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy praised a decision on "new packages of defense support" from Finland, Germany, Lithuania, and the United States, as well as a similar Swedish vote.
He also cited "a security package and strong agreements with Japan" following Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit earlier this week.
Zelenskiy said Croatia's government backed a program to treat and rehabilitate Ukrainian war casualties and that Greece joined a group "working on the creation of a special tribunal" for war crimes.
Zelenskiy said the commitments allowed Ukraine to become stronger while "the enemy has become even more isolated, even more hopeless."
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Ukraine's Top Central Banker Vows To Tighten 'Dangerous' Monetary Approach
Ukrainian National Bank Governor Andriy Pyshniy says the bank has settled its "open conflict" with the government and will avoid the "very dangerous" practice of printing new money to fund the war effort.
Pyshniy told the Financial Times in an interview published on March 26 that the loose monetary policy had "created huge risks for macroeconomic stability" and the national currency, the hryvnya.
"It was a quick remedy, but very dangerous," he told the newspaper.
Experts have expressed fear of hyperinflation to compound woes in Ukraine amid the year-old war, particularly as the National Bank printed money as EU aid was delayed and the Finance Ministry opposed domestic paths to raise revenues.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Ukrainian government agreed on a nearly $16 billion loan that still requires IMF board approval.
Pyshniy took over Ukraine's National Bank in October after Kyrylo Shevchenko resigned abruptly amid suspicions of millions of dollars of embezzlement.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said after meetings with IMF Director-General Kristalina Georgieva in February that the sides had reached a preliminary agreement on a program that would include immediate financial help and support for longer-term structural reforms to aid rebuilding after the war.
Armenia, Turkey To Partially Reopen Land Border
Armenia and Turkey plan to permanently open border crossings between the two countries for the first time in three decades, Armenian officials announced on March 24. The land border will initially open only for diplomats and citizens of third countries until the beginning of the tourist season, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said. There is already direct air traffic between Armenia and Turkey. Turkey unilaterally closed the land border in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan. The border closure has caused serious economic problems for Armenia, which continues to fight a bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
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Zelenskiy Makes Surprise Trip To Zaporizhzhya, Meets IAEA Chief3
As Fighting Rages On At The Front, Thousands Join Ukraine's Offensive Guard4
'How Did He Turn Into What He Is Now?' Former Putin Speechwriter Reflects5
Graveyard War: Why Prigozhin Is Picking A Fight Over Burials And What It Means For His Own Future6
Bulgaria's Pro-Kremlin Leader Refuses To Send Soviet-Era Fighter Jets And Tanks To Ukraine7
Fighting Rages Around Bakhmut As West Assails Kremlin Plan To Place Nukes In Belarus8
Ukraine's Zelenskiy Pleads With Europe For More Sophisticated Military Equipment9
Ukraine Says No Letup On Bakhmut Front Despite Claims Russian Offensive Stalling10
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