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Archive for: August 2022 - DIGEST UKRAINE

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An agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, mediated over the weekend by the European Union and the U.S., settled a dispute over identity documents, but tensions over the matter, as well as license plates for ethnic Serbs in the north of Kosovo, are a reminder of the fragile stability in the region.

Citizens can now move freely between the countries with their national ID cards. Until now, Kosovo citizens were given temporary Serbian documents when traveling to Serbia. In the latest deal, Kosovo agreed not to introduce entry/exit documents for Serbian ID holders.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, hailed the agreement.

“This is a European solution. We congratulate both leaders on this decision & their leadership,” he said on Twitter.

“The United States supports this agreement and sees it as an important step forward towards normalized relations, centered on mutual recognition,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA on Monday.

But analysts say it is precisely Serbia’s refusal to recognize the sovereignty of its former province that lies at the crux of the problems between the countries.

David Kanin, adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former CIA senior analyst, told VOA, “There’s only one problem between Serbia and Kosovo, and that is the status of Kosovo.” He said that problems such as ID cards and license plates are “simply part of that issue.”

Frank Wisner, a retired U.S. ambassador who served as the U.S. special envoy to U.N.-backed talks between the countries, told VOA that the U.S. is steadfast in its support for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, which it declared in 2008.

“The United States has been foursquare behind Kosovo in consolidating that independence and achieving the widest possible recognition, but most particularly recognition by Serbia. That has not happened,” he said, adding that it is not likely to happen soon.

Kosovo sees the latest agreement as one step on the road to mutual recognition, with Prime Minister Albin Kurti saying full reciprocity on other issues will be imposed, if an agreement to that end is not reached.

“We want there to be normalization to be achieved through an internationally and legally binding agreement for the complete normalization of relations with mutual recognition at the center,” he said one day after the deal on ID cards was achieved.

But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that allowing border crossing with Kosovo ID cards is done for practical reasons and “cannot be interpreted as recognition of Kosovo’s independence.”

The European Union is leading the dialogue between the countries. Five of its own members do not recognize Kosovo, and Kanin says that that puts Serbia in a comfortable position.

“On the Kosovo side, on the other hand, they can’t do anything to force through their sovereignty because the context in which they are operating prevents their sovereignty from being universally recognized, because that context includes five members of the EU who do not recognize Kosovo as a country,” he said.

The European Union has told both countries their EU aspirations hinge on normalizing relations.

Roadblocks in Kosovo

The latest round of high-level diplomacy followed tensions in late July in a part of northern Kosovo where ethnic Serbs are in the majority, after Kosovo’s government announced it would begin requiring Serbian document holders entering Kosovo to obtain temporary Kosovo-issued IDs, just as Kosovo citizens entering Serbia have had to do for over a decade.

Kosovo also said it would begin requiring ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo to use Kosovo license plates for their cars, instead of Serbian ones. Some local Serbs responded by blocking roads, prompting NATO to warn against escalation.

“Should stability be jeopardized KFOR stands ready to intervene and will take any measures that are necessary to ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all the people of Kosovo,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, referring to the 3,770-troop peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Roads were opened after Kurti agreed to postpone implementation of the plan for ID cards and license plates until September 1, but the flare-up was a reminder that security is fragile in a region where old disagreements are not settled and memories of the 1998-99 Kosovo war remain fresh. Kosovo still plans to implement the license plate requirement on September 1.

Between EU and Moscow

Since the July flare-up, Moscow has repeatedly expressed its support for Serbia. The countries have historical ties. Serbia – like Kosovo and other Western Balkans countries – aspires to become an EU member, but unlike them it has not imposed sanctions on Russia.

Last week its minister of interior, Alexandar Vulin, met in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Referring to Western sanctions, Vulin said Belgrade “will never engage in anti-Russian hysteria.”

“Serbia is the only state in Europe that didn’t introduce sanctions and was not part of the anti-Russian hysteria,” he told Lavrov.

Serbia, however, has joined the U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion. In a Reuters interview on Monday, Vucic said that his country is the stage for a proxy war between East and West.

“You have a proxy war of big powers going on in Serbia through political players, the nongovernmental sector on both sides, the media and various social organizations, and you can see it every day, in every way,” he said, speaking to Reuters at his office in Belgrade.

Kanin says Vucic is comfortable sitting on two stools.

“Serbia is not going along with Western policy in total,” he said. “They’ve gone along with certain things, [such as] the U.N. vote. There have been certain areas in which Vucic has leaned toward the Western stool. In certain situations, he leans toward the Russian stool.”

Next steps

There is no agreement yet on the license plates for local Serbs in Kosovo’s North, and on Wednesday, Serbia’s Vucic said he does not believe that a solution is possible.

“From September 1, [Kosovo] will … try to force Serbs to change car plates, and I don’t think they will have a big success” Vucic told reporters.

However, Major General Ferenc Kajari, the commander of NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, sought to dispel fears about a conflict. “We are monitoring the situation … and we don’t see even an indication of any preparation for a war,” he told Reuters.

The U.S. envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, has called on the parties to continue the dialogue and to implement all the agreements that they have agreed on, including one on a Community of Serb Municipalities in the North of Kosovo. Kurti is against such a monoethnic body with executive powers within the country.

Whether one believes that incremental progress will ultimately yield mutual recognition or that agreements on practical matters are beneficial for their own sake, Kosovo and Serbia are bound to face their disagreements.

Wisner said full resolution is the ultimate goal, “but you can only get there step by step.”

“It also falls to the two governments in Belgrade and Pristina to find steps short of a full resolution that will bring good sense to the region and allow practical solutions to practical problems and give time a chance to make a difference on the overall question of recognition.”

Besim Abazi and Milan Nesic contributed to this report. Some information came from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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A new prime minister will take power in Britain next week after the resignation of Boris Johnson in July, following a series of scandals. His successor faces a series of daunting economic and political challenges, while Britain’s allies — especially Ukraine — are watching closely.

The fewer than 200,000 Conservative party members, around 0.3 percent of Britain’s voting population, will choose the next leader of the party and the country. The field has been whittled down to two candidates: former chancellor Rishi Sunak, who resigned from Johnson’s cabinet, and the current foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who polls show as the overwhelming favorite.


Their first challenge: war in Ukraine. Britain has provided around $2.7 billion of military aid to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion in February, second only to the United States. Britain is training hundreds of Ukrainian troops and has pledged to invest millions of dollars in rebuilding the country.

The outgoing prime minister is hugely popular in Kyiv. Bakeries sell Boris Johnson-themed cakes and biscuits, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made no secret of his wish for Johnson to remain in power. So will his departure spell a changing relationship? That’s highly unlikely under Liz Truss, said political analyst Alan Wager of the U.K. in a Changing Europe program at Kings College London.

“There’s almost zero chance of any significant change in the U.K.’s approach to the crisis in Ukraine. [Truss] was foreign secretary under the Boris Johnson administration and many of her key backers are, if you like, hawks when it comes to Ukraine. She’s also committed to increasing U.K. defense spending to 3 percent of gross domestic product and continuing the supply of arms to Ukraine,” Wager told VOA.

Ukraine may be the least complicated of the challenges facing Britain’s next prime minister.

Energy crisis

Domestic gas and electricity prices are set to soar by 80 percent in October, with even higher increases for businesses, compounding the post-COVID-19 economic crisis and raising the prospect of an imminent recession.

Charities say such price rises could be deadly for the most vulnerable in society.

“Families just cannot afford anything close to this. It’s a disaster. Ten thousand people die every year in the U.K. directly because of a cold home. That number is going to skyrocket,” Adam Scorer, chief executive of the charity National Energy Action, told Reuters.

Truss has, for now, ruled out price caps or cash handouts to help people pay their bills — and says tax cuts are the answer.

“What I’m talking about is enabling people to keep more money in their own pockets,” Truss said during a campaign event August 9. “What I don’t believe in is taxing people to the highest level in 70 years and then giving them their own money back. We are Conservatives, we believe in low taxes, and what I’m not going to do is announce the next budget in advance.”

Former chancellor Sunak has pledged more support for energy bills but did not give further details.

“If a British Conservative government goes through the autumn [fall] and winter and does not provide direct support to those vulnerable people, I believe it will be a moral failure and the British people will never forgive us,” Sunak said during a debate August 19 in Manchester.

In a sign of the country’s economic pressures, the British pound has fallen to its lowest level against the U.S. dollar since early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.


Meanwhile Britain’s relations with European neighbors remain strained, six years after the country’s vote to leave the European Union. Asked on the campaign trail if the president of France was a friend or foe, Truss said, “The jury’s out. … But if I become prime minister, I will judge him on deeds not words.”

She was applauded by some Conservative party members — but others criticized her for questioning Britain’s relationship with a close neighbor and NATO ally.

Asked about Truss’ comments, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “The British people, Britain, is a friend of France, a strong ally, no matter its leaders — and sometimes despite its leaders.”

Truss has also pledged to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, a key Brexit customs agreement that Boris Johnson signed with the European Union to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“That could lead, in time, to a trade war between the U.K. and the EU,” said analyst Alan Wager.

He added the two candidates are appealing to a relatively tiny electorate and have rarely been tested on the campaign trail.

“The U.K. is entering into this new crisis if you like — this new economic crisis coupled with this international crisis in Ukraine — without its political leaders having to confront the key challenges that the U.K. faces. And that leaves the U.K. extremely vulnerable going into this winter across many fronts,” Wager told VOA.

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India and China are among several countries taking part in Russia’s weeklong joint military drills scheduled to get underway on Thursday in the east of the country, according to Russia’s state-owned news agency Tass. 

While India has previously taken part in multinational military drills in Russia — an Indian contingent was part of Zapad military exercises held in September 2021 — analysts say its participation in the “Vostok-2022” military exercises in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaffirms New Delhi’s friendly ties with Moscow despite a tightening strategic partnership with the United States. 

“India’s participation in exercises in Russia is not unusual, but this time, they are also making a political point,” said Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “New Delhi is emphasizing that it will adhere to the independent position that it has taken in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and continue to remain neutral between the U.S. and Russia.”   

India has refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow. Its oil imports from Moscow have risen sharply this year as it takes advantage of deep discounts. 

India has defended its oil purchases as necessary for what it says is an energy deficient, developing country like India. “We have been very honest about our interests,” India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said earlier this month in Bangkok. “I have a country with a per capita income of $2,000. These aren’t people who can afford higher energy prices.”

Although India is currently purchasing weapons from other countries, including Israel and the United States, much of its existing weaponry is of Russian origin.

Analysts point out that India is unlikely to turn away from Russia anytime soon.

“India has an important relationship with Moscow with regard to defense and it has really no direct stake in the Ukraine crisis,” said Joshi. “If our national interest is served by maintaining ties with Russia, we will do so — that is India’s position.”  

For the time being, Washington appears to have accepted India’s position. Questioned about India’s participation in the Vostok military exercises earlier this month, State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said that the U.S. recognizes that reorienting a country’s foreign policy is a long-term challenge. 

“At the same time, we also recognize that there are countries around the world that have longstanding relationships, including security relationships, with countries like Russia, for example,” he told reporters at a press briefing. “Reorienting a country’s foreign policy or a country’s security establishment or defense procurement practices away from a country like Russia is not something that we can do overnight.” 

However, there are questions about how long India can continue to walk the middle ground between the United States and Russia amid the deepening tensions between the two countries. 

Analysts in Washington say that the U.S. appears to be taking a long view, with an eye toward trying to convince New Delhi that a long-term security partnership with Moscow is untenable. 

“Washington certainly worries about New Delhi’s enduring security partnership with Moscow,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center. “In the coming months, we can expect Washington to make the case to New Delhi that eventually Russia, sanctioned and cash-strapped, will no longer have the capacity to keep manufacturing and exporting weaponry to India.”

India for its part has maintained a low profile about the Russian drills — there has been no official word on its participation but sources in the Defense Ministry have confirmed that a contingent from India will take part. 

India’s military partnership with the United States is growing rapidly amid mutual worries over China. In mid-October, India and the U.S. will hold a joint military exercise as part of an annual military exercise known as “Yudh Abhyas” or “War Practice.” The location of the exercises — which according to reports will be 100 kilometers from the disputed India China border — is significant. 

For New Delhi, striking a balance between Russia and its partners in the Quad grouping that consists of India, U.S., Japan and Australia is also challenging. According to a report in the Deccan Herald newspaper, India will not take part in naval drills in the Sea of Japan that are part of the military exercises. New Delhi has close ties with Tokyo, which along with the U.S. and Australia is an important partner in efforts to counter China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

The strengthening Russia-China relationship could also emerge as a concern for New Delhi as tensions between India and Beijing over their border disputes show no signs of abating. While Beijing has joined drills with Moscow earlier, its participation in the Vostok military exercises reflects growing defense ties between the two countries amid tensions with the West, analysts say. 

“It is the first time the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has sent its Army, Navy and Air Force at the same time to a joint drill with Russia,” points out Bonnie S. Glaser, director with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “With the alignment between Moscow and Beijing growing closer, it can be expected that bilateral military ties will also likely increase.”

From Russia’s point of view, the participation of both India and China, who have tense bilateral ties with each other, underscores the country’s efforts to strengthen ties with both the large Asian economies.

Jagannath Panda, head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs said Moscow is hoping to ensure “Eurasian unity” against the West, “owing to its traditional partnership with India and the ideological friendship with China.

“Such a role has served Moscow well amidst Ukraine, as both countries have refrained from condemning Russian actions,” Panda said. 

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Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War without bloodshed but failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, hospital officials in Moscow said.

Below are some reactions from around the world:

Russian President Vladimir Putin: He expressed “his deepest condolences,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency. “Tomorrow he will send a telegram of condolences to his family and friends.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history. He did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the Cold War.

“On behalf of the United Nations, I extend my heartfelt condolences to Mikhail Gorbachev’s family and to the people and government of the Russian Federation.

“The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: “Mikhail Gorbachev was a trusted and respected leader. He played a crucial role to end the Cold War and bring down the Iron Curtain. It opened the way for a free Europe. … This legacy is one we will not forget.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III: “History will remember Mikhail Gorbachev as a giant who steered his great nation towards democracy. He played the critical role in a peaceful conclusion of the Cold War by his decision against using force to hold the empire together. … The free world misses him greatly.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “I always admired the courage & integrity he showed in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. … In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”

The Reagan Foundation and Institute: “The Reagan Foundation and Institute mourns the loss of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia.”

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Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the demise of the Soviet Union and helped end decades of Cold War fear, earning a Nobel Peace Prize and the lasting enmity of millions of Russians bitter about the chaos unleashed by the collapse of the world’s largest country, has died at age 91.

The Central Clinical Hospital on the outskirts of Moscow told the state news agency Tass that Gorbachev died Tuesday night “after a serious and prolonged illness.”

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement late Tuesday that Gorbachev “was a man of remarkable vision.”

“As leader of the USSR, he worked with President Reagan to reduce our two countries’ nuclear arsenals, to the relief of people worldwide praying for an end to the nuclear arms race,” Biden said. “After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring – not as mere slogans, but as the path forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation.”

Born in a rural corner of Russia less than 15 years after the Bolshevik Revolution to parents whose families had been peasants, Gorbachev became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, gathering global accolades for his role in reducing the threat of a nuclear apocalypse and in freeing millions of people from Soviet oppression in his country and beyond.

Just as notably, he was a target of the scorn of millions of Soviets who blamed him for the life-changing economic and social upheaval that accompanied the country’s collapse and for the loss of a mighty empire that spanned 11 time zones.

This was Gorbachev’s paradox: loved and loathed for a process that he set in motion and whose ultimate result was foreseen by few. It was a result that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rose to power less than a decade after Gorbachev resigned and remains in the Kremlin today, once called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Gorbachev made clear he never meant to bring down the country, repeating almost as a mantra that “the union could have been preserved.”

But despite occasional reversals, he ultimately sided with the forces of change that he helped unleash. And in retrospect, a dozen years after the Soviet Union was done, Gorbachev insisted that those momentous changes were the result of a conscious and very personal decision.

“Other people could have [come into office] and they might have done nothing to put the country on the road to humane, free and democratic development,” he said in an interview with RFE/RL in 2003.

Humble beginnings

In any case, Gorbachev will rank alongside such towering 20th-century figures as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — leaders who changed the fate of nations and had a profound impact on the lives of millions of people.

Born on March 2, 1931, into a poor family in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia’s Stavropol region, Gorbachev grew up amid the immense upheavals that roiled the Soviet Union in the first two decades of his life: collectivization, Stalin’s “Great Terror,” and the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is best known within Russia.

At about age 21, he joined the Communist Party while studying law at Moscow State University in 1952.

After marrying classmate Raisa Titorenko, Gorbachev returned to southern Russia, where he began to climb the ladder of the regional Communist bureaucracy, specializing in agriculture.

By 1970, he had risen to the top of the party hierarchy in Stavropol.

‘The state is there to serve the people’

In 1980, Gorbachev was appointed a full member of the Communist Party’s Politburo in Moscow.

To the surprise of many Kremlin watchers and Soviet citizens, he almost immediately began calling for reform, espousing twin doctrines that would become bywords for his time: “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring).

“The state is there to serve the people,” he said. “The people are not there to serve the state.”

That, according to Gorbachev, would be the new guiding principle.

Gorbachev and Raisa brought new style to the Kremlin, traveling around the USSR and abroad, plunging into crowds and leading impromptu discussions on the street.

A relaxation of economic regulations brought the rebirth of small businesses, cafes and restaurants for the first time since Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s. A partial lifting of censorship led to a renaissance in cultural life. Literary journals published previously banned authors, and theaters staged ever-more daring productions.

The disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986 forced a reluctant leadership to allow even greater freedom of expression and information. The government began to release political prisoners, most famously Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who designed nuclear weapons and later campaigned against them, resulting in his internal exile from 1980 to 1986.

Gorbachev called for an end to the arms race, and he improved relations with Washington, helping remove thousands of warheads that threatened Europe with destruction by signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987. In 1989, he ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, begun 10 years earlier under Leonid Brezhnev.

End of an empire

But all was not well in the empire. By 1989, what had begun as an effort to reform the Soviet Union’s economy and foreign policy had precipitated a crisis in industry and encouraged cries for self-determination that would soon engulf the entire region.

Gorbachev vastly underestimated the degree of economic decay. Shortages of basic household goods and foodstuffs were growing, and conservatives within the Communist Party grew ever-more strident in their criticism of his leadership.

He had also not counted on the fact that greater freedom would fan the forces of nationalism.

In October 1989, during a visit to East Berlin to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, Gorbachev signaled that Moscow would not try to turn back the clock.

A month later, the Berlin Wall fell.

“We have given up pretending to have a monopoly on truth,” Gorbachev said a few weeks after that, in a speech in Rome a day before a historic meeting with Pope John Paul II. “We no longer think that those who don’t agree with us are enemies.”

‘Freedom of choice’

In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to reducing East-West tensions, but he had precious little time to reflect on his achievement. While feted across Europe and the rest of the world, he continued to confront growing unrest at home.

On August 4, 1991, Gorbachev left with his family for his annual vacation in Crimea on the Black Sea, intending to complete a new version of a union treaty aimed to keep the USSR together as centrifugal force was pulling it apart.

On August 18, his chief of staff, accompanied by a group of senior government officials, arrived at the presidential dacha at Foros. They demanded that Gorbachev sign a decree declaring a state of emergency or resign. Gorbachev refused to do either. The officials confiscated the codes needed to launch the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. Gorbachev and his family were, in effect, under house arrest.

State television announced the imposition of a state of emergency “starting at 1600 Moscow time, on August 19, 1991,” claiming it was in response “to demands by broad sections of the population for the most decisive measures to prevent society from sliding toward a national catastrophe.”

Three days later, the coup collapsed, thanks to the incompetence of the plotters and the resistance demonstrated by Russia’s nascent political leader, Boris Yeltsin, and crowds of citizens who came out into the streets to oppose the attempted takeover.

‘A different direction’

In the months that followed, more republics declared independence from Moscow. On December 8, Yeltsin, along with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine, signed accords proclaiming the Soviet Union’s end and announcing the creation of a new entity called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Gorbachev stayed on in the Kremlin for a few more weeks, but power had slipped from his hands. On December 25, he resigned — stepping down as the leader of a country that had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1991, he founded The Gorbachev Foundation in an effort to maintain a voice in Russian affairs. In 1996, he ran for president but came in a distant seventh in a field of 10, with 0.5% of the vote. Later, he became a sometime critic of Putin, to whom Yeltsin handed the presidency on the last day of 1999.

Gorbachev was an approving voice for some of Putin’s most controversial actions on the international stage, including Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Suggesting he viewed the annexation in terms of Russia’s national interests, he told the media he would have acted “the same way” had he had the choice.

However, he continued to criticize many of Putin’s repressive domestic policies and opposed Putin’s decision to return to the presidency in 2012, when Dmitry Medvedev turned out to have been a placeholder after four years of hinting at reform. In 2013, Gorbachev commented that “politics is increasingly turning into imitation democracy.”

Gorbachev was also harshly critical of the United States, largely blaming Washington for poor ties by charging that it failed to develop good relations with Russia after the Soviet collapse.

In positions echoed by or echoing Putin’s, he accused the United States of relishing its status as the world’s sole superpower and lambasted the eastward expansion of NATO. He opposed NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which he had negotiated and signed with Reagan in 1987, as “not the work of a great mind.”

The ailing Gorbachev, who turned 91 a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, had made few public comments, about the war in Ukraine or anything else.

RFE/RL’s Jeremy Bransten contributed to this report.

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Mikhail Gorbachev, who as the last leader of the Soviet Union waged a losing battle to salvage a crumbling empire but produced extraordinary reforms that led to the end of the Cold War, has died at 91, Russian media reported Tuesday.

News organizations quoted a statement from the Central Clinical Hospital as saying he died after a long illness. No other details were given.

Though in power less than seven years, Gorbachev unleashed a breathtaking series of changes. But they quickly overtook him and resulted in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state, the freeing of Eastern European nations from Russian domination and the end of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation.

His decline was humiliating. His power hopelessly sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, he spent his last months in office watching republic after republic declare independence until he resigned on December 25, 1991. The Soviet Union wrote itself into oblivion a day later.

A quarter-century after the collapse, Gorbachev told The Associated Press that he had not considered using widespread force to try to keep the USSR together because he feared chaos in a nuclear country.

“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And it would have immediately pushed the country into a civil war,” he said.

Many of the changes, including the Soviet breakup, bore no resemblance to the transformation that Gorbachev had envisioned when he became the Soviet leader in March 1985.

By the end of his rule, he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.

“I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,” Gorbachev told The AP in a 1992 interview shortly after he left office.

“I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed. And with more persistence and determination,” he said.

Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years collecting accolades and awards from all corners of the world. Yet he was widely despised at home.

Russians blamed him for the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union — a once-fearsome superpower whose territory fractured into 15 separate nations. His former allies deserted him and made him a scapegoat for the country’s troubles.

The official news agency Tass reported that Gorbachev will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife.

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Під час обшуку в міськраді виявили «речовини, схожі на наркотичні засоби, незареєстровану вогнепальну зброю та набої до неї, велику кількість готівки»

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The Vatican sought on Tuesday to clarify the pope’s position on Ukraine, after the pontiff’s comment on the death of a Russian ultranationalist’s daughter ruffled feathers in Kyiv.

“The Holy Father’s words on this dramatic issue are to be read as a voice raised in defense of human life and the values associated with it, and not as political positions,” the Vatican said in a statement.

It stressed that the war in Ukraine had been “initiated by the Russian Federation” and that Pope Francis had been “clear and unequivocal in condemning it as morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious.”

Speaking on Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24, the pope had said of the conflict: “So many innocents… are paying for madness.”

He cited as one example Daria Dugina — the daughter of a Russian ultranationalist ally of President Vladimir Putin’s — who was killed when a bomb exploded under her car.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andriy Yurash, responded that the pope should not have put “aggressor and victim” in the same category and the Vatican’s envoy to Kyiv was summoned to the foreign ministry to explain.

Pope Francis, who has repeatedly condemned the conflict, has, on several occasions, been criticized in some quarters for not painting the war in black and white terms, and for leaving the door open to discussions with Moscow.

“Someone may say to me at this point: but you are pro Putin! No, I am not,” the pope stressed in an interview published in June by Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica.

“I am simply against reducing complexity to… good guys and bad guys, without reasoning about roots and interests, which are very complex.”

In July, the head of the Roman Catholic Church repeated his wish to visit Ukraine.

The 85-year-old pontiff is due to attend a congress of religious leaders in Kazakhstan in mid-September.

Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and a fervent supporter of both Putin and his war in Ukraine, had been due to attend the congress but has now said he will not be going.

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While China’s strategic partnership with Russia “without limits” has been widely reported since the start of the war in Ukraine, much less known is the strategic partnership Ukraine and China forged in 2011. Now, that partnership is being questioned by a key lawmaker in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month sounded a soft tone on China, casting Beijing’s role in the conflict as “neutral” and inviting Chinese government and business to play an active role in his country’s rebuilding.

Back in June 2011, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Ukraine after stopping in Moscow. China and Ukraine agreed to boost cooperation in energy, technology, agriculture and trade. The two sides also upgraded their ties to a “strategic partnership.”

China is now Ukraine’s number one trading partner. While Ukraine figures less prominently in China’s overall trading, Beijing has been acquiring items of importance from Ukraine, including military equipment and critical minerals, such as those produced only in Mariupol and Odesa.

But a key lawmaker in Kyiv says the bilateral relationship should not be based only on those factors, given China’s officially declared “strategic partnership with Russia with no limit,” while Moscow has engaged in an all-out war on Ukraine.

Beijing “has failed this partnership,” Oleksandr Merezhko told VOA in a written interview from Kyiv. 

“In my personal view, Ukraine should seriously reconsider [its] strategic partnership with [the People’s Republic of China],” he said. “In fact, it’s totally absurd to have a strategic partnership with a country which: 1) has strategic partnership without limits with Russia (aggressor state committing genocide against Ukrainian nation); 2) amplifies Russian propaganda; 3) helps Russia to circumvent Western sanctions; 4) holds joint military drills with Russia,” Merezhko wrote.

“I don’t think that strategic partner of the aggressor state can be simultaneously our strategic partner. It makes no sense,” he added. 

Zelenskyy sounded a more conciliatory note toward Beijing during a recent online town hall with college students from Australia and during an on-camera interview with the South China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong but owned since 2016 by the mainland-based Alibaba Group.

China, Zelenskyy said, on both occasions, has shown “neutrality” in his country’s conflict with Russia. Zelenskyy underscored that “I really wanted the relationship with China be reinforced and developed every year” in a video clip put out by the South China Morning Post on August 3. He also highlighted China’s role in Ukraine’s reconstruction. 

“I would like China to participate in the rebuilding of all Ukraine,” he said, noting Ukraine’s rebuilding is going to be a huge undertaking. “I would like China and the Chinese business to join in the rebuilding process, and the [Chinese] state to join this,” Zelenskyy said in the video clip.

The largest international conference on Ukraine’s rebuilding to date has been the Lugano Conference held in July in Switzerland. China was not seen in the official “family photo” taken at the conference, which featured top officials from more than 20 democratic nations that have provided large amounts of aid to Ukraine.

Asked to comment on Zelenskyy’s recently published remarks, Merezhko said: “In democratic society, members of parliament might have a different point of view on some issues of parliamentary diplomacy than executive power.”

“I also believe that in economic matters, Ukraine should more rely upon Western business rather than Chinese business,” he added. 

According to recent reports, China’s purchases of Russian oil and gas products have almost doubled from a year ago; Chinese spending on Russian energy in July alone reached $7.2 billion, while China’s economy is showing significant signs of slowing.

Commenting on social media, Merezhko wrote that “Russia’s allies bear moral and political responsibility for its crimes against peace and global security” and “the West should introduce secondary sanctions against those Russia’s allies.”

Trade and economics weren’t the only factors Merezhko had in mind when he called into question his country’s decade-old “strategic partnership” with Beijing. Following recently published investigative reports that Chinese authorities have been putting dissidents in psychiatric hospitals and subjecting them to torture, Merezhko said such practices bring to mind “the same cruel totalitarian practices which were used by the Soviet repressive regime.”

“I don’t think such a country can be a strategic partner of any democratic country, including Ukraine,” he concluded.

Recently, Merezhko and more than a dozen fellow parliamentarians from three Ukrainian political parties formed a Taiwan friendship group. “Democracies should support each other to survive and win,” he wrote on Twitter.

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Ukraine’s presidential office reported heavy fighting Tuesday in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, an area occupied by Russian forces where Ukraine says it has launched a counteroffensive to try to retake territory.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed in his nightly address Monday that Ukrainian forces would take back their territory. He said Ukraine would chase Russia’s forces “to the border.”

“If they want to survive — it’s time for the Russian military to run away. Go home,” he said.

Britain’s defense ministry said Tuesday that as of early Monday, “several brigades of the Ukrainian Armed Forces increased the weight of artillery fires in front line sectors across southern Ukraine.”

It added that since the start of August, Russia has worked to reinforce its presence on the western bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson area.

“Most of the units around Kherson are likely undermanned and are reliant upon fragile supply lines by ferry and pontoon bridges across the Dnipro,” the British defense ministry said.

Russia’s defense ministry said Monday that Russian forces had stopped Ukrainian attacks in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions and inflicted “heavy losses” on Ukrainian forces.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Monday that the United States would know more about Ukraine’s offensive near Kherson “in the next 24-36 hours.” The official said Ukrainian force numbers are gaining parity with Russian forces in the south.

“Are they on the offensive? I think they are,” the official said.

Russia failed to capture the capital, Kyiv, in northern Ukraine in its initial attack that began in late February, but later took control of wide swathes of land in the south along the Black Sea coast.

Fighting for months has centered on eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region, where Russia-supported separatists and Kyiv’s forces have fought since 2014, the same year Moscow seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in a move not recognized by the international community.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been at somewhat of a standstill for weeks, with Russia and Ukraine gaining or losing territory incrementally.

But Western allies, led by the United States, have continued to ship armaments to the Kyiv government, possibly giving Ukraine new confidence to attack farther in the southern reaches of the country.

Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. VOA’s Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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An Istanbul court has released Turkish pop star Gulsen from pretrial detention but put her under house arrest with judicial control on Monday over a remark she made about religious schools in Turkey.

The 46-year-old singer-songwriter, whose full name is Gulsen Colakoglu, was taken into custody for questioning on charges of “inciting hatred and enmity among the public” and put in pretrial detention last Thursday.

The charges were based on a joke she made onstage about Turkey’s religious Imam Hatip schools in April.

“He studied at an Imam Hatip [school] previously. That’s where his perversion comes from,” Gulsen says in a video of the incident, referring to a musician in her band.

The video was circulated by pro-government daily Sabah a day before her detention and widely shared on social media by pro-government accounts.

Several ministers condemned her words on Twitter, including Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.

“Inciting one part of society towards another using begrudging, hateful and discriminating language under the guise of being an artist is the biggest disrespect to art,” Bozdag tweeted.

Imam Hatips are state-run middle and high schools providing religious education for boys and girls ages 10 to 18 in Turkey. There are several graduates of Imam Hatip schools in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Cabinet, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bozdag.

The AKP government is a staunch supporter of Imam Hatip schools, as Erdogan has said in the past that he aims to raise a “pious generation” in Turkey.

In a statement on her social media accounts, Gulsen apologized for her remark, adding that what she said was used by some people who want to polarize society. She also denied the accusations in her testimony at the police station.

Her lawyer Emek Emre appealed the pretrial detention decision last Friday and said he will appeal the house arrest decision Monday.


Her arrest has sparked controversy about Turkey’s freedom of expression and judicial independence.

Yigit Acar, a lawyer who specializes in freedom of expression and human rights violations, calls the court decision to keep her under house arrest “a disgrace.”

“This decision meets the wishes of a group of conservative people who are uncomfortable with her and are not a large group. Look at the court decision where the lynching campaign against Gulsen was used as a reason for the arrest,” Acar told VOA.

Acar believes that putting the singer under house arrest is intended to be a deterrent.

“The purpose has already been accomplished. The purpose was to keep Gulsen away from the stage and to make her modern, secular view invisible,” Acar said, adding that the government is sending a message to millions of people by putting the singer under house arrest.

The singer has long been a target of conservative circles in Turkey because of her revealing stage outfits and support for the LGBTQ community.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), called for her release, saying that her arrest was aimed at polarizing society to keep Erdogan’s government in power. The next parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for June 2023, but the opposition parties are calling for snap elections, which Erdogan has repeatedly rejected.

Responding to an inquiry from VOA on the pop star’s arrest, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said, “The right to exercise freedom of expression, even when it involves speech which some find controversial or uncomfortable, strengthens democracy and must be protected.”

“The United States remains concerned by widespread use of censorship, criminal insult suits, and other forms of judicial harassment to restrict freedom of expression in Turkey. We urge Turkey to respect and ensure freedom of expression,” the spokesperson said, adding that the U.S. “opposes discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons and those who support LGBTQI+ rights.”

The Turkish government has argued that the judiciary is free from political interference.

Cultural hegemony

Yuksel Taskin, deputy leader of the CHP and a former professor of political science at Istanbul’s Marmara University, argues that the singer’s arrest was part of the government’s efforts to establish cultural hegemony among the Turkish public through its ideological lens.

Taskin recalls Turkish presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun’s tweet from 2018: “Your political hegemony is over. Your cultural hegemony will also end,” referring to Turkey’s Kemalist elites before the AKP came into power. Kemalism, as an ideology, is based on the principles of modern Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which include secularism.

“A cultural hegemony based on intimidation and oppression has no chance to survive,” Taskin told VOA.

Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.

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