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Vietnam to Test Trump on Signing Solo Trade Pacts

Vietnam will test U.S. President Donald Trump’s openness to one-on-one trade deals as it starts nudging Washington for an eventual agreement to replace its role in the defunct Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Official media outlets in Vietnam say Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told an American business delegation last week he was ready to visit the United States, and that he hoped to meet Trump for a discussion about trade, among other topics.

Vietnam depends heavily on factory exports, which are about 19 percent of a $200 billion economy.

“A trade agreement with the U.S., a very large market, would certainly bring some benefits, that’s clear,” said Marie Diron, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service in Singapore. “It would be about, kind of about anchoring these export markets with a trade agreement in place.”

Trump is not expected to prioritize free trade deals in the short term, analysts say, but he may someday consider them. Trade deals usually obligate signatories to cut tariffs on each other’s good or services.  

US companies eye Vietnam market

Nguyen may have a chance at working out a trade deal with the United States because American firms selling products such as fast food, mobile phones and even insurance want more access to Vietnam’s fast-growing middle class.

More than one-third of the country’s roughly 93 million people will be middle class or higher by 2020, according to a Boston Consulting Group study.

“You would expect the direction of goods coming from Vietnam to the U.S. picking up more sharply than the other way around,” said Rahul Bajoria, a regional economist with Barclays in Singapore.

But, he said, “it could be the case there might be some pressure from the large [American] industrial manufacturers like the aircraft manufacturers or train companies. All of them may be much more interested in exporting to Vietnam.”

The United States is Vietnam’s top export market, giving the Asian country a trade surplus last year, with exports worth $38.1 billion and imports of $8.7 billion.

But in January, imports increased 14.6 percent, pointing to a possible soft spot in Vietnam for Western brands. American names such as Apple, Dell and Starbucks are easy to find in cities such as the financial center Ho Chi Minh City.

“The U.S. could export to Vietnam, to a market that’s growing so fast, with 90 plus million people who are very brand conscious, where Western brands have a very high reputation,” said Vojislav Milenkovic, analyst with the business advisory BDG Insights in Ho Chi Minh City.

“You can see this every day on the street. You can see that people are trying to save and to buy high-quality products from the foreign countries,” he said.

But Vietnamese consumers still earn just half of their counterparts in China, Diron said. “For some companies, that could be a hurdle,” she said. China’s market is also much larger that Vietnam’s.

End of TPP

Leaders in Hanoi had hoped the TPP would give them access to the U.S. market plus 10 other countries, including Japan. Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP in January, saying it would hurt the country.

Because of the size of the U.S. economy, Trump’s withdrawal made it effectively impossible for other countries to keep the TPP alive.

Trump said shortly after taking office he could consider one-on-one free trade agreements instead of regional ones.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he is open to the idea of a bilateral trade pact with the United States, and members of the U.S. Congress advocate an agreement with Britain.

In a phone call after his election in November, Trump told Nguyen he wanted to strengthen ties with Vietnam and that he was willing to meet in the United States.

In exchange for trade favors, Trump might ask Vietnam to support the U.S. presence in the South China Sea where the United States is trying to resist Chinese maritime expansion, said Oscar Mussons, international business advisory associate with the Dezan Shira & Associates consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam may need to wait out most of Trump’s current term before getting any trade deals, Bajoria cautioned.

Any deal takes time to negotiate, he said, and the U.S. government may try first to build its relations with China, the world’s number two economy after the United States. “I don’t think there’s scope for an FTA over the next 12 months,” Bajoria said.

Since Trump was elected, Vietnamese leaders afraid that the TPP would die began looking instead to other trade deals.

An agreement reached with the European Union in 2015 is due to take effect next year if it clears hurdles in the European bloc’s parliament.

China is also keen to bolster trade ties, but Vietnam hopes to avoid dependence on the long-time political rival that’s known for unloading cheap mass-produced goods in Vietnam at prices lower than what local companies can charge.

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French Presidential Candidate Fillon Apologizes for Anti-Semitic Cartoon of a Rival

France’s troubled conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon has apologized for his party’s anti-Semitic tweet of rival Emmanuel Macron.

“The political battle is tough enough, but it must remain dignified,” Fillon said Sunday. “I will not tolerate my party publishing caricatures that use the codes of anti-Semitic propaganda.”

Fillon said he has always fought against such thinking and has asked Republican party officials to take action against whomever was responsible.

The image tweeted Friday shows Macron with a hooked nose, a top hot, and cutting a cigar with a red sickle.

France’s Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis were notorious for using such cartoons during World War II.

Allegations of anti-Semitism is the latest of Fillon’s problems.

He was once favored to win the French presidency, but now trials Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

His once thriving campaign has been damaged by a financial scandal in which he is accused of paying his wife huge sums of public money for a phony job as a parliamentary assistant.

Fillon has denied wrongdoing.

The French newspaper Journal du Dimanche also reports Fillon accepted a gift of two suits from an exclusive French clothing shop which far exceeds the legal limit of donations for presidential candidates.

The first round of the election is set for April 23, followed by a runoff for the top two finishers two weeks later.


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Erdogan: Dutch Will ‘Pay a Price’ for Blocking Turkish Ministers from Rally

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the Netherlands Sunday it would “pay a price” for refusing to allow Ankara’s foreign minister into the country and expelling another minister Saturday to keep them from holding rallies with Turkish immigrants.

Erdogan accused the Dutch government, a NATO ally, of “nazism and fascism,” saying only a repressive regime would block Ankara’s officials from traveling to the Netherlands.

Both of the Ankara officials were trying to rally Turkish immigrants with Turkish voting rights to support Erdogan’s bid to win a referendum next month to give him sweeping new powers.

The Dutch government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, facing a tough re-election contest on Wednesday against the anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders, barred Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from flying to Rotterdam. It then blocked Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya from entering the Turkish embassy in the port city before escorting her out of the country to Germany.

An angry Erdogan told a ceremony in Istanbul, “Hey Holland! If you are sacrificing Turkish-Dutch relations for the sake of the elections on Wednesday, you will pay a price.”

Retaliation threats

Earlier Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a statement that Turkey would retaliate against Amsterdam in the “harshest ways” and “respond in kind to this unacceptable behavior.”

Ankara barred the Dutch ambassador from returning to Turkey, with Cavusoglu saying, “We have other steps in mind. We’ve already begun planning them. We will certainly take those steps and more.” Turkish officials sealed off the Dutch embassy in Ankara.

Dutch leader Rutte called Erdogan’s Nazi claim “a crazy remark.”

“Turkey is a proud nation; the Netherlands is a proud nation,” Rutte said. “We can never do business under those sorts of threats and blackmail.”

But Rutte said his government “will keep working to de-escalate where we can. If the Turks choose to escalate, we will have to react, but we will do everything we can to de-escalate.”

Protesters arrested

Police in Rotterdam arrested 12 protesters outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam after Dutch-Turkish demonstrators early Sunday pelted police on horseback with rocks and bottles. Police responded with batons and a water cannon. The clash erupted after protesters learned that Dutch police were escorting Kaya to Germany.

Before clashes broke out, about 2,000 protesters had gathered outside the consulate in Rotterdam, the country’s second largest city, to show their support for Erdogan’s government.

Cavusoglu was barred from landing in the Netherlands because of growing opposition to Turkey’s referendum campaigning throughout the European Union.

After Cavusoglu was turned away, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said Kaya had entered the Netherlands from Germany, even though events at which she intended to speak already had been canceled.

Hours later, after arriving back in Istanbul, where she was welcomed by a flag-waving crowd Sunday, Kaya told reporters, “We were subjected to rude and tough treatment … Treating a female minister this way is very ugly.”

Protesters have taken down the Dutch flag at the Istanbul consulate and replaced it with a Turkish flag.

After being denied entry to the Netherlands, Cavusoglu spoke to more than a hundred Turkish emigres in the northern French city of Metz. French officials had said Saturday they had no plans to prevent his appearance.


Many European Union member states object to visits by Turkish ministers calling for Turkish nationals to vote for the upcoming referendum to change Turkey’s constitution, because of domestic tensions the campaigning has caused. Ankara wants to drum up support among millions of Turks who live and work in Europe to give Erdogan more powers, which could see him remain in office until 2029.

Dutch far-right leader Wilders waded into the debate this week ahead of a planned rally in The Hague, where the Dutch parliament is located.

“We are in Holland here, not in Turkey, and a Turkish minister has no room here to lobby for somebody like Erdogan, who is a mere dictator,” Wilders said.

On Saturday, Wilders said in a tweet: “To all Turks in the Netherlands who agree with Erdogan: Go to Turkey and NEVER come back!!”






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‘Carlos the Jackal,’ 1970s Extremist, Faces Paris Trial

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal, is due to go on trial Monday for a deadly attack in a Paris’ shopping mall decades ago, the oldest one blamed on the former public enemy of France and probably the last one to come to court.

The Venezuelan-born Ramirez Sanchez, one of the most notorious political terrorists of the 1970s and `80s, is serving a life sentence in France for a series of murders and attacks he perpetrated or organized in the country on behalf of the Palestinian cause or communist revolution.


He first was convicted by a French court 20 years ago, and again in 2011 and 2013. If convicted on first-degree murder charges in the latest trial, he could get a third life sentence.


Ramirez Sanchez, 67, is scheduled to appear in a Paris court for allegedly throwing a hand grenade from a mezzanine restaurant onto a shopping arcade in the French capital’s Latin Quarter in September 1974. Two people were killed and dozens injured.


At the time of the attack, Ramirez Sanchez had not yet been dubbed “Carlos the Jackal” or become one of the world’s most wanted fugitives. He was 24 years old and already had joined the organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.


When police arrived, they found a devastated mall with all the windows shattered, multiple bloodstains and a hole in the marble slab of the ground floor where the grenade fell. The two men who died were hit by metal chips that perforated vital organs and caused large internal bleeding, according to court documents.


Carlos has pleaded innocent and denied involvement in the case. His long-time lawyer and fiancé, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, claims that none of the witnesses from the trendy Drugstore Publicis restaurant had described a man resembling her client, and that the whole case was trumped-up.


Yet an Arab language news magazine in France, Al-Watan Al-Arabi, published a long interview with a man it identified as Ramirez Sanchez five years after the attack. He allegedly claimed he had personally thrown the grenade into the restaurant, described the full details of the operation and explained why it was carried out. Carlos later disputed he had given the interview.


In the 1979 article, the man said to be Carlos said he attacked the Drugstore Publicis to pressure for the release of a Japanese activist arrested in France two months earlier. The attack, he said, came as a backup operation for a hostage-taking that was then ongoing at the French Embassy in the Netherlands.


It was in the name of the Palestinian cause that he subsequently became the military chief of the PFLP in Europe, claiming the “operational and political responsibility” for all the operations of the group on the continent and also for “all the wounded and all the dead,” according to court documents.


“I am a hero of the Palestinian resistance, and I am the only survivor of [the group’s] professional executives in Europe because I used to shoot first,” he told investigators.


Carlos was arrested in Sudan by the French intelligence services in 1994, 20 years after the first attack blamed on him in France.


The case took so long to go to trial because it was first dismissed for lack of evidence before being reopened when Carlos was arrested and imprisoned in France. His lawyers introduced challenges at every stage of the proceedings.


The case will be heard by a special court made up of professional judges and with no jurors, as is the custom with terrorism trials in France.


During one interrogation, Carlos allegedly told investigators that “in 1974 it was obviously an attack. A grenade was thrown.” He added: “I don’t think the person who did this wanted to hurt the poor people who were present.”



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State Research Center: China’s Economy Set for Steady Growth

The risk of a steep slide in China’s economy has reduced, the head of a government research center said on Sunday, adding the country had moved through an “L-shaped” pattern of slowing to now “horizontal” growth.

China’s economy grew 6.7 percent last year, according to the government, the slowest pace in 26 years. The country met its growth target with support from record bank loans, a speculative housing boom and billions in government investment.

But as Beijing moves to cool the housing market, slow new credit and tighten its purse strings, China will have to depend more on domestic consumption and private investment.

The government last week trimmed its economic growth target to about 6.5 percent for this year. Li Wei, the director of the Development Research Center of the State Council, China’s cabinet, said many positive economic signs were emerging domestically and internationally, and the risk of a large slide in economic growth had “clearly lowered”.

China’s economic development has gone from a “downward stroke in the L-shape to the horizontal stroke,” the official Xinhua news agency said, citing Li’s comments on the sidelines of China’s annual session of parliament.

The horizontal trend points to long-term steady development, but does not eliminate the possibility of short-term fluctuations, or mean the economic transformation is complete, Li said.

“Our economy still has many difficulties to resolve, so we must prepare to respond to the emergence of possibly relatively large risks,” Li said.

Earlier on Sunday, a vice chairman of the state economic planner said China’s industrial output grew more than 6 percent in January and February, and that the survey-based unemployment rate in 31 major cities was about 5 percent for the two months.

National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) Vice Chairman Ning Jizhe gave the approximations, which were in line with expectations for official data set to be issued on Tuesday.

Fixed asset investment growth kept pace with the final few months of last year, Ning said.

“China’s economic growth still mainly relies on domestic demand,” he said.

January and February data will be released together in a bid to smooth out seasonal factors caused by the timing of the long Lunar New Year holidays, which began in late January this year but fell in February last year.

China unexpectedly posted its first trade gap in three years in February as a construction boom pushed imports much higher than expected. That upbeat import reading reinforced the growing view that economic activity in China picked up in the first two months of the year.

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Merkel Coming to Washington to Talk Trade, Russia Strategy

U.S. President Donald Trump plans to quiz German Chancellor Angela Merkel about her experience dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the chancellor visits the White House Tuesday. A senior administration official said Friday Trump would be “very interested to get German Chancellor Merkel’s insights” as he prepares to engage the Kremlin leader.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been suspicious of what they see as Trump’s naivete when it comes to Putin, particularly with regard to the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

But four officials briefing reporters in advance of the March 14 meeting suggested the president wants to look past his highly publicized differences with the German leader and form strong common positions on issues ranging from trade to Kremlin cyberwarfare to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine sanctions

During his campaign for the presidency, Trump accused Merkel of “ruining Germany” with policies that welcomed large numbers of refugees.

The chancellor, who was known to have had a strong bond with former President Barack Obama, has faulted Trump’s temporary travel ban, saying “there is no justification for placing people from a certain origin or belief under general suspicion.”

Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says Merkel is coming to the White House concerned that Trump “might get too soft with Russia and will undermine the sanctions regime she put together after the invasion of Ukraine.”

In a VOA interview, he said “the worst thing for Western solidarity would be for the major player in the West, the United States, to loosen sanctions without any progress in Ukraine.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer attempted Friday to ease those concerns, telling reporters “any attempt to undermine sanctions that exist because of the annexation of Crimea” would not be allowed until the issue is resolved. But when asked what the president’s strategy might be, he hedged.

“The president has made clear,” Spicer said, “his philosophy is not one that says ‘I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do.’ He holds his cards close to his vest to maximize his negotiating strategy.”

Szabo said if Trump wants to get a clear understanding of Vladimir Putin, he could hardly find a better source than Merkel.

“She certainly knows Putin better than anybody,” he said. “They have met or spoken by phone more than 100 times.”

Trade with Europe

The senior administration officials who briefed reporters Friday said the White House has “not formulated a final position” on whether to pursue the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal with the European Union. Merkel has been a strong advocate of the trade treaty known as T-TIP, and had issued a joint appeal with Obama to save it shortly before he left office.

Candidate Trump, however, had pledged to pursue only bilateral trade pacts, leading to speculation the transatlantic deal was dead. But in a hint at a possible compromise, one senior administration official Friday said T-TIP could be considered a one-on-one trade deal, given how the EU structure interconnects European economies.

Merkel signaled her top priority for the trip to the U.S. by announcing she would be accompanied by the heads of two of Germany’s biggest businesses, Siemens and BMW.

“The Germans are worried,” Szabo said. “Trump’s trade negotiator (Peter) Navarro has been singling out Germany as the biggest U.S. trade problem, bigger even than China.” Navarro heads the newly formed White House National Trade Council.

Szabo says Merkel is going to make the point that “German firms are big investors in the U.S., creating more than 600,000 American jobs in American-German companies. So she’s going to make the case that if you go after us, you’re going to be hurting jobs in the U.S.”

White House spokesman Spicer indicated the Merkel visit is likely to be one of the biggest events of the Trump presidency so far.

“There’s a lot of excitement on both sides of the ocean for this trip. We are looking forward to meeting the chancellor and her team,” he said.

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Mexico Approves 4 Trademarks for Trump

On Feb. 19, 2016, at a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina, then-candidate Donald Trump gave a stump speech in which he railed against American jobs moving to Mexico: “We lose our jobs, we close our factories, Mexico gets all of the work,” he said. “We get nothing.” 


That same day a law firm in Mexico City quietly filed on behalf of his company for trademarks on his name that would authorize the Trump brand, should it choose, to set up shop in a country with which he has sparred over trade, migration and the planned border wall. 


The Trump trademarks have now been granted by the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI). Records show the last three were approved February 21, just more than a month after Trump took office, and a fourth was granted October 6, about a month before the U.S. election.

Recent trademark approvals


Trump’s company has notched several trademark wins recently. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Chinese government recently granted preliminary approval for 38 trademarks to Trump and a related company. 

That sparked outrage from some Democratic senators and critics, who have been pushing Trump to sever financial ties with his global businesses to avoid potential violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars federal officials from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless approved by Congress.


The Mexican trademarks cover a broad range of business operations that can roughly be broken down into construction; construction materials; hotels, hospitality and tourism; and real estate, financial services and insurance. They are all valid through 2026.


The same four trademarks were previously held in the name of Donald J. Trump and expired in 2015, a year before the new applications. The new approvals list the trademark owner as the company DTTM Operations LLC, with an address in the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York.

No new deals abroad


As president, Trump has handed management of his business to his two adult sons and vowed to strike no new deals abroad while he is in office. However critics say questions remain about possible conflicts of interest, noting that foreigners could still seek to influence Trump by helping his existing foreign operations or by easing the way for future ones after he leaves the Oval Office.


Trump Organization General Counsel Alan Garten said the Mexican government’s decision was not a special favor to the president.


“We’re not being granted anything we didn’t have before,” he said. The original trademarks came “years before (Trump) even announced his candidacy.”


Garten said the Mexican trademarks originally had two purposes: laying the ground for possible new ventures and keeping other people from using Trump’s name for their own businesses. 


He said the trademarks are wholly defensive now.


“Circumstances have changed,” Garten said. “He’s been elected and we agreed not to do foreign deals.”

Ethical gray area 

Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, said the Mexican grants are in an ethical gray area: defensive in nature now, perhaps, but setting the president up to profit when he leaves office.


“To what extent is this appropriate? I don’t know,” Painter said. “We never had Obama running around the world locking up his name, or Bush.”


Intellectual property lawyer Enrique Alberto Diaz Mucharraz is listed on the trademark filings. A junior partner at the Mexico City law firm Goodrich Riquelme y Asociados, he declined to comment citing client confidentiality rules. Phones rang unanswered at the public relations office of IMPI, and there was no response to an emailed request for comment on a list of questions. 


Trademarks can prove enormously valuable to companies, especially in countries with a growing number of middle class consumers who recognize the brand, said Ashwinpaul C. Sondhi of A.C. Sondhi & Associates, an investment consultancy in Safety Harbor, Florida.

Why do business in Mexico?


Mexican political analyst Alejandro Hope said IMPI is generally considered to be apolitical and the trademark concession was most likely a technical decision. 


More remarkable, Hope said, was that the application was filed during a heated campaign when “he had already started using Mexico as a pinata” for political purposes. 


“What I find striking is that these guys were thinking about doing business in Mexico while they were trashing Mexico on the campaign trail,” Hope added.

Spotty business record


Last decade he and his children aggressively promoted a luxury hotel and condo development with the Trump name on it that was planned for the northern Baja California coast, near Tijuana. In December 2006, 188 units were sold for $122 million during an event at a hotel in San Diego. 


But the Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico project collapsed, and dozens of buyers who had lost their 30 percent deposits sued in March 2009. Trump settled out of court in November 2013 for an undisclosed sum; in a separate settlement the previous year, developer Irongate, which had licensed the Trump name, agreed to pay the buyers $7.25 million. 


On the Caribbean island of Cozumel, near Cancun, Trump tried in 2007 to purchase land for a luxury resort complete with an airstrip and golf course, according to Mexican media reports. It met with local and environmental opposition, and never went anywhere. 

Unpopular in Mexico


In all, Trump controls at least 20 trademarks in Mexico, including for Trump Ocean Resort and Trump Isla Cozumel. Others cover activities such as concierge and spa services, alcoholic beverages, golf club operations and home furnishings. For clothing, there’s the Donald J. Trump Signature Collection. 


If there are plans to take the Trump brand to Mexico, it could be tough going because of widespread popular anger toward the president for his comments disparaging Mexican immigrants who come to the United States illegally, his threats to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement and his vows to make Mexico pay for the border wall. 


Hope said that if a Trump hotel were in the cards, its prospects could depend a lot on location. 


“In Mexico City, I guess they would face a lot of political backlash at this point,” Hope said. Maybe it would fly in more politically insulated areas, like the beach resorts of Cancun or Los Cabos. “But even that would be a hard sell.” 

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Office Space of the 21st Century

Sharing services are a growing trend in 21st economies. In London, the Spacehop website provides a marketplace where people who have unused living spaces can meet those looking for short-term work places. VOA’s Faiza Elmasry has more. Faith Lapidus narrates.

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У Празі відкрився центр для української громади

11 березня у Празі відкрився новий український культурно-освітній центр «Крок» за участі українських родин, які живуть у Чехії. Мета центру, кажуть організатори – створити ефективні умови для діяльності української громади як в столиці Чехії, так і на інших територіях країни, де проживають українці.

Ініціатором заснування центру є Українська профспілка в Чехії, її голова Тарас Костюк у коментарі Радіо Свобода заявив, що головні програми «Кроку» будуть зосереджені на дітях, «які живуть і навчаються в Чехії, щоб навчити їх мови, літератури, культури, географії України».

«Наша праця базуватиметься на трьох складових – патріотичність, професійність і порядність», – додав Тарас Костюк.

Керівник освітньої програми центру Марія Гаврилюк розповіла, що програми роботи центру будуть також розраховані і на батьків, які зможуть поглибити свої знання з англійської мови чи фінансової грамотності.

«Зараз саме той час, коли нам потрібно зосередитись на тих стратегічних цінностях, які нас єднають, а я переконаний, що тими стратегічними цінностями є незалежність, територіальна цілісність, єдність України, її свобода», – сказав присутній на відкритті центру «Крок» посол України в Чеській Республіці Євген Перебийніс.

На відкритті центру також відбувся концерт і читання поезії Тараса Шевченка.

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Russia Hints at Involving US in Talks on Afghanistan

Russia has hinted at involving the United States in a newly-launched regional dialogue Moscow says is aimed at seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan. The move comes as Afghanistan’s national security adviser is due to visit Moscow to discuss the prospects for promoting reconciliation with armed opposition in his country.

Moscow’s stepped up Afghan diplomacy stems from its concerns that a protracted conflict is encouraging Islamic State militants to establish a foothold in the war-torn country and export terrorism to neighboring Central Asian states that ultimately could threaten Russian security.

In December, the Russian government hosted senior foreign ministry officials from China and Pakistan for the first time to discuss ways to encourage direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The participants also exchanged views on how to collectively work to contain “spillover” effects of terrorism.

Kabul strongly objected being left out of the trilateral meeting, however, while U.S. officials also questioned Russia’s intentions for organizing the talks.

The criticism and skepticism prompted Moscow to expand the format of the dialogue to include Afghanistan, along with Iran and India, in the next meeting it hosted last month.

Involving more partners

“At its next stage we think it will be important to, in a timely fashion, involve in that same process our Central Asian partners as well as the United States,” said Vladimir Safronkov, the Russian deputy ambassador to the United Nations, on Friday. He was addressing a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan.

Safronkov reiterated that the consultations are working out “a single regional approach” to “reinvigorate” the Afghan reconciliation process.

He made the remarks on a day when the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Afghan National Security Adviser Haneef Atmar will visit Moscow March 17 for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“The officials will discuss the security situation and prospects for promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan, as well as ways to develop multilateral cooperation within the Moscow format of regional consultations on Afghanistan,” the ministry said.

Russia-Taliban contacts not welcome

While Afghan officials and the U.S. military welcome Russian peace efforts, they are critical of Moscow’s overt contacts with the Taliban.

Russia maintains that “the limited contacts” with the Taliban are meant to encourage the group to join Kabul-led peace efforts and to ensure security of Russian citizens in the country.

But General John Nicholson, U.S. commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, told a congressional hearing last month that Russian attempts to overtly legitimize the Taliban are based on arguments that the insurgents, and not Afghan forces, are effectively fighting IS militants. He dismissed those assertions as misleading and said Moscow is only trying to undermine U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts in the region.

Speaking in India earlier this week, National Security Adviser Atmar said his government continues to warn Moscow that any assistance to the Taliban will not be seen as “a gesture of friendship” toward Afghanistan.  

“They [Russia] are assuring us that this is not the case. All they want to do is to facilitate peace in Afghanistan and second a counter-response to Daesh. There we disagree. We say the best response to Daesh is state-to-state relations and cooperation, you cannot get it from non-state actors. Don’t expect a terrorist to be taking on another terrorist,” explained Atmar, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Afghan officials in the country’s northern border provinces have also lately alleged that Russia is helping the Taliban establish training camps in their areas.

Russia says allegations ‘absurd’

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday responded to what it dismissed as baseless allegations and U.S. criticism.

“The distribution of such absurd inventions revealed a staged campaign to discredit our country, during which the Afghan and world community is thrown the thesis of Russia ‘undermining’ international anti-terrorist efforts in Afghanistan,” according to a statement published on the ministry’s website.

It went on to assert that the campaign is to “divert attention from accountability for the numerous mistakes in more than 16 years of foreign military presence in Afghanistan.”

Moscow blames the U.S.-led international efforts for the worsening Afghan security conditions that it says allowed IS to find space in the country.

Afghan security forces backed by American airpower have conducted successful major operations against IS over the last year and confined the terrorist group to less than three districts in the eastern Nangarhar province, according to a latest U.S. military assessment. It says the number of IS fighters also has been reduced to about 700 from an estimated 3,000 a year ago.

Speaking on Friday at the U.N. Security Council meeting, though, Russia’s Safronkov challenged those assessments.

“We think that there are some three-and-a-half-thousand active members of [Islamic State] operating in the country. The realistic figure given all the cells operating could be much higher,” he said. The Russian ambassador contradicted U.S. assessments and asserted that IS is active in more than one Afghan province.

“Their main regions of action are Helmand, Kandahar, Faryab, Bagram, Kunduz. So we would call everyone to devote to that problem heightened attention and not to try and somehow gloss it over to ignore it,” Safronkov said..

IS has stepped up attacks in Afghanistan and took credit for Wednesday’s suicide attack on the country’s largest military hospital in Kabul. The assault left more than 50 people dead and scores of others wounded.

Russian envoy Safronkov asserted that the Kabul attack is more proof of the expanding and strengthening structure of IS in Afghanistan.