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Slovenia’s Pahor Re-elected, Vows to be ‘President of All’

Slovenia’s President Borut Pahor was re-elected to a second term Sunday after winning a runoff election against a former comedian and mayor of a northern town.

Pahor, 54, a veteran politician known as the “King of Instagram” for his frequent use of social media, won 53 percent of the vote to challenger Marjan Sarec’s 47 percent, results from Slovenian election authorities showed after a completed preliminary count.

Pahor thanked voters and vowed to further boost their faith in democracy. He congratulated his opponent for his performance.

“I will be a president of all,” Pahor said. “I’ll bring people together and build on what brings us closer.”

Political veteran

Pahor is only the second Slovenian president to win a second term in office since the country gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. The country of 2 million people in Central Europe is the birthplace of U.S. first lady Melania Trump and known for its Alpine mountains and lakes.

A former model like the U.S. first lady, he has held a number of public posts and was Slovenia’s prime minister before he first was elected president in 2012.

Sarec was a well-known satirical comedian before entering politics in 2010 to run for mayor in Kanik. He conceded defeat and congratulated Pahor on Sunday night, but said his success as a relative political newcomer showed Slovenian citizens wanted change.

“I’m proud to have had a possibility to run against the premiere league,” Sarec said at his headquarters in Kanik. “My result is good. It speaks for itself.”

Analysts had warned that Sarec’s ability to make it into the runoff showed Slovenians’ discontent with established politicians. Critics accused Pahor of avoiding taking stands on important issues.

Top issues: economy, border, EU

Key topics facing Slovenia include the economy, a border dispute with Croatia and the future of the European Union, which Slovenia joined in 2004.

Slovenia’s presidency carries no executive powers, but the office-holder proposes a prime minister and his or her opinion on important issues holds weight. Pahor and Sarec, while both centrists, clashed on issues such as the privatization of Slovenia’s biggest bank and the composition of the country’s anti-corruption body.

After voting Sunday, Pahor complained that he has been falsely viewed as a populist, which he says he is not, while Sarec was trying to assume the role of a “statesman.” Pahor suggested that the “change of roles” cost him public support.

In his victory speech, Pahor, who has sought to portray himself as a unifier president, also said that he will strive to help solve problems and bridge any divisions that might exist in the Slovenian society.

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Trump Criticized for Putin Meddling Comments

Two former U.S. intelligence officials slammed President Trump Sunday for saying believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin “feels that he and Russia did not meddle” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Former CIA director John Brennan, in an appearance on CNN with James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said Trump’s initial indication that he believed Putin shows “that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint.”

Clapper said Russia poses and obvious threat to the U.S., and to suggest otherwise “poses a peril to this country.”

Trump was asked Saturday whether the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election came up in conversations with Putin in Vietnam where the two leaders attended an Asia-Pacific summit. Trump replied, “He said he didn’t meddle, he said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”

Trump went on to say, “That whole thing was set up by the Democrats” – slamming former United States intelligence leaders, including Brennan and Clapper.  

“They’re political hacks. So you look at it, and then you have Brennan, you have Clapper and you have [James] Comey. Comey’s proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker,” he said, referring to the FBI’s former director, who was fired early in Trump’s presidency amid much controversy.

“So you look at that. And you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that,” Trump said.

Taking issue

Trump’s remarks brought immediate criticism on Saturday.

In a statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of the president from his own party, said, “There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community. … Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”

But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Saturday the president understands the truth about Russian interference, and is simply choosing to “accept” Putin’s denials “over the solid evidence of our own intelligence agencies.” 

“He understands all this and more. He just doesn’t understand how to put country over self. Or to put it in terms he is more familiar with – Mr. Trump simply can’t bring himself to put America first,” Schiff said in a statement.

And Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) tweeted Saturday, “So my question is: which is the position of the U.S. government? POTUS or CIA?”

Hayden then tweeted, “CIA just told me: The Dir stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections. The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.”

On Sunday, President Trump clarified that he meant Putin was sincere when denying that Russia did not meddle in the election.

“As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies,” Trump said. “As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”

Cooperation with Russia

Trump also reiterated his stance Sunday that “having Russians in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world and an asset to our country, not a liability.”

Earlier Sunday, on his Twitter account, the president wrote: “Does the Fake News Media remember when Crooked Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was begging Russia to be our friend with the misspelled reset button.  Obama tried also, but he had zero chemistry with Putin.”

Trump told reporters on Air Force One as it flew from Danang to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi Saturday that a joint statement on Syria he agreed to issue with Putin is “going to save a tremendous number of lives.”

The statement, first released by the Kremlin, says the two leaders “confirmed the importance of de-escalation areas as an interim step to reduce violence in Syria, enforce cease-fire agreements, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, and set the conditions for the ultimate political solution to the conflict.”

It also says that Putin and Trump “agreed to maintain open military channels of communication between military professionals to help ensure the safety of both U.S. and Russian forces and de-confliction of partnered forces engaged in the fight against ISIS.”

‘A very good relationship’

Putin told reporters in Danang Saturday the joint statement is one of extraordinary importance, confirming the principles of the fight against terrorism.

Trump said of the Russian leader “we seem to have a very good feeling for each other, a good relationship considering we don’t know each other well. I think it’s a very good relationship.”

Trump also said the United States could be helped a lot by Russia on the North Korean nuclear issue.

“You know, you are talking about millions and millions of lives. This isn’t baby stuff, this is the real deal. And if Russia helped us in addition to China, that problem would go away a lot faster.”

But Trump said, concerning the North Korea nuclear and ballistic missile issue, “I did not speak to President Putin about it, because we just had these little segments where we were talking about Syria.”

Putin, in his remarks to the media, said, “We discussed all we wanted” at the APEC Summit, but unfortunately there was little time to speak in detail. He added that it would be good for Russian and American teams to sit down to talk about the whole breadth of the bilateral relationship.

Putin described Trump as a comfortable person, educated, and said he and the U.S. president were highly civil in their interactions.

RT retribution

The Russian leader warned, however, that action is likely to be taken against U.S. media in response to an American requirement that Russia’s RT media outlet register as a foreign agent in the United States.

Putin termed it an attack on free speech by the U.S. government, and he warned retaliatory measures will be proportionate and reciprocal.

CNN, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America have been mentioned by Russian officials and media reports as the most likely targets of the retaliation.

VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin and VOA House Correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.

 

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Support for Merkel’s Conservatives Falls to 6-Year Low

Support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives has fallen to the lowest level in more than six years, according to a poll on Sunday, as they prepare for more talks on a coalition deal with the environmentalist Greens and a pro-business party.

The weekly Emnid survey for Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed only 30 percent would vote for Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc if there were a federal election this Sunday, down 1 percentage point.

This is the lowest reading for the conservatives in this survey since October 2011 and marks a slump in support since the Sept. 24 election, in which Merkel’s bloc won 32.9 percent.

Merkel’s conservatives, who bled support to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the election, are trying to forge a three-way coalition government with Greens and the pro-market Free Democrats (FDP) – an alliance untested at the national level.

At a meeting later on Sunday party leaders are expected to discuss progress made so far in exploratory talks and try to overcome their remaining differences over climate, immigration and euro zone policy.

The meeting is due to start at 1500 GMT in Berlin and no statements are planned after the talks.

While politicians from the CDU/CSU and the FDP have cited progress after three weeks of exploratory talks, senior Greens voiced frustration and stepped up the pressure on Merkel.

“We see no goodwill at all on Europe, foreign and domestic policy, on affordable housing and good working conditions, on transport and agriculture transition,” Greens co-leader Cem Ozdemir told Bild am Sonntag.

Touching on one of the thorniest issues, Merkel said on Saturday that Germany should lead the fight against climate change and cut emissions without destroying industrial jobs.

Merkel’s comments, made in her weekly podcast in the middle of talks on limiting global warming attended by about 200 nations in the western German city of Bonn, highlighted the dilemma facing the center-right leader in the negotiations.

While the CUD/CSU and the FDP want to spare companies from additional burdens, the Greens want to spell out which measures the next government will implement for Germany to reach its 2020 goal of lowering emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels.

Due to strong economic growth and higher-than-expected immigration, Germany is at risk of missing its emissions target without any additional measures.

Merkel wants to have an agreement in principle by Nov. 16 on moving ahead to formal coalition negotiations to form a black-yellow-green government – also dubbed a “Jamaica coalition” because the parties’ colors match those of that country’s flag.

With less than a week to go, the exploratory coalition talks are not only complicated by the differences between the parties, but also by splits within the political parties themselves e€“ especially within the conservatives and Greens.

A breakdown of the talks could mean fresh elections in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, since the Social Democrats (SPD) – the second biggest party – have made clear they have no appetite for joining another ‘grand coalition’ under Merkel.

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Slovenia President, Ex-comic Vie in Election Runoff

Voters in Slovenia cast ballots Sunday in a presidential runoff, with President Borut Pahor’s bid for re-election facing a tough challenge from an ex-comedian who’s now the mayor of a northern town.

 

Pahor, a veteran politician known for his frequent use of social media, led by a large margin after the first round of voting on Oct. 22. But his runoff opponent, Marjan Sarec, has since narrowed the gap, and the latest polls predict a close race. 

 

The president in Slovenia holds no executive powers, but they propose a prime minister and their opinion on important issues holds weight. 

Pahor a political veteran 

Slovenia, a country of 2 million people in Central Europe, is known for its Alpine mountains and lakes and its love of nature. It is the birthplace of U.S. first lady Melania Trump.

Pahor, a former model like the U.S. first lady, was Slovenia’s prime minister before he was first elected president in 2012. He has sought to portray himself as a uniter of all Slovenians, regardless of their political preferences. 

Critics say, however, that the 54-year-old Pahor simply avoids taking a stand on important issues. He has been nicknamed Slovenia’s “King of Instagram” — Pahor walked hundreds of miles during the election campaign and posted photos and videos along the way.

​Sarec a newcomer

Sarec, in contrast, is a relative political newcomer who has won support from many Slovenians fed up with established politicians. The 39-year-old was a well-known satirical comedian who imitated politicians before entering politics himself in 2010 to run for the mayor of Kamnik.

 

Sarec gave up acting so he could fully commit to the job. He is serving his second term as mayor. 

 

Key topics facing Slovenia include the economy, a border dispute with Croatia stemming from the 1990s’ breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and the future of the European Union. Slovenia has been a member of the EU since 2004.

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Rajoy Visits Catalonia, First Time Since Imposed Rule

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy arrives in Catalonia Sunday, his first visit since Madrid imposed direct rule on the region.

His visit to Barcelona comes one day after Catalonia’s battered independence movement staged a massive protest in the city, demanding the release of jailed leaders and recognition of a separate Catalan Republic.

Rajoy is expected to make a campaign appearance in Barcelona for his conservative Popular Party, ahead of regional elections next month.

Spain’s central government imposed direct rule on Catalonia immediately after its regional parliament voted for independence Oct. 27. It arrested dozens of secessionist politicians, causing the head of the regional government, Carles Puigdemont, to flee to Belgium.

Eight members of the dissolved regional government and two prominent activists are in jail.

Those imprisoned without bail include Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras.

The head of the regional parliament who presided over the independence vote, Carmen Forcadell, was released from prison Friday after retracting her secessionist stance before Spanish judges. She said the independence vote had been “symbolic.”

A bail of $165,000 was posted for her by the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly (ANC), one the main organizers of Saturday’s march.

Even though Madrid’s virtual decapitation of the Catalonian secessionist leadership has left the independence movement badly split, the ANC and another organization called Omnium Cultural managed to turn out more than 700,000 protesters Saturday, according to Barcelona’s local police. Other estimates put the figure between 500,000 to 600,000.

“We must not allow ourselves to be scared or coerced by those who want to cut our liberties and annihilate and humiliate our institutions,” Puigdemont said in a prerecorded video from Brussels, which was played on a large screen before the crowds.

“We never expected the government to react quite so hard,” ANC activist Doria Asina told VOA. “We calculated that the chances of the Madrid imprisoning our leaders was no more than 10 percent. It’s all come as something of a shock.”

The secessionist coalition itself also is fractured.

Heads of the separatist PEdeCAT, Catalan Republican Left and the extreme leftist CUP have traveled to Brussels for meetings with Puigdemont, who is trying to cobble together a united front for independence to contest the Dec. 21 regional elections called by Prime Minister Rajoy.

Spanish government analysts fear that a disconnect could develop between the politicians and radical activists, who may opt for more violent tactics.

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Nuclear Deal ‘Not Negotiable,’ Iran Tells France

Iran’s nuclear deal is “not negotiable,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bassam Ghassemi said Saturday in response to remarks by the French president.

Emmanuel Macron called for vigilance toward Tehran over its ballistic missile program and regional activities, in an interview published Wednesday by the Emirati daily Al-Ittihad.

“We have told French leaders on several occasions that the Iran nuclear deal is not negotiable and that no other issues can be included in the text” of the 2015 agreement, state news agency IRNA quoted Ghassemi as saying.

France, the Foreign Ministry speaker said, is “fully aware of our country’s intangible position concerning the issue of Iran’s defensive affairs, which are not negotiable.”

In the interview with Al-Ittihad, published during Macron’s 24-hour visit to Abu Dhabi, the French president said: “It is important to remain firm with Iran over its regional activities and its ballistic program.”

Macron also said there was no immediate alternative to the Iranian nuclear deal — long lambasted by U.S. President Donald Trump — which curbs Iran’s nuclear program.

France has been trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear, which Iran signed with six world powers — Britain, China, Germany, France, Russia and the United States.

On October 13, Macron told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call that France remained committed to the deal.

But the French leader stressed it was also necessary to have a dialogue with Iran on other strategic issues, including Tehran’s ballistic missile program and regional security, a proposal ruled out by Iran.

Macron’s visit this week to Abu Dhabi came amid renewed tensions between regional arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s nuclear deal saw sanctions imposed on Tehran lifted in exchange for limits on its atomic program.

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Huge Rally in Barcelona Demands Jailed Separatists’ Release

Hundreds of thousands of people backing Catalonia’s bid to secede from Spain packed the streets in downtown Barcelona Saturday to demand the release of jailed separatist leaders.

The rally’s grassroots organizers called for 10 prominent members of the secessionist movement in the northeastern Spanish region to be freed from prison.

Eight former members of Catalonia’s dissolved Cabinet and two activists are in jail while Spanish authorities investigate their alleged roles in promoting an illegal declaration of independence last month in violation of Spain’s Constitution.

A separate court in Madrid granted bail on Thursday to another six Catalan lawmakers who are subject of another investigation into the secession push.

Barcelona’s police said that 750,000 people attended the rally. Many of the protesters carried pro-independence “estelada” flags, with its white star and blue triangle superimposed over the traditional red-and-yellow Catalan colors. Many also held signs saying in Catalan “Freedom Political Prisoners” and wore yellow ribbons as a symbol of their demands.

“They (Spanish authorities) are violating many rights of freedom against our people and we come here to say that we are against that and to demand the release of our prisoners who are in prison unjustly,” said 30-year-old engineer Joan Carles Roses.

Family members of the jailed separatists read messages from their loved ones to the crowd at the conclusion of the march.

Grassroots group National Catalan Assembly organized over 500 buses to bring people from towns and villages across Catalonia to its main city of Barcelona.

Also on Saturday, the pro-independence Republic Left party announced that its jailed leader Oriol Junqueras will be its top candidate for the upcoming regional elections on Dec. 21. The Catalan party is including other jailed leaders in its list for the regional parliament. Polls show that Republic Left is favored to win the upcoming ballot, although it won’t secure an outright majority.

The Catalan conflict is the worst constitutional crisis to threaten Spain in nearly four decades.

A day after Catalonia’s Parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence on Oct. 27, Spain’s government activated extraordinary powers given to it by the Senate to fire the region’s government, dissolve its parliament and call local elections.

While those separatist leaders now in jail obeyed a summons to appear in court in Madrid, deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four of his former ministers fled to Belgium, where they now await an extradition hearing to return them to Spain.

Puigdemont and his fellow separatists claim that a referendum on secession held on Oct. 1 gave them a mandate for independence, even though it had been prohibited by the nation’s highest court, failed to meet international standards and was boycotted by anti-independence parties. Less than half of the electorate turned out to vote, and the referendum was also disrupted by brutal police raids.

No foreign power has recognized Catalonia’s claim to independence. The European Union has warned that an independent Catalonia would be cast out of the 28-nation bloc.

The most recent regional elections and opinion polls show that Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents are roughly split over remaining a part of Spain or going their own way. Most pro-independence supporters feel that the Catalan language and culture would have a better chance of flourishing in a separate state and that their economic prospects would be improved.

The business sector has so far not been convinced, with over 2,000 companies transferring their headquarters out of the northeastern region in recent weeks for fears of being pushed out of the common EU market.

The Spanish Constitution says the nation is “indivisible” and that questions of national sovereignty should be addressed by the national Parliament in Madrid.

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US Soccer Star Accuses Former FIFA President of Sex Assault

Hope Solo, the U.S. women’s soccer (football) team’s standout goalkeeper, says that former FIFA president Sepp Blatter sexually assaulted her in 2013 at an awards event.

Blatter denied allegations Saturday that he had grabbed her backside, calling them “absurd.”

Speaking with Portuguese newspaper Expresso on Friday, the 36-year-old Solo said that the then-FIFA president had made his advance just before she was about to present an award to her teammate Abby Wambach at the Ballon d’Or ceremony.

Solo, a World Cup winner and two-time Olympic champion, said that sexual harassment at the hands of male officials was a common problem in women’s professional soccer.

“I have seen this all of my career and I would like to see more athletes speak about their experiences,” she said, speaking on the sidelines of the Web Summit being held in Lisbon.

“It’s out of control, not just in Hollywood but everywhere,” she said, referencing the increasing number of harassment and assault allegations against men in the U.S. film industry.

Solo’s tenure with the national team ended last year after she called Sweden’s team “cowards” for a defensive style of play which led to their victory. She was suspended and has not returned.

Blatter, 81, served as president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, from 1998 to 2015, when he was banned for corruption.

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Putin Vows to Retaliate for US actions Against Russian Media

President Vladimir Putin is promising that Russia will retaliate for what he calls attacks on Russian media in the United States.

Putin’s comments at a news conference Saturday in Vietnam follow complaints by the Kremlin-funded RT satellite TV channel that the U.S. Justice Department has ordered it to register as a foreign agent by Monday.

Putin says “attacking our media in the United States is an attack on freedom of speech, without any doubt,” and promised to retaliate.

RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said the station would register, since otherwise its American director could be arrested and its accounts frozen. She says “we categorically disagree with this requirement” and vowed to sue. She says “this requirement is discriminatory, it contradicts both the principles of democracy and freedom of speech.”

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Pope Urges Nations Not to Stockpile Nuclear Weapons, Even for Deterrence

Pope Francis on Friday urged countries not to stockpile nuclear weapons, even for the purpose of deterrence.

During a Vatican conference aimed at gathering support for nuclear disarmament, Francis said nuclear deterrence policies give a “false sense of security.”

His remarks appeared to go further than those of previous popes, who have said that while nuclear weapons should never be used, stockpiling them to deter other countries’ use of weapons could be morally acceptable.

Francis spoke to 11 Nobel Peace Prize winners who attended the conference, along with diplomats and government officials from around the world.

“International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation and the parading of stockpiles of arms,” he said.

The pope said any use of nuclear weapons, even accidental, would be “catastrophic” for humanity and the environment.

The Vatican conference came amid mounting tensions between the United States and North Korea. In his address, Francis did not mention any conflict in particular but spoke of a “climate of instability and conflict” in the world today and a “mentality of fear.”

He said peace and security between nations must be “inspired by an ethics of solidarity” rather than the stockpiling of arms.

The pope endorsed a new U.N. treaty that calls for the elimination of atomic weapons. None of the world’s nuclear powers have signed the accord, arguing that its lofty ideals are unrealistic.