Remembering Havel, Czechs Feel Moral Responsibility to Help Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven home the importance of NATO and the European Union for many of their newest members, according to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who was in Washington this week for the funeral of Czech emigre and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“The reason we joined these two organizations is that it won’t happen to us,” Lipavsky, said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

The fact that Ukraine did not manage to enter the two Western institutions “created a gray zone” that Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited, said Lipavsky, who had discussed the challenge facing Ukraine, among other topics, in an interview with VOA earlier in the day.

The people of Ukraine “want to be part of the Western society, they want democratic elections, they want freedom of speech,” and they want to enjoy the prosperity that comes with them, he said. “I feel our moral responsibility to help them.”

Lipavsky is part of a newly sworn-in coalition government comprising both conservatives and progressives. Led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala, the new Czech administration is expected to pursue an internationalist foreign policy that promotes democracy and human rights, harkening back to an era when the country was led by playwright-turned political leader Vaclav Havel.

On his limited itinerary in Washington, Lipavsky paid tribute to Havel, who is memorialized in what is known as the “Freedom Foyer” of the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. There, his bust sits in close proximity to those of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Lipavsky gifted his American hosts with a collection of Havel photographs, including photos of Havel with Albright, who was born in then-Czechoslovakia and whose father was a member of the Czechoslovakian diplomatic corps.

 

The friendship between Havel and Albright was stressed by Lipavsky and other Czech dignitaries who came to Washington for the funeral. Among them were Czech senate president Milos Vystrcil, the senate foreign affairs committee chairman and three former ambassadors to the United States.

 

Albright is credited with having played a critical role in ushering the Czech Republic and other Central and Eastern European countries into NATO.

“Madeleine Albright made that possible, because she knew — she had suffered the consequences of policy failures, including American policy failures” in the 1930s and ’40s, said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, at the Atlantic Council event alongside Lipavsky.

“Vaclav Havel, along with Poland’s Lech Walesa, pushed [then U.S. President] Bill Clinton on NATO enlargement,” Fried recalled. “One of their arguments was — I was around, I remember — ‘we have a window now to do it, don’t you Americans blow it!’ ”

Fried added that Havel and Walesa might not have “quite put it that way, but that was more or less their way, what they were saying.”

Speaking to VOA earlier by telephone, Fried took issue with widespread reports of “backsliding” on democratic governance in the former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe. “Except for Hungary,” he said, he sees the countries in the region “going back to their roots” of fighting for freedom and democracy.

Lipavsky, for his part, said he believes the countries of the region are attracted to the West by its “democratic identity.”

“This identity is built upon the vision that every person can pursue his and her own happiness, and you have very basic values like human rights, rights to own [property], rights to think, freedom of speech,” he said. “Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, want to be part of that, is part of that.”

The Ukrainian people are “literally fighting and dying” for the very same choice, he said, and the Czech Republic will do its utmost to help them to prevail against Russia and become a member of the club of like-minded nations that is the EU.

Serbia Shows Off New Chinese Missiles in Display of Military Power

Serbia on Saturday showed off its new Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles and other military hardware purchased from both Russia and the West, as the country seeks to perform a delicate balancing act over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Members of the public and the media were invited to the display at the Batajnica military airfield near Belgrade, where Chinese and French missiles were lined up beside European Airbus helicopters, Chinese-armed drones and Russian MIG-29 jets.

Serbia is striving to balance its partnership with NATO and aspirations to join the European Union with its centuries-old religious, ethnic and political alliance with Russia.

The Chinese FK-3 surface-to-air defense system, similar to Russia’s S-300 or the U.S. Patriot system, was purchased by Belgrade in 2019 and delivered earlier this month.

Serbia is the only European country to operate the Chinese missile system and CH-92A combat drones.

President Aleksandar Vucic toured Saturday’s display flanked by military commanders and watched an aerobatics show featuring overhauled MIG-29 jets donated by Russia in 2017.

“I’m proud of the Serbian army, I’m proud of a great progress,” Vucic told a news conference. “We’re going to significantly strengthen our fighter air force … Serbia is a neutral country and Serbia must find solutions enabling it to preserve its sky and its state.”

The delivery of the FK-3 missile system prompted several Western countries, including Germany, to warn Belgrade it expected the Balkan country to align its foreign policy with the EU if it wanted to become a member.

Belgrade has voted against Russia three times at the United Nations but stopped short of imposing sanctions against it.

Serbia’s military is loosely based on ex-Soviet technology and Russia is one of its main suppliers. Belgrade is also dependent on natural gas and oil supplies from Russia.

Vucic said Serbia expects to purchase 12 Rafale multipurpose fighter jets from France by the end of the year or early next year, a move seen by political analysts as a sign of Belgrade distancing itself from Russia.

He said Serbia is also negotiating to buy 12 Typhoon combat aircraft from Britain.

In Scandinavia, Wooden Buildings Reach New Heights

A sandy-colored tower glints in the sunlight and dominates the skyline of the Swedish town of Skelleftea as Scandinavia harnesses its wood resources to lead a global trend towards erecting eco-friendly high-rises.

The Sara Cultural Center is one of the world’s tallest timber buildings, made primarily from spruce and towering 75 meters over rows of snow-dusted houses and surrounding forest.

The 20-story timber structure, which houses a hotel, a library, an exhibition hall and theater stages, opened at the end of 2021 in the northern town of 35,000 people.

Forests cover much of Sweden’s northern regions, most of it spruce, and building timber homes is a longstanding tradition.

Swedish architects now want to spearhead a revolution and steer the industry towards more sustainable construction methods as large wooden buildings sprout up in Sweden and neighboring Nordic nations thanks to advancing industry techniques.

“The pillars together with the beams, the interaction with the steel and wood, that is what carries the 20 stories of the hotel,” Therese Kreisel, a Skelleftea urban planning official, tells AFP during a tour of the cultural center.

Even the lift shafts are made entirely of wood. “There is no plaster, no seal, no isolation on the wood,” she says, adding that this “is unique when it comes to a 20-story building.”

Building materials go green

The main advantage of working with wood is that it is more environmentally friendly, proponents say.

Cement — used to make concrete — and steel, two of the most common construction materials, are among the most polluting industries because they emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

But wood emits little CO2 during its production and retains the carbon absorbed by the tree even when it is cut and used in a building structure. It is also lighter in weight, requiring less of a foundation.

According to the U.N.’s IPCC climate panel, wood as a construction material can be up to 30 times less carbon intensive than concrete, and hundreds or even thousands of times less than steel.

Global efforts to cut emissions have sparked an upswing in interest for timber structures, according to Jessica Becker, the coordinator of Trastad (City of Wood), an organization lobbying for more timber construction.

Skelleftea’s tower “showcases that is it possible to build this high and complex in timber,” says Robert Schmitz, one of the project’s two architects.

“When you have this as a backdrop for discussions, you can always say, ‘We did this, so how can you say it’s not possible?'”

Only an 85-meter tower recently erected in Brumunddal in neighboring Norway and an 84-meter structure in Vienna are taller than the Sara Cultural Centre.

A building under construction in the U.S. city of Milwaukee and due to be completed soon is expected to clinch the title of the world’s tallest, at a little more than 86 meters.

‘Stacked like Lego’

Building the cultural center in spruce was “much more challenging” but “has also opened doors to really think in new ways,” explains Schmitz’s co-architect Oskar Norelius.

For example, the hotel rooms were made as prefabricated modules that were then “stacked like Lego pieces on site,” he says.

The building has won several wood architecture prizes.

Anders Berensson, another Stockholm architect whose material of choice is wood, says timber has many advantages.

“If you missed something in the cutting you just take the knife and the saw and sort of adjust it on site. So it’s both high tech and low tech at the same time,” he says.

In Stockholm, an apartment complex made of wood, called Cederhusen and featuring distinctive yellow and red cedar shingles on the facade, is in the final stages of completion.

It has already been named the Construction of the Year by Swedish construction industry magazine Byggindustrin. 

“I think we can see things shifting in just the past few years actually,” says Becker.

“We are seeing a huge change right now, it’s kind of the tipping point. And I’m hoping that other countries are going to catch on, we see examples even in England and Canada and other parts of the world.” 

Zelenskyy’s Invite to G20 Not Enough for Biden

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who holds this year’s G-20 presidency, has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the group’s summit in Bali later this year, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to attend. However, Zelenskyy’s invitation may not be enough to secure the attendance of U.S. and other Western leaders keen on isolating Moscow. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

Chilling Calls, Legal Action as Russia Seeks to Silence Dissent

First came a court summons alleging Mikhail Samin had discredited the Russian army. Then came the threatening calls.

Samin, a 22-year-old from Moscow who has been posting commentary about the war in Ukraine on social media, shared details of those chilling calls with VOA.

In one expletive-laden call, a man warned that Samin had 24 hours to delete his posts, saying that only then, “you may sleep peacefully.”

When Samin tried to reason with the caller, saying that people, children, were dying in Ukraine, the caller replied, “If you don’t stop being stupid, we will throw you off the balcony.”

The legal action and threats are becoming the new normal for those in Russia who defy the strict censorship around the war in Ukraine. Moscow in March passed a law to limit coverage of the military and invasion, and a mix of fines and website blocks has resulted in most independent news outlets being forced out.

Risky work

With traditional media limited, citizen journalists and activists like Samin are filling the void, but at great personal risk. Samin and student Ilya Kursov have both faced legal action for posts about the war and protests.

That new law was cited by authorities when Samin was summoned to court for “discrediting” the Russian army.

He had condemned the invasion in a March 6 Facebook post.

“A terrible thing is happening right now on behalf of [Russian] people,” Samin had posted. “My compatriots — brainwashed or following criminal orders — have invaded the territory of a foreign country, destroying houses and killing people. Thousands of people are dying and suffering needlessly. There can be no justification for this. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who started this war, cannot be justified.”

For Samin, the death threats were more concerning than the threat of prison.

The door to his apartment was defaced with the letter Z, a pro-Kremlin symbol of war against Ukraine. Samin’s sister was scared when she saw the mark as she left to walk the dog.

Samin was at a loss for words when describing his view of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

“Nothing discredits the armed forces of the Russian Federation more than the war crimes they commit, like torturing people, killing civilians,” he told VOA.

“There was a feeling of some unreality of what was happening because, before that, I was convinced that Putin would not do this,” said Samin. “It was apparent that this [war] would immediately destroy the future of Russia.”

Police pressure

When Ilya Kursov heard details of an anti-war protest in Barnaul, a city in the Altai Krai region of Siberia, at the end of February, the 24-year-old student shared the information on Instagram.

His post quickly came to the attention of police.

“I was abducted at 8 a.m. by [Russian police], right from my bed in the dormitory,” said Kursov, who was studying at the Altai State Pedagogical University.

At the police station he was questioned about the social media post. The police officers pressured him, threatening him with a prison term, Kursov said. He wasn’t allowed to call either his parents or lawyer and his laptop was confiscated.

The student believes the authorities are reacting so aggressively to any protest activity because, despite what the propaganda suggests, many Russians disapprove of the war.

Although many residents were afraid to join the protest openly, people approached the anti-war activists and spoke out for peace with Ukraine, he said.

Like Samin, Kursov is accused of “discrediting” the Russian army. Under the law, if the offense is repeated within a year, it can result in criminal prosecution, with a maximum punishment of up to 15 years in prison.

But the posts cited by police in Kursov’s case were published before the law was enacted.

“I have two fines for 50,000 rubles [approximately $700],”said Kursov.

The fine is about 1½ times the median monthly income for his city, according to the Federal Service for State Statistics in Russia.

The student said that in court documents he saw, authorities had flagged more of his social media posts on the war.

“I am afraid the prosecutors would have an opportunity to use it against me, which leads to a criminal case,” he said.

Both he and Samin have since left Russia, fearing for their safety.

‘Next to be targeted’

With independent media blocked off in Russia, ordinary citizens like Samin and Kursov have become a key source of war information in Russia, media freedom experts said.

“After this huge blow against independent media, the next to be targeted are the citizen journalists,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders.

“We can draw a parallel with what happened in Belarus, because when all major independent media were blocked and journalists were in prison or exile, the Belarusian authorities started to target citizen journalists,” Cavelier told VOA.

Another factor is the chilling effect. As well as making arrests and blocking platforms, Russia wants to extend its foreign agents law to citizens as well as media.

“It frightens people; it makes them think twice before sharing any information, even if they feel very strong in their opinions or their criticism of the Russian authorities, so that’s always a downside of any crackdown and repressive measures,” said Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But while Kursov and Samin have been forced to leave their homes, both are adamant they will keep using social media to inform Russians about the war.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.

Media Watchdog RSF Puts French News Sites Back Online in Mali

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has put the websites of two major French broadcasters back online in Mali, after the country’s military government pulled the broadcasters off the air in March and officially banned them from the Malian airwaves this week.

RSF put the sites back online Thursday, creating mirrors of the sites that can be accessed in Mali and are updated in real time.

Using a virtual private network had previously been the only way to access those websites in Mali since the military government blocked them and took their corresponding TV and radio stations off the air March 17. 

Arnaud Froger, head of the RSF Africa desk, said that the action is part of the organization’s work toward media freedom.

He said RSF has been getting banned media websites back online since 2015, so far having put 47 websites back online in 24 countries, most recently in Russia. 

“It’s basically restoring your right to access to information that has been wrongfully denied by this censorship,” Froger said.

On Wednesday, France Medias Monde, the parent company of RFI and France 24, said it was notified of the decision of Mali’s High Communication Authority to definitively ban the two stations in the country.

The High Communication Authority is the communication regulatory body in Mali, whose website says its primary mission is to protect “freedom of information and communication” and “freedom of the press.”

RFI and France 24 were taken off the air in March after RFI reported on alleged human rights abuses by Mali’s army around the town of Diabaly. Mali’s government said the report contained false allegations aimed at “destabilizing” the government. 

In late March, after the French broadcast ban, Human Rights Watch and several media outlets reported on a Mali army operation in the town of Moura, where witnesses said 300 civilians were killed. 

Tensions have been running high between the Malian and French governments.  This month, France accused Russian mercenaries of staging a mass grave in Gossi, Mali, in order to blame it on French forces who had recently handed over a military base in Gossi to the Malian army. 

Mali’s government then accused France of spying, but did not mention or refute the claim that Russian mercenaries are working with the Malian army.

Lviv Families Open Homes to Ukraine War Refugees

Millions of Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries since Russia invaded their homeland. Others have moved to western Ukraine and the city of Lviv, which for now are relatively safe. Anna Kosstutschenko has the story of volunteers in Lviv who are opening their homes to the displaced families. Camera – Yuriy Dankevych.

New Gas Pipeline Boosts Europe’s Bid to Ease Russian Supply

Mountainous and remote, the Greek-Bulgaria border once formed the southern corner of the Iron Curtain. Today, it’s where the European Union is redrawing the region’s energy map to ease its heavy reliance on Russian natural gas.

A new pipeline — built during the COVID-19 pandemic, tested and due to start commercial operation in June — would ensure that large volumes of gas flow between the two countries in both directions to generate electricity, fuel industry and heat homes.

The energy link takes on greater importance following Moscow’s decision this week to cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria over a demand for payments in rubles stemming from Western sanctions over the war of Ukraine.

The 180-kilometer (110-mile) pipeline project is the first of several planned gas interconnectors that would give eastern European Union members and countries hoping to join the 27-nation bloc access to the global gas market.

In the short term, it’s Bulgaria’s backup.

The new pipeline connection, called the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria, will give the country access to ports in neighboring Greece that are importing liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and also will bring gas from Azerbaijan through a new pipeline system that ends in Italy.

It’s one of many efforts as EU members scramble to edit their energy mixes, with some reverting back to emissions-heavy coal while also planning expanded output from renewables.

Germany, the world’s biggest buyer of Russian energy, is looking to build LNG import terminals that would take years. Italy, another top Russian gas importer, has reached deals with Algeria, Azerbaijan, Angola and Congo for gas supplies.

The European Union wants to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas by two-thirds this year and to eliminate it completely over five years through alternative sources, the use of wind and solar power, and conservation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to accelerate changes in the EU’s long-term strategy as the bloc adapts to energy that is more expensive but also more integrated among member nations, said Simone Tagliapietra, an energy expert at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

“It’s a new world,” he said. “And in this new world, it’s clear that Russia doesn’t want to be part of an international order as we think of it.”

Tagliapietra added: “The strategy — particularly by Germany — over the last 50 years was always one of engaging with Russia on energy. … But given what we are seeing in Ukraine and given Russia’s view of international relations, it’s not the kind of country with which we would like to do business.”

EU policymakers argue that while Eastern European members are among the most dependent on Russian gas, the size of their markets makes the problem manageable. Bulgaria imported 90% of its gas from Russia but only consumes 3 billion cubic meters annually — 30 times less than lead consumer Germany, according to 2020 data from EU statistics agency Eurostat.

The Greece-Bulgaria pipeline will complement the existing European network, much of which dates to the Soviet era, when Moscow sought badly needed funds for its faltering economy and Western suppliers to help build its pipelines.

The link will run between the northeastern Greek city of Komotini and Stara Zagora, in central Bulgaria, and will give Bulgaria and neighbors with new grid connections access to the expanding global gas market.

That includes a connection with the newly built Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which carries gas from Azerbaijan, and suppliers of liquefied natural gas that arrives by ship, likely to include Qatar, Algeria and the United States.

As many as eight additional interconnectors could be built in Eastern Europe, reaching as far as Ukraine and Austria.

The 240 million-euro ($250 million) pipeline will carry 3 billion cubic meters of gas per year, with an option to be expanded to 5 billion. It received funding from Bulgaria, Greece and the EU, and has strong political support from Brussels and the United States.

On the ground, the project faced multiple holdups because of supply chain snags during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Receiving specialized parts and moving personnel after construction got underway in early 2020 soon became increasingly difficult, said Antonis Mitzalis, executive director of Greek contractor AVAX, which oversaw the project.

Construction of the pipeline finished in early April, he said, while work and testing at two metering stations and software installation are in the final stages.

“We had a sequence in mind. But the fact that some materials did not arrive made us rework that sequence, sometimes with a cost effect,” Mitzalis said.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis missed a tour of the site last month after contracting COVID-19. He spoke Wednesday with his Bulgarian counterpart, Kiril Petkov, to provide assurances of Greek support.

“Bulgaria and Greece will continue to work together for energy security and diversification — of strategic importance for both countries and the region,” Petkov later tweeted. “We both are confident for the successful completion of the IGB on time.”

Google Adds Ways to Keep Personal Info Private in Searches

Google has expanded options for keeping personal information private from online searches.

The company said Friday it will let people request that more types of content such as personal contact information like phone numbers, email and physical addresses be removed from search results.

The new policy also allows the removal of other information that may pose a risk for identity theft, such as confidential log-in credentials.

The company said in a statement that open access to information is vital, “but so is empowering people with the tools they need to protect themselves and keep their sensitive, personally identifiable information private.”

“Privacy and online safety go hand in hand. And when you’re using the internet, it’s important to have control over how your sensitive, personally identifiable information can be found,” it said.

Google Search earlier had permitted people to request that highly personal content that could cause direct harm be removed. That includes information removed due to doxxing and personal details like bank account or credit card numbers that could be used for fraud.

But information increasing pops up in unexpected places and is used in new ways, so policies need to evolve, the company said.

Having personal contact information openly available online also can pose a threat and Google said it had received requests for the option to remove that content, too.

It said that when it receives such requests it will study all the content on the web page to avoid limiting availability of useful information or of content on the public record on government or other official websites.

“It’s important to remember that removing content from Google Search won’t remove it from the internet, which is why you may wish to contact the hosting site directly, if you’re comfortable doing so,” it said.

Bloomberg Reporters in Turkey Acquitted Over 2018 Currency Crisis Article

A Turkish court on Friday acquitted 33 people, including two Bloomberg reporters and other journalists from local media, of spreading false information about the economy in an article and tweets at the height of a currency crisis in 2018.

The case followed a criminal complaint filed in August 2018 by the BDDK banking watchdog over an article by Bloomberg about the effects of a sharp decline in the lira and how authorities and banks were responding.

Fercan Yalinkilic and Kerim Karakaya were on trial over the article, while other defendants in the case, including journalists Sedef Kabas and Merdan Yanardag, as well as economist Mustafa Sonmez, were tried for their tweets about the economy.

Turkey’s lira plummeted in 2018 on concerns over President Tayyip Erdogan’s influence on monetary policy and deteriorating ties between Ankara and Washington. In August 2018, it fell to 7.24 against the dollar, its lowest at the time.

At the end of last year, another currency crisis sparked by series of rate cuts requested by Erdogan saw the lira fall as low as 18.4 before rebounding. The currency crisis stoked inflation, which hit 61% in March.

The defendants had always denied the charges.

The court ruled on Friday that the defendants’ actions did not constitute a crime and acquitted 33 defendants.