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Pope Says Christmas 'Hostage' Of Materialism, 'Needs To Be Freed'

Pope Francis waves from the balcony of St Peter's basilica during the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" Christmas message in 2015.

Pope Francis said during his Christmas Eve homily that Christmas has been “taken hostage” by materialism that puts God in the shadows and blinds many people to the needs of the hunger, migrants, and the war weary.

Speaking at late on December 24 at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholic Christians said the world is often obsessed with gifts, feasting, and self-centeredness and needs more humility.

In unscripted remarks, Pope Francis said: “This worldliness has taken Christmas hostage. It needs to be freed."

The service was attended by 10,000 worshipers inside while thousands more who could not get inside St. Peter’s Basilica stood outside on St. Peter’s Square and watched on large television screens.

On Christmas Day, December 25, Francis will deliver his twice-yearly Urbi et Orbi -- To The City And To The World -- blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

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Trial Starts In Norway For Son Of Putin Ally Accused Of Flying Drone

The son of a Russian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin denied any wrongdoing as his trial started in northern Norway, where he is accused of violating a law that bars Russians from flying drones. Andrei Yakunin, who holds both Russian and British passports, was arrested on October 17 after he had sailed around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and along the coast of Norway. The 47-year-old had been filming with the drone while mountaineering, glacier walking, and sailing, according to his lawyer, John Christian Elden, who has said that Yakunin should be considered a British citizen, rather than Russian. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Iranian Teachers' Union Official Says He Was Chained To A Hospital Bed For 12 Days

Iranian teachers union activist Jafar Ebrahimi (file photo)

The jailed spokesman of the Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council has published a letter saying that, after he was transferred from Tehran's infamous Evin prison to hospital due to illness, authorities chained him to the hospital bed for 12 days and denied him access to his lawyer and family.

The Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council published the letter written by Jafar Ebrahimi on November 28, saying it shows the "disastrous behavior of prison officials toward a sick prisoner."

"They made the hospital a worse place for me than the prison," Ebrahimi said in the letter as he described being held incommunicado from his relatives and legal team.

The Evin prison has a long history of brutal behavior toward it inmates.

In March, the hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali, which claims to work inside Iran to expose the "true face of the regime," released video footage highlighting the inhumane conditions in the country's most-notorious prison.

Leaked Video Exposes Extreme Conditions In Notorious Iranian Prison
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Ebrahimi, along with Rasul Bodaghi, Ali Akbar Baghani, and Mohammad Habibi, all teachers' union activists, were arrested by security agents on April 30, just ahead of demonstrations held in several cities on May Day, which coincided with Teachers' Day in Iran.

They were also accused of coordinating the protests with French teachers' union official Cecile Kohler and her partner, Jacques Paris.

Iran has attempted to link the French nationals to the protesting Iranian teachers. The arrests were largely seen as an attempt to discredit the rallies and increase pressure on the Iranian teachers' union to stop the protests.

Iranian officials have accused the French couple of "entering the country to sow chaos and destabilize society."

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

Putin Proposes Creation Of 'Natural Gas Union' With Kazakhstan And Uzbekistan

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed creating a "gas union" with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to establish a mechanism to ship natural gas between the three countries and to other nations, including China.

A day after Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said he had talks with Putin in Moscow on the issue, Russian Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on November 29 that the proposal was being discussed between the three countries because there was a "need for synchronization" since they all sell natural gas.

The first stage of Putin's proposal envisages "the creation of a coordination mechanism" for the plan, Peskov said.

"The issue likely will have to be discussed with a legal entity to establish cooperation between the three nations and to secure the development of infrastructure for outer markets," Peskov said.

Toqaev's spokesman Ruslan Zheldibai wrote on Facebook on November 29 that the Kazakh and Russian presidents had discussed how "to coordinate joint actions for the transportation of Russian gas through the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan."

"Presidents Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Vladimir Putin said they think it is necessary to hold detailed talks with the participation of experts to find a rational solution to the issue that considers the interests of all involved sides," Zheldibai wrote.

Peskov noted that, since Kazakhstan's northern regions depend on natural gas transported from Siberia in Russia, it would be economically advantageous to increase Russian gas supplies instead of following through on a Kazakh government plan to build a new pipeline to secure Kazakh gas deliveries to the region. This, the Kremlin spokesman said, would save Astana "tens of billions of dollars."

Russia is known as a major natural gas exporter, while the amount of natural gas produced by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is barely enough for their own consumption.

The two major economies of the Central Asian region share a gas pipeline to Russia and a pipeline transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan to China.

Moscow has increased its natural gas deliveries to China since European nations began decreasing their dependence on Russian gas amid the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which started in late February.

With reporting by Interfax and TASS

Man Who Ran Onto Field During World Cup Game Defends 'Breaking The Rules'

Mario Ferri is detained by officials after encroaching onto the field of play during Portugal's World Cup game against Uruguay on November 29

An Italian who ran on to the field during a World Cup game wearing a T-shirt in support of Ukraine and Iranian women is a football player with a history of similar stunts. Mario Ferri, 35, who calls himself "The Falcon," interrupted the Portugal-Uruguay game on November 29 when he sprinted on to the field wearing a blue Superman T-shirt with "Save Ukraine" on the front and "Respect for Iranian Woman" on the back. He also carried a rainbow-colored flag adorned with the words PACE, meaning peace in Italian. To read the original story by AFP, click here.

Russia Extradites Another Native Of Tajikistan's Restive Gorno-Badakhshan

Amid Alifshoev was reportedly detained by Russian police last week. (file photo)

DUSHANBE -- Relatives of a Tajik man from the Central Asian nation's restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region (GBAO) say Russia extradited him to Tajikistan, where he may face illegal incarceration and arbitrary prosecution.

The relatives, who spoke with RFE/RL on November 28, said 34-year-old Amid Alifshoev, who has been living in Moscow for five years, was detained by Russian police last week and extradited days later. They said that they do not know why he was detained and extradited and what charges he may face in Tajikistan.

On November 17, another GBAO native, Firuz Mamadyorbekov, was arrested in Moscow and has been held incommunicado since then.

The Pamir Daily News website, which monitors developments in GBAO, said earlier that at least 20 of the region's natives have been detained in Moscow and forcibly taken to Tajikistan in the past six months.

Relatives and rights defenders have said that the arrests in Moscow were most likely linked to mass protests in GBAO that were violently dispersed by the authorities in May.

Deep tensions between the Tajik government and residents of the volatile GBAO have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Protests are rare in tightly controlled Tajikistan, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

The latest crackdown on activists in GBAO followed protests initially sparked by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a "counterterrorist operation."

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Kyrgyz President Replaces Mayor Of Osh, The Country's Second-Largest City

Osh's new mayor, Bakytbek Jetigenov (file photo)

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov on November 29 appointed Bakytbek Jetigenov as the mayor of Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, after sacking Almaz Mambetov amid media reports saying a criminal case had been launched against him. Mambetov was appointed to the post in August 2021. Jetigenov, 56, is a former lawmaker who spent one month in pretrial detention in late 2021 on a charge of plotting to seize power. He was released after the case against him was closed. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Lukashenka Bids Farewell To Deceased Belarusian Foreign Minister

Alyaksandr Lukashenka pays his respects at Uladzimir Makey's funeral in Minsk on November 29.

Belarus's authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has bid farewell to his long-time confidant, Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey, who unexpectedly died at the age of 64 last weekend. Lukashenka arrived with flowers on November 29 at the House of Officers in Minsk, where Makey’s casket was placed. Other officials started arriving at the building after Lukashenka had left. The cause of Makey's death is yet to be officially announced. He will be buried later in the day at Minsk's Eastern cemetery. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Kazakh Activist Gets 15 days In Jail For Organizing Rally On Presidential Inauguration Day

The protest rally was held in Astana on the day of President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's inauguration.

Kazakh activist Marat Abiev has been handed a 15-day jail term for organizing an unsanctioned protest rally on November 26, the day of President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's inauguration. A court in Astana sentenced Abiev on November 28 after finding him guilty of "violating the law on holding public events." Toqaev was reelected in the early election held on November 20. A monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said after the election that the election lacked "competitiveness." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Jailed Russian Politician Kara-Murza Receives Axel Springer Courage Award

Russian oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza (file photo)

Jailed Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who faces a prison sentence of up to 24 years on high treason and other charges, has been honored with an award for courage by the Berlin-based Axel Springer Foundation.

Kara-Murza's wife, Yevgenia, received the award on her husband's behalf on November 28, while the jailed politician passed on his written thanks to the foundation via his lawyers.

The foundation was named after German journalist and publisher Axel Springer (1912-1985). Its main activities support independent journalists, writers, and public figures around the world.

Kara-Murza, 41, was detained in April and sentenced to 15 days in jail on a charge of disobeying police. He was later charged with spreading false information about the Russian Army for talks he held with lawmakers in the U.S. state of Arizona.

Last month, a high treason charge was added to the list of offenses he faces over his alleged cooperation with organizations in a NATO member for many years. Kara-Murza has rejected the charges, calling them politically motivated.

President Vladimir Putin has moved to silence his opponents over the years through legislation that has restricted free speech and civil society in Russia. That campaign has intensified since he launched an invasion of Ukraine in late February.

In October, Kara-Murza won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor "outstanding" civil society action in the defense of human rights.

The son of a prominent journalist, also named Vladimir, who died in 2019, the younger Kara-Murza was a television correspondent in Washington for several years and later worked on political projects launched by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent Putin foe who now lives in Western Europe after spending more than a decade in prison.

A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.

Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of "intentional poisoning."

U.S. government laboratories also conducted extensive tests on the samples, but documents released by the Justice Department suggest they were unable to reach a conclusive finding.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incidents.

Russian Ambassador To Vatican Lodges Protest Over Pope's Comments

Aleksandr Avdeyev was responding to comments made by Pope Francis (pictured) about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine (file photo)

Russian Ambassador to the Vatican Aleksandr Avdeyev says he visited the leadership of the diplomatic service of the Vatican on November 28 to lodge a protest in connection with statements made by Pope Francis that condemned the "cruelty" of Russia's actions in Ukraine. "I expressed indignation at such insinuations," Avdeyev told RIA Novosti. Francis said in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America that generally, "the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on. Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state. This is very clear." To read the original story by RIA Novosti, click here.

Updated

Stoltenberg Says NATO Will Back Ukraine 'For As Long As It Takes'

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has pledged the alliance's support for Ukraine "for as long as it takes" and has reiterated that the door to membership in the world's largest security organization remains open to all, including Kyiv.

Speaking in Bucharest on November 29 as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the other NATO foreign ministers gathered in Romania, Stoltenberg called on partners to step up aid for Ukraine, whose energy infrastructure has been devastated by a barrage of Russian attacks at the onset of the winter season.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"Our message from Bucharest is that NATO will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. We will not back down," Stoltenberg told a conference in the Romanian capital ahead of the ministerial meeting.

He added that the only way to get the right terms for negotiations with Moscow to begin would be for Ukraine to advance on the battlefield.

"To create the conditions for a lasting peace, which ensures that Ukraine prevails as an independent sovereign state, we must continue to provide military support to Ukraine," he said.

Stoltenberg separately told journalists that NATO allies will ramp up aid for Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin uses "winter as a weapon of war" because his forces are failing on the battlefield.

"We have delivered generators and spare parts, and the allies are helping to rebuild destroyed infrastructure," he said, adding that the Bucharest gathering would serve as a platform to drum up Western aid to rebuild Ukraine's energy infrastructure.

Stoltenberg reaffirmed the military alliance's commitment to admitting new members, including Ukraine, without offering a precise date.

“NATO’s door is open,” Stoltenberg said.

“Russia does not have a veto” on countries joining, he said, adding that Putin “will get Finland and Sweden as NATO members” soon. The Nordic neighbors applied for membership in April, concerned that Russia might target them next.

“We stand by that, too, on membership for Ukraine," Stoltenberg said. "At the same time, the main focus now is on supporting Ukraine, ensuring that President Putin doesn’t win, but that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign nation in Europe.”

He also warned that Europe should brace for the arrival of more Ukrainians fleeing worsening conditions at home.

"We have to be prepared for more refugees crossing into the rest of Europe," as a result of Russia's "deliberate attack on critical services, heating, light, water, gas" in Ukraine, Stoltenberg said.

The NATO chief also said that Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has not let the alliance forget other partners that face "Russian pressure, intimidation, and aggression" but actually made partnerships with such countries more important.

"That is why NATO foreign ministers will meet with their Ukrainian counterpart, as well as with Georgia, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. To address the challenges we face. And to enhance our support. For their resilience, political independence, and the modernization of their armed forces. So that they can better defend themselves. If they are safer, we will be more secure," Stoltenberg said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Ukrainian Cities Sustain More Russian Shelling As U.S. Says It Will Help Kyiv Restore Power

Local residents in Kyiv stand in line to fill up bottles with fresh drinking water.

Russian forces continued to shell civilian and infrastructure targets across Ukraine as fighting in the east continued unabated, military and regional officials said, as Ukrainians faced more cold weather and darkness after Moscow's strikes on its power grid caused rolling blackouts.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

In Washington, sources said the United States will announce new aid on November 29 to help Ukraine restore its electricity supply, which has been badly damaged by months of incessant Russian pounding.

The central city of Dnipro was the target of an overnight Russian rocket attack, Valentyn Reznichenko, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk regional military administration, said on November 29.

"The Russian occupying forces shelled the Nikopol district with Uragan rockets and heavy artillery," Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.

"Manufacturing facilities were destroyed. A fire broke out," Reznichenko posted on Telegram, adding that there were no immediate reports of injuries. He did not disclose the identity of the enterprise.

Dnipro has been frequently targeted by Russian missiles and other longer-range weapons. On November 26, Reznichenko said, at least 13 people were wounded in a Russian rocket attack.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on November 28 in his evening address that Russian troops shelled the newly liberated city of Kherson and 30 settlements in the Kherson region 258 times in the past week.

Russian forces retreated from the city on the west bank of the Dnieper River earlier this month but have been shelling towns, villages, and the city of Kherson, from their new locations on the opposite bank.

Zelenskiy called on Ukrainians to be prepared to endure more electricity shortages amid dropping temperatures.

The United Nations said the situation in Kherson and Mykolayiv remains "dire" and "critical." Nearly a quarter of a million people in Mykolayiv alone face a lack of heat, water, and power.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that Humanitarian Coordinator Denise Brown visited the two southern cities over the weekend.

In Kyiv, snow fell and temperatures were hovering around freezing as millions in and around the capital struggled to heat their homes.

Officials said Christmas trees would be erected in Kyiv, minus lights, in a defiant display of the holiday spirit.

"We cannot allow Putin to steal our Christmas," Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the RBC-Ukraine news agency that in an interview.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who arrived in Romania early on November 29 for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, will announce new assistance to help restore Ukraine’s power transmission capacity, a senior State Department official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The official said that Washington has been working with U.S. utilities and hardware providers and with European nations to provide technical equipment that can restore Ukraine's high-voltage transmission stations.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a group of seven visiting Nordic and Baltic foreign ministers that his country needed transformers and improved air defenses.

Besieged Bakhmut Prepares For A Winter Without Power While Under Russian Fire
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On the front line in the east, the Ukrainian military repelled Russian attacks near 10 settlements, including the key targets of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in the Donetsk region, the General Staff of the Armed Forces reported on November 29.

To the north, Russia bombarded areas around the towns of Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region, and Lyman in Luhansk, both recaptured recently by Kyiv, the Ukrainian military said.

With reporting by Reuters and CNN

Washington Plans Aid To Help Ukraine Restore Power After Russian Strikes On Grid

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (file photo)

The United States will announce new aid on November 29 to help Ukraine restore electricity as its people faced another week of brutal cold and darkness after Russian missile strikes on its power grid caused rolling blackouts. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who arrived in Bucharest early on November 29, will announce new assistance to help restore Ukraine’s power transmission capacity, a senior State Department official told reporters on condition of anonymity. Read the original Reuters story here.

Canada To Summon Russian Envoy Over 'Hateful' LGBT Tweets

Canada's Foreign Minister Melanie Joly (right), seen here with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has ordered Russia's ambassador in Ottawa to be summoned over anti-LGBT tweets

Canada's foreign minister, Melanie Joly, has ordered her officials to summon Russia's ambassador in Ottawa, Oleg Stepanov, over a series of "hateful" anti-LGBT tweets, including one aimed at an openly lesbian federal minister. The Russian Embassy posted the messages on Twitter in recent days after Russian lawmakers approved a bill banning all forms of LGBT "propaganda" that critics say ramps up a crackdown on "nontraditional" sexual relationships, affecting everything from books and films to social media posts. To read the original story from AFP, click here.

Russian Commander In Syria Meets Kurds Over Turkey Tensions

General Mazloum Kobani, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (file photo)

The chief of Russian forces in Syria has met with a Kurdish commander over threats by Turkey to launch a new incursion into northern Syria, a Kurdish spokesman said on November 28. Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, confirmed to AP that Lieutenant General Aleksandr Chaiko met on November 27 with Kurdish commander Mazloum Abdi in northeastern Syria. Chaiko's trip came days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to order an incursion targeting Kurdish groups following an explosion earlier this month in Istanbul that killed six people. To read the original story from AP, click here.

Georgian Ex-President's Trial Postponed After Doctors Deny Transfer

Mikheil Saakashvili speaks in court in Tbilisi in December 2021.

Doctors for former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili have recommended against transporting him to the Tbilisi City Court building from a clinic where he has been treated since May despite his desire to take part in a hearing in a case against him.

Saakashvili had expressed his desire to be transferred to the court to attend the hearing on a charge of illegal border crossing filed last year, and it had been expected that he would speak at the trial.

But his attending physician said it would be inappropriate, based on the fact that he could not take responsibility for the possible deterioration of Saakashvili's health during the transfer.

Judge Nino Chakhnashvili decided on another postponement of the trial after receiving the doctors' recommendation.

Court hearings have been repeatedly canceled or postponed because the 54-year-old Saakashvili, who held two separate hunger strikes earlier this year, has been unable to appear in court for health reasons.

Saakashvili, who served as Georgia's president from 2004 until 2013, is the founder of the main opposition United National Movement (ENM) party.

The ENM believes that the authorities are trying to conceal the state of Saakashvili's health. Representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream party disagree, saying that Saakashvili's public appearance would only be a publicity stunt.

Saakashvili, who cannot move independently, had decided that he would arrive at the trial in a special wheelchair, according to one of his lawyers, Shavla Khachapuridze, who added that his condition was "serious" and that his defense team had been told by phone from abroad that arsenic was found in his blood.

Nika Melia, chairman of the ENM, said that had Saakashvili appeared in court it would have confirmed the conclusions of several foreign experts who have spoken about the deterioration of his health and would have confirmed the comments of people who have visited him that his condition has deteriorated sharply since his transfer from prison to the Vivamed clinic.

The authorities do not want this to be disclosed to the public because it would conflict with "propaganda" circulating in the media that Saakashvili and his defenders have exaggerated his condition, Melia said.

Saakashvili was convicted in January 2018 in absentia of abuse of office and sentenced to three years in prison. Later that year he was again convicted in absentia of abuse of office and sentenced to six years in prison.

He was arrested on October 1, 2021, after he returned to the country to rally the opposition ahead of local elections.

Saakashvili and his supporters say all his prosecutions were politically motivated.

Georgia has been plagued by political paralysis and escalating tensions between Georgian Dream and the opposition since parliamentary elections in 2020.

The crisis has been exacerbated by the arrest of Saakashvili, who doctors say suffers from severe post-traumatic stress and anorexia that most likely developed after his hunger strikes. They said in May that he needed urgent and complex neuro-psychological and physical treatment.

Even before Saakashvili was transferred to the Vivamed clinic his relatives, friends, and colleagues demanded the authorities allow him to travel abroad to receive medical treatment.

EU's Varhelyi Optimistic Bosnia Can Achieve Candidate Status In December

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi (file photo)

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi says he is optimistic Bosnia-Herzegovina will be granted candidate status to join the bloc next month if it meets several conditions laid out recently by Brussels.

Speaking during a meeting in Sarajevo on November 28 with Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Varhelyi noted the conditions, which include fighting corruption and organized crime, judicial and immigration reforms, and guarantees of freedom of expression and the protection of journalists -- areas that have proven elusive in the highly divided nation.

"The European path is open, but results are expected of Bosnia. It is up to the political leaders for that to become a reality," Varhelyi said after meeting with presidency members Denis Becirovic, Zeljko Komsic, and Zeljka Cvijanovic.

The European Commission in October recommended candidacy status for Bosnia, but attached a long list of conditions designed to bolster democracy in the Balkan country.

But the commission only advises which countries should become EU candidates. The final decision lies with the 27 member states, and they must agree unanimously.

Some countries -- notably Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia -- have pushed for speeding up Bosnia's entry after Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidate status in June.

Others, including the Netherlands, are said to be less receptive to expansion, though Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February has eroded resistance amid security fears for the whole of Europe.

Varhelyi said the European Commission "wants to see clear results it can report to the Council of the EU that is meeting in December," which is supposed to decide on the candidacy status of Bosnia, as "we are in a new geopolitical moment of the war in Ukraine."

"It is in our interest to strengthen our partnerships," he said.

Bosnia comprises a Bosniak-Croatian entity known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose budget is about four times that of the national government, as well as the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and a tiny self-governing district that acts much like a municipality, Brcko. The federation is further divided into 10 cantons.

Cvijanovic, who holds the Serbs' seat on the Bosnian presidency, said she was committed to work "on matters that we can," while Becirovic, the Bosniak member, said the meeting with Varhelyi was "encouraging and substantial."

"Our candidacy status would be an encouragement to all the people in Bosnia-Herzegovina," he added.

Zeljko Komsic, a Bosnian Croat, is the third member of the presidency.

Bosnia's division into a Bosniak-Croatian federation, and Republika Srpska, came under the terms of the 1995 Dayton agreements that ended three years of war in the former Yugoslav republic that was marked by ethnic cleansing and brutality.

NATO Chief Expects Allies To Step Up Air-Defense Support To Ukraine

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg says he expects the alliance to step up supplies of air-defense systems to Ukraine in the face of the Russian missile onslaught heading into the winter. Stoltenberg said on November 28 that "one of the messages" from the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest, which begins on November 29, will be the need "to further step" up the provision of more air-defense systems, ammunition, spare parts, and training. With missiles and drones targeting energy infrastructure, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to "use the winter as a weapon of war against Ukraine," Stoltenberg said.

Iranian Truckers Strike For Third Day In Support Of Protesters

Truck drivers go on strike in Ravand in Kashan on November 28.

Iranian truck drivers have continued to strike for a third day, with more joining their ranks across the country despite threats from security agents over undelivered cargo.

Trucks in the central Iranian city of Isfahan remained parked while reports published on social media indicated that drivers in the cities of Qazvin, Kermanshah, Marand, and Bandar Abbas joined the protest, sparked by the death of a young woman in Tehran after being detained in mid-September for a violation of the country's strict head-scarf law.

Unrest among workers in many sectors of Iran's economy is causing pressure to mount on the government after a summer of unrest over poor living conditions and a flagging economy wracked by U.S. sanctions imposed because of Tehran's nuclear program.

The death on September 16 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody sparked a new wave of unrest that authorities have met with lethal force across the country.

Strikes have also been reported in several cities in recent days, with reports that workers at the Safe Khodro, an auto manufacturer in the city of Karaj, just northwest of the capital, went on strike on November 27.

Images published on social media also showed that workers at the Pars home-appliance factory in Qazvin were also on strike, chanting, "Workers, shout, shout for your rights."

Meanwhile, three labor organizations, the Haft Tapeh Workers' Union, the Coordinating Committee to Help Establish Labor Organizations, and the Retirees' Union Group issued a joint statement condemning the bloody repression of people in the Kurdish cities of western Iran.

They also demanded the immediate withdrawal of all armed forces from Kurdistan, the unconditional release of all prisoners and those detained, and the cessation of rocket fire into Iraq's Kurdish region.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has accused Kurdish groups of "attacking and infiltrating Iran to sow insecurity and riots and spread unrest" amid the protests that erupted over Amini's death.

Her death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread demonstrations represent the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 23, at least 445 protesters had been killed during the uprising, including 61 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner Byalyatski Could Face Up To 12 Years In Prison

Ales Byalyatski receives the 2020 Right Livelihood Award at the digital award ceremony in Stockholm in December 2020.

The case of jailed 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski has been sent to a Belarusian court, with the rights activist and three of his colleagues from Vyasna facing up to 12 years in prison on smuggling and tax-evasion charges that his supporters dismiss as politically motivated retribution on the part of longtime authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"The 'Vyasna' case was sent to court. Political prisoners of human rights defenders may soon be put on trial," the group said on Twitter on November 28.

The 60-year-old Byalyatski, who has been in custody for more than 16 months, is charged along with Valyantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimer Labkovich, and Zmytser Soloviev for allegedly bringing money into the country for "illegal activities and financing Vyasna," the largest rights body in the former Soviet country and one of the main sources of information on political detentions and arrests.

"They face between 7 and 12 years," Vyasna added in the tweet.

Byalyatski, who has been fighting for democracy and human rights in his beleaguered homeland his entire life, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize along with the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties and the embattled Russian group Memorial.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

He founded the Vyasna Human Rights Center, originally a Minsk-based organization with the name Vyasna-96. In 1999, it was reborn as a national nongovernmental rights organization.

The NGO was outlawed by the Belarusian Supreme Court in October 2003 for its role monitoring the country's 2001 presidential election. It has continued its work, however, as an unregistered NGO.

The main work of the organization has been defending and supporting political prisoners. The group -- and Byalyatski personally -- has regularly been harassed and persecuted by Lukashenka's government since its founding.

Belarusian authorities have moved to shut down critical and nonstate media and human rights bodies in the wake of mass protests that erupted in August 2020 after a presidential election the opposition says was rigged.

The opposition and Western governments say Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was driven into exile, won the vote, which has not been recognized by the United States, the European Union, and several other countries.

Thousands have been detained since the vote and there have been credible reports of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.

Russia 'Unilaterally Postponed' Talks With U.S. On Nuclear-Weapons Inspections

An intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Russia's Plesetsk State Test Cosmodrome in 2020.

Russia "unilaterally postponed" talks with the United States aimed at resuming nuclear-weapons inspections that were set to take place in Cairo, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said on November 28. The spokesperson said Washington was ready to reschedule at the earliest possible date the meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission under the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty that was scheduled to begin on November 29. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Kazakhstan's Toqaev Tells Putin Russia Strategic Partner Despite Ukraine War

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold talks in Moscow on November 28.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has told Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that Moscow remains Kazakhstan's main strategic partner despite public disagreements over the Kremlin's war in Ukraine.

Toqaev, who last week at a summit of the Moscow-led CSTO security bloc in Armenia called for "a formula for peace," has allowed tens of thousands of Russians fleeing a military mobilization in Russia into Kazakhstan.

He also declined this summer to recognize the Kremlin's declaration of four partially controlled Ukrainian regions as sovereign states.

But Toqaev said at the start of his meeting with Putin on November 28, the Kazakh president's first trip abroad since being reelected earlier this month, that his choice to visit Moscow was symbolic and the ties between the two countries remained as strong as ever.

"Indeed, my first foreign visit [after being reelected] takes place here, in the Russian Federation, and that in itself has political significance and, of course, a certain symbolism," Toqaev said, sitting next to Putin.

"For Kazakhstan, Russia is and always has been a strategic partner."

Putin told Toqaev that relations between Moscow and Astana had a "special character."

He called for a strengthening of economic ties, saying this was "especially timely now, when international trade is in crisis."

Putin said Russia and Kazakhstan have a "joint desire to develop our relations precisely in the capacity in which they have developed and will, of course, develop in the future."

Russia is Kazakhstan's largest trading partner and Astana has voiced its desire to boost its transit role in the so-called North-South corridor between Russia and Iran.

Kazakhstan and Russia share a 7,600-kilometer border.

Toqaev was reelected for a second term earlier this month, winning by a large margin after facing no real opposition candidates.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
Updated

Iranian Hard-Liners Propose Punishment For Cooperation With 'Hostile' Countries

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid-September while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Hard-line Iranian lawmakers have proposed a plan to enact harsher punishments against protesters who they say are cooperating with "hostile" foreign countries.

According to the plan, any interaction with any Western institutions and media, including social media, will be considered cooperation and criminalized under the title of "corruption on earth" -- a charge that is punishable by death and often leveled in cases allegedly involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran's government.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

In recent months and especially amid the latest weeks of protests, Iranian legislators have repeatedly tried to facilitate the suppression of protesters by passing harsher and harsher laws while accusing Western countries of being directly involved in fomenting the unrest, despite giving no evidence to back up their claims.

Last month, 227 lawmakers from the 290-seat, hard-liner-led parliament urged the judiciary to approve the death sentence for some protesters arrested amid the recent wave of demonstrations.

They also proposed banning student protesters -- who along with women have formed the backbone of the demonstrations demanding more freedoms -- from traveling abroad for 10 years as the Islamic republic struggles to suppress the biggest show of dissent in years.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, journalists, lawyers, activists, digital-rights defenders, and others.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 23, at least 445 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 61 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

An Iranian general was quoted on November 28 by a website close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as saying that more than 300 people had been killed.

General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the aerospace division of the IRGC, did not provide an exact figure or say where his estimate came from, but he said the 300 killed included what he said were "martyrs," in an apparent reference to security forces. He also suggested that many of those killed were ordinary Iranians not involved in the protests.

Hajizadeh also reiterated the official claim that the protests have been fomented by Iran's enemies, including Western countries and Saudi Arabia, without providing evidence.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda. With reporting by AP
Updated

Tech Giant Yandex, Battered By Wartime Censorship, Reorganizes, Will Leave Russia

Yandex's parent company, which is headquartered in the Netherlands, will lose ownership and control of all businesses of the Yandex Group.

Russian tech giant Yandex has said it is reorganizing its operations, moving to cut its ties with Russia in a restructuring that solidifies government control over a company once seen as a bellwether for the country's digital economy.

The announcement comes after months of internal turmoil, with executives departing, the sale of the two of the company's best-known products, and company shares hitting basement prices prior to being frozen on international stock exchanges.

"These are exceptionally challenging times," John Boynton, chairman of Yandex's board of directors, said in a statement released late on November 25.

According to the online news site The Bell, which was first to report on the reorganization, Yandex's parent company, which is headquartered in the Netherlands, will lose ownership and control of all businesses of the Yandex Group.

A new, Russian-incorporated company will take over those operations, with a new board headed by Aleksei Kudrin, a longtime confidant of President Vladimir Putin, who announced on November 29 that he was stepping down as the head of the Audit Chamber, a government fiscal watchdog.

The Bell said Kudrin met with Putin November 25, and that Kudrin would receive 5 percent of shares in the newly reorganized entity. On November 25, hours before the company statement, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported that Kudrin intended to leave the Audit Chamber before year's end, and join Yandex.

The deal also called for Vladimir Potanin, a billionaire oligarch whose fortune comes from ownership of metals giant Norilsk Nickel, to take a minority position, The Bell said.

In its statement, Yandex said it had "commenced a strategic process to review options to restructure the group's ownership and governance in light of the current geopolitical environment."

"The board anticipates that Yandex N.V. will in due course be renamed, with the business to be divested retaining exclusive rights for the use of the Yandex brand," it said, adding that shareholders must approve any corporate changes.

Under the reorganization, founder Arkady Volozh, who left Russia after the invasion and now lives in Israel, will retain some licensing rights to develop Yandex-originated ventures outside of Russia.

Combining the kinds of services provided by Google, Uber, PayPal, Bolt, Amazon, and other online businesses, Yandex was the dominant tech company in Russia, employing thousands of engineers, programmers, and designers across its sprawling divisions.

The company, whose U.S.-traded shares were held by major U.S. mutual funds and investment companies, had been under pressure since at least 2019, when it was forced to give state bank Sberbank a veto over major management decisions. The voting power was later transferred to a Russian foundation.

But it was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now in its 10th month, and the Kremlin's censorship of news and debate about the war-- and the rampant problems that Russians forces have faced on the battlefield -- that forced the final, sweeping decision.

Shortly after the February 24 invasion, the Kremlin pushed through legislation that criminalized "discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation" -- a catch-all measure that has allowed the authorities to go after Russians who protest the war, question its motivations, or even criticize the civilian or military leadership. Russian media are barred from calling the conflict a "war," instead using the phrase "special military operation."

Parliament has since tightened those restrictions further.

Yandex's search engine, and its main news page, Yandex News, were the dominant portals used by Russians to search for news, including about the war. But according to company critics, including the former head of Yandex News who resigned in protest, the company began tweaking its algorithms to direct searches toward state-run media around the time of the invasion.

On March 7, two board members quit in protest. A week later, the deputy executive director resigned, after he was hit with European Union sanctions. Volozh resigned in June after he was hit with EU sanctions.

In August, the company announced the sale of Yandex News and another entertainment portal called Yandex Zen to VK, Russia's dominant social-media company, whose control was sold to a Putin ally in late 2021.

In a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL after this article was originally published, Polina Pestova, a Yandex spokeswoman, denied that the company had manipulated its algorithms.

“We categorically deny this claim. Yandex doesn’t tweak its algorithms toward any political side,” she said.

Asked about the reports of Kudrin joining a reorganized Yandex, Pestova declined to comment.

Kudrin wrote on his Telegram channel on November 29 that he indeed would step down as head of the Audit Chamber "to focus on large projects that are related to the development of broadly private initiatives, but at the same time have a significant effect on people."

He did not mention Yandex in his message.

Seven Nordic, Baltic Foreign Ministers In Kyiv Despite Russian Air Attacks

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis (file photo)

Foreign ministers from seven Baltic and Nordic countries were in Kyiv on November 28 in a show of support for Ukraine amid a barrage of Russian air and missile strikes that have crippled much of the country's energy infrastructure. "We, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, are in Kyiv today in full solidarity with Ukraine," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote on Twitter. "Despite Russia's bomb rains and barbaric brutality Ukraine will win!" he added. (RFE/RL)

To read the original tweet from the Lithuanian foreign minister, click here. https://twitter.com/GLandsbergis/status/1597183680492933121

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