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US Envoy to Russia Slams Moscow’s Pending Curbs on US-funded News Outlets

The U.S. ambassador to Russia on Sunday attacked Moscow’s move toward forcing nine United States government-funded news operations to register as “foreign agents” as “a reach beyond” what the U.S. government did in requiring the Kremlin-funded RT television network to register as such in the United States.

Ambassador Jon Huntsman said the Russian reaction is not “reciprocal at all” and Moscow’s move toward regulation of the news agencies, if it is implemented, would make “it virtually impossible for them to operate” in Russia.

WATCH: Ambassador Jon Huntsman

He said the eight-decade-old Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) under which RT has registered as a foreign agent is aimed at promoting transparency, but does not restrict the television network’s operation in the United States.

Russia’s lower house of parliament approved amendments Wednesday to expand a 2012 law that targets non-governmental organizations, including foreign media. A declaration as a foreign agent would require foreign media to regularly disclose their objectives, full details of finances, funding sources and staffing.

Media outlets also may be required to disclose on their social platforms and internet sites visible in Russia that they are “foreign agents.” The amendments also would allow the extrajudicial blocking of websites the Kremlin considers undesirable.

The Russian Justice Ministry said Thursday it had notified the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and seven separate regional outlets active in Russia they could be affected.

“It isn’t at all similar to what we’re doing under FARA — it’s a reach beyond,” Huntsman said. “And, we just think the principles of free media, in any free society and democracy, are absolutely critical to our strength, health, and well-being. Freedom of speech is part of that. So, that’s why I care about the issue. That’s why we in the embassy care about the issue. And, it’s why we’re going to follow the work that is going on in the Duma and the legislation that is being drafted, very very carefully, because we’re concerned about it.”

The Justice Ministry said the new requirements in Russia were likely to become law “in the near future.”

VOA Director Amanda Bennett said last week that if Russia imposes the new restrictions, “We can’t say at this time what effect this will have on our news-gathering operations within Russia. All we can say is that Voice of America is, by law, an independent, unbiased, fact-based news organization, and we remain committed to those principles.”

RFE/RL President Tom Kent said until the legislation becomes law, “we do not know how the Ministry of Justice will use this law in the context of our work.”

 

Kent said unlike Sputnik and other Russian media operating in the United States, U.S. media outlets operating in Russia do not have access to cable television and radio frequencies.

“Russian media in the U.S. are distributing their programs on American cable television. Sputnik has its own radio frequency in Washington. This means that even at the moment there is no equality,” he said.

Serious blow to freedom

The speaker of Russia’s lower house, the Duma, said last week that foreign-funded media outlets that refused to register as foreign agents under the proposed legislation would be prohibited from operating in the country.

However, since the law’s language is so broad, it potentially could be used to target any foreign media group, especially if it is in conflict with the Kremlin. “We are watching carefully… to see whether it is passed and how it is implemented,” said Maria Olson, a spokeswoman at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

The Russian amendments, which Amnesty International said would inflict a “serious blow” to media freedom in Russia if they become law, were approved in response to a U.S. accusation that RT executed a Russian-mandated influence campaign on U.S. citizens during the 2016 presidential election, a charge the media channel denies.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded in early 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a campaign to undermine American democracy and help real estate mogul Donald Trump win the presidency. A criminal investigation of the interference is underway in the United States, as are numerous congressional probes.

The foreign registration amendments must next be approved by the Russian Senate and then signed into law by Putin.

RT, which is funded by the Kremlin to provide Russia’s perspective on global issues, confirmed last week it met the U.S. Justice Department’s deadline by registering as a foreign agent in the United States.

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Britain to Submit ‘Brexit Bill’ Proposal Before December EU Meeting

Britain will submit its proposals on how to settle its financial obligations to the European Union before an EU Council meeting next month, finance minister Philip Hammond said on Sunday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was told on Friday that there was more work to be done to unlock Brexit talks, as the European Union repeated an early December deadline for her to move on the divorce bill.

“We will make our proposals to the European Union in time for the council,” Hammond told the BBC.

Last week, May met fellow leaders on the sidelines of an EU summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, to try to break the deadlock over how much Britain will pay on leaving the bloc in 16 months.

 

She signaled again that she would increase an initial offer that is estimated at some 20 billion euros ($24 billion), about a third of what Brussels wants.

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European Cities Battle Fiercely for Top Agencies Leaving UK

Brexit is still well over year away but two European cities on Monday will already be celebrating Britain’s departure from the European Union.

 

Two major EU agencies now in London — the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority — must move to a new EU city because Britain is leaving the bloc. The two prizes are being hotly fought over by most of the EU’s other 27 nations.

 

Despite all the rigid rules and conditions the bloc imposed to try to make it a fair, objective decision, the process has turned into a deeply political beauty contest — part Olympic host city bidding, part Eurovision Song Contest.

 

It will culminate in a secret vote Monday at EU headquarters in Brussels that some say could be tainted by vote trading.

 

The move involves tens of millions in annual funding, about 1,000 top jobs with many more indirectly linked, prestige around the world and plenty of bragging rights for whichever leader can bring home the agencies.

 

“I will throw my full weight behind this,” French President Emmanuel Macron said when he visited Lille, which is seeking to host the EMA once Britain leaves in the EU in March 2019. “Now is the final rush.”

 

At an EU summit Friday in Goteborg, Sweden, leaders were lobbying each other to get support for their bids.

 

The EMA is responsible for the scientific evaluation, supervision and safety monitoring of medicines in the EU. It has around 890 staff and hosts more than 500 scientific meetings every year, attracting about 36,000 experts.

 

The EBA, which has around 180 staff, monitors the regulation and supervision of Europe’s banking sector.

 

With bids coming in from everywhere — from the newest member states to the EU’s founding nations — who gets what agency will also give an indication of EU’s future outlook.

 

The EU was created as club of six founding nations some 60 years ago, so it’s logical that a great many key EU institutions are still in nations like Germany, France and Belgium. But as the bloc kept expanded east and south into the 21st century, these new member states see a prime opportunity now to claim one of these cherished EU headquarters, which cover everything from food safety to judicial cooperation to fisheries policy.

 

Romania and Bulgaria were the last to join the EU in 2007 and have no headquarters. Both now want the EMA — as does the tiny island nation of Malta.

 

“We deserve this. Because as we all know, Romania is an EU member with rights and obligations equal with all the rest of the member states,” said Rodica Nassar of Romania’s Healthcare Ministry.

 

But personnel at the EMA and EBA are highly skilled professionals, and many could be reluctant to move their careers and families from London to less prestigious locations.

 

“You have to imagine, for example, for the banking authority, which relies on basically 200 very high-level experts in banking regulatory matters to move to another place,” said Karel Lannoo of the CEPS think tank. “First of all, to motivate these people to move elsewhere. And then if you don’t manage to motivate these people, to find competent experts in another city.”

 

As the vote nears, Milan and Bratislava are the favorites to win the EMA, with Frankfurt, and perhaps Dublin, leading the way for the EBA.

 

 

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Report: No Fireworks — or Progress — at NAFTA Talks

Negotiators at high stakes talks to update NAFTA have so far kept their tempers but are not making much progress on tough U.S. demands that could sink the 1994 trade pact, a well-placed source said Saturday.

Officials from the United States, Canada and Mexico are meeting in Mexico City for the fifth of seven planned rounds to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from.

Time is running short to seal a deal by the deadline of end-March 2018. Officials say next year’s Mexican presidential election means talks after that date will not be possible.

US demands

The U.S. administration has made a series of demands that the other members say are unacceptable, such as a five-year sunset clause and tightening so-called rules of origin to boost the North American content of autos to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent.

“It is very slow moving but there are no fireworks,” said a Canadian source with knowledge of the talks, adding there had “not been much conversation at all” on the more contentious U.S. proposals.

Officials have so far discussed other issues such as labor, gender, intellectual property, energy and telecommunications but it is too soon to say whether there will be any breakthroughs during this round, added the source. The talks are due to end next Tuesday.

Though the mood in the fifth round has been calmer than the tense scenes seen last month during the fourth round in Arlington, Virginia, the negotiations are now beyond the halfway point of an initial schedule with few clear signs of process.

‘Things Mexico won’t accept’

Mexican officials say they hope chapters on telecommunications and e-commerce will be concluded in the fifth round, but there has been no indication of this yet.

Although negotiators are scheduled to discuss rules of origin every day starting Saturday, the source said detailed talks on boosting North American content would not be held before the end of the round.

Canada and Mexico say the new rules of origin are unworkable and would damage the highly integrated auto industry.

“I hope the United States understands there are things … that Mexico won’t accept, and (I hope) the negotiating process becomes more rational,” Moises Kalach, head of the international negotiating arm of Mexico’s CCE business lobby, told Reuters late on Friday.

Congressional action

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office on Friday revised its official objectives to conform to demands that it currently has on the negotiating table.

The move prompted U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, to remove a “hold” he had put in place to block the confirmation of two Trump administration nominees for deputy USTR positions, a Wyden aide said.

Wyden complained the trade office had been keeping members of Congress “in the dark” about its tactics and was not in compliance with U.S. trade negotiating laws.

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Ukraine, Poland Escalate Diplomatic Spat

Ukraine has summoned the Polish ambassador in Kyiv after Poland denied entry to a Ukrainian official in an escalation of a diplomatic spat over the two neighbors’ troubled past.

Poland’s decision to refused entry on Saturday to the head of Ukraine’s commemoration commission, Svyatoslav Sheremet, was in response to a ban imposed earlier this year by Kyiv on the exhumation of Poles killed in Ukraine during World War II, Polish state news agency PAP reported.

“The Ukrainian side has complained that Mr. Sheremet was not allowed into Poland,” Poland’s ambassador to Kyiv, Jan Pieklo, told PAP after the meeting with Ukrainian authorities.

“I have been also informed that this is a problem that concerns the restarting of exhumations because Sheremet is the person responsible for this,” Pieklo said, adding that both sides had agreed that the exhumations should be restarted.

In an apparent effort to mend ties, representatives of the Polish and Ukrainian presidents said on Friday that they “reconfirmed their commitment to strengthening the strategic partnership.”

“The parties agreed that the ban on the search and exhumation works in Ukraine should be lifted,” the statement published Friday said.

The denial of entry to Sheremet came after the Polish foreign minister said earlier in November that Poland would bar Ukrainians with “anti-Polish views.”

Poland last year passed a resolution that declared the World War II-era killing of about 100,000 Polish men, women and children by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) “genocide.”

Ukraine rejects that label, saying the killings were a result of bilateral hostilities.

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Saudis Bristle at German Official’s Lebanon Remark

Saudi Arabia has summoned its ambassador in Germany home for consultations over comments by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel about the political crisis in Lebanon.

The Saudi foreign ministry said the government also handed Germany’s representative in Riyadh a protest note over what it said were “shameful” comments Gabriel made after a meeting with his Lebanese counterpart.

After a meeting in Berlin with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Gabriel told reporters that Europe “could not tolerate the adventurism that has spread there.” It was not clear from a Reuters television recording that the remark was targeted at Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned while in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4.

“Such remarks provoke the surprise and disapproval of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which considers them as aimless and based on false information that would not help bring about stability in the region,” the Saudi ministry said.

The ministry later said on its Twitter account it had summoned the German ambassador in Riyadh and handed him “a protest memorandum over the shameful and unjustified remarks made by the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.”

Hariri’s abrupt resignation has raised concern over Lebanon’s stability. He met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Saturday, several hours after he left Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said on Twitter Hariri had told him in a phone call from Paris he would be in Lebanon on Wednesday for Independence Day celebrations.

The German foreign ministry welcomed Hariri’s departure from Saudi Arabia for Paris and impending return to Lebanon.

“We are very concerned about regional stability and call on sides to reduce tensions,” the statement read. “We aim this message at all actors in the region.”

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Sinn Fein’s Divisive Leader Gerry Adams to Step Down

Gerry Adams, the divisive politician known around the world as the face of the Irish republican movement as it shifted from violence to peace, announced Saturday that he was stepping down as leader of Sinn Fein next year after heading the party for over 30 years.

The 69-year-old veteran politician — who has been president of Northern Ireland’s second-largest party since 1983 — told the party’s annual conference in Dublin he would not run in the next Irish parliamentary elections.

“Leadership means knowing when it is time for change and that time is now,” he said, adding the move was part of an ongoing process of leadership transition within the party.

A divisive figure, some have denounced Adams as a terrorist while others hail him as a peacemaker.

He was a key figure in Ireland’s republican movement, which seeks to take Northern Ireland out of the U.K. and unite it with the Republic of Ireland.

The dominant faction of the movement’s armed wing, the Provisional IRA, killed nearly 1,800 people during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the U.K. It renounced violence and surrendered its weapons in 2005.

Although many identify Adams as a member of the IRA since 1966 and a commander for decades, Adams has long insisted he was never a member.

Adams was key in the peace process that saw the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the formation of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

Many believe Sinn Fein’s popularity among voters is hampered by the presence of leaders from Ireland’s era of Troubles.

The party is expected to elect a successor next year. Current deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald was seen as a favorite to succeed Adams.

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Post-Harvey Houston: Years Until Recovery, Plenty of Costs Unknown

When the heaviest rain of tropical storm Harvey had passed, Kathryn Clark’s west Houston neighborhood had escaped the worst. Then the dams were opened — a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent upstream flooding and potential dam failures by releasing water into Buffalo Bayou, just a few hundred feet from the end of Clark’s street.

When she and her husband returned to survey the damage later that week, they entered their two-story home by kayak in roughly three feet of water. In the kitchen, a snake slithered past.

Nothing like that had happened in the nearly 11 years the Clarks have lived there; it got Kathryn thinking about their long-term plans, including whether to rebuild.

“What if they decide to open the dams again?” she asked. “But if you don’t rebuild, you just walk away, and that is a big loss.”

The Clarks ultimately opted to reconstruct, a process that will take another half-year before they can move back in. Elsewhere in the city, the waiting will be longer.

​A sprawling concrete jungle

In early November, Texas Governor Greg Abbott told reporters that Texas will need more than $61 billion in federal aid, to help fund a reconstruction plan that he said would curtail damage from future coastal storms. However, he added, there will be more requests: “This is not a closed book.”

Hurricane Harvey, the costliest storm in U.S. history, will affect Houston for months, and years. Apart from tens of thousands of ongoing home rebuilding projects, civil construction is in the evaluation phase.

“With Katrina, it actually took them 12 years before FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] made their final payment to the city of New Orleans,” said Jeff Nielsen, executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association. “That’s how long it takes to really test and figure out where all the repairs and where all the damage occurred.”

Houston covers a landmass of 1,600 square kilometers, compared to New Orleans’ 900, and is much more densely populated. The impermeable concrete jungle experienced major runoff during the storm, and that translates to high civil construction costs in roads, bridges, water, sewage and utility lines that are difficult to determine.

WATCH: Post-Harvey Houston: Years Until Recovery, Unknown Costs

Nielsen explains to VOA the immensity of the task. 

“You may be driving down the road one day and, all of a sudden — boom — there is a 10-foot sinkhole underneath the road because there is a water line or a sewer line or a storm sewer line that runs underneath that road.

“There is no way to tell that that’s happening without going through and testing each and every line,” Nielsen said.

​Waiting, waiting

Rob Hellyer, owner of Premier Remodeling & Construction, says Houston has seen an uptick in inquiries for both flood and nonflood-related projects — good for business, but a challenge for clients.

“A lot of those people come to the realization that ‘If we want to get our project done in the next two or three years, we better get somebody lined up quick,’” Hellyer told VOA.

But industrywide, much of the workforce is dealing with flooding issues of their own, while simultaneously attempting to earn a living.

“It really has disbursed that labor pool that we have been using for all these years,” Hellyer said.

Labor shortages in construction-related jobs have long been a challenge despite competitive wages, according to Nielsen, who describes his field — civil construction — as less-than-glamorous.

“Outside, it’s hot. What could be more fun than pouring hot asphalt on a road?” he asked.

Networking barriers

With construction costs up and waiting periods long, the hands-on rebuilding effort is typically attractive for some lower-wage immigrant communities.

Among the city’s sizable Vietnamese population, though, that’s not exactly the case, said Jannette Diep, executive director of Boat People SOS Houston office (BPSOS), a community organization serving the area’s diaspora population.

“[Vietnamese construction workers] face not only a language barrier but that networking piece, because they’re not intertwined with a lot of the rules and regulations,” Diep said. “‘Well, how do I do the bid; what’s the process?’”

Overwhelmed with paperwork and often discouraged by limited communication skills in English, Diep says many within the industry opt to work only from within their own communities, despite more widespread opportunities across Greater Houston.

The same barriers apply to the Asian diaspora’s individual post-recovery efforts. BPSOS-Houston, according to Diep, remains focused on short-term needs — food, clothing, cleaning supplies — and expects the longer-term recovery to take two to three years, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods.

Love thy neighbor

Loc Ngo, a mother of seven and grandmother from Vietnam, has lived in Houston for 40 years, but speaks little English. In Fatima Village, a tightly knit single-street community of mobile homes — comprising 33 Vietnamese families — she hardly has to.

“They came to fix the home and it cost $11,000, but they’re not finished yet,” she explained, through her son’s translation. “The washer, dryer and refrigerator — I still haven’t bought them yet, and two beds!”

Across the street, the three-generation Le family levels heaps of dirt across a barren lot that’s lined by spare pipes and cinderblocks. They plan to install a new mobile home.

At the front end of the road is the village’s single-story church, baby blue and white, like the sky — the site of services, weddings, funerals and community gatherings.

Victor Ngo, a hardwood floor installer, typically organizes church events. But for now, his attention is turned to completing reconstruction of the altar and securing donations to replace 30 ruined benches.

“At first I had to spend two months to fix up my house, and now I finished my house, and I [have started] to fix up this church,” Ngo said. “So basically, I don’t go out there to work and make money. Not yet.”

In the village, made up largely of elders, Ngo stresses the importance of staying close to home to help with rebuilding, translation, and paperwork, at least for a while longer.

“We stick together as a community to survive,” he said.

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Afghan Officials: Islamic State Fighters Finding Sanctuary in Afghanistan

Battered and beaten in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State terror group is surging fighters into Afghanistan, rebuilding its presence and perhaps setting up a new base for attacks on both the West and Russia.

Afghan officials tell Voice of America that Islamic State may now have as many as 3,000 foreign fighters in the country, many of them coming from Pakistan and Uzbekistan. They also fear those numbers are only likely to increase as IS fighters from Iraq and Syria leave those countries as part of an effort to regroup.

“A large number of Daesh fighters are foreign fighters,” said Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, using an Arabic acronym for the terror group.

Those numbers have been further bolstered by “a small number of Afghans within,” Mohib said in Washington this week. “The Taliban, some of the factions — some of the irreconcilable elements that are much more extreme — are also joining Daesh.”

The latest Afghan assessment on Islamic State in Afghanistan, also known as IS-Khorasan province, runs counter to much of what U.S. and coalition officials have long been saying. Those officials, while careful not to minimize concerns, have depicted a terror group in retreat.

​Targeting IS in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis himself characterized the fight against IS in Afghanistan as going “in the right direction” this past July, following an airstrike in Kunar province that killed then-IS-Khorasan leader Abu Sayed.

“Every time you kill a leader of one of these groups, it sets them back,” Mattis said at the time.

The July strike followed an operation in April that led to the death of the previous emir, Abdul Hasib, following what U.S. officials described as a brutal, three-hour firefight in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

And just two weeks before that, on April 13, the U.S. targeted an extensive IS tunnel-and-cave complex in Nangarhar with the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb.

As a result of the sustained efforts, U.S. officials estimated the terror group’s ranks in Afghanistan had been cut from a peak of about 3,000 fighters to about 600, believing most of them to be disgruntled former Taliban fighters.

But if the new estimates from Afghan officials are to be believed, IS has not only rebuilt its presence in the country in a span of about four months, but they have replaced them with new fighters, not worn down after losing the group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

It would also seem to indicate that the terror group is capable of doing more than just leveraging local insurgencies to keep its brand alive.

IS in Afghanistan’s north

One area of particular concern is Afghanistan’s northern Jowzjan province, a remote area where IS has been relocating fighters, many aligned with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as well as their families.

“They’re establishing a military presence. They’re implementing social control,” said Caitlin Forrest, with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW). “They’re collecting taxes.”

According to Forrest and ISW’s Jennifer Cafarella, some IS supporters and fighters are flocking to the region from Central Asia, places like Tajikistan and Chechnya, while others have come from as far away as France and Sudan.

“It’s a sign of what’s to come,” Cafarella said. “This kind of consolidation of foreign fighters in one place is a signature of an external operations node.”

And without much pushback from local or national Afghan forces, IS fighters have also been free to recruit both men and children from towns and villages, seemingly undeterred by the fall of the physical caliphate.

“ISIS is still cashing in on the image of itself as the defender of the weak,” Cafarella said, using an acronym for the militant group. She said the group is still able to sell the idea that it alone is willing to stand up to the West or to defend Sunni Muslims from Shi’ite forces controlled by Iran.

​IS threatening West, Russia

There are also concerns that Afghanistan may not be the only area in which IS has managed to secure new footholds, and based on the type of propaganda, some counterterror analysts believe many of these IS nodes are bent on finding ways to strike the West and Russia as well.

“The long wind-up to the fall of Raqqa and Mosul gave ISIS the window to prepare for its future in the so-called post-caliphate era,” said Katherine Zimmerman with the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.

“ISIS began planning attacks in Europe from Libya, and all indicators point to ISIS strengthening in Libya,” Zimmerman said, adding, “ISIS will continue to cultivate its branches in the Sahara and Nigeria.”

Some analysts also argue that even the presence of a small number of foreign fighters in certain areas has allowed IS to grow.

But top U.S. military officials argue that will be difficult.

“I think they had aspirational views of going to other places,” Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie told Pentagon reporters Thursday. “But I would tell you, because of the global coalition that we’ve assembled and the ability of those nations in these disparate areas of the world to operate effectively against ISIS when it arises, that plan has not been terribly successful for them.”

As for Afghanistan, officials there worry Islamic State will find a way to persist and strengthen, co-opting other extremists along the way.

“The brutality will continue to increase, which is why we need to address it so rapidly,” said Afghan Ambassador Mohib. “The more time it takes, the more radical some of these groups become and their ideologies start to sync with each other.”