France’s Macron: US Role in Syria Vital

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French President Emmanuel Macron is heading to the United States for a state visit with President Donald Trump, looking to convince him of the need to keep a U.S. presence in Syria even after the defeat of Islamic State terrorists.

Ahead of his arrival in Washington Monday, Macron told Fox News during an interview at the Elysee Palace in Paris, “We will have to build a new Syria after war. That’s why I think the U.S. role is very important.”

He described the U.S. as “a player of last resorts for peace and multilateralism.”

Trump has said he wants to pull the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible, even as a week ago he ordered the U.S. military to join France and Britain in launching a barrage of missiles targeting Syrian chemical weapons facilities in response to a suspected Syrian gas attack. Trump’s planned troop withdrawal comes after the fall of Raqqa, IS’s self-declared capital of its religious caliphate in northern Syria.

“I’m going to be very blunt,” Macron said in the interview. “If we leave … will we leave the floor to the Iranian regime and [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad? They will prepare a new war.”

He said the U.S. and France are allied but that “even Russia and Turkey will have a very important role to play to create this new Syria and ensure the Syrian people decide for the future.”

Macron is set to arrive in Washington on Monday for three days of meetings, a speech in English to Congress, social events and Trump’s first state dinner.

His visit is occurring as an international chemical weapons monitoring group said its team of inspectors has collected samples at the site of the alleged gas attack two weeks ago in the Syrian town of Douma.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said a report based on the findings and other information gathered by the team will be drafted after the samples are analyzed by designated laboratories.

The group added it will “evaluate the situation and consider future steps, including another possible visit to Douma.”

The fact-finding team’s attempts to enter the town were initially postponed for several days due to a series of security-related setbacks.

Emergency responders said at least 40 people were killed in the suspected April 7 gas attack, which the U.S. and its allies blamed on the Assad regime.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons, a violation of international law, and invited inspectors to investigate.

They arrived in Syria on April 14, the same day the U.S., Britain and France launched missiles targeting three chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Ken Ward, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, claimed on April 16 the Russians had already visited the site of the chemical weapons attack and “may have tampered with it,” a charge Moscow rejected.

On April 9, Moscow’s U.N. ambassador told the U.N. Security Council that Russian experts had visited the site, collected soil samples, interviewed witnesses and medical personnel, and determined no chemical weapons attack had taken place.

U.S. military officials have said the airstrikes were designed to send a powerful message to Syria and its backers, showing that the United States, Britain and France could slice through the nation’s air defense systems at will.


Turkey Opposition OKs Party Switch in Challenge to Erdogan

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More than a dozen Turkish opposition lawmakers switched parties Sunday in a show of solidarity as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rivals scramble to challenge him in a surprise snap election that could solidify his rule.

A year ago, Erdogan narrowly won a referendum to change Turkey’s form of government to an executive presidency, abolishing the office of the prime minister and giving the president more powers. The change will take effect after the next elections.


The snap elections, called for June, caught Turkey off guard and come as the opposition is in disarray as it struggles to put forward candidates and campaign plans. The elections were initially supposed to take place in November 2019.


Officials from the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said 15 of its lawmakers would join the Iyi Party. The CHP, which is the main opposition party, said the decision was borne out of “democratic disposition.”


The center-right Iyi Party, established last fall, has been facing eligibility issues before the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, including not having enough seats in parliament.


The Iyi Party, which means “Good Party,” now has 20 lawmakers in parliament, enough to form a political group, satisfying an eligibility requirement. It wasn’t immediately clear if they would be asked to fulfill other requirements, including establishing organizations in half of Turkey’s provinces and completing its general congress, all to be completed six months before voting day.


But the party said it had already fulfilled those requirements as well.


That timing has posed a challenge after Erdogan agreed Wednesday to hold the elections more than a year ahead of schedule.


Iyi Party founder Meral Aksener, a former interior minister, is considered a serious contender against Erdogan and has announced her candidacy. She defected from Turkey’s main nationalist party allied with Erdogan, whose leader Devlet Bahceli called for the early elections.


Aksener, 61, can run for the presidency even without her party, if she can get 100,000 signatures from the public.


Turkey’s electoral board has yet to announce the presidential candidates and parties eligible to run.




Armenian Opposition Leader Arrested

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Armenia’s opposition leader was arrested Sunday, hours after the country’s prime minister walked out of a televised meeting between the two.

Opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan was arrested Sunday in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, as he participated in one of the demonstrations that began last week when parliament elected Serzh Sargsyan prime minister after a decade serving as president.

Critics see the move as an attempt by Sargsyan to hold on to power.

Pashinyan has said he would like the demonstrations to be the “start of a peaceful velvet revolution,” a reference to the protests in 1989 that ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

About 15,000 people began the rallies Wednesday at Yerevan’s central Republic Square, with some holding posters that read “Make a step and reject Serzh.”  

The meeting Sunday between Sargsyan and Pashinyan was held with the aim of ending continuing anti-government protests.  Sargsyan walked out of the meeting when Pashinyan told him that he came to discuss his resignation, to which the prime minister responded, “This is blackmail.”

Sargsyan was nearing the end of his second and final term as president earlier this year when the country moved from a presidential to parliamentary system, empowering the position of the prime minister, which does not face term limits.  In April, Armenia’s ruling party moved to appoint Sargsyan as prime minister.





About 15,000 people began the rallies Wednesday at Yerevan’s central Republic Square, with some holding posters that read “Make a step and reject Serzh.”



World Bank Shareholders Back $13 billion Capital Increase

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The World Bank’s shareholders on Saturday endorsed a $13 billion paid-in capital increase that will boost China’s shareholding but bring lending reforms that will raise borrowing costs for higher-middle-income countries, including China.

The multilateral lender said the plan would allow it to lift the group’s overall lending to nearly $80 billion in fiscal 2019 from about $59 billion last year and to an average of about $100 billion annually through 2030.

“We have more than doubled the capacity of the World Bank Group,” the institution’s president, Jim Yong Kim, told reporters during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings in Washington. “It’s a huge vote of confidence, but the expectations are enormous.”

The hard-fought capital hike, initially resisted by the Trump administration, will add $7.5 billion paid-in capital for the World Bank’s main concessional lending arm, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Its commercial-terms lender, the International Finance Corp, will get $5.5 billion paid-in capital, and IBRD also will get a $52.6 billion increase in callable capital.

Lending rules

The bank agreed to change IBRD’s lending rules to charge higher rates for developing countries with higher incomes, to discourage them from excessive borrowing.

IBRD previously had charged similar rates for all borrowers, and U.S. Treasury officials had complained that it was lending too much to China and other bigger emerging markets.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier Saturday that he supported the capital hike because of the reforms that it included. The last World Bank capital increase came in 2010.

Cost controls

The current hike comes with cost controls and salary restrictions that will hold World Bank compensation to “a little below average” for the financial sector, Kim said.

He added that there was nothing specific in the agreement that targeted a China lending reduction, but he said lending to China was expected to gradually decline.

In 2015, China founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and lends heavily to developing countries through its government export banks.

The agreement will lift China’s shareholding in IBRD to 6.01 percent from 4.68 percent, while the U.S. share would dip slightly to 16.77 percent from 16.89 percent. Washington will still keep its veto power over IBRD and IFC decisions.

Kim said the increase was expected to become fully effective by the time the World Bank’s new fiscal year starts July 1. Countries will have up to eight years to pay for the capital increase.

The U.S. contribution is subject to approval by Congress.


Russia Considers Banning Facebook After Blocking Telegram

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Russia says it may block Facebook if the social media company does not put its Russian user database on servers in Russian territory. The warning Wednesday by the head of the country’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor comes just days after a Russian move to block Telegram, the encrypted messaging app. VOA’s Iuliia Alieva has more in this report narrated by Anna Rice


Plastic: If It’s Not Keeping Food Fresh, Why Use It?

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The food industry uses plastic to wrap its products in many places around the world. Plastic manufacturers say that keeps produce and meat fresh longer, so less goes bad and is thrown away. But, according to a new European study, while the annual use of plastic packaging has grown since the 1950s, so has food waste. Faiza Elmasry has the story. Faith Lapidus narrates.


US: North Korea, China, Russia and Iran Leading Human Rights Violators

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The United States is calling out North Korea, China, Russia and Iran as “morally reprehensible governments” that violate human rights on a near-daily basis. But the State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2017” also cited improvements in some countries’ records, including Liberia, Uzbekistan and Mexico. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more from the State Department.


Angling for a Summit, Kremlin Avoids Criticizing Trump

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Kremlin officials, from President Vladimir Putin down, wasted no time in condemning the U.S.-led punitive airstrikes on Syria a week ago, warning of dire consequences. But Russian state-run media has focused more efforts on disputing the alleged Syrian government chemical attack, which prompted the Western airstrikes in the first place, than on the U.S.-led retaliation itself.

The distinction might seem minor, but analysts say it reflects a Kremlin decision to try to reduce tension with the U.S. and prevent further escalation. Moscow is still holding out hopes for a summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, they say.

Amid rapidly deteriorating relations between Western countries and Russia, with disputes raging over a range of issues, including Kremlin meddling in the domestic politics of the U.S. and European states and aggressive Russian online disinformation campaigns, Kremlin officials also seemingly are avoiding directly criticizing Trump, in marked contrast to their open disdain for British Prime Minister Theresa May and Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson.

On Friday, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told the RIA Novosti news agency he had faith that Putin and Trump won’t allow any armed confrontation to occur between the U.S. and Russia over Syria.

“Speaking about risks of a military confrontation, I am 100 percent sure that [the] militaries won’t allow this, and of course neither will President Putin or President Trump,” he said.

Lavrov confirmed that Trump had invited Putin to visit Washington during a phone call last month and added that the U.S. president had said he “would be happy to make a reciprocal visit [to Moscow].”The Kremlin is now expecting Trump to issue a formal invitation, say Russian officials. The White House previously announced that Trump had raised the possibility of a summit meeting.

Lavrov said prior to the Western airstrikes, which were carried out in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a rebel-held Damascus suburb that left a reported 70 dead and hundreds injured, Russian and U.S. military leaders discussed behind the scenes what would prompt Russian retaliation and how to avoid it.

The Kremlin’s “red lines” were mainly “geographical” and focused on ensuring no Russian servicemen or personnel would be killed or injured.

Lavrov said, “Anyway … these red lines’ were not crossed” during the Western airstrikes, which targeted three facilities in Syria, where Russia is backing President Assad’s forces in the civil war.

On Thursday, the Bloomberg news service reported the Kremlin had instructed officials to curb anti-U.S. rhetoric. And on Monday Russian lawmakers delayed moving draft legislation aimed at U.S. companies in retaliation for a fresh round of economic sanctions Washington imposed last month on Russia, which the U.S. Treasury Department said was payback for Russia’s “malign activity” in general.

The temporary withdrawal by Russian lawmakers of a draft law that would have impacted a broad range of trade with the U.S. came after Trump officials reassured Russia’s embassy in Washington on Sunday, April 15, that the White House wouldn’t be announcing more sanctions on Russia in the near future — despite an announcement to the contrary by the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Trump has made no secret of his wish to improve relations with Russia. After congratulating Putin on his re-election in March, Trump tweeted that “getting along with Russia [and others] is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

On the campaign trail, Trump regularly expressed the same sentiment, arguing it would be in the U.S. interest for him to shape a strong personal relationship with Putin. Trump has met Putin twice as president, at the Group of 20 summit in Germany last summer and briefly in Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific economic summit in November.

Problematic summit

But a Trump-Putin summit could prove highly problematic for Trump in terms of domestic U.S. politics. It would likely sharpen divisions in the U.S. over relations with Russia as well as stoke partisan rancor over a special-counsel investigation into allegations that Trump’s campaign colluded in Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Trump won bipartisan praise last month on Capitol Hill, which is more skeptical of Russia than the U.S. president, for ordering the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats, part of a coordinated Western move to punish the Kremlin for a March 4 nerve agent attack in England on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

But the U.S. leader also faced criticism last month for congratulating Putin on his re-election in a phone call in which he failed to raise the issue of the Skripal poisoning.

Trump’s foes fault him for shying away from criticizing Putin personally, arguing it gives credence to claims made by a former British spy, which are part of the special counsel probe, that the Kremlin holds compromising information on the U.S. president.

Domestic U.S. politics aside, any summit between the two leaders would be high risk and might be weighted with too many expectations that can’t be fulfilled.

In an interview with VOA last month, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman warned against thinking in terms of a reset with Russia, saying a sudden breakthrough is unrealistic.

“The resets and the redos of years gone by, both Republicans and Democrats, always end in disaster,” he said. “They heighten expectations to the point of our inability to achieve any of those expectations. Hopes are dashed. Relationships crumble. We’ve seen that over and over again.”

But he added it was important to maintain a dialogue and to look for “natural openings to build trust in small ways.”

He acknowledged the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is complicating U.S.-Russia diplomacy.

“I would be disingenuous if I said it didn’t impact the environment in which all of this plays out. And certainly the impact it has on members of Congress and the American people, who are a big part of fashioning the nature of our bilateral relationship.”

Rewarding aggressive behavior

Some analysts and former officials worry that holding a summit in the near future with relations between the two powers at their worst point since the Cold War would be widely seen as a reward for aggressive Russian behavior.

On Thursday, Prime Minister May accused Russia of trying “to undermine the international system,” pointing to an aggressive Russian internet disinformation campaign “intended to undermine the actual institutions and processes of the rules-based system.”

She said in the weeks after a suspected chemical attack in Syria and the poisoning of a Russian dissident in England, there had been a 4,000 percent increase in activity by Kremlin-linked social media trolls and automated accounts propagating what she called lies.


Russia: Putin Ready to Meet Trump

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that President Vladimir Putin is willing to accept U.S. President Donald Trump’s invitation to meet in Washington.

In an interview with state-operated RIA Novosti news agency, Lavrov said that Putin is “ready for such a meeting.”

“We are guided by the fact that the U.S. President, in a telephone conversation – which is a known fact already, there is no secret – extended such an invitation and said he would be happy to see [Putin] in the White House.”

Lavrov added that Trump returned to the subject of the invitation a couple of times during the phone call with Putin and told him he would be happy to make a reciprocal visit to Russia.

Earlier Trump and Putin agreed on a possible summit in Washington.

Trump telephoned Putin on March 20 to congratulate him on winning the Russian presidential election two days earlier.

The White House and the Kremlin said at the time the two presidents discussed the possibility of meeting in person.


Key Findings in Analysis of Memoir of a Jew Raised Catholic

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The case of Edgardo Mortara has roiled Catholic-Jewish relations ever since the 6-year-old Jewish boy was taken from his home in Bologna by papal police in 1858 and brought to Rome to be raised a Catholic. The move was ordered after church authorities learned he had been secretly baptized. Church law at the time required all Catholics to be raised as Catholics and educated in the faith.

Recently, the case has made headlines again after a U.S. historian, David Kertzer, found discrepancies between the Spanish text of Mortara’s memoirs held in the archives of his religious order, and an Italian translation published in 2005 by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori.

The Associated Press this week located the Spanish text in the Historic Archives of St. Peter in Chains, a Rome church famous for its Michelangelo statue of a horned Moses, and compared it with the Italian translation. Here are the key findings of the AP analysis:

* The 89-page notebook-sized autobiography, El Nino Mortara y Pio Nono (The Mortara Child and Pope Pius) isn’t actually Mortara’s original, hand-written text, which Kertzer says was penned in 1888. Rather, it is a typed up, spiral-bound booklet prepared nearly a century later by the Rev. Juan Oleaga, a Spanish member of Mortara’s religious order who also prepared a typed-up booklet of Mortara’s correspondence in 1994.

* In a brief introduction to the autobiography, Oleaga wrote that he faithfully typed Mortara’s text and that it was “fruit of a spirit that possesses the truth.” He said Mortara died ever grateful to Pope Pius IX, who authorized his removal and took him under his wing, and remained close to his family “even though he never got to see them converted to Catholicism.”

* Oleaga appears to have written a long footnote in the first few pages of the text in which he justifies the taking of Mortara from his parents and recounts a tearful reunion between Mortara and the Inquisition official responsible for it. That footnote — written in the same typeface as Orteaga’s introduction and set off from the Spanish text with an asterisk — is seamlessly integrated into Messori’s version as if Mortara himself had written it.

* Mortara’s anti-Semitic comments contained in the original Spanish were removed in Messori’s version, including reference to Mortara having “always professed an inexpressible horror” toward Jews. Mortara’s original writings that the faith of his family was “false, contradictory, absurd, condemned by history and burdened by the ‘ridiculous’ which the majority of men condemn,” was reduced in Messori’s text to Judaism being merely “contradictory and surpassed by history.”

* Messori’s version removes references to the “neurosis” and psychological problems Mortara suffered later in life and omits a reference to his “violent” removal from his parents and how much he missed his mother. It also said he was “miraculously” cured from the illness that prompted his baptism. The Spanish text makes no reference to a miracle.

* Kertzer points out that even Mortara’s original Spanish contains factual errors, including names and dates that were corrected in Messori’s version. Mortara’s account also includes an anecdote that Kertzer says has no basis in documentary evidence: that Pius, after learning of the baptism but before removing the child, had tried to persuade his parents to accept a compromise to send Edgardo to a Catholic boarding school in Bologna so they could visit him “whenever they wanted.” Kertzer says that based on court testimony from the time, there is no evidence of any such negotiation and that when the police arrived to take Edgardo away, it came as a complete shock to the family.


Switzerland or Swaziland? Be Confused No More

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Breathe easy, Switzerland: The tiny African kingdom of Swaziland is changing its name.

King Mswati III announced it during celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence and his 50th birthday. It appears to be as easy as that, as the king is an absolute monarch.

Many African countries upon independence “reverted to their ancient, native names,” he said. “We no longer shall be called Swaziland from today forward.”

The kingdom will be known by its historic name of eSwatini. The king has used that name in the past at openings of Parliament and other events.

Some Swiss have responded with relief as the countries often are confused on online forms.

It is not immediately clear how much it will cost the landlocked African country to make the name change.


Turkey’s Weak Opposition Scrambles to Challenge Erdogan

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One party leader is in jail. Another doesn’t have a candidate. A third might face eligibility issues for her party. Turkey’s weak opposition is scrambling to mount a meaningful challenge against strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with just nine weeks to prepare for snap elections.

Erdogan set the presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24, in a move that will usher in a new system cementing the president’s grip on power more than a year ahead of schedule. Turkey is switching from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system after a narrowly approved referendum last year, in the wake of a failed 2016 coup attempt. The changes take effect with the next election, which had originally been set for November 2019.

The snap elections caught Turkey off guard and come as the opposition is in disarray. Recent changes to the electoral law pushed through by Erdogan’s governing AKP party with the help of the nationalist party make the playing field even more uneven for the opposition, analysts say.

Still, the opposition parties sounded upbeat with the main opposition party’s leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, promising that the June elections would bring “democracy” and “calm,” and Meral Aksener, seen as the strongest candidate against Erdogan, vowing to send him home to rest after 15 years in power.

Observers say the early elections were called to capitalize on nationalist sentiment running high following a successful military campaign in Syria that ousted Syrian Kurdish militia from a border region, in a decision fueled by fears of an economic downturn ahead.

“The fact that President Erdogan called early elections, which is the first time he had voluntarily done so since he assumed office … is an indication of panic and worry,” said Fadi Hakura, of the Chatham House think tank.

The changes, which include ballot boxes being supervised by government-appointed civil servants and being relocated at will on security grounds, “make it improbable for the opposition to win any general election in Turkey,” Hakura said. “These really serious changes to the election law will, I think, make any serious challenge by the opposition highly improbable.”

The call for an early vote also follows the sale of Turkey’s largest media group, Dogan Holding, to a group close to Erdogan, further strengthening his grip on the country’s media.

A day after the snap election was called, the pro-Erdogan press seemed confident of the vote’s outcome. “Checkmate” headlined the pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Safak on Thursday, suggesting an early victory for Erdogan.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag compared the opposition to people “caught in a downpour in August, without an umbrella.” Marhir Unal, a senior member of Erdogan’s ruling party, said the latest opinion polls give Erdogan 55.6 percent support – which would allow him to win the presidential election in the first round. But Unal didn’t provide further details about the polls.

The main opposition party, the pro-secular Republican People’s Party has yet to announce its candidate. Its leader, Kilicdaroglu, on Thursday didn’t rule out an alliance with parties “that support democracy and oppose a one-man regime.”

The party denied it has been caught by surprise, saying it has several strong candidates and will nominate one in the next two weeks.

But the person considered the most serious contender against Erdogan so far is Aksener, a popular former interior minister who defected from Turkey’s main nationalists and formed her own party.

She has already announced her candidacy for the presidential race. However, questions surround the eligibility of her newly-founded Iyi (Good) Party for the parliamentary vote, as the party is legally required to have completed its general congress six months before the elections – something made impossible by Erdogan calling the elections for June.

“No one is strong enough to keep us out of the elections,” Aksener said during a rally in the southern Turkish town of Fethiye on Thursday.

The party in the most precarious situation is the country’s pro-Kurdish party, whose 45-year-old popular and charismatic former leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is in prison accused of links to outlawed Kurdish rebels. He faces a 142-year sentence on charges of leading a terror organization, engaging in terror propaganda and other crimes.

Demirtas, who has been behind bars since November 2016, stepped down as co-chair of his People’s Democratic Party, or HDP. He ran against Erdogan in Turkey’s first direct presidential election in 2014 and led his party to parliament in two general elections in 2015. The party’s current co-chairs, Pervin Buldan and Sezai Temelli, lack his popular appeal.

The elections would be held under a state of emergency declared following the failed coup. Parliament on Wednesday extended it for a seventh time despite calls for its end. Critics say the government has used the emergency powers to close down media outlets and jail critics.


Ancient Coins, Bracelets Looted From Romania Return Home

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Coins and bracelets from the 1st century that were looted from western Romania years ago and smuggled out of the country were put on display Thursday after a joint investigation with Austria brought them back home.

The treasure trove of gold and silver artifacts, stolen between 2000 and 2001, was presented at Romania’s National History Museum. The items were found in Austria in 2015 and returned following a cross-border investigation.

The artifacts — 473 coins and 18 bracelets — were taken from archaeological sites in the Orastie Mountains that had been inhabited by Dacians, who fought against the Romans in the early 2nd century.

General Prosecutor Augustin Lazar said 21 people have been convicted in the thefts.

Museum curator Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said it was “one of the finest recoveries of Dacian treasure in last 200 years” and called their return “a moment of joy, hope and … pride.”

He said the artifacts may have been an offering that a Dacian family made to the gods, which now was valued at “tens of millions of euros [dollars].”

Lazar urged Romanians to be vigilant in guarding their national heritage, and praised a local shepherd who called police after he saw someone entering an archaeological site with a metal detector.

He said intermediaries had taken the artifacts to auction houses and antique shops claiming “they are from my late grandparent’s collection.”


Macedonia ‘Back on Track’ Toward EU Membership  

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Macedonia is “back on track” toward European Union membership, the EU foreign policy chief says, urging Macedonia to keep carrying out recommended EU reforms.

The EU’s Federica Mogherini congratulated Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev during a visit to Skopje Wednesday.

“You’ve gone a long way and, yes, the good news is … that you’re back,” Mogherini said. “I think this is a major achievement you have to be proud of. You can celebrate.”

But the EU official urged Zaev to deepen and maintain the recommended economic reforms needed to meet EU standards.

She also said she believes it is “definitely possible” for Macedonia and Greece to resolve the long-standing name dispute before the next scheduled EU summit in June.

Greece has been holding up EU and NATO membership for Macedonia because of their feud over the name Macedonia — used by both the former Yugoslav republic and the ancient region of northern Greece. 

Many Greeks say allowing the neighboring country to use the name Macedonia insults Greek history and implies a claim on Greek territory.

Macedonians say changing their country’s name or even modifying it in a deal with Greece would be like committing treason.

Greek and Macedonian leaders have opened talks on a settlement after years of unsuccessful efforts by the United Nations.

Among the proposals is calling the country New, Upper, or North Macedonia.

Macedonia has already changed the name of the main airport from Alexander the Great Airport — for the ancient Greek hero — to Skopje International Airport.


Britain Spy Case: Watchdog Rejects Russia Nerve Agent Claim

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The head of the global chemical watchdog agency on Wednesday rejected Russian claims that traces of a second nerve agent were discovered in the English city where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned.


Britain blames Russia for the attack, which it says was carried out by smearing a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok on a door handle at Sergei Skripal’s house in Salisbury. Moscow denies involvement.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow received confidential information from the laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland, that analyzed samples from the site of the March 4 poisoning in Salisbury.


He said the analysis – done at the request of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – indicated that samples contained BZ nerve agent and its precursor. He said BZ was part of the chemical arsenals of the U.S., Britain and other NATO countries, while the Soviet Union and Russia never developed the agent.


OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu told a meeting Wednesday of the organization’s Executive Council that a BZ precursor known as 3Q “was contained in the control sample prepared by the OPCW Lab in accordance with the existing quality control procedures.”

He added “it has nothing to do with the samples collected by the OPCW team in Salisbury.”


Britain’s representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Peter Wilson, slammed the Russian foreign minister’s comments as a breach of the treaty outlawing chemical weapons.

“The thing for me that was particularly alarming about Lavrov’s statement is, first of all, the OPCW goes to enormous lengths to make sure that the identity of laboratories is confidential and, second of all, either the Russians are hacking the laboratories or they are making stuff up,” he said. “Either way, that is a violation of the confidentiality of the Chemical Weapons Convention.”


In a summary of its report last week, the OPCW didn’t name Novichok as the nerve agent used but it confirmed “the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury.”


Wilson told reporters that the OPCW “confirmed that they found what we found, and that is a Novichok.”

Russia’s representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Alexander Shulgin, repeated Moscow’s denials and accused Britain of a string of lies.


“For now, I will only say one thing: the claim that the Technical Secretariat confirmed that this chemical points to its Russian origin is an outright lie,” he said in a statement posted on his embassy’s website. “The report itself does not say a single word about the name ‘Novichok;’ the CWC simply does not contain such a concept.”


Shulgin at a later news conference accused Britain of trying to turn the executive council meeting into “a kangaroo court” and suggested that Britain could have arranged the attack on the Skripals to counter domestic tensions over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.


“Perhaps the government of Theresa May, weakened by the troubles associated with Brexit, needs society to rally around this government,” he said.


Shulgin also said Russia wouldn’t accept the results of any report on the matter unless it gets full access to investigation details, consular access to the Skripals, and participation in the probe by Russian experts.


The envoy also spent several minutes of digression on Britain’s alleged “very impressive experience” of using poison abroad, including involvement in the 1916 poisoning of Rasputin, a self-styled mystic who held great influence with Czar Nicholas II’s wife.

The Skripals were hospitalized for weeks in critical condition. Yulia Skripal was discharged last week from Salisbury District Hospital, where her father continues to be treated.


Wilson told the meeting that London continues to believe evidence points to Russian involvement in the attempted assassination.


“We believe that only Russia had the technical means, operational experience and motive to target the Skripals,” Wilson said.


Wilson warned the Chemical Weapons Convention was being undermined by a growing use of nerve agents and other poisons, mentioning the 2017 assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, in addition to the Salisbury attack and the use of poison gas in Syria and Iraq.

“It is being continually violated,” Wilson told reporters.


He said the convention would be strengthened if all nations fully declared any stockpiles they still have. Member states are supposed to declare all their chemical weapons stocks upon joining the OPCW and destroy them.

The OPCW and Russia last year celebrated the destruction of the country’s final declared stocks.


 “Russia clearly has chemical weapons they are not declaring and they need to do that,” Wilson said.


The antagonism between Britain and Russia played out again in the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday afternoon after U.N. disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu briefed members on the OPCW findings.


Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russian responsibility for the attack was the only “plausible explanation.” She dismissed several Russian allegations that others were responsible, including one accusing Britain for drugging Yulia Skripal. She said the claim was “more than fanciful – this is outlandish.”


Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the council heard “the same lies” and “mendacious, baseless and slanderous” allegations that the U.K. has been putting forward since the attack. He said the OPCW report only confirmed that the substance could be produced in a well-equipped lab, stressing that such labs exist in the U.K., U.S. and a host of other countries.


Nebenzia said Russia agreed with Britain on one point: “There will be no impunity and the perpetrators will be held responsible.”


Germany’s Merkel Sets Trip to Visit Trump for April 27

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The German government says Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Washington on April 27 to meet President Donald Trump.

Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Wednesday the leaders will discuss “bilateral questions and of course foreign and security policy challenges.”


The White House previously said that a visit by Merkel was planned in the coming weeks. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected in Washington April 24.


The European leaders are trying to preserve the accord between global powers and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program. Trump has vowed to withdraw from the 2015 agreement by May 12 unless negotiators can agree to fix what he sees as its serious flaws.


They also want to ensure that the European Union remains exempt from U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.




Delays Keep Inspectors From Syria Attack Site

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International chemical weapons inspectors do not appear to have visited the site of a suspected attack in Syria after days of delays by Syrian and Russian authorities.

Syrian state media reported Tuesday that inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had entered the town of Douma, but Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, later said that only a U.N. advance security team had entered.

The U.S. State Department has accused the Syrian government and its ally Russia of trying to cover up the alleged April 7 attack. Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday the U.S. did not believe the inspectors had entered Douma, and that the evidence is at risk of decaying as delays drag on.


There was no comment from the OPCW or the U.N. Wednesday.


Spain’s Detention of Independence Leaders Riles Catalans

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Spain’s detention of nine Catalan independence leaders continues to stoke tensions ahead of their trials for rebellion. If predictions are borne out, the trials could be another flashpoint in the continuing constitutional crisis between Madrid and Catalonia.

The nine defendants were taken into custody for organizing an October independence referendum that the Spanish government deemed illegal. Madrid had hoped that it had taken the momentum out of the situation by seizing control of Catalonia, dismissing the pro-independence government and holding regional elections in December.

The pro-independence leaders’ detention, however, has sparked strong emotions in Catalonia, even among segments of the population that had not supported independence. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona to demand that the accused be released. If tried and convicted, the nine face sentences of up to 30 years in prison. Currently, no trial date has been set.

WATCH: Spain’s Detention of Independence Leaders Drives Deep Emotions in Catalonia

Public protests, personal struggle

“It is a sad day for us because some people are in prison, but it is also an important day because we have all the people backing us. Nobody can stop this,” said 40-year-old protester Gener Artells, who was among an estimated half-a-million Catalans who filled the streets of the regional capital.

For independence supporters, it is a fight for identity and political freedom. But for Meritxell Bonet, the battle is also deeply personal. Her partner, Jordi Cuixart, the head of the Omnium Cultural Institute and one of the major figures behind the independence bid, is among those charged with rebellion. They have a son who just turned a year old.

Cuixart is being held at the Soto del Real prison outside Madrid, more than 500 kilometers from their home in Catalonia. Every week, Bonet and her young son make the three-hour train journey to the Spanish capital. She estimates they have traveled a total of 30,000 kilometers since Cuixart was jailed in October. The separation is taking an emotional toll.

“My brain is full of things that I should tell him, but for me it’s a very important moment because it’s the only moment when I can construct my family. And we are going to talk a lot about our lives and about our baby.”

Bonet adds that she cannot comprehend a future for her and her son without Cuixart.

“I should be prepared for doing this for a long (time), and at the same time I wish that today is the last time. And I’m always like this, you know, thinking that maybe today is the last time or maybe I should be strong and passionate. We’ll see. I don’t have the answer,” Bonet told VOA outside the prison, where Cuixart and another separatist leader, Jordi Sanchez, are being held.

​Charges from October referendum

The charges against Cuixart and his colleagues stem from police raids that preceded Catalonia’s October 1 referendum. Prosecutors say the attempted secession from Spain amounts to rebellion against the state.

The human rights group Amnesty International disputes that charge.

“The crime of rebellion must be violent, there must be violence, and in this case, there is no sign of physical violence,” said Amnesty’s president in Spain, Esteban Beltran.

Cuixart and his co-defendants have repeatedly appealed for bail, but Spanish courts have refused, arguing that there is risk of “repeat offending.” Meanwhile, their families and supporters continue to wait for the trials.


Cambridge Analytica ex-CEO Refuses to Testify in UK

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Cambridge Analytica’s ex-CEO, Alexander Nix, has refused to testify before the U.K. Parliament’s media committee, citing British authorities’ investigation into his former company’s alleged misuse of data from millions of Facebook accounts in political campaigns.

Committee Chairman Damian Collins announced Nix’s decision a day before his scheduled appearance but flatly rejected the notion that he should be let off the hook, saying Nix hasn’t been charged with a crime and there are no active legal proceedings against him.

“There is therefore no legal reason why Mr. Nix cannot appear,” Collins said in a statement. “The committee is minded to issue a formal summons for him to appear on a named day in the very near future.”

Nix gave evidence to the committee in February, but was recalled after former Cambridge Analytica staffer Christopher Wylie sparked a global debate over electronic privacy when he alleged the company used data from millions of Facebook accounts to help U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Wylie worked on Cambridge Analytica’s “information operations” in 2014 and 2015.

Wylie has also said the official campaign backing Britain’s exit from the European Union had access to the Facebook data.

Cambridge Analytica has previously said that none of the Facebook data it acquired from an academic researcher was used in the Trump campaign. The company also says it did no paid or unpaid work on the Brexit campaign. The company did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said Tuesday that it had written to Nix to “invite him” to be interviewed by investigators. The office is investigating Facebook and 30 other organizations over their use of data and analytics.

“Our investigation is looking at whether criminal and civil offences have been committed under the Data Protection Act,” the office said in a statement.

Nix’s refusal to appear comes as the seriousness of the British inquiry becomes more evident.

Facebook has said it directed Cambridge Analytica to delete all of the data harvested from user accounts as soon as it learned of the problem.

But former Cambridge Analytica business development director Brittany Kaiser testified Tuesday that the U.S. tech giant didn’t really try to verify Cambridge Analytica’s assurances that it had done so.

“I find it incredibly irresponsible that a company with as much money as Facebook … had no due diligence mechanisms in place for protecting the data of U.K. citizens, U.S. citizens or their users in general,” she said.

Kaiser suggested that the number of individuals whose Facebook data was misused could be far higher than the 87 million acknowledged by the Silicon Valley giant.

In an atmosphere where data abuse was rife, Kaiser told lawmakers she believed the leadership of the Leave.EU campaign had combined data from members of the U.K. Independence Party and customers from two insurance companies, Eldon Insurance and GoSkippy Insurance. The data was then sent the University of Mississippi for analysis.

“If the personal data of U.K. citizens who just wanted to buy car insurance was used by GoSkippy and Eldon Insurance for political purposes, as may have been the case, people clearly did not opt in for their data to be used in this way by Leave.EU,” she said in written testimony to the committee.

Leave.EU’s communications director, Andy Wigmore, called Kaiser’s statements a “litany of lies.”

It is how the data was used that alarms some members of the committee and has captured the attention of the public.

An expert on propaganda told the committee Monday that Cambridge Analytica used techniques developed by the Nazis to help Trump’s presidential campaign, turning Muslims and immigrants into an “artificial enemy” to win support from fearful voters.

University of Essex lecturer Emma Briant, who has for a decade studied the SCL Group – a conglomerate of companies, including Cambridge Analytica – interviewed company founder Nigel Oakes when she was doing research for a book. Oakes compared Trump’s tactics to those of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in singling out Jews for reprisals.

“Hitler attacked the Jews, because … the people didn’t like the Jews,” he said on tapes of the interview conducted with Briant. “He could just use them to . leverage an artificial enemy. Well that’s exactly what Trump did. He leveraged a Muslim.”


Inside the Internet Research Agency: a Mole Among Trolls

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Vitaly Bespalov, a 23-year-old journalism school graduate, had no idea what to expect when he arrived at a nondescript four-story business center in St. Petersburg to interview for a job.

Everything about the building at Savushkina 55 seemed odd. Security was heavy and the windows were tinted. Guards dressed in camouflage demanded his passport and his home address before letting him into the building. And, as he negotiated his entry, Bespalov noticed a woman enter the lobby in a rage.

“She was yelling something about how she refused to be part of this,” says Bespalov. “Everything about the place was strange.”

The year was 2014 and, as Bespalov was to learn, the building was the home of the Internet Research Agency – the company that would later be indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller on charges of conspiring to tamper in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

At that time, however, the agency was more concerned with the aftermath of another election – this time at home.

In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets and social media, alleging the Kremlin had carried out mass fraud in the country’s parliamentary elections. As Russians shared evidence of ballot stuffing and called others to join the protests, state media stayed silent. The difference in realities was glaring.

“The Kremlin decided they needed to make the online world and state television tell the same story,” says Bespalov, who described his experiences working at the notorious troll factory to VOA.

The aspiring journalist had moved from his native Siberia earlier to St. Petersburg on the promise of a job with a local news website. But the job fell through.  

As a newcomer to St. Petersburg, Bespalov sent out resume after resume, looking for anything that involved editing or reporting.

The rejections piled up until one day the phone rang. He was invited for an interview. Even better: The job paid double the going rate for writing gigs.

“I had no idea who it was,” Bespalov says. “They just called and told me to show up tomorrow at this address – Savushkina 55. And I didn’t understand what the job was or what the company was, but I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

Having negotiated his way through the heavy security, he was shown into an interview with a woman named Anna. He took a writing test and showed his writing samples – sympathetic takes on Russia’s opposition movement, LGBT rights, and the feminist art collective Pussy Riot.

“From those articles alone, my political views were obvious. I still don’t understand why they took me,” he says. “But Anna came back with a smile and said, ‘Well, we don’t cover the kind of stories you do, but you know how to write.’”

He got the job.

Inside the troll factory

On his first day, Bespalov was assigned to cover the war in eastern Ukraine. Sort of. He was told to rewrite articles from other websites for a handful of fake Ukrainian news sites. His task: to change the text in order to give articles the appearance of originality and a distinctly pro-Russian slant.

“We’d switch the word ‘annexation’ of Crimea for ‘reunification,’ or call the government in Kyiv ‘a fascist junta’ while writing favorably about the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine,” he says.

If there had been mere doubts before, Bespalov now knew for sure: He was in the epicenter of a propaganda machine.

With the realization came a dilemma, he says. “I could either leave right away, so as not to ruin my reputation as a journalist,” he says. “Or, I thought, I can stay and find out more and publish a big story about it somewhere.”

Bespalov went undercover. A mole among trolls.


He paints a gloomy picture of troll life inside Savushkina 55. Teams worked eight- to 12-hour shifts around the clock, seven days a week. Department heads monitored their work. Surveillance cameras were everywhere. Conversation among employees was discouraged.


In quick chats during cigarette breaks, Bespalov came to the conclusion that most trolls cared or thought little about what they were doing.  

“I know people who’ve been there for three years and never thought once what it was all about. They were there for the money,” he says.


Bespalov sketches out a highly structured operation, noting a fake news division on one floor, and bloggers and social media commentators on another. Also within the structure – a graphics department – which seemingly built an endless number of picture memes called “demotivators” for everyone to use.

Bespalov concludes the point of all this was to complete what he calls a “circle of lies” – a feedback loop where troll postings reinforced Kremlin news on state media, pushing one central idea which he characterizes as “Make Russia Great Again.”

In contrast to 2011, the internet and state media had now merged into one.

“The work was directed at the Russian audience,” Bespalov says. “Even the fake Ukrainian sites weren’t there to change minds in Ukraine. The point was to remove Russians’ doubts about the war in Ukraine and about ourselves because we have a weak economy, because we have few political freedoms. And because Russia can’t launch a company like Apple or develop an innovative space program. But what we can do is create the appearance of a great country. Not make the country better, but create the impression we have.”

Exit strategy


In the end, Bespalov spent three-and-a-half months at the Internet Research Agency. He says that once he felt he’d learned all he could, he quit. And he did publish his investigation – anonymously, out of fear for his safety. In fact, Bespalov was threatened, he says, after others at the IRA began suspecting he was the source of the article.


But eventually, the threats faded – in part, he suspects, because it turns out he wasn’t the only journalist working undercover at the IRA. Other local media outlets had come out with investigations.

“By this point, everybody knew about it,” he says.

And the troll factory would have remained old news if not for its role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.  

Bespalov says he has little light to shed on that operation, other than that the agency had started advertising for English-speaking positions around the time he left.

“We see that all the journalists who have written from inside the troll factory worked there back in 2014 or 2015,” he says. “That tells me that the system has gotten more cautious. Accidental types like me no longer can get work there.”  

Nonetheless, Bespalov’s willingness to talk about his experiences have made him a go-to source for Western media covering the election scandal – and a punching bag for Russian state media.

A recent NBC News report featuring Bespalov prompted Russia’s state media to run a piece disparaging his claims. The program also pilfered his social media accounts – mocking his alternative lifestyle, tattoos and liberal political views.  

Bespalov says his actions have been misrepresented on both sides of the Atlantic.

“In the U.S., they label me as ‘Vitaly Bespalov, former troll,’ not a journalist,” he says. “And from the Russian side, I’m a liar and traitor. A lot of my friends tell me, ‘Enough already. No more interviews. Have you lost your mind? Do you want to get killed? You’ve told your story and talking to more people about it won’t change anything.’”

Indeed, there were indications that the trolls recently geared up for another election – this time Russia’s 2018 presidential campaign.

An account on Telegram by a user named “Kremlebot,” who claims to work in the Internet Research Agency’s Russian division, wrote that employees were tasked with boosting voter turnout – a widely acknowledged goal of Kremlin spin doctors eager to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Vladimir Putin’s reelection bid. Requirements included sending selfies from polling stations to agency managers as well as playing up the competitiveness of the race.

Could “Kremlebot” be housed in Savushkina 55? Unlikely. Today, a giant “For Rent” sign hangs in the windows of Bespalov’s old office.

The Internet Research Agency had already moved on — and the trolls along with it.



Europe’s Venture Capitalists Embrace Virtual Currency Craze

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Some of Europe’s biggest venture capital firms are buying into sales of new virtual coins or asking their investors to give them the freedom to do so, in a sign of mainstream investor backing for the booming but controversial crowd-funding tool.

Germany’s HV Holtzbrinck Ventures, which has more than 1 billion euros ($1.23 billion) under management, is talking to its investors about changing the terms of its next fund so it can buy tokens directly, Jan Miczaika, a partner at the firm, told Reuters.

Lakestar, the Zurich-based firm run by Klaus Hommels, has made at least four investments in crypto and blockchain-related businesses since early 2017, among them ShapeShift, an exchange, and Blockchain, a wallet provider, and it is preparing to invest in a combination of coin and equity stakes in more.

Smaller and newer funds like BlueYard Capital and Fabric Ventures are focusing specifically on investments around blockchain — a distributed ledger technology that can remove the need for centralizing institutions — often by buying virtual coins.

Venture capitalists usually take equity stakes in start-ups, gaining a say in how the company is run and legal and governance certainties over their investments. Buying into initial coin offerings (ICOs), as the sale of digital tokens is known, can be far more risky. They offer little more than a promise the tokens will be worth more in future.

But with hundreds of start-ups — ICOs last year raised $6.3 billion — seeking to raise capital for new projects, investors say that to gain access to cutting-edge technology they need the flexibility to compete.

“It’s the internet in the early 1990s, you have to experiment,” said Nicolas Brand, a partner at Lakestar. “I have to find the best way of backing the best entrepreneurs and we need to be agile in how we invest.”

Regulators have raised serious questions about the transparency of ICOs and the risks of scams, although authorities in countries from Switzerland to France have disclosed plans to attract new launches.

Supporters say blockchain will disrupt industries from finance to logistics and that ICOs are a novel way of crowd-funding.

Tokens are the route to make money. They embody the idea that consumers will need to own and use them to buy services, from playing computer games to online shopping. When demand for those products spreads, the token prices will rise, creating value for earlier owners like venture capitalists.

“The [blockchain] technology is very exciting. Ninety-five percent of the tokens will go to zero. On the other hand, the other 5 percent are very interesting and could go on to revolutioniZe the market,” said Miczaika at HV Holtzbrinck.

Equity to ICO

Unlike some big U.S. funds, most big European venture capitalists are avoiding the world’s biggest ICO, by messaging app Telegram, people familiar with the funds say, citing concerns about the amount — a reported $1.7 billion — it has raised.

Broader worries about the quality of teams looking to cash in on ICOs are common, and some funds say that far from being a threat to the venture capital model, most ICOs are a fad.

Those that survive will find themselves wanting the support and hand-holding that conventional venture investment offers.

“We need to get our heads around ICOs, but I don’t see it as a threat. I don’t think I’ve missed a company which I wish I’d invested in but couldn’t because it did an ICO,” said Suranga Chandratillake, partner at London-based Balderton Capital.

To date, venture activity has focused on crypto companies like HV Holtzbrinck’s investment in ICO platform Upvest or Point Nine Capital’s stake in peer-to-peer bitcoin lender Bitbond, which tapped into the crypto-trading craze and followed on from a series of investments by well-known U.S. venture funds.

Investors said the next round of activity would target projects offering the building blocks for blockchain’s development, such as software development networks. They will benefit if the largely unproven technology matures.

Buying into the coins is necessary for aligning themselves to such projects, they argue.

“We came to the conclusion that if we really want to do decentralized tokens we have to be a part of it,” said Ciaran O’Leary, who co-founded Berlin-based BlueYard and invested in the 2017 ICO by data storage network Filecoin, which was worth an estimated $200 million.


ICOs also present major governance and legal concerns, including how to store coins safely after several large hacks.

To keep their investments safe, venture firms are looking at storing coins offline or in wallets where no transaction can take place without the agreement of multiple individuals.

Max Mersch, a partner at Fabric Ventures, said his firm had also introduced multi-year lock-ups prohibiting quick dumping of coins, to encourage longer-term investment horizons and so partners had time to shape governance.

Risks aside, venture capitalists say the potential impact of tokens is too hard to ignore.

“A token is a very powerful innovation and in the best token projects, the fund-raising is actually a byproduct,” said Lakestar’s Brand said. “The token is about activating network effects on steroids,” he said, predicting they would have the power to take on “rival monoliths like Facebook”.


FIFA Charges World Cup Host Russia for Fan Racism

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FIFA charged World Cup host Russia with fan racism on Tuesday, less than two months before the tournament begins.

Monkey chants were aimed at black French players, including Paul Pogba, during France’s 3-1 friendly win over Russia in St. Petersburg last month.


“Disciplinary proceedings have been opened against the Russian Football Union for this incident,” FIFA said.


The RFU said it is cooperating with the FIFA investigation.


“A request has been made to the Interior Ministry to identify several persons who were involved in these incidents,” RFU anti-discrimination officer Alexei Smertin was quoted as saying Monday by the Tass news agency. “If these people’s guilt is proven, then there’s a high likelihood they won’t be allowed to attend World Cup and Russian league games.”


Russia was previously charged with racist behavior by its fans at the last two European Championships. On both occasions, the RFU paid a fine.


It’s the third racism case this season at St. Petersburg Stadium, which will host a World Cup semifinal match. Zenit St. Petersburg has twice faced UEFA charges for racism by its fans in Europa League games.


Zenit fans flew a banner praising convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic when playing a Macedonian club in November and are accused of using a racially charged term to mock an injured black player in a game against Leipzig. The second case is due to be heard by UEFA on May 31, two weeks before the World Cup begins.