Russia’s Suspension of US Cooperation on Syrian Airspace Elevates Risk of Clash

Russia on Friday condemned the U.S. strike on a government-controlled air base in Syria, saying it would bolster Syria’s air defenses in response. President Vladimir Putin’s office called the action a “significant blow” to the Russia-U.S. relationship. The tension comes just ahead of a visit to Russia by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.

Buk Missile Launcher Wasn’t Within Range of MH17, Bellingcat Reports

A few days before the July 2014 missile attack on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, a Ukraine Army-operated Buk missile launcher was located not near fighting in the east, as Moscow has long insisted, but hundreds of kilometers to the west.

That’s what a team of journalists and researchers at Bellingcat, a Britain-based investigative website, has concluded after lengthy analysis of digital images taken by a Ukrainian army chaplain.

Bellingcat, which specializes in using open-source information such as social media posts to analyze conflicts, was one of the first groups to produce evidence debunking key elements of the Russian government’s claim that Ukrainian forces shot down MH17 on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. Bellingcat’s conclusion — that Moscow doctored images in order to buttress allegations that Kyiv was responsible for the single worst atrocity of the war — was later corroborated by arms control researchers at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey in California.

Bellingcat’s new report says metadata from a series of digital images prove that the exact same Buk missile launcher that Moscow claims was within striking range of MH17 on the day of the attack was actually stationed at Mirgorod Air Base in Poltava, central Ukraine — well outside of firing distance.

“The only operational Buk missile launcher observed within firing range of MH17 on July 17, 2014, was the Russian Buk 332, from the Kursk-based 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade,” a surface-to-air combat unit of the Russian ground forces that was stationed in eastern Ukraine at the time, Bellingcat reported.

Kyiv-based political scientist Yuri Lesnichiy of the Institute of Analysis and Forecasting says the new information will prove vital to undercutting the Kremlin narrative surrounding the tragedy.

“Such high-profile investigations … carry across particular information and the Kremlin finds it difficult to twist the facts that the Europeans will believe in,” he told VOA’s Russian Service.

Immediately after MH17 was shot out of clear blue skies over the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s RIA state news agency reported that Russian-backed separatists had successfully shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft. They retracted the story upon learning that it was a civilian airliner that had been brought down.

In March, Ukraine asked the United Nations’ highest court to order Russia to stop funding and equipping pro-Russian separatists. In that filing, they cited a September 2016 six-country investigation team led by the Netherlands, which said MH17 had been shot down with a Russian-manufactured Buk surface-to-air missile from an area controlled by pro-Russian forces.

Russia denies sending troops or military equipment to eastern Ukraine and has dismissed findings of the September 2016 probe as biased and politically motivated.

This report was translated by Svetlana Cunningham and produced in collaboration with VOA’s Russian Service.

European Lawmakers Approve Visa-free Travel for Ukrainians

The European Parliament on Thursday supported easing travel rules for Ukrainians, driving on a Western integration viewed with great suspicion by Moscow.

Ukraine has been the scene of the worst confrontation between Russia and the West in Europe since the Cold War with Moscow annexing Crimea from Kyiv in 2014 and backing separatist rebels in the east of the country.

The West has sided with Ukraine, where Russia intervened after a Moscow-allied president was toppled by street protests demanding an end to corruption and closer EU ties. Russia denies direct military involvement in its southern neighbor.

European lawmakers voted 521 to 75 to grant Ukrainians holding biometric passports the right to visit for up to 90 days for tourism, business or visiting relatives and friends.

“Great day for the people of Europe and Ukraine,” said Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a Swedish member of the Parliament.

The visa waiver, which does not give Ukrainians the right to work in the EU, is expected to take effect this summer.

The pro-Western government in Kiev is moving closer to the EU and NATO. But a weak economy and endemic corruption would hinder any move to accession, and some states would be unwilling to further anger Ukraine’s Soviet-era ruler, Russia, by incorporating it into an alliance it views as hostile.

The waiver covers all EU states except Ireland and Britain, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland – not in the EU but members of Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone.

Kyiv’s Europe Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said the vote on Thursday was “a strong signal to the aggressor that Ukraine is on its way back to the European family.”

Three years of fighting in Ukraine’s industrial east killed more than 10,000 people.

While the heaviest battles have died down, the conflict is still simmering and peace efforts are stalled amid mutual recriminations by Kyiv, EU and NATO on the one side, and Russia and the rebels on the other.

Proposed Law Aims to ‘Discredit’ Hungarian Charities, Watchdog Says

Hungarian charities on Thursday criticized a draft law that would require them to declare foreign funding, saying it would clamp down on freedom of speech and undermine their work with migrants and other vulnerable groups.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party said it would present a bill to parliament this week requiring nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) with a yearly foreign income of 7.2 million forints ($25,000) to register with authorities.

The bill said “foreign interest groups” could use their funding of local NGOs to “pursue their own interests” in Hungary, threatening the country’s political and economic interests.

“This is an attempt to discredit NGOs in the eyes of the public,” said Anika Bakonyi, project manager at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog group.

The Fidesz announcement came a day after parliament approved a law that could force out a university founded by Hungarian-born financier George Soros, despite protests against the move and condemnation abroad.

Orban, a critic of liberal civil organizations that receive grants from Soros’ Open Society Foundation, said last week that Central European University had violated regulations in awarding diplomas, an allegation the college rejected.

European lawmakers have demanded disciplinary action against Hungary over the crackdown on foreign universities, the latest step by Orban to subdue independent institutions — including the judiciary, central bank, NGOs and media.

Goran Buldioski, the Hungarian-based director of the Soros-funded Open Society Initiative for Europe, said he expected small civil society organizations would suffer the most.

This “long-term policy” of the government was designed “to eradicate all voices that speak freely,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We find it totally unnecessary, stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

French Election Looking More Like 4-Way Race

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is threatening to turn France’s presidential election into a four-way race, the latest opinion polls show, confirming a surge of support for him after a strong showing in a TV debate this week.

Two polls conducted after a televised debate among candidates Tuesday night showed the 65-year-old Communist-party-backed candidate just a percentage point or two behind third-placed conservative Francois Fillon in an unpredictable contest in which over a third of voters are still undecided.

A Harris Interactive poll published Thursday showed centrist Emmanuel Macron holding onto a narrow first round lead over far-right leader Marine Le Pen, with the two frontrunners on 25 and 24 percent respectively.

Voting starts April 23

The two-stage election will be April 23 and May 7.With just over two weeks to go until voting starts, the big move, however, was the surge by Melenchon, a veteran campaigner of the far left.

Intentions to vote for him climbed to 17 percent in the first round, up from 13.5 percent two weeks ago, while Fillon, whose campaign has struggled as he faced nepotism allegations, saw his score hold steady at 18 percent.

A separate Elabe poll published Wednesday evening showed Melenchon up 2 points from a week ago, also at 17 percent, and also narrowing the gap with Fillon, who was up 1 point at 19 percent. It had Le Pen and Macron on 23.5 percent each.

Both polls showed Macron beating Le Pen comfortably in the second round.

Winning performance

A political showman who excoriates establishment politicians with his rapid-fire discourse, Melenchon was seen by pollsters as the most convincing performer in the four-hour TV debate Tuesday night that was watched by more than 6 million people.

He clashed with Le Pen during the debate over her focus on the tensions created by religion in politics, but his policies advocating greater worker protection, and his hostility to the European Union in its current form, are similar to hers.

He would also pull France out of NATO and called during the debate for the debt of troubled euro zone states to be effectively written off to allow massive new investment to spur growth.

Founder of the “France Unbowed” party, he has split the left-wing vote and turned the Socialists into also-rans after five years of rule by Socialist President Francois Hollande marked by high unemployment and low economic growth.

Pollsters say Melenchon is gaining votes from Hamon, who is struggling to stay above a 10 percent rating in the polls, but he is also getting votes from further afield.

Unexpected supporters

Gianni Pierson, 38, from the staunchly conservative town of Provins where Fillon campaigned Wednesday, had traditionally voted on the right, and plumped for ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy at the last election in 2012.

Partly as a result of losing his job as a salesman, he has turned more to the left, first Hamon, but now, he told Reuters, “almost made my choice for Melenchon” after being inspired by his performance in debates.

In a potential boost for Hamon though, Socialist Finance Minister Michel Sapin confirmed Thursday that he would vote for the party’s official candidate.

Some other senior Socialists, including Jean-Yves Le Drian have jumped ship to join Macron.

The 29-year-old ex-banker was until 2016 a minister on the Socialist government, but is running as an independent having formed his own political movement called En Marche! (Onwards!) 

Explosive Device Disarmed in St. Petersburg Residential Building

Russian authorities have made safe an explosive device found in a residential building in St. Petersburg, the TASS news agency reported on Thursday.

A law enforcement source told Reuters that fire engines had turned up at the building in question and that people living in flats on two stairwells had been evacuated.

The city is still reeling after a bomb ripped through the St. Petersburg metro on Monday, killing 14 people.

An explosion in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don early Thursday, injured one person, a law enforcement source told TASS.

REN-TV cited witnesses as saying that the explosion happened near a school on Sadovaya Street and that a maintenance worker was injured in the blast.

Australia, New Zealand Warn of Attack on WWI Anniversary

Australia and New Zealand warned Thursday that extremists may be planning an attack on the commemoration of a World War I campaign in Turkey this month.

Australian Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan urged the nearly 500 Australians and New Zealanders registered to travel to Gallipoli, Turkey, to mark ANZAC Day April 25 to exercise a high degree of caution, but offered no specifics about the alleged threat. ANZAC Day is an annual holiday commemorating the April 25, 1915, landings in Gallipoli — the first major military action fought by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War I.

Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Mike Phelan declined to release details of what prompted the warning, saying only that the government had received information that extremists may attack the services planned on the Gallipoli peninsula. Phelan said there was no specific plot linked to the alert.

“It is just that terrorists may indeed try to carry out a terrorist attack during the celebrations,” Phelan told reporters in the nation’s capital, Canberra. “That is all we have got at this stage.”

Tehan said Australia and New Zealand were working closely with Turkish authorities on security arrangements, but that the commemoration was scheduled to continue as planned.

For the past two years, Australian police have said they thwarted planned attacks on ANZAC Day celebrations in Australia. In 2015, police in Melbourne arrested five teenagers on suspicion of plotting an Islamic State group-inspired attack intended to coincide with the city’s ANZAC service. In 2016, police arrested a 16-year-old and charged him with planning an attack on an ANZAC ceremony in Sydney.

In a statement, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully urged New Zealanders in Turkey to be vigilant in public places and monitor the media for updates on potential safety risks.

Italy, Switzerland in Dispute Over Nighttime Border Closings

Switzerland and Italy are in a diplomatic dispute over Switzerland’s decision to close three secondary border crossings at night in a bid to fight crime.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday summoned the Swiss ambassador for urgent talks, emphasizing that the closings violate Europe’s norms on free circulation.

In an email, the press office of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs said Ambassador Giancarlo Kessler “took note” of the message from Italian authorities and pledged to keep them informed on the results from what it characterized as an experiment.

Italian mayors in the affected region had protested the closures as penalizing Italians who legitimately cross the border for work or other reasons.

The crossings from the Italian provinces of Como and Varese have an average nightly traffic of 90 vehicles during the week and 110 vehicles on weekends, 20 percent of which are Swiss vehicles, according to Swiss authorities.

Switzerland started closing the three border crossings at night on April 1 as part of a six-month pilot program. The move, approved by the Swiss parliament, follows a brief surge of migration into the Italian-speaking Swiss region of Ticino last summer from Italy, which has seen the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants rescued at sea.

The populist Swiss People’s Party, which has the most seats in parliament, has led the push to restrict access both to citizens of European Union countries who want to work in Switzerland and to migrants who have arrived in Europe from Africa and the Middle East.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but adheres to the “Schengen zone” rules that allow for unimpeded cross-border travel and trade on the continent.

Kessler said Switzerland “had informed the Italian authorities on several occasions” about the project, including during a meeting of their two countries’ foreign ministers last month, according to the foreign affairs department.

Ebay’s Founder Pledges $100 Million to Fight Fake News, Hate Speech

Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropy promised $100 million over the next five years to support journalism and fight fake news, the foundation announced Wednesday.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which broke the story of the controversial Panama Papers, is the first organization to receive funds from the Omidyar Network – a three-year grant of up to $4.5 million “to expand its investigative reporting”.

“Across the world, we see a worrying resurgence of authoritarian politics that is undermining progress towards a more open and inclusive society,” Matt Bannick, Omidyar Network Managing Partner, said. “A lack of government responsiveness and a growing distrust in institutions, especially the media, are eroding trust. Increasingly, facts are being devalued, misinformation spread, accountability ignored, and channels that give citizens a voice withdrawn.”

Formally announcing the commitment at the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship in Oxford, England, the Omidyar Network has also promised support to the Anti-Defamation League, devoted to fighting anti-Semitism, and the Latin American Alliance for Civic Technology (ALTEC).

Established in 2004 by Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, the Omidyar Network supports organizations to foster economic and social change.

Reporting on the Panama Papers revealed secret, so called offshore financial accounts that were hiding assets to avoid tax payments.


Gap Widens Between US, Europe Over Syria

A gap is widening between the Trump administration and European allies over the future of President Bashar al-Assad and how to end the six-year war in Syria.

While U.S. officials have shifted the focus away from Assad having to relinquish power, European leaders remain adamant he has no future as ruler of Syria. His departure, they say, remains a crucial part of any solution to a conflict that has left an estimated 470,000 dead.

Following Tuesday’s toxic gas attack on a town in northern Syria, the worst chemical weapons attack in the war since mid-2013, European leaders are intensifying their rhetoric. On Tuesday, Britain’s Theresa May called “on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad.”

Photo Gallery: Aftermath of gas attack on  Khan Sheikhoun

European politicians gathered for an international conference hosted by the European Union in Brussels on Syria drew a link between what seems to be the use of a more deadly nerve agent than seen in previous claimed chemical weapons attacks, and the Trump administration’s shift on Syria.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s future was up to the Syrian people to decide, while the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said removing him was no longer a Washington priority.

On Monday, just hours before the gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Haley hardened her rhetoric, referring to the Syrian leader as a “war criminal” guilty of “disgusting” actions against his people.” She said Syrians “don’t want Assad anymore.”



In the wake of the chemical weapons attack, U.S. officials in Washington did not publicly indicate any likely shift in administration policy. The White House and U.S. State Department condemned the attack as “heinous,” dubbing it a likely war crime.

But officials placed the emphasis on the need for Russia and Iran, Assad backers, to do something. Tuesday, the White House press secretary didn’t outline any punitive steps in response to an attack the administration says was carried out by the Assad regime.

Russian, Iranian influence

Tillerson demanded Tuesday that Moscow and Tehran “exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee this sort of horrific attack never happens again.” He added that “Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”

On Wednesday, Moscow reiterated its denial the Assad regime was responsible for the attack that has left close to 100 dead, according to local activists, and more than 400 injured. Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement it believed a rebel “terrorist warehouse” was hit by a conventional airstrike from Syria’s military, causing the release of “toxic substances.”

The Defense Ministry claimed chemical weapons were being stored for use in neighboring Iraq. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said,“On the territory of the depot there were workshops, which produced chemical warfare munitions.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said “all the evidence” he had seen in relation to the incident “suggests this was the Assad regime who did it in the full knowledge they were using illegal weapons in a barbaric attack on their own people.”

Johnson added he did “not see how a government like that can continue to have any kind of legitimate administration over the people of Syria.”

Focus on Assad

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, “There is one thing which cannot happen, that a dictator who committed horrible crimes in the region remains untouched.”

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini also said she could see no way Assad can remain as Syria’s ruler. “It seems completely unrealistic to believe that the future of Syria will be exactly the same as it used to be in the past,” she told reporters in Brussels.

But it is unclear what the Europeans can or would be willing to do without U.S. support, according to analysts.

They note that European influence on shaping international policy on the Syrian conflict is waning, despite the fact Europe is the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Syria. This week’s EU co-hosted international conference on humanitarian assistance to Syria has attracted minimal participation from the United States, Russia and Turkey.

Instead of sending its foreign minister, Russia is only represented at the gathering by its EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov. Washington has sent the State Department’s under-secretary for political affairs, Thomas Shannon. That contrasts with last year when then Secretary of State John Kerry attended.

Damascus calculation

Analyst Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington, says he believes Damascus has taken note of the Trump administration’s policy shift when it comes to Assad’s future and that may have shaped the decision behind launching Tuesday’s attack.

“Assad also knows full well that the U.S. is increasingly distancing itself from any consideration of intervention in Syria, so what has Assad got to lose?” he argued. “If all he suffers is a few days of international condemnation, then he comes out of things just as secure as he was beforehand.”


Tusk: EU Stands Firm on Keeping Balkan Migrant Routes Closed

The European Union is determined to stick to a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of undocumented migrants into the bloc, European Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday.

Tusk, who met Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev, welcomed Sofia’s efforts to boost security on its southeastern border with Turkey to prevent migrants from crossing. He said Brussels would provide additional financing if the situation worsened.

“We are determined to keep routes of illegal migration in this region closed,” Tusk told reporters. “We remain committed to the full implementation of the EU-Turkey statement. The EU is honoring its commitments, just like we expect Turkey to continue keeping its part of the deal.”

The EU-Ankara agreement came into force in March 2016 after more than a million refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond reached Europe in 2015, many crossing to Greek islands from Turkey.

“Should further difficulties arise on Bulgaria’s borders, the EU has already planned emergency funding, and stands ready to react quickly in support of Bulgaria,” Tusk said.

Turkey has said it may cancel the migrant readmission agreement, under which it takes back people who enter Greece through irregular routes. It was angered after several EU states prevented Turkish politicians from holding rallies to drum up support for plans to give President Tayyip Erdogan new powers in a referendum.

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, expressed concern about a possible new migrant influx given that Turkey-EU tensions are running high.

“It is extremely important for us to develop good neighborly relations with Turkey,” Radev said. “At the same time, rising tensions between the EU and Turkey create the greatest risk for Bulgaria.”

Turkey Targets Social Media Before Tight Referendum

The referendum in Turkey to extend President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers is a couple of weeks away, and polls indicate the outcome remains too close to call. The “No” campaign, having little access to mainstream media, is increasingly turning to social media, and human rights groups accuse prosecutors of targeting those who adopt such a strategy.

Turkish law student Ali Gul’s video on why to vote “No” highlights, in a humorous way, the dangers of concentrating too much power in one person’s hands. It was an instant hit on social media. At the end of the video, Gul rhetorically asked, “Will I get arrested if this video is popular?”


Within days of its success, Gul issued another video, and he said he knew he would be arrested for making it.

Youth ‘deserve freedom’

“I am now going to the prosecutor to give a statement,” he said. “I will probably be arrested after that.  But it is not important, I am not afraid. The children and youth of this nation deserve freedom and happiness — and not fear, imprisonment and death.”

Gul was indeed arrested and jailed — but not for the video. He was detained instead for tweets posted two years ago that were deemed insulting to the president, a crime that carries three years in jail. Gul denied writing them, but his attorneys warned that he was destined to remain in pretrial detention for many months.


Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair Webb of U.S. based Human Rights Watch said there appears to be a systematic campaign of intimidation against “No” campaigners on social media.

“I think actually clamping down on individuals, making them a target for punitive measures pre-referendum because they have had a prominent voice in the ‘No’ campaign, is all about creating a chilling effect which will give the message loud and clear to the general public that you are not welcome to discuss what is at stake in the referendum and you are not welcome to publicly voice opposition of it,” she said.

Scores of arrests, closures

Meanwhile, independent mainstream media have been all but crushed. Under emergency rule, introduced after July’s failed coup, more than 150 journalists have been jailed and 170 media outlets closed, all critical of the government. The government claims the prosecutions and closures are all related to terrorist actions and coup plotting.

Most news TV channels broadcast at least three or four campaign speeches a day in support of a “Yes” vote on the presidential powers issue, while the “No” campaign is all but invisible, accounting for only 10 percent of coverage.

For the “No” campaign, social media have become vital, but with more than 2,500 prosecutions for insulting the president in the past six months, social media postings are not without risks.  

Observers warn such pressure is likely to intensify as the referendum campaign ends.

Gold Imports Surge as Turks Heed Erdogan’s Call and Vote Looms

Turkish gold imports rose 17-fold to 28.2 tons in March, as Turks looking to hedge currency risk ahead of a referendum in two weeks time followed President Tayyip Erdogan’s calls to buy gold instead of dollars.

After the sharpest falls in the Turkish lira since the 2008 financial crisis last November, Erdogan called on Turks to sell dollars and buy lira or gold to prop up the local currency. Gold imports have been rising year-on-year ever since.

“People have started opting for gold rather than foreign currencies,” said Mehmet Ali Yildirimturk, a gold specialist in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, adding that a moderate recovery in the lira had also made gold more affordable again.

Gold imports to Turkey rose almost eightfold to 36.7 tons in December after Erdogan’s calls, their highest monthly level in just over two years, according to data from the Precious Mines and Metals Markets of the Istanbul bourse.

Prices in Turkey surged from 132 lira ($36) for 24-carat gold in January to 153 lira in February. On Tuesday, gold prices were around 148 liras.

Gold is seen as a safe place to park assets during times of uncertainty. Turkey holds a referendum on April 16 on constitutional changes which would significantly boost Erdogan’s powers, with polls suggesting a tight race.

($1 = 3.6664 liras)

Russian Metro Site of Fatal Bombing

Russian authorities are searching for those responsible for a blast that tore through a St. Petersburg subway car Monday, killing 11 people and injuring many others. Investigators are looking into terrorism as a possible cause though no group has yet claimed responsibility.

Russia, Belarus Heal Ties in Shadow of Metro Bombing

The presidents of Russia and Belarus said on Monday they had resolved all disputes over energy, signaling a rapprochement at a time when both leaders are grappling with street protests and the threat of new Western sanctions hangs over Minsk.

At a meeting in St. Petersburg, held while the Russian city was reeling from a deadly bombing on a metro train, Russia agreed to refinance Belarus’ debt while Belarus will pay back more than $720 million in arrears for gas supplies.

According to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, Russia will also renew oil supplies to Belarus of 24 million tons a year and Russia’s Gazprom will give Belarus discounts on gas supplies in 2018 and 2019.

It is an abrupt departure from their recent squabbles and suggests Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is moving his country back towards Moscow’s orbit after a period of courting closer ties with the West.

“Today we have no differences remaining. We will move ahead, we will strengthen our relations within the framework of the union state,” President Vladimir Putin said at a joint news conference.

Putin said their two governments would implement the two leaders’ agreement within the next 10 days, and that a “road map” had been agreed for energy cooperation up to 2020.

Russia and Belarus are traditional allies but relations became strained after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, a move Lukashenko described as a “bad precedent.”

Russia cut the subsidies it uses to keep its one-time Soviet vassal afloat, worsening an economic downturn in Belarus that fueled a wave of unrest against Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for nearly a quarter of a century.

Lukashenko’s blunt suppression of street demonstrations has threatened to undo his efforts to court the West and risks the return of European Union sanctions that were mostly lifted just over a year ago.

The Russian authorities have also cracked down on street protests that broke out in March against corruption.

“We see what’s happening around us, and we just want to preserve the stability of Russia and Belarus,” said Lukashenko.

“There are too few quiet, calm spots on the planet still left. So we agreed on joint measures to preserve the security of our states.”

At least 10 people were killed and more than 20 were injured when an explosion tore through a train carriage in a St. Petersburg metro tunnel in what authorities called a probable terrorist attack.

Bulgaria’s Centrists Want to Form Government by Late April

Bulgaria’s largest party, the center-right GERB, expects to form a government with three nationalist parties by late April and return Boiko Boriskov to power as prime minister, a senior party official said on Monday.

Borisov’s GERB won 95 seats in the general election on March 26, beating its leftist Socialist rivals, but it failed to gain an outright 121-seat majority in parliament.

His resignation late last year triggered the early election.

GERB has told the third-placed United Patriots (UP), a nationalist alliance of three parties, that the prime minister’s post will not be subject of their coalition negotiations.

“The prime minister of the next government that will be formed I suppose by the end of this month … will be Boiko Borisov”, said Vladislav Goranov, an MP and member of GERB’s political negotiating team. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Goranov’s comments to reporters came after one of the nationalist leaders had suggested that Borisov, 57, should not lead the next government.

Borisov quit as premier after a GERB-backed candidate lost a presidential election in November to Rumen Radev, a Russia-friendly ally of the Socialists. Bulgaria is currently being run by a caretaker administration.

The UP alliance campaigned to boost low living standards and double the minimum monthly state pensions, now at 160 levs ($87.25) – the lowest in the European Union.

Analysts say such demands, coupled with GERB’s plans to double teachers’ wages within four years, may boost public spending and pose risks to Bulgaria’s currency peg to the euro.

But Goranov, a former finance minister likely to get the same post in the next government, told reporters he was not worried for state coffers.

A coalition with the nationalists would have just one seat above the majority threshold of 121 seats and Goranov said GERB would also seek support of smaller, populist grouping of businessman Veselin Mareshki.

Bulgaria’s polls suggested the country would continue with its fiscal and economic policies but was unlikely to break a pattern of unstable governments that have hindered structural reforms, Fitch rating agency said last week.

The timing for inter-party negotiations has yet to be set.

GERB has not ruled out leading a minority government, but Goranov called such an option “extreme.”

(1$= 1.8338 leva)

IAAF Says It Has Been Hacked, Athlete Medical Info Accessed

The governing body of track and field has been hacked by Fancy Bears, the group that previously attacked the World Anti-Doping Agency.


The IAAF said Monday it believes the hack “has compromised athletes’ Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) applications stored on IAAF servers” during an unauthorized remote access to its network on February 21.


TUEs are permissions for athletes to take substances that would normally be banned, and are used by athletes around the world.


“Our first priority is to the athletes who have provided the IAAF with information that they believed would be secure and confidential,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said. “They have our sincerest apologies and our total commitment to continue to do everything in our power to remedy the situation.”


The IAAF said it had been in contact with athletes who have applied for TUEs since 2012.


Context Information Security, a British security company, said in a statement released by the IAAF that it discovered the attack.


“In January 2017, the IAAF contacted Context Information Security to conduct a proactive and thorough technical investigation across its systems, which led to the discovery of a sophisticated intrusion,” the company said. “Throughout the investigation, the IAAF have understood the importance and impact of the attack and have provided us comprehensive assistance.”


WADA has previously said Fancy Bears originate from Russia, citing information from law enforcement agencies.


Russian officials have denied any links with Fancy Bears, but have praised the group’s previous publications, which they say undermined Western countries’ criticism of widespread use of banned substances by Russians. The IAAF banned Russia’s team from competing internationally in 2015 after investigations by WADA found evidence of state-sponsored doping.


Fancy Bears began posting medical records of Olympians online last year, with U.S. and British athletes making up a large proportion of those targeted. Only selected records were released, and no Russians with TUEs were named, even though records show dozens of TUEs had been granted there in recent years.


As of Monday, Fancy Bears’ website contained no mention of IAAF information.

10 Dead in Explosion at St. Petersburg Metro

At least 10 people have been killed in an explosion in a metro station in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.

Russian media reported that the blast took place at the Sennaya Square metro station in the city’s center.

President Vladimir Putin arrived in St. Petersburg on Monday to speak at an annual media forum sponsored by a Kremlin-backed political movement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was informed about the explosion.

Babies Cry More in UK, Canada and Italy, Less in Germany, Study Finds

Babies cry more in Britain, Canada, Italy and Netherlands than in other countries, while newborns in Denmark, Germany and Japan cry and fuss the least, researchers said on Monday.

In research looking at how much babies around the world cry in their first three months, psychologists from Britain have created the first universal charts for normal amounts of crying during that period.

“Babies are already very different in how much they cry in the first weeks of life,” said Dieter Wolker, who led the study at Warwick University.

“We may learn more from looking at cultures where there is less crying — [including] whether this may be due to parenting or other factors relating to pregnancy experiences or genetics.”

The highest levels of colic — defined as crying more than three hours a day for at least three days a week — were found in babies in Britain, Canada and Italy, while the lowest colic rates were found in Denmark and Germany.

On average, the study found, babies cry for around two hours a day in the first two weeks. They then cry a little more in the following few weeks until they peak at around two hours 15 minutes a day at six weeks. This then reduces to an average of one hour 10 minutes by the time they are 12 weeks old.

But there are wide variations, with some babies crying as little as 30 minutes a day, and others more than five hours.

The research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, was a meta-analysis of studies covering some 8,700 babies in countries including Germany, Denmark, Japan, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain.

Wolker said the new crying chart would help health workers reassure parents whether their baby is crying within a normal range in the first three months, or may need extra support.





French Polling Watchdog Warns Over Russian News Agency’s Election Report

France’s polling commission has issued a warning over a Russian news report suggesting conservative candidate Francois Fillon leads the race for the presidency — something which contradicts the findings of mainstream opinion pollsters.

The cautionary note from the watchdog on pre-election polling followed allegations in February by aides of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron that he was a target of “fake news” put out by Russian media including the Sputnik news agency.

Macron takes a hard line on European Union sanctions imposed on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis, whereas Fillon has said they are totally ineffective, creating a “cold war” climate that needs to be reversed.

Almost all media in France are drawing on polls that have shown since mid-February that Fillon, a former prime minister, is trailing in third place behind Macron and far right leader Marine Le Pen for the April 23 first round. Third place would mean Fillon’s elimination from the May 7 runoff.

State-run Sputnik carried different findings in a report on March 29 under the headline: “2017 presidential elections: the return of Fillon at the head of the polls.”

It quoted Moscow-based Brand Analytics, an online audience research firm, as saying that its study based on an analysis of French social media put Fillon out in front.

In a statement, France’s polling commission said the study could not be described as representative of public opinion and Sputnik had improperly called it a “poll”, as defined by law in France.

“It is imperative that publication of this type of survey be treated with caution so that public opinion is aware of its non-representative nature,” it said.

Brand Analytics’ track record either for political polling or for commercial internet audience measurement outside of Russia and former Soviet territory is unknown.

Sputnik published an earlier online survey by the firm from mid-February which also showed Fillon with a strong lead over Macron and Le Pen at a time when other polls showed Macron’s candidacy beginning to surge with Fillon in third place.

Neither Sputnik in Moscow, nor the company, responded immediately to emailed requests for comment on Sunday.

US intelligence warns

Richard Burr, head of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee which is investigating the Russian hacking during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, said last week that the Kremlin was trying to interfere in the French vote.

The Kremlin denied in February that it was behind media and internet attacks on Macron’s campaign. Russia has a strong interest in the outcome of the French election since Macron has suggested imposing further sanctions on Moscow if it does not implement its side of a deal to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

Fillon, once the frontrunner for the Elysee before he was hit by a scandal surrounding payments of public funds to his wife and children, dismissed as “fantasy” concerns of Russian interference in the election. Speaking last Friday, Fillon said he would seek a better balance in relations with a country that was nevertheless “dangerous.”

Richard Ferrand, the head of Macron’s En Marche! (Onwards!) party, said in February that Sputnik and another Russian state-run outlet Russia Today were spreading ‘fake news’ with the aim of swinging public opinion against Macron.

In February, Sputnik announced it would publish weekly French election polls using representative sampling from three mainstream polling firms — IFOP, Ipsos and OpinionWay — alongside an analysis of social media posts in France from Brand Analytics for which it did not disclose its survey methodology.

Separately, Sputnik carried a news report last Friday about Macron supporters being awarded state decorations when he had been a high-level functionary at the Elysee and economy minister in the Socialist government, suggesting this could amount to influence peddling.

It offered no proof that Macron had organized the decorations, which were sometimes awarded by other ministers. In several instances, it cited awards made by the economy ministry, without mentioning that Arnaud Montebourg, Macron’s predecessor, was minister at the time.

The Sputnik report contrasted Macron’s alleged action with a judicial inquiry into an award made when Fillon was prime minister to a billionaire friend who owned a cultural magazine where Fillon’s wife drew a salary.


Pope Visits Italian Region Rebuilt After Deadly 2012 Quake

Greeted by tens of thousands of faithful, Pope Frances on Sunday visited Italy’s northern Emilia Romagna region that has largely rebuilt from pair of deadly quakes five years ago, an example meant to give hope to central Italy, which is still reeling from more devastating temblors last year.


Francis’ first stop was the quake-damaged Duomo cathedral of Carpi, where he laid a bouquet of white flowers at the foot of a statue of the Madonna inside. After years of restoration, the cathedral reopened just last weekend.


“There are those who remain buried in the rubble of life,” the pope said in his homily before an estimated 20,000 gathered in the piazza outside the cathedral for an open-air Mass. “And there are those, like you, who with the help of God rise from the rubble to rebuild.”


Another 50,000 people watched the Mass on large screens throughout the city of 70,000.


During his daylong visit, the pope also will meet with families who lost loved ones in the quake and hold a discussion with priests, nuns and seminarians.


The Emilia Romagna model of rebuilding after the magnitude-6.1 and magnitude-5.8 quakes that killed 28 people in 2012 has often been cited as exemplary. It included bringing together politicians, entrepreneurs and bishops to decide common priorities.


The papal visit was meant to give a sign of gratitude for the rebuilding, the archbishop of Carpi, Monsignor Francesco Cavina, told the Italian Bishops’ Conference television TV2000. But he said it’s also “a sign of hope that rebuilding is possible for the people of central Italy, who unfortunately suffered what we did much more dramatically.”


A magnitude-6.1 quake on Aug. 24 in Italy’s central regions of Umbria, Abruzzo and Marche killed nearly 300 people, toppled thousands of buildings including churches, historic buildings and museums, and rendered many town centers uninhabitable. It was followed by a series of quakes in October, including the strongest in Italy in nearly four decades at magnitude 6.6, that toppled and damaged a higher number of structures, but didn’t provoke further deaths since the most vulnerable areas had already been evacuated.


Authorities have estimated the damage from the 2016 central Italian quakes at more than 23.5 billion euros ($25 billion), compared with 13.5 billion euros from the 2012 Emilia Romagna temblors.

About 2 Dozen Anti-Corruption Protesters Arrested in Moscow

Russian police arrested about two dozen protesters Sunday in Moscow, a week after more than 1,000 others were detained during a large-scale rally organized by a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian state news agency Tass reports that Sunday’s arrests were made while protesters tried to conduct unauthorized marches toward the Kremlin from two public squares in Moscow.

Police had blocked off Pushkin Square, a traditional gathering place for demonstrators. Authorities also blocked access to several Internet websites the government said promoted “a planned illegal anti-government protest” in or near Moscow’s Red Square.

The protests were organized by prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. He and hundreds of others anti-corruption demonstrators demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev were detained last week.

Some critics of the Kremlin portray Putin as an overseer of a corrupt government that has awarded select friends and associates with vast sums of wealth.

The protests are occurring a year before a Russian presidential election in which Putin is expected to seek a fourth term. Navalny would like to run against the heavily-favored Putin, despite a questionable conviction on fraud charges that would technically disqualify him.

Last week’s protests were the largest opposition rallies Russia has seen in several years.

18 Injured by Accidental Blast at French Carnival

At least 18 people, including three children, were injured when a bonfire effigy exploded at a town carnival outside Paris, officials said Saturday.

Organizers had poured gasoline on a wooden figure of a man, preparing for a bonfire that normally concludes the annual town carnival in Villepinte, north of the capital. Emergency workers said the effigy exploded when it was ignited by remote control, showering chunks of burning wood and splinters onto a crowd of several hundred people.

Five of those injured were in serious condition, authorities said, but no one’s life was in danger. Most victims suffered burns.

Officials said there was no indication that the incident involved arson or terrorism, but the explosion and flames did cause momentary panic.

Armenians Vote as Nation Shifts Toward Parliamentary Governance

Armenians vote Sunday in elections that will determine who guides the country through its planned transition to a parliamentary system of government next year.

Campaigns waged by by the nine parties and alliances seeking seats in parliament have focused mostly on the economic difficulties in the South Caucasus nation of 3 million.

Opinion polls point to a close race for the top spot between President Serzh Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia and a former coalition partner, the center-right Tsarukian Alliance led by pro-Russia tycoon Gagik Tarukian.

Under constitutional changes approved in a 2015 referendum, the Armenian prime minister’s office will become more powerful while the presidency is to become a largely ceremonial post elected by parliament.

Final term

Those changes are due to take place when Sarkisian’s second and final term ends in 2018. Critics charge that they were designed to allow him to stay in power beyond the presidency’s two-term limit.

Sarkisian denies that. But if the ruling party wins enough votes to control a parliamentary majority, either alone or in a coalition, he could continue to exercise executive power as prime minister.

He also could maintain clout by staying on as leader of his party, or he could exert influence through a handpicked successor.

Of the other eight parties or political blocs contesting the election, the Republican Party’s chief challenger is the Tsarukian Alliance.

Before breaking away and branding itself as an opposition force, Tsarukian had been a coalition partner of the Republican Party.

It was not clear ahead of the election whether Tsarukian would be willing to form a coalition again with Sarkisian’s party if, as the opinion polls suggest, neither wins enough votes to govern on its own.

Ruling coalition

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a smaller party currently in the ruling coalition with the Republicans, could help Sarkisian’s party form a majority coalition is Tsarukian is unwilling to do so.

Polls left it uncertain whether that party will get enough votes to be represented in parliament.

To win parliamentary seats, a party must win at least 5 percent of the vote and an alliance of parties must win at least 7 percent.

The right-wing conservative ORO Alliance, a bloc formed by three former cabinet ministers, could clear the threshold and win parliamentary seats.

That alliance takes an even harder line than Sarkisian’s Republicans on negotiations with Baku toward a settlement on the long-running conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Polls suggested three other political forces also have a chance to win parliamentary seats.

One is the Congress — PPA Party Alliance of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, which puts an emphasis on making land-for-peace concessions with Baku in order to reach a settlement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Another is the Armenian Renaissance Party, led by former parliament speaker and former security council chief Artur Baghdasarian.

Heavy election coverage

Baghdasarian owns the private television channel TV3, which has given heavy coverage to his party’s election campaign.

Polls suggest the centrist opposition Way Out Alliance, which has positioned itself as more pro-Western than its rivals, also was close to crossing the 7 percent barrier it needs to win parliamentary seats.

Opinion polls suggest that two smaller parties – the Communists and the pro-Western Free Democrats – are unlikely to win parliamentary seats.

Days ahead of the vote, the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan issued a joint statement with the European Union, Germany and the United Kingdom expressing concerns about allegations of irregularities since the campaign formally began on March 5.

The March 29 statement said diplomats were “aware of and concerned by” what it said were allegations of “voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties.”

In its interim report on March 7, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s observation mission also noted allegations of “widespread vote-buying” and “the prevalent perception” of “pressure and intimidation of voters.”

The OSCE mission also said that Armenia’s major commercial television stations “are financed by business and political groups and are perceived as being strongly associated with the government, as is public TV.”

The report said journalists had complained to monitors about “interference into editorial autonomy” and the “discouragement of critical reporting of the government on television.”

Focus on daily life

The main focus of the campaign has been social and economic issues affecting day-to-day life in the former Soviet republic.


Two political forces, Nikol Pashinian’s Way Out and the Free Democrats Party, have sought to position themselves as more pro-Western than their rivals.

Political analysts say that’s because public anger over Armenia’s economic problems is even stronger now than in 2015, when thousands of demonstrators blocked a central boulevard in Yerevan to protest planned electricity-price hikes.


For many, law wages, high inflation, joblessness, and corruption have eclipsed the question of whether Armenia should remain within the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union or seek closer integration with Europe.


Russian weapons deliveries to Baku had been the topic of heated debate after an escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh last year.


But in the parliamentary campaign, most political forces steered clear of those issues and the question of whether Armenia is more secure with Russia as its ally.

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz in Prague and Suren Musayelyan in Yerevan contributed to this report.

Acclaimed Russian Poet Yevtushenko Dies in Oklahoma

Acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose work focused on war atrocities and denounced anti-Semitism and tyrannical dictators, has died. He was 84.

Ginny Hensley, a spokeswoman for Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, confirmed Yevtushenko’s death. Roger Blais, provost at the University of Tulsa, where Yevtushenko was a longtime faculty member, said he was told Yevtushenko had died Saturday morning.

“He died a few minutes ago surrounded by relatives and close friends,” his widow, Maria Novikova, was quoted as saying by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. She said he’d died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure.

Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his 20s, with poetry denouncing Josef Stalin. He gained international acclaim as a young revolutionary with “Babi Yar,” the unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.

Heard by huge crowds

At the height of his fame, Yevtushenko read his works in packed soccer stadiums and arenas, including to a crowd of 200,000 in 1991 that came to listen during a failed coup attempt in Russia. He also attracted large audiences on tours of the West.

With his tall, rangy body, chiseled visage and declaratory style, he was a compelling presence on stages when reading his works.

“He’s more like a rock star than some sort of bespectacled, quiet poet,” said former University of Tulsa President Robert Donaldson, who specialized in Soviet policy during his academic years at Harvard.

Until “Babi Yar” was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the Cold War.

“I don’t call it political poetry, I call it human rights poetry, the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value,” Yevtushenko, who had been splitting his time between Oklahoma and Moscow, said during a 2007 interview with The Associated Press at his home in Tulsa.

Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site of the mass killings in Kyiv, Ukraine, and searching for something memorializing what happened there — a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker — but finding nothing.

“I was so shocked. I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it,” he said.

It took him two hours to write the poem that begins, “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”

Native of Zima

Yevtushenko was born in the Siberian town of Zima, a name that translates to winter. He rose to prominence during Nikita Khrushchev’s rule.

His poetry was outspoken and drew on the passion for poetry that is characteristic of Russia, where poetry is more widely revered than in the West. Some considered it risky, though others said he was only a showpiece dissident whose public views never went beyond the limits of what officials would permit.

Dissident exile poet Joseph Brodsky was especially critical, saying, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Brodsky resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Letters when Yevtushenko was made an honorary member.

Donaldson invited Yevtushenko to teach at the university in 1992.

“I like very much the University of Tulsa,” Yevtushenko said in a 1995 interview with the AP. “My students are sons of ranchers, even cowboys, oil engineers. They are different people, but they are very gifted. They are closer to Mother Nature than the big city. They are more sensitive.”

He was also touched after the 1995 bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. He recalled one woman in his class who lost a relative in the blast, then commented that Russian women must have endured such suffering all their lives.

“This was the greatest compliment for me,” he said.

Blais, the university provost, said Yevtushenko remained an active professor at the time of his death. His poetry classes were perennially popular and featured football players and teenagers from small towns reading from the stage.

“He had a hard time giving bad grades to students because he liked the students so much,” Blais said.

Lauded in Russia

Yevtushenko’s death inspired tributes from his homeland.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on the Russian social media site Vkontakte: “He knew how to find the key to the souls of people, to find surprisingly accurate words that were in harmony with many.”

A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the poet’s legacy would remain “part of Russian culture.”

Natalia Solzhenitsyna, widow of the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, said on Russian state television that Yevtushenko “lived by his own formula.”

“A poet in Russia is more than a poet,” she said. “And he really was more than a poet — he was a citizen with a pronounced civic position.”

US Escalates Criticism of Russia Over Ukraine, Vows Sanctions to Stay

The Trump administration escalated its criticism of Moscow Friday, with two of its most senior officials denouncing Russia’s treatment of Ukraine and reiterating a vow to maintain U.S. sanctions.

In his first visit to a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Russia of “aggression” in Ukraine and told his counterparts that their alliance is “fundamental to countering both nonviolent, but at times violent, Russian agitation” in the region. 

He also said U.S. sanctions against Moscow will remain in effect until it “reverses the actions” that triggered them. Washington imposed the sanctions in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and expanded them after Moscow began providing military aid to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Tillerson’s previous language on Russia had been more conciliatory. After his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a Group of 20 major economies meeting in Bonn in February, Tillerson said the U.S. wants to find “new common ground” with Russia and “expects” it to honor commitments to de-escalate violence in Ukraine as part of the 2015 Minsk agreement.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, whose role is subordinate to Tillerson, similarly criticized Russian “aggression” and vowed to keep U.S. sanctions in place in remarks to the U.N. Security Council February 2.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also fired a verbal attack at Russia Friday. Echoing language he used in February, Mattis told reporters in London that Russian “violations” of international law are now a “matter of record — from what happened with Crimea to other aspects of their behavior in mucking around inside other people’s elections” — a likely reference to U.S. allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

Senior Russian lawmaker Alexey Pushkov was not amused by the U.S. verbal assaults. In a Friday tweet, he said the new U.S. administration “sounds like the old one — Mattis is indistinguishable from (former Defense Secretary Ash) Carter, Tillerson is talking about ‘Russian aggression.’ (Barack) Obama and (Hillary) Clinton must be happy.”

Bloomberg reported that Tillerson’s tough language on Russia was well-received by NATO officials. 

But NATO’s previous secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told VOA Persian that he believes the Trump administration should go further. After speaking at a Hudson Institute forum in Washington Thursday, Rasmussen said the U.S. should “strengthen” its sanctions in response to what he called Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine.

Watch: Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on US Sanctions

Tillerson and Mattis made no reference in their new remarks to Russia’s plans for more weapons sales to Iran, a nation the Trump administration has warned against threatening the U.S. or its Middle East allies.

A Russian lawmaker who heads the upper house of parliament’s defense and security committee, Viktor Ozerov, visited Iran last November and told reporters that Tehran was in talks to buy $10 billion worth of Russian military hardware. Ozerov said any Russian deliveries of conventional weapons to Iran likely will have to wait until 2020 when U.N. restrictions on arms sales to Tehran expire.

Moscow had taken a major step to boost military cooperation with Tehran before Ozerov’s announcement, delivering an S-300 advanced air defense system to Iran last year.

U.S. officials responded to the Russian-Iranian weapons talks with alarm, according to The Washington Free Beacon news site. It quoted State Department officials as saying they had long been working behind the scenes to persuade Moscow not to sell weapons to Iran.

Former NATO deputy secretary general Alexander Vershbow, who also spoke at Thursday’s Washington forum, told VOA Persian he does not think U.S. sanctions alone can stop Russia from arming Iran.

Watch: Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow on US Sanctions and Russia

“To be effective, the U.S. would have to adopt a unified sanctions approach with Europe,” Vershbow said. “While some sanctions imposed on Russia because of Ukraine may cover the Russian defense as well as financial sectors, targeting additional sanctions against Moscow specifically because of Iran may not be an easy issue for agreement with Europe, given its desire not to harm the Iran nuclear deal.”

Iran agreed to curb activities that could produce nuclear weapons as part of a 2015 deal with world powers, who agreed to ease sanctions against Tehran in return.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service.

OSCE Chairman Calls for Revitalized Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process

Austria’s top diplomat on Friday called on both sides of the conflict in Azerbaijan’s autonomous breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to renew the political settlement process.

Marking the first anniversary of deadly clashes in the Azeri region, which is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), emphasized his hope for a fresh start in the largely stalled peace negotiations.

“Clashes and serious violations of the cease-fire on the Line of Contact, resulting in casualties, were of particular concern to us throughout the past year,” Kurz said in a public statement. “It is now high time for a focus on pragmatic and practical steps for confidence-building as well as a resumption of substantive negotiations.”

The United States, Russia and France, which co-chair OSCE’s Minsk Group for conflict mediation, used diplomacy to halt the violence between Armenian-backed separatists and Azeri forces, which was the deadliest incident since a 1994 cease-fire established the current territorial division. Although they have been unable to secure a binding peace resolution, former U.S. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh said, the renewed push by the OSCE presents a rare opportunity for U.S. and Russian coordination.

“President [Donald] Trump had made clear during his campaign, and since then, that he would like to find a way to have more positive relations with Russia. This might be one of those areas where that is more easily tackled,” said Cavanaugh, who once co-chaired the Minsk Group as a special negotiator alongside Russian and French diplomats.

Opportunity to surprise

“For two decades we’ve been working together as co-chairs on this, and I can tell you as a former co-chair — and I have talked with my successors — that the cooperation would surprise people,” he said.

Unlike the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh is place where U.S. and Russian interests converge. Considering the constant cease-fire violations since the 2016 clashes left more than 100 people dead, Nagorno-Karabakh, he said, cannot be considered a frozen conflict, but rather “a simmering one, which needs a lot of attention and has a lot of danger.”

The only solution that can prevent further violence is close coordination between U.S. and Russian diplomats, whose nations would both benefit from a sustained peace in the region.

But that can only happen, Cavanaugh said, if both Azeri and Armenian-aligned factions show Washington and Moscow that they are ready to re-engage the peace process.

“The sides need to send clear signals to Moscow, to Washington, to Paris, that they are prepared now really to work on peace again.”

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Armenian service.

Hungary Pressed to Allow Soros-funded University to Remain

Pressure is growing on the Hungarian government to withdraw a draft bill on higher education that could lead to the closure of the Central European University in Budapest, which was founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

The U.S. State Department as well as dozens of academics in Hungary and abroad Friday called on Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to ensure CEU’s independence and operations.

Orban said Friday on state radio that the CEU was “cheating” because it did not have a campus in its country of origin and because it issued diplomas recognized both in Hungary and the United States, giving it an undue advantage over local institutions. The CEU is accredited in New York state but does not have a U.S. campus.

“This is not fair to Hungarian universities,” Orban said. “There is competition among universities and it is inexplicable why we should put our own universities at a disadvantage … while securing an unfair advantage for the foreign university.”

Nobel Prize winners

Fourteen winners of the Nobel Prize in economics were among about 150 academics from U.S. and European universities who advocated for the CEU in an open letter addressed to education officials and Reka Szemerkenyi, Hungary’s ambassador in Washington.

“It would be a sad outcome for the training of students from the region, for academic research in Hungary, and for our own cooperation with Hungarian academics, if the proposed legislation came into force,” the academics said.

Orban, however, conditioned CEU’s survival to a bilateral Hungary-U.S. agreement on the university. He did not hide his disdain for the Hungarian-born Soros’ policies supporting the university and numerous non-governmental organizations that Orban considers “foreign agents” working against Hungarian interests.

University vows to stay open

CEU rector Michael Ignatieff has vowed to keep the university open despite the draft bill, scheduled to be debated by lawmakers next week. The bill sets new conditions on foreign universities operating in Hungary and was seen as directly targeting the CEU.

Among the 28 foreign universities in Hungary, only CEU would fail to meet a requirement to also have a campus in its home country.

“Contrary to the prime minister’s statement, there is no current Hungarian law that requires universities to have operations in their home countries in order to award degrees in Hungary,” the CEU said. “We have been lawful partners in Hungarian higher education for 25 years and any statement to the contrary is false.”

The CEU also said it was notified Friday by Hungary’s education authority that its accreditation in New York state met the conditions for operating in Hungary.

US speaks out

The U.S. State Department also took exception to the proposed legislation, saying it would impose “new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements on foreign universities.”

“If adopted, these changes would negatively affect or even lead to the closure” of the CEU, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We urge the government of Hungary to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.”

Hungarian university organizations also expressed their support for the CEU.

“CEU is a very significant scholarly center,” said Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “It is good that it operates in Budapest.”

Tillerson: NATO Allies Must Boost Their Defense Budgets

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meeting with his NATO allies’ counterparts, said Friday in Brussels that they must increase their countries’ defense budgets.

The top U.S.  diplomat told the foreign ministers the alliance must have “all of the resources, financial and otherwise, that are necessary for NATO to fulfill its mission” in places like Iraq and Syria.

Earlier Friday, Tillerson said he also wanted to discuss “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine” with the NATO allies.

Upon arrival in Brussels, the top U.S. diplomat said he sees three important areas to discuss: NATO’s resources for its mission, the organization’s fight against terrorism, including Islamic State, and NATO’s posture in Europe, “most particularly Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.”

The comments concerning Moscow are some of the strongest the Trump administration has made since coming to power in January.

Tillerson’s visit to Brussels comes one day after meeting with top Turkish officials in Ankara.

Ankara talks

He hailed Turkey as a trusted ally after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other leaders Thursday.

Tillerson underlined the importance of Turkey in the battle against Islamic State.

But the two NATO allies remain at loggerheads over Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish group the PYD and its militia, the YPG, in fighting Islamic State militants. Ankara accuses the PYD of being a terrorist organization affiliated with the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish State.

In a joint news conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stressed Turkey’s opposition to support of the PYD, but did not directly criticize the Trump administration.

Tillerson acknowledged no breakthrough on the dispute, saying more discussions are needed. “We are exploring a number of options and alternatives,” but reiterated Washington’s support of Ankara in fighting the PKK.

With Washington stepping up its military support of the YPG before the operation to liberate Raqqa, the self-declared capital of Islamic State, Ankara increasingly appears resigned to the fact that its call for its military forces to replace the Syrian Kurdish groups has been rejected. But a presidential source ruled out any retaliatory measures against the United States, stressing it did not want the issue to undermine future cooperation.


EU Signals Flexibility on Handling of Brexit

The European Union softened its public stance on Britain’s exit from the bloc Friday, with Council President Donald Tusk signaling some flexibility on allowing talks on a new relationship before the divorce proceedings are complete.


Draft guidelines obtained by the Associated Press say that the EU and Britain must first “settle the disentanglement” of Britain from the bloc but added that “an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship could be identified during the second phase of the negotiations under Article 50.” 


The guidelines also say it is a priority to settle questions about British and other European citizens living in each other’s countries, and call for “flexible and imaginative solutions” for the issue of the U.K.’s land border with Ireland.

Talks will be difficult 

EU leaders warned after a meeting Friday that the two years of talks triggered this week to negotiate Britain’s exit will be difficult, but insisted they don’t want all-out economic or diplomatic conflict. Tusk is presenting the EU’s draft negotiating guidelines to leaders of the remaining 27 member states Friday.


Tusk said the EU will not punish Britain in the talks, saying that Brexit itself is “punitive enough.” The head of the rotating EU presidency, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, insisted the negotiations “will not be a war.”


Tusk said there would not be parallel discussions about Britain’s exit and its future relationship with the EU, but said that the negotiations could move onto a second phase if there is “sufficient progress” in the exit talks.


He didn’t define what kind of progress that would have to be, but said that the 27 remaining EU members would have to agree before moving on.

Threat ruled out


Tusk ruled out the suggestion that there was an inherent threat in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s departure letter Wednesday, which some felt hinted that Britain was threatening to end security cooperation with continental Europe unless it gets a good Brexit deal.


British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson also insisted Friday that Britain’s commitment to European defense and security is “unconditional” and “not some bargaining chip in any negotiations’’ over Brexit.


Johnson, speaking in Brussels upon arrival for a NATO meeting, said he has had good feedback from partners since Wednesday’s British formal announcement of its departure from the EU, despite worries on both sides of the Channel about Brexit.