Thousands Protest In North Macedonia Against Compromise With Bulgaria
SKOPJE -- Tens of thousands of people gathered in North Macedonia’s capital to protest against a French proposal that seeks to end a dispute with Bulgaria that is blocking Skopje’s bid to join the European Union.
The July 2 rally, backed by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, came after French President Emmanuel Macron said he believed a compromise agreement was near over the long-standing dispute.
North Macedonia's prime minister, Dimitar Kovachevsk, said the proposal is a “solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country.”
However, VMRO-DPMNE and other right-wing opponents reject the French plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in a dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.
Macron did not provide details when he made the comment on June 30 at a news conference at the close of the NATO summit in Spain.
EU officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the proposal takes into account concerns expressed by both sides, potentially breaking a deadlock that has prevented the start of accession talks for more than two years.
Balkan countries are deeply frustrated about the deadlock in their bids to join. Especially frustrating for North Macedonia is EU member Bulgaria’s veto on the start of negotiations because of a dispute with Skopje relating to history and language.
Bulgarian lawmakers have conditionally approved dropping their opposition, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership.
Bulgaria, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize that 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.
The French proposal would have Skopje include ethnic Bulgarians in its constitution "on an equal footing with other peoples" and change history textbooks.
Bulgaria claims the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian, and both countries lay claim to certain historical events and figures, mainly from the Ottoman era.
With reporting by AP and AFP
About 90 Russian Men Seeking To Avoid Conscription Back Home Granted Asylum In Germany
About 90 Russian men have been granted asylum in Germany in their bids to avoid military conscription back home, the Interior Ministry in Berlin said on September 23. Some 3,500 men have applied for such status, with 1,500 applications having so far been decided upon with either acceptance or rejection, officials said. German courts decide on refugee status based on whether a person would face particularly severe penalties at home because they are members of a group of people who are discriminated against, and not solely on the desire to avoid conscription. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.
German Politician Warns Against Rise Of Right-Wing Populism In EU, Citing Hungary, Poland, Italy
European Parliament Vice President Katarina Barley warned on September 23 against the rise of antidemocratic movements in Europe. "Democracy and the rule of law can no longer be taken for granted in the European Union," Barley said at a party conference for Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) in Berlin. She is an SPD member. Hungary, she said, was already no longer a democracy. "We see a similar development in Poland," she said. Democratic rights were also being curtailed in Italy, she added. The European Commission, she noted, was in danger of tilting to the right.
Polish PM Tells Ukraine's Zelenskiy 'Never To Insult Poles Again'
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy not to "insult" Poles, maintaining harsh rhetoric toward Kyiv after the Polish president had sought to defuse a row over grain imports. Poland last week extended a ban on Ukrainian grain imports, shaking Kyiv's relationship with a neighbor that has been one of its staunchest allies since Russia invaded Ukraine. Zelenskiy angered Poland when he told the UN General Assembly that "political theater" around grain imports was only helping Moscow. "I...want to tell President Zelenskiy never to insult Poles again, as he did during his UN speech," Morawiecki told an election rally late on September 22. (Reuters)
To read the original story by Reuters, click here. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/polish-president-says-ukrainian-grain-row-wont-significantly-affect-relations-2023-09-22/
Zelenskiy Meets Sudanese Leader, Discusses Russian Paramilitaries
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on September 23 that he held an impromptu meeting in Ireland's Shannon Airport with the head of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and that they discussed Russian-funded armed groups. "We discussed our common security challenges, namely the activities of illegal armed groups financed by Russia," Zelenskiy said. He thanked Sudan, which is in the midst of a deadly civil war, for its support of Ukraine's territorial integrity. Russia's Wagner mercenary group has operated in Ukraine throughout Moscow's invasion. Western diplomats have said the group is also present in Sudan.
U.S. Senator Leads Delegation to Armenian-Azerbaijan Border, Calls For International Monitors In Karabakh
U.S. Democratic Senator Gary Peters, who is leading a congressional delegation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, called on September 23 for international monitors to be sent to observe conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh, the mostly ethnic-Armenian breakaway region captured by Baku after a lightning military strike. "I am certainly very concerned about what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh right now. I think there needs to be some visibility," Peters told reporters. The U.S. Embassy said the group will meet Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and other officials "to discuss U.S.-Armenian relations and the impact of Azerbaijan's recent military actions on the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, click here.
Blinken Suggests Iran Is Not A Responsible Actor In Its Nuclear Program
Iran's decision to bar some UN nuclear inspectors suggests it is not interested in being a responsible actor when it comes to its atomic program, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on September 22. "We tried to work indirectly with Iran as well as with European partners and even Russia and China to see if we can get a return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal ... But Iran couldn't or wouldn't do that," Blinken told reporters. On September 23, the head of the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) condemned Tehran's move to bar multiple inspectors assigned to the country. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Former Wagner Fighter Reportedly Detained In Norway Near Russian Border
Norwegian police on September 22 detained a former fighter for Russia's private mercenary force, the Wagner group, along the Scandinavian country's border with Russia, according to the Barents Observer. Andrei Medvedev fled to Norway from Russia after fighting with Wagner in Ukraine and had stated his willingness to provide testimony related to war crimes he said had been committed by the now-deceased Wagner head, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Norwegian authorities had not yet made a decision on Medvedev's asylum request. Just hours before his detention, Medvedev reportedly told a journalist he feared being extradited to Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Pakistani PM Claims Possibility Of Coming Elections Being Manipulated By Military Is 'Absolutely Absurd'
Pakistan’s interim prime minister said he expects parliamentary elections to take place in the new year, dismissing the possibility that the country’s powerful military would manipulate the results to ensure that jailed former premier Imran Khan’s party doesn’t win. In an interview with the Associated Press on September 22, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said it was the Election Commission that is going to conduct the vote, not the military, and Khan appointed the commission’s chief at the time. The commission has announced that the elections will take place during the last week in January, delaying the vote that was to be held in November. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Ukrainian Military Claims Russian Navy Commanders Killed In Sevastopol Attack; De Facto Crimean Authorities Say Fresh Attack Thwarted
The Ukrainian military says that a missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula on September 22 targeted "a meeting of the Russian Navy's leadership" and resulted in high casualties.
"The details of the attack will be revealed as soon as possible and the result is dozens of dead and wounded occupants, including senior fleet commanders," the Ukrainian military said on September 23.
In comments to Voice Of America, Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov claimed the attack, in which at least one cruise missile struck the Black Sea Fleet's headquarters, killed "at least nine people" and that 16 were injured, including high-ranking officers.
"Among the wounded is the commander of the group, Colonel-General [Oleksandr] Romanchuk, in very serious condition. The Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General [Oleg] Tsekov, is unconscious. The number of casual military servicemen who are not employees of the headquarters is still being determined," Budanov was quoted as saying in VOA's September 23 report.
Romanchuk commands frontline forces defending Russian-occupied parts of southeastern Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region and was promoted to the rank of colonel-general in 2023, according to VOA. Tsekov was identified as the commander of coastal forces of the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet.
RFE/RL was not able to verify Budanov's or the Ukrainian military's casualty claims.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Telegram on September 22 that five cruise missiles involved in that day's attack had been shot down. The ministry claimed that one Russian soldier was missing, after having earlier reported the death of one soldier.
Moscow has not issued updated information regarding casualties or commented on the Ukrainian military's claims that a meeting of Russian naval commanders was targeted.
RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, a regional outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, reported early on September 23 that a powerful explosion was heard in Sevastopol, prompting air-raid warnings.
On the morning of September 23, Russian authorities in Crimea confirmed that Sevastopol had again come under attack.
Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014, said that preliminary information indicated that Russian air defense forces had shot down a missile and that debris had fallen along the shore of Sevastopol Bay.
In a follow-up Telegram post, Razvozhayev declared that the "missile danger is clear."
On September 22, following the attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters, Razvozhayev had denied reports by multiple Telegram channels that thermal power plants near Sevastopol had been struck in a Ukrainian missile attack.
Razvozhayev alleged that Ukrainian media were "trying to sow panic among citizens" by reporting the attacks.
Ukraine has increasingly targeted naval facilities in Crimea as its counteroffensive in the east and south of the country grinds on.
As Kyiv continues to defend its military strategy amid Western criticism, a commander of Ukraine's Tavria force fighting in the Zaporizhzhya region told CNN on September 22 that Ukraine had made a breakthrough near the rural settlement of Verbove.
“On the left flank [near Verbove] we have a breakthrough and we continue to advance further,” Oleksandr Tarnavsky said.
"Not as fast as it was expected, not like in the movies about the Second World War,” he said, but “the main thing is not to lose this initiative [that we have]."
Verbove is part of the Surovikin Lines -- triple-layered defenses named for the Russian general who ordered their construction last year to thwart any Ukrainian effort to breach and try to outmaneuver Russian forces along a 1,200-kilometer front line.
On September 23, the Ukrainian military said Russia had launched 15 Iranian-made Shahed drones against Ukraine's frontline forces in the Zaporizhzhya region and in the neighboring Dnitropetrovsk region to the north.
In the southeastern Kherson region, officials said on September 23 that at least one person had died and three were injured due to Russian shelling, which hit residential, medical, and educational buildings over the previous day.
Cracks In Western Wall Of Support For Ukraine Emerge As Eastern Europe And U.S. Head Toward Elections
Once rock-solid, the support that Ukraine has gotten from its biggest backers for its fight against Russia is showing cracks. Political posturing in places like Poland and Slovakia, where a trade dispute with Ukraine has stirred tensions, and Republican reticence in the United States about Washington’s big spending to prop up Ukraine’s military have raised new uncertainties about the West’s commitment to its efforts to expel Russian invaders more than 18 months into the war. Still, from Washington to Warsaw, where the military cost and capabilities of helping Ukraine are at issue, officials are playing down talk of a rift. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Woman In Iran Arrested After Head Scarf Protest
An Iranian woman has been arrested after protesting against the compulsory wearing of head scarves, the Norway-based human rights group Hengaw reported on September 22. The engineer, Zeinab Kazemi, was reportedly taken from her home by security forces a few days ago. She had previously received a suspended sentence of 74 lashes on probation. In February Kazemi threw her head scarf on the floor at an event in order to protest against the decision of an engineering association not to admit her to the board because of an ill-fitting head scarf. Members of parliament introduced a new head scarf bill just this week.
Russian-Installed Leader Of Crimea Denies Strikes Hit Power Plants
Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the occupied Crimean Peninsula, denied on Telegram on September 22 that any thermal power plants had been struck in a Ukrainian missile attack. Multiple Telegram channels had reported that several explosions were heard in an area close to a thermal power plant in the city of Sevastopol in Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea after the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet was struck earlier in the day. Razvozhayev alleged that Ukrainian media were "trying to sow panic among citizens."
Karabakh Separatists Negotiate Withdrawing Forces As U.S. Delegation Urges International Monitors
Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh have reported that Karabakh separatists in the ethnic-Armenian populated territory have begun handing over their weapons as part of a deal worked out with Baku following Azerbaijan's lightning offensive this week.
Russian peacekeepers said that more than 800 firearms, grenades, mortars, anti-tank guided missiles, and anti-tank missile systems had been handed over, and the process would continue over the weekend.
The deal was worked out during a meeting between representatives of Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population and Azerbaijan held in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax on September 22.
The separatists have said they are in Russian-mediated talks with Baku to organize the withdrawal of their forces.
This week's lightning offensive by Azerbaijani forces left tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the disputed territory cut off from electricity and other basic necessities.
A witness told Reuters that an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid convoy was seen at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border early on September 23 for the first time since Baku seized the region.
The Red Cross said it was supplying fuel, blankets, and 28,000 diapers in the initial shipments to aid the estimated 120,000 people from the territory.
U.S. Democratic Senator Gary Peters, who is leading a congressional delegation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, called for international observers to monitor the situation and said people in Karabakh were "very fearful."
"I am certainly very concerned about what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh right now. I think there needs to be some visibility," Peters told reporters.
Peters had earlier condemned the Azerbaijani government’s “military aggression and violence toward the Armenian people.”
“The Azerbaijani government has made it clear, their goal is to erase the historic presence of Armenians in this region,” he said during his visit to the region.
Azerbaijan has claimed that the 24-hour offensive on September 19-20, which it describes as an "anti-terrorist operation," has brought the breakaway region back under its control.
The offensive was halted on September 20 after Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership accepted a proposal by the Russian peacekeeping mission, although sporadic fighting has been reported.
Baku has said it envisages an amnesty for Karabakh Armenian fighters who give up their arms and seeks to reintegrate the territory's ethnic Armenian population. Some separatist fighters have vowed to continue to resist Azerbaijani control. It has vowed to protect the rights of civilians there.
Yerevan's response to the Azerbaijani offensive has led to protests in the Armenian capital, with opposition leaders seeking the ouster of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and accusing the government of inadequate support for Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic-Armenian population.
Pashinian has expressed hope that Karabakh Armenians will be allowed to return to their homes, while saying that Yerevan would accept an influx of ethnic Armenians if they chose to leave the territory.
Anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan led to the detention of scores of people on September 22, with Armenian police saying that more than 80 people had been charged with disobeying police orders.
Armenian opposition groups claimed that some 350 supporters were detained on September 22.
During a special meeting of the UN Security Council this week, council members including the United States and Russia called for peace, while Armenian and Azerbaijani officials traded barbs.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are expected to address the UN General Assembly in New York on September 23.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan's but has had de-facto independence since breaking away in a war in the 1990s.
During a short but bloody war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory as well as seven surrounding districts that had been controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP
Rights Group Says Iran's Security Forces 'Intentionally' Shot Protesters In The Eyes
The Iran Human Rights group (IHRNGO) said the Islamic nation's security forces “intentionally targeted” the eyes and faces of protesters during a violent crackdown on demonstrations last year sparkled by the death of a young woman in police custody for allegedly violating the country's hijab law.
In an analysis published on September 22, the Norway-based rights group said it was able to verify 138 cases of eye injuries sustained during the months-long, nationwide protests in Iran last year. Many of the victims lost vision in one eye, some in both.
“IHRNGO’s analysis shows that the brutal crimes committed during the protests by the Islamic republic were planned, coordinated and calculated,” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, head of the rights group.
“The Islamic republic leader, Ali Khamenei, and all the perpetrators of such crimes must be held accountable.”
Reports of Iranian security forces shooting protesters in the eyes emerged in the first months of the demonstrations, which began immediately following the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022. The victims say they were purposely singled out before being wounded.
The Iranian government and senior security officials have rejected the accusations.
WATCH: Amateur video shows the moment Erfan Ramizipour was shot in the eyes by Iranian security forces as he took part in mass anti-regime protests in 2022. The 24-year-old is just one of many protesters who have been shot in the eyes, in what appears to have been a deliberate tactic. Now in Germany, he is receiving medical care -- and continuing to battle for justice in his homeland.
The victims include eight children, the youngest a 5-year-old girl, Iran Human Rights said.
Women accounted for 28 percent of those with eye injuries but only 9 percent of deaths, implying the "repressive forces have chosen to intentionally target women’s eyes instead of fatally shooting them,” the group said in its report.
In a smaller sample collected from the city of Mahabad, northwestern Iran, women constitute 56 percent of those with eye injuries, the group said.
Most eye injuries were caused by pellets made of metal and plastic. In nine of the cases, the injuries were caused by projectiles fired from paintball guns.
The rights group’s data shows that Iran’s security forces started shooting protesters in the eyes from the first days of protests in September 2022, while the last documented cases are from December 2022.
The actual number of protesters who have been blinded by security forces after being shot in the face is unknown.
The New York Times has estimated some 500 young Iranians were treated in Tehran hospitals for eye injuries during the first three months of the protests.
Iranwire, which documents human rights abuses in Iran, said it had confirmed some 580 cases of blinding in Tehran and the province of Kurdistan alone, “but the actual numbers across the country are much higher.”
RFE/RL is unable to verify such reports.
Rights activists have reported several cases of protesters with eye injuries who were arrested in an apparent attempt to be silenced.
In addition to eye and other serious injuries, more than 500 people, including 71 children were killed during the demonstrations trigged by the death of Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating strict dress rules for women.
The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
Navalny Placed In Punitive Confinement One Day After Serving Previous Solitary Incarceration
Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is serving a total of 19 years in prison on extremism and other charges, has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement for the 20th time since August 2022. A post on Navalny's Instagram account said on September 21 that he was sent to solitary confinement until September 26 for unspecified reasons one day after he served his previous 13-day punitive incarceration. The post says the solitary confinement term was only four days this time because his appeal against his conviction is scheduled to be considered by a court on September 26. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Russia Reportedly Plans To Ramp Up Military Spending in 2024
Russia plans to significantly ramp up military spending next year as its invasion of Ukraine falters and a presidential election looms, Bloomberg reported, citing a draft budget submitted to parliament on September 22.
Russia intends to allocate 10.8 trillion rubles ($112 billion) to military needs next year, a jump by two-thirds compared with 2023, Bloomberg reported.
If the plans materialize, military spending will account for 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), Bloomberg calculated, making it the largest item in the budget.
Russia’s 19-month-long invasion of Ukraine is struggling, requiring the Kremlin to allocate ever more money to the military to prevent a rollback if not an outright defeat.
Ukraine’s Western-backed forces have been making minor gains since its latest counteroffensive began in June. Any major Ukrainian victories in the coming months would be a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to run for reelection in March 2024.
While there is little doubt Putin will win the tightly controlled election should he run, setbacks could nonetheless make the election more problematic for the Kremlin.
To appease the population ahead of the election, Putin will also boost social spending by 1 trillion rubles ($10 billion), Bloomberg reported, citing the draft budget.
Another 11 trillion rubles ($114 billion) in spending next year is classified. That budget line item is also up two-thirds from last year.
Russia anticipates budget revenues will jump by more than a fifth next year, keeping the budget deficit below 1 percent.
Russian budget revenue is highly dependent on oil prices, which have rallied more than a quarter over the past three months, surpassing $90 a barrel.
Analysts forecast oil prices to remain high in the near-term.
Reporting by Bloomberg
Three Kazakh Civil Rights Activists Detained On Unspecified Charges
Police in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, have detained three civil rights activists on unspecified charges. Abzal Dostiyarov, Marat Turymbetov, and Maira Gabdullina were detained separately on September 22. Dostiyarov's lawyer Zhanar Balghabaeva told RFE/RL that her client is suspected of violating a law on mass gatherings. Police gave no more details, the lawyer said. Human rights activist Rinat Rafqat said the trio's detainments were linked to their participation in a rally in front of a court on September 19, demanding the release of imprisoned activist Aigerim Tileuzhan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Government Reportedly Ratcheting Up Pressure On Families Of Dead Iranian Protesters
Iranian security forces are reported to have escalated their actions against the families of protesters killed during widespread protests last year as the government continues to try and put a lid on unrest triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, the biggest challenge to the Islamic regime since the 1979 revolution.
Social media posts from the affected families, corroborated by videos, appear to show that memorial ceremonies in at least 19 cities, including Tehran, have been thwarted by Iran's security apparatus, including the western city of Ilam, where the tomb of Mohsen Ghaisari became a focal point of tension when his brother and several others were apprehended.
Ghaisari, a 32-year-old Kurdish Iranian, was fatally shot in the chest and head by a special unit officer during the 2022 nationwide protests after the death of Amini.
Meanwhile, in Qazvin, the family home of slain protester Javad Heydari was raided, leading to the arrest of his elderly father and two siblings, according to Fateme Heydari, Javad's sister.
Despite video showing the incident, Abbas Kazemi, the deputy governor of Qazvin for political, security, and social affairs, denied any official presence at the Heydari residence, framing the incident as a move to "protect local residents."
"The judiciary, the police, the security apparatus, all have collaborated to intimidate us bereaved families," said Farzaneh Barzekar, whose 21-year-old son was killed by security forces a year ago.
Barzekar herself was arrested earlier in September after attending a memorial ceremony for Javad Rouhi, a protester who recently died in prison.
Human rights groups highlighted similar incidents across the country, including the Human Rights Network of Kurdistan, which reported disruptions to memorial ceremonies in several cities, including Kermanshah and Quchan.
At least 500 people have been killed around the country since authorities began the current crackdown on her sympathizers, with thousands more detained or harassed.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Dozens Of Children In Uzbekistan Hospitalized With Poisoning Symptoms
Uzbekistan's Health Ministry said on September 22 it has taken under "strict control" the hospitalization of more than 70 children with symptoms of being poisoned in the eastern region of Namangan earlier this week. The statement said 10 children were released from the hospital after their health improved, but did not reveal what caused the illness, saying lab tests continue. The ministry said earlier that children from nine kindergartens and two secondary schools in the Chust district had been rushed to hospitals with poisoning symptoms. The Prosecutor-General's Office has launched a probe into the situation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.
Russia Calls Bulgaria's Decision To Expel Cleric 'Blasphemous,' Summons Ambassador
Moscow has reacted angrily to Bulgaria’s decision to expel the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia, calling the move “blasphemous” and an “unfriendly” act as it closed the Russian Church in the Bulgarian capital in response.
The Russian state news agency TASS reported on September 22 that the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow Atanas Krastin would be summoned for talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry over the expulsion of Archimandrite Vassian and two other clerics, both Belarusian citizens, for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests.
Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security (DANS) said the three had worked to “purposefully influence the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the clerics were summoned to Bulgaria’s immigration service on September 21 and were handed a notice to leave the country within 24 hours.
It added that the three were transported “like criminals in a vehicle with barred windows” back to the church to pack their belongings and added that they would be transported to the Serbian border.
Bulgarian authorities have not given any details on the whereabouts of the clerics.
“We are outraged and shocked by what happened,” the ministry’s spokeswoman Mariya Zaharova said in the statement, adding that the responsibility for the “rapid deterioration of Russian-Bulgarian relations lies entirely with the Bulgarian side.”
Russia's ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, added in an interview on state television that Russia would not take action directly against the Bulgarian Church in Moscow.
Archimandrite Vassian, whose secular name is Nikolai Zmeyev, was appointed by the Moscow Patriarchate as head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia in 2018 -- days after the Russian Patriarch Kirill visited Bulgaria.
Questions over Archimandrite Vassian have swirled around Bulgaria for several months.
Earlier this month, lawmaker Atanas Atanasov called the cleric “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.”
In December 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia faced protests against the visit of a high-ranking representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, invited by Archimandrite Vassian.
The decision to expel the three clerics comes amid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which the Russian Orthodox Church has supported.
The European Union imposed sanctions as a response to Moscow’s war, and Russia added the EU member states, including Bulgaria, to its list of “unfriendly countries.”
In 2022, Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the European Union, expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff in a move that severely strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, which were close allies during communist times.
Azerbaijani Trade Unions Activist Arrested On Assault Charge
A Baku court ruled on September 21 to arrest a coordinator of Azerbaijan's Alternative Confederation of Trade Unions, Afiaddin Mammadov, and placed him to pretrial detention for two months. Mammadov was detained near his home in Baku on September 20 and charged with premeditated infliction of bodily damage and armed hooliganism after an unidentified man claimed Mammadov had stabbed him with a knife. He rejects the charge. If convicted, Mammadov faces up to eight years in prison. Also on September 21, another court in Baku handed a 30-day jail term to journalist Nurlan Qahramanli on a charge of the distribution of false materials, which the reporter also rejected. To read the original report by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.
Canada Pledges More Military Aid As Kyiv Confirms Hitting Russian Black Sea Fleet HQ
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged an additional C$650 million (US$482 million) for Ukraine during a visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky to Ottawa as Kyiv announced a successful strike on Russia's Black Sea fleet headquarters in occupied Crimea.
The latest Canadian aid, to be delivered over a three-year period, would include some 50 armored vehicles as well as training for F-16 pilots, Trudeau told parliament. Canada has now committed over C$8 billion in aid to Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion.
"Canadian support for Ukraine with weapons and equipment has allowed us to save thousands of lives," Zelenskiy said in an address to Parliament following his meeting with the president.
The pledge comes fast on the heels of a U.S. announcement made a day earlier while Zelenskiy was in Washington to send more aid to Ukraine.
Kyiv is preparing for a long war with Russia and needs continued Western military and financial support to beat back Moscow's forces. While support has remained high in Canada, home to one of the largest Ukrainian diasporas in the world, it has been sagging in the United States.
The U.S. Congress is currently debating whether to approve another $24 billion aid package to Ukraine that would cover the country's needs through the end of the year.
A $45 billion package approved in December is expected to be depleted soon. A faction within the Republican Party has opposed approving more support to Ukraine, holding up passage of the bill.
Future U.S. aid could hinge on Ukraine's progress in the war.
A day after Zelenskiy's meetings in Washington with members of Congress, the Ukrainian military announced it had stuck the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Moscow-controlled Crimea.
Video on social media shows the headquarters on fire just as a missile slams into the building, causing an explosion. It is unclear if the fire was caused by a first missile.
"The Ukrainian defense forces carried out a successful attack on the command post of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in temporarily occupied Sevastopol," the military said.
The Russian Defense Ministry wrote on Telegram on September 22 that a member of the military is missing after the city came under attack by cruise missiles. The ministry had previously announced that one soldier was killed before updating its statement.
WATCH: Ukrainian units have become adept at using captured Russian tanks against Moscow's invading forces.
“Russian air-defense systems shot down five missiles while repelling an attack on Sevastopol," the ministry said. "Due to the attack by cruise missiles, the historical building of the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet was damaged.”
RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, a regional outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, reported on September 22 that three powerful explosions were heard in the city, which is home to a large port used by the Russian Navy.
Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the Ukrainian peninsula illegally seized and annexed by Moscow in 2014, said in a series of Telegram posts that at least one missile launched by "the enemy" struck the headquarters. He did not give details on casualties.
Razvozhayev warned residents of the city on the southwestern tip of the peninsula that “another attack is possible,” and urged them to stay in their homes and to not attempt to travel to the city center. He said that roads in the center had been closed.
“Those who are near the fleet headquarters, head to the shelters if you hear the siren,” he wrote.
Razvozhayev asked residents not to post photos or videos on social media.
A few hours later, various Telegram channels reported that several explosions were heard in an area close to a thermal power plant in Sevastopol. The blasts occurred while rescue teams were cleaning up debris caused by the missile attack on headquarters.
The Krymsky Veter Telegram channel reported that the thermal power plant in Sevastopol was not damaged. Razvozhayev has yet to comment on the situation.
Ukraine has made striking targets in Crimea a priority in recent months. Russia supplies its forces fighting in southern Ukraine partially from Crimea, where it also has several bases.
To halt military and other critical supplies, like gasoline, from arriving in Crimea, Ukraine has been targeting a bridge connected mainlaind Russia with the peninsula.
Traffic on the bridge was halted on two separate occasions on September 22 amid bombing fears.
Meanwhile, Russia has restarted its systematic campaign of air attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure ahead of winter, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said on September 22.
During last winter, Russia targered power plants, transmission lines, and other critical infrastructure necessary to heat homes and buildings in an attempt to freeze Ukrainians into submission. It failed.
Renewed attacks will do no better this year, Shmygal said.
"We are much better prepared and stronger than we were last year," he said.
Ukraine Allows Russia-Related Words To Be Written In All Lowercase
Ukraine's National Commission of Language Standards has allowed for all letters in "Russia," "Russian Federation," "Russian Empire," "Moscow," and other related words to be written in lowercase. The commission said that with the ruling, such usage will not be considered a violation of Ukrainian language standards in unofficial documents. The move was made while taking into account the "heroic fight of the Ukrainian people for Ukraine’s independence," the commission said. The decision was made after Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk called on the formalization "of what Ukrainians are already doing." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Scores Of Detentions Reported In Yerevan As Protesters Aim To Oust Armenian Prime Minister
YEREVAN -- Dozens of people have been detained as anti-government protests continued in the Armenian capital on September 22.
Armenian police said after noon local time that 84 people had been detained and charged with disobeying police orders. Armenian opposition groups later claimed some 350 supporters had been detained.
The developments came after opposition leaders called for street blockades and other protest actions to be held on September 22 in an effort to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from power.
Protesters have vowed to continue their action until Pashinian is removed and have said they plan to disrupt a meeting of his cabinet expected later in the day.
Police, who have used stun grenades during clashes with demonstrators since protests began in Yerevan on September 20, had warned that they would implement "special measures" if the clashes continued.
Police reportedly detained one of the protest organizers, Andranik Tevanian, during the demonstrations on September 22. The former parliamentarian was released after being questioned by the Investigative Committee.
Tevanian said during demonstrations on September 21 that "with disciplined and united efforts" Pashinian's ouster as prime minister "will happen in a very short time, even within days."
A son of Armenia's former President Robert Kocharian, Levon Kocharian, was among the detained protesters. His lawyer said law enforcement officers "severely beat" his client during his apprehension.
Pashinian has come under criticism for the government's response to Azerbaijan's lightning offensive earlier this week against Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani territory that has a large ethnic Armenian population.
Azerbaijan has claimed that the offensive, which it describes as an "anti-terrorist operation," has brought the breakaway region back under its control.
Pashinian told his government on September 22 that Yerevan would accept an influx of ethnic Armenians if they chose to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, but that such a massive resettlement would only occur if it became impossible for them to remain there.
Demonstrators have decried what they call inadequate government support for the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, while opposition leaders have announced plans to initiate impeachment proceedings against Pashinian.
As anti-government demonstrators blocked roads and assembled in Yerevan's central Republic Square on the morning of September 22, Pashinian expressed hope that ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh can remain there.
WATCH: Thousands of ethnic Armenians gathered at Nagorno-Karabakh's only airport where Russian peacekeepers are based. They were seeking protection and possible transit to Armenia following two days of fighting.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has reportedly indicated it envisages an amnesty for Armenian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh who give up their arms amid a tentative cease-fire that stopped the fighting, which broke out when Azerbaijani forces launched a 24-hour military offensive on September 19-20.
"Even with regard to former militaries and combatants, if they can be classified in such a way, and even for them we are envisaging an amnesty or alluding to an amnesty as well," Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev president, told Reuters.
Hajiyev also said that ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have asked for humanitarian aid, which he said would begin to arrive on September 22. Media reports said at least four trucks with aid were seen headed toward Nagorno-Karabakh along the Agdam corridor that runs through Azerbaijan.
Hajiyev said that Baku seeks the peaceful reintegration of Karabakh Armenians.
The ethnic Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh said on September 22 that an agreement had also been reached for humanitarian aid to be trucked in from Armenia. The leadership said, however, that there had been no deal on security guarantees sought by Karabakh Armenians in exchange for giving up their weapons, or regarding a possible amnesty proposed by Baku.
On September 21, representatives of Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian leadership of the breakaway region failed to reach a breakthrough during closely watched "reintegration" talks in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax.
The two sides exchanged accusations and denials over reports of gunfire and apparent cease-fire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, Stepanakert, but more meetings are expected.
Separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement following the meeting that they were ready to continue talks with Azerbaijani authorities.
"The parties especially stressed the need to discuss all existing issues in a peaceful environment, noting the readiness to continue meetings," the statement said.
Pashinian said on September 22 that the situation remains tense in Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but which has enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in a war in the 1990s.
During a short but bloody war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory as well as seven surrounding districts that had been controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.
Some 120,000 ethnic Armenians live in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Pashinian on September 22 expressed optimism that they can get a real opportunity to return to their homes. At the same time, Pashinian noted a dire humanitarian crisis continues in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In a nationwide address on September 21, Aliyev declared victory in the offensive launched by his forces on September 19 after Baku accused "Armenian sabotage groups" for two separate deadly explosions in areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that are under the control of Russian peacekeepers.
The same day, UN Security Council members including the United States, Turkey, Russia and France called for peace, while Armenian and Azerbaijani officials traded barbs.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoian, who called for the emergency meeting, accused Baku of an “unprovoked and well-planned military attack” and said Azerbaijan was likely to use force against civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh again unless prevented by global powers.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov countered by accusing Yerevan of spreading misinformation, insisting that Baku had carried out an anti-terrorism operation against Armenian forces.
The offensive was halted on September 20 after Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership accepted a cease-fire proposal by the Russian peacekeeping mission, although sporadic fighting has been reported.
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanian has said that at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting.
RFE/RL could not independently confirm the casualty figures.
Azerbaijan's Prosecutor-General's Office on September 21 said six Russian peacekeepers had been killed during Baku's military offensive, five "by mistake" by Azerbaijani forces and one by Karabakh Armenian fighters.
With reporting by Reuters and TASS
CPJ Urges Probe Into Threats Against Two Prague-Based Russian Journalists
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the Czech Republic to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into recent threats received by journalists at the independent investigative news website IStories and ensure the journalists’ safety. Between March and September, IStories received four threatening messages on the outlet’s website. The messages mentioned the names, addresses, and travel plans of reporters Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina, according to IStories. Both Marokhovskaya and Dolinina live in Prague, where most of IStories’ editorial staff relocated following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent criminalization of “false information” about the Russian military.
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