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Kyrgyz Customs Chief Detained On Suspicion Of Corruption

State Customs Service chief Adilet Kubanychbekov recently told RFE/RL that all corruption in the service had been eradicated.

BISHKEK -- The head of Kyrgyzstan's State Customs Service, Adilet Kubanychbekov, has been arrested on accusations of corruption.

The State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said on January 17 that Kubanychbekov and his subordinates were suspected of receiving bribes to illegally create advantages for some import firms.

Kubanychbekov was appointed to the post in October 2021.

Last month, he told RFE/RL that all corruption in the Customs Service had been eradicated.

The Central Asian state's Customs Service has been criticized for widespread corruption for years.

In 2019, an investigation by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Kloop implicated former deputy chief of the customs service Raimbek Matraimov in a corruption scheme involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan by Chinese-born Uyghur businessman Aierken Saimaiti, who was subsequently assassinated in Istanbul in November 2019.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the estimated $700 million scheme involved a company controlled by Matraimov bribing officials to skirt customs fees and regulations, as well as engaging in money laundering, "allowing for maximum profits."

Lockdown Imposed Again In 'Coronavirus-Free' Turkmenistan

There have been no official statements about the lockdown, with people learning about the measure from written announcements on the doors of public places and shops. (file photo)

ASHGABAT -- Authorities in Turkmenistan have introduced a lockdown without any official announcement, continuing to deny a single coronavirus case has been registered in the country.

Marketplaces, department stores, except food shops, as well as bars, restaurants, and other public places in all regional capitals have been closed since January 16.

In Ashgabat, the capital, the lockdown was imposed on January 15.

RFE/RL's Coverage Of COVID-19

Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our region.

RFE/RL's correspondents report that there were no official statements about the lockdown and citizens were learning about the measure from written announcements on the doors of public places and shops.

It is not clear for how long the new lockdown was introduced.

Medical personnel in regional capitals told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that local hospitals were overcrowded, as the number of patients, especially among teenagers and university students, had increased in recent days.

A previous lockdown that lasted for almost four months was lifted in early December.

Turkmenistan's government still clings to its narrative that the country has no cases of coronavirus -- even though practically no one believes the claim.

Bulgaria Adds Anti-COVID Restrictions For Travelers From North Macedonia, Serbia

Protesters scuffle with police as they try to enter the parliament building during a far-right rally against the government measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Sofia on January 12.

Bulgaria will start requiring travelers from nearby North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, and Israel to provide negative PCR coronavirus tests on top of valid COVID-19 certificates before entering the country beginning on January 20.

The new obligation was announced by the Health Ministry in Bulgaria.

It essentially reverses previous exceptions for travelers from those countries, and places them under similar requirements already in place for entrants from all EU member states except neighboring Romania.

Bulgaria is already among the worst-affected and least-vaccinated countries from COVID-19, and is bracing for a surge from the highly contagious omicron variant.

Last week, Bulgaria recorded its highest daily coronavirus infection rate since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.

As of January 16, it had a seven-day rolling average of 5,741 new infections per day, in a country of around 7 million people.

Based on reporting by Reuters

U.S. Senators In Kyiv Reaffirm Bipartisan Support For Ukraine

U.S. Senators In Kyiv Reaffirm Bipartisan Support For Ukraine
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U.S. senators visiting Kyiv have reaffirmed bipartisan support for Ukraine. Speaking to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on January 17, Senator Rob Portman warned about "devastating sanctions" should the Russians "make a terrible mistake and proceed with the use of troops" against Ukraine. Senator Chris Murphy added that it should be up to the Ukrainians as to how they structure their political and security alliances. The visit comes as Russia has massed troops along the border in recent weeks, prompting concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning to attack Ukraine, something Moscow has denied.

Defiant Ex-President Poroshenko Returns To Ukraine To Face Treason Charges

Defiant Ex-President Poroshenko Returns To Ukraine To Face Treason Charges
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Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was defiant as he landed in Kyiv on January 17 to fight charges of treason that he rejects as politically motivated. The 56-year-old is accused of selling coal that helped finance Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine while he was in office. A court was expected to rule on whether Poroshenko will be detained pending an investigation and trial.

Belarus To Hold Military Drills With Russia In February Amid Tensions With West

Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

MINSK -- Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said that joint military maneuvers will be held with Russia in February close to the borders with Ukraine as well as eastern NATO member states.

Speaking during a meeting with Belarusian military officials on January 17, Lukashenka said that the exact dates of the drills had not been determined yet. He did not specify how many troops would be involved.

The secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, Alyaksandr Volfavich, later told the BelTA news agency that Russian military forces and hardware had begun arriving in the country.

The announcement comes as tensions between the West and Moscow have been growing in recent months over the security of Ukraine, a Western ally that borders both Belarus and Russia.

Kyiv has been battling Kremlin-backed separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014.

Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine in what Kyiv and its Western allies fear could be preparations for a potential invasion, something Moscow has denied.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to back ally Lukashenka in his standoff with the West over a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that handed the Belarusian leader a sixth consecutive term in office.

The official election results triggered a wave of protests, with Lukashenka responding with a brutal crackdown on dissent that has seen thousands detained and most opposition politicians leaving the country fearing for their safety.

Lukashenka said on January 17 that next month's military exercises with Russia should focus on a scenario in which his country's military is forced to "resist forces coming from the West."

Without giving evidence, he justified the drills by claiming there was a buildup of troops along Belarus's border with Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states.

Poland and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are both EU and NATO member states.

Last week, the United States and its NATO allies held negotiations with Russia aimed at easing tensions over Ukraine, but the talks failed to make significant progress.

What Comes Next After A Clash Of Diplomacy Between Russia, The U.S., And NATO?
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Putin has issued a series of demands for security guarantees in Europe, including NATO not accepting new members like Ukraine and Georgia and limits on allied deployments in Eastern European NATO members.

Western officials say Russia's combative rhetoric and troop buildup near Ukraine is an attempt to pressure the United States and European allies into bending on the Kremlin's wish list.

Moscow insists its military deployment is a response to what it sees as the growing presence of NATO in its sphere of influence and denies it plans to invade Ukraine.

With reporting by BelTA

Azerbaijani Opposition Politician 'Beat Himself' In Police Custody, Prosecutor Says

At the time of his arrest, an Interior Ministry spokesman called Tofiq Yaqublu's claim that he was beaten by the police "groundless."

BAKU -- Prosecutors in Azerbaijan have refused to launch a probe into the severe beating of leading opposition politician Tofiq Yaqublu while in detention last month.

The prosecutor's office in Baku's Sabail district ruled on January 17 that Yaqublu "suffered from self-inflicted injuries."

According to investigator Araz Akbarov, the politician hit a police car door with his head while he was being detained during unsanctioned rallies in the capital on December 1, and later punched himself in the police station he had been taken to.

Yaqublu, a member of the Coordination Center of Azerbaijan's Democratic Forces' National Council and a leading member of the opposition Musavat Party, told RFE/RL that he will appeal the decision.

On December 1, he was rushed to a hospital after being released from custody with deep bruises on his face and body.

At the time, Interior Ministry spokesman Elsad Haciyev called Yaqublu's claim that he was beaten by the police "groundless."

Human Rights Watch called on the Azerbaijani authorities to conduct a "prompt, impartial, and thorough" investigation into the "horrific mistreatment" of the government critic.

Opponents of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Western countries, and international human rights groups say the government has persistently persecuted critics, political foes, independent media, and civic activists.

Aliyev, who has ruled the country of almost 10 million people since shortly before the death of his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.

Britain Sends New Weapons To Ukraine As U.S., Germany Warn Russia, Urge Diplomacy

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (right) meets with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Kyiv on January 17.

U.S. and British officials have pledged support and new weapons to Ukraine as Germany issued further calls for diplomacy and warnings to Moscow amid a troop buildup in western Russia.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on January 17 that Britain was providing Ukraine with new "defensive weapons systems," and announced a fresh diplomatic overture toward Moscow.

"We have taken the decision to supply Ukraine with light anti-armor, defensive weapon systems," Wallace told Parliament.

He added: "They are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia. They are to use in self-defense."

Wallace also said he was inviting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to London for talks in the coming weeks to help defuse the crisis.

Kyiv and its Western backers say Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine in recent weeks in what could be preparations for a potential invasion, something Moscow has denied.

A U.S. Congressional delegation that arrived in Kyiv on January 17 to "help deter further Russian aggression," meanwhile, underscored Western resolve in the face of the Russian threat.

U.S. Senators In Kyiv Reaffirm Bipartisan Support For Ukraine
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"I think [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has made the biggest mistake of his career in underestimating how courageously the people of Ukraine will fight him if he invades," Senator Richard Blumenthal (Democrat-Connecticut) told journalists after the delegation met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

"And we will impose crippling economic sanctions, but more important we will give the people of Ukraine the arms, lethal arms, they need to defend their lives and livelihoods," Blumenthal added.

He said such weapons could include Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger missiles, small arms, and boats.

"And so our message is: There will be consequences if he chooses to violate the sanctity of this democracy," Senator Amy Klobuchar (Democrat-Minnesota) said.

Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut) told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service of U.S. military aid that Washington wants "to make sure that Ukraine gets equipment to defend itself which is not offensive in nature."

Senator Rob Portman (Republican-Ohio) told RFE/RL that U.S. officials were "very concerned with what we see" and were also "talking about additional sanctions" against Russia.

The U.S. Congressional delegation also included Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat-New Hampshire) and Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi).

Earlier on January 17, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told Ukrainians during a visit to Kyiv that diplomacy was "the only way" to resolve the tense standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine. She repeated warnings that Russia would pay a "high price" if it launched an attack on its neighbor.

"We will do our all to guarantee Ukraine's security. We will do our all to guarantee Europe's security," Baerbock told a joint press conference in Kyiv with her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.

"Each further aggressive act will have a high price for Russia, economically, strategically, politically," said Baerbock, a day before she is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

In 2014, Russia seized Crimea and began supporting separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine in an ongoing war that has claimed more than 13,200 lives.

Kyiv and its Western backers say Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine in recent weeks in what could be preparations for a potential invasion, something Moscow has denied.

Talks between Moscow and Western countries on Russia's military buildup ended with no breakthrough last week.

A cyberattack that disabled Ukraine's government websites has further inflamed tensions, with Kyiv accusing Russia of being behind it. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.

Addressing the press briefing on January 17, Kuleba said Ukraine and Germany were united in pushing to revive four-way talks on putting an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine in the so-called "Normandy" format, which includes Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly sought reassurances from the West that no decisions will be made about the future of their country without Kyiv's involvement and assent.

"It is important for us now that neither Berlin nor Paris makes any decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, and does not play any game behind our backs in relations with Russia," said Kuleba, who thanked Baerbock "for taking such a principled position."

Kyiv fiercely opposes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project aimed at shipping Russian natural gas to Germany, bypassing Ukrainian territory.

Baerbock noted that the project was now on hold and should fully comply with European energy regulations.

In a statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry said the project's certification should not be "artificially delayed and politicized" by German regulators and the European Commission.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, TASS, and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Djokovic Lands In Belgrade After Deportation From Australia, With Another Slam Now In Doubt

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic (right) arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade on January 17.

BELGRADE -- World tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic has arrived in his native Serbia after being deported from Australia because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, putting an end to his hopes of defending his Australian Open title.

On January 17, an aircraft carrying Djokovic from his stopover in the United Arab Emirates touched down at Belgrade’s airport, where he was greeted by a small group of fans waving the Serbian flag.

The Australian Open started on the same day in Melbourne, where Djokovic has won nine titles.

He had hoped this year to win his 21st Grand Slam singles trophy there, breaking the record he shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis.

Djokovic left Melbourne after Australia's Federal Court upheld a decision by Australian authorities to cancel the visa of the 34-year-old Serbian athlete on public interest grounds because he is not vaccinated for COVID-19.

Djokovic had tried to use a medical exemption to get around the requirements that everyone at the Australian Open -- players, their support teams, spectators, and others -- be vaccinated.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the court ruling will help "keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe."

Djokovic said he was "extremely disappointed" by the decision, while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused Australian authorities of "harassing and bullying...the best tennis player ever."

The men's tennis governing body ATP expressed regret that Djokovic -- "one of [the] sport's greatest champions"-- can't play at the Australian tournament, while also pointing out that it "continues to strongly recommend vaccination to all players."

But even as he flew home, signs emerged that Djokovic might face further obstacles on the tennis circuit.

Multiple officials in France, which hosts the calendar year's second Grand Slam, suggested that they might also bar any unvaccinated athletes from competing at Roland Garros in Paris in May and June.

That would contradict previous plans to create a "bubble" around the French Open to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among athletes, coaches, organizers, and fans.

"To do your job, to come for pleasure or leisure, to practice a sport, it will be necessary to present a [proof of] vaccine," French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu told BFM television. "This will be valid for people who live in France but also for foreigners who come to our country for vacation or for a major sports competition."

French lawmaker Christophe Castaner said that new legislation in the works to limit access of the unvaccinated to stadiums will apply to anyone who wants to play in the French Open.

But details of the French bill reportedly must still be worked out, including for people who have recently recovered from COVID-19, as Djokovic claimed when he applied for an exemption to travel to Melbourne.

French President Emmanuel Macron famously said recently he wanted to "piss off" the unvaccinated in an effort to boost vaccination levels as France battles a new wave of coronavirus infection fueled by the omicron variant.

With reporting by AP

Kazakh Activist Abishev Dies Three Months After Release From Prison

Kazakh activist Kenzhebek Abishev (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan --Noted Kazakh civil rights activist Kenzhebek Abishev has died at the age of 55, three months after he was released from prison.

Abishev's wife, Gulmira Abisheva, told RFE/RL that her husband died early on the morning of January 17 in what ambulance workers described as a heart attack.

Abishev was sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2018 after he and two other activists were found guilty of planning a "holy war" because they were spreading the ideas of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement. His prison term was later cut by eight months.

The activist, who rejected all the charges against him and was declared a political prisoner by domestic human rights groups, was granted early release in October 2021.

In April last year, Abishev was rushed from prison to the Qapshaghai City Hospital as his condition worsened due to a hunger strike he had started to protest against his imprisonment and prison conditions in general.

Physicians then diagnosed him with coronary heart disease.

Human rights groups have criticized Kazakh authorities for years for stifling dissent and persecuting independent journalists.

More Nazarbaev Relatives Lose Posts After Kazakhstan Unrest

Kazakhstan's National Chamber of Entrepreneurs has announced the resignation of its chairman, former President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, one of the richest people in the oil-rich former Soviet republic. (file photo)

NUR-SULTAN -- Two more close relatives of Nursultan Nazarbaev have lost their posts in the latest indication that the Kazakh government was moving to purge or squeeze members of the former president’s extended family in the wake of unprecedented political turmoil.

On January 17, Kazakhstan's National Chamber of Entrepreneurs, Atameken, announced the resignation of its chairman, Timur Kulibaev, a son-in-law of Nazarbaev.

Kulibaev, one of the richest people in the oil-rich former Soviet republic, is the husband of Nazarbaev's second daughter, Dinara.

Nursultan Nazarbaev's nephew Samat Abish (file photo)
Nursultan Nazarbaev's nephew Samat Abish (file photo)

The same day, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev issued a decree to dismiss Nazarbaev's nephew Samat Abish from the post of deputy chairman of the Committee for National Security (KNB).

The moves came after two other sons-in-law of Nazarbaev were pushed out of top jobs at two major state energy companies.

Earlier, one of Nazarbaev's closest associates, KNB Chairman Karim Masimov, and his two deputies were arrested on high-treason charges.

Parts of Kazakhstan remain under a state of emergency imposed following deadly anti-government protests in early January.

Kazakh officials said over the weekend that at least 225 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, were killed during the unrest.

On January 17, journalists Asem Zhapisheva and Bella Orynbetova called on the authorities to publish the names of those killed, amid claims by some human rights activists that many of the victims were passersby who had nothing to do with the protests.

Without giving any details, Toqaev has claimed that thousands of "foreign terrorists" attacked the Central Asian nation's commercial capital, Almaty, and used that claim to justify his order to shoot to kill and his decision to invite troops to the country from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance.

The troops started leaving Kazakhstan last week after spending less than a week there.

Iranian Supreme Leader's Niece 'Arrested' After Praising Ex-Royalty

Iranian activist Farideh Moradkhani (file photo)

A civil activist and niece of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was arrested last week, her brother and activists say, after she praised a member of Iran's former royalty.

Agents of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry arrested Farideh Moradkhani on January 14, while some of her personal belongings were confiscated in a raid on her home, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), a U.S.-based news outlet that covers news in Iran.

The agency said on January 16 that Moradkhani had been transferred to Tehran’s Evin prison.

"We are very worried, we did not have news...we now know she is in Evin prison" and under the control of the Intelligence Ministry, her brother Mahmud Moradkhani, who lives in France, told the London-based Iran International Persian-language satellite news channel.

Moradkhani, a daughter of Khamenei's sister, is known in Iran for her activism against the death penalty and for civil freedoms in the country.

Her reported arrest came after a video posted on social media showed her praising Farah Diba, the widow of the last Shah, during an online event marking the former queen’s 83rd birthday. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ruled Iran until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Farah is now based in France.

Moradkhani’s father is anti-Islamic Republic dissident Sheikh Ali Tehrani, who spent 10 years in prison in Iran.

With reporting by HRANA, AFP, and Iran International

A Year After Arrest, Russia's Navalny Says He Has No Regrets

Aleksei Navalny was arrested upon his return to Moscow on January 17 last year.

Aleksei Navalny says he has no regrets and has called on his supporters not to be "afraid," a year to the day the opposition politician was detained after returning to Russia from Germany where he was recovering from a near-fatal poisoning.

"I sided with those honest people who do not want to be, or cannot be, scared any more. I did it, I don't regret it for a second, and I will continue doing it," Navalny, who is serving time in an old embezzlement case that is widely considered as being politically motivated, said in a post on Instagram on January 17.

"Having served my first year in prison, I want to tell everyone exactly what I shouted to those gathered outside the court when a convoy led me to a police van: Don't be afraid of anything," the vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin said.

"This is our country and we have no other," Navalny wrote, also posting a photo of himself wearing an inmate's uniform, with his arm around his wife, Yulia.

Amnesty International marked the first anniversary of Navalny's arrest by urging the international community and people across the world to join their voices to call for his release, and put an end to their "unprecedented campaign of repression and reprisals" against his supporters.

Navalny, 45, was detained in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, 2021 upon his arrival from Berlin, where he had been recovering after being poisoned in Siberia in August 2020.

A Moscow court ruled two weeks later that, while in Germany, he had violated the terms of parole imposed from a widely criticized 2014 embezzlement case.

Navalny's 3 1/2-year suspended sentence from the case was converted to a jail term, though the court said he will serve 2 1/2 years in prison given time he had been held in detention.

Navalny Versus Putin: A Yearlong War Of Words
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The opposition politician has claimed his near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok-type nerve agent was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny's poisoning.

In his Instagram post on January 17, Navalny said he didn't know when his imprisonment "will end and whether it will end at all."

Speaking in a phone interview with Current Time, a lawyer for Navalny said that "everything is being done...so that he is kept in prison as long as possible."

"And I think that this period may be indefinite, given the huge number of criminal cases that have been initiated against him and are being investigated," Olga Mikhailova said.

In the year since Navalny's detention, the Kremlin critic, his supporters, and Russian civil society organizations "have suffered a relentless onslaught of repression," Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement on January 17.

"Dozens of Navalny’s associates and supporters are facing prosecutions on bogus charges, while a growing number of them are already in prison," Struthers said, while the Russian authorities "have labelled his organizations as 'extremist' and blocked their websites."

Some of Navalny's associates have fled the country fearing political persecution, "yet they now fear their relatives in Russia will suffer a similar fate of unfounded prosecution and imprisonment," she said. "On the anniversary of his detention, Navalny and the political activists associated with him are in a living hell."

In June 2021, two organizations founded by Navalny-- the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and the Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation (FZPG) -- were officially labelled as “extremist” and banned. Their activities have since been criminalized.

5 Things To Know About Russian Opposition Leader Aleksei Navalny
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In September 2021, a criminal case was opened against Navalny and his associates under the charge of creating an "extremist association," while the opposition politician also faces up to 15 additional years in prison if convicted on charges that include fraud and money laundering in relation to alleged misappropriation of donations to his nongovernmental organizations.

On January 14 this year, two associates of Navalny -- Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov -- were added to a Russian list of "extremists and terrorists," and their assets in the country are now blocked.

Zhdanov's father was handed a suspended prison sentence last year in a corruption case that critics say is politically motivated.

"The callous actions of the Kremlin, who remain hellbent on silencing and vilifying Aleksei Navalny and his supporters, must end now," Struthers said, adding that the people of Russia “should not have to suffer from the relentless suppression of their human rights.”

According to Struthers, more than 360,000 people around the world have signed a petition launched by Amnesty International that calls for the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Navalny.

On January 17, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release of Lilia Chanysheva, the former head of Navalny's office in the city of Ufa, in Bashkortostan.

Chanysheva was ordered last month to remain in pretrial detention until April 9.

Thousands of Russians were detained during nationwide protests in January 2021 calling for his release.

Navalny's imprisonment and poisoning also sparked an international outcry, with the European Union, Britain, and other countries imposing further sanctions on Russian officials.

European lawmakers chose Navalny as the recipient of the annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on October 20, saying he "has campaigned consistently against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime."

Serbian Voters Approve Judiciary Constitution Changes Backed By West

Only 30 percent of about 6.5 million eligible voters participated in the referendum.

Voters in Serbia have approved constitutional amendments for the judiciary in a referendum, according to preliminary results from the January 16 vote.

The changes impact the election of judges and prosecutors that the government says will grant greater independence to the judiciary and reduce political influence.

The United States and European countries have supported the amendments, which are viewed as a key element for Serbia to advance its bid to join the European Union.

President Aleksandar Vucic’s government backed the changes, which passed with 60 percent support, according to preliminary results with 97 percent of votes counted. Turnout was only around 30 percent.

Vucic and other officials urged voters to support the amendments, arguing that they would improve the rule of law and foreign investment.

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo overshadowed the vote, after Pristina banned ethnic Serbs in the north from voting on Kosovar soil.

In a joint statement on January 14, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, and the United States expressed regret that Kosovo didn't allow the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to collect the ballots of eligible voters living in Kosovo, which had been the case previously.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a 1998-99 conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces. Belgrade doesn’t recognize Kosovo and around 120,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo want to be part of Serbia.

Serbia and Kosovo's EU membership aspirations are contingent on the normalization of relations between the two counties.

North Macedonia's Kovacevski Approved As New PM

Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski says his government will focus on economic growth, addressing the country's energy crisis, and advancing North Macedonia’s bid for European Union membership.

North Macedonia’s parliament has elected Dimitar Kovacevski as prime minister of a Social Democrat-led government after two months of political crisis.

The new coalition cabinet, composed of Kovacevski's Social Democrats and two ethnic Albanian parties as junior partners, won the January 16 vote 62-46 in the 120-seat legislature.

The center-right opposition VMRO-DPMNE party voted against, demanding early elections to give any government legitimacy.

Kovachevski, 47, was a deputy finance minister in the previous government of Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev.

Zaev resigned after his party’s poor performance in local elections last October.

Kovacevski says his government will focus on economic growth, addressing the country's energy crisis, and advancing North Macedonia’s bid for European Union membership.

In 2019, Macedonia added North to its official name, resolving a dispute with Greece that allowed the country to join NATO.

But neighboring Bulgaria has blocked the opening of EU accession negotiations due to a dispute over historical and language issues.

Bulgaria’s new Prime Minister Kiril Petkov is scheduled lead an official delegation to North Macedonia on January 18.

Ex-President Poroshenko Defiant As He Returns To Ukraine To Face Treason Charges

Defiant Ex-President Poroshenko Returns To Ukraine To Face Treason Charges
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Former President Petro Poroshenko has returned to Ukraine to fight treason charges he rejects as politically motivated, setting the stage for a divisive political storm as the government seeks the support of its Western partners amid heightened tensions with Russia.

At Kyiv airport, where he arrived on a flight from Warsaw on January 17, Poroshenko was greeted by several thousand supporters. Some held banners reading, "We need democracy" and "Stop repressions."

From the airport Poroshenko went to court, which will decide whether to remand him in custody during the investigation and trial. Prosecutors requested bail of 1 billion hryvnyas ($37 million) and the wearing of an electronic tracking bracelet as a condition for the release of the 56-year-old Poroshenko, one of Ukraine's richest businessmen.

After hours of proceedings, the court adjourned until January 19.

The accusations against Poroshenko are linked to an alleged sale of coal that helped finance Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15, while Poroshenko was in office.

Poroshenko, who is now a lawmaker and the leader of the opposition European Solidarity party, accuses his successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of political persecution.

The former president and his allies also accuse Zelenskiy of promoting political division at a time Ukraine needs unity in the face of a Russian troop buildup near its borders that has spawned fears of a possible attack.

"We're here not to defend Poroshenko, we're here to join forces and defend Ukraine," Poroshenko told supporters at Kyiv's airport after being out of the country since December. "United Ukraine is strong, and a strong Ukraine is capable of pushing back against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."

The billionaire businessman has already had his assets frozen as part of the investigation. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

U.S. Senators In Kyiv Reaffirm Bipartisan Support For Ukraine
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Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and began supporting separatist fighters in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that broke out the same year and has claimed more than 13,200 lives.

The allegations against Poroshenko have caused international concern that Zelenskiy and his allies are settling scores at a time attention needs to be focused on the Russian troop buildup.

"All political leaders in Ukraine need to unite against Russian aggression right now. So important at this time not to lose sight of this or be distracted by polarizing domestic politics," Melinda Simmons, the British ambassador to Ukraine, said in a tweet on January 17.

During a visit by a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation to Kyiv on January 17, Senator Rob Portman (Republican-Ohio) urged a fair process and encouraged unity among Ukrainians.

"We have to be sure that the rule of law is followed," Portman told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service after a press briefing. "I hope that the message of unification will be the strongest message."

Poroshenko was elected as head of a pro-Western government after the 2014 popular protests ousted Russia-backed former President Viktor Yanukovich.

Zelenskiy crushed Poroshenko in the 2019 election on a campaign to fight corruption and curb the influence of oligarchs.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters

Senior U.S. Official Says Washington 'Ready Either Way' In Russia-Ukraine Crisis

"If Russia wants to go down the path of invasion and escalation, we're ready for that, too, with a robust response," White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said. 

The United States will in the coming days lay out its future steps in the standoff with Russia over the latter's troop buildup near the border with Ukraine, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said on January 16, following a week of talks that failed to ease concerns of a possible conflict.

Sullivan, in an interview with CBS, said Washington was "ready either way."

"We're in close touch with our allies and partners, including the Ukrainians," Sullivan, who is the top adviser to President Joe Biden, said. "We're coordinating closely on next steps. And we'll have more to share in terms of the next steps into the diplomacy early next week.

"But the key point here is that we're ready either way. If Russia wants to move forward with diplomacy, we are absolutely ready to do that in lockstep with our allies and partners."

The United States says Russia has deployed up to 100,000 soldiers along the border with Ukraine and has accused Moscow of seeking to provoke a "pretext" for a possible offensive.

"If Russia wants to go down the path of invasion and escalation, we're ready for that, too, with a robust response," Sullivan said.

The United States and its NATO allies held talks this week with Russia focusing on the tensions over Ukraine and the European security architecture, but all three rounds of negotiations -- in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna -- failed to make significant progress.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on January 13 that Moscow saw no reason to hold a new round of security talks with the West.

On January 16, the Kremlin warned that the West and Russia are on "totally different tracks" despite the week of intense diplomacy.

"There are some understandings between us. But in general, in principle, we can now say that we are staying on different tracks, on totally different tracks. And this is not good. This is disturbing," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with CNN.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a series of demands for security guarantees in Europe, including NATO not accepting new members like Ukraine and Georgia, and limits on allied deployments in Eastern European NATO members.

Western officials say Russia’s combative rhetoric and troop buildup near Ukraine is an attempt to pressure the United States and European allies to bend toward the Kremlin's wish list.

Moscow insists its military deployment is a response to what it sees as the growing presence of NATO in its sphere of influence and denies it plans to invade Ukraine.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Ukrainian Ministry Accuses Russia Of Being Behind Cyberattack

A message left by the attackers in the January 14 mass web defacement told Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.” (file photo)

Ukraine on January 16 accused Russia of being behind a cyberattack that disabled government websites, adding that Moscow has been waging an increasingly intense “hybrid war” against its neighbor.

On January 14, the Ukrainian government was targeted in an attack that forced many of its websites offline, included those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Energy, and the Ministry of Civil Protection.

“All evidence indicates that Russia is behind the cyberattack. Moscow continues to wage a hybrid war and is actively building up its forces in the information and cyberspaces,” the Ministry of Digital Development said in a statement on January 16.

We've been warning for weeks and months, both publicly and privately, that cyberattacks could be part of a broad-based Russian effort to escalate in Ukraine."
-- U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan

The cyberattack comes as the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looms after Moscow massed some 100,000 troops near the border with its neighbor and talks to resolve the tense standoff appear stalled.

A message left by the attackers in the January 14 mass web defacement told Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.”

U.S. tech giant Microsoft said in a blog post on January 15 that its security experts discovered malware on dozens of government computers in Ukraine that could render them unusable.

Although the malware disguised itself as ransomware, its true purpose was to be able to destroy data on the command of hackers, Microsoft said.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement.

But U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan on January 16 voiced skepticism about Russia's denial, telling CBS, "We've been warning for weeks and months, both publicly and privately, that cyberattacks could be part of a broad-based Russian effort to escalate in Ukraine."

Sullivan added that the United States was working with Ukraine to beef up its cyberdefenses, while also coordinating with U.S. firms like Microsoft on ways to prevent future cyberattacks.

Sullivan added that U.S. experts had yet to positively confirm Russian responsibility for the cyberattack against Ukrainian targets.

However, he added, "It would not surprise me one bit if it ends up being attributed to Russia.

"If it turns out that Russia is pummeling Ukraine with cyberattacks and if that continues over the period ahead, we will work with our allies on the appropriate response," he said.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Almost 4,000 Iraqis Repatriated From Belarus's Borders, Baghdad Says

An Iraqi woman holds a child as migrants gather for their departure to Baghdad at the airport in Minsk. (file photo)

Iraq has repatriated up to 4,000 of its citizens who had been stuck on the border of Belarus and European Union members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia in recent weeks, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said on January 16.

Fuad, speaking at a press conference in Baghdad with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, said that since November 18, the Iraqi government has organized "10 flights from Baghdad to Belarus" to repatriate its citizens.

Separately, Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf later told AFP that "3,817 Iraqi migrants have been repatriated from Belarus and 112 from Lithuania."

Sahaf said some Iraqis were still stuck in Belarus but that "the difficult weather and the complex environment do not allow rescuers to determine their numbers."

The EU accuses Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime of funneling thousands of mostly Middle Eastern migrants to the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania as part of a “hybrid attack” to retaliate for Western sanctions that were imposed following Lukashenka's crackdown on those protesting his reelection in a controversial vote in August 2020 .

Belarus has denied the claim and criticized the EU for not taking in the migrants.

With reporting by AFP and ELTA

Iran Confirms Jailing Of French-Iranian Academic Again

Fariba Adelkhah (file photo)

Iranian authorities confirmed that they have re-incarcerated French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah for breaking house arrest restrictions.

The judiciary news website Mizan.news on January 16 quoted the deputy head of the judiciary, Kazem Gharibabadi, as saying Adelkhah, who had been furloughed with an electronic-monitoring bracelet, violated judicial restrictions “dozens of times.”

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The official claimed that Adelkhah, 62, violated the limits of her house arrest “despite repeated warnings from judicial authorities.”

On January 12, the French Foreign Ministry condemned Adelkhah's new imprisonment and demanded her immediate release, saying her case has negative consequences on the relationship between Paris and Tehran.

She holds both Iranian and French passports, but Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationality. Iranian officials insist that Adelkhah is an Iranian citizen and have denied French consular staff access to her.

Adelkhah, an expert on Iran and Shi’a Islam at France's prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, was arrested on June 5, 2019, at Tehran airport.

Adelkhah was given a five-year sentence for conspiring against national security. Iranian authorities have not provided any solid evidence to back the charges.

In October 2020, she was allowed to live under house arrest at her sister’s home in Tehran, wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet.

Adelkhah is one of at least a dozen Western nationals believed to be held in Iran. Rights groups accuse Iran of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West.

Iran denies it, though there have been such prisoner exchanges in the past. In March 2020, Iran released Adelkhah's French colleague and partner, Roland Marchal, in a prisoner exchange with France.

Marchal, who was arrested in June 2019 alongside Adelkhah, was swapped for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Language Law For National Print Media Comes Into Force In Ukraine

Supporters of the law say it will strengthen national identity. Critics argue that it could disenfranchise the country’s native Russian speakers. (file photo)

A language law came into force in Ukraine on January 16 that requires all national print media to be published in the country’s official language, Ukrainian, in a bid to push back against the use of the Russian language in the public sphere.

The law, adopted in 2019, does not ban publication in Russian but stipulates that a parallel Ukrainian version of equal scope and circulation must be published, too. It’s not considered a profitable option for publishers in the shrinking market for print media.

The transition -- which comes amid an escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia -- is based on a controversial language law from 2019 that was passed just after former President Petro Poroshenko was voted out of office.

Poroshenko signed it just before current President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took office and a transitional period has been in place since then.

Supporters of the law say it will strengthen national identity. Critics argue that it could disenfranchise the country’s native Russian speakers.

The law stipulates that, starting in mid-May, news sites registered in Ukraine must at least offer an equivalent Ukrainian-language version of articles. It requires that the Ukrainian version must open first.

The Ukrainian language requirement will apply to regional media starting July 2024. Radio and television have already been under strict Ukrainian language quotas for years.

Ukraine’s State Language Law, which went into effect on July 16, declares that Ukrainian is "the only official state language" in the country.

Ukrainian is the native language of some 67 percent of Ukraine's almost 43.5 million population, while Russian is the native language of almost 30 percent. Russian is spoken mostly in urban areas. Almost 3 percent of Ukraine's inhabitants are native speakers of other languages.

Based on reporting by dpa, TASS, and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service

Djokovic Deported From Australia After Court Upholds His Visa Cancellation

Novak Djokovic (left) walks in Melbourne airport before boarding a flight to Dubai on January 16.

Tennis world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has left Melbourne after Australia's Federal Court upheld a decision to deport the athlete over his coronavirus vaccination status.

The nine-time Australian Open champion was scheduled to play in the main stadium on Day 1 of the tournament, which begins on January 17.

But a three-judge panel on January 16 unanimously supported the decision made by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to cancel Djokovic’s visa on public interest grounds because he is not vaccinated for COVID-19.

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Djokovic said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling, which dashed the 34-year-old Serb’s hope to defend his Australian Open title for the fourth time in a row. But Djokovic added that he would comply and leave the country.

Australian federal agents escorted Djokovic and his team from the business lounge to the gate of the Melbourne airport, where he boarded a flight bound for Dubai.

Australian Open organizers declined immediate comment on the court's decision.

The ATP, the governing body for men's tennis, expressed regret that Djokovic -- “one of [the] sport’s greatest champions”-- can’t play at the upcoming tournament.

The ATP also pointed out that it “continues to strongly recommend vaccination to all players.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the court ruling, saying the decision will help "keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe."

In Serbia, Djokovic's family on January 16 claimed "politics" interfered with the decision and said they were "very disappointed" with Australian authorities' decision to revoke his visa and deport him from the country.

"We are very disappointed with the decision of the Federal Court and the fact that Novak has to leave Australia," the family said in a statement. "Despite the scandalous behavior towards Novak, we believed that the sport would win."

It also said the court ruling was related with "politics and all [other] interests."

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic criticized Australia’s government for what he called the "harassing and bullying [of]...the best tennis player ever."

Djokovic is hugely popular in his home country. Vucic said he told Djokovic after the court ruling "that we can’t wait to see him in Serbia, to return to his country, to come where he is always welcome.”

Djokovic was trying to use a medical exemption to get around the requirements that everyone at the Australian Open -- players, their support teams, spectators, and others -- be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Hawke admitted that Djokovic was at "negligible" risk of infecting Australians but argued his past "disregard" for COVID-19 regulations posed a risk to public health and discouraged people from getting boosters just as the country experiences an increase in omicron infections.

Djokovic has won a total of 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and dpa

Serbs Block Major Highways In Latest Protest Against Lithium Mine Plans

Hundreds of people on January 15 blocked the main north-south highway in Belgrade for more than an hour.

BELGRADE -- Protesters blocked a major highway in the Serbian capital and other roads in the country in the latest in a series of public protests against a planned lithium mine.

Hundreds of people on January 15 blocked the main north-south highway in Belgrade for more than an hour. Other roads, including one by Serbia's border with Bosnia, also were blocked.

Highway Blocked In Serbia In Protest Against Lithium Mine
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Minor incidents were reported, with angry drivers trying to push their way through the crowds.

Environmental groups want the government to halt any lithium mining in western Serbia and have pledged to press on with demonstrations until their demands are met. Groups want the Rio Tinto mining company “expelled” from Serbia.

Thousands joined similar demonstrations several weeks ago, forcing the government to withdraw two laws that activists said were designed to speed up mining projects.

Rio Tinto, a London-based mining giant, has performed preliminary engineering work for a planned lithium mine, but environmental groups say the mine would devastate farmland, waters, and the area's entire ecosystem, and have called for its complete cancellation.

Environmental issues have become a public concern for Serbs amid bad air pollution, poor waste management, and other environmental problems that have accumulated after decades of neglect.

With reporting by AP

Ukrainian Official Says Belarusian Intelligence Likely Behind Cyberattack

Serhiy Demedyuk, deputy secretary of Ukraine's national security and defense council (file photo)

A top Ukrainian official says a Belarusian intelligence agency is likely behind the hacking of several Ukrainian government websites this week.

Serhiy Demedyuk, deputy secretary of Ukraine's national security and defense council, spoke with Reuters on January 15, a day after Ukrainian websites were disabled and defaced with threatening messages.

Demedyuk said a group known as UNC1151 was behind the hack.

"This is a cyberespionage group affiliated with the special services of the Republic of Belarus," he said in a written comment to Reuters.

The cyberattack came as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine's borders. The crisis, and the threat of a new invasion of Ukraine, brought diplomats from Washington, Moscow, and Europe together for three separate, high-level meetings this past week.

Ukrainian and other officials have also suggested that Russia was likely involved in the hack, but provided no proof.

Belarus is a close ally of Russia, which has dismissed such fears as "unfounded."

Belarusian officials did not respond to a request for comment.

"The group specializes in cyberespionage, which is associated with the Russian special services and which, for its attacks, resorts to recruiting or undercover work of its insiders in the right company," Demedyuk told Reuters.

The group UNC1151 has been tracked by cyberexperts in the past.

In November, the private company Mandiant published a report alleging UNC1151 was behind a campaign to steal government credentials and spread disinformation in Europe. Mandiant said it had "moderate confidence" that Belarus was "at least partially responsible" for the campaign known as Ghostwriter.

"We cannot rule out Russian contributions to either UNC1151 or Ghostwriter," Mandiant said.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Highway Blocked In Serbia In Protest Against Lithium Mine

Highway Blocked In Serbia In Protest Against Lithium Mine
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Hundreds of environmental activists in Serbia blocked a major highway in the capital, Belgrade, for about an hour on January 15 in the latest protest against London-based Rio Tinto's plans to develop a $2.4 billion lithium mine. The protests have been held in Serbia every Saturday since late November. The government has offered mineral resources to foreign investors, including China's Zijin copper mine and metals company Rio Tinto, as it seeks to boost economic growth. Activists say the projects will cause pollution. A cabinet decision on how to proceed is expected soon. The protests are seen as a factor ahead of April 3 national elections.

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