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Chechnya’s Kadyrov Says Ready to Resign, Have Kremlin Pick Successor

Ramzan Kadyrov, the outspoken leader of Russia’s Chechnya republic, said he was ready to step down, leaving it for the Kremlin to choose his successor.

Kadyrov, a 41-year-old father of 12 whose interests vary from thoroughbred horses to wrestling and boxing, has been accused by human rights bodies of arbitrary arrests and torture of opponents, zero tolerance of sexual minorities and tough political declarations that have embarrassed the Kremlin.

A former Islamist rebel who had led Chechnya since 2007, he was endorsed by President Vladimir Putin in March last year to carry on in the job, while being warned that Russian law must be strictly enforced in the majority-Muslim region.

Asked in a TV interview if he was prepared to resign, Kadyrov replied: “It is possible to say that it is my dream.”

“Once there was a need for people like me to fight, to put things in order. Now we have order and prosperity … and time has come for changes in the Chechen Republic,” he told Rossiya 1 nationwide channel in comments aired early on Monday in central Russia.

Asked about his would-be successor, Kadyrov replied: “This is the prerogative of the state leadership.”

“If I am asked … there are several people who are 100 percent capable of carrying out these duties at the highest level.” He did not elaborate.

Kadyrov’s unexpected statement comes as Putin, 65, is widely expected to announce he will run for his fourth term as president in elections due in March.

The former KGB spy is widely expected to win by a landslide if he chooses to seek re-election, but some analysts have said his association with politicians like Kadyrov may be exploited by opponents during the campaign.

Chechnya, devastated by two wars in which government troops fought pro-independence rebels, has been rebuilt thanks to generous financial handouts from Russia’s budget coffers. It remains one of Russia’s most heavily subsidized regions.

Describing Putin as his “idol,” Kadyrov said in the interview: “I am ready to die for him, to fulfill any order.”

Kadyrov also strongly denied a Chechen link to the killing of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015.

In June, a Moscow court convicted five Chechen men of murdering Nemtsov, one of Putin’s most vocal critics.

Nemtsov had been working on a report examining Russia’s role in Ukraine. His killing sent a chill through opposition circles.

“I am more than confident … these [Chechen] guys had nothing to do with that. According to my information, they are innocent,” Kadyrov said in the interview.

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Pope Francis Hopes to Bring Spotlight to Myanmar Refugee Crisis

Pope Francis is to arrive Monday in Myanmar in an effort to draw global attention to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church is to visit Bangladesh on Thursday.

The pontiff’s schedule does not include a visit to a refugee camp, but he is expected to meet with a small group of Rohingya in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

“I am coming to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace,” Pope Francis told Vatican Radio, “My visit is meant to confirm the Catholic community of Myanmar in its worship of God and its witness to the gospel.”

In recent weeks, Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, according to officials from both countries.

Despite the deal, Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario told the French news agency AFP, the situation remains “explosive and tough to resolve.”

“I am hopeful the Rohingya can be returned to Myanmar,” D’Rozario, the Archbishop of Dhaka, told AFP.

Reports said the deal was signed following talks in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw, with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali. The French news agency AFP quoted Ali as saying, “This is a primary step. [They] will take back [Rohingya]. Now we have to start working.”

The U.N. refugee agency spokesperson said conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.

“Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Friday.

D’Rozario, who was made cardinal by Francis in 2016, is still looking forward to the pontiff’s visit. There are about 360,000 Catholics in Bangladesh.

“The cries of the Rohingya are the cries of humanity,” D’Rozario said. “These cries ought to be heard and addressed. The main thing is to tell the people ‘We are on your side,” he said.

The cardinal spent two days visiting a refugee camp, speaking with families forced to leave their homes in Rakhine state.

“The international response for relief has been satisfactory, but how long will it last for? Generosity will not continue to flow as it did in the initial phase of the crisis.”

D’Rozario added that Bangladesh, though overcrowded and impoverished, deserves praise for its efforts in helping those fleeing violence.

“There are a lot of tensions, social tensions. Land is not available. It’s a very densely populated country, physically they don’t have any space. I admire the local people [for their restraint], the population has more than doubled. There are environmental issues with all the trees cut to make shelters. There will be landslides when there is big rain,” he said.

About 600,000 people have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, which is now undergoing its own crisis as it seeks to accommodate the Rohingya.

“It is not possible for Bangladesh alone to tackle this. The future looks very bleak,” D’Rozario said.

 

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Germany’s Merkel Faces pressure for Quick Coalition Talks

Chancellor Angela Merkel faced pressure from inside her conservative bloc Sunday to aim for a quick coalition deal with center-left rivals without conceding too much ground on core issues such as immigration.

Talks between Merkel’s conservative bloc and two smaller parties to form a previously untried coalition collapsed a week ago. Merkel’s partners in the outgoing government, the center-left Social Democrats, initially refused to consider a repeat but said Friday they’re open to holding talks.

If Merkel can’t put together a coalition, the only options would be a minority government or a new election, months after the Sept. 24 vote.

On Sunday, the youth wing of Merkel’s Union bloc published a resolution stating that the conservatives must not enter a coalition “at any price.” Its leader, Paul Ziemiak, said any deal must contain recognizable conservative policies, particularly on migration and public finances.

Merkel’s conservatives have pushed to curb migrant flows and are keen to ensure that Germany sticks to a balanced budget.

Negotiations “should be viewed as failed” if there is no deal by Christmas and the conservatives should instead aim for an unprecedented minority government, the resolution said.

It remains to be seen what party leaders will make of the proposed timetable, which looks unrealistic. Meanwhile, Merkel’s outgoing Cabinet remains in office on a caretaker basis.

The Social Democrats, smarting from a disastrous result in September, have made clear they would demand a high price for cooperating again with Merkel’s Union bloc.

“As things stand, Merkel is not in a position in which she can set conditions,” prominent Social Democrat Malu Dreyer told the daily Trierscher Volksfreund on Saturday.

Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper that her caretaker government won’t take decisions that could bind its successor’s hands on “major political questions.” That includes French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for reforming the European Union.

Altmaier said the “constructive restraint” applies to “all European questions” as well as domestic matters, but said Berlin’s position on Brexit won’t be affected.

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Pope Holds Minute of Silence for Egypt Mosque Attack Victims

The pope has led a minute of silence in St. Peter’s Square for the victims of the deadly attack on a mosque in Egypt.

Francis said following the traditional Angelus greeting on Sunday that the victims “were praying in that moment. We also pray in silence for them.”

The pope said the attack on Friday “brought great pain,” adding that he continued to pray for the dead and the wounded “and for the whole of that community, that has been so hard hit.”

The pope previously expressed in a telegram his “strong condemnation” of the attack, which killed 305 people in the deadliest assault by Islamic extremists in modern Egyptian history.

The pontiff also asked for prayers for his six-day trip Myanmar and Bangladesh, for which he departs later Sunday.

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Ukraine Honors Memory of Holodomor Victims

Ukraine is marking the official Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holodomor, which commemorates the millions who died of famine under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

In central Kyiv on Saturday, President Petro Poroshenko and hundreds of other people laid symbolic wheat ears and lit candles before the monument commemorating victims of the famine.

“Today we commemorate the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor, perhaps the greatest disaster in the history of Ukraine and one of the most terrible tragedies in human history of the last century,” the president wrote in a message on Twitter.

Mourning events were expected to take place throughout Ukraine, where the Day of Remembrance for the victims of the famine is marked every year on the fourth Saturday of November.

The Holodomor took place in 1932 and 1933 as Soviet authorities forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs.

Historians say the seizure of the 1932 crop in Ukraine by Soviet authorities was the main cause of the famine. Moscow has long denied any systematic effort to target Ukrainians, arguing a poor harvest at the time wiped out many in other parts of what was then the Soviet Union.

It is estimated that as many as 9 million people may have died as a result of executions, deportation or starvation during the Stalin-era campaign.

Moscow seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and fomented separatism across much of the country — one of the causes of a war that has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

Russia denies it has sent troops, weapons or other support to help the separatists fight government forces in eastern Ukraine, despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidence.

In a message on Twitter, Poroshenko urged “all political forces to unite for the sake of Ukraine.”

He also said that Russia’s “aggression against us is a continuation of the same policy to destroy Ukraine with other methods, which Moscow introduced in the ’30s of the last century.”

Meanwhile, Oleksandr Turchynov, chief of the National Security and Defense Council, said in a statement that “there is a war and we again see manic attempts to destroy Ukraine.”

Some material for this report came from AFP.

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Russian President Signs ‘Foreign Agents’ Media Legislation

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed legislation that empowers the government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as “foreign agents” and impose sanctions against them.

The new law was published on Russia’s official legal information Internet portal on Saturday.

The measure passed the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, Wednesday in a unanimous 154-0 vote, with one abstention.

And it was unanimously approved in the third and final reading in the lower house, the State Duma, on November 15. Within hours, the Justice Ministry sent warnings to several Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) news services.

The letters did not specify what potential restrictions they could face, but lawmakers have said designated media could be subjected to detailed financial-reporting requirements and required to label published material as coming from a foreign agent.

RFE/RL was among several media outlets that Russian officials warned could be labeled a foreign agent, a list that also included the Voice of America (VOA), CNN, and Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.

In response to news that Putin signed the law, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said, “We cannot speculate at this time on the effect of the new law, since no news organization has yet been specifically named as a ‘foreign agent’ and the restrictions to be imposed on such ‘agents’ have not been announced.”

“We remain committed to continuing our journalistic work, in the interests of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian-speaking audiences,” he added.

John Lansing, director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors which oversees VOA and RFE/RL, said in a statement Saturday, “RFE/RL, VOA, and the other networks of U.S. international media will remain committed to our mission, stipulated by U.S. law, to provide accurate, objective, and comprehensive journalism and other content to our global audiences, including in the Russian Federation.

“We will study carefully all communications we may receive from Russian authorities concerning our operations. While we will not speculate as to the effect that any new steps by the Russian government will have on our journalistic work, any characterization of such steps as reciprocity for U.S. actions severely distorts reality,” Lansing said.

The international rights organization Amnesty International has said the legislation would deal a “serious blow” to media freedom in Russia, although Russian officials have said it would not apply to domestic media.

Russian officials have called the new legislation a “symmetrical response” to what they describe as U.S. pressure on Russian media. On November 13, the Russian state-funded television channel RT registered in the United States under a decades-old law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Lansing, however, denied Moscow’s actions were “symmetrical.” “Russian media, including RT and Sputnik, are free to operate in the United States and can be, and are, carried by U.S. cable television outlets and FM radio stations.  However, U.S international media, including VOA and RFE/RL, are banned from television and radio in Russia,” he said in a statement released Saturday.

The U.S. Justice Department required RT to register in the wake of a January finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that RT and Russia’s Sputnik news agency spread disinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In a November 15 statement, RFE/RL said the “situation regarding Russian media in the U.S. and U.S. media in Russia remains vastly unequal.”

“RT and Sputnik distribute freely in the U.S., whereas RFE/RL has lost its broadcast affiliates in Russia due to administrative pressures, and has no access to cable,” it said. “RFE/RL reporters are subject to harassment and even physical attack in Russia.”

Visiting the Moscow bureau of RFE/RL and VOA on November 17, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman said that the Russian legislation was a “big concern” for the United States and that “the principles of free media in any free society and democracy are absolutely critical for strength and well-being.”

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Fugitive Catalan Leader Launches Campaign From Belgium

The fugitive leader of Catalonia’s separatist movement has launched his campaign for the upcoming Catalan elections from Belgium, where he awaits extradition.

Carles Puigdemont, who wants to be re-elected as regional president, launched “Together for Catalonia” from Bruges on Saturday. Spanish media reports that 90 of the candidates he chose traveled from Catalonia in northeastern Spain to the Belgian city for the launch.

Puigdemont and four former members of his government fled to Belgium following a declaration of independence by Catalonia’s parliament on Oct. 27 and a swift crackdown by Spanish authorities, which included firing his government and calling regional elections for Dec. 21.

Puigdemont’s extradition could take several weeks or longer, meaning he can run his campaign from abroad. He faces arrest if he returns to Spain.

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Pope Francis Faces Diplomatic Challenges with Visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh

Pope Francis visits Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh next week amid international outrage over what the U.S. describes as the ethnic cleansing, of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. During the Nov. 26 through Dec. 2 trip, the pope will meet with Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders as well as Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. As Jesusemen Oni reports, all eyes are on the pontiff to see how he handles the diplomatic minefield in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

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Poles Protest Planned Overhaul of Courts, Election Body

Poles held demonstrations in cities across the country Friday to protest plans by the ruling party to push through laws that would give it greater control over the courts and the national election commission.

The protesters rallied under the slogan “Free courts, free elections, free Poland” after lawmakers voted earlier in the day to give preliminary approval to the changes. Protests were also held abroad, including in Chicago, London and Dublin.

The ruling Law and Justice party has already pushed through two laws that have given it greater power over the Constitutional Tribunal and ordinary courts.

Two other bills on the judicial system that sparked large protests in the summer were blocked by the president but have returned to the legislature in modified form. The lawmakers sent them for fine-tuning to a specialized commission, and a vote on a final version could be held in early December. It would then need approval from the Senate and from President Andrzej Duda.

The European Union says that if passed, the bills would undermine the separation of powers, while Polish critics see these and other changes as a power grab that has nothing to do with improving the justice system.

The ruling party, however, says it is making needed reforms that have not been tackled yet since communism fell in 1989. It says the protests are the work of post-communist elites seeking to hold on to their privileges.

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Officials: Russia Seeking to Exploit Catalonia Secessionist Movement

Covert attempts by Russia to support Catalonia’s independence bid using disinformation and cyberattacks to support separatists may be part of a long-term strategy to penetrate and gain control not only of Spain’s wealthy northeastern region but also other parts of Europe, Spanish officials tell VOA.

Spain and NATO are investigating allegations that thousands of social media trolls or robot accounts were set up in Russia to amplify distorted or “fake news” items aimed at influencing a referendum for independence held October 1 in Catalonia.

No direct link has yet been established between the Russian government and the cyberattack, but much of the activity has been traced to a property near the city of St. Petersburg that is owned by a close business partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to testimony presented at a Spanish congressional hearing Thursday.

The cyberattack also has involved attempts to hack email accounts of opponents of the independence movement, according to the victim of such an attempt, Erik Encinas, who told VOA that Google traced an attempt to intercept his emails to a Russian source.

Russian crime organizations have been trying to gain leverage in the region for years and recently came close to taking control of the Catalan security ministry, a high-level intelligence officer operating in Catalonia who requested anonymity told VOA.

Russian money laundering

The intelligence officer, working for one of Spain’s main security services, participated in an investigation known as Operation Clotilde, in coordination with the U.S. Treasury Department. The investigation targeted money laundering by Russian crime syndicates through Catalonian banks, shell companies and real estate investments.

The intelligence officer told VOA some of the Russian money went to the Catalan nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) party.

The Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), a radical CiU faction, joined the leftist ERC and CUP parties to form a regional governing coalition that held the October referendum for independence, which was ratified by Catalonia’s parliament.

Money laundering investigations were centered in the Catalan seaside resort of Lloret de Mar, whose former CiU mayor, Xavier Crespo, was indicted in 2014 for taking bribes from alleged Russian crime boss Andrei Petrov.

In 2013, Catalonia’s regional government appointed Crespo to the key post of security secretary, equivalent to a ministerial position, and one in which he would have controlled the Catalan police.

“His appointment was overturned when we reported our investigation to the regional government,” the intelligence officer told VOA. The officer pointed out, however, that Crespo’s association with Russian crime figures was well-known: In 2008, Crespo had made a much-publicized trip to Moscow and was hosted by Petrov, who took him on a helicopter ride.

Crespo was celebrating his security appointment in Lloret de Mar’s city hall when a unit of Spain’s Civil Guard gendarmerie “met with the Catalan regional government to inform them of our findings,” the Spanish intelligence officer said.

Taking control of police

Spain, which imposed direct rule in the region after last month’s independence vote, now faces the delicate task of taking control of Catalonia’s police force.

Most members of the regional government have been arrested, including security chief Joaquim Fom, who has been accused of supporting the independence bid.

Catalan police also failed to prevent the escape of regional President Carles Puigdemont to Belgium, where he is trying to establish a government in exile.

“The Russians would be looking to fill the void left by Catalan and Spanish companies that are leaving due to the instability,” the Spanish intelligence source said. More than 2,000 companies have transferred their headquarters out of Catalonia since October, including major multinational firms.

Spanish Intelligence analysts say that Russians see an independent Catalonia as a possible base from which to penetrate other parts of Europe, where their business activities are restricted by sanctions enforced by the United States and the European Union.

Russian officials have denied Spanish and NATO accusations.

But Putin has made no secret of his desire for revenge against the West for recognizing the 2008 unilateral independence of Kosovo, which caused the dismemberment of Serbia, a close Russia ally.

A Kremlin operative who acts as the virtual foreign minister of South Ossetia, which separated from the former Soviet republic of Georgia and came under Russian military protection in 2008, visited Barcelona last month to establish an “interests office” and meet with local businessmen, according to Spanish press reports.

The Kremlin operative also traveled to the Italian region of Lombardy, which is holding a referendum for greater autonomy from Rome.