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Greeks Plan Massive Rally to Protest Deal With Macedonia

Demonstrators in Greece are planning a massive rally Sunday to protest a deal that would normalize Greek relations with Macedonia.

Greeks have been divided over the deal, in which Macedonia will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia and Greece will drop its objections to the Balkan country’s joining NATO and the European Union.

The U.S. State Department said in a tweet Friday that Sunday’s demonstration in Athens is expected to draw 150,000 or more participants.

Greek identity

Greek protesters say Macedonia’s new name represents an attempt to appropriate Greek identity and cultural heritage. Macedonia is the name of Greece’s northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.

Opposition to the deal is particularly strong in the Greek province of Macedonia, where many people have put up posters urging local lawmakers to vote against the agreement.

A nationwide poll in Greece this week found that 70 percent of respondents oppose the deal.

The agreement has caused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to lose his four-year coalition in parliament after his nationalist allies defected to protest the deal. Following the upheaval, Tsipras narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament Wednesday.

Tsipras has called for a televised debate on the planned name deal with Macedonia before parliament votes on the agreement.

The Greek prime minister and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, brokered the compromise in June to end a 27-year name dispute between the two neighbors.

​Macedonia approves

Last week, Macedonia’s parliament approved a constitutional revision to change the country’s name. The agreement has also caused protests in Macedonia, with critics there saying the government gave up too much in the deal.

Tsipras has argued the Macedonia deal will bolster stability in Europe’s Balkan region. European Union countries have also strongly backed the deal.

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Russians Plunge Into Icy Waters to Mark Feast of Epiphany

Across Russia, the devout and the daring are observing the Orthodox Christian feast day of Epiphany by immersing themselves in frigid water through holes cut through the ice of lakes and rivers.

Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God through his baptism in the River Jordan.

Russian believers imitate the baptism by entering the water and ducking themselves three times either on the evening before Epiphany or on that Jan. 19 feast day. Many make the sign of the cross, some others hold their noses.

Some of the people who do it scurry out quickly and wrap themselves in large towels. But many seem unfazed by it all and extol the practice as strengthening both the soul and the body.

The ritual is watched by priests who have blessed the water. Emergency workers are also on hand in case anyone succumbs to the heart-racing shock of the icy immersion.

There’s usually a contingent of warmly dressed onlookers, too, maybe wondering if they’ll have the boldness to try it next year.

Some Orthodox pilgrims get to dunk themselves in the actual River Jordan, which is a whole lot warmer.

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Russians Plunge Into Icy Waters to Mark Feast of Epiphany

Across Russia, the devout and the daring are observing the Orthodox Christian feast day of Epiphany by immersing themselves in frigid water through holes cut through the ice of lakes and rivers.

Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God through his baptism in the River Jordan.

Russian believers imitate the baptism by entering the water and ducking themselves three times either on the evening before Epiphany or on that Jan. 19 feast day. Many make the sign of the cross, some others hold their noses.

Some of the people who do it scurry out quickly and wrap themselves in large towels. But many seem unfazed by it all and extol the practice as strengthening both the soul and the body.

The ritual is watched by priests who have blessed the water. Emergency workers are also on hand in case anyone succumbs to the heart-racing shock of the icy immersion.

There’s usually a contingent of warmly dressed onlookers, too, maybe wondering if they’ll have the boldness to try it next year.

Some Orthodox pilgrims get to dunk themselves in the actual River Jordan, which is a whole lot warmer.

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US Senator Meets Turkish Leader to Defuse Tensions

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with visiting U.S Senator Lindsey Graham in Ankara Friday, in the latest effort to defuse bilateral tensions over Syria.

Turkish forces remain massed on the northeast Syrian border, poised to launch an offensive against the YPG Kurdish militia, a critical American ally in the war against Islamic State. Ankara deems the YPG terrorists linked to an insurgency inside Turkey.

Differences over Syria saw Erdogan shun U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton earlier this month when he visited Ankara. Graham met not only with Erdogan but withTurkey’s defense and foreign ministers and intelligence chief.

“At our meeting, w/ U.S. Senator @LindseyGrahamSC discussed recent developments in #Syria and #Turkey -#US bilateral relations,” tweeted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Ahead of his visit, Graham appeared to reach out to Ankara by addressing key Turkish concerns.

“I have long contended that there are elements among the Syrian Kurds that represent a legitimate national security threat to Turkey. Turkey’s concern regarding YPG elements must be addressed in a real way to ensure that Turkey’s borders are secure and are protected from any threats,” wrote Graham.

The meeting marks the senator’s second with Erdogan in six months. Graham is a member of three powerful Senate committees: Foreign Relations, Budget, and Appropriations. Analysts suggest the senator’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump explains Ankara’s warm reception.

“He is very close to Donald Trump, he is a man of confidence to Trump,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “He is more politician than John Bolton who is considered more a diplomat. So Graham’s visit is a higher level of meeting in Ankara’s eyes, so it’s welcomed in Ankara. I am sure Trump has sent him.” Bagci added.

Analysts point out Erdogan sees Trump as his only trusted interlocutor, blaming U.S. officials for the current bilateral tensions. Erdogan welcomed Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria; however, the Turkish president condemned what he said were attempts by senior U.S. officials to delay the withdrawal and link it to conditions including guaranteeing YPG security.

Graham has criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, claiming it was premature in the war against Islamic State. The senator’s talks in Ankara reportedly focused on America’s Syria withdrawal and Ankara’s threatened military operation in Syria.

“We won’t stop until we drain the terrorist swamp next door (referring to Syria). We won’t rest until justice is served,” presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun wrote on Twitter Friday. “Terrorists have killed more than 2,000 innocent people in Turkey since 2015. Many of those attacks were planned in northern Syria. The Turkish people suffered more than their fair share,” Altun added.

Analysts suggest Ankara is not looking for a confrontation with Graham. “I expect Turkey will offer some concessions to the United States,” said Bagci, “because even though Turkey has the military capability to intervene in Syria and control the area, without American green light, it would be very difficult for Turkey.”

Ankara is seeking common ground with Trump’s proposal to create a buffer zone in Syria between the Kurdish militia and the Turkish border.

Erdogan welcomed the proposal but maintains that Turkish forces will create the 30-kilometer deep zone into Syria. The YPG leadership is strongly opposed, warning it would resist.

“If Turkish forces created the 30-kilometer buffer zone, the YPG forces would have nowhere to go; there is only desert beyond,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat. “The alternative is for them to disarm.”

Turkish pro-government media are filled with reports of American conspiracies. “Their steps with respect to forming a 32-kilometer safe zone on our Syria border is a new distraction trick,” wrote columnist Tamer Korkmaz in Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper, Friday. “They want to delay Turkey’s possible military operation, and if possible, prevent it. Would they accept the kind of buffer zone Turkey wants?” he continued.

Since Trump has proposed the Syrian buffer zone, no details have been provided by Washington on how it will be created or enforced. Graham reportedly discussed the zone during his talks in Ankara.

Analysts warn Ankara could also face pushback from Arab countries in the region if it acted unilaterally.

“Turkey ultimately will not be allowed to control this area,” said Bagci. “Some Arab countries will consider this an occupation of Arab lands. So that Turkey would be viewed as an aggressive revisionist state, from a historical perspective, as this is all formally land belonging to the Ottoman empire. Turkey has to convince the world that Turkey is protecting the Kurds from the Syrian Assad regime, rather than just fighting terrorism,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia too has voiced concern about a Turkish incursion, saying Syria has to approve of it. Erdogan is due to visit Moscow next week to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. “Turkey has a weak hand, with Russia, America and Damascus opposed to any Syrian military operation,” said Bagci.

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Prince Philip, 97, Recovering After Car Crash

Queen Elizabeth II’s 97-year-old husband was recovering Friday at the royal Sandringham estate after the Land Rover he was driving rolled on a nearby highway in a collision with another vehicle.

Witness Roy Warne told the BBC he was driving home from work when the accident involving Prince Philip’s black Land Rover and a compact car unfolded in front of him. Warne said he helped free a baby from the second car, a Kia, before helping the prince out of his vehicle, which was lying on its side.

“I saw a car, a black [Land] Rover, come out from a side road and it rolled and ended up on the other side of the road,” Warne said. “I saw it careering, tumbling across the road and ending up on the other side.”

Warne found Philip trapped in the car, but persuaded him to move one leg at a time to get out. He then pulled him out of the Land Rover through the windscreen or sun roof. The prince was able to immediately stand and walk around.

“He was obviously shaken, and then he went and asked if everyone else was all right,” Warne said.

Police conducted breath tests on the drivers after the accident, shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday. Both tested negatively.

The driver of the Kia, a 28-year-old woman, suffered cuts to her knee while her passenger, a 45-year-old woman, suffered a broken wrist. Both were taken to the hospital and released. A 9-month-old baby in the Kia was not injured.

The prince was checked by a doctor after the accident and determined to be fine, Buckingham Palace said.

“We are aware of the public interest in this case, however, as with any other investigation it would be inappropriate to speculate on the causes of the collision until an investigation is carried out,” Norfolk Constabulary said in a statement.

By coincidence, authorities in the area had planned to consider improving safety on the road, the A149. Norfolk County Council will discuss reducing the speed limit on the road from 60 mph to 50 mph and installing safety cameras.

Philip has largely retired from public life but is well known for his fierce independence and his love of cars. He has seemed to be in generally good health in recent months.

He and Elizabeth, 92, have been on an extended Christmas vacation at Sandringham, one of her favored rural homes.

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Gloomy Davos: Plenty of Crises, Few World Leaders

An array of crises will keep several world leaders away from the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos next week, which takes place against a backdrop of deepening gloom over the global economic and political outlook.

Anxieties over trade disputes, fractious international relations, Brexit and a growth slowdown that some fear could tip the world economy into recession are set to dominate the Jan. 22-25 Alpine meeting.

The WEF’s own Global Risks Report set the tone this week with a stark warning of looming economic headwinds, in part because of geopolitical tensions among major powers.

​No Trump, Macron or May

Some 3,000 business, government and civil society figures are scheduled to gather in the snow-blanketed ski resort, but among them are only three leaders of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Donald Trump, who stole the Davos limelight last year with a rare appearance by a sitting U.S. president, pulled out of this year’s event as he grapples with a partial U.S. government shutdown.

On Thursday, the White House said Trump had also canceled his delegation’s trip to Davos because of the shutdown, now in its 27th day. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been expected to lead the U.S. team, according to two senior administration officials.

French President Emmanuel Macron is also skipping the meeting as he seeks to respond to the “yellow vest” protests, while British Prime Minister Theresa May battles to find a consensus on Brexit.

​No Xi, either

Outside the G7, the leaders of Russia and India are shunning Davos, while China —whose president, Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese leader to attend the elite gathering in 2017 to offer a vigorous defense of free trade — is sending Xi’s deputy instead.

That will leave the likes of British Finance Minister Philip Hammond, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and a host of central bankers with the task of trying to reassure business chiefs.

“Davos will be dominated by a high level of anxiety about stock markets, a slowdown in growth and international politics,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Markit. “The leadership presence is lower than last year but those who are going … will be seeking to impart a sense of confidence and calm business and investors’ nerves.”

​Forum still has its glitz

Before the U.S. cancellation, a Trump administration official had said the U.S. delegation would also discuss the importance of reforming institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Trump has harshly criticized globalization and questioned U.S. participation in multilateral institutions such as the WTO, calling for a revamp of international trade rules.

Davos watchers said the absence of so many top leaders this year did not mean the glitzy forum had lost its status as a global stage for top politicians to present their agendas.

“Abe is going to Davos not just as Japanese prime minister but also as chair of the G20. It will be a perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork of upcoming G20 meetings,” said a Japanese government source familiar with international affairs.

“Of course there may be inconveniences such as missing opportunities to hold bilateral meetings, but that won’t undermine the importance of Davos,” he said.

A Chinese official who has attended Davos regularly but will not go this year said China had never expected to make progress at the meeting on the trade dispute with the United States. 

“It’s just an occasion for making a policy statement,” he said.

​Networking opportunities

The low turnout among major Western leaders may also give more prominence to political personalities who may otherwise be upstaged. Davos will be the first major international outing for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, elected on a wave of anti-establishment and conservative nationalism also seen elsewhere.

He said on Twitter he would present “a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption.”

For business chiefs, the value of Davos lies not so much in the public sessions but in the networking and deal-making opportunities on the sidelines of the main conference.

“It’s the best place to pitch for ideas, build connections and get your brand known,” said Chen Linchevski, chief executive of Precognize, an Israel-based start-up developing software that prevents technical or quality failures at manufacturing plants.

“It’s the kind of place where in a few days you meet people you wouldn’t easily meet otherwise,” said Linchevski, who is paying 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,495) to attend the event.

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Gloomy Davos: Plenty of Crises, Few World Leaders

An array of crises will keep several world leaders away from the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos next week, which takes place against a backdrop of deepening gloom over the global economic and political outlook.

Anxieties over trade disputes, fractious international relations, Brexit and a growth slowdown that some fear could tip the world economy into recession are set to dominate the Jan. 22-25 Alpine meeting.

The WEF’s own Global Risks Report set the tone this week with a stark warning of looming economic headwinds, in part because of geopolitical tensions among major powers.

​No Trump, Macron or May

Some 3,000 business, government and civil society figures are scheduled to gather in the snow-blanketed ski resort, but among them are only three leaders of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Donald Trump, who stole the Davos limelight last year with a rare appearance by a sitting U.S. president, pulled out of this year’s event as he grapples with a partial U.S. government shutdown.

On Thursday, the White House said Trump had also canceled his delegation’s trip to Davos because of the shutdown, now in its 27th day. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been expected to lead the U.S. team, according to two senior administration officials.

French President Emmanuel Macron is also skipping the meeting as he seeks to respond to the “yellow vest” protests, while British Prime Minister Theresa May battles to find a consensus on Brexit.

​No Xi, either

Outside the G7, the leaders of Russia and India are shunning Davos, while China —whose president, Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese leader to attend the elite gathering in 2017 to offer a vigorous defense of free trade — is sending Xi’s deputy instead.

That will leave the likes of British Finance Minister Philip Hammond, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and a host of central bankers with the task of trying to reassure business chiefs.

“Davos will be dominated by a high level of anxiety about stock markets, a slowdown in growth and international politics,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Markit. “The leadership presence is lower than last year but those who are going … will be seeking to impart a sense of confidence and calm business and investors’ nerves.”

​Forum still has its glitz

Before the U.S. cancellation, a Trump administration official had said the U.S. delegation would also discuss the importance of reforming institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Trump has harshly criticized globalization and questioned U.S. participation in multilateral institutions such as the WTO, calling for a revamp of international trade rules.

Davos watchers said the absence of so many top leaders this year did not mean the glitzy forum had lost its status as a global stage for top politicians to present their agendas.

“Abe is going to Davos not just as Japanese prime minister but also as chair of the G20. It will be a perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork of upcoming G20 meetings,” said a Japanese government source familiar with international affairs.

“Of course there may be inconveniences such as missing opportunities to hold bilateral meetings, but that won’t undermine the importance of Davos,” he said.

A Chinese official who has attended Davos regularly but will not go this year said China had never expected to make progress at the meeting on the trade dispute with the United States. 

“It’s just an occasion for making a policy statement,” he said.

​Networking opportunities

The low turnout among major Western leaders may also give more prominence to political personalities who may otherwise be upstaged. Davos will be the first major international outing for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, elected on a wave of anti-establishment and conservative nationalism also seen elsewhere.

He said on Twitter he would present “a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption.”

For business chiefs, the value of Davos lies not so much in the public sessions but in the networking and deal-making opportunities on the sidelines of the main conference.

“It’s the best place to pitch for ideas, build connections and get your brand known,” said Chen Linchevski, chief executive of Precognize, an Israel-based start-up developing software that prevents technical or quality failures at manufacturing plants.

“It’s the kind of place where in a few days you meet people you wouldn’t easily meet otherwise,” said Linchevski, who is paying 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,495) to attend the event.

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Norway PM Solberg to Form Majority Government

Norway’s minority centre-right government has struck a deal with the small Christian Democratic Party to form a four-party majority coalition, it said on Thursday, confirming earlier  reports.

The agreement fulfils a long-standing goal of Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, in power since 2013, who hopes ruling in a majority will provide stability and help ease her path to re-election in 2021.

“We had tough negotiations,” Solberg said, celebrating the pact alongside leaders of her existing partners the Progress Party and the Liberal Party as well as the Christian Democrats.

She said the government would focus on a “sustainable welfare society”, help combat climate change, reduce taxes for small and medium businesses, strengthen family and children’s rights, and ensure stronger security for all.

The three parties also agreed to slight changes in abortion laws at the demand of the Christian Democrats.

Recent opinion polls have shown a majority of voters backing the Labour-led center-left opposition.

 

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Norway PM Solberg to Form Majority Government

Norway’s minority centre-right government has struck a deal with the small Christian Democratic Party to form a four-party majority coalition, it said on Thursday, confirming earlier  reports.

The agreement fulfils a long-standing goal of Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, in power since 2013, who hopes ruling in a majority will provide stability and help ease her path to re-election in 2021.

“We had tough negotiations,” Solberg said, celebrating the pact alongside leaders of her existing partners the Progress Party and the Liberal Party as well as the Christian Democrats.

She said the government would focus on a “sustainable welfare society”, help combat climate change, reduce taxes for small and medium businesses, strengthen family and children’s rights, and ensure stronger security for all.

The three parties also agreed to slight changes in abortion laws at the demand of the Christian Democrats.

Recent opinion polls have shown a majority of voters backing the Labour-led center-left opposition.

 

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Report: Morocco Foils 89,000 Illegal Migration Attempts in 2018

Morocco stopped 89,000 people from illegally migrating in 2018, up 37 percent compared to a year earlier, the interior ministry said Thursday, as the country became the main launchpad in the Mediterranean for Europe-bound migrants.

Morocco, which other Africans can visit without visas, has become a major gateway for migrants into Europe since Italy’s tougher line and EU aid to the Libyan coast guard curbed the number of people coming from Libya.

In 2018, Moroccan authorities dismantled 229 migrant trafficking networks, the interior ministry’s figure showed.

Some 80 percent of illegal migrants intercepted in 2018 were foreigners, 29,715 migrants were saved at sea while 5,608 opted for a voluntary return to their home countries, the ministry said.

While some migrants try to reach Ceuta and another Spanish enclave in Africa, Melilla, others pay smugglers to put them on boats, as Spain is just 14 km across the western end of the Mediterranean.

The EU has already transferred 30 million euros out of 140 million promised last October to help Morocco curb illegal migration, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Thursday at a news conference in Rabat.

About half of the 111,558 migrants and refugees who entered Europe by the Mediterranean Sea in 2018 made it through the Western route separating the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Some 2,217 died while crossing the Mediterranean, including 744 on the western route, the IOM said.