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Russian Prosecutors Seek 3½ Years for ‘Pokemon Go’ Blogger

Russian prosecutors requested a 3½ year prison sentence Friday for a blogger charged with inciting religious hatred for playing “Pokemon Go” in a church.

Prosecutors made the request as the trial of Ruslan Sokolovsky, 22, wrapped up in the city of Yekaterinburg. A judge said a verdict in the case would be issued May 11.

Sokolovsky posted a video on his blog showing him playing the smartphone game in a church built on the supposed spot where the last Russian tsar and his family were killed. He has been in detention since October.

He is charged with inciting religious hatred. It is the same offense that sent two women from the Pussy Riot punk collective to prison for two years in 2012.

“Honestly, I’m really in shock that the state prosecutors asked for 3 ½ years,” particularly because it wasn’t a violent offense, Sokolovsky was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

He said he is studying and working and could lose everything, if he is sent to prison.

The state RIA Novosti news agency quoted his lawyer, Alexei Bushmakov, saying he hoped for acquittal or a suspended sentence.

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Turkey Arrests American and Briton Entering From Syria

An American and a British man, allegedly members of the Islamic State group, were arrested in Turkey after crossing the border from Syria and handing themselves over to the authorities, officials said Friday.

A Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government protocol, said American Kary Paul Kleman and Briton Stefan Aristidou arrived at Oncupinar border crossing in Kilis province on April 20 and were arrested four days later.

Kleman was traveling with his Syrian wife and four children. His family was put under administrative detention to be deported to the U.S. in order to keep them together, according to the official.

A British Foreign Office official said British authorities are in contact with Turkish authorities “following the detention of a British man on the Turkey/Syria border.” Aristidou’s British wife and child would be deported to the U.K., according to the Turkish official.

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported Friday that the men were detained and later arrested on suspicion that they are members of the extremist Islamic State group.

Anadolu said two Egyptians and four more children were also traveling with the group and will be deported.

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Protesters Attack Macedonian Lawmakers After Albanian Voted as Speaker

Scores of protesters, many wearing masks, broke through a police cordon and entered Macedonia’s parliament late Thursday, attacking lawmakers to protest the election of a new speaker despite a months-long deadlock in talks to form a new government.

The protesters stormed parliament after the country’s opposition Social Democrats and parties representing Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority voted for a new speaker. Shouting and throwing chairs, the protesters attacked lawmakers, including opposition leader Zoran Zaev, who television footage showed bleeding from the forehead.



Television footage showed Zaev and other Social Democrat lawmakers surrounded by protesters waving national flags, shouting “traitors” and refusing to allow them to leave.

Macedonia has been without a government since December, when former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s conservative party won elections, but without enough votes to form a government.

Coalition talks broke down over ethnic Albanian demands that Albanian be recognized as an official second language. One-fourth of Macedonia’s population is ethnic Albanian.

Zaev has been seeking a mandate to form a government for months, after reaching an agreement with an ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, to form a coalition government. However, President Gjorge Ivanov refused to hand him the mandate.

The Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia, as the Balkan nation’s parliament is known, has been deadlocked for three weeks over electing a new speaker. Zaev had suggested earlier Thursday that one could be elected outside normal procedures, an idea immediately rejected by the conservative party as an attempted coup.

Zaev went ahead with the vote, and a majority in parliament elected Talat Xhaferi, a former defense minister and member of the Democratic Union for Integration.

Police said about 10 officers were injured during the melee and that reinforcements have been sent to assist those inside the parliament building.

DUI party spokesman Artan Grubi told Telma TV in a telephone interview that Zaev and three other lawmakers had been injured.

“This is a sad day for Macedonia,” Grubi said.

The protesters who stormed parliament Thursday night were among a group of demonstrators who have been holding protest rallies nightly for the past two months in the streets of Skopje and other cities in the country over the political situation. Many are supporters of Gruevski.

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn condemned Thursday’s violence, saying in a tweet that “Violence has NO place in Parliament. Democracy must run its course.”

Sweden’s ambassador to Macedonia, Mats Staffansson, speaking on behalf of other European diplomats, reminded the country’s politicians of the need for dialogue and said “it is the responsibility of the police of this country to make sure that this kind of violence does not happen.”

WATCH: Protesters storm Macedonian parliament

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Russia-West Tensions Exposed at Moscow Security Conference

Tensions between Russia and the West over security in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have surfaced at an annual defense conference in Moscow. Major flashpoints include the situation in Syria and NATO expansion.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a stark warning about the expanding threat of terrorism and conflict across the globe at the opening Wednesday of the two-day Moscow Conference on International Security.

“The situation in the world is not becoming more stable or predictable, rather the opposite,” he said. “In front of our eyes we see that tension on both global and regional levels is on the rise. Further erosion of international law is obvious, so are attempts to use force to promote personal interests, to strengthen own security at the expense of others’ security, to contain by all means the process of a formation of a polycentric world order.”

Middle East

As if to underscore the point, Israeli missiles hit a suspected Iranian arms depot in Damascus just hours after Lavrov and Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman met on the sidelines of the security conference.

Those airstrikes also symbolize the complicated nature of Russia’s relationship with Israeli and Iran, says analyst Alexey Malashenko via Skype.

“Russia is playing a very difficult game between Israel and Iran,” he said. “It creates some problems. … I think similar situation will continue. So, Russia will keep the normal relations with both countries.”

Russia says it wants a global alliance against terrorists and is fighting them in Syria just like a U.S.-led Western alliance has been doing.

But Western and Arab states say Russia is defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and they accuse him of responsibility for a chemical attack on civilians this month that Moscow and Damascus blame on Syrian rebels.

The Western alliance wants Assad out of power, but the Kremlin fears losing its ally in Damascus would mean losing regional influence.

“Maybe the problem of Bashar al-Assad, his presidency, is most painful problem for Kremlin because indeed, it has to be replaced, and Putin and in Kremlin they understand it. That’s no doubt,” Malashenko said. “But, anyway, by whom it’s possible to replace him, who will come instead of him? This is a problem.”


Another problem, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, is the gradual expansion of the NATO Western military alliance into eastern Europe.

“NATO is a military and political bloc and not a group of stamp collectors. It follows a course of projecting its power and bringing more and more states into its orbit,” Shoigu said at the conference opening. “The recent decision to make Montenegro an alliance member is the latest proof of that. Podgorica’s military potential is close to zero, but its geographic location allows [the alliance] to strengthen control over the Balkans.”

Montenegro’s opposition held protests Tuesday against joining NATO. Many fear joining the Western alliance could upset relations with Russia, or even lead to a military clash.

Also this week, U.S. fighter jets arrived in Estonia, and British typhoon jets went to Romania, as NATO reassures members concerned about Russian aggression.

Trust is almost completely eroded between NATO and the Kremlin, says the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Petr Topychkanov via Skype.

“It all started from Yugoslavia in 1990s, but then Georgia war, NATO extension, missile defense programs — United States and NATO — and, of course, the most recent and the most important thing was the Crimea annexation by Russia.”

On East Asia, Russian President Vladimir Putin and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed North Korea’s nuclear program.

Russia agrees to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions, but only through the U.N. Security Council.

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Solar Power Farm Sprouts at Chernobyl Nuclear Site

Thirty years ago this week, the world eyes focused on the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, where the world’s worst nuclear accident was contaminating swaths of what was then the Soviet Union. Now, that nuclear wasteland is being transformed into a solar farm that could generate as much energy as two units of the doomed nuclear plant. VOA’s Oksana Ligostova reports from Kyiv, narrated by Steve Redisch.

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McCain Calls for Greater US, EU Engagement in Balkans

Increased U.S. and European engagement in the Western Balkans will be critical to countering an increasingly assertive Russian in the region, Republican Arizona Senator John McCain told VOA Wednesday.

McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made the comments shortly after returning from a tour of the region, which included a stop in Montenegro, whose U.S.-backed accession to NATO has been vigorously opposed by Russia.

“Some age-old, some new tensions in the region require our attention, and my concern is that as our attention has been diverted to Ukraine, the Middle East, to China … and it’s very clear the Russians are trying to extend their malign influence in the region,” he said. “The attempt at a coup in Montenegro is a graphic example of that.”

A provocation for Russia

Russia has described Montenegro’s NATO membership as a provocation, because of the country’s geographical proximity to Russia. The Kremlin has long seen the Balkans as inside its sphere of influence.

Further evidence of Russian influence in campaigns in Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo, McCain added, are “a result of a lack of American and European leadership.”

“We fought a conflict there. There was enormous loss of life, and we seemed to have walked away in recent years,” he said.

The European Reassurance Initiative, launched by the Obama White House in 2014, represents the kind of joint military-diplomatic strategy that McCain wants the U.S. to replicate throughout southeastern Europe. Under that program, which boosted the U.S. military presence in Poland and the Baltics, the U.S. plans to quadruple military spending in Europe to $3.4 billion in 2017.

“In the Baltics we are doing some very interesting and useful things,” McCain said, referring to U.S.-NATO troop rotations, the stockpiling of military hardware and the formation of a rapid-reaction force designed to counter Russian military aggression, such as Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. “And yet, to a large degree, we seem to be ignoring arguably the most volatile place in Europe.”

Macedonia’​s importance

He called the “very dynamic and explosive situation in Macedonia” just one example of where increased U.S. advocacy and mediation will be vital to de-escalating regional tensions.

“It’s not in anybody’s interest to the see the breakup of Macedonia. No one should ever, ever forget that two world wars were spawned at a bridge in Sarajevo, with the assassination of [Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria],” he said. “…I’m not predicting a world war or even conflict, but I am saying the tensions are rising and the situation is deteriorating.”

U.S. and Western allies, he said, should also stabilize the region via the soft-diplomacy of aid packages targeting increased employment, youth engagement and counterterror efforts.

A balance in Serbia

Despite increasing political power consolidation in nearby Hungary and Bulgaria, McCain said Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s ascension to power in Serbia, which has long-established ties to Russia, means the newly elected president-elect will need to strike a diplomatic balance.

“He (Vucic) knows the citizenry is much more pro-European than it is pro-Russian, and I don’t think he wants to be perceived as being too closely aligned with Russia,” McCain said. “I found my conversations with him productive.”

Trump, Russia ties

Asked about an executive branch investigation into ties between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia, McCain said, “There will be more shoes to drop before this is over.”

On May 8, a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony regarding the issue from Sally Yates, former acting attorney general, and James Clapper, former director of national intelligence.

That subcommittee will be headed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, one of McCain’s closest political allies.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Serbian Service.


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A Grand Solar Farm Is About to Launch at Chernobyl

It’s hard to think all the way back to the events of April 26, 1986. Nonetheless, it has become a standout moment in a world of nuclear accidents: Chernobyl.

In the early days of what would become the world’s worst nuclear accident, 32 people died and dozens of others suffered painful radiation burns.

It took Swedish authorities reporting the fallout to prompt the Soviets to admit an accident had occurred.

For years, it seemed that all the people who chose to stay in Chernobyl mourned, and tried to manage.

The area was ignored for decades, first by the Soviet government and later by the Ukrainian government.

In Photos: 31 Years Later, Chernobyl Disaster Remembered

Then, suddenly, there were signs of activity, perhaps even renewal.

“Today, almost a year after we have started the work, I can announce the first private investment project working in the Chernobyl zone to build a small solar energy plant,” Ostap Semerak, Ukraine’s minister of ecology, said in an exclusive interview with VOA.

It’s projected to be completed in May.

Watch: Solar Power Farm Sprouts at Chernobyl Nuclear Site

More than 50 companies — energy giants and small companies alike — have submitted their applications, expressing interest in the solar farm in the Exclusion Zone. When this park becomes a reality, all the fields combined will be able to produce half of the power that had been produced by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the early days.

“Cumulatively, those would be enough to produce 2.5 gigawatts of power, which would be 2,500 megawatts,” said Semerak. “This is comparable to the output by two units of a nuclear power plant. This is about half the capacity which the Chernobyl power plant had before the disaster.”

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Voices From Around the World Rate Trump’s First 100 Days

It was the most stunning political victory of the 21st century, one that brought shocked concern in many parts of the world and cheers in others. One uncontroversial certainty was that it would cause reverberations around the globe.


Donald Trump campaigned on an “America First” platform, but has found himself as president drawn into thorny geopolitical complexities aplenty in the first 100 days of his administration. Relations with Russia plummeted to “an all-time low,” as Trump himself described it, in the wake of the U.S. missile strikes on the Syrian government’s airfield in response to a deadly chemical attack. The administration’s Syria policy and how to handle President Bashar al-Assad seesawed.


A window of opportunity appeared with China after Trump hosted President Xi Jinping for a summit at his Florida estate, but tensions on the Korean Peninsula soared over North Korea’s nuclear program. Mexico showed consternation and agitation over the president’s planned border wall, but gave no sign it would pay for the structure as Trump had repeatedly promised voters.


Trump’s travel ban rocked refugees and asylum-seekers in several Muslim-majority nations, though it was blocked by federal courts at home. There were echoes of darker U.S.-Iran days, but nothing yet that would derail the landmark nuclear deal, as the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued to simmer.


Associated Press journalists in North Korea, Syria, Iran, Somalia, Israel, the West Bank, Russia, Germany and Mexico have gauged the global temperature by asking people five questions:

Do you feel more secure under a Trump presidency, or in danger?


Yuliya Konyakhina, Moscow: “I have a feeling that the world became more dangerous in general, not because Trump got elected, but in general it (the world) became more dangerous. When I go down to a metro I have sort of thoughts that something bad can happen.”


Shahrzad Ebrahimi, Tehran, Iran: “[The world] is 100 percent a more dangerous place. The U.S. threats to the world had been lessened during [Barack] Obama’s presidency and policies of that country were based on moving toward peace for at least eight years. But as soon as Trump took office, demonstrations began against him and the situations in Syria, Palestine, bombings, military and war threats all got worse. The more he sticks with his current policies, the more insecure and non-peaceful the world, especially the Middle East, will become. As you can see, now he is exchanging verbal blows with North Korea. Sometimes one can assume that this situation can even trigger a third world war.”  


Kim Hyang Byol, Pyongyang, North Korea: “It’s coming to 100 days since Trump became president, but we don’t care who the president is. The problem is whether they’re going to stop their hostile policy against North Korea, and whether they will do anything to help us reunify our country.”


Rustam Magamedov, Moscow: “[Trump is] agent provocateur, but in reality, he is just a good showman, as they say in the U.S. The fact that he became a president is rather scary, because he can start a war. It seems like that he is already moving toward the Korean borders. I think it is dangerous, first of all for Russia, because as a president and politician he is a bad person, a bad politician who has little understanding of politics.


Dan Mirkin, Tel Aviv, Israel: “Yeah, well maybe a little bit more dangerous. But I think that the steps that he took should have been taken a long time ago. And if it became more dangerous, then it’s not only because of Trump. Although, he has other drawbacks.”


Is the Trump administration more bark than bite?


Diane Lallouz, Tel Aviv: “It’s true that Donald Trump has a loud bark and you can say it’s more bark than bite. But, not really. It’s enough that he takes a few actions as opposed to not doing anything. He talks a lot, sometimes way too much and right off the sleeve without actually thinking about it and that may be a problem. But, at least the world knows that Donald Trump is going to take action when required.”


Raya Sauerbrun, Tel Aviv: “If it’s barking or if it’s doing, at least it shows that it’s doing something.  If it will sustain for a long time, we don’t know.”


Mohamed Shire, Mogadishu, Somalia: “This might be a new step; this might be a new strategy. We probably have to wait and see, but I think the United States administration needs to be very careful in just getting involved in Somalia without having a clear strategy and program that they align with the current Somali government.”


Yadollah Sobhani, Tehran: “Trump comes out with a lot of hype at first but eventually backs down from some of his stances on issues such as Russia, Middle East, Syria and so on. His inconsistent actions have proven that his bark is worse than his bite and he should not be taken very seriously.”


Majed Mokheiber, Damascus, Syria: “This is why we cannot predict whether there will be stability or more military security. In addition to that, we see that there are military tension spots around the world in other areas such as North Korea … that frankly may lead to a big explosion and a world war.”


Juan Pablo Bolanos, Mexico City: “I think it’s a bit of both. On the issue of sending Mexicans back, it is being fulfilled by the guy, Trump, and on the issue of building the wall, I definitely think he will not achieve it.”

Has Trump changed your views about America?

Ra So Yon, Pyongyang, North Korea: “After Trump became president, there has been no improvement in America’s image. If America doesn’t stop its aggression against us and pressure on us, then we’ll never have any good image of America; it will only get worse. We’ll never be surprised, whatever America does. And we’re not expecting any surprises from Trump.”


Yuri (no last name given), Moscow: “Nothing actually had changed, for real. Nothing had changed in Russian-American relations. They aren’t our friends or enemies. Geopolitical enemies, maybe, that’s it.”


Margret Machner, Berlin: “My trust at the moment is a lot less than it was earlier. One had the feeling that America was a strong, safe partner and I do not believe this anymore.”


Dan Mirkin, Tel Aviv: “I think that the U.S. remains the beacon of democracy because the U.S. itself is much more than its president. The president can be less or more of a beacon. But, America is a beacon.”


Hamza Abu Maria, Hebron, West Bank: “I’m about 30 years old, and since I grew up and started to understand and follow news, I don’t think the United States up until today was a beacon of democracy. If it was truly democratic, then from a long time ago they would have done justice to the Palestinian people.”


Mohammad Ali, Damascus: “We should never bet on any American administration, either Republican or Democrat. It’s the same front, supposedly to fight terrorism, but they didn’t do any of that. Instead they carried out an aggression against a sovereign state, which is Syria. They attacked Syria and they attacked the air base of a sovereign state and a member of the Arab League.”


Deqo Salaad, Mogadishu: “The U.S. was once both the beacon of democracy and human rights, but nowadays, a big change has happened as we can see more segregation committed by President Trump, especially when he said he was going to ban Muslims coming to the U.S. And with that, he has damaged the reputation of the U.S. of being the beacon of democracy and human rights in this world that the U.S. government promoted for ages now.”


Are we now living in a “post-truth” world?


Diane Lallouz, Tel Aviv: “I don’t think that we’re existing in a post-truth world and I don’t think that the way we consume information has anything to do with Trump. Actually over the last several decades we are getting information more and more on social media, so people are getting small amounts of information. Not too much real knowledge and that’s part of the problem. People are making judgments based on tiny amounts of truth or half-truth or non-truths, and it’s impossible to know, by the social media, what is really true. Is Trump the cause of this? I don’t think so. I think Trump is just a part of the picture that we live in today.”


Dan Mirkin, Tel Aviv: “I don’t think it affects the way that I consume information but it certainly changes the way in which the information is delivered, and the fact of alternative truth, alternative facts is a new invention, so we have to apply filters more than before.”


Mahmoud Draghmeh, Nablus, West Bank: “The world is far from the truth, despite the fact the technological development helped the news to reach. But I think that there is a distance from the truth, because the media, with all my respect to the different media outlets, everyone adopts his idea and exports it to the world.”


What has surprised you about President Trump?


Ute Hubner, Berlin: “I find he is very honest – more honest than I thought in the sense that a lot isn’t pushed under the table. He says it like it is, while here in our case so much is said and talked about that “everything is fine, wonderful and all is good,” while we know that the reality is more often than not something else.”


Fatmeh (full name not given) Damascus: “Trump increased problems in the Arab world and the first proof is the strike on Syria. This has increased problems and confusion. He didn’t do anything against terrorism; he only increased it. There is nothing new. His policy has been to oppress people, especially the Arab people. We didn’t see anything new.”


Yadollah Sobhani, Tehran: “What shocked me most from Trump was a sudden shift in his policies toward Russia from a friendly position to a clash. I did not expect such instability in a politician’s behavior.”

Payam Mosleh, Tehran: “What scared me most was the classification of human beings (under Trump’s proposed Muslim ban). I think history has taught and shown us enough times that separating people from each other has never done anyone any good. Building walls either in Berlin or America has no results and is disastrous.”


Mahdieh Gharib, Tehran: “What surprised me most was preventing Iranians from entering the United States or even barring those Iranians who were U.S. residents and had temporarily left that country. Bombing Syria was the second thing that surprised me.”


Shimon Abitbol, Tel Aviv: “He’s playing too much golf. That’s the only thing I’m surprised by. I mean, how can he have so much time to play so much golf?

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Britain Records First Coal-free Day Since Industrial Revolution

Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began more than 200 years ago, has recorded its first full day without using coal power. The milestone was achieved Friday, following years of investment in renewable energy — a trend being replicated in some other European countries, and even in developing nations. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.