$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Greece: 6 Dead, Dozen Missing in Suspected Migrant Boat Sinking

Greece’s coast guard said Saturday the bodies of six people were recovered from the sea off a Greek island in the eastern Aegean following the sinking of a suspected migrant smuggling boat.

A massive search and rescue operation was underway to locate about a dozen more people believed missing.

The bodies of four children, one man and one woman were recovered off the island of Agathonisi, south of the island of Samos, the coast guard said. Three people, two women and a man, managed to reach the coast and alert authorities.

The three told authorities they had been in a wooden boat that sank with an estimated 21 people on board. The reasons for the sinking were not immediately clear, and authorities said the total number of people who had been on board was also not clear.

Three aircraft, Greek navy and coast guard vessels, a vessel from the European border agency Frontex and private boats were scouring the area to search for the missing.

Despite a two-year deal between the European Union and Turkey designed to stop the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe using the popular route from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands, dozens and sometimes hundreds of people continue to make the journey each week. Most cross in rickety inflatable boats or other unseaworthy vessels.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Russia Expelling 23 British Diplomats in Growing Dispute

Russia’s government is expelling 23 British diplomats and threatened further measures in retaliation in a growing diplomatic dispute over a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it is also ordering the closure of the British Council in Russia and ending an agreement to reopen the British consulate in St. Petersburg.

It ordered the diplomats to leave within a week.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador to Russia on Saturday to before making the announcement.

The statement said the government could take further measures if Britain takes any more “unfriendly” moves toward Russia.

Russians expelled

British Prime Minister Theresa May this week expelled 23 Russian diplomats and severed high-level contacts over the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. They remain in critical condition in hospital.

Britain’s foreign secretary accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering the poisoning of the Skripals, who remain hospitalized in critical condition after the March 4 attack. Putin’s spokesman denounced the claim.

While Russia has vigorously denied involvement in the attack, Western powers see it as the latest sign of alleged Russian meddling abroad. The tensions threaten to overshadow Putin’s expected re-election Sunday for another six-year presidential term.

​British police said there is no apparent link between the attack on Glushkov and the poisoning of the Skripals, but both have raised alarm in the West at a time when Russia is increasingly assertive on the global stage and facing investigations over alleged interference in the Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.

EU meeting Monday

The source of the nerve agent, which Britain says is Soviet-made Novichok, is unclear, as is the way it was administered. Russia has demanded that Britain share samples collected by investigators.

Top EU diplomats were expected to discuss next steps at a meeting Monday, with some calling for a boycott of the upcoming World Cup in Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking a global coalition of countries to punish Moscow.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

International Presence at West Point Benefits Both Foreign and American Cadets

In June 2017, Montenegro, once considered a Balkan stronghold of pro-Russian sentiments, quietly celebrated its entry into NATO, infuriating the Kremlin. Before joining NATO, Montenegro sent its first cadet to West Point. Nevena Nikolic and her international peers at West Point are getting an opportunity to see the world and America through the lens of its prestigious military academy, where officials believe having foreign cadets is crucial. Milena Djurdjic of VOA’s Serbian Service has more.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Britain, France, Germany Propose New Iran Sanctions in Confidential Paper

Britain, France and Germany have proposed fresh EU sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missiles and its role in Syria’s war, according to a confidential document, in a bid to persuade Washington to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

The joint paper, seen by Reuters, was sent to European Union capitals on Friday, said two people familiar with the matter, to sound out support for such sanctions as they would need the support of all 28 EU member governments.

The proposal is part of an EU strategy to save the accord signed by world powers that curbs Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, namely by showing U.S. President Donald Trump that there are other ways to counter Iranian power abroad.

Trump delivered an ultimatum to the European signatories on January 12 that they must agree to “fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal” — which was sealed under his predecessor Barack Obama — or he would refuse to extend U.S. sanctions relief on Iran. U.S. sanctions will resume unless Trump issues fresh “waivers” to suspend them on May 12.

“We will therefore be circulating in the coming days a list of persons and entities that we believe should be targeted in view of their publicly demonstrated roles,” the document said, referring to Iranian ballistic missile tests and Tehran’s role backing Syria’s government in the seven-year-old civil war.

Analysts say the nuclear agreement, touted at the time as a breakthrough reducing the risk of a devastating wider war in the Middle East, could collapse if Washington pulls out.

The document said Britain, France and Germany were engaged in “intensive talks with the Trump administration to “achieve a clear and lasting reaffirmation of U.S. support for the [nuclear] agreement beyond May 12.”

The European powers and the United States held several rounds of talks this week on the issue, diplomats said.


The document referred to sanctions that would “target militias and commanders”. It proposes building on the EU’s existing sanctions list related to Syria, which includes travel bans and asset freezes on individuals, and a ban on doing business or financing public and private companies.

The issue is highly sensitive because the 2015 pact between Iran and six major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — lifted international sanctions that crippled Iran’s oil-based economy.

While the EU retains some sanctions on Iranians over human rights abuses, it rescinded its economic and financial restrictions on Iran in 2016 and does not want to be seen to be reneging on the agreement.

While Iran signed up to limits on its uranium enrichment activity, which it has repeatedly said is for peaceful power generation, not atomic bombs, it has refused to discuss its missile program, which it says is purely defensive.

The Islamic Republic has dismissed Western assertions that its activities in the Middle East are destabilizing, and also rejected Trump’s demands to renegotiate the nuclear accord.

In the joint document, Britain, France and Germany set out questions and answers that seek to show that legally, the European powers would not be breaking the terms of the nuclear deal. It said that they are “entitled to adopt additional sanctions against Iran” as long as they are not nuclear-related

or were previously lifted under the nuclear agreement.

The European powers said new sanctions are justified because Iran “did not commit further to stop undertaking ballistic missile destabilizing activities” under the nuclear agreement.

The nuclear deal’s terms did not cover ballistic missile activity. Iran has said its effort to develop ballistic weaponry is solely for defensive purposes and has nothing to do with its nuclear energy ambitions.

Reporting by Robin Emmott and John Irish.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Transcript: Russian Opposition Figure Alexei Navalny

For years an anti-corruption activist and outspoken opponent of the Russian government, Alexei Navalny was disqualified from the presidential race in December because of a conviction for embezzlement. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the conviction was politically motivated, but it was upheld in Russian courts. Navalny was given a suspended five-year sentence.

Accused by Putin of being Washington’s pick for president, Navalny has long predicted that Russian authorities will resort to widespread fraud to deliver a Putin landslide and has spoken of organizing post-election protests of the kind that roiled Russia after Putin’s last election victory in 2012.

In a Thursday phone interview, VOA’s Danila Galperovich asked Navalny how he and his supporters plan to monitor and protest this weekend’s election, which he calls illegitimate. The following translated excerpt has been edited for brevity and concision. The full-length Russian language interview is available here.

VOA: How are you going to observe the elections? We know that the Central Election Committee rejected accreditation of your observers, but you continue to call for observation. How are you going to do it?

Navalny: The main thing that we have done now: we created the largest network of observers in the history of Russia. We called out to the masses, called for all our volunteers. More than 60,000 people enrolled, 18 percent of them minors, which, by the way, we are very proud of. But we will offer them a different job—to monitor streaming public access video footage of individual polling stations that anyone in Russia can access online. Given that, of course, we do not expect that all enrolled will come out to actually observe. Somewhere around 25,000 to 26,000 people will be actively monitoring polling stations in the districts. And, most importantly, for the first time we will make at least 20 percent coverage on these “zones of regional anomalies”—the North Caucasus, Mordovia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan [regions that traditionally produce extremely high voter turnout and equally high results for pro-Kremlin incumbents]. We are trying to do this, and we will do it, but we can already see that absolutely unprecedented measures are being taken to destroy our network: people are being arrested every day, they are withdrawing our accreditation, closing our headquarters. Another wave of arrests is in motion. And it is connected, of course, with our supervision of polls.

VOA: Why do the authorities resist your observation so strongly? If, as you say, they are trying to make the elections look free and fair?

Navalny: The authorities, of course, know that their candidate will “win”—and he will indeed “win”—but they are no longer interested in his mere victory. They are interested in the recognition of elections and that … at least as many people as in 2012, come out to the polls. They are interested in turnout. They are faced with the fact that people do not want to voluntarily go to these elections under the influence of our boycott, or under the influence of the obvious fact that there is no competition, and that the result of the election is predetermined. For them, the only way to increase this turnout is to falsify it. Take, for example, the Kemerovo region. Last time it showed an 87 percent turnout. But if we put observers there, the turnout will immediately fall by 30- to 40-percent, and we can prove that the 87 percent is fake. And even without any boycott, simply just through observation, it will be obvious that the turnout has fallen. And [the Kremlin] cannot allow it—neither Putin nor the regional administrations. That is why they are fighting us so hard.

VOA: Your critics say that boycott and observation are incompatible. You have already explained the observation, can you please explain the logic of the boycott? Why, in your opinion, is this the right step?

Navalny: We do not recognize these elections as elections, but consider them a fake procedure. Because it is important not only to vote, it is important to influence politics—the opportunity to influence power, to express one’s opinion. Putin, realizing that he can achieve an overwhelming result only if he does not allow real competitors, envisioned all these scenarios and picked up the politicians under his control. We are faced with a construct in which they, the authorities, look into the eyes of the public and say: “You know, we will not allow you to choose your own people’s representatives. We offered you some people, you can vote for them.” Moreover, those whom they picked up, whatever I think about them, they did not even do anything. They did not campaign. Many of them, in general, found out what is going on two months before the election. So it’s fake, it’s a falsification, and it’s pointless to participate in the construct that from the get-go foresees Putin’s targeted “70/70” percent result. [As Washington Post contributor Christopher Jarmas reported in December: “Last year, the Kremlin’s top political technologists established a ’70 at 70′ objective for Putin’s reelection in March 2018—70 percent of the vote with 70 percent turnout.”]

VOA: It is known that the European pro-Kremlin politicians come to Russia as observers at the invitation of the State Duma. Their approval of these elections and their confirmation of the legitimacy of the favored candidate, Putin, is to be expected. How, when taking into account their connection with the Russian authorities, will the rest of the world treat such confirmation of the legitimacy of the winner?

Navalny: All those so-called European observers invited by the Duma: they are “observers” in the sense that other presidential candidates are “rivals” to Putin. Of course, this is an absolute fake. It’s ridiculous and unpleasant to look at how Putin corrupted and turned into his puppets a significant part of the European establishment. Even if we are talking about representatives of marginal parties, they nonetheless represent the European political establishment. As for legitimacy: it is not measured by any agreements or by the presence of international observers. This is a generally the populist mindset. Our task in this campaign is that as many people as possible understand that these are not elections and do not recognize them as such. That they consciously declare: “We will not go there.” And that’s how we fight it.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Austria Deports Afghan Sisters, Children Based on EU Ruling

Khadija Jafari cries as she looks at the asylum-seeker’s home in Croatia where she, her sister and their three children have spent three nights since they were deported from Austria.


The two women arrived in Austria as asylum-seekers from Afghanistan in 2016. They did their best to integrate by learning German and enrolling the children in school, Jafari said.


“I cry every day, every night, and cannot sleep. My child says every day, ‘Why am I not going to kindergarten?’” she told The Associated Press in German during an interview in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. “We cannot stay here.”


Austrian authorities argued the family should be sent to Croatia because of European Union regulations that require asylum-seekers to apply for protection in the first EU country they reached.


The European Court of Justice agreed in a landmark July ruling that puts the residency status of tens of thousands of other refugees in doubt.


After they fled Afghanistan, Jafari, her 4-year-old son, her sister and the sister’s two children traveled through Serbia to Croatia, an EU member country since July 2013. Croatian authorities arranged transportation to Slovenia, and the sisters and their children made their way to Austria.


Christoph Riedl, a policy adviser with humanitarian aid group Diakonie, said Austria has deported hundreds of asylum-seekers under the EU’s “Dublin” agreement. But lawyers argued the Jafari family had become so well-integrated that they and others like them should be allowed to remain.


Even with the European court ruling in the sisters’ appeal, Austria did not have to deport them, Riedl said. The court stressed that the Dublin agreement permitted countries to “unilaterally or bilaterally in a spirit of solidarity… examine applications for international protection lodged with them, even if they are not required to.”


“Austria should simply have shown some heart and solidarity as the European Court of Justice demanded in its ruling,” Riedl said.


It was Sunday when Austrian authorities came for the family of five.


“We were sleeping in our room and then the police came,” Jafari recalled, wiping tears from her face. “I fled to my neighbor, and the police came to me with a dog and found us, and then they sent us here.”

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Turkish Opposition Warns Legal Reforms Threaten Credible Elections

Turkish opposition parties are warning that the raft of electoral reforms parliament passed this week pose a threat to free and fair elections.

“They hid the package from the nation. Why? Because the law explains line by line how election fraud can be conducted,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition CHP party, said Tuesday after the measures were approved.

The reforms were so contentious that fistfights erupted in the parliamentary chamber among deputies as the articles were approved. The 26 changes include easing restrictions on the presence of security forces in ballot stations, allowing state governors to locate ballot boxes and authorizing security forces to remove ballot boxes.

One of the most contentious reforms is allowing the use of paper ballots that do not have official stamps. Until now, ballots had been issued to match the number of voters, which were then stamped by monitors drawn from all political parties.

Controversial 2017 referendum

The use of unstamped ballot papers has revived the controversial April 2017 referendum on extending President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers.

The extension was narrowly approved, but in the middle of vote counting, the electoral body controlling the election allowed unstamped ballots to be included. The decision to accept the votes as valid and the way in which it was implemented was criticized in a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Council of Europe referendum monitors.

“These decisions undermined an important safeguard against fraud,” the report noted.

The use of unstamped ballots in future elections has caused alarm among opposition parties.

“We can say there is very little hope there are going to be fair elections in Turkey, so the election themselves are under question,” warned Ertugral Kurkcu, parliamentary deputy and president of the pro-Kurdish HDP party. “Tayyip Erdogan put his hand inside the ballot box. Unless the situation is changed dramatically … every election is going to be tainted with fraud and the result won’t be legitimate.”

Voter fraud is of particular concern in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, the region at the center of a conflict between security forces and Kurdish insurgents.

During the 2016 presidential referendum, HDP party election monitors raised allegations of ballot-box stuffing. Several voting areas recorded 100 percent support for extending Erdogan’s powers, even though the area was a stronghold against the president.

Adding to such fears, Turkey remains under emergency rule, which was introduced after the failed 2016 coup.

“The next elections most probably take place under the state of emergency, and the government and the regime will do everything in its power to win all the elections. They will not allow any meaningful elections,” political scientist Cengiz Aktar warned.

Ruling party criticisms

Criticism over the latest electoral reforms and fears of fraud have been angrily dismissed by the ruling AK Party and its ally, the MHP party.

Mustafa Sentop, AK Party parliamentary deputy, described opposition party concerns as “ignorant.”

The ruling AK Party argued the reforms are aimed at ensuring fair elections and reducing the threat of voter intimidation.

The opposition CHP party, however, said monitoring elections and counting ballots are key elements of creating free and fair elections.

“For the security of the elections, we have already started working to ensure we will have 1 million volunteer observers, which will mean more than one overseer for each ballot box,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy head of the CHP party. “I am still hopeful for a just and honest election. At least we should make sure the results cannot be changed.”

The CHP has been frequently criticized by observers for failing to mobilize and marshal its members to properly scrutinize polls.

Already, government supporters have labeled monitoring efforts as subversive and a threat to fair elections.

“The two [opposition] parties’ aim is to create a perception among the public that elections are being manipulated by the ruling party, and the results are therefore illegitimate,” columnist Mehmet Acet wrote in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper earlier this month. He said adding a perception of illegitimacy can instigate a “change in government by nonelectoral means.”

Pro-Kurdish HDP party president Kurkcu said, “So what’s ahead for Turkey’s elections is a very big disagreement on how the vote is carried out. There is going to be a very heated debate in the coming days.”

The success of monitoring, especially under emergency rule, in next year’s presidential, general and local elections will be key to whether all parties will accept the election’s results, experts said.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Russian Opposition Leader Says Upcoming Election is Illegitimate   

Russians are expected to vote Sunday in a presidential election, but disqualified opposition candidate Alexei Navalny told VOA’s Russian service that he expected the entire process to be a sham, even down to the European election observers.

“All those so-called ‘European observers’ — they are as much observers as other candidates in these elections are ‘rivals’ to [President Vladimir] Putin,” Navalny said in a VOA interview Thursday. “Of course this is an absolute fake. It’s ridiculous and unpleasant to look at how Putin corrupted and turned into his puppets a significant part of the European establishment.”

Navalny, for years an anti-corruption activist and outspoken opponent of the government, was disqualified from the race in December because of a conviction for embezzlement. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the conviction was politically motivated, but it was upheld in Russian courts. Navalny was given a suspended five-year sentence. 

Navalny said Sunday’s election would be marked by illegitimacy. He has called for a boycott.

Putin faces seven challengers, but is expected to take an overwhelming majority of the vote.

“Our task in this campaign is that as many people as possible understand that these are not elections” and refuse to take part in them, Navalny  said. “And we will fight for it.”

Putin has been in power as either president or prime minister since 1999. He has switched back and forth between the two roles to circumvent a Russian law banning him from serving more than two consecutive terms as president.

Yet, opinion polls show he has far more support than any of his rivals, who run the gamut from far-right populist to far-left communist. With another Putin win practically guaranteed, Navalny and other experts say Russian authorities will try to use inflated voter turnout numbers to prove the election was a success.

Navalny said the elections are staged to look free and fair, but that at best they are an insincere effort. “We are faced with a construct in which they, the authorities, look into the eyes of the public and say: ‘You know we will not allow you to choose your own people’s representatives. We offered you some people — you can vote for them,’ ” he said. 

But, he added, “it’s pointless to participate in the construct that, from the get-go, foresees Putin’s result is over 70 percent.”

Sunday’s vote will span 11 time zones, starting with the far east and ending with the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, and 108,968,869 people are registered to cast ballots. State-owned polling company VCIOM projects a turnout of 71 percent. 

Yet, the Russian nongovernmental research organization Levada Center conducted a survey in December that indicated 58 percent of voters planned to boycott the elections.

VOA’s Russian service contributed to this report.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Colombia Probes Voter Registration Cyberattacks Traced to Russia’s Allies

Colombian government and military officials say the government is investigating tens of thousands of cyberattacks on the country’s voter registration systems, and traced the incidents to Russia’s key allies in the region.

More than 50,000 attacks on the web platform of Colombia’s national voter registry were detected during the run-up to March 11 parliamentary elections, according to Defense Minister Luis Villegas, who said some of the hacks were staged from Venezuela, which has become a proxy for Russia.

While Villegas did not specifically mention Russia at a March 8 press conference in which he denounced the ongoing incidents, he said three of the hacks — which each triggered repeated robotic attacks — were linked to internet addresses in Colombia, while one was identified as coming from Venezuela. Colonel Jose Marulanda, a Colombian intelligence analyst, said Russia was seeking a foothold in the region.

“Russia is increasingly using Venezuela as a base for covert operations in its growing rivalry with the U.S. for international influence that is starting to affect Latin America to a point not seen since the Cold War,” said Marulanda, who has held senior intelligence posts in the Colombian army and been a security director for major international companies.

Russia has sold billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated armaments to Venezuela, which has granted major oil concessions to Russian companies. Russian loans are sustaining Venezuela from a debt default that would otherwise lead to its total economic collapse.

Colombia could be the latest target in a string of Russian attempts to interfere with elections around the world through electronic hacking. Such attempts have been detected in the U.S. and several EU countries, according to American and European security agencies, which have traced thousands of robot accounts used in the operations to troll farms in Russia and Venezuela.

Venezuela hosted one-third of the robot accounts used in a recent Russian cyberoffensive supporting the secession of Spain’s northeast region of Catalonia, according to Spain’s Defense Ministry, which denounced it as a plot to destabilize a key NATO ally.

Targeting voter ID data

The cyberattacks that bombarded Colombia last week were aimed at jamming the national registry’s webpage, which contains the identification data of more than 35 million voters, according to Colombian defense officials.

Colombian election results could be vulnerable to electronic manipulation due to traditionally low voter turnout, rarely topping 50 percent, and the fractious nature of its politics, with about 10 competing parties.

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro has called Colombia’s latest elections a “joke.”

While Colombia’s latest round of voting received relatively little coverage in the international news media, it comes at a crucial moment for Colombia and Venezuela. The neighboring countries are at odds over a flood of Venezuelan refugees into Colombia, as well as guerrilla activity across their shared border.

Chronic shortages of food and medicine, quadruple-digit inflation and intensified government repression have caused more than half a million Venezuelans to flee to Colombia in recent weeks.

FARC rebels

The balloting marked Colombia’s first elections since a controversial peace deal was struck last year between the centrist government of President Juan Manuel Santos and leftist FARC rebels who have close relations with Venezuela and bought arms from Russia, according to the U.S. Southern Command. The U.S. Southern Command provides contingency planning, operations and security cooperation in areas that include South America and other parts of Latin America.

Right-wing parties have threatened to scratch key terms of the peace deal, which guarantees FARC congressional representation, despite its negligible showing at the polls. The FARC was Latin America’s biggest rebel group and demobilized last year following the peace agreement.

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose group obtained the largest share of votes — 20 percent — in Sunday’s balloting, has called for a coup against Maduro.

Marulanda says the attack on the voter registry was conducted by Cuban computer experts trained over decades in electronic intelligence by Russia, which manages Venezuela’s voter registration and national identification systems. Cuba’s communist government, which continues to be a close ally of Russia, receives vital oil subsidies from Venezuela.

Colombia’s right-wing parties did not do as well in Sunday’s voting as opinion polls predicted, according to Colombian political analysts, who ascribe their underperformance to possible outside tampering.

The crucial test will come with presidential elections scheduled for May. They are expected to pit conservative Senator Ivan Duque against Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla leader of the M-19 movement.

Cyberattacks are expected to intensify in the run-up to the presidential contest, according to Colombian defense spokespersons, who say that more incidents have taken place since Sunday’s vote.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Slovenian Prime Minister Resigns

Slovenia Prime Minister Miro Cerar resigned late Wednesday over a Supreme Court decision nullifying a referendum in favor of a major railroad project.

“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Cerar said in his resignation note to parliament. “The second track project has been hit by another blow taken by those who want to stop Slovenia’s positive development. I don’t want to be part of such stories.”

He plans to submit his resignation to President Borut Pahor Thursday.

Voters in September approved the $1.2 billion project to extend a key rail line from an Adriatic port to the Italian border.

But the Slovenian Supreme Court ordered a new vote, saying the government unfairly influenced voters to approve the project.

Cerar said the rail line would be of “strategic importance for the development of Slovenia.”

Cerar says his center-left coalition is leaving the country in much better economic shape than it was when it took power in 2014.

Parliamentary elections are set for June, but Cerar’s resignation may move them up.