Russia woos Haftar, but can the Derna floods give Libyans another chance?

Moscow seized the disaster diplomacy initiative after the deadly Derna floods, with Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov arriving in eastern Libya with a promise of aid. Russia is helping Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar while seeking geostrategic payback. But the Derna tragedy has also drawn the US back into Libya, and that could be a game-changer.

On a moonless night shortly after two dams in the port city of Derna collapsed, killing thousands, a hulking Russian Ilyushin IL-76 military cargo aircraft landed at an airport near Benghazi in eastern Libya.

“Russian Defence Ministry sends logistical reinforcements, rescue & search equipment after Storm Daniel,” noted a post by a local Libyan news site days after the landing on X, formerly Twitter.

Accompanying photographs showed teams unloading aid packages from the aircraft while a military truck, draped with the flags of Russia and Libya, waits on the tarmac at Benghazi’s Benina airport.

The messaging was clear and gained momentum over the next few days: the Russian defence ministry was on the ground, providing a rapid response in eastern Libya, a region controlled by strongman Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

On Sunday, September 17 – a week after “Libya’s 9/11” as the Derna disaster has been dubbed – Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov himself was in town, meeting Haftar at the strongman’s Benghazi office.

The Russian defence ministry’s No. 2 is fast becoming Moscow’s “Africa Man”, making several trips to the continent, particularly coup-hit former French colonies such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Yevkurov was last in Libya when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash near Moscow on August 23. Over the past few years, Wagner provided indispensable services to Haftar, securing oil wells and deploying fighters during the eastern Libyan strongman’s 2019 assault on the capital, Tripoli, in western Libya. Following the Wagner chief’s demise, Yevkurov is seen as the main organiser of the post-Prigozhin era of Russian relationships with Africa.

Read moreRussian general, master spy duo organise in Africa after Prigozhin’s demise

Just a day after Prigozhin’s death, Haftar showed that he was ahead of the intrigues in Moscow when his Benghazi media office released a photograph of the Russian deputy defence minister gifting the Libyan strongman a pistol during his visit.

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov offers Khalifa Haftar a pistol in Benghazi on August 24, 2023. © Khalifa Khaftar media office via AFP

With its 1,700-kilometer Mediterranean coastline across from southern Europe, and its desert land borders providing a gateway to the Sahel and central Africa, Libya is considered vital to Russia’s interests across the two continents. The oil-rich North African nation is divided between the UN-recognised government administering western Libya and Haftar-controlled territory in the east.

Russia has proved to be a new, loyal ally to Haftar. But the septuagenarian Libyan strongman is not known for his geopolitical fidelity. In the course of an intrigue-packed military career, Haftar has switched sides, worked with rival powers, and managed to save his skin while amassing a fortune. The Derna disaster has repositioned him at the centre of a North African “Great Game”, with the victims of the floods in danger of turning into pawns.

Seeking docking rights for Russian warships

Russia’s outreach in eastern Libya predates the Derna disaster and has been largely opaque and shadowy.

Just two days before Yevkurov’s humanitarian trip to Benghazi, the Wall Street Journal published a report warning that Russia was seeking access for its warships in eastern Libya.

“The Russians have requested access to the ports of either Benghazi or Tobruk,” the US daily reported, citing Libyan officials and advisers. Yevkurov’s meeting with Haftar in August focused on discussing “long-term docking rights in areas he controls in the war-torn country’s east,” the newspaper added.

Prigozhin’s death and the Russian defence ministry’s efforts to fold Wagner mercenaries – including around 1,200 fighters still stationed in Haftar’s facilities – into a direct chain of command have increased the geopolitical stakes, according to Emad Baadi, nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council.

“It’s about securing a warm water port on the Mediterranean, at Europe and NATO’s southern flank, which has been a covert objective of Russia for quite a long time, but on which it hadn’t made inroads, partly because its presence in Libya was never made fully official, let’s say. This is slightly changing now, given the increased high profile, and nature of the visits that we’ve seen with the deputy minister of defence,” said Baadi.

Since NATO intervened in the 2011 uprising to oust Muammar Gaddafi, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently criticised the operation and used Libya as an example of the Western military alliance’s failure.

More than a decade later, Putin is determined to turn that failure to Russia’s advantage.

“I think they are in Libya to stay, both for resource extraction and strategic positioning, from where they can basically threaten southern Europe and destabilise the security of southern Europe,” said a Western diplomat who declined to be named. “Putin wants to undermine democracy in Europe and what better way to do that than to use Libya as a launching pad for cynically sending illegal migrants into southern Europe. I think this is a medium-to-long-term strategic plan.”

From Tartus to Tobruk, or Benghazi

Russia’s efforts to lobby Haftar for naval access are aimed at duplicating Moscow’s achievements in Syria following the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to experts.

Following its 2015 intervention on Assad’s behalf, Russia has substantially increased the use of its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only Mediterranean port to which Moscow has access.

With a naval presence in either Benghazi or Tobruk, Russia could significantly increase its reach, by having “surface-to-air missiles deployed, anti-ship cruise missiles, electronic warfare equipment, but more importantly, be able to deploy the Russian Mediterranean fleet to set port,” said Baadi.

“This setup in having both, the eastern flank of Europe [from Tartus] and also the southern flank of Europe [from Libya] presents a strategic advantage, both vis-a-vis Europe and against NATO as well,” he added.

‘Discussing fire safety with an arsonist’

Given the geostrategic stakes, the US is keeping a close eye on Russia’s outreach to Haftar in the wake of the Derna flooding.

Just days after Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yevkurov left Benghazi, the Americans were on the tarmac.

On Thursday, September 21, General Michael Langley, commander of the US Africa Command, and Richard Norland, US special envoy to Libya, arrived in Benghazi in an aircraft bearing humanitarian aid.

After a stop in Tripoli, where they held talks with representatives of the country’s internationally recognised government, the two senior US officials met the strongman of eastern Libya.

“Gen. Langley met with LNA commander Haftar in Benghazi to discuss the importance of forming a democratically elected national government, reunifying the Libyan military, and safeguarding Libyan sovereignty by removing foreign mercenaries,” the US Embassy in Libya said in an X post.

The messaging drew snide quips from Libya analysts monitoring the LNA’s crackdown on journalists and activists following a protest by flood-hit Derna residents outside the city’s landmark Al Sahaba mosque.

“Meeting Haftar to discuss democratic elections is like discussing fire safety with an arsonist. Shut the door on your way out mate,” said Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, on X.

“I think the West is very naïve about how to engage with Haftar,” said Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “My advice to the US would be to take a very strong line in pushing back against the securitisation of the Derna crisis,” he added, referring to what Amnesty International has called the LNA’s “well-honed machinery of repression to silence criticism, muzzle civil society and evade responsibility”.

‘America’s man’ or ‘Russia’s man’ in Libya?

US policy on Libya over the past few years has been characterised by muddle and absence, according to many analysts.

“Washington is playing catchup on Libya because policy is always overshadowed by other priorities,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Libya surfaces in US consciousness when there are threat concerns: ISIS [the Islamic State group], energy security and Russia’s spoiling influence in Libya.”

Since 2014 – when his military “Operation Dignity” on Benghazi split the country in two – Haftar has positioned himself as an indispensable Libyan player who has at various points engaged with the US, Russia, France, Italy, the EU, Egypt and the UAE, even as he dismays officials in global and regional capitals.

A Gaddafi-era army officer, Haftar began the post-2011 chapter as “America’s man” – the product of a 20-year stay in Virginia after the CIA failed to find another country to house his commando force engaged in covert operations against the longtime Libyan dictator.

“In the back of Russia’s mind, Haftar is still “America’s man” in Libya, especially after the twenty years that Haftar spent in Virginia,” noted Khalil El Hasse in a Washington Institute briefing.

“On whether Haftar is America’s man or Russia’s man, I think he thrives on being in the grey zone – which is fully, neither. But I do think that the Americans have displayed a naiveite that perhaps the Russians have not because the Russians are as opportunistic, if not more opportunistic, than Haftar himself,” said Baadi.

The US and its European allies have played the opportunistic game with Haftar, but they are falling behind Russia in strategy and the Libyan people have been the biggest losers, according to experts.

“A variety of international powers have crafted their relationship with this personality under the guise of counterterrorism,” said Stephanie Williams, former UN special envoy to Libya and currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution. “Nations tend to prioritise these kind of discrete files – whether it’s counterterrorism or oil or counter-migration – at the expense of frankly, the kind of institution-building that was needed in the wake of 2011.”

More than a decade after Gaddafi’s ouster, the international roadmap for the North African country is focused on a “Libyan-led” process towards parliamentary and presidential elections.

The process, led by the current UN envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, a veteran Senegalese diplomat, has a whiff of dismaying familiarity for most Libyans, who have endured election cancellations, obstructions and irregularities by their political elites.

During the September 10 protests outside the Al Sahaba mosque in Derna, residents vented their rage against Aguila Saleh, the eastern-based parliament speaker and Haftar ally. At 79, Saleh is viewed as a symbol of Libya’s political malaise, unilaterally pushing “legislation” through the chamber that favour his cronies and Haftar allies.

Saleh’s nephew, Abdulmonem al-Ghaithi, was Derna’s appointed mayor when the dam disaster that was “decades in the making” struck. Ghaithi was sacked shortly after the tragedy.

Read moreLibya’s deadly dam collapse was decades in the making

The Derna disaster could provide a tipping point for change, and it’s one that should be seized by countries supporting democracy in Libya before the Russians – under a new “Africa man” – can play spoiler.

“Derna does in fact represent an opportunity for responsible international and regional actors to correct the trajectory of their policy on Libya, to first of all stand with the Libyan people,” said Williams. “There is a moral responsibility now because what happened in Libya is going to happen somewhere else, we’re going have a climate change-driven event that will be compounded by conflict, chaos and misgovernance.”

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Second Ukraine wheat shipment reaches Turkey despite Russian threats

A second shipment of Ukrainian wheat reached Turkey via the Black Sea on Sunday, according to maritime traffic monitoring sites, despite Russian threats to attack boats heading to or from its neighbour and enemy. Read our blog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).

This live blog is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage on the war in Ukraine, please click here.

1:51pm: Russian airstrikes kill two people, wound three more in southern Ukraine

Russian airstrikes on Sunday killed two people and wounded three others in southern Ukraine’s Kherson province, the region’s governor reported Sunday as the war in Ukraine entered its 20th month.

According to Governor Oleksandr Prokudin, Russian forces struck the city of Beryslav, destroying an unspecified number of private homes. A woman was killed and three people were wounded, including a police officer, he said.

Another airstrike also killed a 67-year-old man in the village of Lvove, Prokudin said, without specifying the type of weapons used in the attack.

Both of the communities hit are located in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Kherson region, where the Dnipro River that bisects the province has marked a battle line since Russian troops withdrew across it in November 2022, a retreat that boosted the invaded country’s morale.

12:26pm: Putin critic Kara-Murza brought to Siberian penal colony

Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, jailed for 25 years on treason charges and for denouncing Moscow’s Ukraine offensive, has arrived to serve his sentence at a maximum-security Siberian prison, his lawyer said Sunday.

Kara-Murza – a dual Russian-British citizen – was handed the unprecedentedly long sentence in April, with international leaders and supporters calling for his release.

“Vladimir Kara-Murza has been brought to the Omsk maximum security penal colony IK-6 to serve his punishment,” his lawyer Vadim Prokhorov said on Facebook. “He was straight away placed in an isolation cell.”

Omsk is located some 2,700 kilometres (1,670 miles) east of Moscow.

11:42am: Russian-installed head of Donetsk imposes five-hour curfew

The Russian-installed head of the Russian-annexed Ukrainian region of Donetsk has imposed a curfew, according to a decree published on Sunday.

Denis Pushilin banned the presence of civilians on streets and public places from 11pm until 4am on Mondays-Fridays, according to the decree.

The decree forbade assemblies, rallies and demonstrations as well as other mass events in Russian-controlled parts of the Donetsk region unless they were permitted by the Operational Headquarters for Military Threat Response in Donetsk People’s Republic.

The decree signed by Pushilin on September 18 introduced “military censorship of postal mail and messages transmitted via telecommunications systems as well as control of telephone conversations”.

Among other steps entailed by Pushilin’s order was the establishment of checkpoints and security posts at borders with the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions.

10:51am: Ukrainian drone strikes Russia’s Kursk, says official

A Ukrainian drone strike hit an administrative building in the centre of Russia‘s southern Kursk city, authorities said Sunday.

Kyiv has targeted Russian cities with almost daily attacks in recent months of Moscow’s 19-month offensive.

Kursk is situated around 90 kilometres (50 miles) from the border with Ukraine.

“In Kursk, a Ukrainian drone attacked an administrative building in the central district,” governor Roman Starovoyt said on Telegram. “The roof was slightly damaged. Employees of the emergency services are working at the scene.”

Last month, a Ukrainian drone strike damaged Kursk’s railway station, leaving five people injured and causing significant damage.

Both Russia and Ukraine report regular drone incursions as Kyiv presses a counteroffensive aimed at reclaiming Russian-held territory.

10:18am: Ukraine’s Zelensky says he met top businessmen during US visit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday he met leading American entrepreneurs and financiers during a visit this week to the United States, where investment opportunities in Ukraine were discussed.

Zelensky said the businessmen, who included Michael Bloomberg, Larry Fink and Bill Ackman, were prepared to make major investments in rebuilding Ukraine after its war with Russia.

“The American entrepreneurs and financiers confirmed their readiness to make large-scale investments in our country immediately after the end of the war and the receipt of security guarantees,” he posted on Telegram, along with photos of the meeting. “We are working for the victory and reconstruction of Ukraine.”

On a trip to the US and Canada this week, Zelensky sought continued military and financial support for Kyiv’s effort to fend off Russia’s 19-month-old invasion.

7:02am: Second Ukraine wheat shipment reaches Turkey, according to tracking sites

A second shipment of Ukrainian wheat reached Turkey via the Black Sea on Sunday, according to maritime traffic monitoring sites, despite Russian threats to attack boats heading to or from its neighbour and enemy.

The Palau-flagged bulk carrier Aroyat – laden with 17,600 tonnes of wheat – left the port city of Chornomorsk on Friday bound for Egypt.

Ukraine is testing a new sea route that avoids using international waters and follows those controlled by NATO members Bulgaria and Romania, following Russia’s withdrawal from a UN-backed grain export deal.

According to the websites Marine Traffic and Vessel Finder, the Aroyat was at the southern exit of the Bosphorus Strait at 0300 GMT on Sunday.

It was to head towards the Dardanelles Strait to reach the Mediterranean.

A first ship loaded with 3,000 tonnes of wheat, and also flying the flag of Palau, left Chornomorsk without incident on Tuesday and arrived in Istanbul on Thursday.

Key developments from Saturday, September 23:

Ukraine on Saturday said dozens of people including senior Russian navy commanders died or were injured when it staged a missile attack on Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol a day earlier.

Kyiv’s army has broken through Russian lines in southern Ukraine, the general leading the counteroffensive there told US media Saturday, in the latest Ukrainian claims that it is making progress in the Zaporizhzhia area.

Read yesterday’s liveblog to see how the day’s events unfolded.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, and Reuters)

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A flood of misinformation about migrants in Lampedusa

Thousands of individuals, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa, have recently arrived on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, reigniting the discussion on the EU and European states’ approach to handling illegal immigration. Amidst this context, people online have been sharing three deceptive videos with the intent of disparaging migrants arriving in Italy.

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  • One video shared on X (formerly Twitter) claims to show a fight among migrants in Lampedusa. However, a reverse image search reveals that the video dates to 2021. It shows a fight outside a club, nowhere near Lampedusa.

  • Some people have also shared a video showing migrants dancing with NGO staff, claiming the scene took place this weekend in Lampedusa. However, the video was taken in August, in the UK.

  • Finally, one video claims that migrants who made their way into Europe through Lampedusa had started skirmishes in Stuttgart, Germany. The incident did indeed take place last weekend, but there’s no indication that it involved migrants.

The fact-check, in detail

On September 14, around 7,000 migrants landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the span of just 48 hours. So far in 2023, nearly 126,000 migrants have arrived in Italy – twice as many as last year.

Against this backdrop, a number of videos have been shared on social media networks targeting migrants.

This fight between ‘migrants’ dates back to 2021 – and isn’t in Lampedusa

“The migrants in Lampedusa, Italy are getting restless,” reads the caption on this video shared on X on September 18. The video shows a group of people in the midst of a violent fight. A group of young men are seen beating another man, who appears to be taking cover behind a policeman before being chased away by the group.

The video had garnered more than 169,000 views on X before it was deleted.

September 18 post on X claiming to show a fight between migrants in Lampedusa. © X / @WallStreetSilv

A simple reverse image search (click here to find out how) reveals that the original video was published on August 10, 2021 by Rossini TV, a regional channel based in Pesaro, central Italy.

The title of the report states that the video shows a brawl in Marotta, a village near Pesaro.

We searched for details about the incident and found that several local newspapers reported on a brawl outside a Marotta club on August 7, 2021. During the fight, which started inside the club, a Senegalese man was stabbed in the abdomen. Two Italian police officers were also injured while trying to intervene. Four people were arrested, including two Albanians, a Dominican, and a Senegalese person.

The video was published two years ago, and has nothing to do with the current influx of migrants to Lampedusa.

These migrants filming themselves dancing with volunteers and members of NGOs were not in Lampedusa

With over 3 million combined views on X, a video posted on several accounts claims to show migrants taking selfies while dancing with volunteers from NGOs, even though they have just arrived on the island of Lampedusa.

Screenshot on X, September 16, showing migrants dancing with members of an NGO, allegedly in Lampedusa according to the post's caption.
Screenshot on X, September 16, showing migrants dancing with members of an NGO, allegedly in Lampedusa according to the post’s caption. © X / @stillgray

There are several indications that the scene did not take place in Lampedusa. Firstly, when the person filming himself with the NGO members dancing, you can see a red and white logo on an employee’s jacket: it identifies the NGO Care4Calais.

On its website, the organisation explains that its volunteers work with refugees in the UK, France and Belgium. Members of Care4Calais are not currently in Lampedusa.

If you go further, using a reverse image search, you can find an earlier post featuring the same video. On August 25, 2023, @BFirstParty, the X account of the British political party Britain First, already published it, accusing the Care4Calais association in the caption of being a “traitorous” NGO, having committed a serious faux-pas by dancing with refugees at the border in the UK.

Screenshot taken on August 25 on X, showing the reaction of the British political party Britain First after members of the NGO Care4Calais danced with refugees.
Screenshot taken on August 25 on X, showing the reaction of the British political party Britain First after members of the NGO Care4Calais danced with refugees. © X / @BFirstParty

We contacted Care4Calais, who confirmed that this video does indeed show some of its volunteers dancing with refugees. They also confirmed that the video was not taken this month. The organisation added: “There is no context to the video. As you will be aware, Care4Calais delivers humanitarian aid to refugees in northern France. Whilst distributing that aid, our volunteers interact with refugees with kindness and compassion, often sitting down to share stories (some, as you can imagine, are very harrowing) and in this video they are enjoying a dance.”

Therefore, this video was not taken in Lampedusa, and has nothing to do with the current migrant arrivals on the Italian island.

Clashes don’t involve migrants who arrived via Lampedusa

After the arrival of migrants on the island of Lampedusa, this video was posted on X to denounce the impact of welcoming them to Europe. In a caption, the @Linfo24_7 account claims that the people behind the violent clashes in Stuttgart on Saturday were “illegal immigrants from Lampedusa”.

Screenshot from September 17 of an X post claiming that migrants from Lampedusa have sparked clashes in Germany.
Screenshot from September 17 of an X post claiming that migrants from Lampedusa have sparked clashes in Germany. © X / @Linfo24_7

A reverse image search reveals that the scene was filmed in Stuttgart on September 16. The violence in Germany followed an Eritrean cultural festival organised by groups close to the president, as confirmed by Africa News.

During the day, opponents of the government came to protest against the festival, triggering scuffles between pro- and anti-government Eritrean activists. People close to the opposition were accused of assaulting the police as they intervened to stop the conflict.

There’s no indication that migrants who had just arrived in Lampedusa had travelled to Stuttgart to start riots, or that those involved had arrived via Lampedusa illegally. Furthermore, an article by Sud Ouest explains that, as early as July, a similar conflict had broken out between Eritreans north of Frankfurt.

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‘Ghost parents’: Same-sex couples in Italy are losing their rights

Italy’s right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has demanded local councils only list biological parents on birth certificates, flinging hundreds of same-sex couples into a legal morass.

Last year, Denise Rinehart and Giulia Garofalo Geymonat’s six-year-old son was rushed from his school in Bologna, Italy to a nearby hospital with a life-threatening allergic reaction. In a panic, the two mothers scrambled to the emergency services to find their son. He had gone into anaphylactic shock. As healthcare personnel treated him, one nurse turned to Geymonat and asked: “Who are you?” The question fell on her like a tonne of bricks.

Geymonat is not officially registered as her son’s parent on his birth certificate. In the eyes of the law, his only official parent is her wife, Rinehart. “[The nurse] had the power to kick me out,” Geymonat says. “It was up to her to decide whether I would be by my child’s side in a life-threatening situation. It’s all in the hands of other individuals.”

Because Rinehart was the one to carry their eldest son to term, when he was born in Pisa in 2016, she was the only one registered on his birth certificate. Geymonat, despite being his mother from the moment he was born, is not officially recognised as such because she is not his biological mother.

‘Ghost parent’

After same-sex civil unions were legalised in Italy in 2016, and in the absence of any clear legislation on parental rights for same-sex couples, a handful of city councils across the country started listing parents of the same gender on their children’s birth certificate. Unfortunately for Geymonat and Rinehart, the city of Pisa did not.

For seven years now, the couple have been swallowed up in a legal morass to grant Geymonat parental recognition. After their first son was born, the council of Pisa only registered Rinehart as a parent on his birth certificate. For Geymonat to be recognised as his parent as well, the couple had two choices: appeal the council’s decision and try to get full parental recognition or attempt the adoption route. Knowing the adoption process would be intrusive and time-consuming, they went for the first option. They appealed Pisa’s decision and their case has been in and out of various courts ever since. It was most recently heard in Florence’s court of appeals, which ruled in favour of their argument that Geymonat be on her son’s birth certificate, and will now be dealt with in Italy’s highest court on October 6.

Throughout that time and until today, Geymonat has been what she calls a “ghost parent” to their eldest son.

But in recent months, Italy’s right-wing government has been cracking down on city councils to stop listing same-sex parents on birth certificates. Led by the hardline traditionalist Meloni, the ministry of interior issued a directive in January 2023 instructing Italian mayors to stop automatically registering the births of children conceived or born abroad through assisted reproductive methods. It cited a case from December 2022, in which Italy’s top court ruled that a child of a gay couple who was conceived through surrogacy abroad shouldn’t have their birth certificate automatically transcribed in Italy.

Though the directive primarily concerned surrogacy, which is banned in Italy and now even a crime for those seeking surrogacy abroad, its interpretation by local councils has disproportionally affected LGBTQ families – including those who resort to other reproductive methods.

Single women and same-sex couples do not have access to assisted reproduction treatments in Italy.

Read more‘Mother, Italian, Christian’: Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s far-right leader on the cusp of power

By April, the Milan prefecture broadened its interpretation of the directive to include same-sex couples who had children abroad through IVF or artificial insemination. Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, who had previously allowed the automatic transcription of birth certificates, would no longer be able to do so. He confirmed he would stop the practice moving forward, but chose not to amend the birth certificates he had previously approved.

In the northeastern city of Padua in June, the state prosecutor took things even further and opened a legal case demanding that the 33 birth certificates issued to the children of lesbian couples since 2017 be changed to remove the name of the non-biological mother. A court will rule on the request later this year.

The decision caused outrage. Centre-left MP Alessandro Zan, who has pushed for LGBTQ rights in Italy for years, called it a “cruel, inhumane decision”.

“These children are being orphaned by decree,” he said.

A close call

Alice Bruni, Bróna Kelly and their son Zeno are one of the 33 families involved in the Padua case. In July, just four months after the birth of their son, Bruni and Kelly received a letter from the state prosecutor summoning them to a court appearance in November. Bruni was fuming with anger. “It makes you wonder what this is all about. We are citizens, we pay our taxes like everyone else … we should have the same rights as everyone else,” she says. “It’s pure discrimination.”

After Zeno was conceived through IVF at a clinic in Greece and Bruni became pregnant, she contacted the Padua municipality to ensure they could register both names on their son’s birth certificate. She was reassured by the administrative office that this would be no problem, but that she should “call back when the baby is almost there” to make sure nothing had changed.

When news of the directive sent out by Meloni’s government came out, Bruni began to panic. But they were lucky. Zeno was born in March, three months before Padua’s state prosecutor opened the case against lesbian parents.

“I think we were the last couple to be registered before the case opened,” says Bruni.

While the case is ongoing, the couple have been told their son’s birth certificate is valid. To limit any risk of Kelly losing her parental rights as Zeno’s non-biological mother, they have started the process of getting him an Irish passport, since Kelly is from Ireland. Their lawyer has assured them that, if both parents are registered on an official document from another European state, the Italian government must accept the same.

“That’s made us feel a little better,” says Bruni. “But it doesn’t solve the problem. We care a lot about all the other families, and it’s a matter of principle.”

‘It’s never done until it’s done’

The consequences of restricting the parental rights of same-sex couples are dire, something Geymonat and Rinehart know all too well. Stripped of her parenting rights, Geymonat avoids taking her eldest son to doctor’s appointments and never crosses borders without her wife. She cannot even pick him up from school without a written permission from Rinehart. “Even within the country, we avoid being on our own,” the couple says.

Behind the bureaucratic difficulties families face are also emotional strains. The years the couple have spent fighting to get Geymonat parental recognition put a financial burden on the household. “We just get the feeling we have to pay for our rights. And putting down the money is not a guarantee that we will,” says Rinehart. To cover legal fees like paying a lawyer and getting documents notarised, the couple created two crowdfunding campaigns and are now opening a third for what they hope will be the last step towards parental recognition.

When the couple have tried explaining the situation to their eldest, they are faced with utter incomprehension. “His reaction was, ‘To say that you are not my mum is like saying a light isn’t a light, or that this chair isn’t a chair!’,” Rinehart says, laughing with Geymonat at their son’s poeticism.

In 2021, five years after the birth of their first son, the couple moved to Bologna where Geymonat gave birth to their second child. “We knew that in Bologna, we would both be registered as his parents on his birth certificate,” says Rinehart. “But it’s never done until it’s done … You just never know if things can change.”

For now, the mayor of Bologna has interpreted the government notice more loosely. But at any moment, the Italian state can take the mayor to court and override his decision. “Municipalities act as organs of the ministry of the interior, so everything will boil down to the will of the government,” explains Vincenzo Miri, president of Rete Lenford, an association that provides legal help for LGBTQ people.

A family policy … for heterosexual families?

Tracing its roots to political factions steeped in post-war neofascism and Catholic conservatism, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has long been hostile to LGBTQ equality, especially in the realm of domestic life. Although Meloni has tried to package some extremist views into progressive trappings, like arguing that surrogacy is anti-feminist as it exploits women’s bodies, her brand of conservatism under the slogan “God, homeland and family” clearly excludes same-sex families.

Since taking power in October 2022, Meloni has vowed to rail against what she calls the “LGBT lobby” and has repeatedly reiterated her view that children should only be raised by heterosexual parents.

“Under [former PM] Draghi, the government had stopped opposing automatic transcription of birth certificates,” says Miri. “But now Meloni has decided to resume challenging these registrations.”

In defence of the decisions taken by Meloni’s government in the past months, Minister for the Family Eugenia Roccella told Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra: “In Italy, one becomes a parent in only two ways – either by biological relationship or by adoption,” and urged same-sex parents to follow the adoption procedure.

But in Italy, adopting the child of a same-sex partner is extremely difficult. Non-biological parents can obtain parenting rights through the special stepchild adoption procedure, but it takes years, can cost thousands of euros, involves countless court hearings and involves invasive interviews by social services.

“Couples are told [by lawyers] not to start the adoption procedure until the child is older, since social workers have to verify the emotional relationship between the child and non-biological parent,” Miri says, to ensure there is no abuse or mistreatment and that the person is fit to be a parent. “In those years, anything can happen. Either parent could die, they could split up, many situations could put the child in an extremely vulnerable position,” he says.

That’s why for Rinehart and Geymonat, adoption was never on the table. They preferred trying to get Geymonat recognised as a legal parent.

Rete Lenford and another LGBTQ organisation, Famiglie Arcobaleno, are representing hundreds of cases like Rinehart and Geymonat’s in court.

“I don’t understand why the government has to impose a whole judicial rigmarole on a family just because a mother or father wants to assume their duties as a parent,” Miri says. “It’s not like they are appealing to claim their rights as activists. They are saying they want to protect their child and take on parental obligations. They just want their child to be part of their family.”

For now, the hundreds of families who have been plunged into a legal limbo have no choice but to go to court, or risk becoming “ghost parents” like Geymonat.

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Another Russian mercenary group shows discontent with the Kremlin: ‘A sign of more to come’

At the end of August, Ukraine declared it had finally managed to pierce Russia’s first line of defence after retaking the small village of Robotyne in Ukraine’s south. This key advance coincided with a Russian mercenary group’s threat to stop fighting on Russia’s behalf on the front lines of the village and could be a sign of more anti-Kremlin sentiment brewing among those fighting for Moscow.

Robotyne has been liberated,” Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar announced on August 28.

Although the tiny village, which had a pre-war population of fewer than 500 people, may be of little importance in itself, it lies along a strategic road that leads to the Russian-occupied road and railway hub of Tokmak. From there, another road leads to the key city of Melitopol, which, prior to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, was known to Ukrainians as the “gateway” to the peninsula. Last week’s victory was therefore an important advance for Ukraine.

Just a few days earlier, however, fighters from Rusich, a small Russian neo-Nazi paramilitary group stationed at Robotyne’s front line, had threatened to lay down their arms – a move that may have contributed to Russia’s stinging loss there.

The official reason for the threat to lay down arms, Rusich explained in an August 25 statement on Telegram, was that one of the group’s top commanders and founding members, Yan Petrovsky, had been detained in Finland and faced extradition to Ukraine – and the Russian government was not doing much about it.

Petrovsky, a dual Russian-Norwegian national, co-founded Rusich back in 2014 to take part in the Russian occupation of Donbas and is believed to have been a contractor for the Wagner Group at one point. He faces various terrorism-related charges in Ukraine and risks being sentenced to between 15 and 20 years in prison if he is extradited.

In a series of messages screen-grabbed by the research project Antifascist Europe, Rusich members expressed frustration with their treatment by the Russian authorities.

“If the country cannot protect its citizens, why should the citizens protect the country?” asked one.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the group did indeed seem to be operating near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast, describing it as “a critical area of the front line where the Russian military command likely cannot afford for any units to rebel and refuse to conduct combat missions”.

Soon after ISW issued its analysis, Robotyne fell to Ukraine.

There has been no official confirmation – either from Rusich or the Russian defence ministry – that the group’s fighters did stop fighting.

According to Jeff Hawn, a non-resident fellow at the Washington, DC-based think-tank New Lines Institute and an expert in Russian military matters, it would have been a credible scenario.

“There’s a very strong possibility” that the mercenaries laid down arms, which would likely have contributed to the fall of Robotyne, he said. Russia is so short of fighters it cannot replace units that give up, he said, adding that we likely won’t know “for years” what really happened.

Hawn said the reason for a revolt would likely have less to do with the detention of the group’s leader than with a loss of motivation among Russian mercenary fighters in general, coupled with Moscow’s increasing inability to keep them under control.

“These guys are likely just looking for an excuse to get out,” he said. “They’re realising that Ukraine isn’t just going to break and give up.”

The situation for paramilitary groups has been further complicated by Wagner’s attempted mutiny back in June and the death of the mercenary group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, late last month.

Under Prigozhin’s leadership, Hawn explained, Wagner had long served as an organising tool for other Russian militia groups operating in Ukraine. Prigozhin had also established a culture of paying his mercenaries well, and in dollars – a culture that spread to the other militias fighting in Ukraine.

“Even though he had a reputation of being a tough guy, a thug, Prigozhin was known to take good care of his people, paying them more, and in hard currency.”

Following the group’s botched mutiny, however – and Moscow’s subsequent attempts to try to dissolve the group – the working conditions for Prigozhin’s “militia collective” in Ukraine worsened.

“They’re probably getting paid in rubles now – if they’re getting paid at all,” Hawn said.

“They’re also probably not getting supplied, because militia groups are at the very lowest end of the totem pole when it comes to Russian logistics, which are completely overstretched already.”

Before his death, Prigozhin had long complained that the Russian military was not supplying his mercenaries with enough ammunition, even threatening to pull his troops from the front line in the hard-fought city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin’s death – and that of his reported right-hand man Dmitry Utkin in a plane crash on August 23 – also wiped out a whole shadow power structure built upon both connections and the ability to command the “thugs and criminals” fighting as mercenaries.

“There’s no one like Prigozhin who currently has the will, or ability to challenge the government directly,” Hawn said. With the Wagner leader now out of the picture, he said, it will become even harder for Moscow to control the dozen or more militia groups still in Ukraine.

Even worse for Moscow, Hawn said, would be if they were willing to switch sides.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these guys repent and suddenly joined the Free Russian Legion, especially if they’re getting paid in dollars,” he said, referring to a group of pro-Kyiv Russian fighters that claimed to have staged several attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region in recent months.

 “I do think the incident in Robotyne is significant, and that it’s a sign of more things to come.”

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Far-right militants in Greece illegally ‘arrest’ migrants they blame for fires

Two videos posted online on August 23 show Greek members of the extreme right illegally “arresting” migrants in Evros, a Greek region bordering Turkey. The footage shows the militants forcing one group of men to sit in the dirt. Another group of terrified migrants have been crammed into a trailer. While members of the far right have carried out this type of illegal arrest of migrants before, it is rare to have footage of it. The attackers accuse the migrants of being responsible for the widespread fires in the region. These militiamen feel empowered by the political context hostile to migrants, say our Observers.

Issued on:

5 min

“Four more … you see? It is noon and where are the authorities? […] We will contact the police, but there is never any response,” rages the man filming a video posted online on August 27. While it is clear the video was filmed in the region of Evros, it’s not clear when it was filmed.

The man filming points the camera at four men, migrants, sitting on the ground in the dirt behind a Land Rover. Meanwhile, at least two other men loiter alongside the vehicle – seemingly in cahoots with the man behind the camera. At the end of the video, the man turns the camera on himself and you can see that he is bearded and wearing a black tee-shirt and camouflage pants.

The video was posted on social media by an account under the name Walandi Abrassis – likely the man who filmed it.

A video posted online a few days earlier shows a similar scene – albeit even more disturbing. The guy filming focuses the shot on his Land Rover, which has a trailer attached. When he opens the door, there are at least four men crammed inside, looking terrified.

“I’ve loaded up 25 of them into the trailer. Get organised, get them all out and grab them,” he says. He seems to be speaking to his cronies about the migrant men in the trailer. “The whole mountain is full, guys.”

“They swore to burn us […] They will burn us, that’s all I’ll say,” he adds, this time referring to the wildfire that has been raging across the northeast of Greece, considered to be the largest ever recorded in the European Union. According to the local press, this video was filmed in Alexandroupoli, just a few kilometres from the Turkish border, the Evros River.

The website the Press Project later reported that these militia men had “arrested” 13 migrant men, not 25 as the man filming claimed. The victims told journalists that the militants had beaten them with metal rods.

“They took off all of our clothes and filmed us. We stayed there a long time, sweating and unable to breathe,” said one of the 13 men who was detained.

Greek authorities have put the man who filmed this second video under house arrest awaiting charges.

‘These militia members arrest migrants but because they can’t deport them, they hand them over to police’

Panayote Dimitras is the spokesperson for the Greek Helsinki Monitor, a human rights NGO that gathers information on migrants who have been forcibly deported from Greece either by the police or civilians:

This phenomenon has existed for decades, but this time they decided to share videos of their actions themselves. This footage illustrates things that organisations like ours have been reporting for a long time. The release of the footage resulted in a deputy prosecutor of the Supreme Court assigning a local prosecutor to deal with it. That said, nothing has been done about all of these illegal deportations orchestrated by Greece, even though they have been widely documented. So it is doubtful that people will be punished here. However, all of this information can be added to the files that we can give to international institutions like the European Court of Human Rights to show how that happens to migrants in the region.

We know that these militias cooperate with local police. In Evros, these militia members arrest migrants but because they can’t deport them, they hand them over to police. The police don’t report the incidents because if the migrants’ presence is recorded, then they have the right to claim asylum and can no longer be illegally deported.

Far-right parties like the Golden Dawn and the Greek Solution are trying to find support in the region and it is clear that the men in these videos have links to local far right organisations.

The man who filmed the video posted on August 27 hasn’t yet been arrested. However, he was interviewed in a far-right publication as well as on Facebook. He claimed that he was just bringing water and assistance to migrants.

Migrants blamed

On Greek social media, citizen patrol groups have been working together to chase off migrants who have crossed the border from Turkey, as shown in a report by the Press Project, which shared screengrabs of a conversation on Viber. Leaders of the far right openly blamed the fires on migrants travelling through Evros. The chairperson of the Greek Solution party, Paris Papadakis, who comes from Alexandroupoli, wrote on Facebook: “I have information about illegals who are disrupting the work of [Canadair] pilots. We need to act! […] We are at war”.

On August 30, the rightwing Prime Minister, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, implied that migrants were behind the fire, though there is no proof of that.

“It is almost certain that the causes are man-made,” the prime minister said. “It is also almost certain that the fire began on routes often used by illegal migrants who have entered our country.”

However, he added that “acts of self-defence and self-proclaimed sheriffs are not tolerated by this government”,

They have a certain ideology that is not very different to that of the state: to protect the border, not letting people cross, using violence to prevent them’

Eva (not her real name) lives in Evros and has been following the situation closely. She asked to remain anonymous:

In March 2020, when Turkey opened its borders to put pressure on the European Union, police  officially asked for help from civilians in controlling the migrants who entered the country. A local organisation of fishermen on Evros, Aenisio Delta Evros, became very active in arresting migrants. Officially, that’s no longer the case and the police don’t want people to think that they tolerate that. But when you ask them if they are still doing it … they won’t respond to the question, which says a lot. 

A lot of these people have very good relations with the police and the army especially the Aenisio Delta Evros association, and also the local authorities. It’s wrong to call them vigilantes: they have an internalised ideology of protecting the border, to serve the state. In their mind, they don’t do anything to go against the interest of the Greek state. They have a certain ideology that is not very different to that of the state: to protect the border, not letting people cross, using violence to prevent them, which is a very significant pattern in Evros.

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Tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed, whose son was killed in crash with Princess Diana, dies at 94

Few things were beyond the reach of billionaire Egyptian tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed who has died at the age of 94.

Hotels, yachts and a football club were bought with ease but he never acquired the recognition he craved.

His son Dodi’s fateful relationship with princess Diana might have been the moment Fayed finally gained acceptance by the British “Establishment” elite.

Instead it marked his permanent estrangement after he insisted – without evidence – that Queen Elizabeth II‘s husband Prince Philip had ordered the Paris car crash in which Diana and Dodi were killed to prevent her marrying a Muslim.

Fayed lived most of his life in Britain, where for decades he was never far from the headlines.

But to his frustration he was never granted UK citizenship nor admitted into the upper echelons of British society.

Fayed will be remembered most for his outspoken and often foul-mouthed manner, his revenge on the Conservative party, his controversial purchase of the Harrods department store, and his ownership of Fulham football club and the Ritz hotel in Paris.

Al Fayed owned the Harrods department store in west London. © Carl De Souza, AFP

With a business empire encompassing shipping, property, banking, oil, retail and construction, Fayed was also a philanthropist, whose foundation helped children in the UK, Thailand and Mongolia.

His gift for self-invention – he added the “Al-” prefix to his surname and a 1988 UK government report described his claims of wealthy ancestry as “completely bogus” – led segments of the British press to dub him the “Phoney Pharoah.”

Humble origins

Far from being the scion of a dynasty of cotton and shipping barons he made himself out to be, Fayed was the son of a poor Alexandrian school-teacher who, after an early venture flogging lemonade, set out in business selling sewing machines.

He later had the good luck to start working for the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who recognised his business abilities and employed him in his furniture export business in Saudi Arabia.

He also owned the Ritz hotel in Paris, from where Diana and Dodi made their fateful final journey.
He also owned the Ritz hotel in Paris, from where Diana and Dodi made their fateful final journey. © Jacques Demarthon, AFP

He became an advisor to the Sultan of Brunei in the mid-1960s and moved to Britain in the 1970s.

Fayed bought the Ritz in 1979 with his brother and the pair snapped up Harrods six years later after a long and bitter takeover battle with British businessman Roland “Tiny” Rowland.

A subsequent government investigation into the takeover, officially published in 1990, found that Fayed and his brother had been dishonest about their wealth and origins to secure the takeover.

They called the claims unfair. Five years later, his first application for British citizenship was rejected.

Revenge followed swiftly. Soon after, Fayed told the press that he had paid Conservative MPs to ask questions in parliament on his behalf.

This brought down two prominent politicians, while Fayed also exposed Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken’s involvement in a Saudi arms deal.

Aitken was later jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Paris tragedy

The defining tragedy of Fayed’s life came in August 1997: Dodi and Princess Diana died when a car driven by one of Fayed’s employees, chauffeur Henri Paul, crashed in a Paris road tunnel.

For years afterwards, Fayed refused to accept the deaths were the result of speeding and intoxication by Paul, who also died.

Dodi's death in the tragedy was largely eclipsed by Diana's.
Dodi’s death in the tragedy was largely eclipsed by Diana’s. © Mohammed Al-Sehiti, AFP

The distraught Fayed accused the royal family of being behind the deaths and commissioned two memorials to the couple at Harrods.

One, unveiled in 1998, was a kitsch pyramid-shaped display with photos of Diana and Dodi, a wine glass purported to be from their final dinner and a ring that he claimed his son bought for the princess.

The other, a copper statue of the couple releasing an albatross, was entitled “Innocent Victims” – a reflection of his view that Dodi and Diana “were murdered”.

Fayed’s claims against the royal family came at a price.

Harrods lost a royal warrant bestowed by Prince Philip in 2000 after what Buckingham Palace called “a significant decline in the trading relationship” between the prince and the store.

Al-Fayed commissioned two memorials to the couple, insisting they were going to be married
Al-Fayed commissioned two memorials to the couple, insisting they were going to be married © John D. McHugh, AFP

Later that year, Fayed ordered the removal of all remaining royal warrants – effectively a regal seal of approval – for supplying the queen, queen mother and Prince Charles, the now King Charles III.

The Establishment “dislike my outspokenness and determination to get the truth”, he said, as he announced his exile to Switzerland in 2003 because of his claims and what he said was the “unfair” treatment at the hands of the tax authorities.

Sporting success

Fayed sold Harrods in 2010 to the investment arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for a reported £1.5 billion ($2.2 billion), although it was once reported he wanted to remain there even in death.

He told the Financial Times in 2002 that he wanted his body to be put on display in a glass mausoleum on Harrods roof “so people can come and visit me”.

Despite his paranoia, secrecy and eccentricities, Fayed’s success with the prestige department store was undeniable.

Al Fayed bought Fulham Football Club and commissioned a statue of pop star Michael Jackson for outside its ground.
Al Fayed bought Fulham Football Club and commissioned a statue of pop star Michael Jackson for outside its ground. © Glyn Kirk, AFP

Within a decade of his taking over, sales increased by 50 percent and profits rose from £16 million to £62 million.

Other successes included at Fulham, which he transformed from a struggling outfit into an top-flight side. But even here he was ridiculed and he eventually sold up.

He claimed in 2014 they were relegated because a giant statue he had commissioned of Michael Jackson outside the ground was removed.

Critics, he said characteristically, “can go to hell”.

According to Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, Fayed was worth $1.9 billion in November 2022.


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Conscription is resurging across Europe. Is that a good thing?

Does conscription mean sending poorly trained, disgruntled young people into battle, or can it encourage civic duty and help defend Europe?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 shocked Europe into taking a long hard look at its defences.


With peace in the region no longer a given, many Western capitals began asking if conscription was a solution to their security fears, at times igniting firey debate.

German and British politicians have suggested reviving compulsory military service, while countries already with conscription, such as Denmark and Lithuania, want to extend their drafts.

But is conscription the right approach to Russian aggression? What impacts could its revival have on Europe? Will it prove counterproductive or help defend the region?

“Europe’s armed forces, particularly those on the border with Russia, now realise they don’t have enough manpower,” said Vincenzo Bove, professor of political science at Warwick University, who specialises in conscription. “They clearly see conscription as a solution to that.”

“Whether this is a good idea in terms of deterring a potential Russian invasion, we’re not really sure,” he continued, suggesting there was a lack of evidence about the effectiveness of conscript armies compared to regular forces.

Owing to the complexity of modern warfare, Bove questioned if conscripts could be properly trained to use the advanced equipment or tactics employed today in the short time available.

“Just look at what is happening now in Russia with conscripts… They’re not highly motivated. Young men are being forced to work. The majority of them would rather be doing something else.”

A former Wagner mercenary in July told Euronews that while he served in Ukraine one of his main duties was to ensure Russian conscripts – “barely 21-years-old” – would not run away, as they were so reluctant to fight.

Canon fodder?

Besides economic concerns about the inefficiency of compulsory military service – with massive numbers of people prevented from doing something where they could be more productive – Bove raised ethical concerns about sending civilians into battle with little experience.

Having served in the Italian Navy for 15 years, he said: “Three years isn’t enough to teach the basics of warfare… even using basic weapons requires a lot of training.”

“Some countries are talking about three-month programmes… that’s nothing. They won’t even learn how to salute,” Bove added in jest.


Tucked on Russia’s border via the small enclave of Kaliningrad, Lithuania recently began drafting reforms to its conscription system, which could see people living and studying abroad called up.

One option in the proposals is to enlist recruits voluntarily for one-month training sessions every summer for three years. They would in theory then be ready for battle.

Along with Lithuania, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Austria, Greece and Estonia currently have some form of compulsory military service, alongside warring parties Ukraine and Russia.

Still, others were supportive of conscription – with caveats.

Critical of “performative acts” where “every man and woman is herded into military service”, Elisabeth Braw at the American Enterprise Institute told Euronews selective systems can “work really well”.


The defence analyst pointed to the “incredibly successful” example of Norway, where citizens are called up en masse, but only between 30 and 50% are chosen for training.

“The army gets the best and the brightest, and on top of that service is an asset on a conscript’s CV,” she explained, with passing selection a mark of prestige.

In 2015, Norway became the first European country to introduce compulsory military service for both men and women. It still retains a professional military, providing the bedrock of its defence.

Braw offered a note of caution about conscription, however.

“Troops must be equipped with meaningful skills. It has to be time well spent,” she said. “The Kremlin isn’t going to be frightened by a conscript model that’s not thought through, with young men and women sitting idle in barracks.”


Enlisted civilians could be put to use beyond defence, Braw continued.

“Keeping a country safe is about more than the armed forces. It’s about public health, infrastructure protection, and healthcare. Young people can be called up when they are needed to help protect the country from crises or disasters.”

“There are so many societal problems the government alone cannot solve.”

France in 2019 launched a form of soft conscription, with young people offered voluntary civic service. Macron billed his pet project as a way of developing patriotism and social cohesion, though opponents say it diverted money for the wider education system.

Some Studies show conscripts are more likely to face unemployment when their service finishes, while there are doubts if acquired skills are transferable to other sectors or learned at all.

Does military service breed patriotism?

One reason Europe is resorting to conscription – where men and women are typically legally obliged to fight – is that conventional recruitment drives aren’t working.

The German army, for example, is failing to attract new soldiers, despite a vast initiative to strengthen itself amid the Ukraine war, the country’s Ministry of Defence announced in August.

Why exactly people don’t want to serve is unclear.

An argument by experts is militaries cannot compete with private sector wages and conditions, with army jobs often difficult and dangerous.

Yet, Bove said this claim cannot explain what is happening in areas of Europe with high unemployment, such as southern Italy or Spain. Here civilians still don’t want to join up.

Another explanation is cultural, with civilians spurning the army because they don’t share its “overarching goals and purposes,” he told Euronews.

Devastating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left “long-lasting” negative attitudes towards the military, with Bove doubting that throwing cash at the problem could improve recruitment.

Arguments exist that conscription can boost patriotism and a population’s willingness to defend itself against an aggressor.

“Conscript service has a long history in Finland and has broad support in society,” said Elina Riutta, Chairperson of the Finnish Conscripts Union, in a statement sent to Euronews.

“The Russian threat has always been known in Finland, so the war in Ukraine does not in itself change things regarding conscript service, but rather emphasises its purposefulness.”

“The will to defend the country among conscripts and the entire nation is currently at a record high,” she added.

Finland is in a unique position geographically, sharing a long border with Russia that it has fought in the past. Its example is not necessarily applicable to other countries.

Research by Bove and his colleagues Riccardo Di Leo and Marco Giani found conscription actually can create a gap between people and their government.

“Conscription makes people identify with the armed forces, but his loyalty clashes with that towards other democratic institutions, causing people to trust the authorities less.”

“If you’re worried about the increasing distance between younger generations and the state, then conscription is not the answer. It’s actually counterproductive,” he added.

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What do we know about the videos allegedly showing ‘destroyed’ Wagner cemeteries?

A few days after the plane crash that killed Russian oligarch and head of the Wagner private military company Yevgeny Prigozhin, two videos emerged online showing the destruction of cemeteries for Wagner mercenaries – or so social media users claimed. Some people are saying that this destruction is part of a Russian campaign to erase any sign of the powerful Wagner Group in Russia after Prigozhin led a short-lived rebellion against the country’s military leadership. Our research currently shows no link between what is happening in the cemeteries and the plane crash.

The plane transporting Russian oligarch and Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed last Wednesday in the Tver region, northwest of Moscow, killing all on board. Many people suspect that the Kremlin was involved as Prigozhin had recently tried to stage a rebellion against Russia’s military leadership.

Since Prigozhin’s death, the future of the powerful militia group has hung in the balance. Its troops were pulled from Ukraine after the rebellion but they are still active in Africa. At least two videos emerged in late August that social media users claimed showed Russian authorities trying to erase all trace of the Wagner fighters by tearing down their cemeteries. Our team analysed these two videos.

A Wagner fighter denounces the destruction of a cemetery dedicated to mercenaries

In a video posted on August 25, Sergey Trifonov, a mercenary with the Wagner Group, spoke out against what looks like the dismantling of a cemetery for Wagner fighters in Nikolaevka, in the Russian region of Samara.

In this post, shared on August 25, Sergey Trifonov speaks out against what looks like the destruction of a cemetery for Wagner Group mercenaries. © Observers

In the video, the man wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Wagner”. He films a cemetery where more than 100 crosses are sitting in a pile, floral wreaths in the colours of the Wagner Group are tossed to the side, and the area apparently set aside for graves is covered with rubble.

“Everything was demolished. What have you done? It’s a sacrilege! All of the tombs were destroyed,” he says into the camera. The video was widely shared on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, where it garnered more than 1 million views.

Supporters of the Wagner Group, as well as pro-Ukrainian accounts, said that these images offered proof that the Russian government is carrying out a campaign to erase all traces of the powerful militia group that has fallen into disgrace in Russia.

This post from August 25 claims that the video offers proof that the Russian government is in the process of “rewriting history”.
This post from August 25 claims that the video offers proof that the Russian government is in the process of “rewriting history”. © Observers

“Russians are masters of falsifying history,” wrote this pro-Ukrainian account.  Another account said what was happening was “Stalinist”, asking: “Will the next step be to erase any evidence of Wagner’s existence?”.

However, a number of Telegram channels with links to Wagner responded to the video, explaining that the Nikolaevka site was in the process of being “renovated” and that the crosses and flowers in the Wagner colours were going to be replaced by black pyramids inscribed with the symbol of the mercenary group and the names of the dead.

This explanation was also reported by several pro-Russian media outlets, which said that renovations were being carried out at all of the Wagner cemeteries in Russia. One of these outlets, the Daily Storm, published a photo of what appears to be the plans for the renovations.

This photo, said to show the plans for the Wagner cemetery renovations, was posted on August 25 by the Daily Storm.
This photo, said to show the plans for the Wagner cemetery renovations, was posted on August 25 by the Daily Storm. © Observers

But were these plans made after the fall of the Wagner chief?

The BBC’s Russian-language service interviewed residents of the village of Nikolaevka, who said that work on the cemetery began as early as August 19, so before the crash of the plane transporting Prigozhin.

However, our team wanted to determine if the plans to renovate the cemeteries came about after the Wagner Group rebellion attempt.

The earliest media reports we were able to find about black pyramids being placed in Wagner cemeteries were published in Bloknot, a Russian media outlet from the region of Krasnodar, in southern Russia. The article – published last April, ahead of the attempted rebellion – covers planned renovations at a Wagner cemetery in Bakynskaya, near Krasnodar. The article reported that black pyramids would replace the crosses currently marking the sites.

The outlet reported that the Wagner Group was behind the project, but we haven’t been able to confirm this information through independent sources.

Vot Tak, an independent newspaper founded by journalists from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus reported on July 11 that black pyramids were starting to replace the traditional crosses and flower crowns in Wagner cemeteries.

Thus, near identical renovations were taking place in another cemetery well ahead of the brief rebellion.

The black pyramids are a reference to the concrete blocks erected by the Wagner militia to prevent Ukrainian tanks from approaching lines of defence.

After his video sparked a debate in both Russian and Ukrainian media, Wagner soldier Sergey Trifonov changed his tune in an interview with a Russian media outlet, saying: “There’s no conflict – the people did well, especially because Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] personally approved these renovations. It’s just that I think that the bodies should have been exhumed ahead of the construction. But if that is necessary, then there’s nothing to be done: the most important thing is that we take care of the fighters.” Our team also reached out to him but, for the time being, he hasn’t responded to our questions.

Misleading images that supposedly show a ‘burnt’ Wagner cemetery

Six days after Prigozhin died, another video appeared online, said to show the charred remains of a Wagner cemetery in Irkutsk, in eastern Russia.

The footage shows grave markers amid clouds of smoke. One of these videos, shared with an English-language caption on X, formerly known as Twitter, garnered more than 184,000 views.

If you do a search using the words “Irkutsk”, “cemetery” and “Wagner” in Russian, then you’ll see that the original video was shared by a Telegram channel called “People of Baïkal” on April 17, about two months ahead of the Wagner Group rebellion and four months ahead of Prigozhin’s death. Baïkal is a Russian media outlet.

The media outlet claims that the video was filmed while workers were digging new graves. However, “the earth in March-April hasn’t had time to thaw yet, so you have to do that by lighting fires”.

Thus the images do not show a fire of a criminal nature.

Our team has found no proof that there is a large-scale operation under way to erase any sign of the Wagner Group. However, if new images emerge, we will update this article.

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Wagner group’s future hanging in the balance after Prigozhin’s death

Wagner military chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was officially confirmed dead by Russian authorities on Sunday. The fate of his mercenary group – and its operations in Africa and the Middle East – now hangs in the balance. FRANCE 24 spoke to Anastasiya Shapochkina, a political analyst and researcher with a focus on Russian domestic policy, about possible scenarios for the private army’s future.

Wagner military chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was officially confirmed dead on Sunday. Forensic testing on the 10 bodies recovered from the site of the plane crash on August 23 “conform to the manifest” for the flight, Russian officials said.

The plane crash came exactly two months after Prigozhin staged a day-long mutiny against Russia’s military, leading his fighters from Ukraine towards Moscow. President Vladimir Putin had slammed the advance as “treason” and vowed punishment for those involved.

Dmitry Utkin, a Russian army officer believed to be Prigozhin’s right-hand man, was among those killed in the crash. Utkin had run the mercenary group’s operations since it was founded in 2014 and was responsible for overall command and combat training.

Valery Chekalov, who played a key role in the group’s finances, was also killed in the crash.

In the wake of Prigozhin and two of his top lieutenant’s deaths, questions are now being raised about the Wagner group’s future, and its extensive operations in Africa and the Middle East.

Wagner funds its war chest by exploiting natural resources in the countries where it operates. Gold trafficked illegally in Sudan finds its way directly into Russian state coffers.

Wagner group mercenaries have also fought in some of the Ukrainian conflict’s bloodiest battles, notably spearheading the capture of the eastern city of Bakhmut. Thousands of Wagner fighters are currently stationed in Belarus, where they relocated after Prigozhin’s failed rebellion against Moscow.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Anastasiya Shapochkina, President and founder of the Eastern Circles thinktank and lecturer on EU-Russia in Sciences Po Paris, about possible scenarios for the private army’s future.

FRANCE 24: Why are the Wagner Group’s activities important for Russia and what do you think lies ahead for the group after Prigozhin’s death?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: There are several possible scenarios. Wagner is a money-making machine which exploits gold and resources from Africa in exchange for assuring the security of African leaders. This business is important for Russia.

One of two things can happen: either the Wagner brand will be changed and it will keep the same functions, with attempts to integrate them into the Russian army, or the brand will be preserved in order to continue recruitment and change the leaders.

To devalue the Wagner brand, the Kremlin would bring down the rest of its leaders and send out the message that everybody who is not a leader can go home to their families. The activities of Wagner would be merged with other activities. It would lose its resources and become a shell company. This is the most likely scenario.

Before the events of June, we thought Prigozhin and Utkine were totally controlled by the regime, and the regime thought the same. A third scenario, the least likely one, is for Wagner to continue as a group with a new leader and it will eventually regain value. This scenario is unlikely because the Russian elite has understood the danger of mercenaries accumulating too much power and influence.

FRANCE 24: How is the turmoil around Wagner going to affect the situation in Ukraine?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: Other than holding Bakhmut, Prigozhin cannot claim any huge military success in Ukraine. The Russian army management is intact, with the highest commanders still in place. [General Sergei] Surovikin, [a former commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine from October 2022 to January 2023 who was fired the day Prigozhin’s aircraft crashed] had been removed, but the two highest commanders – Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov – have been maintained in their positions.

We can expect a worsening performance from the Russian army in Ukraine whatever the future holds in store for Wagner.

The credit Prigozhin gave to Wagner is over exaggerated. Wagner has not been effective in Ukraine and they have not been original in their military strategy besides proposing the sacrifice of prisoners. To me, turbulence within Wagner won’t change the course of the war. The Russian army is bogged down in this conflict and nothing can change that.

FRANCE 24: What kind of prospects does Russia have for playing a role in various African theatres following Prigozhin’s death, and will the operations continue to be as lucrative as in the past?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: Like any other company, Wagner can withstand a blow to its leadership. The CEO does not matter, he can be replaced. There are many other people on the ground ensuring the personal security of African leaders and securing resources. All of this is already happening through other private military companies (PMCs). The African cash flow will be assured in the long term.

FRANCE 24: Russia has been calling on other PMCs to achieve its foreign policy goals, especially in Africa. Do you see a paradox in the proliferation of PMCs when the Kremlin has already experienced a significant threat to its hold on power from Prigozhin’s Wagner Group?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: I see it as dissolving Wagner to give birth to another Wagner. PMCs have been born out of this dynamic; the downfall of one does not mean the end of them all. When the Russian state empowers a PMC, tens of thousands of people acquire weapons. This is internally a time bomb for Russia. If you have dozens of PMCs all over Russia, you have local oligarchs, governors, regional leaders (like Kadyrov), who are heavily armed, and this represents a weaponisation of society.

The fact that you have tens of thousands of men with weapons and military experience seals the political fate of Russia, and it is Putin who created the end of the monopolisation of military power in Russia. As soon as you have scores of the political elite who have PMCs, it is impossible to imagine that each of these people would not have a stab at power, making a peaceful transition of power highly unlikely.

FRANCE 24: Two days after Prigozhin’s death, Putin signed a decree forcing paramilitary fighters to swear an oath to the Russian flag. What does this say about the Russian president’s trust in his own security forces?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: This is revelatory of the level of the Russian president’s insecurity. From his point of view, no one in the siloviki (Russian security apparatus) is to be trusted. If the state requires a contract reminding people who they are loyal to, it implies that people are not very loyal at all. Experience has shown that people in the Russian forces are more motivated by money than anything else. In Russia, the word “motherland” is synonymous with the leader. The requirement to sign a contract to ensure loyalty to the motherland is a sign of the insecurity and fear Putin is experiencing, as well as the limited trust he has in his security forces.

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