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Thousands of Slovaks Protest Corruption, Demand Ouster of Interior Minister

Thousands of Slovaks rallied in Bratislava on Monday to protest against corruption and demand the resignation of the interior minister over his ties with a developer under investigation for tax fraud.

Slovakia’s economy has boomed and living standards have risen sharply since it joined the European Union in 2004, but many Slovaks say their country fails to defend the rule of law, especially in punishing graft.

The protesters, chanting “Kalinak, resign” and “Leave our state alone”, carrying Slovak and EU flags, largely targeted Interior Minister Robert Kalinak.

He has resisted pressure to step down over his business relations with real estate developer Ladislav Basternak, who is being investigated over possible tax fraud.

Kalinak has said he bought a 17 percent stake in one of the companies belonging to the developer. Both he and Basternak have denied any wrongdoing.

The protesters also demanded the resignations of police chief Tibor Gaspar and special prosecutor Dusan Kovacik for not doing enough to root out corruption.

The protest against Kalinak, number two in Fico’s Smer party, came as civic protests mushroom across the EU’s eastern wing.

Poland, Hungary and Romania have seen large anti-government protests in recent months, and thousands of Czechs took to the streets in May to protest against the finance minister.

A frequent theme is corruption and the inability of justice systems to put powerful suspects on trial.

Slovak media estimated turnout between 5,000 and 10,000, making it one of the largest protests since Fico took power in 2012. There was no official police estimate.

“Public sensitivity to corruption is growing and the prime minister has also reflected it in his activities — he has appointed a new head of an anti-corruption unit, spoken at anti-corruption seminars but a symbolic closure is still missing,” political analyst Martin Slosiarik told Reuters.

“Many people don’t believe justice is for all, they stopped believing in the principles of democracy, which has helped extremist parties,” he said.

The far-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia group won its first parliamentary seats last year, in an election which gave Fico a second consecutive term as prime minister but cost his party a parliamentary majority.

Fico said on Monday he supported freedom of speech. He backed Kalinak last year when the minister first faced protests demanding his resignation.

The government has stepped up anti-corruption efforts, introducing a 35 percent tax on dividends from companies in tax havens and banning firms with unclear ownership from doing business with the state.

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In Balkans, Russia Dismisses Macedonian Meddling Charges

Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Monday dismissed as baseless accusations that Moscow has been meddling in Macedonia’s internal affairs.

The Kremlin response followed a report in The Guardian on Sunday that says documents leaked by Macedonian intelligence agents to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)  show that “Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia.”

The leaked documents indicate that efforts to isolate Macedonia from Western influence are part of a broader Russian campaign to stop all republics of the former Yugoslavia from joining NATO and succumbing to Western political interests.

It was shortly after Greece blocked Macedonia’s bid to join NATO in 2008, OCCRP says, that Russia’s foreign policy, “in concert with its energy strategy,” sought to control “strategic energy resources through partnership with the Balkan countries” and to make Macedonia “exclusively dependent.”

The leaked files also describe how the Kremlin conducted espionage, stating that three agents from Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service — formerly known as the Soviet-era KGB — “are based in Skopje, and overseen by the SVR’s sister station in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.”

OCCRP also says Russia’s embassy in Macedonia houses a quartet of Russian military intelligence (GRU) agents whose “activities are coordinated from the GRU’s base in Sofia, Bulgaria.” And It says journalists for Russia’s TASS state news agency and officials from Rossotrudnichestvo, which promotes Russian culture and interests abroad, collaborated with Russian spies.

A Washington-based cultural center funded by Rossotrudnichestvo was investigated by the FBI in 2013 for attempting to recruit Americans as spies.

Sunday’s Guardian piece on OCCRP findings are “nothing but another clumsy attempt to shift responsibility for bringing about a profound crisis of the Macedonian state,” said a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry information and press department.

“Hollow accusations against Moscow for funding Macedonian media with the purpose to spread disinformation in Russian interests are stemming from an organization whose main sponsors are U.S. state structures and the George Soros foundation.”

The statement goes on to accuse EU and American actors of failing to “condemn the infamous ‘Tirana platform,’ which is a manifestation of the ideology of Greater Albania” — a reference to Macedonia’s domestic ethnic issues. Part of a recent coalition deal to elect an ethnic Albanian to be legislative speaker led to protests by nationalists who stormed parliament and beat some deputies, including Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

Macedonian officials did not respond to VOA requests for comment in time for publication.

Risk of ‘serious deterioration’

In an interview with VOA’s Bosnian Service on Thursday, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Yee said Balkan politicians seeking EU and NATO integration need to make “hard sacrifices and reforms necessary to help their citizens move closer to Europe.”

Yee added that the United States remain a committed partner for countries wishing to join the Euro-Atlantic community, but “it is up to the leaders to deliver on their commitments to their people.”

Yee’s comments come at a time when countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Macedonia, and Serbia are stumbling on the path to European and NATO integration, despite widespread popular support. Well-educated Balkan youth in particular have been emigrating in response to political dysfunction, lack of employment opportunities, decreasing freedoms and an abandonment of hope for a better future.

In Bosnia, Yee said, “we have a situation in which the electoral system is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, in violation of several decisions of the Constitutional Court of BiH, and that a major city [Mostar] has not had elections in eight years.” Lack of structural and institutional reforms, he warned, could result in “serious deterioration in BiH.”

EU-backed meeting

On Saturday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed a European Union-backed meeting of Balkan leaders in Slovenia designed to boost European cooperation in the troubled region.

Despite Europe’s own problems, he warned, what happens in the Balkans “is going to concern us and is going to have an impact on us.”

“Peace, stability and economic development in the region should be high on our agenda,” he was quoted as saying in a Reuters report. “We have not forgotten the conflict. We have not forgotten the violence in this region.”

Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo make up the western Balkans, where the wars in the 1990s left some 100,000 people dead and millions homeless.

The EU has hoped that the prospect of EU membership will help steady and prevent conflicts in the Balkans.

However, there have been concerns that the bloc has been too busy with its own problems, enabling Russia to increase its traditional influence in the region.

This report originated in VOA’s Bosnian Service.  Reuters contributed this report.

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Canadian Victim in London Attack Died in Her Fiance’s Arms

Canadian social worker Christine Archibald is being remembered as a “bright light” for her profession as those who loved her launch an online campaign of compassionate acts after she was struck by a van of terrorists on London Bridge and died in her fiance’s arms.

The 30-year-old from Calgary, Alberta, had recently moved to the Netherlands to be with her fiance Tyler Ferguson, his sister Cassie Ferguson Rowe said. The couple was engaged three months ago.

Ferguson had been walking a few steps ahead of his fiancee on the bridge, and then held her as she died, said Ferguson Rowe.

Worked in Calgary

 

“My baby brother lost the love of his life on the London bridge. In a split second, his entire life was ripped away from him,” Ferguson Rowe said.

 

Born and raised in Castlegar, British Columbia, Archibald had later lived in Calgary, where she worked at a homeless shelter before moving to Europe to be with Ferguson.

 

Her family in Castlegar said in a statement that Archibald “would have had no understanding of the callous cruelty that caused her death.”

“She had room in her heart for everyone and believed strongly that every person was to be valued and respected,” the family statement said.

Award-winning student

 

Kathy Christiansen, executive director of Alpha House in Calgary, said Archibald had worked at the shelter for homeless people addicted to drugs and alcohol until recently. She called Archibald a talented social worker and exceptional human being who inspired all who worked with her. “Chrissy was a bright light,” she said.

 

Before that, Archibald was an award-winning social work student from Calgary’s Mount Royal University. Peter Choate, an assistant professor of social work, said his former student “fit the profession.”

“She was very caring but at the same time very professional. She understood that she wasn’t in charge of the lives of her clients. She was able to offer her clients opportunities to do things with their lives,” Choate said.  “She got it. The family should be very proud of the young woman, the social worker that she was. As a profession for us it is a loss.”

‘Tell them Chrissy sent you’

The Archibald family asked that people honor her memory by making the community a better place.

 

“Volunteer your time and labor or donate to a homeless shelter,” the statement said. “Tell them Chrissy sent you.”

The hashtag Chrissysentme was being used on Twitter to express sadness for the family’s loss. Inspired by the call for meaningful action, some people pledged to make donations to shelters, soup kitchens and other community groups.

Ferguson Rowe said she hoped the use of the hashtag would “urge people to not let her death be in vain, to do good in their community.”

“It’s what she would have wanted,” Ferguson Rowe said.

 

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After Three Terror Attacks in Three Months, Britain Rethinks Its Future

In the wake of Saturday’s attack at London Bridge, calls are rising for an overhaul of the legal system after three attacks in as many months, causing anxiety among London’s large Muslim communities about the potential of decreased civil liberties and intolerance.  VOA Europe Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from London.

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World Condemns London Terror Attack, But Life to Go On As Usual

British police have arrested 12 people in connection with Saturday night’s terrorist attack in London, which left seven people dead and close to 50 others injured. World leaders have condemned the attack and urged citizens everywhere to be vigilant. Many people expressed defiance in the face of terrorism, saying they will continue with their lives as usual. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Putin Denies Ever Meeting With Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin insists he has never met with U.S. President Donald Trump and wondered if the American media has “lost its senses.”

Putin was interviewed last week by NBC’s Megyn Kelly. Parts of their talk were broadcast Sunday night.

When asked if he had anything damaging on Trump, Putin called it “another load of nonsense.”

The president said hundreds of American business executives come to Moscow every year and that he rarely sees any of them, including Trump, who was a business magnate before entering politics.

Putin also denied any contacts with fired national security advisor Michael Flynn.

There is a widely-seen photograph of Flynn and Putin sitting at the same banquet table in Moscow in 2015 when the retired Army general was a Trump advisor.

Putin was at the dinner to give a speech. He told Kelly he barely spoke to Flynn and was only told later who Flynn was.

Trump fired Flynn for failing to disclose that he had met with Russian officials.

The Russian president again denied Kremlin interference in the U.S. election by hacking Democratic Party emails.

He said hackers can be anywhere and can skillfully shift the blame to Russia.

Putin said it makes no sense for Russia to interfere, because he says no matter who is president, the Russians know what to expect from a U.S. leader.

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Russia says North Korea Nukes Are a ‘Direct Threat’

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are threatening to Russia, a Russian official said Sunday.

“It is not only [a] ballistic missile defense system — it has real function,” said Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin. “That is why it is alarming. And it is direct threat to Russia. We are convinced that it will increase the tensions of the region. That is our principle position.”

 

Fomin spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an international security conference in Singapore attended by defense ministers and experts from 39 countries, including U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

 

Russia borders North Korea and saw one of Pyongyang’s missiles land close to its waters. But it differs from the U.S. and its allies on how to rein in the North’s rapidly escalating nuclear and ballistic missile program.

 

Backing fresh sanctions on North Korea, Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Vladimir Safronkov stressed in June that “the choice here has to be made in favor of using diplomatic tools to the maximum extent possible.”

 

Fomin had similar sentiments. “Economical restrictions should be a kind of tool to invoke North Korea to a peaceful process of resolving the dispute and conflict, and not to once again deteriorate the economic solution in North Korea,” he said.

 

Addressing the South China Sea conflict, Fomin was careful with his words. “All states involved in territorial disagreements in the South China Sea need to adhere the principle of the non-use of force,” he said.

 

China — a Russian ally — has pitted itself against its smaller neighbors in claiming disputed islands, coral reefs and lagoons in the South China Sea.

 

 

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German Right-Wingers Urge Switch of Climate Change Policy

A conservative group in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party is urging a change of approach to climate change, arguing that the melting of sea ice could carry more opportunities than problems.

Lawmaker Philipp Lengsfeld wrote on Twitter Sunday that the Berlin Circle group wants “massive course corrections in climate and energy policy.” Lengsfeld said its statement was originally published Tuesday — before President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, which Merkel criticized.

 

The statement doesn’t mention the accord, but says the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius isn’t realistic.

 

The Berlin Circle, which has criticized various Merkel policies, includes a clutch of lawmakers in her Christian Democrats but not the party’s heaviest hitters. It’s been fairly isolated so far.

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Swift Police Response, Individual Heroism in London Bridge Attack 

Stories of heroism are being shared in the wake of eight minutes of terror that struck the Borough Market district of London late Saturday.

Seven people died in a stabbing rampage carried out by three men, who also drove a van at Saturday night revelers. Several of the nearly 50 people wounded in the attack remain in a critical condition, police officials say.

But police say there could have been more casualties if staff and customers in pubs and restaurants had not reacted promptly, and others hadn’t intervened to slow the attackers.

A speedy response by armed police — the three attackers were shot dead within eight minutes of the alarm being raised — also reduced the number of casualties.

First to respond

After crashing their van near the London Bridge underground station, the assailants armed with 25-centimeter (about 10 inch) hunting knives went on a frenzy. 

Among the first to intervene was a transport policeman who reacted to screams and rushed to confront the attackers. He was stabbed several times, suffering “serious but not life-threatening injuries,” according to police.

As the attack unfolded, shock and confusion gave way to panic, but staff at several restaurants reacted quickly, locking doors and shepherding customers to cellars or kitchens.

A taxi driver, who picked up two people fleeing the Black & Blue restaurant in Borough Market, told Sky News they thought their actions had saved lives. 

“They described to me how they prevented the guys from getting into the restaurant,” the taxi driver said.

He added: “They tried to break in. She managed to hold the door for a few seconds, but then I think they were overpowered. They managed to escape from a rear door, possibly saving a good 20 people’s lives, as they mentioned whilst I took them home.” At the pub, as staff and customers retreated, some hurled bottles and cutlery at the attackers.

Likewise, at the Sheaf pub, where the bouncers reacted quickly as fearful people ran in seeking sanctuary. 

“We didn’t really know what was going on,” said Will Orton, 25. “The bouncers did a really good job, they shut the doors and locked everyone in.”

Defending the wounded

Elsewhere in the area, home to many restaurants and pubs that draw large crowds of mainly young people on the weekends, some bystanders sought to defend those being attacked. One man, who gave his name as Gerard, told the BBC he saw the attackers stab one woman a dozen times and heard another wounded man covered in blood pleading for help.

He gave chase as the assailants moved on, shouting at people to run, warning them, “They’re terrorists, they’re stabbing everyone!” 

At the Southwark Tavern, he saw the men stab a bouncer. With no weapons of his own, he resorted to “throwing bottles at them, pint glasses, stools.” Customers joined in, throwing chairs, glasses and other large objects to keep the attackers from entering.

Earlier, Holly Jones told reporters she saw a man driving a white van veer onto the pavement at speed. 

“He swerved right round me and then hit five or six people,” she said. “He hit about two people in front of me and then three behind and then swerved back into the road. He did this three times before he drove off. It was a blur. I’m in total shock.” Two of the injured had badly mangled legs.

Gratitude for police response

Many of those caught up in violence spoke of their relief at the quick arrival of armed police. 

“It was one of those adrenaline-pumping moments,” said one young man named Will. “It was nerve-wracking for me and the wife. For me the priority was too get out of this safely. I am really impressed how quickly the police and emergency services got here. All credit to them.”

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said: “Armed officers responded very quickly and bravely, confronting three male suspects who were shot and killed in Borough Market. The suspects were wearing what looked like explosive vests but these were later established to be hoaxes.”

A counterterrorism official told VOA the fact the men wore such vests meant they’d decided this was a suicide mission. 

“They would have known we would shoot them on sight with those vests on,” he said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was “appalled and furious” at attack. He praised the police. 

“We have the best police and security services in the world. They plan, prepare and rehearse for these sorts of incidents and we saw their swift response last night. We saw the speed with which they shot the terrorists and how they helped the injured as well,” Khan said.

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Malta Votes in Election Tied to Panama Papers Scandal

Maltese voters went to the polls a year early Saturday in a snap election called by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat following an official investigation into allegations his wife owned a company related to the Panama Papers scandal.

Surveys showed Labour Party’s Muscat was likely to win a second, five-year term. But polls indicated one-fifth of voters were undecided, giving the National Force made up of the Nationalist Party and newly formed Democratic Party a slight chance.

The Panama Papers scandal, which detailed offshore companies and other financial data of the rich and powerful, exposed Malta’s energy minister and Muscat’s chief of staff as having acquired a company in Panama.

Muscat called new elections and ordered a magisterial inquiry midway through Malta’s first-ever stint at the presidency of the European Council after allegations surfaced in April that his wife also owned a company in Panama. The Muscats deny the allegations.

Setting up an offshore company is not illegal or evidence of illegal conduct, but shell companies can be used to avoid taxes or launder money.

After the publication of the Panama Papers last year, Muscat was criticized for retaining Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and chief of staff Keith Schembri, whose names figured in the document dump. They acknowledged that they acquired the companies but deny wrongdoing.

Since then, two other magisterial inquiries have been opened after money laundering and kickback allegations were made against Schembri by opposition Nationalist leader Simon Busuttil. Schembri denies any wrongdoing.

None of the investigations had finished before Saturday’s vote.

During the campaign, Busuttil, Muscat’s prime challenger, charged that accusations of corruption had hurt Malta’s financial services industry and would continue to damage the island’s reputation.