Ukraine, Russia report downing drones from overnight attacks

Georgia presses on with ‘foreign agents’ bill opposed by EU

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Georgia’s parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill on “foreign agents” that the European Union said risked blocking the country’s path to membership and triggered protests for a third straight night.

The fate of the bill is widely seen as a test of whether Georgia, 33 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, intends to pursue a path of integration with the West or move closer toward Russia.

Critics compare the bill to a law that Russia has used extensively to crack down on dissent.

As many as 10,000 opponents of the bill gathered outside the parliament, sitting atop cars and buildings — a day after police used pepper spray to clear protesters away from part of the building.

Several thousand protesters moved over to the government building, heavily guarded by police, to demand a meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, the bill’s principal backer.

Some demonstrators, many wearing helmets and masks, scuffled with police outside the building.

Eighty-three of 150 deputies voted in favor, while opposition MPs boycotted the vote. The bill must pass two more readings before becoming law.

It would require organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence.

Soon after the vote, the EU said in a statement, “This is a very concerning development, and the final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path. This law is not in line with EU core norms and values.”

It said the proposed legislation “would limit the capacity of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatize organizations that deliver benefits to the citizens of Georgia.”

The EU urged Georgia to “refrain from adopting legislation that can compromise Georgia’s EU path.” The United States and Britain have also urged Georgia not to pass the bill.

The prime minister, in comments quoted by the Interpressnews, said Western politicians had not produced a single valid argument against the bill, and their statements would not prompt the government to change its mind.

President Salome Zourabichvili, whose role is mostly ceremonial, said she would veto the law if it was passed. But parliament has the power to override her veto.

The ruling Georgian Dream Party, which has faced accusations of authoritarianism and excessive closeness to Russia, says the bill is necessary to promote transparency and combat “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners.

Protesters call bill ‘Russian’

The Interior Ministry said two people were detained at the latest protest. On Tuesday, 11 were detained, and one police officer was injured in altercations.

Protesters who denounced the bill as the “Russian law” appeared undaunted.

“It is very hard to predict any scenario, because the government is unpredictable, unreliable, untruthful, sarcastic and cynical,” said activist Paata Sabelashvili. “People here are just flowing and flowing and flowing like rivers.”

Parliament passed the law on first reading in a rowdy session during which four opposition lawmakers were removed from the chamber amid shouts of “No to the Russian law” and “Traitors.”

Russia is viewed with deep suspicion by many in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people, which in 2008 lost a brief war with Moscow over the Moscow-backed breakaway territory of South Ossetia.

Russia defends legislation as ‘normal’

Russia said on Wednesday it had nothing to do with the law and defended it as a “normal practice.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was being used by outside actors to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.

The bill was initially introduced in March 2023. but was shelved after two nights of violent protests and has increased divisions in a deeply polarized Georgia.

A coalition of opposition groups, civil society, celebrities and the president have rallied to oppose it.

Ізраїль ухвалюватиме власні рішення – Нетаньягу про відповідь Ірану

Іран атакував Ізраїль 14 квітня у відповідь на імовірний ізраїльський авіаудар по комплексу іранського посольства в Дамаску 1 квітня

UK, EU face significant medicine shortages, study says

LONDON — Patients in the U.K. and European Union are facing shortages of vital medicines such as antibiotics and epilepsy medication, research published Thursday found.

The report by Britain’s Nuffield Trust think-tank found the situation had become a “new normal” in the U.K. and was “also having a serious impact in EU countries.”

Mark Dayan, Brexit program lead at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said Britain’s decision to leave the European Union had not caused U.K. supply problems but had exacerbated them.

“We know many of the problems are global and relate to fragile chains of imports from Asia, squeezed by COVID-19 shutdowns, inflation and global instability,” he said.

“But exiting the EU has left the U.K. with several additional problems -– products no longer flow as smoothly across the borders with the EU, and in the long term our struggles to approve as many medicines might mean we have fewer alternatives available,” he said.

Researchers also warned that being outside the EU might mean Britain is unable to benefit from EU measures taken to tackle shortages, such as bringing drug manufacturing back to Europe.

It said that this included the EU’s Critical Medicines Alliance which it launched in early 2024.

Analysis of freedom of information requests and public data on drug shortages showed the number of notifications from drug companies warning of impending shortages in the UK had more than doubled in three years.

Some 1,634 alerts were issued in 2023, up from 648 in 2020, according to the report, The Future for Health After Brexit.

Paul Rees, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said medicine shortages had become “commonplace,” adding that this was “totally unacceptable” in any modern health system.

“Supply shortages are a real and present danger to those patients who rely on life-saving medicines for their well-being,” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the U.K. was not alone in facing medical supply issues.

It said most cases of shortages had been “swiftly managed with minimal disruption to patients.” 

American RFE/RL reporter marks 6 months jailed in Russia

washington — An American journalist jailed in Russia will mark six months behind bars on Thursday over charges that press freedom groups have condemned as bogus and politically motivated.

Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor at the Tatar-Bashkir Service of VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested on October 18, 2023, and has been held in pretrial detention since then.

The dual U.S.-Russian national stands accused of failing to register as a “foreign agent” and spreading what Moscow views as false information about the Russian military.

Kurmasheva and her employer reject the charges against her, which carry a combined sentence of 15 years in prison.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy told VOA in an emailed statement that cases of all U.S. citizens detained in Russia have her full attention.

“Six months in, we remain deeply concerned by Alsu’s continued detention,” Tracy said. “We have been outspoken in condemning the Kremlin’s continued attempts to silence, intimidate and punish journalists, civil society voices and ordinary Russians who speak out against the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.”

International press freedom groups have widely called for Kurmasheva’s immediate release.

“The six-month anniversary of Alsu’s detention is important because she shouldn’t have been jailed even for a single day. It’s an absolutely unjust, absurd case with fabricated charges,” said Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.

“Alsu should be freed from jail immediately and be able to travel back to Prague and see her family,” she told VOA from New York.

Russia’s embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Emergency visit

Based in Prague, Kurmasheva traveled to Russia in May 2023 for a family emergency. Her passports were confiscated when she tried to leave the country in June, and she was waiting for them to be returned when she was arrested about four months later.

Earlier in April, Kurmasheva’s pretrial detention was again extended, this time until June.

“It’s not a legal process, it’s a political ploy, and Alsu and her family are unjustifiably paying a terrible price. Russia must end this sham and immediately release Alsu without condition,” RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said in a statement about the latest extension.

The Russian government labeled RFE/RL as an “undesirable organization” in February.

At her recent court hearing, Kurmasheva told reporters she was “not very well physically” and that she was receiving “minimal” medical care. The living conditions in the prison “are very bad,” she said, adding that a hole in the floor of her cell functions as the toilet.

That description has press freedom advocates concerned.

“The living conditions are quite bad, and we’re worried about the deterioration of her health,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the Paris-based head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, or RSF.

To date, the Russian government has denied the U.S. Embassy’s requests for consular access to Kurmasheva.

“We are deeply concerned about Alsu Kurmasheva’s detention in Russia,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “The charges against Ms. Kurmasheva are another sign of the weakness of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime.”

RFE/RL’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, has also advocated for Kurmasheva’s immediate release.

“Alsu’s time in detention is unlike anything anyone could imagine,” USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett told VOA in an emailed statement. “Russia’s delaying and obfuscating shows this is purely a political stunt to advance the Kremlin’s agenda. She is being treated like a bargaining chip as opposed to a human being.”

First to be targeted

Kurmasheva is the first person to be targeted by Russia for not self-registering as a foreign agent, according to press freedom experts. Her arrest has had a chilling effect on other journalists in Russia who fear they could be targeted next.

“Russian laws, and Russian repressive legislation more specifically, is broad by nature. It’s conceptualized as something intentionally broad and vague,” said Karol Luczka, who leads the International Press Institute’s work on Eastern Europe. He cited Russia’s foreign agent law as an example.

“Most anyone these days in Russia can be considered a foreign agent because of any past activity. So, it’s very significant that they weaponize this legislation, because it shows that even when they have no real charges against anyone, they will always be able to find something,” said Luczka, who is based in Vienna.

For months, press freedom groups have called on the State Department to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained, which would open up additional resources to help secure her release.

Earlier this month, Roger Carstens, the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, told VOA that U.S. officials were still deciding whether to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained.

“We’ve been looking at her case very closely. It’s not yet been decided that she’s wrongfully detained,” Carstens said. “But it’s something that we’re still sussing out.”

“The Department of State continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that they are wrongful,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to a detailed list of questions, in a statement identical to ones previously sent to VOA.

“When making assessments, the department conducts a legal, fact-based review that looks into the totality of the circumstances for each case individually,” the statement said.

Kurmasheva is one of two American journalists jailed in Russia. The second, The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, has been declared wrongfully detained by the State Department.

That determination came less than two weeks after Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich and accused him of espionage in late March 2023. Like Kurmasheva, the 32-year-old is still being held in pretrial detention.

Gershkovich, his employer and the U.S. government deny the charges against him. The reporter marked one year behind bars last month.

In November 2023, Washington made a prisoner swap offer to the Russian government to secure the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another U.S. citizen jailed in Russia and declared wrongfully detained. Moscow rejected that offer.

Carstens told reporters earlier this month that the U.S. government was putting together a new offer.

“We are working exceedingly hard and creatively to cobble together that offer,” he said.

Kurmasheva and Gershkovich count themselves among 22 journalists jailed in Russia, according to CPJ data from the end of 2023.

Russia ranks fourth in the world in terms of journalist jailings, but it has the most jailed foreign journalists. Of the 22 journalists imprisoned in Russia, 12 are foreign nationals. Beyond Kurmasheva and Gershkovich, Moscow has jailed 10 Ukrainian reporters, according to the CPJ.

Pressure stepped up

Tracy said Moscow’s repression has only intensified since the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

“Authorities have shuttered dozens of outlets using fines and repressive legislation, censored thousands of websites and continue to persecute journalists,” she said. 

“This trend is deeply concerning, and the U.S. will continue to call for respect for Russians’ fundamental freedoms — including freedom of speech — that are guaranteed in Russia’s own constitution.”

One of the main factors that unites the cases of Gershkovich and Kurmasheva is that trials won’t be what ultimately gets them free, according to Said.

“There is no way for their lawyers to prove their innocence through court, because courts are not independent in Russia. Political solutions and diplomatic solutions are the only way to get them free,” she said.

“That’s why it’s important that the U.S. uses all it has to put pressure on the Russian authorities and to get them free,” she said.

Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

Російські кампанії з впливу на вибори в США зосередилися на критиці підтримки України – Microsoft

«Центр аналізу загроз Microsoft відстежив щонайменше 70 російських груп, які займаються дезінформацією, орієнтованою на Україну, використовуючи традиційні ЗМІ й соціальні мережі та поєднання прихованих і відкритих кампаній»

Грузія: протестувальники висунули ультиматум уряду

17 квітня спікери на мітингу заявили, що дають уряду одну годину, щоб відкликати законопроєкт про «іноагентів»

25 years after massacre in Kosovo, survivors appeal for justice

Twenty-five years ago this week, Serbian forces killed 53 Albanians in the Kosovar village of Poklek, making it one of the worst massacres of the war in Kosovo. Today, some survivors still seek justice for their families. VOA’s Keida Kostreci reports. Camera: Burim Goxhuli, Bujar Sylejmani.

WP: МЗС Росії у секретному документі описало план послаблення США

Документ містить заклик до «наступальної інформаційної кампанії» й інших заходів, що охоплюють «військово-політичну, економічну, торговельну й інформаційно-психологічну сфери» проти «коаліції недружніх країн» на чолі зі США

Microsoft finds Russian influence operations targeting US election have begun

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft said on Wednesday that Russian online campaigns to influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election kicked into gear over the past 45 days, but at a slower pace than in past elections. 

Russia-linked accounts are disseminating divisive content aimed at U.S. audiences, including criticizing American support of Ukraine in its war with Russia, researchers at the tech giant said in a report. 

The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment, but the Kremlin said last month it would not meddle in the November U.S. election. It also dismissed U.S. allegations that it orchestrated campaigns to sway the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. 

While the Russian activity Microsoft observed is not as intense as around the previous elections, it could increase in the coming months, the researchers said.  

“Messaging regarding Ukraine — via traditional media and social media — picked up steam over the last two months with a mix of covert and overt campaigns from at least 70 Russia-affiliated activity sets we track,” Microsoft said. 

The most prolific of such Russian campaigns is linked to Russia’s Presidential Administration, they added. Another one is aimed at posting disinformation online in various languages, with posts typically starting with an apparent whistleblower or citizen journalist posting content on a video channel. That content is then covered by a network of websites that include DC Weekly, Miami Chronical and The Intel Drop. 

“Ultimately, after the narrative has circulated online for a series of days or weeks, U.S. audiences repeat and repost this disinformation, likely unaware of its original source,” Microsoft said. 

A “notable uptick” has been seen in hacking by a Russian group Microsoft calls Star Blizzard, or Cold River, which is focused on targeting western think tanks, the company said. 

“Star Blizzard’s current focus on U.S. political figures and policy circles may be the first in a series of hacking campaigns meant to drive Kremlin outcomes headed into November.” 

Malicious use of artificial intelligence by foreign rivals targeting the U.S. election is a key concern cited by American political observers, but Microsoft said it found that simpler digital forgeries were more common than deepfakes. Audio manipulations have a bigger impact than video, it added. 

“Rarely have nation-states’ employments of generative AI-enabled content achieved much reach across social media, and in only a few cases have we seen any genuine audience deception from such content,” the researchers said.  

“The simplest manipulations, not the most complex employment of AI, will likely be the pieces of content that have the most impact.”

Шмигаль у США закликав інвестувати в Україні та назвав шість перспективних сфер

«Ми створюємо необхідні умови та проводимо реформи, аби цих інвестицій та компаній було більше»

Президентка Грузії каже, що накладе вето на закон про «іноагентів»

Президентка розкритикувала законопроєкт і наголосила, що він є «копією» ухваленого Росією у 2012 році законодавства про «іноземних агентів»

Russian shelling severely damages Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Dam

In late March, Russian shelling severely damaged Ukraine’s largest hydroelectric plant. The attack on the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Station and dam in the frontline city of Zaporizhzhia is a challenge for locals and those living both up and downstream. Eva Myronova has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

У Росії заявили про збиття безпілотників у трьох регіонах, в кількох містах не працювали аеропорти

За даними медіа, у ГУР кажуть, що ціллю безпілотників в російській Мордовії був радіолокатор 29Б6 «Контейнер» із дальністю виявлення цілей близько 3000 км та висотою виявлення понад 100 км

У Великій Британії можуть заборонити куріння до 15 років

Закон про заборону куріння дітям та підліткам до 15 років належить до головних політичних ініціатив голови уряду Ріші Сунака перед загальними виборами, запланованими на кінець року

У Румунії розслідують проліт дронів над обʼєктом, де НАТО будує найбільшу базу в Європі

У зв’язку з інцидентом командування авіабази звернулося до Військової прокуратури, а військова частина ініціювала службову перевірку

Фіала: Чехія і партнери зобов’язалися надати кошти для купівлі 500 тисяч снарядів для України

«Хочу підкреслити, що ця ініціатива не є разовим проєктом. Наша мета – створити довгострокову систему постачання боєприпасів для важкого озброєння»

At 12, China-central and eastern Europe group faces growing pains

Vienna, Austria — Next week, China will mark the 12th anniversary of a group for central and eastern European countries it established to grow its influence in the EU. But when it does, there will be no high-level activities or celebrations to mark the group’s creation.

Since 2019, the frequency of meetings between China and central and eastern European leaders has decreased, and one after another, members have withdrawn.

Matej Simalcik, executive director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, told VOA Mandarin that when the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Mechanism was launched on April 26, 2012, central and eastern European, or CEE states “were largely motivated as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Cooperation with China was seen as a means to provide new stimuli for economic growth.”

Since its inception, however, the initiative has been riddled with problems. 

“From the very beginning, agenda-setting within the format was largely dominated by the Chinese side. At the same time, CEE capitals often failed to not just promote, but also come up with their own ideas about what kind of cooperation with China would best serve their interests,” Simalcik said.

“With this, the format’s annual summits were reduced to mere talk shops, which also served Chinese domestic propaganda purposes.”

Also known as the 16+1, the group has included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. When Greece joined in 2019, it was renamed 17+1.

From 2013 to 2019, seven meetings were held: six in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia and one in Suzhou, China.

Members have not held an in-person leadership meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and it has been three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a video conference.

During that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced their withdrawal, while China’s relations with the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries deteriorated.

Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, tells VOA’s Mandarin service that many central and eastern European states have grown more cautious — even suspicious — of Beijing and its projects, “especially after seeing Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and Beijing’s continuing support for Russia.”

China’s outward investment projects have started to decline and the economic incentives for cooperation are now no longer as great, Chong adds. 

China’s “transnational repression within Europe and diplomatic spats with Czechia and Lithuania that came with economic punishment further reduced appetite for cooperation with Beijing,” he said.

Simalcik said China’s sanctions of members of the European Parliament over the Xinjiang issue and its interference in central and eastern European states’ interactions with Taiwan, especially Taiwan-Czech Republic relations, have also made cooperation between the two sides more difficult.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.

Xinjiang is a region of China where Beijing is accused of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing denies the accusations.  

Filip Sebok, a China researcher at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin that much has changed since China initiated the 16+1 mechanism in 2012. 

While China could present itself at that time as a mostly economic actor, “It is now clear for most European nations, including those in CEE, that China also presents certain security and geopolitical challenges,” he said.

“At the same time, the authoritarian turn within China, human rights abuses, and the spillover of its authoritarian outreach abroad have also changed perceptions of China,” he added. 

However, cooperation between China and CEE countries has not been fruitless, Chong said.

“In essence, CEE states that are more authoritarian and have friendlier ties with Russia tend to be more positive about the cooperation with the PRC,” he said.

Sebok said if Beijing wants to win the support of CEE countries, it should meet these countries’ expectations for economic cooperation. The mismatch between expectations and results led to the decreasing profile of the China-CEE cooperation format. 

“However, we might yet see a reinvigoration of the format in some form. An important factor is the rising Chinese investment in electromobility supply chains, which we are seeing mainly in Hungary, but also in Slovakia and Poland. This might give the cooperation a new impetus,” he said.

Changes in the political situation in Europe and the United States may also create opportunities for restarting cooperation. 

Sebok said that Slovakia, after parliamentary elections in 2023 and presidential election this year, “is exhibiting signs of seeking a closer relationship with China, which might enlarge the group of China-enthusiastic countries.”

If the United States elects a new president and changes its approach to the EU, that “might also create new opportunities for China to take advantage of the uncertainty in the region and increase its influence,” he said.

The United States holds its presidential election this November.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.