Oil is the lifeblood of the Russian economy. It’s also a commodity prized by criminal groups that illegally siphon off millions of tons a year from Russia’s pipelines to sell on the black market. According to an exclusive RFE/RL investigation, police and security officers provide protection and logistical assistance, in exchange for a cut of the illicit profits. According to investigation author, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Sergei Khazov-Cassia, FSB agents play a large role n the scheme, “but absolutely all law enforcement agencies are involved.”
They come from Ukraine, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan -- and they have been deported from Russia for joining peaceful protests in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. They are now divided from their Russian wives and children. The head of a parliamentary commission into alleged foreign interference in Russian affairs said any foreigners involved in demonstrations should face automatic deportation.
Protesters threw flares and sprayed slogans on the Ukrainian presidential building in Kyiv late on March 20, demanding the release of activist Serhiy Sternenko from prison. The former leader of the far-right paramilitary Right Sector group in the city of Odesa was convicted on charges of robbery and illegal handling of weapons. Sternenko’s supporters and a number of Ukrainian nongovernmental organizations have decried the charges as politically motivated.
Kosovo lawmakers gathered in Pristina for their first parliamentary session since the country held a snap election on February 14. During the session, the parliament elected Albin Kurti, the leader of the winning Self-Determination Movement, as the country’s new prime minister.
In 2018, more than half of Russians considered their country to be European. This year, less than one-third agreed with that statement.
The foreign ministers of China and Russia have met in a display of unity and called for a summit of permanent members of the UN Security Council amid Western sanctions against them over human rights violations and repression of political dissent. Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov rejected Western criticism at a joint news conference in Beijing on March 23, with Lavrov saying that Russia and China view the United States as trying to rely on Cold War-era military political alliances in an attempt to destroy international legal architecture. In the meantime, Bulgarian MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk says China imposed sanctions on him over Uyghur Ilham Tohti's Sakharov Prize.
** For more on China’s interests in Eurasia, subscribe to RFE/RL’s monthly China in Eurasia newsletter -- authored by Reid Standish -- and follow Reid’s blog, where he builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to offer unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being built from Russia to Germany is against the European Union's own interests and warned Berlin of possible sanctions over the project. "President (Joe) Biden has been very clear, he believes the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States, ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU's own security goals," Blinken said on March 23 as he met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. Germany is pushing for the pipeline's completion despite sustained U.S. opposition for more than a decade.
European Council President Charles Michel has told Russian President Vladimir Putin that relations between the European Union and Russia are “at a low point” with disagreements in “many areas,” which the Russian leader blamed on the bloc's "confrontational policies." Michel and Putin spoke by telephone on March 22 after the EU imposed sanctions on two Chechen officials over rights abuses in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya and ahead of a video conference of EU leaders on March 25-26 set to address EU-Russia ties.
Bulgaria’s government has given two Russian diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, after the authorities uncovered the latest in a string of Moscow-linked spy scandals. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry declared the Russian diplomats “personae non gratae” on March 22 because they had carried out activities “incompatible” with their diplomatic status. The Russian Embassy called the decision “groundless” and said that Moscow “reserves the right to retaliate.”
Norway has announced that it is blocking Rolls-Royce's sale of Norwegian engine maker Bergen Engines to a Russian company over concerns it could allow sensitive technology to end up in Russian hands. “The sale would strengthen Russian military capabilities in a way that would clearly be contrary to Norwegian and allied security policy interests,” Justice and Public Security Minister Monica Maeland said on March 23 as she outlined to the Norwegian parliament why the move was being taken. "We now have enough information to conclude that it is absolutely necessary to prevent the sale of the company to a company controlled by a country with which we have no cooperation in the field of security," she added.
The team of jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny is making a new push to free the anti-corruption campaigner with plans for the largest anti-Kremlin protest in Russia's modern history. In an announcement on Navalny's website on March 23, the team said the date and site of the rally will be announced once at least 500,000 people express their willingness to participate. The group also launched a special website to register those who would like to take part in the event as part of the push to get Navalny released from prison. Also read -- in Russia's provinces, Navalny's besieged movement says it's “again gathering force.” At the same time, the court rejected Navalny's lawsuit accusing investigators of failing to probe his poisoning.
Ivan Belozertsev, the governor of Russia's Penza region and a vocal supporter of President Vladimir Putin, has been arrested and sent to pretrial detention for two months on corruption charges. The Basmanny district court in Moscow ruled on March 22 that Belozertsev must remain in pretrial detention until at least May 20. The Investigative Committee has accused Belozertsev of accepting a bribe worth of 31 million rubles ($420,000).
Over the winter, fewer Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid cold weather, a brutal government crackdown, and perhaps fatigue. Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya lamented in February that the pro-democracy movement had "lost the streets," but vowed to seek a revival come spring -- starting with a nationwide rally on March 25, which coincides with Freedom Day, the anniversary of a short-lived Belarusian republic founded in 1918. Lukashenka shows no signs of willingness to compromise, however, and his top security officials have vowed to deal harshly with any new large-scale protests. Also read -- leader of Belarus opposition party Mikalay Kazlou detained and extension of Belarus opposition figure Maryya Kalesnikava’s pretrial detention upheld.
Speaking with Current Time TV, Russian opposition politician and Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin demanded that organizers of Moscow’s pro-Crimea annexation “Crimea Spring'' festival be punished over violations of anti-COVID regulations limiting stadium capacities to no more than 50 percent. Judging by video recordings of the event, the stadium was filled to maximum capacity, with many people not wearing masks or exercising social distancing. Yashin has personally submitted an official complaint to the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, noting that many close Aleksei Navalny supporters are currently being prosecuted for allegedly violating anti-COVID regulations. (in Russian, Current Time TV)
The prosecutors office in the Russian city of Smolensk have asked that three Jehovah’s Witnesses -- 31-year-old Yevgeniy Deshko, 38-year-old Ruslan Korolev and 43-year-old Valery Shalev -- be sentenced to between eight and nine years in prison on charges of organizing the activities of a banned organization. It is reported that a fourth defendant in the case, Viktor Malkov, died while in custody but before the court hearings got underway. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that Markov died because he was denied proper medical treatment. Since being outlawed by Russia as "extremist" in 2017, more than 50 Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia and the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea for up to 7 1/2 years. (Russian Service)
The U.S. Supreme Court says it will consider reinstating the death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, agreeing to hear an appeal filed by the administration of former President Donald Trump. The court said on March 22 that it had "granted permission" for an appeal filed by the Trump administration to be heard, but gave no further details. Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who was born in Kyrgyzstan, was convicted in 2015 of killing three people and injuring hundreds of others during the 2013 Boston Marathon.
RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service project Donbas.Realities visited a Ukrainian air reconnaissance unit stationed near the front lines in eastern Ukraine. The unit has evolved from a volunteer group into a separate military unit that, despite its effectiveness -- comparable, perhaps, to that of artillery gunners or snipers, is perhaps the most closed to the press. Among the unit’s assignments is to locate wounded and killed soldiers. To counter Ukrainian air reconnaissance, Russia-backed separatists in Donbas use special devices to disrupt the control and navigation of a drone, which could cause the operator to lose it. In addition, Russian hybrid forces often simply open fire at Ukrainian military drones. (Ukrainian Service/Donbas.Realii)
A powerful Bulgarian politician who stepped down two years ago amid accusations of corruption is trying to make a comeback in upcoming parliamentary elections with the help of a U.S.-based trucking tycoon. Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the former right-hand man to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, has formed the Republicans for Bulgaria party with Pavel Valnev -- the owner of the Illinois-based AmeriFreight Systems -- to challenge his once close friend.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian says that Lieutenant-General Artak Davtian has become Chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces "by virtue of law." Pashinian, who nominated Davtian as the new army chief earlier this month amid a standoff with the armed forces' General Staff and its chief, Onik Gasparian, made the announcement on Facebook on March 22. President Armen Sarkisian has repeatedly refused to accept Pashinian's proposal to appoint Davtian as the new chief of staff for the armed forces as the country's ongoing political deadlock continues.
Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Kakhaber Sabanadze has resigned amid media reports he ordered the intentional disruption of a gathering of opposition groups and used illegal surveillance to keep track of certain politicians. Sabanadze announced his decision to step down from the post on March 23 after the Mtavari Arkhi and TV Pirveli television channels published an interview over the weekend with an ex-employee of the State Security Service, Vano Gulashvili, who claimed that a meeting of opposition groups in 2019 in Tbilisi had been disrupted on Sabanadze's orders.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says gay men in Uzbekistan face arbitrary detention, prosecution, and imprisonment and has called on the Central Asian nation's government to guarantee their rights and decriminalize same-sex sexual conduct. In a statement issued on March 23, HRW said gay men in the former Soviet republic, a current member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, face "homophobia, threats, and extortion" and the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct remains "a significant stain" on Tashkent’s record.
MAJLIS PODCAST: Bad News For The Remittance Dependent In Central Asia