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Trump Holds 'Wonderful' Meeting With Erdogan Amid Strained U.S.-Turkey Relations

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) greets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in Washington on November 13.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) greets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in Washington on November 13.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems creates "serious challenges" that he hopes can be resolved.

Trump made the comments on November 13 after holding what he called "wonderful and very productive" talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House, as relations between the two NATO allies are at one of their lowest points in decades.

Washington and Ankara hit a new crisis point last month over Syria, after Ankara launched a cross-border incursion to drive out a Kurdish militia, Washington's main partner in the fight against the Islamic State extremist group.

Trump had warned his Turkish counterpart in an undiplomatic letter to avoid too much bloodshed.

"Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!" Trump said in the letter, which Erdogan reportedly threw in the trash.

In July, Turkey received its first S-400 shipment, prompting the United States to kick Ankara off its F-35 fighter jet program.

Washington says the sophisticated weaponry is incompatible with NATO equipment.

Turkey is "a great NATO ally and a strategic partner of the United States," Trump told a joint press conference with Erdogan, adding, "I'm a big fan of the president."

Erdogan insisted dialogue was needed to resolve the S-400 issue and that Turkey was prepared to buy U.S. Patriot missiles "if offered with the desired conditions."

He said, "We can overcome the tests we are facing, particularly regarding the S-400 system and F-35, only through dialogue."

Erdogan also said that Turkey was "hurt deeply" by last month's nonbinding House resolution describing the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century as genocide.

He said the move, which was a clear rebuke to Ankara in the wake of its invasion of northern Syria, had the potential to cast a "deep shadow over our bilateral relations."

Before flying to Washington, Erdogan acknowledged that he was making the visit "at a period when Turkish-American relations are going through a painful process."

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

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U.S. Embassy Urges Russia To Free RFE/RL's Kurmasheva After 6 1/2-Year Sentence

Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan in May.
Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan in May.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has called for the release of Alsu Kurmasheva, a veteran RFE/RL journalist who holds dual U.S.-Russian citizenship, after she was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison by a Russian court on charges she, her employer, the U.S. government, and her supporters reject as politically motivated.

Responding a day after news of Kurmasheva's sentencing broke, the embassy said it was "a sad day for journalism in Russia."

"We once again call on the Russian authorities to release Alsu and other imprisoned journalists and prisoners of conscience," the embassy said in a post on social media on July 23.

"The suppression of dissenting voices harms all Russians. A free and independent press is at the heart of democracy, enabling voters to make informed decisions and holding public officials accountable," it added.

The court convicted Kurmasheva on a charge of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

RFE/RL President and CEO Stephen Capus called the trial and conviction -- first reported by AP -- "a mockery of justice," adding that "the only just outcome is for Alsu to be immediately released from prison by her Russian captors."

"It's beyond time for this American citizen, our dear colleague, to be reunited with her loving family," Capus said in a statement.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said late on July 23 that Kurmasheva's case was purely a criminal matter.

"Despite the fact that in the West this topic is presented as an alleged persecution of a journalist, I would like to note that in relation to Kurmasheva, such statements, to put it mildly, are not true," TASS quoted Zakharova as saying. "Her case is being considered exclusively as a criminal case."

Kurmasheva, a 47-year-old mother of two, was arrested in Kazan in October 2023 and first charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" under a punitive Russian law that targets journalists, civil society activists, and others. She was subsequently charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges are reprisals for her work as a journalist for the broadcaster in Prague.

"She’s a dedicated journalist who is being targeted by Russian authorities for her uncompromising commitment to speaking the truth and her principled reporting," U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on July 22 after the news of her conviction.

"Journalism is not a crime, as you have heard us say on a number of occasions, and we continue to make very clear that she should be released," he said.

The Kremlin has not commented on the conviction. In the past, it has said it is not closely following the case and that it wouldn't commen, as Russia's justice system must be allowed to work through the case.

The verdict came on July 19, the same day that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was found guilty of espionage charges -- which he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as politically motivated -- by a court in the city of Yekaterinberg.

A White House statement on July 19 said Gershkovich was targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American.

Unlike Gershkovich and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence also on espionage charges, Kurmasheva has not been designated by the U.S. government as "wrongfully detained."

Such a designation ensures that the case is assigned to the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs in the U.S. State Department, raising the political profile of the prisoner's situation and allowing the U.S. administration to allocate more resources to securing their release.

The U.S. National Press Club -- a professional association of American journalists -- and 18 other media freedom groups called on President Joe Biden in an open letter on May 31 to press for the recognition of Kurmasheva as a "wrongfully detained" person.

"She meets all the criteria. This should happen immediately. It should have happened months ago," the letter said.

"We have listened to the State Department twist itself into a pretzel explaining how there are other factors to be considered besides the criteria, but we have yet to hear a clear reason why [it] cannot declare her wrongfully detained," it added.

Miller did not address the issue of Kurmasheva's designation with reporters, saying only that the Biden administration remains focused on her case.

Russia has been accused of targeting Americans by detaining them on trumped-up charges to later use as bargaining chips in talks to bring back Russians convicted of crimes abroad.

Some analysts have said the move to expedite the cases of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich could be a sign that talks are heating up between Moscow and Washington on a possible prisoner exchange. There has been no word on such talks from either Washington or Moscow.

RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko
RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko

Kurmasheva is one of four RFE/RL journalists -- the other three are Andrey Kuznechyk, Ihar Losik, and Vladyslav Yesypenko -- currently imprisoned on charges related to their work. Rights groups and RFE/RL have called repeatedly for the release of all four, saying they have been wrongly detained.

Losik is a blogger and contributor for RFE/RL's Belarus Service who was convicted in December 2021 on several charges including the "organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order" and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Kuznechyk, a web editor for RFE/RL's Belarus Service, was sentenced in June 2022 to six years in prison following a trial that lasted no more than a few hours. He was convicted of "creating or participating in an extremist organization."

Yesypenko, a dual Ukrainian-Russian citizen who contributed to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, was sentenced in February 2022 to six years in prison by a Russian judge in occupied Crimea after a closed-door trial. He was convicted of "possession and transport of explosives," a charge he steadfastly denies.

Russia Using Disinformation To Undermine Moldova's Upcoming Elections, Officials Tell U.S. Panels

Moldova is preparing for a vote on October 20 that will include a referendum on membership in the European Union. (file photo)
Moldova is preparing for a vote on October 20 that will include a referendum on membership in the European Union. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- Russian disinformation threatens to interfere with Moldovan elections later this year just as the country begins to make significant progress on reforms under pro-Western President Maia Sandu, U.S. and Moldovan officials said at separate events in Washington on July 23.

Moldova is preparing for a vote on October 20 that will include a referendum on membership in the European Union.

Sandu, who defeated pro-Moscow socialist Igor Dodon in 2020 and has since said that Moldova’s future is in the EU, will seek reelection, a test for the country wedged between Ukraine and Romania.

The election will be "historic and pivotal" for the country of 2.5 million people where the transition to democracy and a market economy has been slower than in many post-Soviet states, Moldovan Ambassador Viorel Ursu said.

Ursu said Moldova, which is also contending with about 1,000 Russian troops in its breakaway Transdniester region and coping with an influx of about 1 million refugees from Ukraine, remains in a vulnerable position, as Russia uses it as "a testing ground" for disinformation, which he said "is everywhere" and getting more advanced.

He noted that Russian disinformation used to be in Russian but in the last six months has started to arrive in perfect Romanian, which is similar to the Moldovan language and is spoken by a majority of the population.

He also said he expects an increase in deep fakes in the week before the election, leaving no time to debunk them.

At a hearing later on July 23, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Smith told members of Congress that the election will be a "historic opportunity" for Moldovans but there will also be much at stake as the country faces Russian aggression, interference, and disinformation.

"We see very clear action by the Russians to undermine this upcoming election and referendum. They are engaging networks of interference financed by the Russian state...designed to deprive the Moldovan people of their right to choose their future," Smith told a subcommittee of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Subcommittee Chairman Thomas Kean (Republican-New Jersey) said Moldova had been on track to be a post-Soviet success story, but now faces the question of whether it will continue down a Western path or fall back into the Kremlin's sphere of influence.

Smith told Kean that Russia uses a variety of methods to spread disinformation, including campaigns funded by Russian oligarchs that pay people to protest. Russia has also tried to undermine turnout by spreading false information that Moldova will be dragged into the war in Ukraine, he said.

"The goals that we have seen them articulate make clear that they are doing this in order to get a pro-Kremlin candidate in office," Smith said.

Smith said the United States had assisted Moldova to bolster its security and territorial integrity, integrate its economy, and implement sanctions designed to counter Russia's malign influence.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States has backed Moldova's fight against corruption and its efforts to get closer to Europe with $824 million in aid, he said. That compares with the European Union’s 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) since 2021 for similar programs.

Alexander Sokolowski, deputy assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, told the committee that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had stepped up programming to support the diversification of Moldova’s energy sources and foster increased trade with the European governments.

Moldova now meets 100 percent of its natural gas needs with non-Russian supplies, but the supply of electricity continues to be a concern, as the country gets between 70 percent and 90 percent of its electricity from a plant in Transdniester, Sokolowski said.

The committee also heard a report on U.S.-Georgia bilateral relations from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Joshua Huck, who said the United States continues to support civil society in Georgia but has seen an anti-democracy shift with the recent adoption of a "foreign agents" law similar to one that Russia has used to suppress dissent.

Smith said by contrast Moldova is addressing human rights and practical issues that relate to the economy, adding that the United States sees "tremendous progress when it comes to their commitment."

Russian Internet Pioneer Handed 2-Year Prison Sentence

Aleksei Soldatov (left) in 2015
Aleksei Soldatov (left) in 2015

One of Russia's Internet pioneers has been sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of abuse of office that he has rejected. Aleksei Soldatov, who served as deputy minister of communications in 2008-10, was convicted on July 22 on charges related to a deal to transfer a pool of IP addresses to a foreign-based organization. Soldatov and his lawyers rejected the charges as unfounded. In 1990, Soldatov, a nuclear physicist by training, led the Relcom computer network that made the first Soviet connection to the global Internet. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soldatov helped establish other organizations that provided the technical backbone of the Russian Internet.

Belarusian Athlete Who Fled 2021 Olympics Disavows Former Team As She Prepares To Compete For Poland

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya poses for a picture with a red and white flag, which is a symbol of the opposition movement in Belarus, during a competition at a stadium in Szczec, Poland, in August 2021.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya poses for a picture with a red and white flag, which is a symbol of the opposition movement in Belarus, during a competition at a stadium in Szczec, Poland, in August 2021.

Former Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who escaped being forced to return to Minsk prematurely from the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 after she criticized her coaches, says she wants nothing to do with Belarusian athletes set to compete at the Paris Olympics.

"To represent today's Belarus at the Olympic Games in Paris means to represent today's Belarusian government," Tsimanouskaya told RFE/RL in an interview.

Tsimanouskaya, who is now a Polish citizen and will compete for her new country in Paris, said she will not approach Belarusian athletes in Paris because she does "not want to have anything to do either with the Belarusian government or the current national flag."

The International Olympic Committee is allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete only as neutrals at the Paris Olympics and as such they will not be allowed to display flags or emblems and their anthems will not be played. They also will be barred from taking part in the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony on July 26.

In addition, no teams from the two countries will be allowed, and no Russian or Belarusian government or state official has been invited or accredited. The number of Belarusian athletes at the games is expected to be very small.

Tsimanouskaya took refuge in August 2021 in the Polish Embassy in Tokyo after refusing to allow Belarusian team officials to force her onto a flight to Minsk after she voiced criticism of their coaching decisions.

She was granted a humanitarian visa by Poland and boarded a plane to Europe and reached Warsaw. She said at the time that she feared for her safety if she returned to Belarus.

She told RFE/RL that the current national flag of Belarus would not be the one that she would raise if she were competing at the Olympics for her native country.

"I would like to raise the national flag of Belarus," she said, referring to the historical white and red flag that has been used by opposition groups for decades.

The flag, whose origins are in the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic in 1918-1920, was reinstated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka replaced it one year after he came to power with a flag similar to the one used in Soviet times.

Tsimanouskaya said that after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she stopped any contacts with the majority of Belarusian athletes, as they supported the war.

"There are only two people among the Belarusian national team with whom I can keep communicating," Tsimanouskaya said.

The Crisis In Belarus

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

Tsimanouskaya also said that she is very grateful to Poland for everything the country has done for her and her family but emphasized that it's not easy for her to feel completely at home in Polish society due to peculiarities of culture and language.

Tsimanouskaya's plight at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 drew international attention to repression in Belarus a year after massive protests erupted when Lukashenka claimed victory in the presidential election in August 2020. The Belarusian opposition and many Western government say the election was rigged.

Lukashenka has moved to align Belarus closely with neighboring Russia, including allowing the Kremlin to stage military operations from Belarusian territory since the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In addition to Tsimanouskaya, other Belarusian athletes and coaches have left the country.

In August 2021, a coach of the Vitsyaz handball club in Minsk, Kanstantsin Yakauleu, fled to Ukraine weeks after he served 15 days in jail for taking part in an anti-government rally.

Belarusian heptathlete Yana Maksimava and her husband, Andrey Krauchanka, who won an Olympic medal in 2008 in Beijing, also announced in 2021 that they had decided to stay in Germany with their child due to the ongoing crackdown in Belarus.

Bulgarian President Admits Blocking Pro-Western Envoy To Kyiv

President Rumen Radev had quietly opposed the appointment of Nikolay Nenev as ambassador to Kyiv dating back to at least April, the president said. (file photo)
President Rumen Radev had quietly opposed the appointment of Nikolay Nenev as ambassador to Kyiv dating back to at least April, the president said. (file photo)

SOFIA -- Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has acknowledged blocking the appointment of a pro-Western former defense minister as Sofia’s ambassador to Kyiv, underscoring a long-running division between the head of state and successive governments over support for Ukraine in its battle against invading Russian forces.

Radev's July 23 statement followed reports that the caretaker government of Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev used a workaround that doesn't require the president's signature to plug a diplomatic gap that had existed since the early months of the 29-month-old full-scale war in Ukraine.

Radev, a 61-year-old retired general and two-term president whose critics accuse him of holding pro-Kremlin positions, alleged that the government circumvented the constitution to appoint Nikolay Nenchev as the envoy to Kyiv.

Glavchev, who was appointed prime minister on a caretaker basis by Radev in April and also serves as foreign minister, responded that Nenchev's appointment as temporary ambassador was conducted in accordance with Bulgarian law.

Radev said the previous prime minister, Nikolay Denkov, had been "insistent" on Nenchev's appointment to the Kyiv post in their final regular cabinet meeting in April.

"I firmly refused because the candidate does not have the required professional qualities or expertise for this important post," Radev said.

Radev has clashed with multiple Bulgarian governments amid two years of inconclusive elections in the EU and NATO member state over Sofia's provision of military aid to Kyiv. He has referred to supporters of such aid as "warmongers."

Nenchev, who was defense minister in 2014-17, is a generally pro-Western figure who has publicly argued in favor of military aid for Ukraine.

RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service requested comment from the Foreign Ministry and from the cabinet, but those requests went unmet by the publication of this article.

Nenchev did not return RFE/RL's phone calls.

Sofia temporarily closed its embassy in Kyiv as a precaution after Russian troops invaded in February 2022, and former Bulgarian Ambassador Kostadin Kodzhabashev's mandate expired before the mission was reopened in September 2022.

The Bulgarian ambassadorial post has remained vacant ever since.

A former Bulgarian foreign minister who heads a think tank in Sofia that advocates for transatlantic defense and security ties, Solomon Passy, sparked the public spat when he disclosed the Nenchev appointment on July 22.

Vice President Iliana Iotova, a Radev ally, said Passy's revelation had "presented us all with a fait accompli, because I understand that this appointment must become a reality within days." She said it risked "lowering" Sofia's representation in Kyiv.

Tensions between Radev and Nenchev reportedly date back to Radev's days as the commander of the air force, with Nenchev serving as defense minister.

Radev boycotted this month's NATO summit in Washington, reportedly over his exclusion from talks on a final communique laying out alliance members' positions on the war in Ukraine.

Russia Adds 15 More British Citizens To Its Sanctions List

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on July 23 it had added to its sanctions list another 15 British nationals, including what it called representatives of defense-industry entities, military analysts, and publicists who push "anti-Russian" narratives in the media. According to the ministry, the list also includes people "involved in training Ukrainian military personnel," and those who provide Kyiv with weapons. Among others, the list includes Robert Paxman, the CEO of Paradigm Security Solutions Limited; Angus Cockburn, a member of the board of BAE Systems PLC; and Thomas Sharpe, an analyst at The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Ukrainian Lawmakers Approve Presidential Decrees Extending Martial Law

A Ukrainian lawmaker casts a vote during a session of parliament in Kyiv. (file photo)
A Ukrainian lawmaker casts a vote during a session of parliament in Kyiv. (file photo)

Ukrainian lawmakers on July 23 approved bills to support decrees issued by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to extend martial law and a general military mobilization for 90 days starting on August 12. Lawmakers Yaroslav Zheleznyak and Oleksiy Honcharenko said on Telegram that 339 lawmakers voted to extend martial law, while 338 supported the extension of mobilization. Zelenskiy is expected now to endorse the bills into law. Martial law and the general mobilization were last extended in May, the 11th extension since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Lawmakers Approve Bills On Labeling Any Foreign Organization 'Undesirable'

Deputies attend a plenary session of Russia's State Duma in Moscow. (file photo)
Deputies attend a plenary session of Russia's State Duma in Moscow. (file photo)

The Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, on July 23 approved in the second and third readings bills that would allow any foreign entities, including those established by state organs of third countries, to be declared "undesirable." The bills will not affect international intergovernmental organizations of which Russia is a member, or organizations incorporated into the government structures of foreign countries. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia violated the European Convention on Human Rights when it labeled several foreign organizations operating in Russia, including RFE/RL, as "undesirable." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russia Accuses Detained Russian-German Lawyer Of Treason

Moscow's Lefortovo prison (file photo)
Moscow's Lefortovo prison (file photo)

Russia has accused a dual Russian-German national and lawyer, German Moyzhes, of treason, the TASS news agency reported, citing law enforcement agencies. TASS said that Moyzhes had helped Russians obtain European residency permits. He is being held in pretrial detention in Moscow's Lefortovo prison after being transferred from a detention center in St. Petersburg, the agency said. TASS did not say when his trial would begin and Reuters could not immediately contact his lawyer. Moyzhes joins a growing list of foreign nationals and dual citizens detained in Russia who have found themselves caught up in a crisis in relations between Moscow and the West during the Ukraine conflict.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Arrives In North Korea Amid Warming Ties

Belarusian Foreign Minister Maksim Ryzhankou (file photo)
Belarusian Foreign Minister Maksim Ryzhankou (file photo)

Belarusian Foreign Minister Maksim Ryzhankou arrived in North Korea on July 23 following a visit to Beijing earlier this week, according to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. Ryzhankou will spend two days in Pyongyang in what a press release called a "reciprocal visit," although no announcement was made about a previous North Korean visit to Minsk. Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Yauhen Shastakou visited in April, which then-Foreign Minister Syarhey Aleynik said had "a bilateral agenda with an emphasis on humanitarian cooperation." According to the North Korean news agency KCNA, Shastakov emphasized "traditional relations of friendship and cooperation" with Pyongyang. To read the original story on RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, click here.

Russian's Conviction Of Distribution Of False Information About Military Cancelled

Sergei Vedel appears in court in Moscow in April 2023.
Sergei Vedel appears in court in Moscow in April 2023.

The Moscow City Court has annulled the conviction and sentence of former police officer Sergei Vedel (aka Klokov) who was handed seven years in prison in April 2023 on a charge of distributing "fake information" about Russia's armed forces involved in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The court's collegiate on appeals ruled on July 23 that Vedel's case must be sent back for retrial and ordered him to remain in custody at least until September before his case is retried.

Vedel was the first Russian citizen to face the charge in 2022 right after Russia adopted a law criminalizing any expression of opinion about the war in Ukraine that differs from official statements by Moscow. The law has been used to stifle even minor expressions of dissent.

Vedel's defense team has insisted the charge is illegal as it came about from recordings of private telephone conversations he had with friends, relatives in Ukraine, and colleagues, and therefore cannot be defined as distributing information.

Investigators say that the Ukrainian-born Vedel in three private telephone conversations said that Russian military losses in Ukraine were much higher than official statistics showed. He also said that Russia's military was killing civilians and that Ukraine's government was not led by Nazis, as Russian officials and propaganda have said in justifying the war.

Vedel, who was born and raised in the town of Irpin near Kyiv, was arrested on March 18, 2022, after his telephone conversation with a Ukrainian police officer in Kyiv, who is his 67-year-old father's friend, was intercepted.

During the conversation, Vedel asked the police officer in Kyiv to get information about his friends and their families residing in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv.

Vedel admitted to making the statements and offered apologies to the court.

Russian troops were forced to leave Irpin and Bucha in late March 2022 after they failed to capture the Ukrainian capital, leaving behind the bodies of hundreds of dead civilians in the streets.

Kyiv, rights groups, and the United Nations have described the Russian military's actions in Bucha, Irpin, and some other towns as war crimes.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in its attacks on Ukrainian targets, and has repeatedly denied its forces have committed any war crimes even with mounting evidence that it has targeted hospitals, residential areas, cultural centers, and other nonmilitary installations.

With reporting by Setevyye svobody

Kazakh President Refuses To Pardon Jailed Former PM Masimov

Karim Masimov was a close ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev. (file photo)
Karim Masimov was a close ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev. (file photo)

ASTANA -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has agreed with the presidential commission on clemencies to reject a pardon request filed by Karim Masimov, a once-powerful politician who was prime minister twice and is now serving 18 years in prison on charges of high treason and attempting to seize power during unrest in 2022.

The Informburo.kz website said on July 23 that it received a statement from the presidential administration saying that Toqaev's final decision had been delivered to Masimov.

Masimov officially asked Toqaev for clemency in March.

Last month, the presidential commission on clemencies said that it had decided to reject Masimov's request and recommended Toqaev not pardon him.

Officials said at the time that despite the appeal, Masimov still faced charges of bribe taking and money laundering, which were then under investigation.

Masimov, a close ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was jailed in April 2023 over his role in the deadly events that followed unprecedented anti-government protests in the former Soviet republic in January 2022.

The unrest began in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen over a sudden fuel price hike. But the demonstrations, buffeted by anger over corruption, political stagnation, and widespread injustice, quickly grew.

Much of the protesters' ire appeared directed at Nazarbaev, who ruled Kazakhstan from 1989 until March 2019, when he handed over power to Toqaev.

However, Nazarbaev was widely believed to remain in control behind the scenes.

The protests were violently dispersed by police and military personnel, including troops of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization whom Toqaev invited into the country, claiming that "20,000 extremists who were trained in terrorist camps abroad" had attacked Almaty.

The authorities have provided no evidence backing Toqaev's claim about foreign terrorists.

Masimov was the head of Kazakhstan's Committee for National Security when the protests took place.

With reporting by Inforburo.kz

Russian Journalist Zygar Sentenced To 8 1/2 Years In Absentia

Mikhail Zygar speaks at the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Awards at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 2014.
Mikhail Zygar speaks at the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Awards at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 2014.

A Moscow court on July 23 sentenced writer and former chief editor of TV Dozhd, Mikhail Zygar, on a charge of distributing false information about Russia's military. The charge stemmed from Zygar's online posts about alleged atrocities committed by Russian armed forces against Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha near Kyiv in 2022. Zygar, who left Russia in 2022, has condemned the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine in his video blogs. Zygar's books -- All The Kremlin's Men, All Are Free, and The Empire Must Die -- became bestsellers in Russia and were translated into English. To read original story by Current Time, click here.

New Trials, Sentences In Belarus Amid Ongoing Crackdown On Dissent

The Kastrychnik district court in Hrodna
The Kastrychnik district court in Hrodna

Belarusian activist Lizaveta Makrydzina has gone on trial over her participation in 2020 mass rallies challenging the results of a presidential election that announced the country's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the winner in the face of opposition claims the voting was rigged.

The Kastrychnik district court in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna started the trial of the 25-year-old IT specialist on July 23.

Makrydzina was arrested after she came to Belarus for a visit from Poland, where she settled several years earlier. She was charged with taking part in unsanctioned rallies. If found guilty, she faces up to three years in prison.

Separately on July 23, the Vitsebsk regional court in the country's northeast started the trial in absentia of businessman Uladzimer Zakharau, the Vyasna human rights center said.

Zakharau was charged with discrediting Belarus and the evasion of taxes and insurance fees.

His supporters and human rights groups say the charges are politically motivated.

The MAYDAY website said on July 23 that a court in the eastern city of Mahilyou sentenced political prisoner Paval Belaholau to three years and four months last month for "slandering" Lukashenka.

According to MAYDAY, Judge Tatsyana Rakhmanenka sentenced the 35-year-old activist on June 20 after finding him guilty of posting a "false" comment on YouTube about Lukashenka, who has run the country with an iron fist for 30 years.

Belaholau was previously handed a 30-month prison term in 2022 on a charge of insulting an official and inciting social hatred online during the unprecedented anti-Lukashenka rallies in 2020. Human rights groups recognized Belaholau as a political prisoner at the time.

Lukashenka, 69, has been in power since 1994. He has tightened his grip on the country since the August 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- more than 35,000 people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have fled 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 sanctions against Lukashenka's regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

Moscow Court Fines In Absentia Chief Of International Anti-Corruption Foundation

Maria Pevchikh (file photo)
Maria Pevchikh (file photo)

A Moscow court on July 23 ordered the self-exiled chief of the International Anti-Corruption Foundation, Maria Pevchikh, to pay a 30,000-ruble ($340) fine for failing to fulfill the duties of a "foreign agent." Pevchikh was added to the "foreign agent" registry in May. Repeated violation of the "foreign agent" law may lead to a criminal charge. In January, a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for Pevchikh on charges of distributing false information about Russia's military, organizing an extremist group, and vandalism. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

EU Green-Lights Talks With Armenia On Visa-Free Travel, Offers Military Aid

People line up at check-in desks at the airport in Zvartnots, west of Yerevan, in April.
People line up at check-in desks at the airport in Zvartnots, west of Yerevan, in April.

The European Union has approved opening talks with Armenia on visa liberalization and has offered 10 million euros ($10.9 million) in military aid to the Caucasus country, the bloc's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has announced.

"These two decisions were long awaited by Armenia," Borrell said in remarks to a meeting of the EU foreign ministers on July 22.

A traditional ally and partner of Russia, Armenia recently has turned toward improving its ties with the West and putting on ice its relations with Moscow, which Yerevan has blamed for failing to support it in its conflict with longtime archfoe Azerbaijan.

The EU announcement was hailed by Yerevan, with Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan calling it "a very important milestone in the deepening partnership between Armenia and the EU, based on shared values and principles."

The decision to open visa liberalization talks with Yerevan was initially made by the European Council on July 17 when the 27 EU ambassadors approved the proposal, with the council saying Armenia would have to meet commonly agreed benchmarks.

Once negotiations -- a process that could take several years -- are concluded, Armenians would be able to travel visa-free to EU countries and the Schengen Zone -- where border controls have been generally abolished -- for a period of 90 days within any 180-day period.

Several other former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Armenia's fellow Caucasus neighbor Georgia have been granted visa-free travel to the bloc.

The second decision regarding military aid was adopted under the European Peace Facility.

"The aim of this assistance measure is to enhance the logistical capacities of the Armenian Armed Forces, and to contribute to improved protection of civilians in crises and emergencies," the council said in a separate statement.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry, however, protested the EU decision.

"We strongly object to this decision by the Council of the European Union and expect transparent information about the aid to be provided," Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizadeh told the media.

"[This decision] is a very wrong and dangerous step and serves to increase tension in the region," said Hajizadeh.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought several wars in the past three decades over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been a majority ethnic-Armenian enclave since the Soviet collapse and is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory.

After Baku took full control over the region as the result of a one-day military operation in September 2023, nearly 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

8 People In Russia's Kabardino-Balkaria Fined For 'Disrespecting' National Anthem

An arch with the inscription "Forever With Russia" in Kabardino-Balkaria's capital, Nalchik
An arch with the inscription "Forever With Russia" in Kabardino-Balkaria's capital, Nalchik

Officials in Russia's North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria said on July 22 that eight local residents have each been ordered to pay a 3,000 ruble ($34) fine for "violating regulations on the use of Russia's national anthem." The case was launched after a video circulated on the Internet earlier this month showing a graduation ceremony at a local secondary school, at which several students and their parents remained seated when Russia's national anthem was played. Some of the participants covered their ears with their hands. Russian lawmaker Andrei Kartapolov requested a probe into "the open disrespect of Russia's national anthem." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Woman Dies From Injuries After Explosion Levels Russian Shopping Center

Emergency personnel work at the scene of the destroyed shopping center in Apsheronsk on July 22.
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the destroyed shopping center in Apsheronsk on July 22.

Emergency officials in Russia's southwestern Krasnodar region said on July 23 that a woman who was injured in a suspected gas explosion that completely leveled a shopping center in the city of Apsheronsk a day earlier had died in the hospital. Two other people remain in the hospital, while rescue workers continue to search for survivors or bodies under the debris. The regional prosecutor's office has said the building was destroyed by a gas explosion. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Former Azerbaijani Diplomat Detained On Stabbing Charge

Former Azerbaijani diplomat Emin Ibrahimov said police used an electric-shock device to force him to reveal the PIN for his mobile phone. (file photo)
Former Azerbaijani diplomat Emin Ibrahimov said police used an electric-shock device to force him to reveal the PIN for his mobile phone. (file photo)

BAKU -- Relatives and a lawyer of former Azerbaijani diplomat Emin Ibrahimov said on July 23 that police had detained the government critic a day earlier for allegedly stabbing a person, a charge Ibrahimov rejects as totally fabricated.

Ibrahimov's lawyer Aqil Layic said his client told him an unknown person had attacked him near a metro station in Baku late on July 22. Immediately after, several men in plainclothes appeared at the site and took him to the Nizami district police department.

"The detention of a diplomat looks like a new tendency. Emin Ibrahimov said that he is the victim of a provocation. He rejects the charge as he insists he did not commit the crime he is charged with," Layic said, adding a court must decide on his client's pretrial restrictions within 48 hours of his detention.

Layic said Ibrahimov told him police used an electric-shock device to force him to reveal the PIN for his mobile phone.

The Interior Ministry confirmed Ibrahimov's detention, saying he was held after he stabbed a person born in 1987, whose identity was not disclosed, during a brawl. According to the ministry, the stabbed man was hospitalized.

If convicted, Ibrahimov faces up to eight years in prison.

The 43-year-old Ibrahimov used to work at the Azerbaijani Embassy in the United States and held other diplomatic posts as well.

In recent years, he criticized the government for Baku's worsening relations with the West, among other things.

In September, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail on a charge of "spreading harmful information" after an online post criticizing Russia and calling for peaceful solution of Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

With reporting by Turan and Kavkazsky uzel
Updated

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Visits Beijing For First Time Since Start Of War

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has arrived in Beijing for the first time since Russia's full-scale invasion for talks geared toward finding a possible Chinese role in ending the war.

The three-day visit began on July 23, with Ukraine's top diplomat traveling at the invitation of Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart.

Upon arriving in Beijing, Kuleba said in an Instagram post that he would use his trip to develop contacts between Chinese and Ukrainian leaders and that he would be having "extensive, detailed, [and] substantive negotiations" with Wang over how to reach a peace settlement for the grinding war that is now in its third year.

"We must avoid competing peace plans. It is very important that Kyiv and Beijing conduct a direct dialogue and exchange positions," Kuleba said.

The trip is Kuleba's first visit to China since Russia's war in Ukraine began in February 2022 and is seen as unexpected by many observers given Beijing's close relationship with Moscow and diplomatic maneuvering that has often seen Chinese diplomats keep their distance from high-level Ukrainian officials.

The meeting also comes as various peace initiatives have emerged in recent months against the backdrop of prolonged fighting and uncertainty ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November that could see the return of former President Donald Trump, who has threatened to limit aid flows to Ukraine and push for talks between Kyiv and Moscow that could quickly end the war.

In June, Kyiv held an international summit without Russian representation in Switzerland to promote its vision of peace. The gathering hosted delegations from 100 countries, and Ukraine has since said that it hopes to be ready to hold another one in November that would feature envoys from Moscow.

China, which did not attend the Swiss summit, published a separate six-point peace plan with Brazil in the weeks leading up to the gathering where they called for a separate international peace conference to be held that would have both representation from Kyiv and Moscow.

This alternative diplomatic track led to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy offering his most vocal criticism yet of Beijing since the war began, where he said that China's efforts were undermining the Swiss peace talks by pushing some countries to not attend and others to not sign the final communique.

"China, unfortunately...is working hard today for countries not to come to the peace summit," Zelenskiy said in Singapore on June 2.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Despite expressing neutrality toward the war in Ukraine, China has emerged as the Kremlin's leading international supporter by supplying Russia with key components that Moscow needs for its production of weapons and as a vital consumer for oil and gas that has helped boost the Russian economy.

Western governments have also accused China of providing crucial support to Russia during the war, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg saying Beijing's assistance to Moscow has made it a "decisive enabler" of the war.

"Allies have stated clearly that China cannot enable the largest conflict in Europe in recent history without this negatively impacting their interests and reputation," Stoltenberg said on July 11 at the NATO summit in Washington.

China, meanwhile, says its ties with Russia are built on the basis of non-alliance and do not target any third party.

Kuleba's trip is also on Moscow's radar, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov acknowledging the news on July 22.

"For us, our relations with China are the main thing," he said in comments to reporters. "We intend to continue following the path of developing Russian-Chinese relations in all areas."

In February 2023, Beijing released a 12-point paper calling for a "political settlement" to the war.

The document was dismissed at the time by Western countries and Kyiv, who warned that the Chinese proposal would enable Russia to retain much of the territory it had seized in Ukraine.

In the years leading up to Moscow's full-scale invasion, Kyiv tried to build strong economic ties with Beijing as it reoriented its economy away from Russia, and found itself frustrated with some Western policy moves.

Despite Beijing's deepening ties with Moscow since the outbreak of the war, Kyiv has been hesitant to criticize China, with Zelenskiy often encouraging the country to play a role in reaching a peace settlement.

1 Dead After Ferry Attacked In Russian Port, Regional Official Says

Ferry in the port of Kavkaz (file photo)
Ferry in the port of Kavkaz (file photo)

A drone attack on a ferry in southern Russia has killed at least one person and injured several others, a regional official reported, while traffic on a bridge over the Kerch Strait has been temporarily halted and the Crimean port of Sevastopol was also targeted, according to reports by local officials.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The governor of Russia's southern Krasnodar region, Venyamin Kondratyev, said on Telegram that Ukrainian drones early on July 23 attacked a passenger ferry and set it on fire in the port of Kavkaz, close to the Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov and separates Ukraine's Moscow-occupied Crimea region from Russia.

"Unfortunately, one person was killed and there are casualties among the crew members and port employees," Kondratyev wrote.

Ukraine, whose energy and civilian infrastructure has been devastated by continuous Russian drone and missile strikes that have caused numerous victims and serious damage, has in recent months started to increasingly target Russian industrial objectives and transport infrastructure.

In Crimea, Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Kremlin-installed governor of Sevastopol, separately said the city was attacked by 15 drones and traffic was halted on the Kerch bridge built by Moscow after it occupied the Ukrainian region.

Ukraine has not commented and the Russian claims could not be independently confirmed immediately.

In Moscow, Russia's Defense Ministry said its air-defense systems shot down 25 Ukrainian drones over several of its regions early on July 23.

It said two drones were downed over the Bryansk region and two over the Belgorod region, while 21 drones were destroyed over Crimea and off the Black Sea coast.

Meanwhile, Ukraine said Russia overnight struck a critical infrastructure facility in the northeastern Sumy region, without giving details. No casualties were reported.

Ukraine's Air Force said in a message on Facebook that its air-defense systems shot down seven out of eight Russian drones that attacked Sumy and also neutralized a Kh-69 guided cruise missile.

"As a result of active countermeasures, the enemy's Kh-69 guided air missile did not reach its target," Air Force commander Mykola Oleschuk said.

In Snub To Hungary, EU To Hold Meeting In Brussels, Borrell Says

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says the bloc will hold a strategic meeting next month in Brussels instead of Budapest, the capital of the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, Hungary. The bloc's move came in response to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s trips to Russia and China this month, which he said were part of a "peace mission" aimed at ending the war in Ukraine. Orban's move caused outrage among Ukraine's allies, who saw it as undermining their support for Kyiv. "EU member states overwhelmingly criticized Hungary’s lack of sincere and loyal cooperation," Borrell wrote on X. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Ukraine Strikes Preliminary Deal To Restructure $20 Billion Debt 

The new agreement "allows us to free up resources for our defense, social spending, and reconstruction," Ukrainian Prime Minster Denys Shmyhal said on X.
The new agreement "allows us to free up resources for our defense, social spending, and reconstruction," Ukrainian Prime Minster Denys Shmyhal said on X.

Kyiv said it reached an agreement in principle with international creditors to restructure government debt worth more than $20 billion, according to a July 22 filing with the London Stock Exchange. Shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, the government struck a deal with holders of its international bonds to freeze repayments. However, that deal expires on August 1. The new agreement "allows us to free up resources for our defense, social spending, and reconstruction," Ukrainian Prime Minster Denys Shmyhal said on X. The new deal will see creditors, including BlackRock, Pimco, and other major institutional investors, write billions off the nominal value of their holdings and agree to a new payment schedule. The group rejected a June offer by Ukraine that called for even steeper write-downs.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards Intercept U.A.E.-Managed Tanker

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps intercepted a U.A.E.-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. (file photo)
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps intercepted a U.A.E.-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. (file photo)

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have intercepted a Togo-flagged, U.A.E.-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. The vessel was intercepted 113 kilometers southwest of Iran's port of Bushehr en route to the U.A.E. from Iraq, Ambrey said. The owner lost contact with the tanker as it was arrested, but Ambrey said the incident was likely a counter-smuggling operation by the IRGC. Iran has some of the world's cheapest fuel prices due to heavy subsidies and the plunge in the value of its currency, making smuggling for resale on world markets very profitable.

Kazakh Court Commences Trial in High-Profile Prison Torture Case

Kazakh activist Timur Danebaev (file photo)
Kazakh activist Timur Danebaev (file photo)

A dozen former Kazakh prison guards accused of torturing a noted anti-war activist Timur Danebaev and 40 other inmates went on trial on July 22. The probe was launched after a video showing guards severely beating the 39-year-old activist and other inmates circulated online in September 2023. Danebaev was arrested in December 2022 over his online posts condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine and criticizing Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev for inviting the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization’s troops to disperse antigovernment protests in January that year. In June 2023, he was convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

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