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Ex-Macedonia PM Gruevski Seeking Refugee Status in Hungary

Former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski sought asylum at a Hungarian representation outside Macedonia before reaching Hungary earlier this week and submitting his formal application for refugee status, Budapest said on Thursday.

Gruevski, who resigned in 2016 after 10 years in power, fled his Balkan homeland six months after being sentenced to two years in prison on corruption-related charges.

Macedonian police issued an arrest warrant for him after he failed to show up to begin his sentence following a Nov. 9 court ruling against his motion for a reprieve.

Gruevski’s refugee status application could put Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a tight spot. He supported the fellow nationalist Gruevski in the run-up to Macedonia’s 2017 election and praised his party’s efforts in halting migrants passing through the Balkans northwards towards Western Europe.

A senior Hungarian official declined to say in which country Gruevski had first sought Hungarian asylum or how he later made his way to the Immigration and Asylum Office in Budapest where he submitted documents and secured a hearing.

“According to my knowledge he made a statement regarding threats to his safety … that justified that his hearing should be conducted not in a transit zone but in Budapest,” said Gergely Gulyas, Orban’s cabinet chief.

Speaking to reporters, Gulyas would not say whether the Hungarian government was involved in helping Gruevski get to Budapest or whether he arrived by land or air. He said Hungary played no role in Gruevski’s exit from Macedonia.

Police in Albania, which borders Macedonia, said later on Thursday that Gruevski had crossed Albanian territory into Montenegro to the north on Sunday evening as a passenger in an Hungarian embassy car. It was unclear whether Gruevski then transited Serbia to reach Hungary further north.

Albanian police said Interpol notified them of an arrest warrant for Gruevski only on Tuesday, when the ex-premier announced on his Facebook page that he was in Budapest and seeking asylum.

Gulyas said Budapest had not yet received an official request from Macedonia to extradite Gruevski, adding Hungary would act “in line with the laws” if that happens. He said there was an extradition agreement between the two countries.

Asked if Gruevski was being protected by Hungarian authorities, Gulyas said Budapest had applied “the appropriate security protocol”, and was assured he would not leave the country. Gruevski had not met Orban this week, he added.

On Wednesday, a Fidesz party spokesman said Gruevski was a politician who was being persecuted by Macedonia’s leftist government. Gulyas declined to comment on this.

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EU Says Romania Has Backtracked on Court Reforms

The European Commission complained Tuesday that Romania has gone back on court reforms, urging Bucharest to revive efforts immediately to fight corruption and ensure judicial independence.

The European Union’s executive arm highlighted growing concerns about threats to the rule of law and democratic values in not just Romania but other member countries such as Poland and Hungary.

“I regret that Romania has not only stalled its reform process, but also reopened and backtracked on issues where progress was made over the past 10 years,” Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said, presenting a report.

“It is essential that Romania gets back on track immediately in the fight against corruption and also ensures an independent judiciary,” he said.

The former Dutch foreign minister also expressed concern about restrictions on press freedom under Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s left-wing government in Bucharest.

“We need the media to be able to work free from pressure,” he told a press conference later.

Timmermans, the EU’s pointman on rule of law threats, issued eight recommendations for Romania, including immediately suspending procedures to appoint or dismiss prosecutors.

He also urged Romania to freeze the implementation of changes to the criminal code.

The commission said it will continue to follow Romania closely and will assess the situation before the end of the executive’s mandate next year.

“We don’t do this to punish, we do this to help,” Timmermans told reporters, stressing it was part of a cooperative dialogue with Romania.

In contrast, the Commission last year launched action that could result in unprecedented sanctions against Poland’s right-wing government over allegations that it posed a “systemic threat” to the rule of law.

The European Parliament launched a similar action in recent months against Poland’s ally Hungary, though member states could veto the sanctions that would result in their losing EU voting rights.

For months, the Commission has been expressing concern about changes to Romania’s penal code pushed through by the Social Democratic Party-led government, which its critics say are unconstitutional and threaten judicial independence.

During a debate last month in the European Parliament with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Union stressed the need for progress in Romania before it assumes the bloc’s rotating presidency in January.

‘Not ready for this’

Juncker warned Romania not to undermine its bid to join Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone, where Bucharest needs a recommendation from the Commission and unanimous support from the other 27 EU member countries.

Romania and neighboring Bulgaria’s bid to join the Schengen zone — which is composed of 22 EU nations and four non-EU countries — have been blocked since 2007.

The Schengen area is one of the pillars of the European project, enshrining the right to free movement.

Bulgaria fared far better in the commission report, with Timmermans hailing its progress on judicial reform as well as fighting corruption and organized crime.

Prosecutors have had some success in clamping down on corruption in Romania, which has a reputation as one of the EU’s most graft-ridden countries, but the government accuses them of overstepping their power.

After winning elections in late 2016, the government attempted to water down anti-corruption legislation, but abandoned the plans in face of the biggest wave of protests since the collapse of communism in 1989.

In a non-binding vote, the European Parliament on Tuesday also warned Romania against undermining the independence of its courts and the fight against corruption before it assumes the EU presidency.

On Tuesday, The Romanian government appointed George Ciamba, a 52-year-old experienced diplomat, as Europe minister in order to prepare for the bloc presidency.

Iohannis, who hails from Romania’s center-right, had claimed that the leftist government is “not ready for this” presidency after Ciamba’s predecessor Victor Negrescu, 33, resigned late last week.

No public explanation was given but Romanian press reports said colleagues had blamed Negrescu for failing to ease EU concerns about Romania’s upcoming presidency.

Dancila insisted Romania was ready for the job and accused Iohannis of harming the country.

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Czech Opposition Pushes for No-Confidence Vote Over PM’s Investigation

Czech opposition parties on Tuesday called on Prime Minister Andrej Babis to resign and agreed to push for a no-confidence motion in his government after a news report that said his son had been sent abroad to hinder a fraud investigation.

Babis, a billionaire with farming, chemicals and media businesses, has long battled police charges that he manipulated the ownership of one of his firms a decade ago so that it would qualify for 2 million euros in European Union development aid.

He has denied any wrongdoing in what has become known as the Stork Nest scandal.

Six opposition parties said the case could not be properly investigated while Babis was still prime minister.

“[We] call on Andrej Babis to resign as prime minister until the Stork Nest case is investigated. This is the only way to ensure fair investigation,” the parties said in a statement.

Babis told parliament in March 2016 that the firm in question, a hotel and conference center outside Prague, was owned by his adult children and his partner’s brother at the time when the subsidy was approved. His two adult children and others have been charged in the case.

News website Seznam Zpravy tracked down Babis’ son Andrej in Switzerland where he lives with his mother, Babis’ ex-wife.

In what appeared to be a hidden camera interview on the doorstep of their apartment, Andrej Babis junior said he had been brought to Crimea so that he would not be called as a witness to the investigation.

He said that the person who brought him to Crimea was the husband of a psychiatrist who examined him and who had worked as an adviser for Babis senior in the past when he was finance minister.

Babis junior, who has received psychiatric treatment, said he did not believe him being moved to Crimea was his father’s idea.

“He [the man who took me there] took advantage of my father wanting me to disappear. Because of the Stork Nest affair,” Babis junior told the reporters, according to published footage.

Police had looked into the case and ruled that no crime had taken place, a police spokeswoman said.

Babis senior called the report a manipulation.

“To film a mentally ill man, secretly and in this way, that is heinous and revolting. This entire campaign is only aimed to put pressure on the investigators in the Stork Nest case, it is also used by the opposition,” Babis said in a statement from Sicily, where he was attending a conference on Libya.

The opposition parties lack the 101 votes in the 200-seat parliament that are needed to dismiss the prime minister.

The government includes Babis’ ANO party and the center-left Social Democrats. It also relies on votes from the Communist Party to have a majority in parliament.

The Social Democrats nor the Communists have indicated they would join the opposition in the vote.

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Trump Assails France, Macron in Salvo of Tweets

U.S. President Donald Trump launched verbal assaults Tuesday on France and President Emmanuel Macron, citing his low voter approval ratings and attacking French tariffs on U.S. wine exports and failure to meet NATO’s defense spending goal.

“Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia,” Trump said first in a salvo of Twitter comments. “But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!” 

Trump has frequently attacked U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the West’s main defense alliance forged after World War II, for not yet meeting its 2024 goal of each country spending 2 percent of their national economies on defense, chiefly weapons and armed forces.

Eight of the 29 NATO countries are now meeting the 2 percent goal. French defense spending is at 1.82 percent of its gross domestic product, but Paris has announced plans to gradually boost military funding to reach the NATO goal by 2025. By comparison, U.S. defense spending is at 3.1 percent of its world-leading $19.4-trillion economy.

Trump has declared himself a “nationalist,” with an America First outlook on international relations. But Macron, with Trump listening nearby at Sunday’s centenary of the end of World War I in Paris, deplored rising nationalism throughout the world, declaring it a “betrayal of patriotism.”

Trump retorted Tuesday, “The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France, 26%, and an unemployment rate of almost 10%. He was just trying to get onto another subject. By the way, there is no country more Nationalist than France, very proud people-and rightfully so! MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!”

Trump, whose family business empire includes a Virginia vineyard that sells a variety of wines, also complained about French tariffs on U.S. wine exports.

France does charge higher tariffs on U.S. wines, but the monetary difference is relatively small, with five- to 14-cent tariffs on bottles of French wine imported into the U.S. versus 11 to 29 cents on U.S. exported wines headed to France.

Social media critics of Trump in the U.S. have mocked him for skipping a Saturday visit to a U.S. cemetery of World War I casualties because it was raining. Other world leaders in Paris visited their national cemeteries the same day and Trump White House chief of staff John Kelly, accompanied by other U.S. officials, made it to the American graveyard to lay a wreath honoring the war dead.

By way of explanation, Trump tweeted, “By the way, when the helicopter couldn’t fly to the first cemetery in France because of almost zero visibility, I suggested driving. Secret Service said NO, too far from airport & big Paris shutdown. Speech next day at American Cemetary in pouring rain! Little reported-Fake News!”

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EU, UK Inch Closer to Deal as Brexit Hangs in Balance

Britain and the European Union appeared to be inching toward agreement on Brexit on Monday, but British Prime Minister Theresa May faced intensifying pressure from her divided Conservative government that could yet scuttle a deal.

Britain leaves the EU on March 29 — the first country ever to do so — but a deal must be sealed in the coming weeks to leave enough time for the U.K. and European Parliaments to sign off. May faces increasing domestic pressure over her proposals for an agreement following the resignation of another government minister last week.

The British leader had been hoping to present a draft deal to her Cabinet this week. But no Brexit breakthrough was announced Monday after talks between European affairs ministers. The two sides are locked in technical negotiations to try to bridge the final gaps in a move laden with heavy political and economic consequences. 

May said talks were in their “endgame” but that negotiating a divorce agreement after more than four decades of British EU membership was “immensely difficult.”

May told an audience at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London that “we are working extremely hard, through the night, to make progress on the remaining issues in the Withdrawal Agreement, which are significant.

“Both sides want to reach an agreement,” May said, though she added she wouldn’t sign up to “agreement at any cost.”

The main obstacle to a deal is how to keep goods flowing smoothly across the border between EU country Ireland and Northern Ireland in the U.K.

Both sides have committed to avoid a hard border with costly and time-consuming checks that would hamper business. Any new customs posts on the border could also re-ignite lingering sectarian tensions. But Britain and the EU haven’t agreed on how to achieve that goal.

“Clearly this is a very important week for Brexit negotiations,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told reporters after the meeting in Brussels. “The two negotiating teams have really intensified their engagement … There is still clearly work to do.”

And Martin Callanan, a minister in Britain’s Brexit department, said all involved were “straining every sinew to make sure that we get a deal but we have to get a deal that is right for the U.K., right for the EU and one that would be acceptable to the U.K. Parliament.”

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier didn’t speak to reporters Monday and a planned news conference with him was canceled.

Instead, EU headquarters issued a short statement saying that Barnier explained to the ministers that “intense negotiating efforts continue, but an agreement has not been reached yet.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said the two sides “are getting closer to each other.”

“But in negotiations there is only a deal if there is full agreement,” Blok said. “There is only a 100-percent deal. There is not a 90-percent deal or a 95-percent deal.”

Earlier, France’s EU affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, stepped up pressure on May. “The ball is in the British court. It is a question of a British political decision,” she said.

The EU is awaiting Barnier’s signal as to whether sufficient progress has been made to call an EU summit to seal a deal. 

Rumors have swirled of a possible top-level meeting at the end of November. But Austrian EU affairs minister Gernot Bluemel, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said “so far progress is not sufficient to call in and set up another (summit).”

In recent days there have been signs of progress behind the scenes, but all parties have remained tight-lipped about the developments, given the politically charged atmosphere.

In Britain, pro-Brexit and pro-EU politicians alike warned May that the deal she seeks is likely to be shot down by Parliament.

Boris Johnson, a staunch Brexit supporter, wrote in a column for Monday’s Daily Telegraph that May’s plan to adhere closely to EU regulations in return for a trade deal and an open Irish border amounts to “total surrender” to the bloc. 

The proposed terms are scarcely more popular with advocates of continued EU membership.

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening on Monday called May’s proposals the “worst of all worlds,” and said the public should be allowed to vote on Britain’s departure again.

“We should be planning as to how we can put this final say on Brexit in the hands of the British people,” Greening told the BBC.

Johnson’s younger brother, Jo Johnson, resigned last week backing calls for a second referendum on whether the country should leave the EU. May has consistently rejected the idea of another nationwide vote on Brexit.

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Separatist Areas Elect Leaders as Ukraine, Russia Trade Barbs

Two separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine announced the winners of leadership elections on Monday that were dismissed by Kyiv and its international allies as a sham exercise engineered by Russia to install puppet regimes.

The polls took place Sunday in the shadow of a conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014 and poisoned relations between the two neighbors.

The Donetsk region’s acting head Denis Pushilin, whose predecessor was killed in an explosion in August, was confirmed as leader with 61 percent of the vote while the acting chief of Luhansk region, Leonid Pasechnik, also won with 68 percent.

Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov congratulated the winners, according to the separatist press service DAN, though a Kremlin spokesman later said he was not aware any congratulations had been extended.

The United States, European Union member states and Canada condemned the vote as illegal and in violation of a cease-fire agreed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in 2015.

“This reaction clearly states that, on the one hand, these elections will not be recognized by anyone. This is a brutal violation of the Minsk agreements,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.

“On the other hand, there is a call for the responsibility of the Russian Federation as the organizer of these elections.”

Russia disputed that the elections violated the Minsk accord and instead blamed the Kyiv authorities for failing to honor its commitments in the peace process.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was not aware any congratulations had been sent to the rebels, but added that it was understandable they wanted to hold elections.

“We are talking about two regions that are completely rejected by the rest of the country and are under an absolute embargo. The Minsk accords are not being implemented by Kyiv,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call in Moscow.

Pushilin said it was a turning point in the region’s history. “We have proved to the whole world that we can not only fight, not only win on the battlefield, but also build a state based on real democratic principles,” he said Sunday.

Moscow-backed rebels seized territory in eastern Ukraine after street protests toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea a month later.

Ukraine and the West say Russia de facto controls the eastern Donbass region by propping up puppet leaders with troops and heavy weaponry, which Moscow denies.

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Romanian Leader Says Country Not Ready for EU Presidency

Romania’s president said Monday his country isn’t ready to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency on Jan. 1 and called for the government to step down.

President Klaus Iohannis said “things have gone off the rails,” and that there was “a political necessity to replace the government,” which he called “an accident of Romanian democracy.”

Viorica Dancila, a little-known politician became premier in January, but has little executive power as Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party, basically runs the government. Dragnea can’t be prime minister because of a conviction for vote-rigging.

“It’s the 12th hour [and] we are totally unprepared,” Iohannis said. “There’s no chance of a good government … or proper involvement in European affairs.”

European Affairs Minister Victor Negrescu, tasked with preparing Romania to take over the EU presidency, unexpectedly resigned last week. Romania government officials were apparently dissatisfied with Negrescu’s performance in building good relations within the EU’s executive branch.

“It’s unclear at the government who the responsible people are, “Iohannis said. “People who should be dealing with the EU presidency resign or they’re dismissed.” Dragnea called the president’s comments “a major disservice to Romania.”

Romania is already facing censure from the EU over a contentious judicial overhaul last year that the bloc says undermines the fight against corruption.

Last month, EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova voiced concern about Romania potentially struggling to manage the presidency while it was weighed down by domestic concerns, in particular corruption.

The EU on Tuesday will present its latest report on the judicial systems of Romania and Bulgaria. The bloc monitors the countries, amid concerns about corruption, their justice systems and organized crime.

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White House: Cemetery Motorcade Would Have Disrupted Roads

Stung by criticism for not attending an event honoring U.S. military dead, the White House says President Donald Trump didn’t want to disrupt Paris roadways for a last-minute motorcade to a cemetery in northern France.

Trump had been scheduled to lay a wreath and observe a moment of silence Saturday at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, located adjacent to Belleau Wood and about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Paris. The White House cited weather conditions that grounded the president’s helicopter for the cancellation.

In the wake of criticism that Trump didn’t travel by car to the event, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement Sunday that noted the weather and “near-zero visibility” as well as concerns that a motorcade on short notice would have required closing substantial portions of area roadways.

“President Trump did not want to cause that kind of unexpected disruption to the city and its people,” Sanders said. She also said the trip to Aisne-Marne was 2 hours each way by car.

Instead, Trump spent much of Saturday at the U.S. ambassador’s residence following a meeting and lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron. Trump was in Paris for events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Attending the cemetery event in Trump’s place were the White House chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford; and several members of the White House staff. The Battle of Belleau Wood was a critical conflict in the war and a pivotal encounter in Marine Corps history.

The determination to ground Marine One, the president’s helicopter, due to bad weather is made by the Marine Corps and the White House Military Office, which then presents the recommendation to the White House in collaboration with the Secret Service, according to a Secret Service official.

Paris was covered in clouds with drizzling rain through most of Saturday.

On Sunday, Trump attended a scheduled event honoring American war dead at a U.S. cemetery just outside of Paris.

 

 

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PM May: Britain Open to ‘Different Relationship’ With Russia

Prime Minister Theresa May will say on Monday Britain is “open to a different relationship” with Russia if Moscow takes a new path and stops “attacks” that undermine international treaties and security.

Just a year ago, May used her annual speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet to accuse Moscow of military aggression and of meddling in elections, some of her strongest criticism even before the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury.

This year, she will tell London’s financial center that the action taken since – including the largest ever coordinated expulsion of Russian intelligence officers – has deepened her belief in a “collective response” to such threats.

“We will continue to show our willingness to act, as a community of nations, to stand up for the rules around the world,” May will say, according to excerpts of her speech.

Describing evolving threats, May will say the past year, including Salisbury, has “shown that while the challenge is real, so is the collective resolve of likeminded partners to defend our values, our democracies, and our people.”

“But, as I also said a year ago, this is not the relationship with Russia that we want … We remain open to a different relationship – one where Russia desists from these attacks that undermine international treaties and international security,” she will say.

“And we hope that the Russian state chooses to take this path. If it does, we will respond in kind.”

May has said often that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union does not mean a retreat into isolationism, and her words again seem aimed at underlining London’s desire to play a weighty role in the world.

But with no mention of Brexit in the speech excerpts, she may be hoping to avoid going into too much detail of Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU, which have split her cabinet, her Conservative Party and Britain’s parliament.

 

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Official: Trump, Erdogan Discuss Khashoggi Response

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, discussed how to respond to the killing last month of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a White House official said on Sunday.

The conversation took place during a Saturday dinner with heads of state and government gathered in Paris to mark the World War I Armistice centenary.

Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate by a team sent from Riyadh. Saudi authorities have acknowledged that the killing was premeditated, but his body has not been found.

Erdogan disclosed on Saturday that audio recordings of the killing had been given to the U.S., French, German and British governments, adding that the operation had been ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.

Trump expects to form a “stronger opinion” by this coming week on Khashoggi’s killing and Washington’s response, he said last Wednesday – adding that he was working with Congress, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to establish who bore responsibility.

In a phone call with the crown prince on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “emphasized that the United States will hold all of those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi accountable, and that Saudi Arabia must do the same,” the State Department said in a statement.