Russians Start Voting in Parliamentary Polls After Historic Crackdown
Russians in the Far East began voting in a three-day parliamentary election in which vocal Kremlin critics have been barred from running following a historic crackdown on the opposition.
Parliamentary and local polls in the world’s largest country spread over 11 time zones began at 8 a.m. Friday. So as Muscovites prepared to go to bed, residents of the Far Eastern Chukotka and Kamchatka regions were gearing up to cast their ballots.
“Let’s go!” Ella Pamfilova, the head of the Central Election Commission, said in a live broadcast. “We are so excited!”
The run-up to the parliamentary polls has been marred by an unprecedented crackdown on Kremlin critics and independent media, with President Vladimir Putin’s top foe Alexey Navalny jailed in January and his organizations subsequently outlawed.
With many voters frustrated by falling incomes and not planning to cast their ballots, Putin urged Russians to elect a “strong” parliament.
“I’m counting on your responsible, balanced and patriotic civic position,” Putin said in a video address.
The 68-year-old Russian leader is currently isolating after the Kremlin announced this week an outbreak of coronavirus cases among his inner circle. He said Thursday that “dozens” had tested positive.
In a message from prison, Navalny called on Russians to cast aside apathy and vote pro-Kremlin candidates out of power.
“Are you not interested in trying?” he said in a message posted on Instagram, adding that even in prison he remained optimistic and urged Russians to do the same.
“I really do not think that I cannot change anything,” said the 45-year-old, who barely survived a nerve agent poisoning he has blamed on the Kremlin.
The opposition politician’s allies have been barred from running, and his team has promoted Navalny’s tactical voting project app, urging supporters to back candidates best positioned to beat Putin’s United Russia candidates.
A majority of the 225 alternative parliament candidates named by Navalny’s allies are running on the Communist Party’s list.
The media regulator has blocked dozens of websites linked to Navalny, including the tactical voting website, and has also piled pressure on Google and Apple to remove Navalny’s app from their stores.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has claimed that developers of Navalny’s app have ties to the Pentagon, and last week Moscow summoned U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan over interference of U.S. tech giants in the polls.
Recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30% of Russians planning to vote for the ruling party, down from 40% to 45% in the weeks ahead of the last parliamentary election in 2016.
But United Russia is expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the Duma, enough to change the constitution as it did last year with reforms allowing Putin to extend his rule to 2036.
The vote is being held both online and in person, in a move officials said is aimed at limiting voters’ potential exposure to the coronavirus.
The opposition says that voting over several days gives officials greater opportunities to fix elections.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in August that it would not be sending observers to Russia for the parliamentary election because of a limit on the number of observers imposed by Moscow.
Campaigning was lackluster, and critics said the vote was little more than a rubber-stamping of Putin’s allies.
Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that the Kremlin needed a pliant legislature ahead of 2024 when Putin’s current term ends.
Widespread claims of voter fraud during parliamentary elections in 2011 sparked major demonstrations, but political observers were not expecting protests this time.
“Once the Duma elections are over, protests are unlikely, since the opposition and civil society are demoralized,” Kolesnikov wrote. “The regime crackdown will intensify.”
Besides United Russia, 13 more parties are running in the elections.
A total of 225 of the State Duma’s 450 members are elected through party lists, while the rest are selected in single-member districts.
More than 108 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots in Russia, and another 2 million Russians can vote abroad.
Russian passport holders from Ukraine’s two breakaway regions can take part in the vote.
Russians are also voting in local polls in dozens of regions, including regional assembly and gubernatorial elections.
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Ukraine, US to Hold Joint Military Drills
Ukraine and the United States will start joint military exercises in western Ukraine next week, the Ukrainian General Staff said on Thursday, days after Belarus and Russia staged large-scale drills that raised neighboring countries’ concerns.
The “Zapad-2021” war games ran on Russia’s and Belarus’ western flanks, including sites close to the European Union’s borders, and alarmed Ukraine and some NATO countries.
Ukraine said the “Rapid Trident 2021” exercises would involve 6,000 troops from 15 countries — Ukraine, the United States and other NATO members — and would last until Oct. 1.
“The main goal is to prepare for joint actions as part of a multinational force during coalition operations,” it said in a statement.
Ukraine views the military exercises with Western partners as an important step on the path to NATO, believing that membership in the alliance would strengthen the country’s resistance to Russian aggression.
Kyiv’s relations with Moscow deteriorated in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and backed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region. The seven-year war with separatists killed more than 13,000 people.
Ukraine’s relations with Belarus also have worsened since Kyiv called the 2020 presidential election in Belarus neither free nor fair and condemned violence against protesters.
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US Sanctions al-Qaida Supporters Working From Turkey
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned five al-Qaida supporters for allegedly helping the militant group with financial assistance.
The department said the operatives supporting al-Qaida were working out of Turkey.
“We will continue working with our foreign partners, including Turkey, to expose and disrupt al-Qaida’s financial support networks,” Treasury Department official Andrea Gacki said in a statement.
Five individuals named
The department said Egyptian lawyer Majdi Salim, whom it described as the main facilitator, was sanctioned, along with Muhammad Nasr al-Din al-Ghazlani, an Egyptian financial courier, and Turkish citizens Nurettin Muslihan, Cebrail Guzel and Soner Gurleyen.
“As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of these individuals named above, and of any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by them, individually, or with other blocked persons, that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control),” the department said in a statement.
“Unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC or otherwise exempt, OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within the United States (including transactions transiting the United States) that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated or otherwise blocked persons,” the statement added.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.
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Deadly Floods, Dirty Coal: Germany’s Climate Dilemma as Election Looms
As Germany prepares to elect a new leader, climate change is high on the agenda. Floods blamed on global warming killed hundreds in July. But as Henry Ridgwell reports from Germany, the country is also Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and is struggling to wean itself off fossil fuels
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‘No Journalist Should Die’ – EU Calls for Better Media Safety
The European Union’s executive arm asked its member countries Thursday to better protect journalists amid a rise of physical attacks and online threats against media professionals.
According to the European Commission, 908 journalists and media workers were attacked across the 27-nation bloc in 2020. A total of 23 journalists have been killed in the EU since 1992, with the majority of the killings taking place during the past six years.
“No journalist should die or be harmed because of their job. We need to support and protect journalists; they are essential for democracy,” said Vera Jourova, the commission vice president for values and transparency.
“The pandemic has shown more than ever the key role of journalists to inform us. And the urgent need for public authorities to do more to protect them.”
Murders of reporters remain rare in Europe, but the killings of journalists in Slovakia and Malta in recent years have raised concerns about reporters’ safety in developed, democratic societies.
Earlier this year, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen expressed support to investigative journalism after the killing of Peter R. de Vries, a renowned Dutch journalist who reported on the violent underworld of the Netherlands.
The commission’s non-binding proposals include recommendations for EU countries to ensure fair and effective investigations and prosecutions, and to provide protection to those under threat, with a strong focus on female journalists.
According to the EU, 73% of female journalists have experienced online violence and the commission said EU countries should “support initiatives aimed at empowering women journalists and professionals belonging to minority groups and those reporting on equality issues.”
The bloc’s executive arm also proposed the creation of support services, including helplines, legal advice, and psychological support. It insisted on the need to ensure reporters’ safety during demonstrations, where most of the attacks take place.
“Member states should provide regular training for law enforcement authorities to ensure that journalists and other media professionals are able to work safely and without restrictions during such events,” the commission said.
Noting that digital and online safety has become a “major concern” because of online attacks but also the risks of illegal surveillance, the executive branch also encouraged EU countries to improve cooperation between media and cybersecurity bodies.
“Relevant national cybersecurity bodies should, upon request, assist journalists who seek to determine whether their devices or online accounts have been compromised, in obtaining the services of cybersecurity forensic investigators,” the commission said.
The proposals were unveiled just months after the commission’s annual report on adherence to the rule of law concluded that democratic standards were eroding in several member countries.
That report notably singled out Slovenia, which currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council, for attacks against the Balkan nation’s media.
“This is not only Slovenia. We see the very aggressive rhetoric in some other member states,” Jourova said, adding that the EU will keep putting pressure on member countries where continuous issues are spotted.
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Turkey Cracks Down on Afghan Refugees
Security forces in Istanbul detain unregistered Afghans as Turkey’s government faces growing public pressure to not accept any more refugees
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China Envoy Banned from Visiting Britain’s House of Commons
The Speaker of the British House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has banned China’s ambassador to Britain, Zheng Zeguang, from entering Parliament until Beijing lifts sanctions it imposed six months ago on five Conservative lawmakers and two peers.
The ban — the first ever imposed on a foreign envoy by a House of Commons Speaker — is the latest sign that British authorities are growing increasingly frustrated with what they see as Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy. Hoyle consulted with Downing Street and Britain’s Foreign Office before announcing the ban, according to local media reports.
His bar on Zeguang came just hours before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed former trade minister Liz Truss as Britain’s new foreign secretary, part of a wider Cabinet reshuffle. Truss is seen as a China hawk and has lobbied for much tougher measures to be pursued against China’s Communist government for rights violations.
In a statement midweek Hoyle said: “I do not feel it’s appropriate for the ambassador for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our members.”
Last week Hoyle met with British lawmakers targeted by the Chinese sanctions. They urged him to impose a ban on the envoy. The Chinese embassy in London described the prohibition on Zeguang as “despicable and cowardly.”
Zeguang, who was appointed as envoy in June, was scheduled to speak to a British parliamentary group on China, but the invitation was withdrawn.
Relations between China and Britain have become fraught over Beijing’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and repression of its Muslim minority in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, where China’s Communist government has interned more than a million Uyghurs in detention centers, according to rights groups.
The Chinese sanctions imposed in March on British lawmakers, one of whom is a former leader of the ruling of Britain’s ruling Conservatives, were in retaliation for Britain sanctioning Chinese officials and a state-run entity for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.
The Chinese sanctions imposed in March on British lawmakers, one of whom is a former leader of Britain’s ruling Conservatives, were in retaliation for Britain sanctioning Chinese officials and a state-run entity for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.
China has denied repeated claims that Uyghur Muslims are being held in detention centers. Beijing targeted 10 British organizations and individuals in its March sanctions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the British officials were being punished for spreading “lies and disinformation” about Xinjiang.
China’s Global Times newspaper, an English-language outlet of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, reacted with fury to the parliamentary ban on the Chinese envoy, saying in an angry editorial: “It is extremely rare, if not ‘a global innovation,’ for the UK to ban a foreign envoy from Parliament, a public venue for political discussions in the country. It shows brutality, impulsiveness, and the breaking of the rules.”
The editorial added: “London acts as if only it can sanction others, but not the other way around. Given that it simply does not have the strength to deal with China this way, the UK now behaves like a hooligan after having become a loser.” It suggested Beijing bar the British ambassador from entering the Great Hall of the People.
The group of British lawmakers sanctioned by China, which includes former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and MPs Tim Loughton and Nusrat Ghani, welcomed Hoyle’s decision, praising the Speaker for “standing up for freedom of speech in the mother of Parliaments by supporting those parliamentarians who have been sanctioned by China.”
The appointment of Liz Truss as foreign secretary is unlikely to please Beijing. She has been targeted for criticism by China’s Foreign Ministry and Communist Party-run media in the past for lobbying for tough measures against Beijing as international trade secretary. The 46-year-old is only the second woman to hold the post of foreign secretary and is seen as a vigorous champion of free trade and markets and a strong supporter of the transatlantic alliance with Washington.
She faults China for not pursuing fair trade and for engaging in “economic coercion” and warned in a speech last week against Britain becoming “strategically dependent” on China, criticizing Beijing for “unfair” trading practices.
Last December Truss fought a behind-the-scenes battle with Britain’s Foreign Office, her new ministry, over whether Parliament should legislate to allow British courts a role in determining whether the repression of Xinjiang amounts to genocide. The Foreign Office opposed giving British courts preliminary power to determine whether genocide is occurring in Xinjiang, or elsewhere, arguing the decision should rest with international courts.
Nigel Adams, a Foreign Office minister, told a parliamentary panel that there was “credible, troubling and growing evidence” of forced labour taking place on a significant scale in Xinjiang but he feared an “asset flight,” if ministers rushed into enacting measures, warning China could start withdrawing investments from Britain.
Truss backed the legislative proposal.
Commenting on Truss’s appointment, British newspaper The Times said she “is far more hawkish on China than the prime minister, aligning herself with the American shift towards confrontation with Beijing.” Other British commentators said her pick to replace Dominic Rabb will help repair bridges with Washington following the U.S.-led NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was criticized by senior British Conservative lawmakers.
“New UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, is a proper China hawk,” tweeted Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a London-based think tank. Gaston said Truss would be able at the Foreign Office to hold “China to account on values” while “playing a larger role in coordinating diplomatic efforts with our [foreign] partners.”
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Who Will Succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor?
On September 26 Germans will go to the polls in a federal election to apportion seats in the Bundestag and decide who will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. Marking the end of the Merkel era, many view this electoral contest as Germany’s most important election in decades.
But one wouldn’t be able to guess that from the campaign, which has been bland and cautious. All the main party leaders have played for safety, promising political continuity and competing over who has the right to be seen as the true ideological heir of Angela Merkel, who’s retiring from politics.
“Is this the most boring election ever?” newspaper Die Welt asked recently.
What excitement and fizz that’s been seen so far in the election has come just in the past few days. Armin Laschet, the leader of center-right Christian Democrats, or CDU, Merkel’s party, accused Sunday his Social Democrat opponent, Olaf Scholz, currently Germany’s finance minister, of mismanagement following recent raids by prosecutors on the finance ministry in a money-laundering probe.
And Merkel has come out from the sidelines to join the fray with an uncharacteristically sharp attack on Olaf Scholz and a warning that a vote for his party could let in the far left. Voters had two options, she says: a government made up of the center-left and the Greens “which accepts the support of the left-wing party, or at least doesn’t exclude it, or a moderate conservative-led government with Armin Laschet as chancellor.”
Merkel’s reference to a “leftwing party” was to Die Linke, a party formed in 2007 after a merger between the remnants of the Communist ruling party of former East Germany and a far-left West German group.
No clear majority
Neither the Social Democrats, SPD, or the CDU will have sufficient votes to form a single-party government and will have to shape a coalition government after weeks and possibly months of horse-trading and wrangling. The new German government will be a coalition of likely three parties, say analysts.
Merkel’s rare criticism of the SPD, the junior partner party in her governing coalition since 2013, is seen as testimony to the CDU’s parlous state in the polls. It is the first time in 15 years that the SPD has overtaken the CDU in opinion polling.
Laschet’s CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, CSU, have fallen six points behind the SPD and with less than two weeks remaining the story of this election has been the surprising rise of the Social Democrats, who are polling at 25%, a back from the dead revival.
Earlier this year, the SPD was being written off but Scholz, a political pragmatist, has managed through his own high favorability ratings to pull the party up and now is being tipped by pollsters and political commentators to succeed Merkel.
“With the German election campaign entering its final stretch, Scholz’ popularity…has finally morphed into support for his party,” according to Henning Hoff, editor of the Internationale Politik Quarterly, which is published by the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“There is now much to suggest that Germany’s next government will be led by Olaf Scholz,” he added in his assessment of the direction of electoral travel. Scholz, he argues, has shown shrewdness in his campaigning and is managing to persuade many voters that he is a natural Merkel successor by projecting “professionalism and reliability almost to a fault.”
“Perhaps most miraculously, the SPD has shown uncharacteristic discipline since the campaign started in earnest. There has been next to no sniping, even when Scholz deftly steers the SPD on a distinctly centrist course. The candidate has practically merged with his party. The SPD is Scholz, at least for now,” according to Henning.
He has also been lucky, considering his opponents.
Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock, a fresh face who was the darling of the media at the start of the year, has fallen by the wayside following a string of mishaps and missteps. And Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalian, has turned in a lackluster performance, the nadir of which, according to pollsters, came in July when he was caught on camera chuckling with aides in the background when accompanying German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on a tour of towns stricken by record floods.
Discontent with Laschet in the ranks of the CDU and the CSU has risen with each polling downgrade. Last week, the CSU secretary general, Markus Blume, said the center-right bloc would have fared better if Markus Söder, the President of Bavaria and CSU leader, had been chosen instead of Laschet as the candidate for chancellor. Some CDU lawmakers have publicly agreed.
This week, the walker of the pro-business Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, said he was “surprised by the weakness of the CDU and by how fuzzy its policies are.”
Last week, Laschet suffered another setback when a court ruled that a 2018 police eviction ordered by his North Rhine-Westphalia government against environmental protesters was illegal. An activist died during the police operation.
Laschet’s hopes of turning around the election rest with the large bloc of undecided voters and with the overall volatility of an election that has seen the lead change hands between the CDU, SPD and Greens several times since the start of the year.
But Scholz and his Social Democrats have significant momentum just when it counts — in the home stretch, say pollsters. Many Germans have already voted with early mail-in ballots.
If the SPD does top the poll later this month, Scholz will face the huge task of forming a coalition government and the negotiations likely will take months. His best hope will be to form a coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, but there’s much that divides all three parties. The Greens are polling around 17% and the Free Democrats around 11%.
The divisions were emphasized Wednesday when Lindner, the Free Democrats’ leader, told Britain’s Financial Times that he will have strict conditions on participating in a Scholz-led coalition government.
The conditions will include tax cuts and restrictions on any new borrowing. “The prerequisite for us joining any coalition is that we can’t have tax increases and we respect the constitutional debt brake,” he said. “Whoever wants to do something else will have to look for another partner,” he added.
Both Scholz and the Greens want higher taxes to boost public investment and redistribute wealth. If Scholz fails to reel in the Free Democrats, he might have to turn to Die Linke to form a government or to make an approach to the defeated CDU.It is still quite possible that despite coming in second, Laschet will have an opportunity, too, to form a coalition government. Lindner believes the CDU has more coalition options than Scholz.
Some information for this article came from AFP.
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US Backs Lithuania in Row With China Over Taiwan
The United States is backing Lithuania in the face of what American officials describe as China’s “coercive behavior” after Vilnius recently became the first European country since 2003 to allow Taiwan to open a representative office.On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis met for talks at the State Department. The meeting followed a call on August 21 in which Blinken “underscored ironclad U.S. solidarity” with Lithuania in the face of China’s “coercive behavior.”“Lithuania and the United States are very strong partners in NATO. We stand together for collective defense and security. We stand against economic coercion, including that being exerted by China,” Blinken said Wednesday.Wednesday was the United Nations’ International Day of Democracy. Landsbergis said it’s “truly symbolic” that the NATO allies “reaffirm our commitment to defend democracy, liberty, human rights across the globe.”On this International Day of Democracy, we celebrate a system that responds to the will of the people, respects human rights, and benefits the many, not the few. We look forward to the upcoming #SummitforDemocracy to demonstrate #DemocracyDelivers.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 15, 2021Members of Congress have also expressed support for Lithuania’s position on Taiwan. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez in a tweet praised “Lithuania’s courageous efforts to stand up for Taiwan, as well as democracy activists in Belarus, Russia and Cuba.” Menendez met with Landsbergis on Tuesday.Honored to meet my friend @glandsbergis and discuss Lithuania’s courageous efforts to stand up for Taiwan, as well as democracy activists in Belarus, Russia and Cuba. pic.twitter.com/F8L7EX18kd— Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@SFRCdems) September 14, 2021China has long had a policy of urging countries not to develop closer ties with Taiwan, and this week a spokesperson in Beijing pushed back against American officials’ characterization of Beijing’s tactics.“The label of coercion can never be pinned on China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a Tuesday briefing.“The U.S. should immediately stop ganging up with others to wantonly smear China and stop provoking confrontation and disputes. Such tricks wouldn’t work on China,” Zhao said.In July, Lithuania became the first European country to allow Taiwan, a self-governed democracy, to open an office in Vilnius with the name of “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.” Other nations often designate such offices with the name “Taipei Representative Office” or “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to avoid offending China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory.The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania is set to open this fall, marking the first time in 18 years that Taiwan has opened a new representative office in Europe. The last time Taiwan established a representative office in Europe was in 2003, with the name of “Taipei Representative Office in Bratislava, Slovakia.”Lithuania’s move has already led to repercussions and economic retaliation from China. In August, China’s government asked Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador to Beijing while recalling its own envoy to Vilnius. In a statement, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged “the Lithuanian side to immediately rectify its wrong decision, take concrete measures to undo the damage, and not to move further down the wrong path.”The Baltic Timesreported on August 22 that Beijing had stopped approving new permits for Lithuanian food exports to China. The report cited a Lithuanian official saying the country’s talks with China on export permits for feed, non-animal products and edible offal had stopped.China has also reportedly halted direct freight trains to Lithuania.A Lithuanian Railways spokesperson, Gintaras Liubinas, told Newsweek: “We have received information through our customers that several freight trains from China will not arrive in Lithuania at the end of August and in the first half of September. Meanwhile, transit trains pass through Lithuania in the usual way.”On September 3, Lithuania recalled its ambassador to China. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry expressed regret over China’s actions, but said the Baltic country is ready to develop mutually beneficial ties with Taiwan. The top EU diplomats in China also met to show solidarity with Lithuania Ambassador Diana Mickevičienė as she departed Beijing.@SecBlinken is meeting with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis @GLandsbergis Wednesday. In their 8/21 call, Blinken “underscored ironclad U.S. solidarity” with #Lithuania “in the face of the People’s Republic of #China’s coercive behavior,” per @StateDept#立陶宛https://t.co/1HqFO1f9HW— VOA Nike Ching 张蓉湘 (@rongxiang) September 15, 2021The meeting between the top diplomats of the United States and Lithuania follows Monday’s call between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė of Lithuania.Sullivan reaffirmed strong U.S. support for Lithuania as it faces attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China, according to the White House.In another move to show solidarity with Lithuania, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa has urged the EU to stand with Lithuania against Chinese pressure. Slovenia holds the six-month EU presidency.Jansa said in a letter, dated Monday, that China’s decision to withdraw its ambassador to Lithuania over a dispute about Taiwan was “reprehensible” and would hurt EU-China ties, according to Reuters report.
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British Afghan Women on Hunger Strike to Protest Taliban’s Treatment of Women in Afghanistan
Three British Afghan women are on a hunger strike near the British Parliament to protest the treatment of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Yalda Baktash reports.
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Germany Vows ‘No Repeat’ of 2015 Refugee Influx as Election Looms
Campaigning to elect a new German leader this month is being clouded by concerns that the country will face a new influx of refugees — this time those fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan. In 2015, more than 1 million migrants, many of them Syrians escaping their country’s civil war, traveled across the Mediterranean and Europe to reach Germany, according to German officials. Angela Merkel is not standing in the September 26 election, so Germany will soon have a new chancellor tasked with formulating policy toward Afghanistan and the unfolding refugee crisis. FILE – Armin Laschet, chairman of the German Christian Democratic Union, addresses the media during a press conference at the party’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 13, 2021.Armin Laschet is the candidate for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, which currently shares power with the Social Democrats. Speaking shortly after the Taliban seized power last month, he pledged there would be no repeat of the refugee influx. “The European Union must be prepared that there will be refugees heading towards Europe. And this time we must provide humanitarian aid to the region, to the countries of origin in time. 2015 must not repeat itself. We need an orderly protection for those who are heading towards Europe,” Laschet told reporters on August 16. Laschet’s rival — Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, who are leading in the polls — also maintains that Europe must share the burden of any imminent refugee influx. FILE – German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, Dec. 13, 2020.”It isn’t just Germany, but all of Europe has a responsibility, and we have to remember that almost all refugees, and there are millions in the world, have often found refuge in a neighboring country,” Scholz told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Germany has evacuated more than 4,000 Afghans since August. The government says anyone directly employed by German forces in Afghanistan is entitled to asylum. The situation for contractors, however, is not clear. Afghan brothers Ahmad and Ikram, who did not want to give their real names, arrived in Germany in 2015 as part of the wave of migrants seeking a new life in Europe. They are currently staging a protest outside the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, to demand that Germany speed up the asylum process for refugees. Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 11 MB480p | 15 MB540p | 21 MB720p | 46 MB1080p | 88 MBOriginal | 236 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioIkram says he worked with NATO forces in Afghanistan and recently showed VOA the documentation he hopes will secure him refugee status. After six years of trying, they have both been denied visas. The brothers were due to be deported to Afghanistan in August but were given a reprieve after the Taliban seized power.”Afghanistan is no longer safe. People cannot let themselves die there — they themselves, and their families. And so, they say it doesn’t matter how dangerous the way is, people are saying we’re leaving, because otherwise they will be killed,” Ahmad told VOA. So, could Germany face another migrant influx? The situation is very different, says Nora Brezger of the Berlin Refugee Council, a support group for migrants. “At the moment now, there is actually no way to Europe where people can cross, like it was in 2015 or 2016. So, it’s more that a lot of Afghan refugees are in the surrounding countries of Afghanistan, and in the Balkan route they are stuck in Bosnia, they are stuck in Serbia, they are stuck in Greece, they are stuck in Turkey,” Brezger told VOA. “So, it’s not a question of how we should avoid people coming here. For us, it’s more a question of how should we make people come here because they need a safe place,” she said. VOA recently spoke to several Afghan refugees currently stuck in the Turkish city of Erzurum. Among them was Yusuf, who said he was doing casual work to try to save money to reach Europe. Germany continues to exert a strong pull for those seeking a new life. “We want to go to Germany, but the borders are closed at the moment. If you want to go to Germany via Bulgaria, you would be held in Bulgaria. The human smugglers say that the borders are open, you can go — but we know that they are closed. Once the borders are opened, God willing, we will go,” Yusuf said. It appears unlikely that Germany — or the rest of Europe — is prepared to reopen those borders anytime soon. VOA’s Memet Aksakal contributed to this report.
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Germany Vows ‘No Repeat’ Of 2015 Refugee Influx as Election Looms
Six years ago, more than a million migrants traveled across the Mediterranean and Europe to reach Germany — many of them Syrians escaping the civil war. So, could history repeat itself as refugees try to flee Taliban rule in Afghanistan? As Henry Ridgwell reports from Berlin, immigration is high on the agenda as Germany prepares for a general election later this month.Camera: Henry Ridgwell, Memet Aksakal Produced by: Henry Ridgwell, Mary Cieslak
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Repression, Voter Apathy Mark Russia Election Campaign
Russia is preparing for parliamentary and local elections Sunday in what the opposition says is an atmosphere of repression in which a number of candidates not aligned with the ruling party have been excluded. Jon Spier narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in Moscow.Camera: Ricardo MarquinaVideo editor: Henry Hernandez
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Pope Francis: Bishops Should Show ‘Compassion’ to Politicians Who Support Abortion
Pope Francis said Wednesday that Catholic bishops should minister to politicians who support abortion rights, such as U.S. President Joe Biden, with “compassion and tenderness,” not condemnation.The pontiff, returning to Rome from Slovakia, warned that Catholic Church leaders should not let politics enter into questions about whether observant Catholics like Biden should be refused the right to receive Communion when they attend Mass.But Francis declined to give a direct “yes” or “no” answer to whether Biden should be denied Communion, as some U.S. Catholic bishops have demanded. Francis said he did not know the U.S. case well enough to give an answer.The pope reiterated church doctrine that abortions are “homicide.”But he said priests and bishops should act in a pastoral way and not in a political manner when discussing any issues that confront them. Francis said they must use “the style of God” to talk with the faithful with “closeness, compassion and tenderness.””And what should pastors do?” he asked rhetorically. “Be pastors, and not go condemning, condemning.”U.S. bishops agreed in June that their conference doctrine committee would draft a statement on the meaning of Communion in the life of the church, and that it would then consider it as a group, possibly at a meeting in November.Aboard his flight back to the Vatican, Francis told reporters, “Communion is not a prize for the perfect,” but rather “a gift, the presence of Jesus in his church and in the community. That is the theology.”Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.
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Report Points to Success in Global Campaign Against Cluster Bombs
Authors of theCluster Munition Monitor 2021report say great progress toward the elimination of these lethal weapons has been made since the Cluster Ban Treaty came into force in 2010.The Monitor finds there has been no new use of cluster munitions by any of the 110 states that has joined the treaty, nor by the 13 states that have signed but not yet ratified it. The report says the remaining problems lie with countries that remain outside the convention.The most notable use of cluster munitions last year was by non-member states Armenia and Azerbaijan during their war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Monitor records 107 casualties from cluster munition attacks in Azerbaijan, the most in any country last year. Syria has continuously used cluster munitions since 2012. Human Rights Watch arms advocacy director Mary Wareham says use of the weapons in 2020 was greatly reduced compared to previous years.She says another visible example of the treaty’s success is in the destruction of stockpiles.”We know that at least 1.5 million cluster munitions and more than 178 million submunitions have been destroyed from stocks today,” said Wareham. “That goes to show that this convention is truly lifesaving because every single one of those explosive submunitions could take a life or a limb.” Globally, the monitor has recorded at least 360 new cluster munition casualties in 2020, caused either from attacks or explosive remnants. The editor of the Monitor, Loren Persi, says children are the main victims of these weapons, which kill and maim civilians indiscriminately.”Almost half of all casualties, 44 percent are children. About a quarter of casualties were women and girls,” said Persi. “But what we found in 2020 was that women and girls were far less likely to survive their incident with cluster munitions. This is something of concern that we will have to look into as more data becomes available.” The report says many of the 16 countries outside the convention reserve the right to keep making cluster munitions, even though they currently are not doing so.Authors of the report say they are concerned that China and Russia are actively researching, testing, and developing new types of cluster munitions. China, Russia and the United States have not joined the convention. The three countries are among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
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Polish Media Furious Over Belarus Border Ban
Dozens of Polish news outlets have expressed anger over a media ban at the border with Belarus, part of a state of emergency imposed by Warsaw following an influx of migrants.
Thousands of migrants — mainly from the Middle East — have crossed or tried to cross the border from Belarus into the eastern EU member states of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in recent months.
The EU suspects the influx is being deliberately engineered by Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko in retaliation against increasingly stringent EU sanctions on his regime.
Poland has responded to the influx by sending thousands of soldiers to the border and earlier this month imposed a 30-day emergency banning non-residents including journalists from the border area.
“The government’s actions are in conflict with the principle of freedom of speech,” the media organizations said in a joint statement published on their sites.
To eliminate the media “is unacceptable and incompatible with the standards of a democratic country,” they added.
Some media outlets have covered claims from NGOs that Polish guards have pushed migrants back toward Belarus.
The statement was released by 30 media organizations, and more newsrooms have since added their backing.
In a separate statement released Monday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) declared a “press freedom state of emergency” in Poland.
It said Poland had fallen 46 places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index since the Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015. It is now ranked 64 out of 180 countries.
RSF also condemned a recent draft law that if enacted would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from holding a controlling stake in Polish media companies.
Critics see it as an attempt to silence the main independent news channel TVN24, which is often highly critical of the government and whose network TVN is majority owned by United States group Discovery.
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US Accuses Russia of Stonewalling on Cybercrime
U.S. warnings to Russian President Vladimir Putin over shielding cybercriminals holed up in Russia appear to have made little impact, according to top U.S. law enforcement and cyber officials. “There is no indication that the Russian government has taken action to crack down on ransomware actors that are operating in the permissive environment that they’ve created there,” Paul Abbate, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Tuesday at an intelligence summit just outside Washington. “We’ve asked for help and cooperation with those who we know are in Russia, who we have indictments against, and we’ve seen no action,” Abbate said. “So, I would say that nothing’s changed in that regard.” U.S. President Joe Biden has twice called on the Russian leader to take action against cybercriminals operating out of Russia — first at a summit in June in Geneva and again in a phone call a month later. FILE – President Joe Biden, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Villa la Grange, in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021.”I made it very clear to him that the United States expects when a ransomware operation is coming from his soil, even though it’s not sponsored by the state, we expect them to act if we give them enough information to act on who that is,” Biden told reporters following the July phone call.Biden, Putin Discuss Ransomware Attacks From Russia Biden warns of consequences if attacks continueSince the initial talks, senior White House officials have noted a decrease in ransomware attacks, though they have been hesitant to attribute the change to any action by Moscow. “The present absence of criminal activity should not be confused with solid policing,” U.S. National Cyber Director Chris Inglis told an audience later Tuesday. “There’s still a monetary incentive and possibly a geopolitical incentive to allow that to come back,” he said, pushing back against calls for the U.S. to go on the offensive. “There is a sense that we can perhaps fire some cyber bullets and kind of shoot our way out of this. That will be useful in certain circumstances if we have a clear shot at a cyber aggressor and it could take them offline,” Inglis said. “That’s not going to affect the leadership that allows this to happen.” “We have to figure out what is it that matters to Putin and the oligarchs and how do we change their decision calculus,” he added. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any role in a series of ransomware and cyberattacks against U.S. companies and infrastructure. And following the Biden-Putin call in July, it issued a statement supporting collaboration on cybersecurity, calling for such efforts to “be permanent, professional and nonpoliticized and should be conducted via special communication channels … and with respect to international law.” New: Discussions w/#Russia on #cyber continue, per Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber Anne Neuberger@POTUS “looking for action” she says, adding US must also focus on “doing everything we can to lock our digital doors”— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) September 2, 2021The U.S. blames Russia or Russian-based cyber actors for a series of high-profile hacks and ransomware attacks, including the December 2020 hack of SolarWinds, a U.S.-based software management company, and for the May 7 ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline operator in the U.S. U.S. officials have blamed the GRU for targeting the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 elections and the pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines against the coronavirus. US, Britain Warn of Russian ‘Brute Force’ Cyber CampaignUS officials urge agencies and organizations to take basic precautions as a first step in fighting backAsked Tuesday whether the U.S. has reached the point where it is ready to take action against Russia, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command deferred to the White House. “That’s obviously for the president to decide,” CYBERCOM’s General Paul Nakasone said. “But those options certainly will be provided for his consideration.” VOA’s Masood Farivar contributed to this report.
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During Visit, Pope Reaches Out to Slovakia’s Roma
In a message of inclusion, Pope Francis is reaching out to the Roma people of Slovakia, where he has condemned Central Europe’s historic marginalization of communities including Jews.On his second day in Slovakia, the pope travelled to the town of Presov in the eastern part of the country where he celebrated mass in the Byzantine rite in the city’s sports stadium. The highlight of the day was a visit to the Roma community in the nearby town of Kosice — a gesture analysts see as a sign of inclusion.The impoverished Lunik neighborhood, which the pope will visit, is home to the country’s highest community of Roma residents, where his message is welcomed by a population living with problems that include overcrowded housing, in some cases with no running water or electricity. Slovakia has a 400,000-strong Roma minority which has historically faced discrimination.On Monday, the pope addressed the Slovak president and other officials in the gardens of Bratislava’s presidential palace and stressed the need to work for the common good and not focus on individual needs.Referring to nation’s communist past, the pope said that until a few decades ago, a single thought system stifled freedom adding that “today another such system is emptying freedom of meaning, reducing progress to profit and rights only to individual means.”Pope Francis said, “Fraternity is necessary for the increasingly pressing process of integration.” The pope also addressed representatives of the Jewish community on Monday at a memorial for Jews that were killed in the Holocaust. At this site, a synagogue was demolished in 1969 in what the pope said were efforts to cancel every trace of the Jewish community.Here in this place, the pope said, the Name of God was dishonored, for the worst form of blasphemy is to exploit it for our purposes, refusing to respect and love others.More than one hundred thousand Slovak Jews were killed during the Holocaust and the pope added that it was shameful how people who said they believed in God perpetrated or allowed “unspeakable acts of inhumanity.”The Jewish community in Slovakia now amounts to some 2,000 people. Pope Francis said, “Let us unite in condemning all violence and every form of antisemitism.”An open-air Mass in the Slovak town of Sastin Wednesday caps the pontiff’s visit before his return to Rome. This visit to Hungary and Slovakia is his first foreign trip since he underwent intestinal surgery in July.
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Russia Fines Social Media Giants for Not Deleting Banned Content
A Russian court has fined Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, saying the companies failed to delete content that Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor said violates Russian law.
Facebook was fined about $288,000, while Twitter was fined about $69,000 and Telegram was hit with $124,00 in fines, according to the magistrate court in Moscow’s Taganskiy district.
None of the companies has commented on the issue.
The most recent fines come as Russia has levied similar fines on Google, WhatsApp and TikTok in recent months.
In March, the Kremlin slowed down Twitter in the country for failing to remove content.
The fines have been over content, as well as for the companies’ refusal to store personal data on Russian users in Russia.
Russia is also trying to compel these companies to open official offices in Russia.
Kremlin critics say the moves are an effort by the country’s ruling United Party to stifle dissent in the run-up to September 19 parliamentary elections.
Some information in this report came from Reuters.
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What Did Merkel Achieve?
When Germany’s long-standing chancellor, Angela Merkel, steps down following federal elections later this month, it will mark the end of an era, not only for Germany but also for the European Union.In power since 2005, the 67-year-old Merkel has been the third longest-serving chancellor in German history, beaten in the longevity stakes only by Otto von Bismarck in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth by Helmut Kohl. And she has been the country’s only woman chancellor.For 16 years German politics has revolved around Merkel — and so too to a large extent has the politics of the European Union.She has been widely seen as a steadying influence on the fractious bloc, the grown-up politician who could assuage and tamp down disputes, often finding a way out of seemingly intractable disputes between the 27 member states, frequently by delaying decisions or shelving them.It was to Merkel that Britain’s David Cameron looked to secure a deal that he hoped would help win the 2016 Brexit vote — and it was a Conservative British successor, Boris Johnson, who appealed to Berlin to help break an impasse in withdrawal talks between London and Brussels, which avoided a complete breakdown in relations between the EU and Britain.Euro crisisMerkel helped to steer the bloc out of the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent euro crisis when the bloc’s currency was under severe threat. “If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” Merkel warned as the economic storm gathered force. She took the lead in foisting tough austerity measures on the indebted countries of southern Europe, while at the same time backing aid and loans for struggling EU member states. She also supported the European Central Bank in buying large quantities of government bonds and bringing interest rates to zero, allowing then ECB chairman Mario Draghi to fulfill his promise to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro.FILE – A share trader watches German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck’s announcement on an impact of the global financial market, on television at the Frankfurt stock exchange, Oct. 13, 2008.Even Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, who fought Merkel over the austere bailout terms Berlin forced on Athens, credits Merkel with saving the European currency.“Crisis management has always been her forte, whether saving the euro during the global financial crisis of 2009, keeping Europe together during the refugee crisis, or now coping with the pandemic,” Judy Dempsey of the think tank Carnegie Europe, noted recently in a commentary on Merkel’s legacy.Mixed reviewsBut the Carnegie analyst also describes Merkel’s record as mixed and labels her legacy “ambiguous.” On the foreign front “her legacy, however, is inconsistent, especially with regard to Russia and China and some of the EU’s own member states,” she says. For some critics she has not been tough enough with Russia and has been too ready to allow profits and business to define relations with Beijing.Robert Terrell, a scholar of modern Germany at Syracuse University in New York, also sees a mixed record, although he says assessments of Merkel “will continue to change as shifting social contexts inform the politics of memory.” “In Europe, the Great Recession and the European Debt Crisis pushed Merkel into the unenviable position of trying to stabilize the economy of over two dozen states,” he told VOA. While her push for austerity measures was well received in Germany, it led to a degree of cultural chauvinism among Germans towards the Greeks. “In Greece, she remains divisive, with some Greek citizens blaming her for one of the bleakest periods in recent memory,” he says. Euro-skeptic sentiment has also increased dramatically in Italy and Spain.FILE – Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, right, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel speak at the Maximos mansion in Athens, Oct. 9, 2012.While decisive on the Euro crisis, much of Merkel’s record is marked by what her aides dubbed “strategic patience.” In 2015 “the German dictionary publisher Langenscheidt announced ‘merkeln’ — a verb form of Merkel’s name — was in the running for the ‘Youth Word of the Year.’ It meant to do nothing out of caution, or to be overly deliberative. Whether simply her political style, or a conscious effort to avoid the gendered critique of impulsiveness, Merkel made a point of cautious decision making,” says Terrell.Migration and nationalismShe wasn’t cautious, though, when it came to the migration crisis of 2015-16, when hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia entered Europe. Merkel critics say her initial open-door policy encouraged the migration waves that buffeted Europe and roiled the continent’s politics, fueling the rise of populist nationalist parties.“The refugee crisis was another watershed moment during her chancellorship—one that will undoubtedly play a key role in shaping her legacy,” says Terrell. “Merkel’s decision to welcome well over a million refugees beginning in 2015 left the nation divided. Proponents of the Willkommenskultur — or ‘welcoming culture’ — helped furnish arriving refugees with money, supplies, and emergency accommodations. Others resisted, making the refugee crisis a catalyst for increasingly radical nativist sentiment,” he says.FILE – Immigrants are escorted by German police to a registration center after crossing the Austrian-German border in Wegscheid near Passau, Germany, Oct. 20, 2015.It also fueled tensions and clashes with other EU member states, especially with nearby Central European countries, Poland, Austria and Hungary.Move to centrismOn Germany her record looks less mixed. “Under Merkel’s helm, Germany changed. She moved the conservative, male-dominated Catholic CDU party to the center, which is no easy feat for someone brought up in communist East Germany and whose father was a Lutheran pastor,” says Dempsey.“She abolished military conscription, eventually came around to accepting single-sex marriage, gave parents more flexibility when it came to taking leave for newborn children, and supported the introduction of a minimum wage,” says Dempsey.Her supporters also credit her for closing Germany’s 17 nuclear power stations, a policy reversal following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, a brave political move in the face of the country’s powerful energy lobby. Although her foes — and some Green lawmakers — have also pointed out that closing the power stations has meant Germany has had to resort to an excessive use of coal adding to greenhouse emissions.But much like her performance on the foreign policy stage, some critics note that for much of Merkel’s 16 years in office she preferred on the domestic front to do as little as possible, to manage and tinker rather than define broad visionary goals and to try to reach them.“Merkel’s years were one of stasis and of betting big on the indefinite continuation of the country’s manufacturing and export-driven growth model,” says Dalibor Rohac, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “Yet, without growing productivity, the perpetuation of the status quo is not a guarantee of limitless economic prosperity, especially in an environment in which Germany’s international value chains might be under threat from the looming de-globalization,” he warned.He says Merkel’s accomplishment was to have avoided conflict as much as possible the past 16 years. For Germans that has been a reassuring gift.
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