As New Session Opens, Obama Faces Combative Congress
Legislators taking their seats today in a politically divided Congress include more than 60 newly elected Republicans in the House of Representatives, which has shifted from Democratic to Republican control after November's midterm elections, by a margin of 242-193. In the Senate, Democrats lost six seats but still hold a narrow majority of 53 to 47.
With Republicans now in control of the House for the next two years, members of Obama’s Democratic Party will face opposition to future initiatives as well as attempts to undo legislation that has already passed, most notably the landmark health-care reform bill.
Republicans have announced that their top priority is to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year in a drive to shrink the nearly $14 trillion federal deficit. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina says his party is gearing up for a "showdown” over spending with Obama.
Speaking on January 2 on NBC News’ “Meet The Press,” DeMint's fellow Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of North Carolina said the election results proved that Americans want to see strong action against the ballooning national debt.
“The mandate of the last election was pretty clear to me – that the Democratic policies from 2008-10 were rejected by the American people because they created too much debt and they grew the government too much,” Graham said.
Effort To Repeal 'Obamacare'
The shift of power in the House will not begin quietly. On January 6, Republican leaders plan to read the U.S. Constitution aloud on the House floor, in a bow to the new legislators in the Tea Party movement – a wing of the Republican Party with sharply conservative fiscal beliefs that adheres to a strict interpretation of America's founding charter.
Republicans' opening salvo against the White House will be a vote in the House to repeal what they derisively call “Obamacare” -- the historic reform bill Obama signed into law last spring that extends health insurance to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.
Dozens of congressional candidates campaigned successfully on pledges to repeal the law, which was held up as a disastrous example of big government and overspending.
But the vote to repeal will only be symbolic, observers say, since it would not pass the Democratic-majority Senate and even if it did, Obama would veto the move.
That's why some Republicans say they will attack the bill’s funding sources. The new chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee -- Fred Upton of Michigan -- says he and his colleagues will “go after the bill piece by piece” in an attempt to dismantle it completely.
New House Republican Allan West of Florida, who campaigned as a member of the Tea Party, used fiery rhetoric in his campaign speeches to describe the health-care bill and vowed that, if elected, he would ensure that the “liberal, progressive, socialist agenda -- this left wing, vile, vicious, despicable machine that’s out there -- is soundly brought to its knees.”
He defended that view this past weekend, telling Fox News that government-sponsored health insurance and long-term jobless benefits for the unemployed “creates victims” and “makes people overly dependent on government.”
“When you look at the incredible debt and the deficit that has occurred over the last two fiscal years, we’re going in the wrong direction," West said. "And I think that this liberal, progressive agenda is not the thing that the American people want and is the antithesis to who we are as a constitutional republic.”
But Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi, who gave her final press conference as speaker of the house on January 4, vowed that she and her colleagues will fight to protect the Democrats' accomplishments of the last two years.
“House Democrats will continue to protect the gains we have made on behalf of economic security for the American people, both in terms of the health-care reform bill and the Wall Street reform bill -- both of which give leverage to America’s working families,” she said.
'Build On Progress'
The man at the center of the political storm returned on January 3 from a 10-day holiday in Hawaii with his family and told reporters aboard Air Force One that the lashing partisan rhetoric wasn’t surprising and that he expects Republicans will “play to their [voting] base for a certain period of time.”
But Obama also said he expects to find cooperation among Republicans when it comes to issues of job creation and economic growth.
“My expectation, my hope, is that [House Majority Leader] John Boehner and [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell will realize that there will be plenty of time to campaign for 2012 in 2012, and that our job this year is to make sure that we build on the recovery," Obama said. "We started to make good progress on that during the lame duck, and I expect to build on that progress when I get back.”
The president can also expect to need a few good lawyers. Several incoming Republican House committee heads have announced plans to launch investigations into Obama administration decisions on everything from food safety recalls to Wall Street financial regulations.
Leading the scrutiny will be Representative Darrell Issa of California, the new chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. With the power to summon administration officials to testify, Issa has announced plans to launch six major investigations over the next three months.
They include the release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks; the role of government mortgage companies in the home foreclosure crisis; a government commission’s failure to identify the origins of the meltdown; and alleged corruption in Afghanistan.
Issa made headlines last year when he called Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” Speaking January 2 on CNN, he cast himself as a crusader for clean government.
"As Republicans, our goal is to repeal what was done on a partisan basis, come back and do, on a bipartisan basis, real reform," Issa said. "And my committee, which has the dominant amount of oversight historically, needs to make the case for where that waste, fraud, and abuse is, where government is part of the problem [and] where government can be part of the solution.”
The incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Representative Peter King of New York, has announced he will launch hearings into what he calls the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” King has alleged that some members of the U.S. Muslim community have not cooperated fully with law-enforcement authorities during terrorism investigations.
The plan prompted "The New York Times” to publish an editorial on January 2 that called King’s “sweeping slur on Muslim citizens…unacceptable” and urged him to abandon the planned hearings.
King responded by calling for the newspaper to be “indicted under the Espionage Act.”
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Ukraine Withdraws From Lysychansk While Zelenskiy Vows To Regain Lost Territory
Ukraine's forces have withdrawn from the bombed-out city of Lysychansk, prompting Russia to claim full control of the eastern Luhansk region. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed to regain the lost territory.
"If the commanders of our army withdraw people from certain points at the front, where the enemy has the greatest advantage in fire power, and this also applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing -- that we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons,” he said in his nightly video address on July 3.
After failing to take the capital, Kyiv, Russia revised its military focus on Ukraine's east with the goal of capturing the Donbas, which is composed of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
On July 3, Russian forces stepped up their onslaught on the Donetsk region, shelling the key city of Slovyansk where local officials said at least six people had been killed, including a child.
Earlier, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that the Russian military had taken the entire territory of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to TASS.
Ukraine’s military command acknowledged on July 3 that its forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk, saying they had decided to pull back to save the lives of Ukrainian soldiers.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, and dpa
Lugano Conference To Discuss Ukraine Reconstruction Process
Leaders from dozens of countries and international organizations will meet on July 4 in the Swiss town of Lugano, where they aim to hash out a roadmap for Ukraine's reconstruction as Russia's war efforts continue to rage.
Those traveling to Lugano for the two-day Ukraine Recovery Conference are expected to include Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who will take part virtually, warned that the work ahead in the areas that have been liberated alone was "really colossal.”
"It is necessary not only to repair everything the occupiers have destroyed but also to create a new foundation for our lives: safe, modern, comfortable, accessible," he said in a speech late on July 3.
"No matter how difficult it is for us today, we must remember that there will be a tomorrow," Zelenskiy said.
"Ukraine is a huge country, a lot has been destroyed...You cannot start planning and coordinating reconstruction soon enough," Markus Berndt, head of the European Investment Bank's department of external activity, told dpa.
Ukraine urgently needs help to secure basic services now such as clean water supply, sewage, waste disposal, energy, and Internet access to ensure macroeconomic stability, Berndt said.
Simon Pidoux, the Swiss ambassador in charge of the conference, said that it was too early to try to estimate all the needs, insisting Lugano instead should provide "a compass" for the work ahead.
"I think the effort will last for years if not decades," he said.
Hundred of billions of euros will be required to fund the rebuilding of Ukraine's shattered infrastructure.
The conference had been planned well before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24 and had originally been slated to discuss reforms in Ukraine before being repurposed for war reconstruction.
The conference is expected to conclude with a joint statement titled the Lugano Declaration.
Based on reporting by AFP, dpa, and Reuters
Danish Police Says Gunman Killed Three In Shopping Mall, Likely Not Terror-Related
Danish police say that the gunman who opened fire in a shopping mall in Copenhagen most likely acted alone and selected his victims at random.
Copenhagen chief police inspector Soren Thomassen said on July 4 investigators do not believe the previous day's attack was terror-related.
Thomassen said three people were killed -- two Danes and one Russian citizen -- and two Danes and two Swedes were hospitalized with serious injuries.
A 22-year-old Danish man was arrested after the shooting on July 3 that caused panic at a mall in South Copenhagen. The suspect will face questioning by a judge on July 4.
Danish police said on July 4 that the suspect was known to mental-health services.
"Our suspect is also known among psychiatric services. Beyond that I do not wish to comment," Thomassen told a press conference.
Based on reporting by Reuters, AP and AFP
Georgians Take To Streets Of Tbilisi In Pro-EU, Anti-Government Rally
TBILISI -- Tens of thousands of Georgians rallied on the streets of Tbilisi, angered by what the opposition sees as the government’s failure to make progress on reforms that can boost the Caucasus country’s hopes of joining the European Union.
Participants of the July 3 event, organized by the Shame civic movement and other pro-democracy groups, also displayed support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, which occupies segments of Georgian territory captured in a short 2008 war.
Protesters holding flares and waving Georgian and EU flags and banners blocked traffic on the central Rustaveli Avenue and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and for a new government of “national accord” to be formed.
Georgia has been gripped by protests after EU leaders last month deferred Tbilisi's membership candidacy, recognizing it as a “perspective member” but insisting that candidate status could only be granted as soon as “set priorities are met" and widespread reforms are put in place.
While deferring on Georgia, the EU at the same time formally agreed to take the historic step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s bitter denunciations of the two countries’ intensions.
Garibashvili has said his government is "mobilized" to meet the requirements set by Brussels "so that we get candidate status as soon as possible."
No immediate estimate on the number of rally participants was available, but an estimated 120,000 people took part in each of two previous rallies in the Georgian capital.
In one demonstration, Shota Digmelashvili of the Shame movement read out a manifesto and announced the launch of a new popular movement that will include opposition parties, civil society organization, journalists, and labor unions to make demands on the government.
The manifesto asserted that the country’s “main obstacle on its European path is Bidzina Ivanishvili," the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is widely believed to be the top decision-maker in the South Caucasus country even though he does not hold office.
In May, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the EU to impose sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgia's politics and economy. Ivanishvili insists he has retired from politics.
In a Facebook statement, rally organizers called on Ivanishvili to "relinquish executive power and transfer it, in a constitutional manner, to a government of national accord."
The statement said a new government could "carry out the reforms required by the EU, which will automatically bring us the status of an EU membership candidate."
"A next stage of our protests begins today. We will not disperse."
The government led by the Georgian Dream party has been hit by increasing international criticism over perceived backsliding on democracy, damaging its EU hopes.
The European Commission said the conditions that Tbilisi must fulfill include ending political polarization, progress on media freedom, judiciary and electoral reforms, and "de-oligarchization."
Georgian Dream officials insist they are following democratic principles and accused the opposition of "plans to overthrow the authorities by organizing anti-government rallies."
Opinion polls show that at least 80 percent of the Georgian population favor plans to join the EU, as well as NATO, amid perceived threats from Russia.
Georgia’s aspirations to forge closer ties with the West have long angered Russia. Tensions culminated in Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 after which Russia recognized South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia, as independent countries and stationed thousands of its soldiers in those areas.
With reporting by AFP
Australian PM Offers Fresh Military Aid To Ukraine During Kyiv Visit
During a visit to Kyiv, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pledged that his country will provide additional support to Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Albanese said on July 3 while meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that the new military assistance will include 14 armored personnel carriers, 20 Bushmaster armored vehicles, and a number of drones, worth a total of about A$100 million (US$68 million).
Zelenskiy said Australia was giving Ukraine "considerable aid, in particular defense support," and that the Australian-made Bushmaster vehicles were “highly valued.” The Bushmaster is designed mainly as a troop-transport vehicle.
Albanese also said Australia would slap sanctions and travel bans on 16 more Russian ministers and oligarchs, bringing to 843 the total number of Russians sanctioned by Australia.
The visit was the first ever to Ukraine by an Australian prime minister. Many Western leaders have also traveled to Kyiv to show support for Ukraine during the war with Russia.
"It is my great honor to be the first Australian prime minister to visit Ukraine," he said.
The trip will "show very clearly to the world the solidarity that exists between the Australian people and the people of Ukraine," Albanese added.
Albanese also visited the towns of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, where Ukraine says Russia committed atrocities against civilians. Moscow denies the allegations, despite widespread evidence.
"Australia supports Ukraine and wants to see justice meted out for the crimes committed here," Kyiv Oblast Governor Oleksiy Kuleba quoted Albanese as saying during his visit to the devastated towns.
Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP
U.S. Marks Belarus National Day, Cites Reprisals, Lack Of Freedom For Government Opponents
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department marked Belarus National Day, sending “warmest wishes” to the people but reminding the world that they remain under the harsh conditions imposed by authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, with hundreds of political prisoners still behind bars.
“On behalf of the United States of America, I send my warmest wishes to the people of Belarus, wherever they may be,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on July 3.
However, “despite being an occasion to celebrate hard-won freedoms, Belarusians remain unable to determine their country’s future or express their views without fear of harsh reprisal,” he added.
“For the second year in a row, too many Belarusian families will mark this Independence Day separated from their loved ones, as more than 1,200 political prisoners languish in prisons for trying to exercise the freedoms this day is supposed to symbolize.”
Belarus was hit by a wave of protests against the results of a presidential election in August 2020 that handed Lukashenka victory despite claims by opposition leaders that the vote was rigged.
Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and a brutal police crackdown.
Western nations have also slapped Belarus, like its close ally Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin's war on Ukraine and Belarus’ efforts to aid the Russian invasion.
Kyiv Says Turkey Detains Russian Cargo Ship Believed To Be Carrying Ukrainian Grain
Ukraine's ambassador to Ankara said Turkish authorities have detained a Russian cargo ship that is believed to be carrying stolen Ukrainian grain that Kyiv says set off from Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces.
"We have full cooperation,” Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said on Ukrainian television on July 3. “The ship is currently standing at the entrance to the port. It has been detained by the customs authorities of Turkey."
Turkish officials did not immediately comment.
Kyiv on July 1 said it had asked Ankara to detain a Russian-flagged cargo ship, the Zhibek Zholy, because it was carrying grain stolen from Ukraine.
"Based on instruction from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, we asked the Turkish side to take corresponding measures," Bodnar said on Twitter.
"I am confident that the decisions to be taken [by Turkey] will prevent attempts to violate Ukraine's sovereignty," Bodnar said.
Marinetraffic.com said the 140-meter general-cargo vessel Zhibek Zholy was sailing under the Russian flag. It showed the ship late on July 1 anchored about a kilometer off Turkey's Black Sea port of Karasu.
On June 30, Evgeny Balitsky, head of the Moscow-appointed administration in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram that the ship had left the Berdyansk port and was headed for "friendly countries."
He said the ship was loaded with 7,000 tons of grain, but he did not specify which countries were considered friendly nor did he give any details on the origins of the grain.
Bodnar said investigators would meet on July 4 to determine the ship's fate and that Ukraine was seeking return of the grain.
Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to keep grain from leaving the country, which has contributed to a global food shortage.
Moscow has denied taking Ukrainian grain, but satellite images and GPS data have been used to back up the allegations that Russia has been transporting grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.
Grain is one of Ukraine's main industries. Exports totaled $12.2 billion last year and accounted for nearly one-fifth of the country's exports. Ukraine's Black Sea ports, including Berdyansk, handled about 6 million tons of grains and other crops each month before the war.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and Reuters
Fatalities, More Than 1,000 Injuries Reported In Karakalpakstan Unrest
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev acknowledged that there have been fatalities among security personnel and civilians during unrest in Karakalpakstan, the Central Asian nation’s restive autonomous republic, with another report saying that more than 1,000 people had been injured in the turmoil.
In a speech reported by his press office on July 3, Mirziyoev did not provide numbers or details of deaths or injuries during protests ignited by his plans, now dropped, to make constitutional changes to weaken the autonomous republic’s status.
"Unfortunately, there are fatalities among civilians and law-enforcement officers," Mirziyoev said, according to his press office.
Accurate information is difficult to obtain from the region, with locals reporting that Internet and phone services have been severely limited and a state of emergency restricting movement.
In an online statement, Mirziyoev said protesters had taken "destructive actions" in Nukus, the regional capital, throwing stones, starting fires, and attacking law-enforcement personnel.
Uzbek news website Daryo.uz quoted Sultanbek Ziyayev, head of Karakalpakstan’s Ministry of Health, as saying that Nukus hospitals were full of patients who had been hurt in clashes with police.
"Many of the wounded were hospitalized and are being treated. They are being provided with medical care," he said.
The news site quoted a ministry official as saying that "more than 1,000 of [the protesters] were injured in the riots." It was not clear if Ziyayev was the ministry official being quoted in that statement.
Reuters earlier quoted Pulat Ahunov, an exiled opposition politician, as saying that his contacts with local sources and video evidence indicated that at least five people had been confirmed dead, but he added it was feared dozens more had been killed.
Protests broke out in Nukus and other cities after changes initiated by Mirziyoev were proposed on June 27 to the Uzbek constitution, including removal of language that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to seek independence should citizens choose so in a referendum.
But during a visit to Karakalpakstan on July 2, Mirziyoev backed off the plans and said the language would not be removed from the constitution.
Uzbek authorities on July 2 declared the month-long state of emergency in areas of Karakalpakstan, a northwestern region spanning some 167,000 square kilometers with a population of about 2 million, split nearly evenly among ethic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks.
In the next few months, Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum on the changes to the constitution, which also include language that would allow Mirziyoev to run for office for another two terms.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, AFP, and Reuters
Former Iranian President's Daughter Charged With Anti-State Propaganda, Blasphemy
The daughter of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been charged with “propaganda activity against the system of the Islamic Republic of Iran and blasphemy,” Iran’s judiciary announced on July 3.
An indictment for the arrest of Faezeh Hashemi, a 59-year-old former lawmaker and rights activist, has been issued, but it was not reported whether she had been taken into custody.
The charges reportedly stem from comments Hashemi made during a social-media forum in April. She was reported to have said that Iran’s insistence that the United States remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from its list of terrorist organizations was “damaging” to Iran’s national interests.
Tehran’s demand has become a key obstacle to restoring the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Hashemi reportedly also called the wife of the Prophet Mohammed a “businesswoman” whose money the prophet spent. She later called the comments a “joke…without any intention of causing insult.”
In 2012, Hashemi served six months in jail on charges of propaganda against Iran.
Rafsanjani served as president of Iran from 1989 to 1997. He was considered a pragmatic conservative who sought to avoid conflict with the United States and the West. He died in 2017.
Based on reporting by AFP, IRNA, and Asharq Al-Awsat
Czech Republic To Patrol Slovak Airspace, Says PM
Beginning in September, the Czech Republic will send fighter jets to patrol the airspace of neighboring Slovakia, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said on July 3.
“I don’t see any problem there,” he said. “The government will certainly approve it.”
Slovakia earlier asked NATO allies to patrol its skies after it decided to ground its own fleet of Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets. Bratislava intends to send the MiGs to Ukraine to help Kyiv fight off Russia’s invasion.
Slovakia ordered 14 F-16 fighters from the United States in 2018 to replace its MiGs, and the first planes were scheduled to arrive this year. However, unexpected delays have pushed back that date to 2024.
Slovakia has provided over 154 million euros ($160.6 million) in military assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.
Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russian Journalist Accused Of Discrediting Army Sent To Psychiatric Hospital
Russian journalist Maria Ponomarenko, who was detained in St. Petersburg in April on accusations of discrediting the Russian armed forces in social-media posts about the war in Ukraine, has been transferred to a Siberian psychiatric hospital, her lawyer reported on July 2.
Lawyer Sergei Podolsky said Ponomarenko will be evaluated at the Altai Clinical Psychological Hospital for 28 days.
Ponomarenko, who lives and works in the Altai region city of Barnaul and is the mother of two young children, was transferred from St. Petersburg to Barnaul late last month.
“Today I went there and handed over a parcel for her,” Novosibirsk activist Yana Drobhokhod told RFE/RL. “She is not allowed to receive letters or visits from relatives. She is allowed to meet with her lawyers.”
Ponomarenko faces up to 10 years in prison for a Telegram post about the Russian bombing of a theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in which hundreds of civilians were killed. A Russian law passed in March criminalizes the dissemination of "fake" reports that "discredit the armed forces."
Ailing Russian Scientist Accused Of Treason Dies In Custody
A Novosibirsk scientist who was detained on June 30 on suspicion of treason has died, Russian media reported on July 3.
Lawyer Aleksandr Fedulov, who was representing physicist Dmitry Kolker, 54, told Reuters that the scientist died on July 2.
“He died yesterday,” Fedulov said. “Tomorrow we will lodge a complaint over his detention.”
Kolker’s daughter confirmed that his family had received a telegram informing them that Kolker had died but added that the message contained so little information that the family cannot confirm his passing.
“My brother at first posted the information on VK, but I asked him to take it down,” she told the Sibermedia Telegram channel. “We need to get confirmation.”
Kolker, who was being treated for late-stage pancreatic cancer at a Novosibirsk clinic when he was arrested, was accused of passing state secrets to China. A Moscow court on July 2 ordered him held in custody for two months pending the investigation, which was being conducted by the Federal Security Service.
Kolker’s son, Dmitry, told journalists at the time of his father’s arrest that Kolker was unable to eat on his own and was being fed intravenously at the Novosibirsk clinic.
Kolker, who holds numerous patents and headed the Laboratory of Quantum Optics at Novosibirsk State University, had given lectures at Chinese universities.
Another scientist with the Institute of Theoretical and Practical Mechanics of the Siberian Academy of Sciences, 75-year-old Anatoly Maslov, was also detained in connection with the case.
He is reportedly being held at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.
Over the past five years, at least 12 employees of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences have been targeted in criminal investigations.
With reporting by Reuters
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
Famed Soviet Animator Leonid Shvartsman Dies At Age 101
Famed Soviet and Russian animator Leonid Shvartsman has died at age 101, Russia’s TASS news agency reports on July 2.
"Leonid Aronovich Shvartsman, a legend of animated cinema, a unique artist and director who gave millions of people kind, cheerful fairy tales, colorful book illustrations, has passed away," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said in a statement on Telegram.
Born in Minsk, Shvartsman began working with Soyuzmultfilm in Moscow in 1951 and remained there his entire career, being credited with work on 70 films at the studio.
He is credited with creating the visual image of Cheburashka, a popular fictional character created by Soviet writer Eduard Uspensky in a 1965 children's book.
Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax
Iranian Foreign Minister Travels To Damascus Amid Tensions Between Syria, Turkey
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has traveled to Damascus in a bid to "prevent a new crisis" amid tensions between Syria and Turkey over Ankara’s threats to launch a new offensive against Kurdish militias in northern Syria.
Amir-Abdollahian said on July 2 that his trip "was aimed at establishing peace and security in the region between Syria and Turkey."
"Developments are happening in the region [and Iran should] try to prevent a new crisis in the region," he said.
The Syrian civil war killed thousands of people and drove millions from their homes and the country.
Iran and Russia backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey and the United States supported differing rebel groups.
Ankara has also conducted military operations against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, accusing them of having links to Kurdish separatist groups inside Turkey.
Meanwhile, Iran is also plagued by Kurdish separatist elements in its own country.
The Iranian foreign minister’s trip to Damascus comes days after he visited Turkey to meet with leaders there.
"We understand Turkey's security concerns very well," he told a news conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
In Syria, Amir-Abdollahian was quoted by Iranian state news agency IRNA as saying, "After my visit to Turkey...it is necessary to have consultations with the Syrian authorities."
He was also quoted as saying he opposed any new military incursion into Syria by Turkish forces.
With reporting by AFP and AP
After Protests, Uzbek President Backs Down On Proposed Changes To Karakalpakstan's Status In Constitution
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has abruptly scrapped plans to abolish the country’s Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic’s right to secede following rare mass protests in the restive region, according to his office.
Mirziyoev’s office on July 2 said the president made the remarks during a visit to Karakalpakstan, declaring that changes to Karakalpakstan’s status must be dropped from a proposed constitutional reform plan.
The decision, if confirmed, would mark an apparent backing down by the Uzbek government, which on June 27 had proposed constitutional changes that included eliminating mention of Karakalpakstan’s long-standing right to seek independence from Uzbekistan.
It is not clear if the move would satisfy the protesters. Hours after Mirziyoev’s announcement, presidential press secretary Sherzod Asadov wrote on Telegram that Uzbekistan was imposing a one-month state of emergency in the region, running to August 2.
According to the draft amendments initiated last month by Mirziyoev, Karakalpakstan would retain its autonomy, but a constitutional clause giving it the right to secede on the basis of a referendum among its roughly 2 million inhabitants would be taken out.
Other constitutional reforms proposed would allow Mirziyoev to run for two more terms in office.
The planned changes sparked street protests in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, and other regional cities.
Prior to Mirziyoev’s visit to Nukus, regional authorities said protesters “attempted to seize government bodies” after mass demonstrations broke out in the region’s capital over the planned constitutional changes.
Authorities said unnamed "organizers of the riots" had gathered citizens on the square near the complex of administrative buildings in Nukus, "made an attempt to seize these state institutions, and thus split society, and to destabilize the sociopolitical situation in Uzbekistan."
The statement added that security forces "stopped the actions of the instigators," who were detained.
Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry claimed that the protests were "a result of misunderstanding the [proposed] constitutional reforms."
Obtaining accurate information from Karakalpakstan is difficult because of limited or disrupted Internet and telephone service.
Local media had cited authorities as saying that the amendments curtailing the region’s right to seek independence were approved by lawmakers in Karakalpakstan as well as in Tashkent due to "numerous demands to define Karakalpakstan as indivisible part of Uzbekistan."
Karakalpaks are a Turkic-speaking people in Central Asia. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan until 1930. Before becoming part of Uzbekistan in 1936, the region was the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
The current Uzbek Constitution describes Karakalpakstan, located in northwestern Uzbekistan, as a sovereign republic within Uzbekistan that has the right to secede by holding a referendum.
Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum in the coming months on the new version of the constitution, which would eliminate Karakalpakstan's right to secede.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Britain Condemns Russia's 'Exploitation' Of Ukraine Prisoners Following Capture Of Two More Britons
Britain's Foreign Office has condemned what it called the “exploitation” of prisoners of war and civilians for political purposes following the capture of two British men by Russian forces in Ukraine.
“We condemn the exploitation of prisoners of war and civilians for political purposes and have raised this with Russia,” the Foreign Office said on July 2. “We are in constant contact with the government of Ukraine on their cases and are fully supportive of Ukraine in its efforts to get them released.”
Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine said aid worker Dylan Healy, 22, and military volunteer Andrew Hill have been charged with carrying out “mercenary activities.”
A pro-Kremlin website said Healy and Hill would face the same charges as two British military volunteers captured in Mariupol.
In early June, the two Britons -- Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner -- and a Moroccan national -- Saaudun Brahim -- were sentenced to death by the separatists for "mercenary activities."
All three say they were serving in the Ukrainian military when they were captured by pro-Russia separatists while fighting Russian forces.
Britain, the United Nations, Ukraine, and Germany condemned the death sentences.
The European Court of Human Rights on June 30 intervened in the case and warned Moscow it must ensure the death penalty is not carried out.
The British government insisted that as legitimate members of the Ukrainian armed forces, they should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
Westerners have been traveling to Ukraine to help defend it against Russia's unprovoked invasion or to assist in providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians forced to fleet their homes by the Russian military onslaught.
Based on reporting by PA Media, dpa, and Reuters
Shoot-Out Among Migrants Leaves One Dead, Six Hurt In Serbia, Near Hungarian Border
A shoot-out between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border has left at least one person dead and six others wounded, Serbian state-run RTS television reports.
RTS on July 2 said a 16-year-old girl suffered serious injuries in the shoot-out in a forest outside of Subotica, about 160 kilometers north of Belgrade. The injured were taken to the capital for treatment.
Subotica Mayor Stevan Bakic said the victims -- mostly aged 20-30 -- did not have identity documents.
The report said police blocked access to the forest about a kilometer from the Hungarian border.
Authorities did not describe what caused the shoot-out, but local media said it occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants, most likely over human trafficking from the area to Hungary, a member of the European Union.
Migrants often use the so-called Balkan route in hopes of reaching Western Europe, many fleeing poverty or conflict in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
Based on reporting by AFP and RTS Television
Greece Authorizes Release Of Iranian-Flagged Oil Tanker Seized In April
Greece said on July 2 that an Iranian-flagged tanker seized by Athens in April was being towed to the port of Piraeus following a decision by a Greek judicial panel to release the vessel.
The Lana has been anchored off the Greek island of Evia for the past two months in a diplomatic standoff that has strained relations between Athens and Tehran.
The vessel was seized by Greek authorities on April 15 when it anchored off the port of Karystos on Evia. At the time, it was flying a Russian flag and was carrying a crew of 19 Russians.
The Greek Coast Guard said it was seized over suspicions it had breached EU sanctions imposed against Russia due to the war in Ukraine.
The oil on the ship was confiscated by the United States and transferred to another vessel.
It was unclear whether the oil was seized because it was Iranian oil subject to U.S. sanctions or whether it was due to sanctions on the tanker, which recently changed its name from Pegas to Lana and which has been flying the Iranian flag since May 1.
A source at Greece's Shipping Ministry quoted by Reuters said the U.S. Department of Justice had "informed Greece that the cargo on the vessel is Iranian oil."
The decision to seize the ship was overturned on June 10, but it remained anchored over claims by another company over debts owed for towing services.
The ship was eventually released after the debt was paid off, Reuters quoted legal sources as saying.
The Greek judicial panel overturned the ruling that had allowed the United States to seize the cargo, but it was not immediately clear if the Lana would attempt to retrieve the oil.
The incident prompted Iranian forces in May to seize two Greek tankers in the Persian Gulf and sail them back to Iran, with Tehran warning of "punitive action" against Athens. They are still being held.
Greece's Foreign Ministry protested to the Iranian ambassador in Athens over the “violent taking over of two Greek-flagged ships” in the Persian Gulf. “These acts effectively amount to acts of piracy," it said.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Germany To Open New LNG Ports By Early 2023 In Bid To Cut Dependence On Russia
Germany will begin operation of two temporary terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by early 2023, Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in an interview published by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on July 2.
In all, the German government has leased four floating LNG terminals in its aggressive effort to reduce the country’s dependence on natural gas imported from Russia.
“Two ships are already available this year and are to be deployed in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel at the turn of the year 2022-23,” Habeck said.
He said the effort to move away from Russian gas was proceeding at a pace that has “never been seen before in Germany.”
Klaus Mueller, the head of Germany’s Network Agency, which oversees energy supplies, said on July 2 that he fears Russia could cut off gas supplies to Germany entirely.
The same day, Jens Kerstan, Hamburg’s senator for the environment, was also quoted by Welt am Sonntag as saying rationing of hot water for residences in the city could be imposed if Russia reduces gas supplies.
“In an acute gas shortage, warm water could be only made available at certain times of day,” Kerstan said, urging citizens and companies to reduce energy consumption to help the government fill storage capacity ahead of the winter heating season.
Kerstan said a temporary LNG terminal planned for Hamburg would not be operational until mid-2023 at the earliest.
Russia reduced gas supplies to Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia last month, citing technical issues with the Nord Stream-1 pipeline. At the time, Habeck said there were no technical issues and that Germany was “in a trade dispute” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In June, the European Union as a whole imported more LNG from the United States than pipeline gas from Russia for the first time ever.
Nonetheless, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, wrote on Twitter that “the drop in Russian supplies calls for efforts to reduce EU demand to prepare for a tough winter.”
With reporting by Welt am Sonntag, Reuters, TASS, and dpa
Fatalities Reported As Earthquake Rocks Southern Iran
A powerful earthquake rocked southern Iran overnight, officials reported on July 2.
Iranian state television reported that at least five people had been killed and 80 injured in the magnitude 6.3 earthquake, the epicenter of which was some 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran in Hormozgan Province.
Rescue workers were on the scene as aftershocks continued to drive locals into the streets.
The early morning earthquake damaged dozens of buildings and other structures in the village of Sayeh Khosh, where about 300 people live. Homozgan Governor Mehdi Dousti told the IRNA news agency that Sayeh Khosh was largely destroyed.
It was not clear where the fatalities occurred.
Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi traveled to the province on July 2 and told journalists that the government’s top priority was to restore water and electricity service in the affected areas.
Iran straddles several tectonic plates and is crisscrossed by seismic fault lines.
In 1990, the country was struck by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in the northern part of the country that killed more than 40,000 people. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 quake in southern Kerman Province left more than 31,000 people dead.
Based on reporting by IRNA, Tasnim, Reuters, and AP
Ukraine Asks Turkey To Detain Ship Believed To Be Carrying Ukrainian Grain
Ukraine has asked Turkey to detain a Russian-flagged cargo ship believed to be carrying Ukrainian grain that Kyiv says set off from Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces.
The Ukrainian ambassador to Ankara on July 1 said the Zhibek Zholy had reached the Turkish port of Karasu after setting sail from Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov.
"Based on instruction from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, we asked the Turkish side to take corresponding measures," Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said on Twitter.
"I am confident that the decisions to be taken [by Turkey] will prevent attempts to violate Ukraine's sovereignty," Bodnar said.
The ambassador's tweets did not specify the ship's cargo.
Marinetraffic.com said the 140-meter general cargo vessel Zhibek Zholy was sailing under the Russian flag. It showed the ship late on July 1 anchored about 1 kilometer off Turkey's Black Sea port of Karasu.
Yevhen Balytskiy, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram on June 30 that a merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain had left Berdyansk. He said it was headed for "friendly countries" but did not name them or give any details on the origins of the grain.
A letter dated June 30 to Turkey's Justice Ministry says the Zhibek Zholy was involved in the "illegal export of Ukrainian grain" from Berdyansk, according to Reuters, which said it had seen the document.
Bodnar last month accused Turkey of purchasing grain seized by Russia from Ukraine during its invasion.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that Ankara was investigating reports of Russian-seized Ukrainian grain reaching its shores. He added that Turkey had been unable to find any stolen Ukrainian grain shipments to date.
Moscow-installed officials claim that they have nationalized state infrastructure and buy their crops from local farmers.
Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, but Russian forces are currently blocking Ukrainian Black Sea ports, endangering the world's food supply.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Detained Russian Hockey Star Fedotov Reportedly Hospitalized
Russian ice hockey goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov was taken by ambulance from the St. Petersburg military commissariat during the night of July 1-2 and hospitalized, Russian media reported.
Russian authorities made no official statement on the reports, and no information about the state of Fedotov’s health was reported.
Earlier on July 1, Fedotov, 25, had been detained at the request of military prosecutors on suspicion of avoiding military service.
Last month, Fedotov -- one of Russia’s best goalkeepers and a member of the national team -- signed an entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers of the U.S. National Hockey League and planned to quit his Russian club, Central Sport Club of the Army (CSKA), to play in the United States.
CSKA is an ice hockey club of the Russian Army and its members are officially considered military personnel. Therefore, termination of CSKA contracts by players may be illegal.
Fedotov played in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow in the 2021-22 season, leading the team to the league championship. He was named one of three finalists for the KHL's best goalie award.
Fedotov also played on Russia's 2022 Olympic team at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, winning a silver medal as the starting goaltender.
Labor Activist In Iran Ordered To Serve Seven-Year Prison Term
Nasrin Javadi, a trade union activist in Iran, has begun serving a seven-year prison sentence that she and activists have slammed as retribution for her labor agitation.
The Free Union of Iranian Workers said in a statement on June 30, that Javadi was ordered to report to prison on July 2, following "numerous summonses and pressure from the authorities."
Javadi, 64, was first arrested on May 1, 2019, when she attended a workers’ protest rally in front of parliament in Tehran. She was released from Qarchak prison on May 29 that year after posting bail.
Since then, the labor activist has been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison and 74 lashes by the Revolutionary Court for charges including "gathering and conspiring to act against the security of the country," "disturbing public order and peace," and "propaganda against the regime.”
Activists and human rights groups have condemned the charges, saying Javadi has been persecuted for her labor activism.
In the past, Javadi’s lawyer had submitted medical documents to court showing she suffers from “numerous illnesses” that make it impossible for her to serve time in prison.
Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise amid declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.
Authorities have cracked down on the protests, arresting many of those taking part.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Visa Delay Denies Iranian Tennis Player Chance To Play In Wimbledon
The British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates failed to issue a visa to the 18-year-old Iranian tennis player Mashkat Safi, denying her the opportunity to become the first Iranian woman to participate in the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
The tennis player’s manager, Amir Sadri, said in a video on June 30 that with Safi’s first match scheduled for July 2 there was no way she could play due to the visa delay.
The reason for the delay in issuing the visa has not been disclosed by the British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, which received Safi's request.
In 2021, when Safi was 17 years old, she won her match in the first round of the Australian Open, achieving a first in Iranian sports.
She is also the first Iranian female athlete to be ranked in the top 100 of the junior world rankings.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Detained Russian Hockey Star Fedotov Reportedly Hospitalized2
Odesa Prepares Its Labyrinth Of Catacombs As Shelters Against Russian Attack3
Russians Hoping To Travel To Ukraine Will Need Visa As Of July 14
Ukraine Withdraws From Lysychansk While Zelenskiy Vows To Regain Lost Territory5
Ukrainian Refugees In Russia 'Losing Hope' Of Receiving Putin’s Promised Payment6
Interview: Why It's Difficult To Measure Progress In The Ukraine War7
Parents of Russian Conscripts Fear Their Sons Will Be Pressured Into Joining The War In Ukraine8
Bulgarian Finance Minister Handed Mandate To Form Government9
After Protests, Uzbek President Backs Down On Proposed Changes To Karakalpakstan's Status In Constitution10
Russian Journalist Accused Of Discrediting Army Sent To Psychiatric Hospital