'Dramatic Change' As Democracy Undermined Across Europe, Eurasia, Freedom House Finds
Contempt shown by governments for independent institutions and civil society, attacks on the political opposition and independent media, as well as an incessant push to blend the ruling party with the state, are becoming the new normal in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia, U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House warns in its latest report.
The spread of illiberal politics across the region in countries such as Hungary and Poland has been eroding the region’s foundations and prospects for democracy, the group says in its latest annual Nations In Transit report, titled Confronting Illiberalism.
"This is something that, of course, we've been remarking on for a very long time in places like Russia or Central Asia or Belarus, but increasingly, we see this now in Central Europe, in countries like Hungary and Poland. And we see it starting to have an effect at the level of institutions. So, very dramatic changes, especially in Poland," Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations In Transit for Freedom House, told RFE/RL.
The report said 19 out of the 29 nations gauged got lower democracy scores, the sharpest decline in the project’s 23-year history, while for the second year in a row the number of consolidated authoritarian regimes was higher than that of consolidated democracies.
Turkmenistan is singled out as the region’s worst performer from what the report calls “Eurasia’s entrenched autocracies” -- a group that also includes Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Decades of “authoritarian mismanagement, flagrant corruption, and overspending on megaprojects” have thrown Turkmenistan into a full-blown economic crisis, the report says.
In Russia, the report says, President Vladimir Putin won reelection last month in a poll that lacked real competition. Putin’s only credible rival, anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny, it says, was banned from running due to a conviction on trumped-up corruption charges.
But because of a lack of structural reforms and international sanctions for its annexing of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russia is facing “economic decay,” the report says.
Forced to share a smaller pie, the ruling elites have begun to turn on one another, it says, giving the example of the conflict between Igor Sechin, the head of state oil company Rosneft, and former Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, which ended with the former entrapping his adversary in a bribery scheme which the report says was a “violation of the thieves’ code that had prevailed inside the regime’s top echelons.”
Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan present the region’s highest risk of sliding into authoritarianism, the report says.
“While the window for fundamental reforms may not have closed in Ukraine,” the report says, political resistance to anticorruption reforms, attacks on civil society, and the media have seen Ukraine’s democracy score declining for the first time since 2014.
"It was a relatively small decline, but it was meaningful, and the main cause of the decline is very aggressive pressure on the civil society and on the independent media from government, from leading politicians. It's becoming unfortunately quite normal and standard in Ukraine to accuse civil society actors, NGOs, to accuse media of being antinational and unpatriotic," Schenkkan told RFE/RL.
In the other four countries, informal political and business leaders who control the system from the outside or from the fringes of accountable institutions “increasingly dominate their underdeveloped political systems,” he said.
However, the democratic regress is most striking in two countries that were most adept at parting with totalitarian regimes in the 1980s -- Poland and Hungary, the report says. It singles out the “bulldozing of the judiciary in Poland” and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s “return to the political practices of goulash communism,” characterized by the absence of independent institutions and the fusion between ruling party and state.
It also mentions Romania’s regress, where the new government reversed a positive trend, with an all-out assault against the judiciary in general and against the country’s anticorruption agency in particular. It notes that huge public protests prevented some of the most serious reversals in 2017 but that the government continues its push to “essentially legalize corruption.”
In the Balkans, Serbia’s standing declined for the fourth year in a row, threatening its status as a “semiconsolidated democracy.” Although Serbia was named earlier this year by the EU as a front-runner for accession together with Montenegro, “the consolidation of power under Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic continues,” the report says.
Positive developments of the past year have been taking place in Macedonia and Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan continued “the modest thaw that began with the death of President Islam Karimov in August 2016, making small but noticeable improvements in the atmosphere for civil society and the media,” the report said.
Meanwhile, in Macedonia, “a new government was able to be formed,” Schenkkan told RFE/RL.
“The new government has embarked on a very ambitious reconciliation process with neighbors Bulgaria and Greece with the goal of unlocking the EU accession perspective, then NATO membership. In addition, and most importantly, domestically, the government has begun to roll back the state capture that had prevailed under the previous government," Schenkkan said.
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Russian Missiles Hit Kyiv Apartments, As Ukraine Leader Vows To Retake Lost Cities
Multiple explosions struck a residential neighborhood in the Ukrainian capital early on June 26, leaving people trapped under the rubble and sparking a fire in a nine-story apartment building that was among the places hit.
The bombardment of Kyiv came as Ukraine's defense forces battled to regroup after the loss of a strategic town to Russian forces on the front lines hundreds of kilometers to the southeast, where some of the most intense fighting is raging four months into Russia's full-scale invasion.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said rescuers rushed to the scene in one of the city's historic northern neighborhoods, where at least two buildings were affected by the early morning strikes by Russian missiles.
"Several explosions in the Shevchenkivskyi district," Klitschko said via Telegram. "Ambulance crews and rescuers on the spot. Residents are being rescued and evacuated in two houses."
Shevchenkivskyi hosts universities, galleries, other cultural businesses, and restaurants.
Later, Klitschko said that "there are people under the rubble." Several victims have been hospitalized, he said, and rescuers "have pulled out a 7-year-old girl."
"She is alive," Klitschko said, and "now they're trying to rescue her mother."
Some 600 kilometers to the southeast, Ukrainian forces said a day earlier that they had made a "tactical withdrawal" from the city of Syevyerodonetsk in a blow that could shape the fighting in the east.
But President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed in his nighttime video address that Ukraine would eventually retake the cities it has lost since Russia's all-out invasion began on February 24.
Zelenskiy said the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II had taken a heavy toll on Ukrainians and their defenders but spoke of eventually winning the war.
"We don't have a sense of how long it will last, how many more blows, losses, and efforts will be needed before we see victory is on the horizon," Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy is due to remotely address a gathering in the German region of Bavaria of leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized countries on June 27 to urge further international support for Ukraine's defense.
On June 25, Ukraine's military said defense forces had withdrawn from Syevyerodonetsk after weeks of intense battles to fight from higher ground in nearby Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River.
Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said his forces were carrying out a "tactical regrouping" by pulling its forces out of Syevyerodonetsk.
Syevyerodonetsk, a city in the Luhansk district of around 100,000 residents before the war, has been devastated as Russian forces sought to concentrate gains in the two eastern districts known collectively as the Donbas.
Russia-backed separatists have controlled swaths of that region since Russia annexed Crimea and helped kick off the eastern Ukrainian fighting in 2014.
Meanwhile, fears mounted of a widening war since Ukrainian officials reported "massive bombardment" from rockets "fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air" and Moscow said it would provide Belarus with an advanced missile system.
In Belarus, strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has increased since a crackdown over protests that began when he claimed a sixth presidential term in flawed elections two years ago.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised meeting with Lukashenka on June 25 that Moscow plans within months to supply Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, a nuclear-capable, mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.
"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the Ukrainian intelligence service said of the missiles launched from Russian warplanes over Belarusian territory.
Lukashenka allowed thousands of Russian troops to stage attacks on Ukraine from the earliest stage of the invasion.
A representative of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate, Vadym Skibitskiy, told RBC-Ukraine on June 25 that Belarus is maintaining 4,000-6,000 of its own troops near the Ukrainian border.
He estimated that Russia has around 1,500 of its troops in Belarus to help with air, special forces, and missile components of the invasion.
With reporting by Reuters
Ukraine Says It Uncovered Russian Spy Network Involving U.S.-Sanctioned Lawmaker
Ukrainian authorities said they have uncovered a Russian spy network involving Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, who has previously been accused by Washington of being a Russian agent.
The State Security Service (SBU) on June 24 alleged that Derkach set up a network of private security firms to help facilitate the entry of Russian units into cities during Moscow's February 24 invasion.
Derkach could not immediately be reached for comment, but he has previously denied wrongdoing, claiming he was being targeted for exposing corruption. His whereabouts are unknown.
The SBU cited testimony from Derkach's parliamentary aide, Ihor Kolykhayev. It said Kolykhayev had been arrested at the beginning of the war, accused of being a go-between between Derkach and Russian military intelligence.
Derkach was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2020 for what it said were attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
The Treasury Department alleged at the time that Derkach -- a member of the Ukrainian parliament who studied at the KGB school in Moscow -- had been "an active Russian agent for over a decade."
Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Reuters
Putin Says Russia To Supply Belarus With Iskander-M Missile Systems
Russia will supply ally Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised meeting with Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Putin said in the June 25 remarks that delivery of the weapons systems would take place within a few months.
The Iskander-M is a mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.
Putin and Lukashenka are meeting in St. Petersburg to mark 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The talks come as Ukraine said it had come under "massive bombardment" from rockets "fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air" targeting the village of Desna in the northern Chernihiv region.
The Ukrainian military said infrastructure was hit but that no casualties had yet been reported.
"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the Ukrainian intelligence service said.
Belarus is not a direct participant in the war in Ukraine, but it has provided logistical support to Russia's invasion that began on February 24, with some Russian forces entering Ukraine across the Belarus border.
Western nations have slapped Belarus, like Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin war on Ukraine and for Belarus’s efforts to aid the Russian invasion.
Based on reporting by Reuters
Earthquake Measuring 5.6 Strikes Iran's Hormozgan Province
An earthquake of 5.6-magnitude struck the Langeh area of Iran’s southern Hormozgan Province early on June 25, killing at least one person and injuring dozens of others.
The quake was centered 22 kilometers northeast of Kish Island in Hormozgan Province, according to Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency. Kish Island is located in the Persian Gulf, about 1,025 kilometers south of Tehran.
Several earthquakes have shaken parts of Hormozgan Province over the past two weeks ago. Previously, the largest was of 5.2-magnitude near Maqam Harbor.
Iran, which sits on major fault lines, is the 10th most earthquake-prone country in the world.
Many aid organizations, officials, and experts have warned that there is insufficient preparedness to manage a crisis in the event of major earthquakes in the country.
Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, AP, and Reuters
Russia Removes Polish Flag From Katyn WWII Memorial Amid Tensions Over Ukraine Invasion
Russian authorities have removed a Polish flag from a memorial in the Katyn Forest marking the area where the mass killings of Polish officers by Soviet forces took place in April-May 1940.
Local officials on June 25 confirmed that the flag had been removed amid tensions between Russia and Poland, which has vocally backed Kyiv and provided assistance following the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Andrei Borisov, the mayor of Smolensk, said on social media the decision was made by the Ministry of Culture.
“I will express my general opinion: There can be no Polish flags on Russian memorials! And after the frank anti-Russian statements of Polish politicians, even more so,” he posted on the social media platform VKontakte, along with a photo.
"The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation made the right decision by removing the Polish flag. Katyn is a Russian memorial," he added.
After the Nazis triggered World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939, the Soviets occupied the eastern part of the country, eventually massacring more than 20,000 Polish officers that they had taken prisoner at Katyn.
The Soviet Union originally blamed the Nazis for the killings, but in 1990 ended decades of denials and admitted the truth.
Based on reporting by AFP and The Telegraph
Iraqi PM Traveling To Iran, Saudi Arabia In Bid To Revive Talks Between Bitter Rivals
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is traveling to Saudi Arabia and Iran in an effort to broker new talks between the two bitter rivals, officials said.
Kadhimi is scheduled to first visit Riyadh for meetings on June 25, then move on to the Iranian capital, Tehran, the following day.
Kadhimi “will visit the Islamic republic and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia back-to-back, within days,” the Iraqi News Agency quoted sources as saying.
The Iraqi prime minister is seeking to revive Baghdad-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told AP.
A previous round of talks held in Baghdad in April were suspended amid raised tensions in the region.
Shi’ite-majority Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia have long been rivals competing for influence in the Middle East.
The Saudis broke ties with Iran in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following the execution of a Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia.
A bloody war in Yemen is considered by many to be a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. The conflict has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, while Iran-aligned Huthi rebels have fired missiles toward Saudi airports and oil facilities.
When he took office in May 2020, Kadhimi said Iraq was seeking to have balanced relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Based on reporting by AP and The National
Tens Of Thousands Rally As Warsaw Hosts Ukraine's Largest Pride Parade
Tens of thousands of people joined in Ukraine's largest LGBTQ rights parade, held in the Polish capital, Warsaw, after organizers determined they could not hold the event in Kyiv due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
KyivPride, which would have been staging the 10th Equality March in Ukraine, instead merged this year with gay-pride events in Warsaw on June 25.
“We are marching for political support for Ukraine, and we’re marching for basic human rights for Ukrainian people,” KyivPride director Lenny Emson was quoted as saying on June 25. “It is not a celebration. We will wait for victory to celebrate.”
Emson said the introduction of martial law in the Ukrainian capital following the Russian invasion prevents large gatherings such as KyivPride.
Organizers have said they expect about 80,000 participants at the Warsaw event, and KyivPride in May called on "people around the world to join the march in Warsaw and stand with us against aggression, for freedom and peace."
Emson said that the defeat of Ukraine by Russia, where LGBTQ people have no legal protection from discrimination or hate crimes, would be a tragedy for the Ukrainian people as a whole, but that LGBTQ people would risk being “erased completely."
KyivPride has called on people to realize that Ukraine's geographical borders with Belarus and Russia are "not just a separation line between the states, but also a boundary between the territory of freedom and a zone of oppression.”
With reporting by AP and dpa
Talks On Reviving Stalled Iranian Nuclear Deal To Resume
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has said that negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal will resume shortly.
"We expect to resume talks in the coming days and break the impasse," Borrell said during a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. "It has been three months and we need to accelerate the work."
Describing his meeting with Borrell as "long, but positive," Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran was prepared to resume talks with world powers in the coming days.
"What is important for Iran is to fully receive the economic benefits of the 2015 accord," he said.
Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart when the U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018.
Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government, which denies that its nuclear program seeks to build a bomb, backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.
Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States, indirectly -- to revive the deal.
Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks in Vienna abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.
In early June, Tehran said it had started removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites across the country, further reducing the West's ability to monitor Iran's nuclear program.
The EU's nuclear talks envoy, Enrique Mora, posted a photo late on June 23 of a dinner he was attending in Brussels with Borrell and Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy to the talks.
Mora said Malley reiterated Washington's "firm commitment to come back to the deal."
Ukraine Vows To Regroup, Fight On After Fall Of Syevyerodonetsk
Ukrainian forces vowed to regroup and fight from "higher ground" after the military acknowledged the fall to Russian forces of the key eastern city of Syevyerodonetsk following a long, brutal battle.
Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine's military intelligence agency, told Reuters late on June 25 that the country’s forces would continue their eastern defense from embattled Lysychansk after the loss of Syevyerodonetsk, located just across the Siverskiy Donets River.
"The activities happening in the area of Syevyerodonetsk are a tactical regrouping of our troops. This is a withdrawal to advantageous positions to obtain a tactical advantage," Budanov said.
"Russia is using the tactic...it used in Mariupol: wiping the city from the face of the Earth. Given the conditions, holding the defense in the ruins and open fields is no longer possible. So the Ukrainian forces are leaving for higher ground to continue the defense operations," he said.
In a late-night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed that his forces would win back all the cities that had been lost to Russia, including Syevyerodonetsk.
The capture of Syevyerodonetsk, although now mainly a city of rubble, represents the biggest gain by Russian troops since they took the southern port of Mariupol, a city also left mainly in ruins after a bloody, protracted battle.
Syevyerodonetsk’s mayor said earlier in the day that the city was under full Russian control and that all exit routes to Ukrainian-held territory were blocked, leaving escape possible only through Russian-occupied areas.
"The city is now under the full occupation of Russia," Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on national television.
"They are trying to establish their own order. As far as I know, they have appointed some kind of commandant," he said, adding that it was "impossible" to leave the city to Ukrainian-held territory, stranding some 10,000 civilians.
Russia's Defense Ministry said that "as a result of successful offensive operations," Russian forces had established full control over Syevyerodonetsk and nearby towns and villages.
Russia continued to target areas across Ukraine with artillery and missile strikes, hitting military facilities in the west and north and continuing to pound key battleground cities in the eastern Donbas region.
Russia's revised military focus on Ukraine's east has brought Moscow closer to reaching its objective of capturing the Donbas, which is composed of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Parts of both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions have been under the control of pro-Russia separatists since 2014, when Russia also invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
The focus there was prompted by Moscow's failure to take the capital, Kyiv, in the first phase of the war following its February invasion.
The continued bombing of targets far from the front lines have led to accusations that Russia is trying to sow fear among civilians and draw neighboring Belarus into the conflict.
"48 cruise missiles. At night. Throughout whole Ukraine," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak wrote on Twitter on June 25. "Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic and make people afraid."
In the west, officials in Lviv said Russian forces launched six missiles from the Black Sea and that four struck a military facility close to the Polish border.
Ukraine's northern military command wrote on Facebook on June 25 that 20 rockets that struck the Chernihiv town of Desna were fired from the air and from Belarusian territory, prompting Ukraine's intelligence service to accuse Russia of trying to drag Minsk into the war.
"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the intelligence service said on Telegram.
Belarus has provided support for Russia's war effort in Ukraine but officially remains a nonbelligerent.
WATCH: Despite there being an exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant since the catastrophic 1986 disaster, people live in the area. On the first day of the war they found themselves facing a new danger, as Russian tanks rolled through their villages -- and opened fire.
In a meeting in St. Petersburg with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin would supply ally Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, a mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.
Putin also said Moscow would help Minsk upgrade its air forces in view of what Lukashenka called the "aggressive," "confrontational," and "repulsive" policies of neighboring Lithuania and Poland.
Hirske, a key district about 35 kilometers south of Lysychansk, was "fully occupied" by Russian forces on June 24, while officials reported the same day that Russian troops had taken control of Mykolaivka, situated near a highway to Lysychansk.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said on June 25 that Ukrainian troops had repelled attacks near Bakhmut, which lies in the Donetsk region along an important supply route to Lysychansk.
Kyiv has received billions of dollars in aid from its Western partners since Moscow’s unprovoked invasion. On June 23, the United States announced $450 million in additional military aid for Kyiv, including four more HIMARS long-range multiple-rocket launchers, tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, and patrol boats.
Ukraine's leadership has expressed gratitude for the contributions -- and on June 25 the military said U.S. HIMARS were already being used effectively -- but they say much more is needed.
Fierce fighting has stretched both sides' personnel and equipment resources to the limit, with Kyiv repeatedly pleading with the West for more heavy weapons and Russia facing increasing difficulties in bringing qualified personnel to the front line.
Ukraine spy chief Budanov said the country’s “strategy is very simple. Stabilize the situation. Receive the required amount of equipment and prepare the required amount of forces and means to start the counteroffensive to return all our territory."
Budanov said Russia had committed 330,000 soldiers and noncombat personnel to its operations in Ukraine -- one-third of its total armed forces..
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an outspoken backer of Ukraine in its war with Russia, said he feared Kyiv could face pressure to agree to a “bad peace” deal with Moscow, a move that would lead to a long-term global “disaster.”
“Too many countries are saying this is a European war that is unnecessary ... and so the pressure will grow to encourage -- coerce, maybe -- the Ukrainians to a bad peace," Johnson told reporters during a visit to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to attend a Commonwealth summit.
That would “be a disaster” and would “be a trigger for further escalation by Putin whenever he wanted,” Johnson said.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, and CNN
Popular Russian Food Blogger's Property Seized Over Anti-War Posts
MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has impounded the property of a popular food blogger and magazine founder who is wanted in Russia over her online posts about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The Basmanny district court ruled on June 24 to impound Veronika Belotserkovskaya's apartment and parking site, as well as an unspecified number of houses, an apartment, and land in the city of St. Petersburg.
The court said the seizures were necessary to ensure compensation for any possible fines she will be ordered to pay if convicted in a case launched against her on charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces.
Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka, currently lives in France.
Last month, Russian authorities added her to the wanted list and issued an arrest warrant for her.
In March, Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian military on her Instagram account, which has almost 950,000 subscribers.
She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."
Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.
Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events in Ukraine a "special military operation" and not a war or an invasion.
Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to its employees.
Tens Of Thousands Resume Pro-EU, Anti-Government Rallies In Georgian Capital
TBILISI -- Tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets again to rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi in favor of European Union membership and against the current government.
The rally on June 24 comes a day after EU leaders deferred Tbilisi's candidacy, recognizing it as a "perspective member" but insisting that candidate status could only be granted as soon as "set priorities are met" and widespread reforms are put in place.
While deferring on Georgia, the EU at the same time formally agreed to take the "historic" step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Moscow's bitter denunciations of the two countries' intentions.
In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building waving Georgian and EU flags and blocking traffic on the central Rustaveli Avenue.
There was no immediate estimate of the size of the crowd, but AFP on June 21 estimated 120,000 people had participated in a similar rally organized by the Shame civil rights group.
At that demonstration, Shota Digmelashvili of the Shame movement read out a manifesto and announced the launch of a new popular movement that will include opposition parties, civil society organizations, journalists, and labor unions to make demands on the government.
The manifesto asserted that the country's "main obstacle on its European path is Bidzina Ivanishvili," the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is widely believed to be the top decision-maker in the South Caucasus country even though he does not hold office.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the EU to impose sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgia's politics and economy. Ivanishvili insists he has retired from politics.
The EU's stated conditions for granting Georgia candidate status include the end of political polarization, progress on media freedom, judiciary and electoral reforms, and what was called "de-oligarchization."
The Georgian Dream party said on June 17 that it "regretted" that the country was not recommended for EU candidate status together with Ukraine and Moldova.
The party in a statement on June 24 defended its record and accused the opposition of having "plans to overthrow the authorities by organizing anti-government rallies."
With reporting by AFP
Former Daghestan PM's Son Gets 13 Years In Prison For Killing Girlfriend
A Moscow court has sentenced Murtuzali Medzhidov, a son of the former prime minister of Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan, to 13 years in prison for the killing of 21-year-old Tomiris Baisafa, his Kazakh girlfriend.
The Izmailovo district court sentenced Medzhidov on June 24 after a jury found him guilty in the high-profile case.
Baisafa's death in the Russian capital in April 2018 sparked a public outcry in Kazakhstan, with ombudswoman Elvira Azimova asking Russian counterpart Tatyana Moskalkova to take the case under her personal supervision.
Medzhidov, also a student, was arrested after a witness said he beat the girl and forced her out of a fourth-floor window in a building at the Moscow State University of International Relations.
However, in June 2021, Medzhidov was acquitted, sparking another wave of anger in Kazakhstan.
In late October, Medzhidov’s lawyer, Shamil Yandarbayev, said his client's acquittal had been annulled and that he would be retried.
Murtuzali Medzhidov's father, Mukhtar Medzhidov, led Daghestan's government from January to July 2013. Before that, he served as deputy prime minister and a lawmaker.
Based on reporting by KazTAG, Kazinform, and TASS
Iranian Teens Arrested For 'Violating Religious Norms' At Skateboarding Gathering
A viral video of male and female teenagers at a skateboarding day in the southern city of Shiraz has angered Iranian officials, who have arrested 10 participants for their role in the event.
The video, which was posted on social media on June 23, shows several teenagers of both sexes mixing freely on a boulevard in Shiraz to mark "Go Skateboarding Day."
The hijab became compulsory in Iran in public for females over the age of 9 following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.
Many have publicly criticized the restrictions and a large number of the females in the video were not wearing headscarves.
The Mehr news agency reported, quoting Shiraz Governor Lotfollah Sheibani, that "so far 10 people who organized the event have been arrested."
"The main organizer of the event has also been identified and action has been taken to arrest him based on judicial authorities," Sheibani said.
"The actions of the teenagers in this gathering are a violation of religious norms, and we strongly condemn these actions and deal with them judicially" he added.
In recent years, Iranian adolescents have repeatedly challenged the regime's efforts to control various aspects of social life.
Iranian media reported last weekend that police had arrested 120 people for alleged "criminal acts," including drinking alcohol, mixed-sex dancing, and not wearing a hijab at a party in a forest in the country's north.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
UN Chief Warns Of Global Food 'Catastrophe' Amid Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine, Other Crises
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the world faces a "catastrophe" because of the global food shortage, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine only adding to an already difficult situation.
"There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022," Guterres said in a video message to officials from dozens of rich and developing countries meeting in Berlin on June 24.
"And 2023 could be even worse," added Guterres, who called mass hunger and starvation unacceptable in the 21st century.
Guterres told the gathering that "the war in Ukraine has compounded problems that have been brewing for years: climate disruption; the COVID-19 pandemic; the deeply unequal recovery."
He said it was crucial that Ukraine and Russia -- which together produce about 29 percent of global wheat exports -- find a way to resume normal trade.
Shipments from Ukrainian ports have been halted following Russia's unprovoked invasion of that country.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who hosted the Berlin gathering, called "completely untenable" Russia's assertions that Western sanctions imposed over the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that "the sanctions that we've imposed on Russia collectively and with many other countries exempt food, exempt food products, exempt fertilizers, exempt insurers, exempt shippers."
Guterres said UN negotiators were in talks with Russia to seek a deal to restore the flow of products to world markets.
He also said higher fertilizer and energy prices were hitting farmers in Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere, making it difficult for them to bring food products to market.
Based on reporting by AP and Reuters
Ukraine's Zelenskiy Urges Glastonbury Festival Audience To Help End War
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has put in an appearance at the Glastonbury music festival, urging the crowd to step up pressure on politicians to try to end Russia's war against Ukraine.
Addressing festival goers in a recorded video message in English on June 24, Zelenskiy called Glastonbury "the greatest concentration of freedom" in the world.
“Greetings, Glastonbury. The festival resumes this year after a two-year break, the pandemic has put on hold lives of the millions of people around the world, but has not broken," he said to cheers.
"We in Ukraine would also like to live life as we used to and enjoy freedom and this wonderful summer," said Zelenskiy, wearing his now-trademark military green T-shirt, before adding, "Russia has stolen our peace."
He urged the crowds to "spread the truth about Russia's war" and help Ukrainian refugees.
"Put pressure on all the politicians you know to help restore peace in Ukraine. Time is priceless and every day is measured in human lives," he added.
Zelenskiy has made a series of video-link appearances around the world, including an address to the British Parliament, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Congress.
Based on reporting by dpa and The Guardian
Dozens Rally In Kygyzstan Against President's Move To Reopen Casinos
BISHKEK -- Dozens of people have gathered in Kyrgyzstan to protest against a move initiated by President Sadyr Japarov to reopen casinos that were banned a decade ago.
The protesters gathered in Bishkek's Gorky Park on June 24 to urge Japarov to veto a bill allowing casinos across the country for foreigners of at least 21 years of age only after it was approved by lawmakers two days earlier.
"We intend to turn to the Constitutional Court and demand it finds the bill against the constitution," Akjoltoi Tukunov, one of the protesters, said during the rally.
The protesters said the bill was approved without proper public discussion and therefore should be withdrawn.
They also raised concerns that even though casinos will be open to foreigners only, Kyrgyz citizens will end up being clients as well.
A similar protest was held in the country's second-largest city, Osh.
Lawmakers approved the bill on June 22 after voting was disrupted four times due to the refusal of many lawmakers to take part in the proceedings.
Casinos were officially banned in Kyrgyzstan in 2012. Since then, police have uncovered numerous underground casinos in Bishkek, Osh, and other towns and cities.
In April 2021, Japarov initiated the idea to legalize casinos to help tackle the economic hardships the Central Asian country has faced for decades.
Belarusian Blogger Handed Parole-Like Sentence
MINSK -- A well-known Belarusian blogger and Wikipedia author, Mark Bernshteyn, has been handed a parole-like sentence after being found guilty of organizing and preparing activities that disrupt social order, a charge he has rejected.
A family member said on June 24 that they had been informed that a court in Minsk had sentenced Bernshteyn to three years of restricted freedom as the government continues to crack down following mass protests sparked by a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that handed victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Bernshteyn, who went on trial the day before, was arrested on March 11. He was initially sentenced to 15 days in jail on charge of "disobeying law enforcement."
Instead of releasing him after serving the term, officials kept Bernshteyn, listed among the 50 best authors of Wikipedia's Russian segment, in detention and charged him again.
It remains unclear what exactly Bernshteyn did to warrant the second charges.
State-controlled media has said that the charge he faced stemmed from an entry he wrote on Wikipedia about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, adding later that investigators had found data on his mobile phone that led to the new charge.
Lukashenka, 67 and in power since 1994, has tightened his grip on the country since the 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people.
Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have been forced to flee the country.
The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader. Many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.
With reporting by Mediazona
Popular Punk-Rave Group Leaves Russia Over War In Ukraine
The popular Russian punk-rave band Little Big says it has decided to leave the country over Moscow's ongoing, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The group issued an anti-war video clip called Generation Cancellation on June 24 to announce that it had rebased in Los Angeles, California.
"We condemn actions of the Russian government, and Russia's military propaganda is so disgusting for us that we decided to leave everything behind and flee the country," the group's leader, Ilya Prusikin, known under the nickname Ilyich, said in a statement.
The members of the group added in the statement that they "adore their country, but absolutely oppose the war in Ukraine."
Little Big was established in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, in 2013. The band was scheduled to represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2020.
However, because of the coronavirus pandemic the contest was cancelled. The group didn't take part in Eurovision in 2021, saying another artist should be given the chance to represent Russia.
With reporting by Meduza
Bulgarian Lawmakers Vote To Lift Veto On North Macedonia's EU Talks
Bulgarian lawmakers have conditionally approved dropping Sofia's opposition to North Macedonia opening accession talks with the European Union, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership amid Russia's war in Ukraine.
The June 24 move allows for lifting the veto, which was imposed two years ago over a dispute about history and language, once tweaks are made in the government's negotiating framework text that guarantee the rights of Bulgarians in the country through constitutional changes and commit Skopje to maintaining good relations with Bulgaria.
The framework also cannot have any reference that may suggest that Bulgaria recognizes the Macedonian language.
The motion was approved with 170 votes in favor and 37 against in the 240-member parliament, deputy speaker Atanas Atanasov said, adding that 21 lawmakers abstained.
North Macedonia has held EU candidate status for 17 years and received a green light in 2020 to begin accession talks, although no date was set for the start of negotiations.
Sofia, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was "hate speech" against Bulgaria.
North Macedonia said that its identity and language weren't open for discussion.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's government was toppled on June 22, after his shaky coalition lost its majority in part over accusations that it was disregarding national interests in pushing to lift the veto.
Bulgaria's dropping its opposition to North Macedonia's talks with the EU comes a day after the bloc granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and marks another step toward the 27-member bloc's enlargement.
However, the Bulgarian change of position will only bring Skopje a small step closer to EU accession, as Bulgarian lawmakers vowed on June 24 to be ready to impose new blockades if necessary.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP
Four People Killed In Russian Military Plane Crash Southeast Of Moscow
Four people are dead after a Russian military cargo plane crashed when it was forced into an emergency landing in a field near the city of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow.
The Defense Ministry said the IL-76 aircraft suffered an engine malfunction, forcing it out of the sky. Ryazan is about 190 kilometers southeast of the capital.
A video posted by the Baza online news group shows what appears to be the plane engulfed in flames before it hits the ground.
This is the third military plane to crash in recent days in Russia.
Earlier this week, a Russian pilot died after his SU-25 military plane crashed in the Rostov region that borders Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, where Ukrainian armed forces have been fighting against Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion since February 24.
On June 17, a Russian pilot ejected from his SU-25 plane, which crashed in the Belgorod region that also borders Ukraine. The pilot survived.
Russian military officials said the two crashes were caused by "technical malfunctions."
With reporting by Baza and TASS
European Bank Lends Moldova 300 Million Euros To Boost Energy Security As Ukraine War Rages
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is lending Moldova 300 million euros ($316 million) to help it secure additional gas reserves that could offset possible supply disruptions caused by Russia's war against Ukraine.
Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, is almost completely dependent on Russian gas deliveries for its industry and heating needs.
Russian state-controlled energy giant Gazprom and Moldova have signed a gas delivery contract valid until 2026 following difficult negotiations over pricing.
"The loan will finance up to one-fifth of Moldova’s planned gas imports for 2022, which are vulnerable to potential interruption as a result of the war on Ukraine," EBRD said in a statement.
The loan to the pro-Western President Maia Sandu's government will be disbursed in two installments -- 200 million euros to avoid disruptions and a further 100 million euros to build up a strategic reserve in Ukraine or Romania.
"We are working in the summer so we have fewer worries in the winter," Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spinu said in a post on Facebook.
The EBRD said its loan would finance up to 20 percent of Moldova's planned 2022 gas imports and would be provided to state-owned energy trader JSC Energocom to secure gas on EU hubs.
Moldova, sandwiched between EU and NATO member Romania and Ukraine, introduced a state of emergency shortly after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The country has received hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war.
On June 23, it received, together with Ukraine, an invitation to start accession talks with the European Union.
With reporting by Reuters
Moscow-Imposed Official In Russian-Occupied Ukrainian City Killed By Car Bomb
A car bomb has killed a Moscow-imposed official in Ukraine's southeastern city of Kherson, which is occupied by Russian troops.
According to preliminary information, the official who died after his car exploded on June 24 was Dmytro Savluchenko, who led the Directorate for Family, Youth, and Sports for the city's so-called military and civilian administration established by the occupying forces.
Two cars were damaged in the blast, which also shattered windows in nearby apartment blocks. No other casualties were reported.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Representatives of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and military intelligence have said that guerrilla groups are operating in the country’s territories occupied by Russia.
There have also been assassination attempts against Russian-imposed officials in the Ukrainian cities of Melitopol and Enerhodar recently. No casualties were reported in those attacks.
Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
With reporting by UNIAN
Iran Says EU's Top Diplomat To Arrive Later On June 24 For Talks
Iran's Foreign Ministry says Josep Borrell, the European Union's top diplomat, will arrive late on June 24 for a visit in an attempt to breathe new life into talks on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal with global powers.
"Bilateral relations, regional and international issues, as well as the latest status of sanctions lifting will be discussed during the visit, which is part of the ongoing consultations between Iran and the European Union,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
The deal began to fall apart when then-U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out in 2018.
Since then, Washington has imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government, which denies that its nuclear program seeks to build a bomb, has responded by backing away from some of its commitments laid out in the deal.
Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
A revamped deal was reportedly close in March, but the talks in Vienna then abruptly stalled in April with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.
In early June, Tehran said it had started removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites across the country, further reducing the West's ability to monitor Iran's nuclear program.
The EU's nuclear talks envoy, Enrique Mora, posted a photo late on June 23 of a dinner he was attending in Brussels with Borrell and Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy to the talks.
Mora said Malley reiterated Washington's "firm commitment to come back to the deal."
Ukraine Urges U.S. To Provide 'Fire Parity' With Russia As Struggle In East Worsens
Ukraine's top general has told his U.S. counterpart that his country desperately needs "fire parity" with Russia to "stabilize" the difficult situation in the east, where Kyiv's forces have suffered setbacks against Moscow's troops backed by powerful artillery bombardments.
"We discussed the operational situation and the delivery flow of international technical assistance," General Valeriy Zaluzhniy wrote in an online posting after holding a phone call on June 24 with General Mark Milley, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Kyiv has received billions of dollars in aid from its Western partners since Moscow's unprovoked invasion began on February 24.
But they say much more is needed as Russia, bolstered by an advantage in artillery power, continued its grinding advance focused on encircling Ukraine's last pocket of resistance in the eastern Luhansk region.
Hirske, a key district south of the city of Lysychansk, was "fully occupied" by Russian forces as of the morning on June 24, local officials said on television, as Ukrainian forces were also about to abandon their last positions in the city of Syevyerodonetsk.
"Unfortunately, as of today...the entire Hirske district is occupied," Hirske's municipal head, Oleksiy Babchenko, said on television. "There are some insignificant, local battles going on at the outskirts, but the enemy has entered."
The loss of Hirske and several other settlements around it leaves Lysychansk, some 35 kilometers to the north, in danger of being surrounded from three sides by advancing Russian forces.
A regional official said early on June 24 that Ukrainian forces were pulling out of Syevyerodonetsk in the face of Russia's continued onslaught, which would make Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River, the last major Ukrainian-controlled city in Luhansk.
Russia was on the verge of capturing Syevyerodonetsk following weeks of house-to-house battles against Ukrainian defenders, who were gradually dislodged by relentless heavy artillery fire that has turned the city into ruins.
"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense," Serhiy Hayday, the head of the Luhansk region military administration, said on television.
He said troops had already received the order to move to new positions, but didn't indicate if they had already done so or where they were going.
Hayday also wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Russia had taken control of the village of Mykolayivka, located near a key highway to Lysychansk, where Ukrainian troops managed to repel a Russian attack on the southern outskirts of the city.
A U.S. military official told reporters in a briefing that, while Washington did not want to downplay Ukrainian losses in lives or property, recent gains by Russian forces appear to have been "limited."
"What [Ukrainian troops] are doing is putting themselves in a position where they can better defend themselves."
"The Russians are just eking out inch by inch of territory here. And I think it's important to reflect on the cost that Russia has paid for this very small, very incremental gain," the official added.
Four months after the start of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, the fierce fighting has stretched both sides' personnel and equipment resources to the limit, with Kyiv repeatedly pleading with the West for more heavy weapons and Russia facing increasing difficulties in bringing qualified personnel to the front line.
Britain's Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 24 that a Russian pilot captured earlier this month after his plane was shot down confessed to his Ukrainian captors that he was a retired Air Force major now working as a mercenary for the Vagner Group, a private Russian military company with ties to the Kremlin.
British intelligence suggested that the use of retired personnel and private contractors in air operations indicated a shortage of trained Russian aircrews.
That, the bulletin said, could be the consequence of a combination of Russia’s insufficient numbers of suitably trained personnel and its combat losses. Furthermore, the use of commercial GPS systems on Vagner's aircraft indicated a lack of up-to-date avionics equipment, it said.
The White House late on June 23 announced additional military aid for Kyiv, including four more HIMARS long-range multiple-rocket launchers, tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, and patrol boats. The value of the package was $450 million, White House spokesman John Kirby said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked the United States for the continued military support.
"We're grateful to [U.S. President Joe Biden] and the American people for the decision to provide another $450 million defense aid package to Ukraine," he wrote on Twitter on June 24.
"This support, including additional HIMARS, is now more important than ever. By joint efforts we will free Ukrainian land from the Russian aggressor!" he concluded.
However, two officials with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence assessments told CNN that Russian forces were slowly gaining an advantage in eastern Ukraine. The Russians have learnt from mistakes made earlier in the invasion, and are now better coordinating air and ground attacks and improving logistics and supply lines, the officials said.
One victory Kyiv celebrated on June 23 was the announcement by EU leaders meeting in Brussels that the bloc had formally agreed to take the “historic” step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership.
The move was hailed by the leaders of the two countries, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said there can be "no better sign of hope" for the citizens of the countries "in these troubled times."
"This is a victory," a smiling Zelenskiy said in a brief video posted to his Instagram channel, noting that Ukraine had waited 30 years for this moment.
"We can defeat the enemy, rebuild Ukraine, join the EU, and then we can rest," he added.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, CNN, and TASS
Consumption Falls As Skyrocketing Prices Hit Iranian Food Security
Iranians are consuming fewer fruits and vegetables as skyrocketing prices shake the country's food security.
Ismail Moradian, the vice-president of the Fruit and Vegetable Sellers Association, told the ILNA news agency on June 22 that consumption has decreased by between 25 and 30 percent because of price rises and the implementation of the economic policies of President Ebrahim Raisi's government.
"Many people are confused and do not know which basic products to spend their money on," Moradian said.
Moradian's comments come days after a member of the board of the Beef Production and Distribution Union said that beef sales had dropped 20 percent in recent weeks, while the head of the Food Industry Federation said sales of overall food industry products in the country had fallen by half and the chairman of the Dairy Products Industry Association, noting an 80 percent increase in dairy prices last month, said household consumption in his sector had decreased by 20 percent in recent months.
Extreme inflation in Iran has sparked street protests and rattled public institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and child-care centers, which are facing possible food shortages. The Statistics Center of Iran said the inflation rate in June hit 52.5 percent.
Last week, the Tehran-based Etemad newspaper reported that the impending problem of food security could hit in "the coming weeks" and that "food supplies will be disrupted not only in hospitals, but also in other government facilities such as barracks, prisons, nursing homes, and even student dormitories."
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
No Shirt Buttons, No Airbags, Buggy Smartphones: Russia's Economy Enters The 'Twilight Zone'2
Moscow-Imposed Official In Russian-Occupied Ukrainian City Killed By Car Bomb3
The Brutal Killing Of A Reporter Who Probed Putin's Past4
Ukraine’s Anti-Drone Rifle Takes Aim At Russian UAVs5
In The Heart Of Russia, A Hunt For Soldiers Accused Of War Crimes In Ukraine6
The Week In Russia: Behind The Facade7
Four People Killed In Russian Military Plane Crash Southeast Of Moscow8
Interview: Why Ukrainian And Russian Forces Are Preparing For A Long War9
Ukraine Urges U.S. To Provide 'Fire Parity' With Russia As Struggle In East Worsens10
Outgunned Ukrainians Hail Arrival Of U.S. Heavy Weapons As Russians Press Ahead