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Turkey Opens Largest Foreign Military Base in Mogadishu

Turkey’s largest foreign military base in the world opened Saturday in Mogadishu, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Somali leaders, top Turkish military officials and diplomats.

Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire and the head of the Turkish military, General Hulusi Akar have jointly inaugurated the 4 square kilometer (1.54 square mile) facility, which holds three military residential complexes, training venues, and sports courts. It had been under construction for the last two years.

General Akar said the base is the biggest sign of how Turkey wants to help Somalia.

“We are committed to help [the] Somali government, and this base will cover the need for building strong Somali National Army. And it is biggest sign showing our relationship.”

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Prime Minister Khaire highlighted the significance of the training base for his country.

“Today our country goes to the right direction toward development and the re-establishment of Somali Army, capable and ready for the defense of their nations,” said Khaire “This base is part of that on ongoing effort.”

More than 200 Turkish military personnel will train some 1,500 Somali troops at a time, according to Somalia’s defense Ministry. The Somali prime minister said it will manufacture an inclusive united Somali Army.

“This training base has a unique significance for us because it is a concrete step taken toward building an inclusive and integrated Somali National Army,” said Khaire. “My government and our Somali people will not forget this huge help by our Turkish brothers. This academy will help us train more troops.”

The inauguration ceremony was held amid tight security around the base located in the Jaziira coastal area in southern tip of the capital.

Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Army chief said, “the Turkish government would continue to support our Somali brothers until their country becomes militarily stronger.”

Other diplomats who attended the event said the training is part of an international effort to strengthen the Somali National Army to a point where it can take over security responsibilities from African Union troops currently fighting al-Shabab militants. The African Union has said it wants to begin withdrawing troops from Somalia next year.

Prime Minister Khaire said the base also will help to defeat the extremism and the ideology that drives young Somali men into violence and terrorism.

“To defeat terrorism and fight against the poverty, we have keep in mind that building our national security and eliminating corruption is the key,” he said.

Somalia has a significant number of military personal, but they are ill-trained and poorly equipped. Last week, the government repeated its plea for world leaders to lift an international arms embargo.

The U.S. already had deployed dozens of American soldiers to Mogadishu, and their presence marked the first American military forces in Somalia, except for a small unit of counterterrorism advisers, since March 1994.

The United Arab Emirates also has a military facility where they train the Somali Army, which many politicians condemn for taking orders directly from UAE commanders.

“The good news is not only the opening of this training base but also …that when Turkey trains our troops it will also equip them,” said Somali Military Chief, Ahmed Mohamed Jimale.

Al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab is attempting to overthrow the Somali government and install a strict form of Islamic law throughout the country. On Friday, 30 people were killed when al-Shabab militants stormed a Somali military army base in the town of Barire, 47 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu.

 

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Spaniards Divided Over Catalonian Independence Vote

Thousands of demonstrators have gathered in Barcelona to oppose Sunday’s referendum on Catalonian independence from Spain.

Waving Spanish flags, the protesters filled the square in front of Barcelona’s regional government buildings Saturday.

Madrid has declared the vote illegal, and authorities in Spain began sealing off polling stations and confiscating ballots. While the Spanish national government said there would be no Catalonian independence vote, Catalonia’s regional government continued preparations for it.

Hundreds of people supporting the referendum camped out in schools in an attempt to keep them open for Sunday’s vote.

Enric Millo, the highest-ranking Spanish security official in the northeastern region, said Saturday that police had already blockaded half of the more than 2,300 polling stations designated for the referendum vote.

He said Spanish authorities also had dismantled the technology Catalan officials planned on using for voting and counting ballots, which he said would make the referendum “absolutely impossible.”

The president of the Catalan National Assembly appealed directly to the “conscience” of police officers deployed to the polling stations while speaking to reporters Saturday.

“I am aware they have a job to do, that they have their orders and have to carry them out. We are aware of that. But we also know that they have feelings, conscience,” he said.

“So tomorrow, when they carry out their orders they will undoubtedly receive, I hope they keep in mind — during the situations they find themselves in — that these could be their children, their mothers or their nephews, members of their family who just want to be able to  express themselves in freedom.”

Spanish Culture Minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday that the independence vote would violate Spanish law and that the government would not accept the results.

“We are open to dialogue within the framework of the law. As you would understand, nobody can ask us … to engage in dialogue outside the framework of the law. It’s impossible,” he said. “No European political leader can even consider dealing with an issue that is not in [Spanish] government hands.”

Catalan authorities said they would declare independence from Spain within 48 hours of the vote if residents there chose to secede.

On Friday, Catalan farmers rode tractors through the streets of Barcelona, driving slowly and waving pro-independence flags and banners. The tractors eventually stopped, converging on the regional government building.

At the same time, European Union officials said they would not mediate the dispute between Spain and Catalonia, calling it a matter of Spanish law.

“[It is] a Spanish problem in which we can do little. It’s a problem of respecting Spanish laws that Spaniards have to resolve,” said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans called on Europeans to respect the constitution and rule of law in their countries. He said people in the EU need to organize themselves “in accordance with the constitution of that member state.”

“That is the rule of law — you abide by the law and the constitution even if you don’t like it,” he said.

Catalan authorities previously had appealed to the EU for help, saying the Spanish government undermined their democratic values.

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Russian Soldier who Killed 3 Comrades Shot Dead

Officials in far east Russia say a soldier who opened fire at other servicemen during drills has been tracked down and killed.

The military says the soldier, who killed three and wounded two other soldiers, offered resistance to arrest and was shot dead early Saturday following a massive manhunt.

During Friday’s incident, the soldier fired his Kalashnikov rifle at his comrades waiting to have target practice at a base outside the town of Belogorsk near the border with China and then fled.

The city administration in Belogorsk says the soldier came from the province of Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has sent a commission to investigate the shooting.

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Kosovo President: US Will Be Directly Involved in Final Kosovo-Serbia Deal

Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, says U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has pledged that the United States will be directly involved in reaching a final agreement to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. 

Thaci told VOA’s Albanian service after meeting with Pence on Friday at the White House that “Pence will be focused and maximally involved” in reaching a deal between the two countries. 

“I believe that this willingness of the U.S. administration and personally of Vice President Pence is a guarantee for the success of this process,” Thaci said. 

He said he is confident the process will “lead Kosovo into a final agreement of normalization and reconciliation of Kosovo-Serbia relations and would open prospects for Kosovo’s integration into the United Nations.”

A White House statement Friday said Pence “expressed appreciation for Thaci’s leadership, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, to advance the EU-facilitated dialog to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”

The White House said Pence and Thaci “agreed on the importance of advancing reforms to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption and boost economic growth” and said Pence reaffirmed the “United States’ support for a sovereign, democratic and prosperous Kosovo.”

The White House also encouraged Kosovo to ratify the border demarcation agreement with neighboring Montenegro “to resolve this long-standing issue.”

Thaci told VOA that Pence called on Kosovo to solve the issues as soon as possible. He said Kosovo has “good neighborly relations with Montenegro” and stressed the importance of such ties.

“No one can support you if you build bad relationships with your neighbors. We have a lot of problems with Serbia. We cannot open other problems with our neighbors that could cost us the integration processes” with the European Union, he said.

Thaci said the issue is in the hands of Kosovo’s parliament.

The border agreement was signed in 2015 but has not had sufficient support in Kosovo’s parliament for ratification.

The European Union insists Kosovo must approve the border demarcation deal before its citizens enjoy visa-free travel within Europe.

Montenegro has recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, but Serbia vehemently opposes it.

VOA’s Albanian service contributed to this report.

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Russia Charges Opposition Leader for Unsanctioned Protests

Russian police released opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate Alexei Navalny on Friday after several hours in detention.

Police charged Navalny with repeatedly organizing unauthorized rallies, an administrative offense punishable with a fine of up to a 300,000 rubles ($5,200) and compulsory work for up to 200 hours.

“We were finally presented with a charge and released, and the trial will be on October 2 at the Simonovsky Court of Moscow at 15:00 Moscow time,” Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told Interfax.

Police had stopped Navalny early Friday as he was headed to a campaign rally in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, where at least one other rally leader was also detained — Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov. 

“I’m in a police station now and they’re going to accuse me of repeated violation of the procedure for holding a mass event,” Navalny told VOA’s Russian service reporter Danila Galperovich earlier Friday. “It means almost for sure they will arrest me after the court will hear my case. I don’t know when.”

Police in Nizhny Novgorod, about 260 miles (417 kilometers) east of Moscow, had cordoned off the campaign rally site hours before the event was to begin and removed a Navalny campaign tent.

Despite the police actions, hundreds of Navalny’s supporters rallied Friday in the provincial city in protest. Images from social media showed protesters walking on a central street while loud music from an officially sanctioned concert blared nearby. 

Call for reform

Navalny’s detention came as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights issued a memorandum saying Russian authorities should revise the country’s freedom of assembly law, which, he says, has become more restrictive in recent years.

“As a result, the authorities have rejected a high number of requests to hold public assemblies,” said Commissioner Nils Muiznieks in the published memorandum. “Over the past year, there have been many arrests of people participating in protests, even if they did not behave unlawfully, as well as a growing intolerance toward ‘unauthorized’ events involving small numbers of participants and even of single-person demonstrations. 

“This runs counter to Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and it weakens the guarantees contained in its own Constitution concerning the right to freedom of assembly,” Muiznieks said.

Russia is one of 47 member countries in the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, but routinely dismisses its criticism.

‘Trend toward deterioration’

Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign team have been harassed and attacked numerous times by police and Kremlin supporters. In April, a man threw a chemical sanitizer in the Russian opposition leader’s face, causing a chemical burn that required eye surgery and left him partially blind.

Navalny supporter Nikolai Lyaskin was reportedly attacked in Moscow this month with an iron pipe.

In an exclusive interview with VOA reporter Galperovich on September 26, Navalny expressed dismay at the repressive trend.  

“We currently see a trend toward deterioration: At first it was fines, then administrative arrests, and now it is fabrication of criminal charges [and] house arrest,” he said.

Navalny said the trend is reminiscent of how Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Great Purge began in 1937.

“The capabilities of propaganda are mostly exhausted: You turn on the TV, which from morning until night is talking about beautiful North Korea, awful Ukraine, ‘gay’ Europe, et cetera. It is already impossible there [on TV] to fan the flames higher. Therefore, they are using repression to take people off the streets, to intimidate them,” Navalny said.

Challenging Putin

Navalny plans to challenge Vladimir Putin in Russia’s March presidential election, though Putin has made no official announcement to run in a bid to continue his 17 years as leader.

The Russian opposition leader has been campaigning in cities across the country despite the central election commission declaring him ineligible because of a suspended prison sentence. Navalny’s supporters and numerous independent analysts back up his view that the sentence was politically motivated.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on September 21 demanded that Navalny be allowed to take part in the elections and that the fraud case against him and opposition politician Pyotr Ofitserov be re-examined.

In the interview Tuesday with Galperovich, Navalny expressed doubt that Russian authorities would act on the European ministers’ demand.

“I do not think that international structures can affect that much; at least, we have not in recent years seen international structures somehow straightforwardly affecting the internal political situation in Russia,” Navalny said.

But he said the resolution was satisfying nonetheless. “It is probably the best of all possible rulings we could hope for,” he said. “It quite clearly and distinctly shows that, first of all, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights was not implemented and, secondly, that there is a demand there for my admission to the elections.”

The European Court of Human Rights had demanded Navalny’s 2013 fraud case be retried because it violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Russia’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial in July that resulted in the same verdict and a suspended sentence.

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Analysts: Russia May Be Helping Catalonia Secessionists

Catalonia’s secessionists, who are trying to organize an independence vote from Spain on Sunday, may be getting aid from Russia as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing strategy to destabilize the European Union, according to European Union analysts.

Spain’s central government has deployed thousands of police to contain expected disorder. They have threatened local officials who support the referendum with stiff fines and jail. Spain’s constitutional court has declared the pending vote illegal.

Despite what some see as a heavy-handed response by Madrid, the United States and most EU governments have backed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in his efforts to keep Spain united.

Russian state media have disseminated reports consistently favorable to Catalan independence in a move some analysts consider to be Moscow’s latest attempt to interfere in Western electoral processes.

The Kremlin has taken no public position on the referendum, calling it an “internal” matter for Spain.

Russia’s use of hacked information and dissemination of “fake news,” however, has been detected in recent Western electoral events,  including the 2016 U.S. elections, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, or Brexit, and the just-concluded German elections.

“It’s not that Russia necessarily wants the independence of Catalonia. What it’s principally seeking is to foment divisions to gradually undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” said Brett Schaffer, an analyst of the Alliance to Safeguard Democracy, a project supported by the German Marshall Fund, which monitors pro-Kremlin information networks.

The Russian social media outlet Voice of Europe (@V_of_Europe) has run such headlines as “The EU refuses to intervene in Catalonia even as Spain violates basic human rights,” calling Catalonia’s referendum “a time bomb that threatens to destroy the EU.”

The internationally broadcast Russian Television, or RT, alleged on September 20 that a “state of siege” has been imposed on Catalonia and dubbed cruise liners chartered to house additional police agents being deployed to the Catalonia as “Ships of Repression.”

The Russian digital newspaper Vzglyad borrowed a page from the Western media’s treatment of uprisings against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, with the September 20 headline “Spain brutally suppresses the Catalan Spring.”

Some editorials and Kremlin-sponsored academics took note of how the U.S. and EU neglected to recognize a Russian-sponsored Crimean referendum approving reunification with Russia and compared that with their current indifference toward the Catalan vote.

Catalan secessionist politician Enric Folch, who is international secretary of the Catalan Solidarity Party for Independence, has said on Russian media that a Catalan state would support Moscow in world forums and recognize the independence of territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, which separated from Georgia with Russian support.

Folch was a star participant at a Kremlin-sponsored conference of independence movements in Moscow last year.

David Alendete, an investigative reporter with the newspaper El Pais, said the conference was organized by a Russian lawyer who is defending Russian computer hackers arrested in Spain and is wanted by the FBI in connection with the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election campaign in the U.S.

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Istanbul Taxi Cameras Prompt Surveillance Concerns

In Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, cameras are being installed inside taxis in a move city authorities claim will provide security for both drivers and passengers. But with the ongoing crackdown over last year’s failed coup locking up more than 60,000 people and purging nearly 200,000 from their jobs, fears are growing that the measure is the latest effort to extend surveillance and control over the people.

An advertisement touts the benefits of Istanbul’s Itaxi. New taxis will be fitted with GPS tracking to allow drivers to find the quickest and cheapest route, as well as equipment to pay by credit card – all measures, the advert assures, aimed at enhancing passengers’ experiences.

The new taxis were announced to great fanfare. But the installation of a large digital camera in each vehicle, which authorities say will protect both drivers and passengers, is sparking controversy.

When you get in a taxi, the camera is clearly visible. What is unclear is whether it records sound as well as images, and where the images go. A driver VOA spoke to was more than happy with the device, although he admits he does not know who is watching.

” The new system is what is needed. I had an incident on Sunday night. I was attacked by a customer. If this system had been active, I would have been saved right away or the attacker wouldn’t have dared to attack,” the driver said. “There is a camera system and a panic button now.”

Not everyone in Istanbul appears so convinced. Another person VOA talked to questioned the motives behind the initiative.

“Some bad guys are stealing money from the taxi drivers or taxi drivers sometimes do violence against the women in the cabs, things like that, I think,” said the person who did not want to be identified. “If they do this for the real criminals then it’s not a bad idea. But we have doubts about [whether] our government, or policemen are doing this about the real criminals or not. A witch hunt is happening in Turkey now. So if they are using [this] for things like that, then of course it’s not a good idea to have things like that in the cabs.”

Failed coup attempt

Nearly every week there are trials for people accused of being involved in last year’s failed coup. Currently over 60,000 people languish in jail on coup plotting charges. Last year, 4,000 were prosecuted for defaming the president. Under emergency powers introduced following the botched military takeover, sweeping new electronic surveillance has been introduced, according to law professor Yaman Akdeniz of Istanbul’s Bilgi University. He has been studying the rise of surveillance culture, and warns concerns over the new taxis may be well-founded.

“Nowadays, something like this looks very suspicious because we have no idea where the data is transferred to or whether they have face recognition technology or voice recognition technology,” Akdeniz said. ” A lot of people are being investigated and prosecuted for allegedly defaming the president of Turkey. Because increasingly people are under surveillance and people don’t know what sort of technology or what sort of things are deployed by the government to monitor the citizens and it will get worse.”

There is a growing sense of concern seeping into Turkish society regarding surveillance. With the ongoing government crackdown and continuing prosecutions for insulting the president, any new innovation involving surveillance technology seems destined to be viewed with suspicion.

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Russian Opposition Leader Detained by Police

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained by police as he left his Moscow home Friday to attend a pre-election rally in a provincial town.

Russia holds a presidential election in March that incumbent Vladimir Putin is widely expected to contest. Navalny hopes to run despite Russia’s central election commission declaring him ineligible because of a suspended prison sentence that he says was politically motivated.

Navalny said on social media Friday that police had detained him in the lobby of his apartment block and told him they wanted to interview him at a police station.

The press service of Moscow’s interior ministry was cited by the TASS news agency as saying Navalny had been detained because of his “repeated calls to take part in unsanctioned public events.”

The authorities say opposition protests must be pre-approved by them, but Navalny has in the past said that the Russian constitution enshrines the right to freely hold such events.

On Friday, he denied the police’s latest allegations, writing on social media “I’ve never done that.”

Navalny had been scheduled to address a pre-election rally in the city of Nizhny Novgorod later Friday, part of a series of regional events he hoped would help him build support for his presidential run.

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U.S. Confirms Ambassador to Moscow at Crucial Time

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Jon Huntsman as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, filling a void at a critical tie in U.S.-Russian relations.

Huntsman is a former governor of the U.S. state of Utah who previously served as ambassador to Singapore and China.

The confirmation was unanimous and swift, with Democrats and Republicans joining in a rare consensus to support President Donald Trump’s choice for the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow. The Washington Post quoted Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin as saying Trump could not have made a better choice than Huntsman.

The new U.S. ambassador will arrive in Moscow as tensions remain high between the U.S. and Russia on issues that include allegations of Russian meddling in U.S. elections and interference in eastern Ukraine.

Trump has rejected allegations by political opponents that his campaign colluded with the Russians.

Huntsman testified this month before the Senate Foreign Relations committee and said there is, in his words, “no question” that Moscow interfered in last year’s presidential election.

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Turkey Says Would Release US Pastor in Exchange for Gulen

Turkey says it would release American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been detained for nearly a year, if the United States extradited Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for last year’s failed coup attempt.

“They say ‘give us the pastor’.  You have a preacher [Gulen] there. Give him to us, and we will try [Brunson] and give him back,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised speech.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, and his wife, Norine, were arrested for alleged immigration violations in October 2016.  She was released, while his charges have been upgraded to supporting Gulen’s network, which Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization.

The couple ran a Christian church in the Aegean city of Izmir.

Norine met with U.S. Secretary of State of Rex Tillerson during his visit last month to Ankara. Tillerson said then that Brunson had been “wrongfully imprisoned”.

A decree last August gave Erdogan the power to extradite foreigners in exchange for Turkish prisoners abroad in “situations where it is necessary for national security or in the country’s interests.”  Turkey has repeatedly asked the United States to extradite Pennsylvania-based Gulen, accusing him of organizing the failed military coup last year.

U.S. relations with Turkey have soured recently over a number of issues, including what the U.S. sees as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

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Switzerland Tests Delivery by Drone in Populated Areas

Drones will help deliver toothbrushes, deodorant and smartphones to Swiss homes this fall as part of a pilot project, the first of its kind over a densely populated area.

Drone firm Matternet, based in Menlo Park, California, said Thursday it’s partnering on the Zurich project with Mercedes-Benz’s vans division and Swiss e-commerce startup Siroop. It’s been approved by Switzerland’s aviation authority.

Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos says the drones will take items from a distribution center and transport them between 8 to 16 kilometers to awaiting delivery vans. The van drivers then bring the packages to homes. Raptopoulos says drones will speed up deliveries, buzzing over congested urban streets or natural barriers like Lake Zurich.

 

The pilot comes as Amazon, Google and Uber have also been investing in drone delivery research.

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As Germany Vows to Speed Integration, Refugees Say Unfazed by Rise of Far Right

The influx of over a million asylum-seekers into Germany in 2015 is widely seen as driving the upsurge in support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or AfD party, which gained 13 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election. The government hopes to stem that rise by integrating the refugees as quickly as possible.

Among the wave of asylum seekers entering in 2015 was 24-year-old Dilshad. He fled his hometown of Sinjar in Iraq as Islamic State swept across the region. After struggling to find permanent accommodation, is now living in a shelter for the homeless.

He says he’s not bothered by the rise of the far right.

“After coming from Iraq, where there was fear, Germany is not a place where there is fear. It follows democratic principles. I thank ‘Mama’ Merkel on behalf of myself and all the refugees,” he told VOA in an interview.

On the street outside the shelter in the eastern outskirts of Berlin, Alternative for Germany campaign posters still hang from the lampposts. One shows a pregnant white woman — the caption declaring “New Germans? We’ll make those ourselves.”

Gesa Massur, who helps manage the homeless shelter, says Dilshad is lucky — there are many other young refugees neglected by the state.

“I think this is really dangerous because maybe some young men, they don’t know what to do and they get on a bad way,” she said.

New migrants are trying to help one another stay on the right path. A government program called “multaka” or ‘meeting point’ in Arabic, trains Syrian and Iraqi migrants to act as guides in Berlin’s museums. They teach fellow refugees about Germany — and how to build a new life.

“It’s not about what’s inside the museums. It’s about who is making the tour, and what kind of reaction, what kind of interaction there will be between the people. We’re telling what we learned as a newcomer,” says Tony Al-Arkan, a qualified architect from Damascus who came to Germany as a student.

Fellow Syrian Salma Jreige conducts tours around the Museum of German History.

“Germany after the Second World War was completely destroyed,” she noted. “How the Germans rebuilt their country is a very important lesson for us to learn. Right there, there’s an object from Damascus. When people see that their culture is being shown in museums, this gives them the feeling that their culture is being respected. Without that, integration is impossible.”

Through programs like those at Berlin’s museums, the government aims to integrate the refugees as fast as possible.

The scale of the task may seem overwhelming. For newcomers like Tony and Salma, the solution lies not only in support from the state, but with the migrants helping each other.

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Iraq, Turkey Move to Punish Kurdistan for Referendum Vote

Even as Kurds celebrated the overwhelming approval of an independence referendum, Iraq took actions to punish the would-be breakaway state, vowing to shut down its airspace and join Turkey in holding military exercises.

Calling the vote “unconstitutional,” Iraq’s parliament on Wednesday also asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to the oil-producing, Kurdish-held region of Kirkuk and take control of its lucrative oilfields.

It told the 34 countries that have diplomatic missions in Kurdistan to shut them down, and it urged Abadi to enforce a decision to fire Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim for holding the vote and deploy forces to areas that were under Iraqi government control before the fall of Mosul to Islamic State over three years ago.

“We will enforce federal authority in the Kurdistan region, and we already have starting doing that,” Abadi said.

The referendum isn’t binding, but it is the first step in a process that clearly leads in that direction, despite strong criticism from Iraq, its neighbors — particularly Iran and Turkey — and the United States.

These nations have described it as destabilizing at a time when all sides are still fighting against IS militants.

Turkish troops are conducting military exercises at the Iraqi border, and Iraqi soldiers joined in four kilometers from the Habur border gate between the two countries. National and international media observed the exercises from the main highway leading to the border gate.

Turkey, which has its own restive Kurdish minority, is particularly concerned about the independence movement sweeping into its territory. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that all military and economic measures are on the table against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), calling the decision to go ahead with the vote a “betrayal to Turkey.”

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Omer Merani, the Ankara representative of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, has been asked to not return to Turkey.

“If the KDP’s representative were here, we would ask him to leave the country,” Cavusoglu said. “We have instead said, ‘Don’t come back,’ because he is currently in Irbil.”

The Kurds, who have ruled over an autonomous region within Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, consider Monday’s referendum to be a historic step in a generations-old quest for a state of their own. It was approved by 92.7 percent of voters, and residents headed to Kirkuk’s citadel to celebrate late Wednesday after the results were released.

Iraq said it would close international airspace Friday over Kurdistan’s two airports — Irbil and Sulaimani — at 6 p.m. Domestic flights were allowed to continue. Most of Iraq’s neighbors, including Turkey, Egypt and Iran, said they would abide by the restriction and suspend flights there.

Qatar Airways will continue operations “as long as airways are open and we can transport our passengers safely,” according to CEO Akbar Al Baker, Reuters reported.

Maulood Bawa Murad, Kurdistan’s transportation minister, said Baghdad’s efforts to take over the airports would hurt the U.S. support missions for the fight against IS and that it would bode badly for the possibility of negotiations with Iraq.

“If this decision is meant to punish the people of Kurdistan for holding a referendum on its independence and deciding its fate, no talks with [Baghdad] will reach a conclusion,” Murad said.

While opposing the referendum, the U.S. said Iraq’s moves weren’t “constructive” to resolving the situation.

Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee who was recently in Kurdistan, said he was disappointed with the decision to hold the vote despite calls for a delay. He said he hoped officials there would proceed in a “cautious and thoughtful manner.”

“I don’t like the destabilizing effects it could have on Iraq and the elections that will take place next year,” Corker said. “It’s going to bring a lot of issues. The Kurdish people have been great friends of our country. They’ve helped so much to fight against ISIS.”

VOA’s Kurdish, Turkish and Urdu services contributed to this report.

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Mercosur Could Seek Trade Deals With Canada, Australia, New Zealand

The South American trade bloc Mercosur could seek trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand this year, an Argentine official said Wednesday, as largest members Brazil and Argentina seek to open their economies.

Mercosur, which also includes Uruguay and Paraguay, is working with the European Union to finalize the political framework for a trade deal this year, at a time when the United States under President Donald Trump has been shying away from trade.

“There is a possibility that Mercosur starts negotiations with Canada, Australia and New Zealand this year,” Argentine Commerce Secretary Miguel Braun said at the Thomson Reuters Economic and Business forum in Buenos Aires.

“Integrating ourselves with these countries takes us in the direction we want to go,” he said, pointing to developed economies with high salaries. Argentina alone is seeking a trade agreement with Mexico, and Braun said it was also working on a trade agreement with Chile that would “deepen what we already have.”

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in New York last week that Santiago was finishing a trade liberalization agreement with Buenos Aires to boost trade and open opportunities for investors.

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Facebook Says Deleted Many Fake Accounts in German Campaign

Facebook said on Wednesday its efforts to fight fake news during Germany’s national elections included taking down tens of thousands of fake profiles in the final month of the campaign.

Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president of public policy for Europe, Middle East Africa, said the Silicon Valley-based company mounted an array of efforts to ensure the social media network was not used as a platform to manipulate public opinion.

“These actions did not eliminate misinformation entirely in this election but they did make it harder to spread, and less likely to appear in people’s News Feeds,” the Facebook executive said in a statement. News feed is the central feature in user profiles whereby they can see updates from people they follow.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union secured victory in Sunday’s balloting with fewer votes than expected, forcing her to enter complicated coalition talks with various parties to form a new government.

The company said it made a stronger push to remove fake accounts when it observed suspicious activity following widely reported foreign interference in the French and U.S. presidential elections over the past year.

Besides seeking to encourage civic participation and voter education efforts, it also worked closely with authorities, including the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), to monitor security threats during the campaign.

A variety of German political experts and social media watchers had given the campaign largely a clean bill of health in terms of any wide-scale efforts to swing votes in the run-up to voting day.

 

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Trump Endorses Spanish Unity Days Before Scheduled Catalan Independence Vote

U.S. President Donald Trump has come out unequivocally in favor of Spanish unity, just days before voters in the Catalan region are slated to vote on independence from Madrid.

At a joint news conference Tuesday with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a sweltering White House Rose Garden, Trump said he would bet most Catalonians want unity.

“I’m just for a united Spain,” Trump said. “I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain. I think it would be foolish not to.”

Trump’s comments appear to go against official U.S. government policy. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this month the United States would not take a position on the Catalan vote.

The Catalan government is pushing ahead with preparations for Sunday’s vote, even after the government declared the balloting illegal and Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended the referendum law.

The Spanish leader, speaking after Trump, cautioned Catalan separatists not to push ahead with their independence plans.

“The decision to unilaterally declare independence is not a decision I would make,” Rajoy told reporters. “It’s a decision which will have to be made or not by the Catalan government. I think it would be very wrong.”

The prime minister said holding a referendum next Sunday would be impossible.

“There isn’t an electoral committee, there isn’t a team at the Catalan government organizing the referendum, there aren’t ballots, there aren’t people at the voting stations — so it’s just crazy,” he said.

Rajoy said under those circumstances, the result would not be valid, and would only be a distraction.

“The only thing it’s doing is generating division, tensions, and it’s not contributing in any way to the citizens’ situation,” he said.

Trump said he could not predict whether the referendum would be held, even as he follows developments in the independence-minded province.

“I’ve been watching that unfold. But it’s actually been unfolding for centuries and I think that nobody knows if they’re going to have a vote,” he said.

“I think the president [Rajoy is considered president of the Spanish government] would say they’re not going to have a vote, but I think that the people would be very much opposed to that,” Trump told reporters. “I can say only speaking for myself, I would like to see Spain continue to be united.”

Catalonia divided

Opinion polls suggest that Catalonia’s population of more than 7 million is divided on the independence question. Catalan officials have said they would declare independence within days if voters approve the referendum.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Rajoy, whose country was victimized by an Islamic State-sponsored attack in August that killed 16 people in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, said he and Trump had spent a considerable amount of their meeting talking about terrorism.

“We’ve been hit by jihadi terrorist attacks on our soil,” he told reporters, noting that the two countries cooperate closely on anti-terrorism strategies. “We still need to do a lot in the area of intelligence, we need to improve coordination mechanisms in the area of cybersecurity or preventing recruitment and financing of terrorists.”

Rajoy also expressed support for Trump’s tough response to North Korea’s provocative nuclear missile tests, despite fears in some quarters that it could lead to war.

“No one wishes war anywhere in the world,” Rajoy said. “But it’s true that the recent events in North Korea, with implications in the neighboring countries, very important countries, it means that we all have to be forceful.

“Those of us who defend the values of democracy, freedom and human rights have to let North Korea know that it isn’t going anywhere in that direction,” the Spanish leader said.

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Spanish Police to Take Over Catalan Polling Stations to Thwart Independence Vote

Spain’s government said on Tuesday police would take control of voting booths in Catalonia to help thwart the region’s planned independence referendum that Madrid has declared illegal.

The dispute has plunged Spain into one of its biggest political crises since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s after decades of military dictatorship.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said the referendum is against the law and the constitutional court has ordered it be halted while its legality is determined. Catalonia’s separatist government, however, remains committed to holding it on Sunday.

Rajoy, speaking on Tuesday alongside U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, said it would be “ridiculous” if the affluent northeastern region declared independence from Spain.

Trump said he opposed the referendum and wanted a united Spain. “I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain. I think it would be foolish not to,” he told reporters.

Senior Spanish government officials said on Tuesday authorities had done enough to prevent a meaningful referendum as Catalonia lacked an election commission, ballot boxes, ballot papers, a transparent census and election material.

Logistics have been dismantled

“Today we can affirm that there will be no effective referendum in Catalonia. All the referendum’s logistics have been dismantled,” the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, told reporters in Barcelona.

Catalonia’s prosecutor has ordered the regional police — known as the Mossos d’Esquadra — to take control of any voting booths by Saturday, a spokesman for the Madrid government’s Catalan delegation said.

In an order to police issued on Monday, the prosecutor’s office said they would take the names of anyone participating in the vote and confiscate relevant documents.

Anyone in possession of the keys or entrance codes to a polling booth could be considered a collaborator to crimes of disobedience, malfeasance and misappropriation of funds, the order said.

Unrelenting opposition

The Madrid government has in recent weeks taken political and legal measures to prevent the referendum by exerting more control over the use of public funds in Catalonia and arresting regional officials. Hundreds of police reinforcements have been brought into Barcelona and other cities.

Madrid has also threatened fines against bureaucrats working on the ballot, including the region’s election commission, which was dissolved last week.

These actions have provoked mass demonstrations and drawn accusations from Catalan leaders that the Madrid government was resorting to the repression of the Franco dictatorship.

Catalan government to hold election

A “yes” vote is likely, given that most of the 40 percent of Catalans who polls show support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.

But the unrelenting opposition from Madrid means such a result would go all but unrecognized, potentially setting up a new phase of the dispute.

The Catalan regional government, which plans to declare independence within 48 hours of a “yes” victory, maintained on Tuesday the vote will go ahead and it sent out notifications to Catalans to man polling booths across the region.

Many had not yet received information about where or when they would be working after the state-run postal service was ordered to stop all mail related to the vote, a parliamentary spokeswoman for one separatist party said.

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After German Election, France’s Macron Paints Sweeping Vision for Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron offered an ambitious vision for European renewal Tuesday, calling for the EU to work more closely on defense and immigration and for the eurozone to have its own budget, ideas he may struggle to implement.

In a nearly two-hour speech delivered two days after the German election in which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc scored its worst result since 1949, limiting her freedom to maneuver on Europe, the 39-year-old French president held little back in terms of sweep, self-assurance and aspiration.

But at a time when Europe is beset by tensions between east and west and battling to overcome nearly a decade of draining economic crisis, Macron’s earnest and at times high-brow discourse ran the risk of falling on deaf ears.

Speaking at the Sorbonne, he portrayed Europe as needing to relaunch itself, saying that on issues as diverse as asylum, border protection, corporate tax, intelligence sharing, defense and financial stability it needed much deeper cooperation.

“The only path that assures our future is the rebuilding of a Europe that is sovereign, united and democratic,” the former investment banker and philosophy student said, flanked by a French and a European Union flag.

“At the beginning of the next decade, Europe must have a joint intervention force, a common defense budget and a joint doctrine for action.”

Germany’s limitations

In his run for the presidency, Macron made European reform a central plank of his centrist campaign, and he and Merkel have spoken frequently about their desire for France and Germany, the European Union’s two largest economies and often its engines of change, to take the lead on integration.

But five months into his five-year term, Macron faces the threat that Merkel, 63 and looking to start her fourth term, has less capacity to move than either would have hoped.

Her alliance is still the largest bloc in the Bundestag, but to build a working majority she will likely have to form a coalition with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who are opposed to many of Macron’s ideas.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a senior member of the Social Democrats (SPD), hailed Macron’s speech “a passionate plea against nationalism and for Europe.”

“He can count on us,” said Gabriel, whose party has ruled out being part of a new grand coalition.

Rather than tailoring his speech to fit the contours of what the FDP, the Greens or Merkel may have wanted to hear, Macron kept his vision broad and far-reaching, while also detailing some specific ideas for an improved eurozone.

“A budget can only go hand in hand with strong political leadership led by a common [finance] minister and a strong parliamentary supervision at the European level,” he said, emphasizing the need for democratic accountability.

The fiscally conservative FDP dislikes the idea of a eurozone budget or any facility that may lead to financial transfers from wealthier eurozone countries to poorer ones, as well as the possibility of national debt being pooled.

The party has also called for phasing out Europe’s ESM bailout fund, which Macron wants to turn into a European Monetary Fund, and wants to see changes to EU treaties that would allow countries to leave the eurozone.

“You don’t strengthen Europe with new pots of money,” Alexander Lambsdorff, an FDP member in the European Parliament, said on Twitter in reaction to Macron’s speech.

In a statement issued by the FDP in Berlin, Lambsdorff said: “The problem in Europe is not a lack of public funds, but the lack of reform. A euro zone budget would set exactly the wrong incentives.”

2024 goal

Not shying away from addressing Germany directly even as it tries to resolve the fallout from Sunday’s election, Macron set an objective that the two countries completely integrate their markets and corporate rules by 2024.

“We share the same European ambitions and I know her commitment to Europe,” he said of Merkel. “I’m proposing to Germany a new partnership. We will not agree on everything, not immediately, but we will discuss everything.”

In Berlin on Monday, Merkel said it was important to move beyond catchphrases and provide detail on how Europe could be improved. It was not immediately clear whether Macron had managed to go beyond slogans as far as Merkel was concerned.

But Martin Selmayr, the chief of staff of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, said the proposals to reinforce the eurozone would be discussed alongside Juncker’s own at a eurozone summit planned for December.

Italy’s EU affairs minister, Sandro Gozi, said the speech would inspire European leaders into action.

“An excellent speech by Emmanuel Macron on reviving the European Union. Let’s work on this together, starting tomorrow at the Lyon Summit,” he said, referring to a meeting of the Italian and French leaders to discuss industrial policy.

Macron said he hoped his ideas would be taken into account in Germany’s coalition building negotiations. Those talks are not expected to begin until mid-October and may take several months.

“Some had said I should wait for the coalition talks to be concluded,” Macron said, adding had he done so, the reaction in Berlin would have been: “Your proposals are great but it’s too late, the coalition deal already lays out what will we do on Europe for the next four years.”

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Russia Threatens to Block Facebook Next Year

Russia’s communications watchdog has threatened to block the access to Facebook next year if the company does not store its data locally.

 

Alexander Zharov, chief of the Federal Communications Agency, told Russian news agencies on Tuesday that they will work to “make Facebook comply with the law” on personal data, which obliges foreign companies to store it in Russia. Critics criticized the law that went into effect in 2015 for potentially exposing the data to Russian intelligence agencies.

 

Zharov said on Tuesday that the Russian government understands that Facebook is a “unique service” but said it will not make exceptions and will have to block it next year if Facebook does not comply.

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Will Re-Elected Merkel Take on the Alpha Males?

Earlier this year, the U.S.-based Pew Research Center polled people in more than 30 countries about their thoughts on various world leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel topped the poll with more respondents expressing confidence in her than any other leader.

With the U.S. turning more isolationist, Britain mired in Brexit wrangling, and France led by an untested young president whose popularity is already plummeting, many see Merkel, who on Sunday secured an historic fourth term — though her Christian Democratic Union party won fewer seats — as the West’s most reliable leader. 

American and European newspapers have dubbed her the “leader of the free world” for much of 2017.

But questions remain about how proactive Merkel will be when it comes to foreign policy  in her fourth term — and how she might approach the crowd of significant challenges facing Germany and Europe, including terror, war, financial crises, and political upheavals. The scientist-turned-politician’s instinct is to search for consensus — but that is a difficult thing to do when faced with alpha male leaders, such as Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who see diplomacy as a zero-sum game.

Earlier this year, following Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate-change pact, Merkel counseled fellow Europeans that they must take fate into their own hands. “The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” she said.

In an interview on the eve of Sunday’s elections Merkel appeared to signal that she intends to push for more coherence in European Union foreign policy, telling the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, that the bloc has to agree quickly to a common stance toward an emerging China and a revisionist Russia.

“The world has to see that member states won’t deviate from a European consensus on these issues,” she said, adding that it was important that individual state governments be prepared to defer in favor to what was the best for the EU as a whole. 

So will Merkel start laying down a foreign policy legacy, take her fellow European leaders by the scruff of their necks and live up to the media designation “leader of the free world”?

Taking the lead

Already under her leadership Germany has become more assertive — a reflection of the country’s economic pre-eminence in Europe as well as it having come more to terms with its Second World War past. Merkel has deployed German troops overseas: in Afghanistan, Mali and Lithuania.

She was the leader who forged a European consensus on imposing sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, and along with the French, she has been leading the West’s effort to negotiate a solution to the Russian-fomented conflict in east Ukraine.

In sub-Sahara Africa, her government has been pursuing a “Marshall Plan for Africa,” pumping aid and encouraging private investment in a bid to undercut jihadists and to give would-be migrants a reason to remain at home.

And there is some talk that post-election she will team up with French President Emmanuel Macron to “relaunch” a post-Brexit Europe more integrated and centralized than ever before. 

But Merkel’s past suggests she will be far more cautious when it comes to matching action with words, predict some analysts. And she’ll move slowly.

Synonymous with slow

The epitome of the patient pragmatist in politics, she is more reactive than proactive. In 2015 the verb ‘to Merkel’ – meaning to dither – was voted the new word of the year in Germany. Merkel is more about incremental change that won’t upset the multilateral rules-based global order.

Political scientist Matthew Qvortrup, a professor at Britain’s Coventry University and author of a biography of Merkel, noted recently that she’s a manager, more comfortable keeping things ticking along. He doesn’t think Merkel will endorse as daring an overhaul of the EU as proposed by the grandiloquent Macron.

The French president wants six-month-long ‘democratic conventions’ in every country, during which EU citizens would debate common goals and a more integrated eurozone with its own finance minister, parliament and a standalone budget to head off future financial crises.

Earlier this year, Merkel gave qualified endorsement of Macron’s reform ideas but analysts say perceptions in Paris and Berlin of eurozone integration widely differ. Qvortrup draws a distinction between Merkel and her predecessor Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who oversaw the unification of Germany and had a much grander vision for the EU than Merkel does.

“She’s interested in the European Union as an intergovernmental project – a little bit like the ‘Europe of nations,’” he said in a recent interview with Chatham House, a British policy research group.

Other analysts question why Merkel would agree to a massive reform of an economic structure which Germany has benefited from greatly.

It’s the little things

Her party’s manifesto for Sunday’s election was short on grand projects and big on small measures, although it committed to raising defense spending from 1.2 percent of GDP to the NATO target of two percent. But boosting the military isn’t the same thing as using it  — a recent poll showed a majority of Germans uncomfortable with the idea of using force even in the defense of NATO.

But German journalist Bernd Ulrich, political editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, argues Merkel’s leadership traits are of a different kind from her more brash counterparts. The fact that she doesn’t have grand plans doesn’t mean she’s not leading, he argues.

“It was a very American misunderstanding to call the German chancellor the new leader of the Western world. Merkel can only be the leader if ‘leadership’ is something completely different—something based on networking, something female, and something cooperative,” he wrote recently.

Her cooperative instincts though will be challenged in her fourth term. The EU faces unrest in the east, with populist governments in Poland and Hungary defying Brussels on immigration policy and civil liberties. Another problem will be getting some order on Brexit — and on that issue she may turn hardline on a British government keen to cherry-pick when it comes to future relations between Britain and the EU.

But her biggest challenge remains with the U.S., where Trump’s “America First” ideas and suspicion of multilateralism are directly at odds with her determination to protect a rules-based order.

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US Envoy: Russia’s Proposal to Send Peacekeepers to Ukraine Shows Desire to Negotiate

Russia’s proposal for United Nations peacekeepers to be sent to Ukraine shows that the Kremlin is interested in negotiating a resolution to the three-year-old conflict, said the United States special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker.

“I take the point of view that Russia would not have proposed anything if they weren’t prepared to get into a negotiation about it,” said Volker in an interview Monday with VOA’s Ukrainian Service chief Myroslava Gongadze.

“They haven’t done anything for three years on this. They haven’t proposed a peacekeeping force before. As recently as a couple weeks ago, they were saying that they would never want the U.N. there. So, the fact that they opened this conversation, to me, is an indication that they are willing to discuss it.”

The Ukraine crisis began in March 2014 when Russian special forces took over Ukrainian military bases in Crimea. Subsequent Russian military support for Russia-leaning separatists in eastern Ukraine fueled an ongoing conflict with the Ukrainian military that has so far left more than 10,000 people dead.

Russia’s proposal earlier this month at the U.N. called for peacekeepers along the line of conflict in eastern Ukraine, but not along the Russia-Ukraine border where weapons and fighters can easily cross.

Volker called it a “very narrow concept” that would have the effect of dividing the country even further.

 

“That’s not acceptable to anybody and does not restore the territory,” he said. “On the other hand, if we can establish a peacekeeping force and build that concept into one that is covering the entire contested area, that is containing heavy weapons and that is controlling the Ukraine-Russian border from the Ukrainian side, then there is a lot of promise in that.”

“That’s where both governments are right now seeing whether it is possible to expand this concept into one that would be truly meaningful and helpful,” he added.

Russia’s growing costs

Russia’s costs for maintaining the conflict in Ukraine have only gone up while benefits the Kremlin may have expected have not panned out, said Volker. Russia has lost influence in Ukraine while Western support for Kyiv has increased along with sanctions against Moscow.

“So, for all of these reasons, the costs are increasing. Even the financial costs of just maintaining the Donbas, and they’re not getting anything out of it. So, that at least opens the door to thinking maybe Russia would like to try something else,” Volker said.

 

“Ultimately, I think it really boils down to Russia’s decision-making,” he added. “Do they want to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, get their forces out, and re-establish Ukraine’s territorial integrity or, do they not want to do that? If they want to dig in and create another Abkhazia [breakaway region of Georgia supported by Russia], they can do it. But, that’s a very costly proposition for Russia.”

A 2015 peace deal Russia signed with Ukraine, Germany, and France in Minsk has failed to come to fruition as Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for not moving on the plan.

 

“The problem with the Minsk agreement is that it was becoming a circular argument that was going nowhere,” said Volker. “The Russians are saying ‘no, Ukraine has to do the political steps.’ Ukraine says, ‘it can’t do the political steps because it can’t even access the territory.’ And, then how can we go to the Rada [Ukrainian parliament] and get a vote when nothing has happened on a ceasefire in three years. So, it’s stuck that way and I think, in some respects, some of the actors found that to be conveniently stuck.”

Volker said the U.S. role was to try to unstick the Minsk deal.

“If we can get to a more strategic level of decision-making with Russia and, frankly, with our European partners and with Ukraine, then if we can create political will, Minsk is a perfectly fine vehicle for implementation,” he said.

In August, the U.S. envoy met with Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov in Minsk.  Surkov is considered the architect of Russia’s strategy on Ukraine and its military backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Status quo:  Bad for all

“When we met in August, one of the things we agreed is that the status quo is not good for anybody,” said Volker. “It’s not good for Russia, it’s not good for Ukraine, it’s not good for the people of the Donbas. So we should be exploring to see if there is something else that would be better.”

More than 10,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists broke out in early 2014.

Volker said the U.S. is still considering supplying lethal, defensive weapons to Ukraine’s military forces.

 

“I don’t have anything new to say on timing of this sort of thing [possibly selling lethal, defensive weapons to Ukraine],” he said. “But, I can say that it’s taken very seriously in the administration and there are people working very hard at it.”

Volker said the U.S. would seek progress in eastern Ukraine separate from the issue of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

“If we are able to make progress in one area  the Donbas  let’s do it. Let’s make progress, let’s see if we can get that territory back,” he said. “At the same that doesn’t change at all our refusal to accept the annexation of Crimea and grant any legitimacy to Russia’s actions.”

Budapest memorandum

The U.S. envoy acknowledged more should have been done to back up the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which was signed when he was a mid-level diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest and should have prevented Russia taking Crimea.

 

“The only country violating the Budapest Memorandum is Russia. So, France didn’t invade Ukraine. U.K. didn’t invade Ukraine. Only Russia invaded Ukraine,” Volker said.

Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in return for guarantees of territorial integrity and sovereignty under the deal signed by Russia, the U.K., and U.S. But, when Russian forces began taking over Ukraine’s Crimea military bases, none of those who signed the memorandum attempted to stop them.

 

“We should have done more immediately,” said Volker. “It’s important for Ukraine itself. It’s important for the principle that it establishes about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. And, so, unfortunately, when Russia invaded, we didn’t do enough on that.”

The U.S. envoy said all that can been done now is go forward to help restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “If we do that, we’ll be taking a step towards the fulfillment of Budapest,” he said.

Peacekeeping Forces

Volker, who President Donald Trump made special envoy in July, shot down suggestions that Russians could be among any peacekeepers deployed to Ukraine.

 

“I think the U.N. standards themselves are that neighboring countries should not be involved in peacekeeping in neighboring states,” he said. “And, certainly in this case since Russia has been a party to the conflict it would clearly not make sense.”

Despite much evidence to the contrary, the Kremlin maintains it is not involved in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas.

VOA’s Myroslava Gongadze contributed to this report.

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German Far-right Pledges to ‘Reclaim Country’ as Merkel Begins Tough Coalition Talks

The Alternative for Germany party has pledged to use its platform in parliament to “reclaim the country and its people.” The AfD won nearly 14 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, giving them 94 seats.

Many believed the turmoil of the 20th century had immunized Germany from a return of far-right politics, but Sunday’s result proved them wrong.

For the group’s opponents who gathered to protest the result in Berlin, the Alternative for Germany’s anti-migrant agenda has parallels with the Nazis’ rise to power.

“It is the first time since after the war that a racist and neo-Nazi party is in parliament,” said one protester. “So that is really worrying to us. And this reminds everyone of 1933.”

Jewish groups were among those expressing fear over the results.

The AfD’s co-leader, Alexander Gauland, has previously said Germans should be proud of their military’s achievements in World War II. However, at a news conference Monday, he denied the party is racist.

Gauland said there is nothing in the party or in its program that could or should disturb Jewish people in Germany. He said his pledge to “reclaim the country” is meant symbolically, adding he does “not want to lose Germany to an invasion of foreign people from foreign cultures.”

Analyst Professor Tanja Borzel of Berlin’s Free University says Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let close to a million migrants into Germany at the height of the migrant and refugee crisis in 2015 led many to punish her at the polls.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats won the highest number of votes Sunday, but gained their lowest share in 70 years.

“Most people who voted for the Alternative for Germany did not vote for the party because they share the platform. It was a protest vote, clearly,” Borzel said.

The far-right’s success overshadowed Merkel’s win, which gives her a fourth term in power.

She told supporters Monday that her aspiration is to win the AfD voters back through good politics and problem solving.

Her first problem is forming a government. The second-placed Social Democrats have ruled out working together, so Merkel’s best option is likely a coalition with the Liberals and the Greens that could take months, Borzel says.

“It will be very hard to find a compromise on issues such as migration and refugees, but also climate change,” Borzel said. “So, we are looking at probably some lengthy negotiations.”

The AfD, meanwhile, has pledged to use its new platform in parliament to, in its words, “hunt down” Merkel and reclaim the country.

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German Far-right Pledges to ‘Reclaim Country’

The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party has pledged to use its platform in parliament to “reclaim the country and its people.” The AfD won close to 14 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, giving them 94 seats — the first significant far-right presence in Germany’s parliament since World War II. Henry Ridgwell reports from Berlin.

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Catalan Police Say Independence Vote Divides Their Loyalties

A referendum on whether Catalonia should secede from Spain is putting intense pressure on the region’s police officers, who feel caught between their oath to the nation’s constitution and loyalty to local leaders who have vowed to create a new European state.

 

Francesc Vidal, a 16-year veteran of the force known as the Mossos d’Esquadra, described the referendum planned for October 1 as a “train collision” between Spanish authorities desperate to stop what they consider an illegal vote and Catalan separatists who insist that the balloting go forward.

 

“We only ask that they don’t put us in the middle of it,” Vidal, a leader of the USPAC police union, told The Associated Press. “We don’t know how to act. We receive orders from both sides.”

 

The power struggle is the most serious constitutional crisis Spain has faced in nearly four decades.

 

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has pledged to declare independence within 48 hours should secessionists manage to stage the secession referendum and win it. The move would push the country into uncharted waters and set off a national political emergency.

 

But if police impede polling stations from opening at schools and other government buildings, it will be a victory for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a long battle against the separatists.

 

On Saturday, Spain’s Interior Ministry announced that it would begin coordinating all police efforts in the region related to the vote, including the operations of the 17,000-strong Mossos.

 

That was rejected by Catalonia’s regional interior chief Joaquim Forn, who said the Mossos police chief has told Spanish authorities that regional leaders would not cede command of the force.

 

“The Mossos will never give up the exercise of the powers that are its own,” Forn said in a statement broadcast on Catalan public television.

 

Forn has promised that the Mossos will ensure that the referendum happens. He told Catalan newspaper El Punt-Avui: “Not only will we not stop the referendum, we will do the exact opposite: We will facilitate that the referendum takes place.”

​The tensions are driving fault lines in Catalonia: polls suggest roughly half of its 7.5 million residents want to break century-old ties with Spain, with the rest wishing to remain a part of the larger nation. Fissures have also formed within the Mossos, which was created in the early 1980s as part of self-governance granted to the northeastern region.

Serious doubts for many Mossos started in July, when the top two regional officials in charge of the police resigned. The regional government replaced them with Forn and Pere Soler, men with spotless pro-independence credentials.

 

While rank-and-file officers are concerned that police leadership may not pass down orders from a Spanish judge to stop the vote, a small group of hard-core pro-independence Mossos has promised not to stop the vote under any circumstances.  

 

‘Anything can happen’

Jordi Costa, a Mosso stationed in the town of Vilafranca and general secretary of the 3,000-member strong CAT police union, said the unprecedented situation meant “anything can happen” – but his loyalty to Spain’s constitution came first.

 

“This is exceptional because there is a government that against all odds has declared that it will rebel against the law. I think that is an error,” Costa said. “I swore to the Spanish Constitution just like every single one of us Mossos. If something is unconstitutional, it cannot be done.”

 

Just last month, the Mossos were widely praised for their quick capture and killing of jihadist-inspired extremists who carried out deadly vehicle attacks in Barcelona and a nearby town. Now the same force feels trapped by the tense political climate.

 

“Our image will be damaged for one side or the other,” said David Miquel, a 25-year veteran of the Mossos in Barcelona and spokesman for the SPC union representing 5,000 officers. “Some who saw us as heroes for finishing off the terrorists will now see us as villains. For others, we will be heroes for having upheld the law.”

Last week a huge crowd of angry protesters took to Barcelona’s streets after the Civil Guard, a national police force with a much smaller presence in Catalonia, carried out raids on an office of the Catalan government. The protesters trashed the Civil Guard’s vehicles and scuffled with the officers, but Miquel said it took hours until the Mossos was ordered to step in and help restore order.

 

“My fellow Mossos tell me that they could have done more to help, but they were not ordered to,” Miquel said. “When you see people destroying the patrol cars of your fellow policeman, it’s a feeling of impotence. What we want is to receive orders that are not coming. They need to give us a detailed guide on how to act. Don’t leave it in our hands. Give us instructions.”

 

Albert Donaire is a Mosso from a small town of la Cellera de Ter, where pro-secession sentiment runs deep. He heads a group of 200 to 300 like-minded police officers called “Mossos for Independence.”

 

“My personal decision is not to confiscate any ballot boxes nor close any polling stations,” Donaire said. “I am not afraid that I will end up in prison for defending democracy.”

 

Like many separatists, Donaire justifies his disobedience of Spanish law by citing two acts passed by separatist lawmakers in Catalonia’s regional parliament. Those measures called for the referendum and established a roadmap for independence if the “yes” votes prevail.

 

Even though those acts have been suspended by Spain’s Constitutional Court, Donaire believes the laws are valid because they are protected by international law and the right of people to self-determination.

 

Faced with the challenge of stopping the vote in the nearly 800 municipalities, many of them tiny villages, the Interior Ministry has rushed more agents of the Civil Guard and the National Police to Catalonia.

“It’s an exceptional situation, and we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. There could be a part of the Mossos that won’t respond,” said Luis Mansilla, general secretary in Catalonia of the National Police union SUP.

 

The extra manpower on the ground in Catalonia will be enough to quash the referendum should the Catalan police waver, said Juan Fernandez, the spokesman for the Civil Guard’s AUGC union.

 

“We understand it must not be easy” for the Mossos, Fernandez said.

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Swiss Voters Reject Raising Women’s Retirement Age

Swiss voters rejected raising women’s retirement age to 65 in a referendum on Sunday on shoring up the wealthy nation’s pension system as a wave of Baby Boomers stops working.

Authorities pushing the first serious reform of the pension system in two decades had warned that old-age benefits were increasingly at risk as life expectancy rises and interest rates remain exceptionally low, cutting investment yields.

But it fell by a margin of 53-47 percent, sending the government back to the drawing board on the thorny social issue.

The package turned down under the Swiss system of direct democracy included making retirement between the ages of 62 and 70 more flexible and raising the standard value-added tax (VAT) rate from 2021 to help finance the stretched pension system.

It sought to secure the level of pensions through 2030 by cutting costs and raising additional revenue.

Minimum pay-out rates would have gradually fallen and workers’ contributions would rise, while public pensions for all new recipients would go up by 70 Swiss francs ($72.25) a month.

The retirement age for women would have gradually risen by a year to 65, the same as for men.

“That is no life,” complained one 49-year-old kiosk cashier, who identified herself only as Angie. “You go straight from work to the graveyard.”

Some critics had complained that the higher retirement age for women and higher VAT rates were unfair, while others opposed expanding public benefits and said the reforms only postponed for a decade rather than solved the system’s financial woes.

Opinion polls had shown the reforms just squeaking by, but support had been waning.

The standard VAT rate would have gone up by 0.3 point from 2021 to 8.3 percent — helping generate 2.1 billion francs a year for pensions by 2030 — but the rejection means the standard VAT rate will now fall to 7.7 percent next year as a levy earmarked for disability insurance ends.

A 2014 OECD survey found Switzerland, where a worker earns over $91,000 on average, spends a relatively low 6.6 percent of economic output on public pensions. Life expectancy at birth was 82.5 years. More than 18 percent of the population was older than 65.

($1 = 0.9690 Swiss francs)

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After German Vote, Europe Can Turn to Patching Euro’s Flaws

Sunday’s national election in Germany will sound the starting gun for a renewed debate on fixing flaws in Europe’s shared currency to prevent future crises.

 

France’s new president Emmanuel Macron has made it clear he is willing to push for change to strengthen the euro and is expected to make proposals in a major speech Tuesday. He is pushing for, among other things, a finance minister for the eurozone to oversee a central fiscal pot of money that could even out recessions in individual members.

 

Even pro-euro policymakers concede their 19-nation currency union contains weaknesses that fed its debt crisis — and leave it exposed to new trouble. But action on fixes has slowed.

 

Macron’s ideas are not new but several of them have faced resistance from Germany, always allergic to the idea of being handed the bill for other members’ troubles. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, have pushed back against the idea of EU-wide insurance on bank deposits meant to keep bank troubles from hitting government finances.

 

Now there are signs that after its own elections are out of the way, Germany might be more open to change or at a minimum speeding up steps — like the deposit insurance idea — that have stalled. Polls suggest Merkel will win a fourth term. What’s not clear is which party her center right Christian Democratic Union will form a coalition.

 

“In several ways, the coming 12-18 months represent an exceptional opportunity for European reform,” says Nicolas Veron, senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels and at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. Reasons for that, he said, include:

The two biggest EU countries, France and Germany, will now have new governments with fresh mandates from voters.
Europe’s banks are in better shape and the economy is growing, meaning leaders are not preoccupied with fighting a crisis.
 Anti-euro populists have been turned back at the polls this year in France and the Netherlands, giving pro-EU forces a fresh shot of confidence.
 Memories of the debt crisis that threatened to break up the eurozone at its peak in 2011-2012 may still be vivid enough to overcome complacency. 

Merkel has expressed cautious openness to tweaking the setup of the euro.

“I have made clear that I don’t have anything against the title of a European finance minister per se — we would just have to clear up, and we are not yet that far along in talks with France — what this finance minister could do,” she said in August.

 

“I could imagine an economy and finance minister … so that we achieve a higher degree of harmonization of competitiveness.”

 

The euro, currently worth about $1.20, was created in 1999, and 19 of the 28 EU members use it.

 

European officials concede that the debt crisis, which exploded when Greece revealed in October 2009 that it was bankrupt, exposed serious flaws. Once financial trouble hit, member countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal lacked typical crisis safety valves such as letting their national currency devalue, which can help a country’s exports and attract investment. Without their own currencies, this was no longer possible. The countries wound up needing bailouts from the other member countries led by Germany and from the International Monetary Fund.

 

Additionally, the cost of rescuing failing banks threatened to bankrupt entire eurozone governments. And the euro lacks a central fiscal budget that could even out recessions in member countries by investing more in economies in need.

 

German resistance will likely remain strong to the bolder ideas, such as a well-stocked central fiscal pot worth several percentage points of EU gross domestic product. Currently, the EU’s budget is 1 percent of GDP, spent on things like support for farmers and infrastructure to help development in the poorest members.

 

More modest, politically realistic steps could include:

Pushing ahead with EU-wide deposit insurance, to be implemented over a period of years.
Regulations limiting the widespread practice of European banks buying their own governments’ bonds. That would increase pressure on governments to shape up their economies and finances.
 A modest additional pot of money that could be used as targeted stimulus for eurozone countries that fall into serious recessions, with the condition that they implement economic reforms.

EU governments led by Germany, the bloc’s most influential member, have already taken some significant steps since the crisis days. They created a fund that can give bailout loans to states in need. They tightened banking oversight by moving it to the EU level at the European Central Bank, and they took steps to stick bank creditors — not taxpayers — with any losses in case of a rescue.

 

The new system proved its mettle in June, when the ECB pulled the plug on Spain’s troubled Banco Popular, the country’s sixth-largest bank, and then orchestrated a sale to Banco Santander for one euro. Shareholders and junior bondholders took the losses, while taxpayers and depositors were spared. It’s a step away from crisis times when the financial burden of rescuing banks drove Ireland and Spain to seek bailout help.

 

Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING Germany, says that reforms like a small central fund and deposit insurance are feasible.

 

“The opportunity in 2018 would be more a natural evolution of the process that has been ongoing now for the past couple of years, rather than being a revolution,” he said.

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Russian General Killed in Syria

The Russian Defense Ministry has announced one of its generals was killed while fighting Islamic State in Syria.

“Division general Valeri Assapov was killed when a shell exploded during shelling by IS fighters,” the ministry was quoted as saying by local media.

He was serving as an advisor to Syrian government troops “in the operation for the liberation of the city of Deir el-Zour,” it said.

Deir el-Zour province, on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq, is rich with oil and gas fields that served as a key revenue stream for IS at the peak of its power.

Meanwhile, Syrian media reported that government and allied troops have seized Maadan, a town north of Deir el-Zour city and south of Raqqa, which has been a scene of intense fighting with Islamic State militants.

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Opposition Activists Hold Anticorruption Rally In Baku

Hundreds of opposition activists attended an anticorruption protest in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

The protest, which has been sanctioned by the municipal government, was organized by the National Council of Democratic Forces — an umbrella organization bringing together some of Azerbaijan’s opposition forces.

Baku police said in a statement that about 1,500 people attended the Saturday rally, although the organizers disputed the official figure, saying the actual attendance was higher. Azerbaijan’s Turan news agency said thousands participated in the rally held in the Yasamal district of Baku. 

According to the statement, supporters of the Popular Front Party, People’s Democratic Party, National Statehood Party, Musavat Party Youth Organization, Muslim Union, and NIDA Movement participated in the action.

No incidents occurred during the rally, the statement said.

However, ahead of the rally, at least three members of the Popular Front Party were reportedly detained by authorities on Friday. It was immediately unclear whether they were subsequently released. 

At the end of the rally, which started at 3 p.m. local time and lasted for two hours, electricity was cut off in the area. 

The protest, held under the slogan “Return the money stolen from the people,” came after an investigative report by a group of international journalists and anticorruption activists called The Azerbaijani Laundromat named state officials allegedly tied to money-laundering operations.

The report alleges the scheme was “a complex money-laundering operation and slush fund that handled $2.9 billion over a two-year period through four shell companies” registered in the United Kingdom.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s press secretary, Azer Gasimov, has called the report “absurd.”

Activists accuse Azerbaijan’s government of repressing journalists, civil society activists, and human rights workers.

They have urged Western governments to do more to confront authorities in Baku.

The oil-rich South Caucasus nation has faced growing social and economic problems stemming from falling world oil prices in recent years.

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