India punishes critics by revoking visas and residency permits

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi often draws crowds of supporters from the Indian diaspora on his foreign visits. But back home, his administration has been revoking visas and residency permits of foreign nationals of Indian origin as well as spouses of Indian citizens. For those denied access or kicked out of India, the experience can be traumatic.


Vanessa Dougnac was at home in her New Delhi apartment on January 18, when she received a hand-delivered envelope that raised her spirits.

The French journalist glanced at the letterhead bearing the insignia of the Indian interior ministry’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and immediately thought this meant good news.

“Then I read the letter. It was totally the opposite. It was really, really bad news,” she recounted. 

Dougnac, 51, had lived in India for a quarter-century, or most of her adult life. For 23 years, she served as the India-based freelance correspondent for a number of French publications. Along the way, she covered stories across the country, married an Indian national, raised a son, and mastered the ropes in the place she came to call home.

But in India, things that were once fairly straightforward were now getting complicated – and stressful.

The official letter, delivered on January 18, informed the veteran French journalist that her Indian residency had been revoked. 

Dougnac had joined the growing list of overseas critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies being banned from India, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

They are part of the Modi administration’s broader crackdown on Indian citizenship laws, which have snowballed in various forms. But the intent of the “ever-expanding arsenal of laws and policies” is singular: to “target and punish dissenting voices”, said Amnesty International in a statement noting the international human rights contraventions that have increased during Modi’s 10 years in power.

With the upcoming 2024 elections widely predicted to propel Modi into his next decade in power, experts warn that India’s secular democracy is being reshaped as a Hindu-first majoritarian nation intolerant to dissent and minority religious communities. 

Citizenship lies at the heart of the reshaping, with the government pushing through laws and regulations on myriad fronts, upending lives and plunging dissenters into an omnipresent state of dread.

Diaspora with dollars to invest home

Dougnac was one of nearly 4 million people holding an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, which comes as a light blue, passport-lookalike and confers on the holder visa and residency rights.

The OCI is a form of permanent residency granted to people of Indian origin and their spouses. © Handout

Since India does not permit dual citizenship, OCI cards are provided for the equivalent of $275 to foreign nationals of Indian origin and the spouses of Indian nationals or OCI card-holders.

The residency status is the latest iteration of a decades-long bid by successive governments to tap into the economic potential of the Indian diaspora, the largest in the world, clocking nearly 18 million in 2020, according to UN figures. It’s also among the wealthiest, with strong ties to the motherland. In 2022, for instance, India’s inward remittances hit a record of almost $108 billion, around 3% of GDP, more than in any other country.

Attracting the diaspora’s dollars without offering citizenship rights historically entails acronyms in India. NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) before the 1990s gave way to PIOs (Person of Indian Origin) before the nomenclature settled on the current OCI. The latest overseas “citizen” of India is a misnomer since holders do not have voting rights or citizenship guarantees. But since the OCI privileges were an improvement on the earlier NRI and PIO categories, few made any fuss.  

That was until the government began tinkering with citizenship and visa regulations after Modi was re-elected in 2019 to a second term in office.

Many acronyms, few rights 

Just months after Modi’s May 2019 re-election, the Indian parliament, dominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed a controversial citizenship amendment law, which gained notoriety as the country erupted in what was commonly called “anti-CAA” (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests.

File photo of anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, taken January 18, 2020.
File photo of anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, taken January 18, 2020. © Altaf Qadri, AP

The new law, which offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants and refugees from neighbouring countries, was widely criticised for discriminating against Muslims, an allegation the Modi government denies.

While the anti-CAA protests drew international press coverage, the insertion of a subclause covering OCI cancellations passed largely unnoticed.

As Modi nudged past the half-way mark of his second term, the regulations got tighter. By 2021, the government required its overseas “citizens” to apply for “special permission” to “undertake” research, journalistic, missionary or mountaineering “activities”.

So on January 18, when Dougnac received a letter from the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO), she initially thought she had finally received her journalist permit, which was denied in September 2022, for no stated reason.

For the freelance journalist, the denial of a journalist permit meant a precarious dip in her income and she was eager to get back to work.

But that was not to be. The FRRO letter revoking Dougnac’s OCI instead accused her and her articles of being “malicious” and of harming “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India”. The notice put the onus on the freelance journalist, requiring her to respond to why her OCI should not be cancelled. 

Dougnac has launched a petition in the Delhi High Court, adding to the legal appeals and challenges launched by several others in a similar state. But nearly a month after she received her notification, Dougnac was forced to leave the country she had made her home for 25 years and return to France. 

In a statement released February 16, the French journalist noted that it had become “clear that I cannot keep living in India and earning my livelihood. I am fighting these accusations before the competent forums and I have full faith in the legal process. But I can’t afford to wait for its outcome. The proceedings with respect to my OCI status have shattered me,” she noted.

‘Showing animus’ to governments, not country

The list of shattered lives has been increasing over the past few months, perpetuating a climate of fear among overseas Indians. An investigative report published on February 12 by Indian news site Article 14 found that more than 102 OCIs were cancelled under section 7D between 2014 and 2023.

Many targeted OCI-holders prefer not to speak to the press out of fear of scuppering their appeals process and being permanently deprived of the ability to travel to a country where many have families, including aging parents and ailing loved ones.

Some high-profile cases do make the news, such as British-American writer and journalist Aatish Taseer, whose OCI was revoked in 2019, shortly after Time magazine published his excoriating cover story, “India’s Divider in Chief”, on Modi’s brand of Hindutva populism.

Indian authorities said Taseer’s OCI was revoked because he “attempted to conceal” the fact that his biological father was a Pakistani national. The journalist, who was brought up in India by his single mother and wrote a critically acclaimed book in 2009 on his journey to meet his father, Pakistan’s former Punjab governor Salman Taseer – who was assassinated two years after his son’s book was published – dismissed the claim.

The official cancellation explanations for the recent spate of OCI scraps include ill-defined allegations of “showing animus” towards India, or “attempting to destabilise the social fabric” of the country. 

“In some cases, the authorities have openly cited criticism of BJP government policies as evidence to revoke the visa status,” noted Human Rights Watch, citing the case of octogenarian British activist Amrit Wilson, whose OCI was cancelled due to her social media posts on the Kashmir crisis and a 2020-2021 farmers protest movement.

Indian authorities note that governments across the world have the discretion to grant or refuse visas to their countries. It’s a point that Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, acknowledges. “Of course, every government has the right to determine who gets visas or not. But those rights cannot be based on discriminatory ideas,” she noted. “Any democracy relies on a foundational principle of permitting dissent. That is what distinguishes it from authoritarianism. Now all dissent and all ideas may not be accepted by the state. But the fact that those opinions are put forward should not be seen immediately as something that is against the country, it is against government policies, and governments change.”

‘I miss India’

In its attempts to ensure the government does not change after the 2024 general election, the Modi administration has been pushing through key campaign promises that are popular with the BJP’s Hindu nationalist base.

On March 11, just weeks ahead of the elections, the Indian government announced the implementation of the new citizenship law. While parliament approved the CAA in 2019, the Modi government held off on the implementation following deadly protests against a law that was widely viewed as discriminatory against Muslims.

Responding to the move, the US expressed “concern” with a State Department spokesperson noting that Washington is “closely monitoring how this act will be implemented”.

The concern was echoed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “As we said in 2019, we are concerned that India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) is fundamentally discriminatory in nature and in breach of India’s international human rights obligations,” said a spokesperson.

The Modi administration’s response to the expressions of concern was forthright. The citizenship law was an “internal matter”, an Indian foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters in New Delhi, noting that the US State Department’s statement was “misplaced, misinformed and unwarranted”. 

But Ganguly believes the changes in citizenship and residency laws warrant the attention of India’s democratic allies, particularly those measures that affect their own nationals of Indian origins. “It needs attention from foreign governments, because there is a lot of interest in the Indian market and in strategic partnerships. Those are legitimate interests. But when they want to do business with India, foreign governments need to be aware that any claims of partnerships between democracies is seriously undermined if the government is going to be so repressive on freedom of speech and in cracking down on its critics,” she noted.

As India heads for critical elections, Dougnac is in France, watching the coverage from thousands of miles away. “I covered elections in India for 20 years. Now for the first time, I will not be there to cover it. I miss India,” she said. 

While her appeal works its way through the Indian courts, the French journalist confesses she’s still in a state of shock. “Really, it’s too emotional for me,” she confessed. “I led a life filled with adventures and interactions across the subcontinent, and had the opportunity to witness over two decades of India’s history. Now I’m in France, I feel like I’m in exile in my own country.”

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‘Shpilkin method’: Statistical tool gauges voter fraud in Putin landslide

As many as half of all the votes reported for Vladimir Putin in Russia’s presidential election last week were fraudulent, according to Russian independent media reports using a statistical method devised by analyst Sergey Shpilkin to estimate the extent of voter manipulation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed a landslide victory on Sunday that will keep him in power until at least 2030, following a three-day presidential election that Western critics dismissed as neither free nor fair.

The criticism is shared by Russia’s remaining independent media outlets, which have published their estimates of the extent of voter manipulation during the March 15-17 election that saw Putin clinch a fifth term in office with a record 87% of ballots cast.

Massive fraud

“Around 22 million ballots officially in favour of Vladimir Putin were falsified,” said the Russian investigative journalism website Meduza, which interviewed Russian electoral analyst Ivan Shukshin.

Important Stories, another investigative news website, gave a similar number, estimating that 21.9 million false votes were cast for the incumbent president.

The opposition media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe came up with an even bigger number, claiming that 31.6 million ballots were falsified in Putin’s favour.

That figure “corresponds to almost 50 percent of all the votes cast in the president’s favour, according to the Central Election Commission [Putin received 64.7 million votes]”, said Jeff Hawn, a Russia expert at the London School of Economics.

All three estimates suggest that “fraud on a scale unprecedented in Russian electoral history” was committed, added Matthew Wyman, a specialist in Russian politics at Keele University in the UK.

The three news outlets all used the same algorithmic method to estimate the extent of voter fraud. It is named after Russian statistician Sergey Shpilkin, who developed it a decade ago.

Shpilkin’s work analysing Russian elections has won him several prestigious independent awards in Russia, including the PolitProsvet prize for electoral research awarded in 2012 by the Liberal Mission Foundation.

However, he has also made some powerful enemies by denouncing electoral fraud. In February 2023, Shpilkin was added to Russia’s list of “foreign agents”.

Shady turnout figures

The Shpilkin method “offers a simple way of quantitatively assessing electoral fraud in Russia, whereas most other approaches focus on detecting whether or not fraud has been committed”, said Dmitry Kogan, an Estonia-based statistician who has worked with Shpilkin and others to develop tools for analysing election results. 

This approach – used by Meduza, Important Stories and Novaya Gazeta – is based “on the turnout at each polling station”, said Kogan.

The aim is to identify polling stations where turnout does not appear to be abnormally high, and then use them as benchmarks to get an idea of the actual vote distribution between the various candidates.

In theory, the share of votes in favour of each candidate does not change – or does so only marginally –according to turnout rate.

In other words, the Shpilkin method has been able to determine that in Russia, candidate A always has an average X percent of the vote and candidate B around Y percent, whether there are 100, 200 or more voters in an “honest” polling station.

In polling stations with high voter turnout, “we realised that this proportional change in vote distribution completely disappears, and that Vladimir Putin is the main beneficiary of the additional votes cast”, said Alexander Shen, a mathematician and statistician at the French National Centre for Scientific Research’s Laboratory of Computer Science, Robotics and Microelectronics in Montpellier. .

To quantify the fraud, Putin’s score is compared with what the result would have been if the distribution of votes had been the same as at an “honest” polling station. The resulting discrepancy with his official score gives an idea of the extent to which the results were manipulated in his favour.

The Shpilkin method makes it possible to put a figure on the “ballot box stuffing and accounting tricks to add votes for Vladimir Putin”, said Shen.

Limitations of the Shpilkin method

However, “this procedure would be useless if the authorities used more subtle methods to rig the results”, Kogan cautioned. 

For instance, if the “fraudsters” took votes away from one of the candidates and attributed them to Putin, the Shpilkin method would no longer work, he explained.

“The fact that the authorities seem to be continuously using the most basic methods shows that it doesn’t bother them that people are aware of the manipulation,” Kogan added.

Another problem with the Shpilkin method is that it requires “at least a few polling stations where you can be reasonably sure that no fraud has occurred”, said Kogan, for whom that condition was not easy to be sure about in last week’s presidential election.

“I’m not sure we can really reconstruct a realistic distribution of votes between the candidates, because I don’t know if there is enough usable data,” added Shen.

Does this negate the validity of the estimates put forward by independent Russian media?

Kogan said he stopped trying to quantify electoral fraud in Russia in 2021. He explained: “At the time, I estimated that nearly 20 million votes in the Duma [lower house] election had been falsified. Then I said to myself, ‘what’s the point in going to all this trouble if the ballots were completely rigged?’”

Nevertheless, he said it is important to have estimates based on the Shpilkin method because even if it is difficult to get a precise idea, “the order of magnitude is probably right”. 

These rough estimates are also “an important political weapon”, said Wyman, stressing the need to “undermine the narrative of the Russian authorities, who claim that the high turnout and the vote in favour of Putin demonstrate that the country is united”.

It is also an important message to the international community, added Hawn.

“The stereotype is that Russians naturally vote for authoritarian figures,” he said. “By showing how inflated the figures are, this is a way of proving that the reality is far more nuanced.”

This article has been translated from the original in French

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EU’s deposit refund scheme a ‘false solution’ for plastic pollution

The European Union in early March announced its goal of establishing deposit refund schemes for plastic bottles and aluminium cans across the bloc by 2029. While EU authorities boast of high recycling rates in member states that have already adopted the practice, environmental groups denounce it as a “false solution” that doesn’t “tackle the real problem”.

The EU aims to become a star performer in the fight against plastic pollution. The bloc’s 27 countries earlier this month announced measures to address packaging waste that aim to achieve 100 percent recycling rates by 2035 and a 15 percent reduction in waste volume by 2040. According to Eurostat, the average European citizen generated 188.7 kilograms of packaging waste in 2021, an increase of 32 kilograms over a decade. Only 64 percent of that amount is recycled today.

Among the various types of packaging filling trash bins in Europe, two make up the majority: plastic bottles and aluminium cans. In France alone, an estimated 340,000 tonnes of plastic bottles were produced for sale in 2022 and only 50 percent were recycled, according to France’s national agency for ecological transition.

To address this problem, the EU proposes to implement a bloc-wide deposit refund system by 2029. Plastic bottles and aluminium cans would be sold for a few cents more, around five to 10 percent of the product’s price, but the consumer could recoup the added cost by bringing the container to a collection point after use. The process is already well-established in 15 European countries including Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states.

The EU reports record recycling rates in each country where a deposit system already exists. In Germany, all supermarkets have had machines dedicated to “Pfand” (deposits) for returned plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans since 2003. While consumers are not obligated to use them, the practice has become part of everyday life. “Pfandsammler” (deposit hunters) clear the streets of used containers to help make ends meet. Up to 98.5 percent of bottles and cans are recycled via the deposit system in Germany, according to the Centre for European Consumption.

A similar situation exists in the Nordic countries. In Sweden, aluminium cans have been returnable since 1984; plastic bottles since 1994. The country recycles more than two billion of these containers a year, according to the government. In Norway, the system is a little different: Beverage packaging is subject to an environmental tax, but its amount decreases as the waste collection rate increases. This measure encouraged producers and distributors to introduce a deposit system in 1999. The country’s recycling rate for glass and plastic bottles borders is close to 90 percent.

This graphic shows which European countries have already implemented deposit programmes for recycled materials. Dark blue = already implemented, blue = planned implementation, light blue = without a widespread programme, white = information unavailable. Red = glass, yellow = plastic, green = aluminium. © ENTR

A dangerous ‘rebound effect’

Deposit refund systems are not, however, “miracle solutions”, says Manon Richert, communications manager for the NGO Zero Waste France. “This system can certainly help improve recycling figures, but it doesn’t target the goal we need to have: drastically reducing our production of plastic.”

“By itself, it’s just another way to sort packaging … it won’t change anything that happens to plastic bottles,” says Richert. Once deposited, a bottle will have the same fate as one placed in a traditional recycling bin. It will be collected and sent to a waste treatment plant. Bottles made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a type of plastic) will be used to make new ones; other bottles will be transformed into flakes and resold to make polyester, especially in Asia. “These processes require a lot of water and energy and generate microplastics,” Richert says.

Read moreTackling plastic pollution: ‘We can’t recycle our way out of this’

According to the activist, a bloc-wide deposit system could above all produce a “rebound effect” that would encourage consumers to continue buying plastic bottles – the opposite of the EU’s goal. “For years, we have been fed a discourse that presents waste sorting and recycling as an easy green gesture, and we have spread the idea that buying plastic isn’t so bad if we recycle it. And now, we’re going to add a financial incentive,” she says. “This could have the perverse effect of boosting consumption of plastic bottles.”

This effect has already been seen in Germany. A law passed in 2003 aimed to reduce single-use containers to 20 percent of the market, but the opposite has happened: single-use plastic bottles now account for 71 percent of the market compared with 40 percent a decade ago, according to a 2021 University of Halle-Wittenberg study. “It seems that the introduction of a single-use deposit system promotes a narrow mode of thinking and a focus on recycling, which hinders the revitalisation of multi-use BC (beverage container) systems,” the authors found.

“Behind the recycling deposit, it’s more a battle of financial interests than an environmental issue that’s at stake,” says Richert. In recent years, politicians have done more to force manufacturers to use a growing proportion of recycled plastic in production. The demand for recycled plastic has thus grown, and the material has become more expensive.

Collecting and recycling more bottles would increase the quantity of recycled plastic available, therefore lowering its price – “not exactly what encourages manufacturers to reduce production,” says Richert. “In the end, this measure risks maintaining the plastic production cycle, when we need to break it.”

In France, where debate on a deposit system is lively, the collection and sorting of rubbish is currently managed by local and regional authorities, who sell the trash to recyclers. In moving to a deposit system, the management of used plastics would revert to manufacturers, who would recover a financial windfall.

“The manufacturers are not going to get rich” under such a system, retorts Hélène Courades, director general of beverage industry group Boissons rafraîchissantes de France, which includes Coca-Cola and Pepsi, told Le Figaro. “The resale of this material would make it possible to finance the system.”

Recycling vs reuse

Zero Waste France, like other environmental organisations, is actively campaigning for a different system: a deposit for reuse, mostly for glass. “This existed in France until the 1980s,” says Richert. “The idea is to collect the containers to wash them and reuse them as-is, in line with the principle of a circular economy.”

“If this were organised on a local scale with, for example, optimisation and pooling of transport, the environmental and social impact would be very beneficial,” she says. But while such local and voluntary initiatives have been increasing in recent years, the system has not yet been adopted by the political discourse. “It requires a real paradigm shift and a true effort on the part of the government,” says Richert. “But it’s this kind of measure that can really get us away from disposable packaging and our addiction to plastic.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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‘A fight for your way of life’: Lithuania’s culture minister on Ukraine and Russian disinformation

Lithuania’s Minister of Culture Simonas Kairys spoke to FRANCE 24 about Lithuania’s fight against Russian disinformation and why the Baltic nation feels so bound to Ukraine.

Issued on:

5 min

In March 1990, Lithuania became the first nation to declare its independence as the Soviet Union collapsed, setting an example for other states that had been under the Kremlin’s influence for half a century. As a nascent democracy emerging from Soviet control, Lithuania was free to rediscover its own history and culture.

But Vilnius has once again become a target for Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long considered the demise of the Soviet Union as a historical tragedy in which Russians were innocent victims. As part of efforts to justify the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia has launched a disinformation campaign aimed at Kyiv’s allies in the West.

In addition to putting pressure on Ukraine’s supporters, the Kremlin has attempted to intimidate them. Russian authorities placed Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and others on a wanted list in February along with other Baltic officials for allowing municipalities to dismantle WWII-era monuments to Soviet soldiers, moves seen by Moscow as “an insult to history”. 

Upon being informed his name was listed, Culture Minister Kairys was insouciant. “I’m glad that my work in dismantling the ruins of Sovietisation has not gone unnoticed,” he said.

Read moreThe Kremlin puts Baltic leaders on ‘wanted’ list

FRANCE 24 spoke to Kairys on why it is vital to fight Russian propaganda, and why the Baltic state feels so invested in what is happening in Ukraine.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

What historical narratives has Russia tried to distort when it comes to Lithuanian independence?

Simonas Kairys: Russia is still in “imperialism” mode. The way they inscribed me onto their wanted list shows that they think and act upon the belief that countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union – sovereign and independent countries such as Lithuania – are still part of Russia.

Russia has its own law system, which – from their point of view – is [the law even] in free countries (in the Russian criminal code, “destroying monuments to Soviet soldiers” is an act punishable by a five-year prison term). It’s absurd and unbelievable how they interpret the current situation in the world. If they say, for example, that they are “protecting” objects of Soviet heritage in a foreign country like Lithuania, they are spreading their belief that it is not a free country. But we are not slaves, and we are taking this opportunity to be outspoken and say Russia is promoting a fake version of history.

Why is combating Russian disinformation essential for Lithuanian national security?

It is not important for Lithuania – it is important for the EU, for Europe and for the entire free world. The war in Ukraine is happening very near to the EU; it is happening only a few hours away from France. Culture, heritage [and] historical memory are also fields of combat. Adding me to their wanted list is just one example of this. When we see how Russia is falsifying not only history but all information, it’s important to speak about it very loudly. Lithuania has achieved a lot in this domain, along with Ukraine and France. 

When France had the [rotating, six-month] presidency of the EU [in early 2022], we made several joint declarations. The result was that we signed a sixth package of sanctions against Russia and we designated six Russian television channels to be blocked in the EU – this was the first step in considering information as a [weapon]. In other words, information is being used by Russia to convince their society and sway public opinion in other European countries. Now we have a situation in which we are blocking Russian television channels in EU territory.  

Our foreign partners often ask us upon which criteria Russian information can be considered as disinformation. These days, it’s very important to stress that any information – from television shows to news to other television productions – coming from Russia is automatically disinformation, propaganda and fake news. We must understand that there is no truth in what Russia tries to say.

This fight against disinformation is crucial because we are in a phase of big developments in technology and artificial intelligence. We have to ensure that our societies will be prepared, be capable of critical thinking, and understand what is happening in the world right now.

Olympic and world champion Ruta Meilutyte swims across a pond colored red to signify blood, in front of the Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, April 6, 2022. © Andrius Repsys, AP

To borrow a term from Czech writer Milan Kundera, would you say that Lithuania was “kidnapped from the West” when it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940?

During the Middle Ages, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania spanned from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. We were the same country as Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. We were oriented to the West and not the East. In much older times, during the Kievan Rus period, Moscow didn’t even exist; there were just swamps and nothing more. But with [growing] imperialism from the Russian side, they began portraying history in a different way. Yet our memory is like our DNA, our freedom and orientation are ingrained. The eastern flank of the EU is currently talking about the values of Western civilisation much more emphatically than in the past.

[During the Cold War] not only was our freedom taken but [Russia] tried to delete history and paint a picture only from the time when this imperialism entered our territory. But we remembered what happened in the Middle Ages; we remember how modern Lithuanian statehood arose after World War I and how we regained our freedom in 1990. It’s impossible to delete this memory and name Lithuania as a country that isn’t free. Once you take a breath of freedom, you never forget it. This is the reason why we understand Ukrainians and why we are so active to not only defend the territory of Ukraine, but also the values of Western civilisation as well.   

How has the war in Ukraine influenced Lithuanian life and culture?

The main thing is to think about freedom; we have to do a lot because of that freedom, we have to fight for freedom … we understand more and more that culture plays a big role in this war, because it is based on culture and history. You can see what Putin is declaring and it is truly evident that culture, heritage and historical memory are used as the basis for an explanation of why Russia is waging war in Ukraine right now. (To justify the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and uniting them is a historical inevitability.) 

There are important collaborations taking place with Ukrainian culture and artists. It’s important to give them a platform – for everyone to see that Ukraine is not defeated, that Ukraine is still fighting, that Ukraine will win, that we will help them. 

The best response to an aggressor is to live your daily life, with all your traditions, habits and cultural legacy. This fight is also for your way of life. The situation is not one where you must stop and only think about guns and systems of defence – you have to live, work, create, and keep up your business and cultural life. 

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Racist attacks on pop star Aya Nakamura test France’s ability to shine at Paris Olympics

Rumours that French pop star Aya Nakamara may sing at the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics have triggered a flurry of attacks from the French far right, questioning the host country’s ability to appreciate the globally acclaimed talent emerging from its neglected suburbs with large immigrant populations.

With the Paris Olympics still months away, the host country has already won gold in a category it truly owns: divisive racial controversy with “made in France” flair.  

That’s how public broadcaster France Inter summed up a row over unconfirmed rumours that Aya Nakamura would perform an Édith Piaf song during the Games’ opening ceremony in front of a crowd of 300,000 gathered along the River Seine

Nakamura, 28, has become a global superstar for hits like “Djadja”, which has close to a billion streams on YouTube alone. On the international stage, she is the most popular French female singer since Piaf sang “La vie en rose”, a rare case of a French artist whose songs reach well beyond the Francophone world.  

She is also the proud face of the neglected banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, which have produced many of France’s best-known icons of music and sport – and which will soon host the Olympic Village. 

On paper, tapping her for the curtain-raiser of “the biggest show on earth” is a no-brainer. 

But the mere suggestion triggered a vitriolic response from members of France’s ascendant far right, for whom Nakamura is unfit to represent France. Their sometimes racist arguments have in turn prompted outrage and bafflement, leading government ministers to wade into a debate that has had precious little to do with music. 

“If this were about music, we wouldn’t even have a debate – Nakamura is France’s biggest pop star, full stop,” said Olivier Cachin, a prominent music journalist who was among the first to speak out on social media in defence of the singer.  

“But it’s not about music. It’s about the colour of her skin,” he added. “It’s racism, pure and simple.”  

‘You can be racist but not deaf’ 

The controversy follows media reports that Nakamura discussed performing a song by Piaf during a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace last month – though neither party has confirmed the rumour.  

On Saturday, a small extremist group known as the “Natives” hung a banner on the banks of the Seine that read: “No way, Aya. This is Paris, not the Bamako market” – a reference to Nakamura’s birth in Mali‘s capital. 

The next day, the singer’s name was booed at a campaign rally for the far-right Reconquête party of Eric Zemmour, the former pundit and presidential candidate who has been convicted of inciting racial hatred. In a bizarre rant, Zemmour claimed “future babies (…) don’t vote for rap, nor for lambada, nor for Aya Nakamura: they vote for Mozart!” 

Right-wing pundits posing as music critics appeared on news programmes and chat shows to mock the singer’s unorthodox spelling and slang-infused lyrics, stripped of her distinctive rhythm and vibe, while the Senate’s conservative head Gérard Larcher took offence at her use of the sexually explicit slang term “catchana” (“doggy style”) – in the land of Serge Gainsbourg, of all places. 

Nakamura has responded to the vitriol, writing on social media: “You can be racist but not deaf… That’s what hurts you! I’m becoming a number 1 state subject in debates… but what do I really owe you? Nada.” 

The singer was backed by the Olympics’ organising committee, which said it was “shocked by the racist attacks” levelled at “the most listened-to French artist in the world”.        

Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra also expressed her support on social media, telling Nakamura she had the people’s backing, while Culture Minister Rachida Dati raised the matter in the French National Assembly, warning that “attacking someone purely on racist grounds (…) is unacceptable; it’s an offence”. 

On Friday, Paris prosecutors said they were investigating allegations of racist attacks against the pop star following a complaint filed by the anti-racism advocacy group Licra.

For Whites only 

For Karim Hammou and Marie Sonnette-Manouguian, co-authors of a book charting 40 years of hip-hop music in France, Nakamura’s elevation to a “state subject” is part of a concerted strategy of exploiting cultural events to serve the far right’s reactionary, identity politics. 

“The pattern is always the same: far-right leaders voice outrage on social media, until the controversy is picked up by a larger audience in the media and the mainstream right,” they said in written remarks to FRANCE 24. 

Rappers and R&B singers are routinely used as scapegoats in debates that go well beyond them,” they added. “The real question being raised here is that of the participation of people of immigrant background (…) in French culture and in enriching its language and modes of expression.” 

If Nakamura were White, there would be no such debate, added Bettina Ghio, who has written several books on the language of French rap, the country’s most popular musical genre – but one that has long been frowned upon by politicians and the musical establishment.  

“The far right cannot bear the idea that non-white people of immigrant descent can represent France on the international stage – let alone sing from the repertoire of White artists,” she explained. 

Ghio cited the case of Youssoupha, a French rapper of Congolese descent, who suffered similar attacks when his song “Ecris mon nom en bleu” (“Write my name in blue”) was chosen as the unofficial anthem of the French national team at the men’s Euro 2021 football tournament. 

“The Nakamura controversy should not be isolated from past incidents in which the far right has taken aim at artists and athletes based on the colour of their skin,” she said, pointing to the frequent slurs levelled at the racially diverse French squads that won the football World Cups in 1998 and 2018.  

Lilian Thuram, the Caribbean-born former international who was part of the Black, Blanc, Beur (Black, White, Arab) squad of 1998, spoke in defence of Nakamura in an interview with France Info radio on Tuesday. 

“When people say she’s not fit to represent France, I know exactly what criteria they have in mind because the same arguments were used against me,” said the retired player, an outspoken campaigner against racism in France. He said the question of whether Nakamura should perform at the Olympics was being presented the wrong way. 

“If you ask people whether the most popular French artist in the world should perform at the Olympics, a majority would say ‘yes’,” he added. “Like it or not, she’s the best. And that’s why she should represent France.” 

A cosmopolitan mix 

Thuram noted that Nakamura was often mistakenly labelled a rapper, a habit he attributed to racial and class-based prejudice. 

“Why do people think she’s a rapper? Because she’s Black,” he said. “It’s as if we were discussing some random artist from the suburbs and not France’s biggest star. It’s insulting.” 

Nakamura’s music mixes R&B with the highly danceable rhythms of Afrobeat and Carribean Zouk. But right-wing criticism of her work sometimes echoes the prejudice aimed at France’s thriving rap scene, a driver of vociferous social criticism for the past three decades. 

“The far right cannot stand the criticism of France’s colonial history voiced by rappers,” said Ghio. “Zemmour has made hateful comments on television about rap, describing it as a subculture for illiterates … that wrecks the French language.” 

Zemmour’s deputy Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of rival far-right leader Marine Le Pen, made similar comments on Tuesday, stating on BFMTV that, “Aya Nakamura does not sing in French. She does not represent French culture and elegance.” 

Such claims are “preposterous”, said Cachin, for whom the pop star “simply speaks today’s French, rich in slang and expressions, and does so very well.” He added: “Other more mainstream artists do this as well, without attracting the same kind of scrutiny.” 

Nakamura, whose real last name is Danioko, sings in French, but her lyrics borrow heavily from argot, the French slang, as well as English, Arabic and Bambara, the Malian language spoken by her parents. Her cosmopolitan mix is inspired by her upbringing in a family of griots, Malian poets steeped in music. 

The term “Djadja”, from her breakthrough hit, refers to a liar who boasts about sleeping with her. It has become a rallying cry for female campaigners against sexism and sexist violence. “Pookie”, the title of another hugely popular song, comes from the French slang term poucave, meaning a snitch. 

“Her songs bring vitality to the French language, because there’s a lot of research into sounds and rhythms, and adopting new terms that are popular with youths, particularly in the suburbs,” said Ghio. She drew a parallel with prominent rappers PNL, who experiment with accents, placing them elsewhere in words to generate new sounds. 

“To ignore their work is to consider French as a dead language that hasn’t changed one bit over the past 40 years,” Ghio said, adding that she looked forward to hearing Nakamura experiment with Piaf’s repertoire. 

Piaf in the banlieue 

The scion of poverty-stricken street performers, Piaf was also once derided for her unorthodox style and frequent use of slang terms that postwar elites frowned upon. 

“Popular music has always been attacked by bourgeois commentators and self-styled guardians of proper French language,” said Hammou and Sonnette-Manouguian. “In her day, Piaf was frequently criticised for her performances, her physique and her morals,” they added, denouncing attempts to create a “false opposition” between the legendary 20th century singer and Nakamura. 

Piaf has long been revered in the urban music scene of the Paris suburbs, sung by rapper JoeyStarr and remixed in Matthieu Kassovitz’s seminal film “La Haine”. Associating her with Nakamura would be a chance to link the past and present of French popular music, said Ghio, “from the working-class, bohemian Paris of Piaf to today’s post-colonial banlieues with their African diaspora”. 

Echoing that theme, the left-leaning daily Libération spoke of “building bridges between generations” and a chance to demonstrate “France’s gratitude towards artists that contribute to its global clout, be they from Montmartre or Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poorer suburb north of Paris)”. 

Aya Nakamura at Paris Fashion Week on February 29, 2024. © Miguel Médina, AFP

Nakamura’s position as a target of racist, sexist and class-based attacks has made her the unwitting champion of causes she never claimed to carry. 

The pop star, whose playful songs touch on relationships, flirting and female friendships, has consistently steered clear of politics. She has previously declined to describe herself as feminist, suggesting such a label would sound “fake”.  

But she has also proved her mettle in facing down a torrent of abuse throughout her still-burgeoning career. 

“When you’re a non-White woman in a patriarchal society shaped by its colonial past, you need to find the words to defend yourself,” said Binetou Sylla, producer and owner of Syllart Records, pointing at Nakamura’s social media post this week. 

“It’s possibly the first time she uses the word ‘racist’ in a tweet,” Sylla observed. “But she had no choice.”  

The music producer stressed Nakamura’s bold personality, adding: “She’s unapologetic, with a loudmouth, provocative side that is also very French – and which further winds up her racist critics.” The racist campaign against Nakamura has now made it imperative that she performs at the opening ceremony, Sylla said.  

“If Aya steps aside, if she doesn’t open the Games, it will be France’s loss. That much is certain,” Libération argued, describing Nakamura as a rare “element of French soft power in a pop culture dominated by English and Spanish.” 

A curtain-raiser without Nakamura would also mean handing a victory to the far right, added Cachin. 

“Of course she has to perform now,” he said. “Whether she sings from her own repertoire or from Piaf’s or (Charles) Aznavour’s or all of them at once, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, she’ll be in her right.” 

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Russia’s presidential election: Three Putin challengers but little suspense

President Vladimir Putin faces just three rivals in Russia’s March 15-17 presidential election after anti-war candidates were barred from running. But Leonid Slutsky, Nikolai Kharitonov and Vladislav Davankov do not pose much of a challenge for the Russian leader, who is all but guaranteed to secure another six-year term. 

The first polls in Russia’s March 15-17 presidential election opened in the country’s easternmost Kamchatka Peninsula region at 8am local time Friday, with the vast voting exercise spanning 11 time zones set to finish in the westernmost Kaliningrad enclave at 8pm on Sunday.

The election holds little suspense. Incumbent Vladimir Putin – who has been in power either as president or prime minister for nearly a quarter-century – is set to secure another six-year term. 

But a longtime autocrat requires a veneer of legitimacy, even in Russia. Voters will thus have a choice between the almost guaranteed victor and three pre-approved candidates.   

Ultranationalist Leonid Slutsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladislav Davankov of the relatively liberal New People’s Party and veteran candidate Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party are the supporting characters in 2024’s electoral choreography. In a possible sign of Russia’s shrinking tolerance for political challenges, that’s four fewer candidates than qualified for the 2018 presidential election. 

Competition and criticism was severely curtailed in the lead-up to the 2024 vote, with authorities blocking a number of opposition hopefuls and critics using a variety of means, including labelling them as “foreign agents”.   

“Between the ‘foreign agent’ labels, the fines, imprisonments and the incredible hardening of the regime, the number of candidates is limited. However, they represent real political forces. The nationalist right carries political weight in Russia, as do the Communists, whose score could be in the region of 10 percent,” noted Jean de Gliniasty, former French ambassador to Russia and current senior research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

Read more‘Noon against Putin’: Navalny widow realises his last wish for the Russian opposition

‘I don’t dream of beating Putin’

But while some of the candidates represent established political parties, they do not pose much of a challenge to Putin, nor have they put up much of a fight on the campaign trail.

Shortly after registering his candidacy in December 2023, Slutsky – the candidate from the ultranationalist LDPR founded by the late right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – appeared certain of defeat.

“I don’t dream of beating Putin. What’s the point?” Slutsky told reporters. The 56-year-old Russian politician who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian lower house, the State Duma, then predicted “a huge victory” for Putin.

At 75, Kharitonov is the oldest candidate on the ballot. A veteran Communist Party politician who has been a State Duma deputy since 1993, Kharitonov ran for president in 2004, coming in second to Putin with 13.7 percent of the vote.

This time, Kharitonov ran a low-key campaign, focused on Soviet-era issues, including criticising capitalism, promoting industrial nationalisation and an increase in the Russian birth rate.

Davankov, 39, is the youngest of the opposition candidates. The former businessman-turned-politician promotes greater freedom for businesses and a stronger role for regional authorities. 

The deputy chairman of the State Duma, where his party holds 15 of the 450 seats, Davankov has tried to position himself as a candidate opposed to the Kremlin’s excessive curbs on personal freedoms. He favours peace talks with Ukraine, following the Kremlin’s official line, while reiterating that it should be “on our terms and with no rollback”, meaning Russia should not cede territory it has occupied.

Read moreFive things to know about Russia’s upcoming presidential election

“Each candidate presents juxtaposed ideologies and domestic policies, but collectively these contribute to Putin’s goal of tightening his grip on Russia during his next presidential term,” noted Callum Fraser of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in a column, “Putin’s Grand Plan for Russia’s 2024 Elections“.

According to Putin’s critics, these three quasi-opponents, integrated into the Russian political system, perform an important function: to channel the discontent of various strata of society and provide a pluralist veneer for the vote, while the real opposition has been wiped out by years of repression.

“Throughout history, Russian power has always been extremely careful to respect formal rules. Even a very authoritarian regime faces public opinion and cares about it. This election remains a test of Putin’s legitimacy and popularity. Even if this test appears to be a formality, it has value for those in power,” explained de Gliniasty.

No political space for anti-war candidates

But not all positions on the political spectrum are represented on the ballot this year. In the lead-up to the presidential election, criticism of the Ukraine invasion was effectively suppressed with the arrests of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. Hefty fines were also slapped on anyone voicing opposition to the war, according to international rights groups.

Two independent presidential hopeful running on anti-war platforms, Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, were barred from running by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).

While the CEC barred Duntsova in December, Nadezhdin’s candidacy attracted attention, with thousands lining up in cities across Russia in January to give their signatures supporting the anti-war candidate.

That did not work in Nadezhdin’s favour.

“The question obviously arose of leaving out a voice that could have played a symbolic role and brought in, dare I say it, left-leaning, liberal voters. Boris Nadezhdin could have stood for election if he had achieved a modest score, but faced with the enthusiasm generated by his candidacy, the Kremlin preferred to send him packing,” explained de Gliniasty.

A ‘noon vote’ campaign for Navalny supporters

Despite the sweeping crackdowns, some of Putin’s opponents have vowed to express their opposition at the polls. On March 5, Alexei Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya called the election a “masquerade” and urged Russians to cast protest votes.

“You can vote for any candidate except Putin. You can spoil your ballot paper, you can write ‘Navalny’ in big letters,” she urged.

In an action called “Noon against Putin”, Navalny supporters plan to go to their local polling station on Sunday exactly at midday, stand in line for a voting slip, and then vote in a way that expresses their protest.

Such social mobilisation comes with serious risks. Some Navalny supporters received letters last week warning them that prosecutors had reason to believe they will be participating in an illegal event that “bore signs of extremist activity”, an accusation Russia often levies at enemies of the Kremlin. 

The ‘non-war’ across the border

Although the outcome of the vote is certain, the authorities have gone through great lengths to encourage Russians to go to the polls, dialing up the patriotism and presenting the vote as an essential step towards “victory” in Ukraine.

Over the past few weeks, Putin did several media appearances with the heroes of the “special military operation”, as the Ukraine war is still called in Russia.

But the campaign did not feature any debate on the conflict in Russia’s neighbouring state.

“One might have expected the subject of war to be central to the election campaign,” said Anna Colin-Lebedev, a specialist in post-Soviet societies at Paris-Nanterre University. “However, the debates – which did not excite the Russian public – were mainly devoted to other subjects such as education, culture, the economy, agriculture, demographics [and] housing” in what she called a “framed”, pre-approved narrative.

More than two years after Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is attempting a tricky balancing act on the subject, according to experts.

“The authorities are caught in a contradiction,” noted de Gliniasty. “They want to talk as little as possible about the war in Ukraine, as if to say that everything is fine, that everything is normal and that it’s just a special operation. But at the same time, it wants this election to serve to legitimise the invasion.” 

Read more‘I know Putin can eliminate me’: Russian opponent speaks out as election gets underway

The turnout barometer

Given the stakes, the authorities are deeply invested in keeping up appearances by holding elections under the guise of a functioning democracy.

“These elections are very important for the Kremlin,” Nikolai Petrov of London-based Chatham House told the AFP. “It is needed to demonstrate that Russians overwhelmingly support Putin” during the military offensive.

Turnout then becomes a critical issue, as it does in most authoritarian countries holding questionable elections.

Some managers at state companies have ordered employees to vote – even asking them to submit photographs of their ballot papers, reported Reuters, quoting six sources who did not want to be named. Cash machines also remind Russians to vote. And in Russian-occupied Ukraine, residents have complained of pro-Russian collaborators with ballot boxes going from house to house looking for voters accompanied by armed soldiers. 

Then there’s the question of vote-rigging.

“Parliamentary elections may be rigged in Russia, but presidential elections are not,” de Gliniasty said. “There are cameras and observers in polling stations. There’s no need for rigging because everything has been cleaned up beforehand so the result will be perfectly acceptable.” 

But given the context of the Ukraine war and the hardening stance of the Russian regime, “we cannot predict what will happen in these elections”, admitted the former French ambassador.

Putin won nearly 77 percent of the vote in 2018, 14 points more than in 2012. At the country’s helm for almost a quarter-century, the indisputable master of the Kremlin has yet to name a successor. Putin signed into law a constitutional amendment in 2021 that altered term limits and will allow him to remain in power until 2036.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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Anti-Putin Russian groups stage new cross-border raids into Russia

Pro-Ukrainian forces are conducting incursions into Russian territory, temporarily seizing a village in the border region of Kursk, reminiscent of similar operations in the spring of 2023 but occurring in a very different military and political context.

Ukraine-based Russian militias are again on the attack, staging cross-border raids this week into Russian territory. Pro-Ukrainian forces even claimed on Tuesday, March 12, to have taken full control of a Russian village. The Freedom of Russia Legion, mainly composed of anti-Putin Russian fighters, posted a video showing Russian soldiers deserting Tetkino, a municipality in the Kursk region, on the Russian side of the border. 

Forces from other pro-Ukrainian groups – the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Siberian Battalion – also announced incursions into the Kursk and Belgorod regions. These attacks were carried out with the support of “tanks, armoured vehicles, and drones“, according to analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group. 

Moscow initially denied the attackers had entered areas inside Russia before stating later that the enemy fighters did not advance very far into Russia and were all driven back. “Thanks to the sacrifice of Russian soldiers, all attacks by Ukrainian terrorists have been repelled,” affirmed the Russian ministry of defence. 

The situation on the ground appears to be somewhat less clear than suggested by Russian authorities. “Currently, there are still battles around Tetkino and pro-Ukrainian forces still seem capable of controlling part of this locality,” says Sim Tack, chief military analyst at Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company. 

Russia’s national guard said on Thursday it was fighting off attacks from pro-Ukrainian groups in the Kursk region, as clashes continued at the border. 

The Russian defence ministry claimed its troops killed 195 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed five tanks and four armoured infantry vehicles, two days after saying it killed 234 Ukrainian troops in another border assault. 

In a joint statement, three pro-Kyiv militia groups called on Russian authorities to evacuate civilians from the regions of Belgorod and Kursk, saying that “civilians should not suffer from the war”. 

The current incursions are “very similar to what happened in the spring and summer of 2023”, notes Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Russia-Ukraine war at the University of Glasgow. In that incursion, pro-Kyiv Russian troops had crossed the border – a little further south, in the Belgorod region – and temporarily seized a village before retreating under pressure from Russian artillery. 

At the time unprecedented, last year’s incursions served to put pressure on Russia by highlighting that its national territory was poorly protected. The dynamics of the war were then in Ukraine’s favour, given its army had managed to fend off Russian offensives. The 2023 raids had begun just before the start of Kyiv’s counteroffensive and gave the impression that Ukraine could strike anywhere. 

The situation today is very different. The counteroffensive has fizzled out and Ukraine is now more on the back foot. As Aliyev notes: “Moscow has built a defensive line – similar to the one it set up in Ukraine – about twenty kilometres inside Russian territory.” This line of  trenches extends from the north of the Kursk region to the south of the Belgorod region. 

Before last year, “Russia didn’t have any defensive positions there”, Aliyev adds, meaning incursions could be made deeper into Russian territory. 

Pro-Ukrainian forces chose to attack Tetkino for its vulnerable position.  

“The village captured is not behind the defensive line. It’s a buffer zone, what Russia calls a security zone,” Aliyev says. “On the other side of the border the region is mostly under control of Ukrainians, so it’s not difficult for pro-Ukraine forces to cross the border and occupy that village” 

An attempt to influence the Russian election? 

If taking a border village like Tetkino was a relatively easy objective for the Freedom of Russia Legion and other armed groups of anti-Putin Russians, it remains to be seen how long they’ll be able to stay there. “If they’ve taken armoured vehicles, it’s also in anticipation of a rapid retreat, so they suspect they won’t be able to occupy Tetkino” for long, notes Tack.    

But why expend resources on a raid into Russia instead of strengthening defences on the front line in the Donbas, where Ukraine’s forces are under great duress? Officially, the Freedom of Russia Legion claimed it wanted to “influence the presidential election” to be held March 15-17, according to the Moscow Times 

The pro-Kyiv Russians aim to show their compatriots that there is an alternative to Putin. “It is a way for them to try to prove to the Russians that they have the means to ‘liberate Russia from Putin’,” explains Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna. 

The Ukrainian military leadership also stated that the Russian militia groups had acted on their own without informing Kyiv. According to Tack, this is unlikely “because to be able to move troops and tanks in this region, at least tacit approval from the Ukrainian army is needed. But this helps strengthen the narrative of an operation carried out by Russians to overthrow Vladimir Putin“. 

But the ambitions of the anti-Putin forces are obviously unattainable, Tack says. “These fighters do not have the means to go very far,” he notes, adding that they did not even attempt to break through the new Russian defensive lines. 

Few Russians will even hear about the capture of Tetkino, says Aliyev. “The problem is that most Russian don’t follow independent media or Western mass media. And they will be fed with the Russian propaganda about a Ukrainian failed ‘terrorist’ attempt” against Russia.” 

Kyiv’s ‘diversion capabilities’ 

In this regard, the cross-border raids could even be counterproductive. Coming just days before the Russian presidential election, “these incursions will likely cement the attractiveness of Putin as president”, says Fasola. “The rhetoric of a ‘besieged Russia’ is key to Putin’s platform and these attacks on Russian territory basically prove he’s right, in the eyes of the larger Russian public.” 

But these operations are not useless in the eyes of the Ukrainian high command. “These anti-Putin Russian forces are part of the diversion capabilities at Kyiv’s disposal,” notes Tack. “Each of their operations serves to push Moscow to allocate resources capable of intervening quickly to defend the entry points into Russian territory.”  

The raids are part of “a broader strategy at work in recent weeks”, says Tack. There were attacks against Russian warships in the Black Sea at the end of February, followed by the strike using dozens of drones against the Lukoil oil refinery in Kirichi, near Saint Petersburg. These diversions are intended to demonstrate Ukraine’s disruptive capability, even when pushed into an essentially defensive role on the front line. 

This article has been translated from the original in French.  

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How charity ship Open Arms is delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza

The ship Opens Arms left Cyprus for the Gaza coast on October 12 with 200 tonnes of food supplies, the first ship to sail as part of a maritime aid corridor initiated by Cyprus, with the support of the European Union, the UK and the US. Given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the charities leading the effort felt they couldn’t wait for the US military to complete a pier to deliver aid.

The 200 tonnes of food supplies transported by the Open Arms is already bringing hope to the people of Gaza. Some Gazans even rushed to the beach near Gaza City on Sunday, hoping to see the ship and its desperately needed cargo arrive, AFP reported.

Aid agencies have warned of looming famine in the Palestinian territory of 2.4 million inhabitants.

Israel has imposed a near-total blockade on Gaza since the start of its war with Hamas five months ago.  Given the humanitarian emergency that has resulted, the EU decided to push for a maritime aid route via Cyprus, the EU country closest to Gaza.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday said it was the first time a ship had been authorized to deliver aid directly to Gaza since 2005 and that the EU would work with “smaller ships” until the US military completes work on its floating port off the Gazan coast.

Open Arms, a Spanish charity, is partnered by the US charity World Central Kitchen (WCK), founded by the Spanish-American restaurateur José Andrés. Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza said that WCK’s teams in Gaza were “constructing a dock” to unload the Open Arms’s cargo. The charities have kept the location of the landing point secret for security reasons.

Under Israeli land, air, and sea blockade for sixteen years, Gaza has no functioning port.

“We have been working on this technical project for several weeks,” explained Lanuza.  

“We had to be imaginative and find a way to overcome all these obstacles related to the landing site that will be done from the platform we are transporting,” she said.

The barge, a floating platform carrying 200 tonnes of food, is currently being towed by the humanitarian ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. In a video filmed before the fleet’s departure from Cyprus and posted on X, the NGO WCK explains: “You can see behind me, we have this barge. It’s about 200 tonnes that we are currently loading with all kinds of food aid. Once it reaches its destination, it will be lifted by a crane. Then we will transport the supplies to the northern part of the Gaza Strip to help those in need at this time.”

Construction of a jetty in Gaza

WCK says its teams in Gaza are working “day and night” on the construction of a pier, leveraging the extensive experience it has providing humanitarian aid worldwide. “In Gaza, it already manages around 60 kitchens run by local residents, mainly women, who cook and prepare meals for those in need,” reports the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

However, “the influx of large quantities of goods will require special preparations –  warehouses, transportation, security, and supervision of distribution – which have not yet been organized”,  Haaretz points out.

Security is of the uppermost in people’s minds, after the tragedy on March 1 in which over 115 Palestinians were killed during a humanitarian aid delivery, crushed in a stampede and also hit by Israeli gunfire.

“We have to be careful. We have every guarantee that everything will be fine, but the reality in Gaza is changing all the time,” admits Lanuza. “We’re trying to avoid any danger to the population, of course.”

Approved by Israel

The aid corridor, supported by Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates, has received approval from Israel. The ship’s cargo was inspected in advance by Israeli military personnel in Larnaca to ensure it did not contain any military equipment, weapons, or materials that could be used for military purposes, according to Haaretz.

Israel has also committed to participating in the construction project of a pier promised by the United States on the Gaza coast. The Pentagon specified that building this structure will take up to 60 days and likely involve over 1,000 soldiers. The temporary port “could provide over two million meals per day to the citizens of Gaza”, according to Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryde.

A US Navy ship has departed from the United States with the necessary equipment for the construction of the pier. The Israeli military spokesperson, Rear Admiral  Daniel Hagari, stated that Israel is “coordinating the establishment” of this infrastructure.

Israel’s Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant, posting on X, said that aid from the maritime corridor “will help to achieve one of the main goals of the war: The collapse of Hamas rule. We will make sure that the aid goes to those who need it, and not to those who don’t.”

Israel accuses the Palestinian movement, which took control in Gaza in 2007, of diverting humanitarian aid within the territory.

A second humanitarian cargo ship in the starting blocks

The construction of a safe, temporary port should help ensure the arrival of aid by sea.

According to Gaza’s ministry of health, 25 people, mostly children, have already died from malnutrition and dehydration, as massive shortages leave the enclave on the brink of famine.

Open Arms is already preparing a second humanitarian aid ship from Cyprus with a much larger cargo.  Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos said Tuesday that “if all goes according to plan… we have already put in place the mechanism for a second and much bigger cargo.

“And then we’ll be working towards making this a more systematic exercise with increased volumes,” he added.

The UN believes that sending aid by sea and increasing airdrops of food cannot replace the need for access to Gaza by road. While welcoming the news of the first humanitarian ship, Jens Laerke, the spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reiterated on Tuesday that it was “not a substitute for the overland transport of food and other emergency aid into Gaza and particularly northern Gaza. It cannot make up for that”.

The airdrop of parcels over the city of Gaza on March 9 resulted in the death of five people and the injury of 10, according to a hospital source. The Jordanian and American militaries denied that their aircraft were involved in the incident. Belgium, Egypt, France, and the Netherlands are also conducting aid drops in the territory.

(With AFP)

This article has been translated from the original in French.  

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‘Noon against Putin’: A small gesture and a powerful symbol of Russia’s opposition

The widow of Russia’s late opposition leader Alexei Navalny is calling on voters in the country’s presidential election to turn up at polling stations en masse at 12 noon on March 17 and either vote against Vladimir Putin or spoil their ballot. The protest action, known as “Noon Against Putin”, aims to honour Navalny’s last wishes, while illustrating the high number of voters who are against Russia’s war on Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin is hoping for record turnout in the country’s forthcoming March 15-17 elections. And now the Russian strongman, who is seeking a fifth term in office in a tightly controlled vote, might find his wish has been granted.

But if voters turn out in high numbers on March 17 at noon sharp, Putin might feel he should have been careful what he wished for.

The “Noon against Putin” protest action was called for by the late Alexei Navalny two weeks before his death in an Arctic prison, and is now being continued by his widow Yulia.

Promoters of the protest want Russians to wait until noon on March 17 to go to their polling station. They don’t care which candidate they vote for – as long as it’s not Putin and as long as they come precisely at noon.

“The choice is yours. You can vote for any candidate except Putin,” Navalnaya said in a YouTube video.

“You can ruin the ballot, you can write ‘Navalny’ in big letters on it. And even if you don’t see the point in voting at all, you can just come and stand at the polling station, and then turn around and go home.”

Russia’s presidential election is widely expected to hand Putin another six-year term, keeping him in the Kremlin until at least 2030. The vote is being held with no meaningful opposition challengers and international observers have already raised concerns about its transparency and accountability.

Navalnaya views the polling protest as a gesture of support for the Russian opposition and a powerful way for citizens to show they are against Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Indeed the protest action may be the only thing motivating Russians who are against Putin to turn out and vote.

“How many people will show up is the only interesting figure in these elections,” says Matthew Wyman, a specialist in Russian politics at Keele University in the UK.

‘Navalny’s political legacy’

“We have to sabotage it [the election],” says Maxim Reznik, an exiled Russian opposition figure who came up with the idea for the initiative, when interviewed by independent Russian news website Meduza.

Reznik first suggested the protest action during a debate – “What to do about the presidential election?” – broadcast in January 2024 on the opposition channel Dozhd.

Since then, most of Russia’s leading opposition figures have voiced their support for the “Noon Against Putin” initiative, starting with Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, which rarely misses an opportunity to promote it.

Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian newspaper, has even called the protest action “Navalny’s will”.

“It’s very appropriate to link it to Navalny because it’s the kind of thing he would have done,” Wyman points out.

“It is in the spirit of a lot of things Navalny was doing and asking people to do: it’s not difficult, and with small steps you can hope to make big changes,” adds Jenny Mathers, a specialist in Russia at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

“Noon against Putin” ties in perfectly with this strategy. Going to the polling station at a specific time calls for no particular effort from voters – neither does it put them at risk.

“What they are doing is trying to find ways to show resistance without risk of being put in jail. The protest is brilliant because they are doing exactly what the regime wants you to do: going to vote,” says Wyman, adding that the police would find it hard to justify arresting voters for doing their civic duty.

Mathers suggests it is important to start with small steps.

“The idea is to rebuild civil society and a credible opposition force that has been badly hit lately,” she notes. “After small steps, maybe a bigger one will come? I see it as one piece of a long-lasting campaign,” Mathers adds.

The number of Russians opposed to the war

This type of protest action illustrates “the creativity of actions undertaken by the opposition in Russia”, explains Wyman, adding that “the space to protest has been kind of reduced and reduced”.

“Noon against Putin” is just one of a long list of initiatives in a similar vein. Demonstrators have held up blank sheets of paper to symbolise the censorship of any criticism of Russia’s war on Ukraine, and activists have added QR codes to advertising billboards so that citizens can access websites critical of Putin.

“These are the kind of practices you see in regimes that become more and more oppressive,” says Mathers.

“It is like what China does, when they use Winnie the Pooh,” adds Mathers, referring to China’s ban of a Winnie the Pooh film after the Chinese used memes to mock their leader Xi Pingping by comparing him to the honey-loving bear.

Some wonder if the protest action will have any real impact.

“Obviously it’s not going to change the outcome of the election,” admits Mathers.

However, Wyman believes it will give a “better picture” of the strength of the opposition to the war on Ukraine.

The vast crowds that gathered for Navalny’s funeral on March 1 have already given some insight into the feeling of dissent in Russia. At least 27,000 people came to say farewell to Navalny at Borisovsky cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, according to a count by the independent Russian news outlet Mediazona.

But Stephen Hall, a Russia specialist at the University of Bath, predicts that voter turnout will be much higher than it was for Navalny’s funeral – pointing out that it was mainly Muscovites who attended, and that police had warned people to stay away.

“Here the risk of arrest is low and it’s [taking place] all over Russia.

“This is a low risk way to show you’re against the regime and the war.”

Stealing the media limelight from Putin

Hall believes one of “Noon Against Putin’s” main challenges will be mobilising people outside of Moscow or St Petersburg.

“Putin has always counted on popular support on the outskirts of major urban centres. If long queues form in front of polling stations all over Russia at midday on Sunday, he may start to worry about the real level of his popularity,” he explains.

“Noon against Putin” also aims to steal the media spotlight from the Kremlin.

“The regime wants this election to be non-controversial. So the more disruption there is, like huge numbers going to polling stations at noon, the more this might be a problem for Putin,” says Mathers.

“Putin desperately wants all the world headlines after the election to say he ‘got 85 percent’,” says Reznik.

“But now, rest assured, you’ll see! All the headlines won’t be about Putin’s performance but about what happened at ‘Noon’,” Reznik adds.

“It’s about creating a counter-narrative,” agrees Matthew Wyman.

This is partly so that Russians opposed to the regime do not feel alone, but it’s also “a way to say to the world we are not all Putin, and that there is a movement to support in Russia”, adds Mathers.

But for that to happen, voters will need to turn out in high numbers at polling stations at noon on Sunday.

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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French and Corsican officials strike deal in ‘decisive step’ towards island’s autonomy

France’s government and Corsican elected officials have agreed on the wording of a proposed constitutional revision granting the île de Beauté (Island of Beauty) a special status, six months after President Emmanuel Macron broke a longstanding French taboo on the subject of autonomy for the island scarred by decades of conflict with Paris. 

Half a century after the start of Corsica’s armed nationalist struggle, the Mediterranean island inched closer to autonomy in the early hours of Tuesday as officials hammered out a deal on a proposed constitutional revision after marathon talks at the interior ministry in Paris.  

The draft text provides for the “recognition of an autonomous status” for Corsica “within the (French) Republic”, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told reporters following the talks. It meets a six-month deadline set by Macron during a visit to the island last year, when he became the first French president to openly endorse “a form of autonomy” for Corsica.   

Corsica’s proposed new status, the draft reads, “takes into account its own interests linked to its Mediterranean insularity, (and) to its historical, linguistic and cultural community, which has developed singular ties to its land.”

Both sides also agreed that “laws and regulations can be adapted” on the island, under the supervision of France’s top courts, Darmanin added, pointing to a form of legislative power for Corsican officials, the scope of which will be detailed in a forthcoming “organic law”.  

The interior minister said that registered voters in Corsica would be consulted on the plan. So will the island’s regional assembly in Ajaccio, which is currently dominated by nationalists, some of whom advocate full independence from France.   

The head of the Corsican regional government Gilles Simeoni (right) and other Corsican officials arrive for late-night talks at the Interior Ministry in Paris on March 11, 2024. © Julien De Rosa, AFP

Speaking shortly after the minister, Gilles Simeoni, a moderate nationalist and the head of Corsica’s regional administration, hailed a “decisive step” on the path to autonomy.   

“The principle of a legislative power, submitted to oversight from the Constitutional Council, has clearly been accepted,” he said, acknowledging that both sides still needed to spell out how devolved powers would operate.  

“We’re in the semi-finals,” Simeoni added. “We still need to win the semi-final – and then the final.”   

Corsican ‘community’ or ‘people’? 

Corsican nationalists, who include both separatists and advocates of autonomy, have long clamoured for greater powers for the island, which has been part of France since it was purchased from its Genoese rulers in 1768. Their demands include official recognition of the Corsican language, which is closer to Italian dialects than French, as well as protection from outsiders buying up their land.   

Such topics remain highly sensitive in France, where politicians routinely tout the need to protect the country’s unity and national identity, harking back to the oft-quoted Jacobin slogan from 1793: “The Republic is one and indivisible”.  

In that respect, the push for Corsican autonomy signals a major shift for both the Mediterranean island and France’s Fifth Republic, says Thierry Dominici, a political analyst and Corsica expert at the University of Bordeaux in southwest France, for whom the government’s willingness to devolve limited powers to Ajaccio is in step with the decentralisation witnessed elsewhere in Europe.  

The draft text agreed on Tuesday “involves recognising a Corsican cultural specificity and, more concretely, granting the island the power to adapt legislation to its specific needs”, he said, noting that some of France’s overseas territories in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans already enjoy specific statuses and powers.  

“This evolution demonstrates that the Fifth Republic need not be as centralised, nor as Jacobin, as is commonly assumed,” he added. “Even France’s unitary state is slowly leaning towards a form of decentralisation, like Spain, Italy and the UK.” 

However, granting Corsica a special status in the French constitution will require the backing of both the National Assembly and the Senate, as well as a three-fifths majority in the combined chambers – making it a tall order for Macron’s minority government, which controls neither house of parliament.   

The far-right National Rally party has already pledged to reject the move, accusing Macron of attempting to “deconstruct the French nation”. As for the conservative Les Républicains, which dominate the Senate, they are traditionally at loggerheads with Corsican nationalists and are reluctant to devolve power to autonomist movements.  

Seeking to head off their opposition, Darmanin stressed that the draft text “does not separate Corsica from the Republic”, makes no mention of a Corsican “people”, and does not grant the Corsican language official status on a par with French. But his arguments were quickly dismissed.   

“Recognising a ‘historic, linguistic and cultural community’ effectively means recognising a Corsican people,” Bruno Retailleau, the head of Les Républicains in the Senate, wrote in a post on X, describing the draft text as a “dangerous step” for the country. “If it is accepted, this proposal will lead to similar demands from other regions and will lead to the break-up of France,” added Jean-Jacques Panunzi, a conservative senator from southern Corsica.  

Ghosts of nationalist struggle 

Dominici voiced greater optimism about the text’s prospects in parliament, playing down suggestions from some quarters that the bid for Corsican autonomy may have been set up to fail.  

“Macron has crossed a Rubicon by backing autonomy and recognising Corsican language and culture,” he said. “It is unlikely he would have done so without some degree of confidence in the numbers.”  

The Corsica analyst noted that some critics of autonomy had been more guarded in their response, suggesting they may yet be persuaded to back the proposal. They include Jean-Martin Mondoloni, the head of the conservative opposition in the Corsican regional assembly, who reiterated his misgivings about the text on Tuesday, though adding: “I am not going to take on the role of executioner”.  

Like Macron, Mondoloni will be keenly aware of the potential consequences of killing off the push for autonomy on an island blighted by past unrest.   

The need to address Corsica’s complaints became all too urgent in 2022 when rioting swept across the territory following a fatal prison attack on Corsican militant nationalist Yvan Colonna, who was serving a life sentence for the 1998 assassination of prefect Claude Érignac, the French state’s top official on the island.  

Read morePrison attack on Corsican nationalist reopens old wounds on restive French island

Colonna’s five years on the run – hiding as a shepherd in the Corsican scrubland long romanticised as a hideout for patriots and bandits – had turned him into a symbol of the island’s defiance towards the French state, and his death in custody triggered a furious response.  

Protesters rally in the town of Corte,  a bastion of Corsican nationalism, following a violent attack on jailed pro-independence activist Yvan Colonna.
Protesters rally in the town of Corte, a bastion of Corsican nationalism, following a violent attack on jailed pro-independence activist Yvan Colonna. © Pascal Pochard-Casabianca, AFP

Thousands of protesters marched through towns and cities across the island, holding up banners that read Statu Francese Assassinu (“The French state is an assassin”) and I Francesi fora (“Out with the French”). Youths clashed with police and targeted French symbols, fanning fears of a return to the violence and bloodshed that scarred the island from the 1970s to the turn of the century.  

“The pro-independence camp has since demilitarised, but it has not vanished,” said Dominici, highlighting the risk that disgruntled youths take matters into their own hands if officials fail to address the island’s longstanding concerns.   

“The threat is real,” he warned. “If the constitutional process fizzles out, there is a real danger of a return to violence.” 

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