1. Merkel reproaches Russia over actions in ex-Soviet states

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Russia was “creating problems” in Georgia and Moldova, and trying to make some Balkan states “politically and economically dependent.”

She promised a “collective European response” to Russian threats and accused the Kremlin of violating the 1994 Budapest agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports, citing an interview published in the Sunday edition of Die Welt.

However, Merkel downplayed the risk of war with Russia over its assertive acts against the Baltic states – including military flights and exercises – the Financial Times reports, citing the Die Welt interview.

“The question of war in the Baltic states does not arise,” she said. “Nevertheless, Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, that is the obligation of mutual support, applies to all allies.”

Merkel, who has become increasingly critical of President Vladimir Putin despite Germany’s close economic ties with Russia, also said in the interview that her government was committed to a diplomatic solution.

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande met Putin in Moscow on 6 December in a bid to diffuse tensions over Ukraine. Hollande told a news conference that Europe needs to avoid a new Berlin Wall. “We must avoid having other walls separate us,” he said, according to Radio France International. “It is necessary, at some moment, to overcome the obstacles and find solutions. I know that between Russia and France there is the desire.”

2. Azerbaijan journalist jailed in connection with suicide attempt

Human rights organizations are condemning the jailing of an independent Azerbaijani journalist who has been accused of encouraging a colleague to commit suicide.

A Baku court on 5 December ordered the temporary detention of Khadija Ismayilova, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe and other news media who is known for her hard-hitting reports on corruption at the highest levels of government.

Ismayilova has previously been the target of defamation campaigns. The latest charge “proves that officials are more determined than ever to eliminate all opposition to their arbitrary rule,” Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

The journalist is charged under Article 125 of the Penal Code with having provoked the attempted suicide of journalist Tural Mustafayev two months earlier. Mustafayev was a contributor to RFE’s Azeri service, which Ismayilova then directed, according to Reporters Without Borders. He has been barred from talking about the case under a non-disclosure agreement.

Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen called the arrest “another blatant attempt to gag free media in Azerbaijan,” while RFE chief editor Nenad Pejic said the jailing of Ismayilova marks “the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.”

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s media freedom representative, said the case against Ismayilova is “a part of the ongoing campaign aimed at silencing her free and critical voice.”

Meanwhile, jailed Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus has written a letter – published by published by RFE – describing being sexually harassed by a group of young men who entered her Baku cell the evening of 25 November. The 58-year-old activist has been held in detention since July on charges of high treason related to her work in neighboring Armenia.

3. Cross honoring Serb victims in Sarajevo battle torn down

A makeshift cross erected on Mount Trebovic above Sarajevo to honor Serbs who lost their lives in the city 20 years ago has been torn down in an apparent act of revenge.

Local media reported that Sarajevan Mirza Hatic claimed he was responsible for the removal of the cross, Balkan Insight reports.

“I said I would bring it down. The Republika Srpska police sometimes guard it and sometimes not. Me and a friend brought it down. It was a little past midnight,” Hatic told the Sarajevo newspaper Daily Avaz. “I am proud of what I did and I would do it again if they put it somewhere else.”

Police in eastern Sarajevo confirmed on 5 December that the cross had been removed but said that since there was no approval for its erection in the first place, no criminal offense was committed.

It is not known who erected the monument in September. But the cross angered Bosnians who said it was inappropriate to have a cross at a place used by Bosnian Serb forces to bombard the city during the 1992-1995 war. The cross was located in Zlatiste, which is part of Bosnia’s Serb-led Republika Srpska.

4. Wrong number: Czech mobile company drops ad poking fun at Poles

A Czech mobile phone company has pulled a television advertisement following complaints from the Polish government that it was offensive to Poles.

T-Mobile Czech Republic agreed to withdraw the commercial, The Warsaw Voice reports. The spot shows a Czech skier meeting a Polish-speaking salesman disguised as a spruce tree who offers him a new mobile phone in exchange for the old one. The new device immediately breaks after the Polish hawker disappears.

Poland’s ambassador to Prague, Grazyna Bernatowicz, urged the operator – a division of Germany’s Deutsche Telekom – to scrap the commercial. “I resolutely protest against such connections that present the Poles in a simplifying and scandalizing way,” Bernatowicz wrote in a letter to the Czech division’s chief executive.

In a statement, the company said it did not intend to ridicule Poles and was trying to use exaggerated humor in the marketing campaign. The spot was part of T-Mobile’s new offer for its customers to trade in older-model phones.

“Success of our advertising campaigns benefits from specific humor, which is based on exaggeration and absurd situations,” the statement said. “Although we regret expressed concerns, we believe that the spot only uses hyperbole conventional in [the] Czech advertising environment and the advertisement does not exceed ethical or legal standards.”

A committee of the Czech Advertising Standards Council said the commercial was unethical, according to The Warsaw Voice.

5. Russian spies reportedly stepping up work in Kyrgyzstan

Russia’s FSB spy agency has stepped up work in Kyrgyzstan, allegedly working to influence the country’s politics and relations with its neighbors.

The FSB’s activity in the Central Asian republic has included monitoring of the Manas Air Base, which until recently was a main supply base for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyzstani government in June announced it would not extend its lease of Manas to U.S. forces.

The Kremlin is also allegedly using agents in Kyrgyzstan to monitor other Central Asian states, including Uzbekistan, and to influence politics in the country. It is “steadily transforming Kyrgyzstan into a client state,” according to a 7 December analysis in The Diplomat, a Tokyo-based news site that covers the Asia-Pacific region.

“Russia’s actions in Kyrgyzstan are not dissimilar to its strategy in Ukraine,” according to the analysis, including the use of Russian media to discredit “uncooperative Kyrgyz political figures.”

The former Soviet republic is a member of the Russia-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization and in August, the Cabinet unanimously approved legislation clearing the way for Kyrgyzstan to join the Kremlin-led Customs Union along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Armenia is also on course to joint the union.

Moscow’s covert operations in Kyrgyzstan also apparently stem from concern that Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan could target Russia through Central Asia, prompting the Kremlin to pressure Central Asian governments to allow Russian border guards to patrol the Afghan frontier.

“Russian conspiracy theorists even argue that Western forces are helping to fuel unrest in the region,” according to a recent analysis published by EurasiaNet.org. “In the more extreme iteration of this theory, some Russians claim that the CIA supports the Islamic State in order to hurt Russia.”

Timothy Spence is TOL’s former managing editor and a freelance writer, editor, and journalism trainer in Vienna.