Erdogan’s Policies Driving Turkey to the Edge, Challenger Says

President Tayyip Erdogan is driving Turkey “to the cliff” through ideological politics and a determination to control the central bank, the main opposition party’s presidential candidate said on Wednesday as the lira hit new record lows.

Muharrem Ince, who seeks to end Erdogan’s 15-year hold on power in next month’s elections, said the central bank and other economic institutions must be able to operate independently.

Erdogan said this week he plans to take greater control of the economy after the June 24 presidential and parliamentary polls, comments which drove the lira to fresh record lows. It is down 15 percent against the dollar this year.

“He’s taking the country to the cliff. The central bank needs to be independent, and the other economic bodies need to be autonomous. The rules need to operate,” Ince told Reuters in an interview.

The victor in next month’s election, held under a state of emergency imposed after a failed coup in 2016, will exercise sweeping new executive powers after Turks narrowly approved a constitutional overhaul in a referendum last year. The changes come into effect after the June vote.

Polls favor Erdogan

Polls show Erdogan is comfortably the strongest candidate, though he could face a challenge if the presidential vote goes to a second round in July and his opponents rally around the other remaining candidate.

Ince, 54, a combative parliamentarian and former physics teacher, has energised his secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) since he started campaigning and may emerge as the leading opposition candidate — although he faces competition from former interior minister Meral Aksener.

Aksener’s nationalist Iyi (Good) Party and the CHP have joined with two other smaller parties in an opposition alliance for the parliamentary election. She and Ince are competing separately in the presidential vote.

 ‘Wind of change’

Ince said the president was driven by “ideological obsessions” and pushing Turkey in the wrong direction.

Erdogan, a self-described “enemy of interest rates,” wants lower borrowing costs to boost credit and new construction, and has said the central bank will not be able to ignore the president’s wishes. That has fuelled concerns about the bank’s ability to fight double-digit inflation.

Since his Islamist-rooted AK Party swept to power in 2002, Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics. His power is reinforced by a near-monopoly of broadcast media coverage. Most TV channels show nearly all his campaign rallies, but rarely offer a platform to his opponents.

“The state of the media is heartbreaking. They have surrendered, they have kneeled,” Ince said, adding he had told broadcasters that unless they started to cover his speeches, he would hold a rally directly outside their offices to shame them.

If elected, Ince pledged to reverse some of the powers granted to the new presidency, saying it handed total control of the budget, judiciary and executive to one person.

EU countries concerned

Several European Union countries have expressed alarm that those changes are pushing Turkey deeper into authoritarian rule.

Turkey is still a candidate for EU membership, though negotiations have stalled over rights concerns and other issues.

Erdogan says the increased powers are necessary to tackle security threats following the failed coup and conflict on Turkey’s southern borders with Syria and Iraq.

“No mortal should be given such authority,” Ince said. “It shouldn’t be given to me either.”

‘Everyone’s president’

Against Erdogan, a skilled campaigner, the CHP has struggled to win support beyond its core base of secular-minded voters. In the last parliamentary election in November 2015 it took 25.3 percent of the vote.

Ince has pledged to be a non-partisan leader if elected, styling himself as “everyone’s president” and promising not to live in the 1,000-room palace built by Erdogan in Ankara.

“I see that a wind of change is blowing,” he said, pointing to what he described as a new atmosphere at his political rallies compared to last year’s referendum campaign.

“The momentum I have garnered is very different — there is a strong wind and people feel excitement,” he said.

Moscow Formally Protests Journalist’s Arrest in Ukraine

Moscow is protesting the arrest of a journalist in Ukraine, and the Council of Europe and other human rights groups have expressed concern.

 

Ukraine’s domestic security agency, the SBU, detained Kirill Vyshinskiy, the head of the Ukraine office of Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, on treason charges. His arrest followed SBU raids of the Kyiv offices of RIA Novosti and RT television Tuesday.

 

The agency alleges the Russian state-funded media outlets were being “used as tools in a hybrid war against Ukraine.”

 

The Kremlin denounced Ukraine’s action as an attack on media freedom, and the Russian Foreign Ministry lodged a formal protest.

 

The Council of Europe said Wednesday it was “concerned about the implications that repeated detentions of journalists may have for the situation with media freedom in Ukraine.”

 

Ukraine Raids Russian Media Outlets, Arrests Journalist

Ukraine’s state security agency raided offices of two Russian state-owned media outlets in the Ukrainian capital Tuesday and leveled treason accusations against a journalist, a move that drew sharp criticism from the top trans-Atlantic security and rights group.

Ukraine’s domestic security agency, the SBU, said the raids of the Kyiv offices of the RIA Novosti news agency and RT television were part of its investigation into Russian media outlets being “used as tools in a hybrid war against Ukraine.”

The agency said the head of RIA Novosti’s Ukrainian office, Kirill Vyshinskiy, was detained for alleged treason, a crime that carries a prison term of up to 15 years upon conviction.

Relations between Moscow and Kyiv soured in 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and threw its weight behind separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has long blamed Russian state media for fanning the flames of the war in the east, which so far has killed more than 10,000 people.

Moscow angrily protested Tuesday’s raids. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced the Ukrainian action as an “unacceptable” attack on freedom of speech and urged the West to condemn it “without any double standards.”

Harlem Desir, a media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a top security and rights group, expressed “serious concern” about the raids.

“The fight against propaganda must not fall short of international standards and should not represent disproportionate interference in media activities,” Desir said in a statement. “OSCE participating states have committed to facilitating the conditions under which journalists from one participating state exercise their profession in another participating state.”

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States shared concern about Russian propaganda, but noted that Ukraine must take care to ensure it abides by the law, including international human rights law.

The raids came several hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to southern Russia to attend the opening ceremony of a bridge linking Russia and the Crimean peninsula.

Europe, Iran Work to Save Nuclear Deal

European and Iranian foreign ministers are working to salvage the nuclear deal, after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the pact.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said European and Iranian officials held talks to address various challenges — from maintaining and deepening economic, transport and financial relations, to protecting European companies doing business with Iran in light of promised U.S. economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Despite reported calls for a new or broader deal, Mogherini said the goal was to retain the 2015 agreement.

“If we want to save this deal — which is not an easy exercise — but if we want to save this deal, we know that the sooner we manage to do it, the better,” Mogherini said. “Again, it will not be easy. … But if I can use the metaphor, we all have a relative in intensive care, and we want to get him out of intensive care as soon as possible.”

Mogherini spoke after talks Tuesday between the foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany and their Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif.

Zarif said Tehran wants to make sure that the interests of the deal’s “remaining participants, particularly Iran, will be preserved and guaranteed.”

Trump said the agreement was insufficient in curbing Iran’s nuclear program and its role in Middle East conflicts, and in addressing what happens after the deal expires.

Mogherini, however, said the EU believes the nuclear deal should be considered separately from other areas of disagreement with Iran.

“We are, and we have always been, clear on this: There are more chances and more possibilities to open avenues of discussions on other issues, if the Iranian deal stays in place rather than not,” she said.

European leaders will be discussing the nuclear deal at a summit in Bulgaria that starts Wednesday.

Putin: New Weapons Will Maintain Russia’s Might for Decades

Russia’s new weapons, including an array of new nuclear systems, will ensure the country’s security for decades to come, President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday at a meeting with top military brass.

Speaking in Sochi, Putin said the new systems unveiled this year would significantly increase Russia’s military capabilities and “ensure a strategic balance for decades.”

The Russian leader presented an array of new nuclear weapons in March that he said couldn’t be intercepted. They included a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile; a nuclear-powered global range cruise missile; and an underwater drone designed to strike coastal facilities with a heavy nuclear weapon.

Putin said at Tuesday’s meeting that the development of the weapons would remain a high priority.

He also mentioned other weapons systems, including the prospective S-500 air defense system that is meant to be precise and powerful enough to hit targets in space.

Putin said the strategic nuclear forces should receive new batches of Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles to replace the older Topol ICBMs. Also in the pipeline are modernized Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers equipped with long-range cruise missiles and the new Borei-class nuclear submarines armed with ICBMs.

The navy, Putin said, will commission more warships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles that the military tested during the war in Syria.

The Russian president said the army would receive a range of new armored vehicles, including the new Armata main battle tanks.

The Kremlin has made military modernization a top priority as Russia-West ties plummeted to post-Cold War lows over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and other disputes.

Wedding Countdown Begins for Royal Wild Child, American TV Star

Britain’s Prince Harry, who is fifth in line to the throne, and American Meghan Markle, who is best known for her former role in the TV drama Suits, are due to marry this Saturday in Windsor, England. 

For many fans, it is a fairy-tale romance and Meghan breaks the mold of the demure princess, says British royal expert Richard Fitzwilliams.

“Meghan is an American biracial divorcee who is an activist, a feminist and former actress. Those were credentials that might well have barred her from marrying a senior member of the royal family only a relatively short time ago. Now they are being positively welcomed,” he said.

In Britain, the day has added significance for many who watched a 12-year-old Harry grieve at the funeral of his mother, Princess Diana. The prince, now 33, cites her as his inspiration for the charitable work that he and Meghan will continue as a couple.

“She’s been an activist for much of her life,” Fitzwilliams said of Meghan. “This is taking the role to a new level and she can lobby at the very top.”

However, that lobbying has a limit. Some fear Meghan’s outspoken nature may not go over well in the gilded corridors of a royal dynasty where politics is taboo.

“The royal family does things quietly, with dignity,” said Thomas Mace-Archer-Mills, a self-styled royal obsessive and founder of the British Monarchist Society, “and that’s what we count on them for. So it’s going to be very difficult for her to really curtail her activism. And we’ve seen a few stumbles here and there as she’s been acclimating to royal life.”

Meghan and Harry met in 2016, reportedly in Canada, although the full details surrounding their early romance remain hazy. The couple announced their engagement last November in the gardens of London’s Kensington Palace, where Harry was raised by Diana and Prince Charles, alongside his older brother, William.

For Britons, the wedding will mark a particularly happy milestone for Harry, said Fitzwilliams.

“This will be the royal wild child who has developed beyond levels that perhaps we thought he would.”

The death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash scarred a nation and deprived two young boys of their devoted mother. In recent years, Harry has described the mental trauma of the funeral.

“It was an extraordinary experience,” Fitzwilliams said. “There is no doubt that he’s had some deeply troubling times. The army has made him, and also it’s very important to remember his commitment to charity.”

Those twin passions have seen Harry serve in Afghanistan and champion charitable causes around the world, including the Sentebale charity for young people affected by AIDS and the Invictus Games for wounded servicemen and women. Both he and Meghan have spoken of their desire to build on that work.

While it may take some time for Meghan to adjust to life in the royal family, she’s already laying down a few domestic ground rules, according to Mace-Archer-Mills.

“She’s brought a California lifestyle to Britain,” he said. “She’s slimming him down, she’s putting him on [diet of] shakes, eating less meat. What Brit do you know that doesn’t like meat?”

It is the tale of the royal wild child tamed by the American star. While millions will tune in for the wedding, many more will watch with fascination in the coming years as the new couple make their way in the world.

Royal Wild Child & American Star: Countdown to Harry and Meghan’s Wedding

Britain’s Prince Harry, fifth in line to the throne, and American Meghan Markle, best known for her former role in the TV drama “Suits,” are due to marry Saturday (May 19) in Windsor, England. For many fans, it is a fairy-tale romance as a former American actress becomes a princess; and the marriage also breaks many of the unspoken conventions of the British royal family. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Soros Foundation Leaving Hungary

The foundation of U.S.-Hungarian billionaire George Soros said Tuesday it is closing its office in Budapest and shifting those operations to Berlin in response to what it called “an increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary.”

The Open Society Foundations released a statement in which it highlighted restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that are expected to be among the first legislative priorities for Hungary’s new parliament.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is backing a so-called “Stop Soros” bill that would include taxes and bans on NGOs involved in immigration. The government has cited national security concerns, and Orban has accused Soros of working to undermine Europe’s cultural identity by working to bring large numbers of migrants to the continent.

“The government of Hungary has denigrated and misrepresented our work and repressed civil society for the sake of political gain, using tactics unprecedented in the history of the European Union,” said OSF President Patrick Gaspard.

The OSF pledged to continue supporting civil society groups in Hungary, including work on arts, media freedom, transparency, education and health care.

EU Warns Britain of Poor Brexit Progress

The European Union on Monday warned Britain time was running out to seal a Brexit deal this fall and ensure London does not crash out of the bloc next March, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May.

May’s spokesman, however, said the “focus is on getting this right” rather than meeting a deadline.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told 27 ministers of the bloc meeting in Brussels on Monday that “no significant progress” had been made in negotiations with London since March, the Bulgarian chairwoman of the talks said.

Diplomats and officials in Brussels have raised doubts about whether the bloc and London will be able to mark a milestone in the negotiations at the summit of EU leaders on June 28-29.

The current schedule puts progress in June as an important step towards a final Brexit deal in October, which would leave enough time for an elaborate EU ratification process before the Brexit day.

“October is only five months from now and still some key issues related to the withdrawal agreement need to be settled.

In June we need to see substantive progress on Ireland, on governance and all remaining separation issues,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva of Bulgaria, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

‘No clear stance’

German, Austrian and Dutch ministers all echoed the same concern, saying Britain has not made its position clear in detail on parts of the negotiations.

“We are concerned that there is no clear stance, no clear position from the British. The clock is ticking,” German EU Minister Michael Roth told his EU peers.

“We need now to be making substantial progress, but that is not happening. What is worrying us in particular is the Northern Ireland question where we expect a substantial accommodation from the British side.”

At home, May is stuck between a rock and a hard place with staunch Brexit supporters pushing to sever ties with the EU and others advocating keeping close customs cooperation with the bloc to reduce frictions in future trade.

May’s spokesman said London was working on two options for post-Brexit customs cooperation.

Under a customs partnership, Britain could collect tariffs on goods entering the country on the EU’s behalf. Under a second idea, for a streamlined customs arrangement, traders on an approved list would be able to cross borders freely with the aid of automated technology.

Pressure

But the EU has said London must come up with a solution for the Irish border conundrum and highlights that has not happened.

Both sides worry that reinstating a physical border between EU-member Ireland and Britain’s province of Northern Ireland – including to manage customs – could revive violence there.

Other outstanding issues include guarantees for expatriate rights, agreeing on security cooperation and trade rules after Brexit.

With May’s cabinet, her ruling Conservative party and the British split on Brexit, the prime minister has come under increasing pressure at home in recent weeks to make a decision on customs.

The Brexit schedule is tightening, sources said, which helps the EU negotiating strategy to pile pressure on London before the June summit but mostly is due to lack of substantial headway in the talks.

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said it was too early to discuss an extension of the timeline, but added: “The aim is now to conclude a deal in the time schedule that has been agreed on  … I very much hope we will agree but there are no guarantees, unfortunately.”

 

Russian Bank Helps Venezuela Defy US Cryptocurrency Sanctions

Investors looking to buy Venezuela’s new cryptocurrency may want to head to a little-known Moscow bank whose biggest shareholders are President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government and two state-controlled Russian companies under U.S. sanctions.

Evrofinance Mosnarbank has emerged as the only international financial institution so far willing to defy a U.S. campaign to derail the world’s first state-backed digital currency, called the petro, even before it begins to function.

Early would-be investors who registered with Venezuela’s government and downloaded the petro’s wallet software — available in Spanish, English and Russian — were then invited to buy the cryptocurrency by wiring a minimum of 1,000 euros to a Venezuelan government account at Evrofinance.

The bank’s place in the rollout of the petro is further evidence of Russia’s role in the creation of a cryptocurrency that much of the digital world has shunned but that Maduro hopes will allow Venezuela to circumvent U.S. financial sanctions imposed last year.

At the petro’s launch on Feb. 21, Maduro heaped praise on two Russians in the audience who worked with wealthy, Kremlin-connected businessmen, thanking their previously unknown startups — Zeus Exchange and Aerotrading — for their role developing what he joked would be a kind of “kryptonite” against U.S. economic dominance.

A day later, he dispatched his economy minister to Moscow to brief his Russian finance counterpart.

And in March, the Russian Association of Cryptocurrency and Blockchain awarded the Venezuelan government an award for its role “challenging the de-facto powers of the international financial system.”

‘Fighting a common bully’

Russia’s interest in the petro stems from its own increasingly pariah status in the west, said Claiborne W. Porter, the former head of the U.S. Justice Department’s bank integrity unit. As relations with the U.S. and European Union become more tense, both countries are looking for ways to demonstrate political strength while moving money outside the American financial system.

“Like kids on the playground, Venezuela and Russia think they are fighting a common bully in U.S. sanctions, so they’re going to try and form a united front,” said Porter, who is now the Washington-based head of investigations at consulting firm Navigant.

Russia has provided Venezuela with billions in debt relief over the years and is a major investor in the country’s oil industry. That financial lifeline has become more important since the Trump administration last year banned Americans from lending money to the nearly bankrupt government and now threatens to slap sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry if Maduro goes ahead with presidential elections this month that are widely seen as a sham. In March, Trump signed an executive order banning Americans from any dealings with the petro.

Evrofinance and its executives didn’t return repeated email requests for comment. But after The Associated Press’ inquiries, all references to the bank were removed from the petro’s wallet, leaving prospective buyers with no guidance on how to actually buy it, though it’s still listed for sale in rubles and euros as well as three other widely circulated cryptocurrencies.

Venezuela’s government purchased a 49 percent stake in Evrofinance in 2011, making the bank, which traces its history back a century as a western financial outpost for the Soviet Union, a vehicle for binational trade and investment projects, with almost $800 million in assets.

The rest of the shares are held by two major banks, state-controlled VTB and Gazprombank, which were sanctioned by the U.S. and European nations in 2014 over President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

It’s unclear how many petros the government has sold. Maduro boasted this month that the government had raised $3.3 billion in the pre-sale phase. But so far only a small fraction of the petros appears to have been distributed to buyers, according to the blockchain where the digital currency’s movements can be publicly tracked.

‘Scam’

Experts say that the petro is of little interest to foreigners other than drug traffickers and others active in Venezuela’s burgeoning criminal underworld. Even offshore trading platforms like Bitfinex are refusing to deal in the petro for fear of violating sanctions. Rating website ICOindex.com, which tracks initial coin offerings of cryptocurrencies, called it a “scam.”

“An overwhelming majority of ICOs don’t deliver on what they promise because their promoters are outright scammers or fall short on technical expertise,” said Alejandro Machado, a Venezuelan-born computer scientist who consults for crypto startups.  “In the case of the Venezuelan government, both reasons apply.”

One of the two Russians who signed agreements with Maduro to position the petro globally, Denis Druzhkov, had been fined $31,000 and barred for three years by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for fraudulent trading in futures’ contracts. Zeus Exchange, which Druzhkov created alongside a Kremlin-connected industrialist, said in a statement that it has never had any business ties with the Venezuelan government and that Druzhkov resigned after abusing his authority.

The other, Fedor Bogorodskiy, used to help run the credit card division at a bank controlled by a Russian oligarch.  He has lived in Uruguay since 2009, combining telecommunications business with part-time promotion of Russian culture. He told The AP that his company, Aerotrading, whose website consists of a single home page with no company information, immediately ceased all work on the petro after Trump announced his ban.

Despite the pressure, Maduro is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s given government institutions — from ministries to airports — 120 days to start accepting the petro as legal tender in all transactions. He’s also paved the way for the creation of 16 local exchanges where Venezuelans will be able to purchase petros with their fast-depreciating bolivars. Also in the works is a second state-backed cryptocurrency tied to the country’s gold reserves.

But gaining international acceptance remains an uphill battle.

Yuri Pripachkin, president of the Russian blockchain group that honored Venezuela, said that while the Kremlin is keeping a close eye on the petro it hasn’t been involved in its development. Still, he said as long as sanctions are used as a foreign policy tool to punish governments that challenge U.S. policies, the incentives to seek out alternative means of financing will remain. He also dismissed the idea that the petro could be used to fund criminal activity.

“That’s a fairy tale,” said Pripachkin. “The most popular currency for terrorists and criminals the world over is the U.S. dollar, not crypto, and nobody is suggesting we ban dollars. This is just an attempt to stop crypto from expanding.”

 

Catalonia’s Lawmakers Pick Fervent Separatist as New Chief

Lawmakers in Catalonia elected a fervent separatist as the new chief of the restive region Monday, ending a leadership vacuum of more than six months and setting the scene for more confrontations with the Spanish government.

Quim Torra, a former corporate lawyer who went on to lead a prominent pro-secession group, vowed to build an independent Catalan republic by working under the leadership of his fugitive predecessor, Carles Puigdemont.

Puigdemont is in Germany fighting extradition to Spain, where he is wanted for allegedly using public funds and orchestrating an “insurrection” to get the wealthy northeastern region around Barcelona to break away from Spain.

Torra was elected 66-65 in a second round vote after he failed to secure an absolute majority in the 135-strong Catalan Parliament over the weekend. Four lawmakers with the far-left anti-establishment CUP party abstained.

Immediately after his election, Torra, 55, said one of the goals of his new government would be to reinstate Puigdemont as “the legitimate president” of Catalonia. The Spanish government removed Puigdemont and his Cabinet from office after the regional parliament passed an illegal declaration of independence in October.

“Our president is Carles Puigdemont, and we will be faithful to the mandate of October … to build an independent state in the form of a republic,” Torra told the chamber based in Barcelona.

Torra also has promised to create a “state council in exile” and vowed to establish a constituent assembly to write the constitution for a new Catalan republic.

“Everybody will win rights with the republic,” Torra told fellow lawmakers in a speech before the vote. “Nobody will lose rights. The republic is for everybody, no matter what they vote.”

The Catalan separatist movement has caused the worst political and institutional crisis in Spain in decades.

Central authorities have been ruling Catalonia directly from Madrid since the regional government led by Puigdemont relied on the results of an outlawed Oct. 1 referendum to declare unilateral independence from Spain.

The national government has fired dozens of civil servants and closed a network of overseas offices that sought investments in Catalonia but also functioned as “diplomatic delegations” to bolster support for independence.

The unprecedented Spanish takeover is set to end when Torra is sworn in along with a new Catalan Cabinet. But Spanish authorities have warned that the national government could reassert its authority if the new regional government breaks the law again.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he didn’t like what he had heard during Monday’s investiture debate in the Catalan assembly. He said his judgment on Torra’s appointment will depend on Torra’s actions.

“We will bet on understanding and agreement in looking at the future,” Rajoy told reporters in Segovia. “But I say this, and I mean it: I will make sure that the law, the Spanish Constitution and the rest of the legal system, are obeyed.”

The prime minister’s office announced meetings with the two leaders of the main opposition parties at the national level, Socialist Party Secretary General Pedro Sanchez and the pro-business Ciudadanos (Citizens) party’s Albert Rivera.

Both leaders’ supported authorizing Rajoy’s conservative cabinet to take direct control of Catalonia’s affairs last year.

Rivera, who is experiencing a wave of popularity in recent opinion polls that are placing his party ahead of the ruling Popular Party, has urged Rajoy to extend the takeover.

Polls show that Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents are evenly divided on whether the region should secede from Spain. A great majority wants to settle the issue in a referendum, which under current law only the central government can set.

Paris on Edge Again After Knife Attack

Paris is a city on edge once again as France’s capital mourned another victim of fanaticism.

The Chechen-born French citizen who lashed at people with a knife, killing one and wounding four, had been on a terror watch list, but his ability to be able to launch an attack Saturday underlines the scale of the challenge France faces from Islamic militants, French officials say.

More than 2,600 suspected militants are on a watch list but tabs can’t be kept on all of them. “While the security services are excellent at identifying potential jihadists, the terrible lack of human resources means that they can monitor only a tiny tiny fraction of the suspects,” said counterterror analyst Olivier Guitta, who runs GlobalStrat, a London-based risk consultancy.

“The Islamic State attack in Paris’ Opera area is the 12th successful terrorist attack since 2013. It is the second successful one this year. France remains a priority target of the jihadists in Europe,” he added.

The last serious terror attack in France was in March, when a self-proclaimed militant killed a French policeman who’d exchanged himself for a female hostage during a siege in southwest France. The string of attacks since 2013 has left 245 people dead. Saturday’s mayhem was similar in method to a knife attack carried out last year in Marseille, said Loic Travers, a police union official.

Lacking manpower

French intelligence officials say they don’t have the manpower to keep even the 2,600 top-tier militant risks under around-the-clock surveillance. Aside from that watch list, they are also trying to monitor a further 5,000 suspects who have prompted anxiety but are considered less of an immediate danger – they are radicalized but have not as yet shown signs of thinking about violence.

The French aren’t alone in trying to match resources and manpower with threats. Other European intelligence agencies, especially in neighboring Belgium, are also overstretched. After each attack, security chiefs ask themselves what more they can do to prevent terrorism, especially the rudimentary kind of knife-wielding attack that was mounted in the French capital Saturday.

French lawmakers are sympathetic about the complaints from the country’s security services about the lack of resources and how difficult it is to track all of even the most dangerous militants.

Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate foreign and defense committee, has said in the past, “You cannot put a policeman behind each of them. Especially since being reported to be in the process of radicalization does not make you a criminal.”

But Goulet and other lawmakers have expressed worries about the temporary nature of the surveillance and how quickly suspected militants can be dropped off the high-risk list.

She argues the French security services should maintain “a permanent file of people who had a link with terrorist organizations” much as the police do when it comes to sex offenders who are stuck permanently on file.

Information on assailant

Saturday’s suspect, who was shot by French police, wasn’t carrying any identification papers and hasn’t yet been publicly named by authorities, but French media are giving his name as Khamzat Asimov.

French officials say the man had no criminal record, was Chechen born and was naturalized as a French citizen in 2010. They say a friend of the suspect had been detained for questioning in the eastern city of Strasbourg recently.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the assault, but it remains unclear whether the assailant was inspired by the terror group or had actual operational links with IS. French intelligence services are now scrambling to establish what ties the man may have had with the group, if any.

It would be the first time an assailant of Chechen origin has carried out a terrorist attack in France, which hosts about 30,000 Chechens. Analysts have highlighted recently Chechen militants as a subgroup that bears watching.

Last year Belgian analyst Pieter Van Ostaeyen said that in his database of Belgian militants who’d gone to fight in Syria, 12 were of Chechen origin, with another 10 of Russia descent.

“It may be small, this ‘Eastern contingent,’ but it is likely underestimated, too,” Van Ostaeyen warned.

IS has actively recruited fighters in Chechnya, sending hundreds to conflicts in Syria and elsewhere. Some of the top IS commanders in Syria and and Iraq were veterans of conflict in Chechnya.

“Most of the ‘Eastern contingent’s’ networks seem to operate in a very covert manner,” Van Ostaeyen noted in a study for the Bellingcat news site. “They do not expose themselves with propaganda … and even its individual members rarely show themselves off on social media.”

 

IS Video Said to Show Paris Knife Attacker

An Islamic State video shows what it says is the young Chechen-born man accused of Saturday’s deadly terrorist knife attack in downtown Paris.

French police have identified the suspect as Khamzat Azimov, who was a French citizen. He killed one person and wounded four before a police officer shot him dead.

An Islamic State outlet released the video showing a man it says is Azimov, wearing a hood with only his eyes exposed. He is speaking French and pledging allegiance to Islamic State.

IS had already claimed responsibility for the knifings, saying one of its “soldiers” carried them out to avenge France’s participation in the international coalition in Iraq and Syria.

French authorities have taken Azimov’s parents and a close friend into custody for questioning. Azimov was on the government’s watch list of suspected terrorists, but had no criminal record.

Azimov was said to have been born in Chechnya, a Muslim-majority Russian republic, in 1997. He emigrated to France as a teenager, and grew up in Strasbourg.

Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov said the Russian republic bears no responsibility for Azimov becoming a killer.

“He was only born in Chechnya and his growing up, the formation of his personality, his views and persuasions occurred in French society,” Kadyrov said.

Azimov carried out Saturday’s attack in a district of Paris known for its fine restaurants and the famed Opera Garnier.

Witnesses say he yelled out “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is great” in Arabic, and began stabbing people. Bystanders scrambled into restaurants and under tables for safety.

When Azimov rushed at police, an officer opened fire, killing him — but not before one person was stabbed to death and four others — including a Chinese tourist — were wounded. Doctors say the four survivors are out of danger.

French police are treating this as a terrorist investigation. President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that France “will not yield an inch to the enemies of freedom.”

On Sunday, the White House condemned the attacks, offering thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, in a statement. “We stand in solidarity with the French people and their government against this vicious act of terrorism, and pledge any assistance needed,” the statement said.

France is no stranger to deadly terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic State. They include the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings, the murder spree later that year that started in a Paris concert hall, and the 2016 Nice truck attack. 

Russia in Flurry of Diplomatic Activity Over Iran Deal

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Russia unleashed a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at keeping Iran and other remaining signatories committed to the agreement.

But behind Russia’s diplomatic maneuvering, analysts see the Kremlin chasing rewards from transatlantic divisions over the Iran issue while facing risks of deeper entanglement in Middle East affairs.  

“Without doubt we will make sure firstly that this does not destroy the JCPOA,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, referring to the Iran nuclear deal’s formal abbreviation following a meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Moscow last week.   

“This is our common objective,” assured Lavrov. “We confirmed this.”

Lavrov deployed a top envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, to Tehran in a move aimed at shoring up continued Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal.  

“From the Russian point of view, particular importance will be given to preserving the JCPOA without damaging concrete projects and concrete areas of cooperation that are building between all members of the deal,” said Ryabkov in comments following the meeting.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will come to Moscow on Monday for further talks.  

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also expected to join Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi later in the week for additional discussions where Iran is expected to be high on the agenda.

A reliable partner in … Moscow?  

Yet in aligning itself with Europe firmly behind preserving the Iran deal, Russian analysts argue Moscow sees unexpected diplomatic openings beyond the nuclear issue.

“This is in some respects a win for Russia,” said Alexey Malashenko, a longtime Middle East watcher and head of the Institute of Dialogue and Civilization in Moscow.  “Russia may not have any influence over the U.S. and its decision to leave the Iran deal, but it now has a united position with Europe and the European Union.”

Malashenko notes that Trump’s decision to ignore pleas by traditional allies such as France and Germany to remain in the Iran deal accomplished something Putin has long sought but could not achieve until now: a transatlantic rift.

“Trump listened to Macron and Merkel and showed that he doesn’t care. The Europeans are really offended this time,” said Malashenko.

Writing in the online magazine Republic, foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov argued that continued failure to bridge those differences offered Moscow the prospect of something much greater than merely isolating Washington — namely, a tentative path to future sanctions relief.

“If the politics of sanctions fall apart at the seams with the West relative to Iran,” writes Frolov, “then why can’t they differ over Russia, when it’s in solidarity with Europe over keeping the JCPOA?”

Sanctions shrug

Never an enthusiastic backer of sanctions on Iran, Russia nevertheless embraced its role as one of the six signatories to the denuclearization swap for sanctions relief deal brokered with Iran by the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, and China back in 2015.

As Europe now debates its response to threats from Washington that the EU cut off future investments in Tehran or face renewed penalties, Moscow seems determined to show Europe that U.S. sanctions are something to be weathered, says Karine Gevorgyan, an Iran specialist based in Moscow.

Gevorgyan points out that major Russian companies are already under U.S. sanctions over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections, and — just last week — what Washington says is Moscow’s support of Syria and other rogue regimes.

“They were already sanctioning Russian military exports. It won’t have an impact,” she says.

A statement by the Foreign Ministry similarly chided the White House for “trivial desire to get even with Russia” and warned that attempts to punish Russia economically would continue to fail.

Whether quasi-state Russian businesses with interests in Iran’s oil, gas, tourism, and railway sectors are ready to risk U.S. penalties or pull up stakes remains an open question.

Israeli factor

Meanwhile, a more immediate pitfall is the escalating proxy war between Iran and Israel in neighboring Syria, where Russia is engaged in an ongoing military alliance with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, and Iran.

Russia has relished its role in the Syrian conflict as a sign of the Kremlin’s growing role as a player in Middle East politics.  Yet the Russian military intervention has also presented challenges to relations with Israel — one of the most vocal opponents of the Iran nuclear deal.

Last week, Israel carried out airstrikes against dozens of Iranian military targets in neighboring Syria, accusing Iran of launching its own missile attack from the area.  

Moscow — which values close ties with Israel and yet needs continued Iranian military support in Syria — has called for “restraint from all parties” while faced with the prospect of a wider Middle East conflict.

Yet analyst Alexei Malashenko questions whether Moscow can successfully play the role of mediator given Russia’s traditional approach of “always sitting on two stools.”

In a sign of the diplomatic whiplash that the policy entails, the Kremlin raised eyebrows when a presidential aide indicated  Moscow would stall a promise to deliver Russia’s vaunted S-300 surface to air-missile systems to Syria — Iran’s ally — following attendance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at World World II Victory Day celebrations on Red Square May 9th.  

President Putin’s primary spokesman later insisted the decisions were unrelated but the challenges ahead were obvious.

 

Hometown Celebrates Markle’s Sparkling Personality, Charitable Works

People in her hometown of Los Angeles remember actress Meghan Markle as a charitable young girl who sparkled on stage. Next week the entire world will be watching Markle as she officially ties the knot to England’s most eligible bachelor. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo takes a look at Markle’s fairy tale life and the prince that some say is the lucky one.

Israel’s Netta Barzilai Wins 2018 Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision song contest has concluded for 2018, with the top prize going to Israel’s Netta Barzilai and her quirky girl-power song Toy.

The Eurovision contest is an international tradition pitting performers from 43 nations against each other and decided by viewers all over the world. Along with European nations, Australia and Israel are allowed to compete.

Barzilai’s song, a fast-paced pop number, featured throaty singing and unconventional mouth noises, including squeaks, pops and clucks, as she protested to her listeners that she would not be used as a plaything. Meanwhile, her backup singers cavorted and preened in a manner that was, at times, reminiscent of chickens strutting and flapping their wings.

Some viewers responded negatively online to the performer’s antics, but in the end, her unorthodox performance and #MeToo-friendly message won the day.

The show, staged in Lisbon, Portugal, was not without other controversies: British singer SuRie was interrupted onstage when a protester grabbed her microphone. The protester was quickly subdued and SuRie finished her performance, with viewers online lauding her for her calm response and strong finish.

An Australian broadcaster narrating the event, however, accidentally uttered an expletive on the air, prompting a storm of chatter on Twitter.

A Chinese video service, Mango TV, was barred by the European Broadcast Union from airing the event, after it edited out of Tuesday’s semifinal a performance featuring a romantic dance sequence by two men. It also reportedly blurred out images of rainbow flags in the audience.

Some 200 million viewers were expected to view Saturday’s performances.

Poles March to Denounce Government, Erosion of Democracy

Thousands of Poles marched in Warsaw on Saturday to demand respect for their country’s constitution while denouncing a populist government they accuse of eroding democracy.

Many participants carried Polish and European Union flags during an event promoted as the March of Freedom'' and chanted slogans such asConstitution!” and “Free courts!”

Two pro-European and centrist opposition parties, Civic Platform and Modern, were the key organizers of the protest, along with a pro-democracy civic group.

In speeches, their leaders accused the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party of chipping away at democratic freedoms with an overhaul of the judicial system that gives the party vast powers over the courts.

EU leaders have urged the Polish government to reverse some of the changes. The government insists it has the political mandate to reform a broken justice system.

Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna said the government’s opponents are fighting for “freedom, dignity, democracy, the constitution, the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal, the independence of courts and Poland in Europe.”

Some protesters held up small copies of the Polish Constitution.

The march was also an attempt by political opposition parties to gain some momentum against the ruling party ahead of local elections this fall and the parliamentary election next year.

“We want to show that we are here, we are together and that we have a plan,” Michal Stasinski, a lawmaker with Civic Platform, told The Associated Press.

City Hall, which is controlled by Civic Platform, said 50,000 people took part. Police called that estimate far too high but did not give their own estimate.

Many march participants also expressed support for a protest that mothers of disabled children have held for more than three weeks in the Polish parliament. The mothers are demanding more state funding to care for their children, but so far have been unsatisfied with what the government has offered them.

Across Warsaw there were other rallies Saturday, including the annual pro-EU Schuman Parade and a march of about 250 farmers, foresters and hunters angry at environmentalists. Some ultra-nationalists turned out for the latter event.

Turkish Ambassador’s Residence Tells Many Tales

The Everett House, which serves as the Turkish ambassador’s residence, is a Washington landmark. It is also famous as the one-time home of the Ertegun family, the brothers who would go on to found Atlantic records and change the sound of American jazz and pop music. But the Erteguns also played a role in Washington history by standing with African Americans in what was, at the time, a deeply segregated city. VOA’s Ozlem Tinaz reports.

Separatists in Donetsk Celebrate Anniversary

Ukrainian separatists in Donetsk on Friday celebrated the fourth anniversary of the city’s self-proclaimed independence from Ukraine with a parade. 

Local residents who support the pro-Russian separatists came to the parade in the city center with black, red and blue rebel flags along with Russian flags.

Ukrainian forces have battled the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk since 2014. A peace deal in 2015 has been little honored by either side. Ukraine accuses Russia of providing military support for separatists, a charge the Kremlin denies.

Residents at Friday’s parade said they wanted the region to be closer to Russia.

“I went to vote for the independence, for joining Russia. We want to be on the right track. Our course is toward Russia only,” said Svetlana, a Donetsk resident.

Donetsk also held a parade Wednesday to commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany. That parade featured tanks and other heavy weapons despite a ban on that type of celebration by Ukraine’s government.

While large, Soviet-style military parades have been revived under President Vladimir Putin in Russia, they have been banned in Ukraine since the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions broke out in 2014.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted weeks after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has left more than 10,000 dead. 

Czech Ruling Party Approves Coalition Deal

The Czech centrist ANO party on Friday approved a coalition agreement for a new government with the center-left Social Democrats, subject to a poll of Social Democrat party members.

The minority government would aim to boost spending on defense, wages and benefits as well as infrastructure, according to a policy agenda agreed by leaders of the two parties, which Reuters saw.

It would maintain a pro-Western policy course but keep the country outside the eurozone and resist any EU pressure to accept asylum-seekers transferred from other EU states.

“This is a solid base for the creation of a stable government,” Social Democrat chief Jan Hamacek said after a party leadership meeting.

But the deal still needs the approval of rank-and-file Social Democrats; the outcome of their poll, likely to be announced June 15, is far from certain.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ ANO party was the clear winner of an election in October but lacks a majority. The coalition will still be in a minority, with 93 of 200 lower house seats, and require ad hoc backing from the small Communist party.

Most parties, and also some prominent Social Democrats, have rejected joining a cabinet led by the billionaire businessman because he has been charged with fraudulently tapping a European Union subsidy a decade ago. He calls the investigation a plot.

As a condition of forming a coalition, the Social Democrats secured an agreement that Babis will step down if a court finds him guilty in the fraud case.

ANO’s other concessions to the Social Democrats include raising sick pay and child allowances and increasing salaries across the education sector by 50 percent by 2021.

Communist backing

“I think Social Democrat members will respond positively … we made an awful lot of compromises,” Babis said.

If the deal falls through, he said an early election could be held next spring.

The pro-Russia and anti-NATO Communist party has said it would lend the government its 15 votes in the formal confidence vote, which would mark its first involvement in national government since the end of Communist rule in 1989.

The Communists oppose some of the potential coalition’s foreign policy plans, such as more involvement in NATO military missions, but their voice will be limited.

On defense, the new government would plan to boost spending to 1.4 percent of GDP from 1.05 percent last year, still far below the NATO guideline of 2 percent.

It would also look to stabilize debt, which has dropped thanks to strong economic growth in the past three years to 34.6 percent of GDP in 2017.

Taxes should dip with a reduction in personal income tax and in value-added tax on some services, tap water and draft beer. The budget should remain broadly balanced.

ANO’s current one-party cabinet lost a vote of confidence in January and has since served in a caretaker capacity.

Europe Moves to Safeguard Interests in Iran After US Pullout

Europe’s heavyweight economies took steps Friday to safeguard their interests in Iran, seeking to keep the nuclear deal with Tehran alive after Washington pulled out and said sanctions would follow.

Germany and France have significant trade links with Iran and remain committed to the nuclear agreement, as does Britain, and the three countries’ foreign ministers plan to meet Tuesday to discuss it.

That is part of a flurry of diplomatic activity following Tuesday’s unilateral withdrawal from what U.S. President Donald Trump called “a horrible, one-sided deal,” a move accompanied by the threat of penalties against any foreign firms doing business in Iran.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said ways to save the deal without Washington needed to be discussed with Tehran, while France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said EU states would propose sanctions-blocking measures to the European Commission.

“Do we accept extraterritorial sanctions? The answer is no,” Le Maire told reporters.

“Do we accept that the United States is the economic gendarme of the planet? The answer is no.

“Do we accept the vassalization of Europe in commercial matters? The answer is no.”

In Berlin, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said Germany was ready to give help to its affected firms, including legal advice, to continue doing business in Iran.

Le Maire said he was seeking concrete exemptions for countries already present in Iran, including Renault, Total, Sanofi, Danone and Peugeot.

The 2015 agreement between major powers and Iran set limits on its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Europeans fear a collapse of the deal could intensify conflicts in the Middle East.

Germany, France and Britain want talks to be held in a broader format to include Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional military activities, including in Syria and Yemen.

“The extent to which we can keep this deal alive … is something we need to discuss with Iran,” said Merkel, who earlier spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue.

Divisions in Iran over how it should respond to the U.S. pullout were illustrated as senior cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran University on Friday that European nations could not be trusted.

President Hassan Rouhani had said Tuesday that Tehran would remain in the deal, provided its benefits stayed in force with its remaining signatories.

Iran’s foreign minister will travel to Moscow on May 14 and meet his Russian counterpart, Russia’s RIA news agency said, citing a Russian foreign ministry official.

‘Damage limitation’

Iran said it had asked Europe’s Airbus to announce whether it would go ahead with a plane deal with Tehran following the U.S. pullout.

That appears unlikely after U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that licenses for the planemaker and rival Boeing Co to sell passenger jets to Iran would be revoked.

Le Maire said Paris would seek to strengthen Europe’s ability to block sanctions and provide investment finance to companies. He called for the creation of a body to monitor the implementation of EU sanctions rules.

Some fear Europe’s room for maneuver is limited. “The Europeans are in the weaker position because they are not united,” said Peter Beyer, Germany’s commissioner for transatlantic relations. Trump’s strength was that he did not need unity, Beyer added.

French exports to Iran doubled to 1.5 billion euros ($1.79 billion) last year, driven by sales of aircraft and automobile parts, according to customs data.

Exports of German goods to Iran rose by around 400 million euros to 3 billion euros. Around 120 German firms have operations with their own staff in Iran, including Siemens, and some 10,000 German companies trade with Iran.

“We are ready to talk to all the companies concerned about what we can do to minimize the negative consequences,” Altmaier told Deutschlandfunk radio. “That means, it is concretely about damage limitation.”

The U.S. ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, said firms should question the morality of doing business with Iran.

“Germany, France and Britain, the ‘EU3,’ say themselves that Iran poses a threat. Do they want to do business with a threat?” Bild newspaper quoted him as saying.

Altmaier said Germany wanted to avoid “a spiral of escalation” in transatlantic trade relations.

Merkel said at a church event in the western German city of Muenster: “It is in our interest to have a strong transatlantic relationship.”

But she also said: “If everybody does what they like, then this is bad news for the world.”

UN Nuclear Agency’s Inspections Chief Quits Suddenly

The chief of inspections at the U.N. nuclear watchdog has resigned suddenly, the agency said on Friday without giving a reason.

The departure of Tero Varjoranta comes at a sensitive time, three days after the United States announced it was quitting world powers’ nuclear accord with Iran, raising questions as to whether Tehran will continue to comply with it.

Varjoranta, a Finn, had been a deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and head of its Department of Safeguards, which verifies countries’ compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, since October 2013.

He will be replaced in an acting capacity by the head of the department’s Iran team, the Vienna-based IAEA said.

“Mr Tero Varjoranta has resigned effective 11 May 2018,” an IAEA spokesman said. “The director general has appointed Mr Massimo Aparo, acting director, Office for Verification in Iran, as acting deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards, effective immediately.”

The accord signed by Iran and major powers in 2015 imposed strict limits on Iran’s atomic activities to help ensure they are not put to developing nuclear bombs in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran.

The IAEA is policing those restrictions and said on Wednesday, the day after Trump’s announcement, that Iran was still implementing its commitments under the deal.

The U.N. watchdog has also repeatedly defended the landmark agreement, saying it is a gain for nuclear verification. “The agency’s safeguards activities will continue to be carried out in a highly professional manner,” the spokesman said.

Asked why Varjoranta had resigned, he said: “The agency cannot comment on personnel matters, which are confidential.”

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano plans to appoint a permanent replacement as soon as possible, he added.

Park Service: British Nationals Taken Hostage in Eastern Congo

British citizens were among a group of people taken hostage on Friday in the Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a spokesman for the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) said.

“For the moment the (ICCN) cannot communicate much about the incident because the hostages are still in captivity. That would put their lives in danger,” Joel Wenga, the ICCN’s head of communications in North Kivu province told Reuters.

Catalan Ex-Head Proposes New Candidate for Regional Leader

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont on Thursday proposed member of parliament Quim Torra as candidate for head of the Catalan government as the region attempts to put an end to a seven-month impasse and form an administration.

Catalan lawmakers must pick a leader to form a government by May 22 to avert more elections, following a standoff during which separatist politicians put forward candidates who were blocked by the courts for being either abroad or in jail.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called regional elections in December after sacking the previous administration for illegally declaring independence from Spain. However, pro-independence parties again won a majority of seats.

Torra is a lawyer and journalist who has been active in pro-independence lobbies in the wealthy region. He has published several books about the history of Catalonia, according to the Catalan parliament website.

Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after being sacked as regional leader, is currently in Berlin waiting for German courts to rule on a Spanish request to extradite him on a charge of misuse of public funds.

Puigdemont proposed Torra as candidate in an address released on his YouTube video channel. Torra will need to be confirmed in a vote of confidence in the Catalan parliament.

“Our group proposes member of parliament Quim Torra to be president of the Catalan government so he can take on this responsibility in the next few days and so that a government can be formed immediately,” Puigdemont said.

Spain’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday accepted an appeal from the government that effectively blocked pro-independence politicians in Catalonia from voting in Puigdemont while he remains absent.

Australian Euthanasia Advocate Ends His Life in Switzerland

A 104-year-old Australian scientist who had campaigned for the legalization of assisted dying in his home country has ended his life at a clinic in Switzerland.

David Goodall died Thursday at the Lifecircle clinic in Basel after administering a lethal drug under the guidance of doctors.

With his grandson Daniel and a longtime nurse at his side, the renowned botanist and ecologist from Perth, Australia, began the final stage of the process by receiving a fatal dose of barbiturates.

The lethal cocktail is normally ingested, but since Goodall couldn’t swallow, the substance was injected intravenously.

He died shortly after 12:30 p.m. local time while listening to Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, according to the clinic.

Philip Nitschke, director of Exit International, said Goodall’s last words before losing consciousness were “this is taking an awfully long time.”

Goodall said his last public farewell Wednesday at a news conference designed to publicize his decision and to help others who might also seek that path.

“At my age, and even at rather less than my age, one wants to be free to choose the death and when the death is the appropriate time,” he told reporters. “All the publicity that this has been receiving can only, I think, help the cause of euthanasia for the elderly, which I want.”

Assisted suicide is illegal in most countries around the world and was banned in Australia until the state of Victoria became the first to legalize the practice last year.

But that legislation, which takes effect in June 2019, only applies to terminally ill patients of sound mind and a life expectancy of less than six months, which would have excluded Goodall.

Goodall did not have a terminal illness but said his quality of life had deteriorated significantly in recent years.

“My abilities have been in decline over the past year or two, my eyesight over the past six years. I no longer want to continue life. I’m happy to have the chance tomorrow to end it,” said the centenarian Wednesday wearing a pullover emblazoned with the words “Aging Disgracefully.”

Goodall told reporters he had no last-minute doubts about his decision. But, he was not without regrets.

“There are many things I would like to do, but it’s too late,” he said. “I’m content to leave them undone.”

Chilean Bishops in Rome for Expected Brow-beating From Pope

Chilean bishops are arriving in Rome ahead of an expected brow-beating next week from Pope Francis, who says he was misled about a bishop at the center of the Chilean church’s sex abuse scandal.

One top-ranked churchman is apparently not coming: Cardinal Javier Errazuriz, retired archbishop of Santiago, who sits on Francis’ kitchen cabinet. Abuse survivors have laid much of the blame for the scandal on Errazuriz, whom they accuse of discrediting victims and covering up abuse rather than punishing pedophiles.

Errazuriz was quoted by Chile’s La Tercera paper as saying he wasn’t coming for personal reasons. 

The executive committee of the Chilean bishops conference said Thursday that the 30-plus bishops were coming with “humility and hope.” They praised Francis’ recent meetings with victims of the Reverend Fernando Karadima of Chile, saying his example “showed us the path that the Chilean church is called to follow.”

Francis had invited Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo to the Vatican so he could personally apologize for having discredited them during his January trip to Chile. Francis had said their accusations against a Karadima protege, Bishop Juan Barros, were “calumny” and demanded they present proof of his wrongdoing.

The men, who had frequented Karadima’s posh Santiago community when they were teens, say that Barros witnessed and ignored their abuse. He has denied their accusations, but twice offered to resign. 

Francis twice rejected his resignation, after apparently being counseled that Barros was innocent. Francis hasn’t said who counseled him, but Errazuriz has admitted he didn’t initially believe accusations against Karadima, and in more recent emails he called Cruz a liar and a “serpent.”

Francis summoned the bishops to the Vatican last month, warning that he wanted to discuss short-, medium- and long-term reforms to the church. In the letter, he admitted he had made “grave errors in judgment” about the Barros case, but blamed a “lack of truthful and balanced information” for his missteps.

Francis did his about-face after receiving a 2,300-page report compiled by top Vatican investigators who traveled to Chile and interviewed 64 people — victims, priests and lay Catholics — about the scandal.

Macron Hailed as European Unifier, but Reality Remains Elusive

 After failing to coax Washington to stick with the Iran nuclear deal, and facing protests at home over his labor and pension reforms, French President Emmanuel Macron may find solace Thursday in Germany, where he will be given a prestigious European award for another key ambition: far-reaching goals to reform and revamp the European Union. 

The Charlemagne Prize, which he will receive in the German spa town of Aachen, remains more of an aspirational nod to Macron’s European ambitions than his ability to actually unify the region. Named after the medieval emperor who ruled over a swath of western and central Europe, the prize is awarded to those contributing to European unity. 

Angela Merkel won the prize a decade ago for her work in unifying the bloc. Ironically, the German chancellor is now counted as one of the roadblocks in Macron’s call for a post-Brexit European Union to forge closer economic, political and defense bonds.

“It’s easier for him to reform France because he’s in charge,” said Charles Grant, director of the London-based Center for European Reform think tank, or CER, who believes Macron will ultimately succeed in implementing some but not many of his proposed EU changes. “The problem with Europe is he’s not in charge.” 

In Aachen, Macron is slated to deliver a major speech on the 28-member bloc — that dwindles to 27 with Britain’s slated 2019 departure — described as a continuation but not a replica of one he delivered at the Sorbonne University in Paris last September. There, the French president outlined a raft of priorities, from creating a European rapid response defense force and common asylum policy to deeper eurozone integration. 

One immediate deadline is looming to add substance to the rhetoric. Macron and Merkel are to present a joint plan for reforming the 19-member eurozone by June. But there is another in the not-so-distant future. European parliamentary elections are slated for next year, and some fear euroskeptic parties will score strongly. 

No longer a continent in crisis

Macron’s election a year ago, beating far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, has bucked a populist wave elsewhere in Europe, which saw Hungarian leader Victor Orban re-elected to a third consecutive term in April, and anti-establishment parties in Italy surging in March elections. 

In Germany, France’s co-partner in an EU that emerged from a ’50s-era coal and steel pact, a weakened Merkel and her coalition government are reluctant to push eurozone reforms too far. 

Still, some analysts point to encouraging signs for a more unified Europe. One is public support for the European Union itself, with a 2017 Eurobarometer survey showing three-quarters of Europeans view the bloc positively. 

And despite Britain’s planned 2019 exit, “Europe no longer appears to be a continent in crisis,” wrote researchers Kermal Dervis and Caroline Conroy in a Brookings Institution report last month. Even in debt-strapped Greece, “a majority of respondents now support the EU.” 

At least some of Macron’s proposed reforms will be adopted in the long term, the Brookings report predicted, injecting “new dynamism” into the EU, making European citizens more enthusiastic about the bloc and increasing its ability to assert its economic and social values on a changing world stage. 

More broadly, Macron’s leadership role in the EU is a sharp departure from recent tradition. Under Merkel, Germany has been Europe’s main motor over the past decade, and Washington’s go-to European interlocutor under former President Barack Obama. Today, it is France that is putting its stamp on international affairs in the Middle East and the Sahel, and President Donald Trump’s European calls are more likely placed to Paris, not Berlin.

European resistance

So far, however, the French president has little to show for it. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran agreement on Tuesday has left Europeans scrambling to salvage it, and Macron has yet to secure permanent European exemptions to U.S. metals tariffs.

Macron is also facing German resistance to many of his European reform proposals. On defense, France and Germany recently agreed to jointly develop new military weapons, including a next-generation fighter plane. But there is less appetite in other areas, notably the French leader’s call for closer eurozone financial integration, complete with a eurozone budget and finance minister. 

If Macron is to push Berlin further, he must first prove himself at home, CER’s Grant believes. France’s own economy is only recently emerging from years of lackluster performance. But in March, the country finally met the EU’s 3 percent public deficit cap — posting a surprising 2.6 debt-to-public-deficit ratio — for the first time in more than a decade. 

“If he does succeed in reforming the French economy — which I think he is doing — it will be much harder for the Germans to say no on eurozone reforms,” Grant said. 

Still Macron faces considerable resistance at home. 

Tens of thousands of French took to the streets last Saturday, marking Macron’s year anniversary in office with massive rallies against his proposals. Striking rail and airline employees are snarling commuting schedules and costing their employers billions of dollars in losses. The president’s popularity has hit record lows. Yet the majority of French also support Macron’s rail reforms — and crucially his young La Republique en Marche party controls the French parliament, assuring his legislation safe passage.

A bigger roadblock to eurozone reforms lies outside France. Italy — Europe’s third-largest economy — faces a political deadlock and a shaky economy, making any substantial deepening of the financial union unlikely in the immediate future, Grant said.

Cautious optimism

More fundamentally, perhaps, the French president’s vision of Europe is at odds with those of populist leaders and parties that are resonating in many parts of the continent. Macron has called for a more flexible bloc, which tacitly allows more pro-European countries to forge ahead and more skeptical ones to lag behind. Other EU member states have not signed on to the idea, but analysts such as Grant believe it will become a reality in fact, if not in rhetoric. 

Others are cautiously optimistic the French leader may prevail in his European ambitions, but only with a massive effort in rallying European public opinion to his side — mirroring, in some ways, his surprising victory in last year’s elections.

“Macron will need a ‘Europe en March’ … a project for the democratic unification of Europe,” international affairs experts Brendan Simms and Daniel Schade wrote in The New Republic. “… The French cannot be armed missionaries — that never worked — but they must be the animating spirit of the union.”

Russian Firm Tied to ‘Putin’s Cook’ Pleads Not Guilty in US

A Russian company accused by U.S. prosecutors of funding a propaganda operation to tilt the 2016 presidential election in President Donald Trump’s favor and stir disharmony in the United States pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court.

Concord Management and Consulting LLC is one of three entities and 13 Russian individuals indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in February in an alleged criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the U.S. race, boost Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

The indictment said Concord is controlled by Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who U.S. officials have said has extensive ties to Russia’s military and political establishment.

The indictment said Concord controlled funding, recommended personnel and oversaw the activities of the propaganda campaign.

Prigozhin, also personally charged by Mueller, has been dubbed “Putin’s cook” by Russian media because his catering business has organized banquets for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior political figures. He has been hit with sanctions by the U.S. government.

“We plead not guilty. We exercise the right to a speedy trial,” the company’s U.S.-based defense lawyer Eric Dubelier said during the arraignment before Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey, who scheduled a May 16 status hearing.

Another business entity that prosecutors said was controlled by Prigozhin, Concord Catering, was named in the indictment, along with the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm.

Dubelier told the court he was not authorized to represent Concord Catering, adding that prosecutors had indicted a “proverbial ham sandwich” because the entity did not exist during the time the alleged misconduct occurred.

Mueller’s indictment said the Russian defendants adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, traveled to the United States to collect intelligence and orchestrated political rallies while posing as Americans. Moscow has denied meddling in the election.

Mueller also is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia and whether the president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe. Trump has denied collusion and obstruction, calling Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt.”

Russia does not have an extradition agreement with the United States, making it difficult to apprehend the Russian defendants.

As expected, no corporate representatives for Concord or any of the other corporate defendants appeared in court.

“Alas, they are not here,” prosecutor Jeannie Rhee said. “The government would be thrilled if they were here.”

Mueller’s office tried unsuccessfully to win a delay in the arraignment, saying it was unsure if Dubelier and another U.S. lawyer hired by Concord Management and Consulting were authorized to represent the company because the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia declined to accept a court summons.

Google Suspends Advertising Related to Irish Abortion Referendum

Google is suspending all advertising connected to Ireland’s abortion referendum as part of moves to protect “election integrity,” the company announced Wednesday.

The move came a day after Facebook banned foreign-backed ads in the Irish campaign, amid global concerns about online election meddling and the role of internet ads in swaying voters. 

Google said that starting Thursday, it would no longer display ads related to the May 25 vote on whether to repeal Ireland’s constitutional ban on most abortions.

The prohibition on ads connected to the Irish vote applies to both Google and YouTube, which the company owns.

The online search leader, which is based in Mountain View, California, declined to say how much advertising revenue it was giving up because of the decision.

Russian role

The role of online ads in elections is under scrutiny following revelations that Russian groups bought ads on leading services such as Google and Facebook to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Many of the ads were designed to sow confusion, anger and discord among Americans through messages on hot-button topics.

Karin von Abrams, a London-based analyst with the research firm eMarketer, said banning ads represented a short-term safeguard from potential backlash and reputational damage.

“They won’t want to forgo election-related revenues in the longer term, but they do need to get their houses in order, rather than risk further troubles at this stage,” von Abrams said in an email Wednesday.

Google’s statement followed Facebook’s decision Tuesday to ban foreign advertisements around the abortion referendum, which has drawn worries about the influence of North American groups.

Both Google and Facebook are working on measures to improve transparency before November’s U.S. midterm elections, including tools to show the home country of advertisers.

Ireland bars political donations from abroad, but the law has not been applied to social media advertising. Anti-abortion groups based in the United States are among the organizations that have bought online ads in Ireland during the referendum campaign.

’11th hour’ effort

Irish lawmaker James Lawless, technology spokesman for the opposition Fianna Fail party, welcomed the moves by Google and Facebook, but said “they are rushed and they are coming at the 11th hour,” with just two weeks until voting day.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s an awful pity we couldn’t have done this six months ago,” said Lawless, who has introduced a bill to Ireland’s parliament that would require all online advertisers to disclose the publishers and sponsors behind ads.

Largely Catholic Ireland has Europe’s strictest restrictions on abortion, which is legal only when a woman’s life is in danger. Several thousand Irish women travel each year to get abortions in neighboring Britain.

Voters are being asked whether they want to retain the constitutional ban or repeal it and make parliament responsible for creating abortion laws.

Lawless said he had concerns about some of the online advertising from both sides in the referendum campaign.

“Some quite disingenuous ads have been going around in recent weeks targeting people who are in the middle that aren’t always from who they seem to be from,” he said.

“What we really need is legislation and we need a proper, robust, thought-out approach” to the problem, he said.

Iran Deal Signatories Still Committed After US Exit

Following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the other signatories said Wednesday they remain committed to the deal.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio the agreement is “not dead.” He said French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were due to speak to each other Wednesday, and that the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany would discuss the situation with Iranian officials on Monday.

In addition to those diplomatic moves, the foreign ministers of Russia and Germany are holding their own talks Thursday in Moscow with Iran on their agenda.

China’s Foreign Ministry pledged to safeguard the 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and said that it regrets Trump’s decision to walk away from the pact.

A joint statement from the European Union said the JCPOA has so far been working to meet its goal of ensuring Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, and that lifting sanctions on Iran has had a positive impact on trade and relations.

That contrasts strongly with Trump’s view of what he said Tuesday is “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.”

In remarks from the White House Diplomatic Room, the president declared that the United States is immediately reinstating all nuclear-related sanctions it waived as part of the JCPOA.

He said the agreement, reached under former President Barack Obama, “didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”

Inside Iran’s parliament Wednesday, Trump’s decision was greeted with lawmakers setting fire to a piece of paper with a picture of the American flag as well as another paper representing the nuclear deal.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said Iran’s nuclear department should be ready to resume all of its activities.

And President Rouhani said earlier Iran would remain committed to the multinational pact.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement came despite pleas from several of America’s closest allies in Europe not to imperil the pact. Trump and hard-liners close to the president, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, have been fierce advocates for scrapping it.

A senior State Department official told reporters the Trump administration had made “good progress” and “got close” in efforts to reach a supplemental deal with European partners in recent months, including on the issues of ballistic missiles and regional issues.

But the official said the sticking point that prevented an agreement was the so-called sunset clauses in the nuclear deal that allow certain provisions to expire after a given number of years.

Israel, believed to be the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear arsenal, has also backed Trump’s rhetoric on the JCPOA.

Obama, whose administration led intense negotiations to strike the agreement, called Trump’s action “misguided.”

“I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake,” he cautioned in a statement.

Immediately after Trump’s remarks, the U.S. Treasury Department announced “wind-down provisions” for existing contracts that European countries have with Tehran to avoid running afoul of U.S. banking regulations.

Under those provisions, after six months sanctions will be back in place related to Iran’s oil, petrochemical and shipping sectors as well as its central bank. Sanctions involving Iran’s purchase of U.S. bank notes, trade in gold or precious medals and providing Iran with aluminum or steel.

A senior White House official told reporters that new sanctions are possible “as new information comes to light.”

Trump’s move allows him to claim he has accomplished one of his major 2016 election campaign promises — removing the United States from the pact he repeatedly deemed “the worst deal ever.”

 

“People will make this all about Trump, but it is not,” James Carafano, vice president for the Heritage Foundation’s national security and foreign policy institute, told VOA. “The deal was not sustainable over time. No one was happy with it, not even the Iranians, who expected big benefits that never materialized. Trump did the equivalent of a mercy killing.”

 

Proponents of the JCPOA accuse Trump of misrepresenting the agreement’s clauses, contending it has successfully frozen Iran’s nuclear weapons development. They also said the deal’s demise could prompt a nuclear arms race in the region.

Trump’s announcement was made as he prepares to meet — possibly in about a month — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, to discuss a possible denuclearization agreement.