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EU Welcomes Romania’s Repeal of Graft Decree, Offers Help for Jails

The European Commission welcomed on Thursday as a “very good step” the  decision of the Romanian government to repeal a decree that would have decriminalized graft, and offered Bucharest assistance and funds to improve the country’s prisons.

The one-month-old cabinet of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu enraged voters when it quietly approved emergency decree two weeks ago that would have decriminalized several corruption offenses, prompting the largest display of popular anger since the fall of communism in 1989.

 

 

Warning to Romania

After the protests, the decree was repealed and its main architect, Justice Minister Florin Iordache, resigned.

“I really welcome the fact that the emergency order has been repealed. It is a very good step,” the European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans told a news conference in Brussels after a meeting with Grindeanu.

Timmermans, who had warned Romania not to backtrack in the fight against corruption after the graft decree was approved, urged the country to continue tackling graft and to involve the civil society in the reform of its corruption laws.

He also offered Romania EU assistance to improve the prison system, saying EU funds could be used for that purpose. The Social Democrat-led government had argued that the decriminalization of some graft offenses would have reduced overcrowding in the country’s jails.

New minister could be outsider

Speaking at the same news conference, Grindeanu committed to new reforms and said he will work to make sure the EU’s monitoring of Romania’s judicial sector and anti-graft legislation would no longer be needed by 2019, when the country takes over the EU presidency for the first time since it joined the bloc in 2007.

Grindeanu also said he will propose next week a new justice minister, who is likely to be picked from “outside the political sphere,” he told journalists.

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Tillerson Attending First Major Talks at G20

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is taking part in his first major international talks Thursday, joining a gathering of G20 foreign ministers in Germany.

Tillerson’s schedule includes a number of sideline meetings with individual ministers, including those from Britain, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Brazil.

His most high profile meeting outside of the G20 talks themselves is with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Tillerson’s boss, U.S. President Donald Trump, has pushed a foreign policy vision that prioritizes U.S. interests, particularly when it comes to trade.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said ahead of a meeting with Tillerson that his country looks forward to working with the Trump administration “on all issues” and is optimistic about overcoming the many challenges in the Middle East.

A U.S. official said ahead of Tillerson’s trip that the former Exxon Mobil CEO would be using the meetings to mostly listen to his counterparts.

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Germany’s Merkel Testifies on Alleged US Eavesdropping

Chancellor Angela Merkel testified Thursday to a parliamentary committee examining alleged U.S. surveillance in Germany and the activities of German intelligence, defending her insistence that “spying among friends” is unacceptable.

 

The parliamentary panel is investigating alleged eavesdropping in Germany by the U.S. National Security Agency and its relationship with German counterparts. The inquiry was launched a year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of secret U.S. eavesdropping programs in 2013.

 

Reports later in 2013 that the NSA listened in on German government phones, including Merkel’s, prompted a diplomatic spat between Berlin and Washington that for a time soured otherwise good relations with the Obama administration.

 

Merkel declared at the time that “spying among friends” was unacceptable. But subsequent reports indicated that Germany’s own BND intelligence agency may have helped the U.S. spy on European companies and officials.

 

Merkel testified that she first heard about the BND’s alleged activities in March 2015, sticking to a line set out by other officials. And she said that her comments about spying among friends remained valid.

 

“My standard was that spying among friends is not acceptable, and if it happens we have to intervene,” she told lawmakers.

 

Asked how she felt when she first heard of Snowden’s revelations, Merkel said: “I have enough experience that it was clear this was a significant matter.”

 

She also defended Germany’s failure to achieve a mutual “no-spy” agreement with the U.S., something that her government held out the prospect of in summer 2013, shortly before a national election. On the German side, “I am convinced that there was very intensive work on it,” but those efforts eventually came to nothing, she said.

 

Merkel stressed the importance and difficulty of “finding the right balance between freedom and security.”

 

 

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Trudeau Hails EU-Canada Deal in Address to Parliament

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has hailed a landmark trade deal with the European Union, in an address to the EU parliament one day after the pact was formally approved.

Trudeau said Thursday that the deal would create jobs and boost the middle class on both sides of the Atlantic. He said that “trade that is free and fair means that we can make the lives of our citizens more affordable.”

 

Trudeau presented the pact as a “blue-print” for future trade deals and the outcome of Europe’s and Canada’s shared history and values.

 

Critics fear the pact gives too much power to multinationals and hope that it will be blocked by national and regional parliaments in the EU.

 

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Thousands Join Renewed Protests in Belgrade

Several thousand people have joined renewed protests in Belgrade over the shady demolition last year in an area marked for a United Arab Emirates-financed real estate project.

No one has been held responsible for the nighttime destruction last April of a block of houses by a group of masked men despite repeated promises to the contrary by the government.

 

Carrying anti-government banners and blowing whistles, protesters marched Wednesday through central Belgrade blocking traffic. Participants have demanded the resignation of mayor Sinisa Mali.

 

UAE investors have been building a Dubai-style business and residential complex in the run-down urban area by the Sava River.

 

Some architects and citizens’ groups have sharply criticized the Belgrade waterfront plan, alleging corruption and saying the development is unsuitable for the Serbian capital.

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Montenegro: Immunity Lifted for 2 Alleged Coup Suspects

Montenegrin lawmakers have voted to lift the immunity of two senior opposition politicians allegedly involved in a pro-Russian plot to overthrow the government over its NATO bid.

 

The move paves the way for the detention of Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, key opposition leaders suspected in the October 16 coup attempt that included plans to kill a then-prime minister and take over power.

 

Several hundred opposition supporters protested outside the parliament building on Wednesday as lawmakers from the ruling coalition unanimously approved the motion.  

 

Montenegro’s special prosecutor said the two are suspected of criminal conspiracy and inciting “acts against constitutional order and security of Montenegro.”

 

Some 20 people – including two Russian citizens – have been accused in the foiled coup said to have been orchestrated by Russian and Serbian nationalists.

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Bulgaria to Boost Surveillance to Prevent Migrants Crossing Turkish Border

Turkey has reopened border crossings with neighboring Bulgaria after closing them in the early hours of Saturday following an attempted coup, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said.

There were no signs of an increase in refugee flows into Bulgaria, and Turkey’s government has given assurances that the border will not be overwhelmed, Borisov told reporters after meeting with the Turkish ambassador.

An additional 230 Bulgarian soldiers have been sent to the border to bolster patrols and help prevent a possible surge in refugee arrivals, he said. A fence to stop illegal crossings into the country from Turkey is already in place.

“We have been in communication with the Turkish government, with the prime minister, with the ambassador,” Borisov said. “I have full assurances from all that the border will not be put under pressure.”

Refugee camps in Turkey, which host more than three million people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are calm and Turkish authorities have also agreed to bolster border controls, Borisov said.

Flights from Sofia to the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Antalya were canceled on Saturday, according to the departure schedule on Sofia Airport’s website.

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Serbia’s Ruling Party to Back PM Vucic for Presidential Race

The leadership of Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) decided on Tuesday to nominate Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as a candidate for the presidency.

The presidential election is tentatively expected in April and will pit the SNS’s candidate against those from a fragmented and bickering opposition.

While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, if he also controls the parliamentary majority he could then have huge sway over the government and a new prime minister.

In a live interview with state RTS TV, Vucic said he would accept the nomination to secure stability and continuity for the country, which wants to join the European Union.

“This is the most important [thing] and there’s no sacrifice or risk I could not take because of that,” he said.

The ruling coalition, which has a comfortable majority in the 250-seat parliament, can also appoint a prime minister without a popular vote.

“The president who controls the parliamentary majority, hence the government, is de facto the strongest political figure in the country. If Vucic preserves control over his party, his political power will be unlimited,” said Nebojsa Spaic, a Belgrade-based media consultant.

Vucic said he has no plans to resign from his current post until the election date is announced and refused to say who could be his successor as the head of the government.

Earlier, Ivica Dacic, the head of the jointly ruling Socialist Party of Serbia welcomed Vucic’s nomination as “the only rational and logical decision.”

“His victory as a joint candidate guarantees the political stability of Serbia in the future,” said Dacic, who himself served as the prime minister from 2012 to 2014.

The vote will be a key test of the popularity of Vucic and his economic reforms, which have been backed by the International Monetary Fund, as well as his bid to bring the country of 7.3 million closer to the European Union.

According to polls, Vucic would win the election in the first round with more than 50 percent of votes.

The party decided not to support the candidacy of incumbent President Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultranationalist and the former head of the SNS who started his five-year mandate in 2012.

Vucic’s nomination will have to be formally approved by SNS’s local party leaders and prominent members at a main board session scheduled for Friday.

The departure of Nikolic, who favors closer ties between Belgrade and Serbia’s powerful ally Russia, could mean quicker moves towards EU accession and a further improvement of its ties with NATO, despite its military neutrality.

It was not immediately clear whether Vucic will decide to seek a parliamentary vote alongside the presidential election, though such a move is not mandatory.

In a statement, the SNS said Vucic, who is also the party president, now must start talks with his coalition partners to “try to secure wide popular support for the victory.”

Zoran Stojiljkovic, a lecturer with Belgrade’s Faculty of Political Sciences said that Vucic’s nomination was “a rational move aimed at accumulating power in all levels” and securing a victory in the first round.

“What remains to be seen is who will be the prime minister, most likely Vucic will pick someone with a degree of authority, [good] ratings and with unquestionable loyalty,” Stojiljkovic said.

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In Turkey, Crackdown on Academics Heats Up

Academics and students protested Tuesday outside Istanbul’s Marmara University, criticizing the latest wave of firings of scholars under emergency rule.

The university saw some of its top staff fired this month, under an emergency decree that removed 330 academics nationwide, along with 4,000 civil servants.

Among those dismissed is Marmara University’s internationally renowned professor Ibrahim Kaboglu, one of Turkey’s foremost constitutional law experts.

“There is no reason for my sacking,” said Kaboglu, adding that “as a law person I cannot give you any reason, because every judicial process, even the tiniest one, should have a reason and justification. And as a person who made calls for our students to be against violence, and to be for peace all my life, I cannot see any reason for my dismissal.”

Since the introduction of emergency rule following July’s failed coup, more than 5,000 academics have been purged, accused of supporting terrorist organizations and the failed coup.

Troubled for future of education

But this latest wave of removals included many top scholars from Turkey’s leading universities, prompting fears about the future of Turkey’s higher education.

“These people being purged are not just democratic left-oriented people, they are very good scientists, very good academicians,” warned associate political science professor Ismet Akca, himself recently removed from his post at Istanbul Yildiz Technical University. “By purging them, the government is also attacking the very idea of the higher education, the very idea of the universities in this country.”

Akca says he, like many of his colleagues, was fired for signing a petition calling for an end to fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgents. He says the purge is about silencing critical voices.

The list of those purged this month reads like a list of who’s who in Turkish academia, in such areas as constitutional law, neurology, theater, music and political science. Ankara University, which has for decades educated many of Turkey’s political leaders and diplomats, saw dozens of its staff fired.

Latest firings condemned

Last week, police violently broke up a protest by academics and students at the university, but unrest is continuing.

The latest wave of firings has been strongly condemned by opposition parties. Concern also has been expressed by former President Abdullah Gul, who is a founding member of the ruling AK Party.

“Following these events with sorrow, and have seen many instances regarding these dismissed academics that do not sit well with one’s conscience, and even less so with justice. The increasing frequency of events like this, particularly in the scholarly world and in universities, is both disturbing and painful,” Gul said speaking to TV reporters.

In a rare show of dissent, some in the normally disciplined pro-government media have expressed criticism. These include influential columnists, some of whom condemned many of the firings outright.

Prime minister promises ‘re-evaluation’

Sensing growing unease, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim sought Tuesday to allay concerns, in his weekly address to his parliamentary deputies.

“In order to find a judicial remedy for any injustices, if there are any, we have formed a re-evaluation mechanism regarding the latest decree. This committee will consist of seven members, who will examine all the objections and then make a decision,” said Yildirim.

Critics already have condemned the move, claiming it undermines a fundamental principle of innocence until proven guilty. The independence of those on the committee also has been questioned.

Unrest is reportedly spreading to universities across the country, with students boycotting classes and holding protests.

That will most likely continue, with analysts warning further purges are likely.

Climate of fear

For students and academics at Marmara University, there is defiance and foreboding, “We could be pessimistic but we are trying not to be, for continuing our struggle,” said a defiant film student who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution.

Academics warn of a climate of fear in universities. “Most of the people still at universities prefer to be silent; they develop auto-control mechanism,” warned associate professor Akca, “because there is high oppression on all of the university, there is enormous restriction of the freedom of expression, freedom of research.”

Kaboglu, now jobless, continues to advocate for the rule of law and due process as the only way out of the current turmoil. “If all the citizens can meet on the common ground of law, then we can see our future bright. Because everyone needs law.”

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Syrian Films Bring Tears and Smiles to Berlin Film Festival

One drops you, trapped and powerless, in the middle of a civil war, while the other uses humor to depict what’s it like to start a new life in Europe after escaping the same conflict.

“Insyriated” and “The Other Side of Hope” are two films about Syria, and they brought tears and smiles to the Berlin Film Festival.

The former is shot almost entirely inside the walls of an apartment that becomes like a prison for Oum Yazan, a mother determined to survive a war whose brutality is conveyed mostly through the sounds of bombs and sniper gunfire.

“It shocked people in a very smart way. Westerners saw enough images of destruction on their television screens. But few of them know what Syrians are going through or how they feel being trapped in there,” Iraqi film critic Kais Kasim said.

The film forces viewers to ask themselves how they would act in the same situation.

Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw said the silence that followed the screening as well as seeing some of his actors and members of the audience in tears at the end made him think: “Mission accomplished.”

“It is hard for me to say I was happy when I saw the film for the first time with the audience,” said actress Hiam Abbass, who plays Oum Yazan.

“It brought people close to the Syrian people,” she said, adding that she had no idea the film would leave people speechless.

“The Other Side of Hope” by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki uses humor to depicts the experiences in Helsinki of stowaway Syrian asylum seeker Khaled, who decides to remain in the country illegally after his application is rejected.

His fate is to meet the main character in the second story of the film, Finnish salesman Wikstrom, who buys a restaurant in the capital where he gives Khaled a job and a bed.

Wikstrom and the other Finns in the film are burlesque characters, the source of most of the light-hearted humor that almost obscures Khaled’s ordeal: most of his family died in a bomb in Aleppo and he lost his sister shortly after they arrived in Europe from Turkey.

“It uses comedy to convey tragedy,” said film critic Kasim. “It blends the critical with the caricature, leaving people with the question: do we laugh or do we cry?”