Putin’s Lightning Visit to Arab States Highlights Bid to End Isolation

Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia Wednesday on a quick tour in what observers say is a show of defiance against Western efforts to isolate him through sanctions and an International Criminal Court arrest warrant. Elizabeth Cherneff narrates this report from the VOA Moscow bureau. …

Europe Fears Surge in African Migration as Niger Repeals Trafficking Law

The European Union has voiced concerns of a surge in migrants from Africa, after the ruling military junta in Niger repealed a law that had previously criminalized the transport of migrants in the country. Known as Law 2015-36, the legislation was drafted in 2015 in coordination with the EU and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. At the time, Europe was facing a migrant crisis, as more than a million people entered the continent from Turkey and North Africa. The law was implemented the following year. As part of the 2015 deal, the European Union pledged over $5 billion in aid to stabilize economies and governments in the Sahel region to stem the flow of migrants. “These projects had a number of objectives, including combating illegal migration, improving public infrastructure, improving border capacity — but also assisting displaced populations,” explained Alia Fakhry, an expert on EU-Africa migration policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “One of these projects was the project that supported the Niger state to build its border capacity and to draft this new law that would criminalize irregular migration and its facilitation — the work of smugglers, basically. And it’s this law that’s now been revoked by the military junta,” Fakhry told VOA. The EU said in September that 876 suspected people traffickers were prosecuted under the law from 2017 to 2023. However, on July 26, Niger’s military ousted democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum in a coup. Junta leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani announced in November that the government was repealing the 2015 migrant law and said that all convictions under the legislation would be quashed. Tchiani did not give a reason for the move, although observers say he is likely seeking to gain local support and retaliate against the EU’s decision to suspend aid payments following the coup. Speaking to reporters in Brussels on November 28, Ylva Johansson, European commissioner for home affairs, voiced fears of a new influx of migrants. “There is a huge risk that this will cause new deaths in the desert. That’s the most concerning thing, but it would also probably mean more people coming to Libya, for example, and then maybe also trying to cross the Mediterranean today to the EU,” she said. In a discussion paper published in September, the Council of the European Union had already expressed concerns over cooperation with the Nigerien military junta … “Europe Fears Surge in African Migration as Niger Repeals Trafficking Law”

Denmark Passes Bill to Stop Quran Burnings

Denmark’s parliament passed a bill on Thursday that makes it illegal to burn copies of the Quran in public places, after protests in Muslim nations over the desecration of Islam’s holy book raised Danish security concerns. Denmark and Sweden experienced a series of public protests this year where anti-Islam activists burned or otherwise damaged copies of the Quran, sparking tensions with Muslims and triggering demands that the Nordic governments ban the practice. Denmark sought to strike a balance between constitutionally protected freedom of speech, including the right to criticize religion, and national security amid fears that Quran burnings would trigger attacks by Islamists. Domestic critics in Sweden and Denmark have argued that any limitations on criticizing religion, including by burning Quran, undermine hard-fought liberal freedoms in the region. “History will judge us harshly for this, and with good reason… What it all comes down to is whether a restriction on freedom of speech is determined by us, or whether it is dictated from the outside,” said Inger Stojberg, leader of the anti-immigration Denmark Democrats party, who opposed the ban. Denmark’s centrist coalition government has argued that the new rules will have only a marginal impact on free speech and that criticizing religion in other ways remains legal. Breaking the new law would be punishable by fines or up to two years in prison, the government has said. Sweden, too, is considering ways to legally limit Quran desecrations but is taking a different approach than Denmark. It is looking into whether police should factor in national security when deciding on applications for public protests. …

Azerbaijan Leader Calls Snap Presidential Vote For Feb. 7

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Thursday called snap presidential elections in February, in a move expected to extend the decades-long authoritarian rule of his family. Aliyev’s popularity is soaring after his military recaptured the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenian separatists in a lightning offensive in September. A decree published by the presidency ordered officials to hold a “snap election” on Feb. 7 next year. Elections had previously been scheduled for 2025. A state-run pollster recently said 75% of the population approve of Aliyev’s handling of the Karabakh conflict, which saw the mass exodus of ethnic Armenians living in the long-disputed mountainous territory. “Aliyev’s approval ratings had always been high, and they skyrocketed after the victorious military operation in Karabakh in September,” independent political analyst Farhad Mamedov told AFP. “He is at the peak of his popularity.” Aliyev sent troops to Karabakh on Sept. 19 and after just one day of fighting, Armenian separatist forces that had controlled the disputed region for three decades laid down arms and agreed to reintegrate with Baku. Azerbaijan’s victory marked the end of the territorial dispute, which saw Azerbaijan and Armenia fight two wars — in 2020 and the 1990s — that have claimed tens of thousands of lives from both sides. It also sparked fears — particularly among Armenians — of a broader conflict in the region in which Azerbaijan could aim to create a land corridor to its Nakhchivan exclave through Armenian territory. Aliyev insists Baku has no territorial claims to Armenia and rules out a fresh conflict. The arch-foe countries are now negotiating a comprehensive peace treaty, but the Western-mediated talks have so far failed to produce a breakthrough. ‘Unchallenged dynasty’ Aliyev, 61, has ruled the energy-rich country with an iron fist since 2003, when he succeeded his father, Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss. He was last re-elected with 86% of votes in a snap election in April 2018. All leadership polls held in Azerbaijan under Aliyevs’ rule were denounced by opposition parties as fraudulent. Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once thought of as a Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe. But critics argue they have crushed the opposition, stifled media, and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family. Rights activists have recently decried the arrest of several high-profile journalists known … “Azerbaijan Leader Calls Snap Presidential Vote For Feb. 7”

 Ukraine Says Russian Drone Attack Hits Odesa Port

A Russian drone attack killed one person and damaged port infrastructure in Ukraine’s Odesa region, the regional governor said Thursday. Oleh Kiper said Odesa was under attack for two hours, and that while air defenses shot down most of the Russian drones involved, some of them made it through. He identified the victim as a truck driver, and said the drone attack damaged a warehouse, elevator and trucks near the Danube River. Ukraine’s military said Russia’s aerial attack involved a total of 18 drones targeting Odesa in southern Ukraine and the Khmelnytskyi region in the western part of the country. Ukrainian air defenses shot down 15 of the 18 drones, the military said. U.S. aid Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday blocked $110 billion in aid for Ukraine and Israel, as well as some security measures for the U.S. southern border.  U.S. President Joe Biden had asked Congress for almost $106 billion to fund the wars and border needs. The vote Wednesday was 49 votes in favor and 51 against, leaving the measure short of the 60 votes needed in order to proceed. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who supports Ukraine aid, told his party members to reject the aid package because it did not include policy changes, something lawmakers have fought over for years.  Earlier Wednesday, Biden implored Congress to approve more arms aid for Ukraine, saying that failing to pass the assistance would be the “greatest gift” the United States could hand Russian President Vladimir Putin in Putin’s nearly two-year war against the neighboring country.  At the same time, the U.S. Defense Department announced new security assistance for Ukraine that is the Biden administration’s 52nd allotment of equipment for Ukraine since August 2021. It contains air defense capabilities, artillery ammunition, anti-tank weapons and other equipment.  The $175 million military aid package includes guided missiles for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, anti-armor systems, and high-speed anti-radiation missiles, according to the Pentagon and State Department.  Speaking briefly at the White House, the U.S. leader said that if Putin defeats Ukraine, “it won’t stop there,” and Moscow would invade neighboring NATO countries the U.S. is legally bound to defend.   “If NATO is attacked,” Biden said, “We’ll have American troops fighting Russian troops. We can’t let Putin win.”   With the new tranche of aid, Biden emphasized in a statement that “security assistance for Ukraine is … “ Ukraine Says Russian Drone Attack Hits Odesa Port”

Turkey’s Erdogan In Athens In ‘New Chapter’ Bid

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Athens on Thursday in a keenly watched visit billed as an attempted “new chapter” between the NATO allies and historic rivals after years of tension. In meetings with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the fiery Turkish leader is expected to discuss trade, regional issues and the perennially thorny issue of migration. In an interview with Greek daily Kathimerini a day before his five-hour visit on Thursday, Erdogan said he was seeking a “new chapter” in relations on the basis of “win-win” principles. Ankara has served as a migration bulwark since a 2016 deal with the European Union, which Mitsotakis and fellow EU leaders hope to update. A retinue of diplomats accompanying Erdogan are also broaching with Greek counterparts the longstanding issue of Greek-Turkish territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea. Erdogan has questioned century-old treaties that set out Aegean sovereignty, and Turkish and Greek warplanes regularly engage in mock dogfights in disputed airspace. The discovery of hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean has further complicated ties, with Ankara angering Athens in 2019 by signing a controversial maritime zone deal with Libya. Relations further cratered in the next two years, prompting Mitsotakis to announce a military buildup in naval and air force equipment, and sign defensive agreements with France and the United States. In 2020, Erdogan was seen in Athens to have encouraged thousands of migrants to attempt to cross the frontier into Greece, causing days of clashes with border guards. At the time, the move was interpreted as a Turkish attempt to draw EU attention to the millions of asylum seekers in Turkey. Erdogan also used increasingly inflammatory rhetoric towards Greece, often in conjunction with his electoral campaigns. Last year, he accused Greece of “occupying” Aegean islands and threatened: “As we say, we may come suddenly one night.” But relations have improved since February, when Greece sent rescuers and aid to Turkey after a massive earthquake killed at least 50,000 people. ‘We don’t threaten you’ Speaking to Kathimerini on Wednesday, the Turkish leader said communication channels with Greece had been “revived” and that he looked forward to signing a declaration of bilateral friendship with Greece on Thursday. “Kyriakos my friend, we do not threaten you if you do not threaten us,” Erdogan said. “If differences are addressed through dialogue and common ground is found, this is to the benefit of … “Turkey’s Erdogan In Athens In ‘New Chapter’ Bid”

   EU, Chinese Leaders Meet in Beijing

European Union leaders are in Beijing Thursday for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders. Ahead of the meetings, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the two sides would discuss “how to rebalance our economic relationship,” highlighting China’s position as the EU’s “most important trading partner,” and stressing the need to address the trade imbalance between them. Von der Leyen said the meetings would also include discussion of cooperation on climate change and on rules for artificial intelligence. She also highlighted a need for the EU and China to use their roles as major world powers to respond to the war in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We have a shared interest in peace and security and the effective functioning of the rules-based international order and to find solutions to global challenges,” Von der Leyen said.  “This is why it is essential to put an end to the Russian aggression against Ukraine and establish a just and lasting peace consistent with the U.N. charter and in the same vein to do everything possible to work for a two-state solution in the Middle East.” Xi said in his opening remarks that China and the European Union must “work together to promote world stability and prosperity.” “China and the EU should be partners in mutually beneficial cooperation and continuously enhance political mutual trust,” Xi said. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.   …

Zelenskyy Aide Wants Hungarian, Ukrainian Leaders to Discuss EU Bid 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff on Wednesday said he wanted to arrange a meeting between the Ukrainian and Hungarian leaders amid Budapest’s opposition to a proposal to start talks on European Union membership for Kyiv.  Andriy Yermak said he had spoken to Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto about a possible meeting between Zelenskyy and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – after Orban and his party publicly opposed starting membership talks.  Yermak, writing on Telegram, said the two had agreed “to work on setting a suitable date for such a meeting.”  Unanimous approval at an EU summit next week is needed to proceed with membership talks for Ukraine and Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as recommended by the European Commission. Kyiv sees EU membership as a key step, 21 months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of moving closer to the West.  Yermak, currently in Washington with a Ukrainian delegation discussing U.S. aid to Kyiv, said Ukraine “was counting on a positive decision” from the EU meeting.  He said lawmakers in Kyiv would consider in the coming days legislation critical to Ukraine’s membership bid. “We are fulfilling our obligations in full,” Yermak wrote.  Orban has warned that EU leaders could fail to reach a consensus on starting membership talks with Ukraine and said the issue should not be put on the summit’s agenda.  Distrust of Orban is high in Brussels after run-ins during his 13 years in power over the rights of gay people and migrants and tighter state controls over academics, the courts and media. Billions of euros of EU funds for Hungary have been frozen.  A parliamentary resolution from his ruling Fidesz party on Monday said EU expansion “should remain an objective process based on rules and performance.  “The start of membership talks with Ukraine should be based on a consensus among European Union member states… The conditions for this are not present today.”  Fidesz said EU leaders should thoroughly assess how Ukraine’s possible membership would affect cohesion and agricultural policies within the bloc, of which the EU’s poorer members, including Hungary, are among the main beneficiaries.  An inflow of Ukrainian grains into the EU triggered protests from farmers in Eastern Europe last year, while Polish truckers have blockaded border crossings with Ukraine, calling on the EU to restore permits limiting transit for Ukrainian competitors.  Orban will meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Thursday, ahead of … “Zelenskyy Aide Wants Hungarian, Ukrainian Leaders to Discuss EU Bid “

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Meets Virtually With G7 Leaders

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday met virtually with leaders from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, telling them that Moscow is counting on Western unity to “collapse” next year. Attendees, including Kyiv’s key allies such as U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. leader Rishi Sunak, said they remained committed to supporting Ukraine. Their comments came amid fears that Western support for Ukraine could wane as Kyiv makes limited progress on the battlefield. “We are determined to support an independent, democratic Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders,” leaders of the G7 said in a statement after the meeting. The leaders announced actions to be taken against Russia, including banning imports of nonindustrial diamonds from Russia by January, and Russian diamonds processed by third countries by March, in an effort to decrease Russian revenue. The G7 announced additional measures, including increased enforcement of a price cap on Russian oil, and called on all third parties to immediately stop providing Russia with military materials or face a “severe cost.” The leaders also committed to increasing humanitarian efforts for Ukraine as winter approaches, calling on Russia to end its aggression and pay for the damage it has already done. As Zelenskyy met with G7 leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a rare trip abroad — a one-day visit to the Middle East with stops in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — to try to increase Russia’s standing in the region. The UAE, host country of COP28, the U.N. climate summit, is a U.S. ally with close ties to Russia. UAE officials greeted Putin warmly in Abu Dhabi. Putin also met with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, discussing many topics, including what he called the “Ukrainian crisis,” before continuing on to talks with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Those talks were also expected to include Ukraine. Ukrainians in the UAE for COP28 condemned Putin’s visit to the region, citing environmental crimes Russia has committed in their country. “It is extremely upsetting to see how the world treats war criminals, because that’s what he is, in my opinion,” said Marharyta Bohdanova, a worker at the Ukrainian pavilion at the COP28 climate summit. “Seeing how people let people like him in the big events … treating him like a dear guest, is just so hypocritical, in my opinion.” Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. … “Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Meets Virtually With G7 Leaders”

Journalists in Azerbaijan Targeted in Wave of Arrests

When police arrived at the home of Aziz Orujov, the Azerbaijani journalist’s 3-year-old daughter tried to stand between her father and the masked officials there to arrest him. Video shows the girl, her hair in pigtails and barely measuring up to her father’s waist, wrap her arms around Orujov as masked men stand in the corner. “She’s trying to keep Aziz from the police and tries not to let him go with them,” Orujov’s brother Anar Orujov told VOA. Arrested in late November on illegal construction charges that media advocates view as retaliatory, Aziz Orujov will be held in pre-trial detention for three months. If convicted, the director of the independent channel Kanal 13 faces up to three years in prison. Orujov is one of six independent journalists detained in Azerbaijan over the past two weeks. Press freedom experts say the move is politically motivated and underscores the lack of civil liberties for the media and Azeri society. “It’s shocking and outrageous to see this high number of journalists being arrested in such a short time frame,” said Karol Luczka, who works on Azerbaijan at the Vienna-based International Press Institute. “I haven’t seen anything like this in the region.” Journalists consider arrests retaliatory The first journalist detained was Ulvi Hasanli, the director of the independent outlet Abzas Media. Police arrested Hasanli early on November 20 on suspicion of illegally bringing money into the country. Police later raided his apartment and searched Abzas Media’s offices. In a statement posted on Facebook, Abzas Media said Hasanli’s arrest and the raid were part of President Ilham Aliyev’s pressure on the outlet for “a series of investigations into the corruption crimes of the president and officials appointed by him.” In the days that followed, authorities arrested Sevinj Vagifgizi, the outlet’s editor in chief; Mahammad Kekalov, the deputy director; and Nargiz Absalamova, a journalist. All are in pretrial detention for terms of between three and four months and stand accused of illegally bringing money into the country. Azerbaijan’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment. International groups condemn arrests One of the few remaining independent outlets in Azerbaijan, Abzas Media is known for its coverage of corruption, including allegations that touch on the ruling family. “[Abzas Media] is for ordinary people, ordinary people in Azerbaijan, ordinary readers who should know what happens in their own country. So that’s why they were so … “Journalists in Azerbaijan Targeted in Wave of Arrests”

US Charges Russian-Affiliated Soldiers With War Crimes

The United States is charging four Russian-affiliated soldiers with war crimes for what American prosecutors describe as the heinous abuse of a U.S. citizen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.  The charges – the first ever filed by the U.S. under its nearly 30-year-old war crimes statute – include conspiracy to commit war crimes, unlawful confinement, torture, and inhumane treatment, following the takeover of the village of Mylove, in the Kherson oblast of southern Ukraine in April 2022.  “As the world has witnessed the horrors of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, so has the United States Department of Justice,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday.   “The Justice Department and the American people have a long memory,” he added. “We will not forget the atrocities in Ukraine, and we will never stop working to bring those responsible to justice.”  According to the nine-page indictment, the perpetrators include Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik, described as commanding officers with either the Russian Armed Forces or the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.  Two other soldiers named in the indictment – Valerii and Nazar – are identified only by their first names.  Garland and other U.S. officials said Wednesday the victim was a non-combatant living with his Ukrainian wife in Mylove when the four Russians kidnapped him from his home.  They allegedly then stripped him naked, tied his hands behind his back, put a gun to his head, and beat him, before taking him to an improvised Russian military compound.  The indictment states the victim was then taken to an improvised jail where he was subject to multiple interrogations and “acts specifically intended to inflict severe and serious physical and mental pain and suffering.”  Additionally, the indictment alleges at least one of the Russian soldiers sexually assaulted the victim, and that the Russians carried out a mock execution. “They moved the gun just before pulling the trigger, and the bullet went just past his head,” Garland said. “After the mock execution, the victim was beaten and interrogated again.”  The victim was also forced to perform manual labor, such as digging trenches for Russian forces, until he was finally released after a little over a week in detention. U.S. officials said the charges against the four Russian-affiliated soldiers stem from an investigation that started in August 2022, when investigators with the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Homeland … “US Charges Russian-Affiliated Soldiers With War Crimes”

Italy Tells China It’s Leaving Belt and Road Initiative

Italy officially told China that it will leave the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, the first country to do so since the project was launched a decade ago. Despite the decision, Rome still plans to maintain good relations with Beijing, government sources said on Wednesday.  Beijing launched the BRI, a global infrastructure and transportation plan, in 2013, aiming to boost connectivity between China and nations in Eurasia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America. Critics argue that one key goal, though, is to expand the influence of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly 150 countries, or about 75% of the global population, have joined. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been critical of the partnership, once calling the 2019 decision to join the BRI a “serious mistake.” After Meloni took office last year, she said the economic promise of the deal had never materialized.  The agreement, which is good through March 2024, will not be renewed, sources in her coalition said.   “We have every intention of maintaining excellent relations with China even if we are no longer part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” one official told Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.   Another source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the exit was orchestrated in such a way as to “keep channels of political dialogue open,” but wouldn’t elaborate.   The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which broke the news, reported that Rome’s intention to leave the BRI was communicated to Beijing earlier in the week. Some experts think the timing of the notification could have been intentional. China is set to host a summit with European Union officials on Thursday. The talks will span a number of intricate issues, including trade deficits and technology. “Perhaps there was an agreement with the EU leaders that Italy would notify China before the EU meeting so that this [withdrawal] wouldn’t lead to any misunderstandings,” said Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based columnist for SettimanaNews, an Italian news outlet.  When Italy became a BRI member nation four years ago, then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had high hopes for booming trade. But China has since raked in most of the profits. Annual Chinese exports to Italy nearly doubled from $34 billion in 2019 to $62 billion today. During that same period, Italian exports to China rose modestly from $14 billion to $17.7 billion. Italy, which will host a meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrialized … “Italy Tells China It’s Leaving Belt and Road Initiative”

Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson Admits to Making Mistakes But Defends COVID Record

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his handling of COVID-19 on Wednesday at a public inquiry into the pandemic, saying his government “got some things wrong” but did its best. Johnson began two days of questioning under oath by lawyers for the judge-led inquiry about his initial reluctance to impose a national lockdown in early 2020 and other fateful decisions. Johnson opened his testimony with an apology “for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the COVID victims,” though not for any of his own actions. Four people stood up in court as he spoke, holding signs saying: “The Dead can’t hear your apologies,” before being escorted out by security staff. “Inevitably, in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes,” Johnson said. “Inevitably, we got some things wrong. I think we were doing our best at the time.” Johnson had arrived at the inquiry venue at daybreak, several hours before he was due to take the stand, avoiding a protest by relatives of some of those victims. Among those wanting answers from the inquiry are families of some of the more than 230,000 people in the U.K. who died after contracting the virus. A group gathered outside the office building where the inquiry was set, some holding pictures of their loved ones. A banner declared: “Let the bodies pile high” — a statement attributed to Johnson by an aide. Another sign said: “Johnson partied while people died.” Johnson was pushed out of office by his own Conservative Party in mid-2022 after multiple ethics scandals, including the revelation that he and staff members held parties in the prime minister’s Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021, flouting the government’s lockdown restrictions. Former colleagues, aides and advisers have painted an unflattering picture of Johnson and his government over weeks of testimony. Former Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said Johnson was “bamboozled” by science. In diaries that have been seen as evidence, Vallance also said Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate.” Former adviser Dominic Cummings, now a fierce opponent of Johnson, said the then-prime minister asked scientists whether blowing a hair dryer up his nose could kill the virus.  Former senior civil servant Helen McNamara described a “toxic,” macho culture inside Johnson’s government, and … “Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson Admits to Making Mistakes But Defends COVID Record”

Zelenskyy to Meet with G7 Leaders

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to appear Wednesday before a virtual meeting of leaders from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations. Zelenskyy will have the opportunity to brief the leaders on the situation in Ukraine nearly two years into a Russian invasion that prompted dozens of nations to provide military and humanitarian support for the Ukrainian side. Wednesday’s meeting comes a day after Zelenskyy canceled a video appearance with members of the U.S. Senate where he was expected to advocate for continued military support. “Zelenskyy, by the way, could not make it to — something happened at the last minute — to our briefing,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told a news conference. Schumer said Zelenskyy had been invited to speak via video at a classified briefing so those at the meeting could “hear directly from him precisely what’s at stake” and help lawmakers vote on a bill that includes billions of dollars in new aid for Ukraine. Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young warned in a letter to congressional leaders Monday that by the end of the year, the United States will no longer have the funds to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine. Ukraine “will not be able to keep fighting,” Young said, noting that the U.S. also has run out of money for propping up Ukraine’s economy. “We’re running out of money, and we are nearly out of time,” U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. “A vote against supporting Ukraine is a vote to improve [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s strategic position.” On the battlefield, Ukraine’s half-year-long counteroffensive has largely stalled against entrenched Russian forces, with only limited territorial gains in the eastern part of the country. In October, the Biden administration asked Congress for nearly $106 billion to fund ambitious plans for Ukraine, Israel and U.S. border security. But funding for Ukraine has become politically controversial, with some right-leaning lawmakers in the narrowly Republican-controlled House of Representatives opposing further assistance, contending the aid is not in U.S. interests. Ukraine’s air force said Wednesday that Russia attacked overnight with 48 drones, with Ukrainian air defenses downing 41 of them.     Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. …

Turkey-Greece Summit Aims to Resolve Long-Standing Tensions

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Greece on Thursday for a summit with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The meeting comes after years of tensions that brought them to the brink of war. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul. …

Here Are Wikipedia’s Most Searched Topics in 2023

Millions around the world turn to Wikipedia when they want to better understand the world around them, and that apparently includes artificial intelligence — the most searched topic on the online encyclopedia in 2023. “ChatGPT is one of the generative AI tools that is trained on Wikipedia data, pulling large amounts of content from Wikipedia projects to answer people’s questions,” says Anusha Alikhan, chief communications officer at the Wikimedia Foundation. “So, the fact that millions of people are going to Wikipedia to learn about ChatGPT is kind of an interesting twist.” Wikipedia articles about ChatGPT garnered more than 79 million page views across all languages, according to the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts and funds the site. The information found on Wikipedia is managed by volunteer editors around the world. English-language Wikipedia drew more than 84 billion views in 2023, according to the nonprofit. The top five articles this year were ChatGPT; Deaths in 2023; 2023 World Cricket Cup; Indian Premier League; and the film “Oppenheimer.” Cricket is a popular global sport, but this is the first time since Wikipedia started keeping track in 2015 that an article about the sport made the list. The rest of the most popular topics in Wikipedia’s Top 25 include a couple of Indian movies, as well as the U.S. megahit film, “Barbie.” Two celebrities who died this year —Matthew Perry and Lisa Marie Presley — are on the list, as are two well-known people: singer Taylor Swift and businessman Elon Musk, who made headlines a lot this year. Sports events, the United States, and India also made the Top 25 list. “It gives the world, in our opinion, a real deep dive into the topics that people were most interested in for the entire year,” Alikhan says. “We often say also that Wikipedia reflects the world.” According to Wikipedia data, the top five countries that accessed the English Wikipedia in 2023 are the United States (33 billion page views); the United Kingdom (9 billion page views); India (8.48 million page views); Canada (3.95 billion page views); and Australia (2.56 billion page views). Historical subjects that make the list are often connected to a current event, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. “The fact that number seven on the list is J. Robert Oppenheimer speaks to the fact that it was, of course, connected to the ‘Oppenheimer’ movie,” … “Here Are Wikipedia’s Most Searched Topics in 2023”

EU, China Hold Summit in Beijing Amid Deepening Rift

Officials from the European Union and China will hold their first in-person summit since 2019 this week, with leaders from both sides expecting to exchange views on strategic and global economic issues.   Some experts say a focus of the one-day summit on December 7 will be “de-risking,” which relates to the EU’s current effort to reduce reliance on China in key sectors.  “Brussels wants to show that they have new policy tools to get serious with de-risking, while the key objective for China is to try to hinder the EU’s progress on implementing policies related to de-risking,” Grzegorz Stec, an analyst at the Brussels office of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, or MERICS, told VOA.   The summit comes amid a deepening rift between the two sides, as the EU hopes to level the playing field in trade while Beijing tries to highlight the need to maintain bilateral cooperation. It follows a series of high-level dialogues, including a visit to Beijing by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, in October.   With the EU and China both trying to safeguard their interests, some analysts say expectations for the summit’s outcome should be low.  “It’s like they are driving on two opposite lanes and there is very little common ground between both sides’ talking points,” Sari Arho Havrén, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told VOA by phone.   During a keynote speech at a conference in Berlin last month, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen doubled down on the need for the EU to investigate Beijing’s state subsidies for the electric vehicle industry. Carmakers in Europe have expressed concern over China’s abundant supply of subsized electric vehicles, which can be sold at cheaper prices in global markets.  “[The overcapacity] will worsen as China’s economy slows down, and its domestic demand does not pick up,” she said, adding that it would worsen distortion in the EU market, which Brussels couldn’t accept. “Europe is open for competition. Not for a race to the bottom.”   Dividing Europe  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile, is calling for greater China-EU cooperation. “China and the EU have different views on international and regional issues, and only by adhering to communication and coordination can we play a constructive role in maintaining world peace and stability and addressing global challenges,” he said during a meeting with EU diplomatic envoys on Monday.   … “EU, China Hold Summit in Beijing Amid Deepening Rift”

Brutal killings of Women in Western Balkan Countries Trigger Alarm, Expose Faults in System

A man in Bosnia-Herzegovina killed his wife and streamed the murder live on Instagram. In neighboring Serbia, 27 women were killed in gender-based attacks this year, despite efforts to raise awareness and reverse the trend. Activists in Kosovo say violence against women there is a “national emergency.” Throughout the western Balkans, women are harassed, raped, beaten and killed, often by their partners and after repeatedly reporting the violence to the authorities. The region is staunchly conservative, with a centuries-old tradition of male dominance, but the problem surged following the wars in the 1990s and the political, economic and social crises that have persisted since the conflicts ended. In response, women’s groups in the region have organized protests to draw public attention and demand action. They have set up help lines and shelters for women. But activists blame authorities for not acting more decisively to protect women and counter a culture of impunity. The public in Bosnia and the wider region was brutally shaken into reality in August, when a woman in the northeastern Bosnian town of Gradacac was shot in the head by her former partner, in a live video on Instagram. The murder was “so gruesome and so tragic” that it was an “eye-opener,” said Jadranka Milicevic, from the Cure [Girls] group. In the Western Balkans, most countries have passed laws and regulations to combat violence against women but implementation remains incoherent, activists say. Bosnia, for example, was among the first countries to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women, but the problem has only grown since then, Milicevic said. “Violence against women and domestic violence are a global phenomenon. They exist everywhere, but it is the state response to the violence that is the key issue,” said Vanja Macanovic, from the Autonomous Women’s Center in Serbia. “Unfortunately, what we see here [in the Balkans] is that violence is approved. It is a model of behavior that is not sufficiently condemned in public.” “We have signed all relevant international declarations, resolutions and conventions but their application is questionable,” said Milicevic. “Too many people still perceive [domestic] violence as a private issue, a private matter between two people. They do not understand that it is a social problem.” Observers cite Bosnia’s lenient sentences for violence and killing of women as one of the key problems. A 2022 report by GREVIO, an expert body monitoring the implementation … “Brutal killings of Women in Western Balkan Countries Trigger Alarm, Expose Faults in System”

UK Interior Minister Signs New Rwanda Treaty to Resurrect Asylum Plan

British interior minister James Cleverly signed a new treaty with Rwanda on Tuesday in an attempt to overcome a court decision to block the government’s controversial policy of sending asylum seekers to the East African country. The Rwanda plan is at the centre of the government’s strategy to cut migration and is being watched closely by other countries considering similar policies. The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court last month ruled that such a move would violate international human rights laws enshrined in domestic legislation. The new treaty will include an agreement that Rwanda would not expel asylum seekers to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened – one of the court’s major concerns. There will also be a monitoring committee to enable individuals to lodge confidential complaints directly to them and a new appeal body made up of judges from around the world. Cleverly said there was now no “credible” reason to block the deportation flights because the treaty addressed all the issues raised by the Supreme Court and no extra money had been given to Rwanda to upgrade the deal from the existing memorandum of understanding. “I really hope that we can now move quickly,” Cleverly told a press conference in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. Many lawyers and charities said it was unlikely that deportation flights could start before next year’s election. The opposition Labour Party, which has a double-digit lead in the polls, plans to ditch the Rwanda policy if it wins. Under the plan agreed last year, Britain intends to send thousands of asylum seekers who arrived on its shores without permission to Rwanda to deter migrants crossing the Channel from Europe in small boats. In return, Rwanda has received an initial payment of 140 million pounds ($180 million) with the promise of more money to fund the accommodation and care of any deported individuals. Pressure Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under intense pressure to cut net migration, which hit a record 745,000 last year, with the vast majority coming through legal routes. “Stop the boats” is one of five goals Sunak set for his government, to end the flow of asylum seekers who pay people smugglers for their Channel crossings, often in overcrowded boats that are not seaworthy. The Supreme Court ruled against the Rwanda plan because there was a risk that deported refugees would have their claims wrongly assessed or returned to their country … “UK Interior Minister Signs New Rwanda Treaty to Resurrect Asylum Plan”

Netherlands Returns Colonial-Era Artefacts to Sri Lanka

The Netherlands returned six artefacts including a cannon, a ceremonial sword and two guns taken from Sri Lanka more than 250 years ago on Tuesday, as part of efforts by the former colonial power to redress historical wrongs, officials said. Sri Lanka asked the Netherlands to return the artefacts after the Dutch government approved the restitution of historic objects in 2021. The artefacts were taken in 1765 from Kandy, the last kingdom of ancient Sri Lanka, when the Dutch besieged the palace, a statement from the Netherlands embassy said. “The objects were wrongfully brought to the Netherlands during the colonial period, acquired under duress or by looting,” it added. Sri Lanka is grateful to the government and the people of the Netherlands for returning the artefacts, said Buddhasasana Religious and Cultural Affairs Minister Vidura Wickramanayake. “There are more to come. Not only from the Netherlands but also from other countries like Great Britain. So we have already started negotiations and I hope they will be fruitful very soon,” he told reporters. The artefacts will now be housed at the National Museum in Colombo and more are expected to follow. “These objects represent an important cultural and historical value and they are back in Sri Lanka where they can be seen by the Sri Lankan public,” said Dewi Van de Weerd, Ambassador for International Cultural Cooperation. “The value of returning these objects is important because it is about addressing historical injustices.” The Netherlands returned over 300 artefacts to Indonesia earlier this year, according to its government. Returning artefacts to former colonized countries is a long running and often sensitive issue. A dispute between Britain and Greece over the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures, known as the Elgin marbles, escalated last month, with both sides blaming the other for the cancellation of a planned meeting between their two leaders. Greece has repeatedly called on the British Museum to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in Athens in 1806, during a period when Greece was under Ottoman Turkish rule. …

Six Ukrainian Children Returned From Russia Under Qatari Deal 

Six Ukrainian children taken by Russia in the wake of Moscow’s invasion are to be reunited with family after Qatari mediation, officials from the Gulf state said Tuesday.    Russia has been accused of forcibly deporting thousands of Ukrainian children from schools, hospitals and orphanages in parts of the country controlled by its forces.    The children, aged between eight and 15, are a second group of minors to be returned via Qatar’s embassy in Moscow through a Doha-mediated deal between Russia and Ukraine which saw four returned in October.    Qatar had facilitated “the reunification of six additional Ukrainian children with their families in time for the festive holidays,” said Lolwah Al-Khater, Minister of State for International Cooperation.   “Both sides cooperated fully and engaged in good faith throughout the process, with Qatar serving as an intermediary,” she added.    Among the latest group is an 11-year-old boy whose mother, a Ukrainian soldier, is still being held in Russia. He has been handed into the custody of his aunt and is on his way to Ukraine via Moscow.    Another, an eight-year-old boy, had been with his grandmother in eastern Ukraine since March 2022, with Qatar negotiating a reunion with his mother in Russian-occupied Luhansk before the pair travelled on to Moscow.    All families have travelled together along the same route to Kyiv, via Moscow and Minsk with Qatari diplomats accompanying the children to the Ukrainian border where they will be received by Ukrainian authorities.    Ukraine has said some 20,000 children were taken to Russia in the wake of Moscow’s February 2022 invasion. Fewer than 400 have been returned.    Moscow has denied forcibly taking thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia but has said they were moved for their own safety if they were without parental care.   Khater said the Qatari mediation had come “in response to requests from Russia and Ukraine to identify and explore potential areas of cooperation, with the aim of establishing foundations of trust between the two sides.”   Qatar has been at the center of a series of high-profile negotiations and hostage exchanges in recent months, most notably mediating talks between Israel and Hamas for the release of scores of hostages and a seven-day ceasefire in Gaza which ended on Friday.  …

Zelenskyy to Address US Lawmakers Amid Debate About New Aid for Ukraine  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to address members of the U.S. Senate Tuesday amid a push by the White House for Congress to urgently approve new funding to help Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion.    Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Zelenskyy was invited to speak via video at a classified briefing “so we can hear directly from him precisely what’s at stake” when lawmakers vote on a bill that includes billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine.    Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young warned in a letter to congressional leaders Monday that by the end of the year, the U.S. will no longer have the funds to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine. It “will not be able to keep fighting,” Young said of Ukraine, noting that the U.S. has already run out of money for propping up Ukraine’s economy.        In October, the Biden administration asked Congress for nearly $106 billion to fund ambitious plans for Ukraine, Israel and U.S. border security.        Funding for Ukraine has become politically controversial with some right-leaning lawmakers in the narrowly Republican-controlled Congress.        However, Young said in the letter released by the White House that cutting off funding and a flow of weapons to Ukraine would likely work to Russia’s advantage on the battlefield.        “I want to be clear: Without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine, to provide equipment from U.S. military stocks,” she wrote. “There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money — and nearly out of time,” she said.      EU-Ukraine       Diplomatic envoys of the EU’s 27 member countries will meet Tuesday to start debating a launch of EU membership talks with Ukraine, according to officials and diplomats.        The meeting marks the start of preparations among the 27 for the December 14-15 summit of the bloc’s leaders that will also assess and decide on EU integration prospects for Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Bosnia and others.      Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has demanded that Ukraine’s membership bid into the European Union not be on the agenda at the EU summit.      In a letter he sent to European Council President Charles Michel, who will chair the summit in Brussels, Orban insisted that a “strategic discussion” is needed … “Zelenskyy to Address US Lawmakers Amid Debate About New Aid for Ukraine  ”

Niger Ends Security, Defense Partnerships with EU

Niger’s junta on Monday scrapped two key military agreements that the West African nation signed with the European Union to help fight the violence in Africa’s Sahel region as the country’s army leaders and a senior Russian defense official discussed military cooperation. Before the coup that deposed the country’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, Niger had been the West and Europe’s last major security partner in the Sahel, the vast region south of the Sahara Desert that Islamic extremist groups have turned into the global terror hot spot. In a memo, Niger’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the government has decided to “withdraw the privileges and immunities granted” under the EU Military Partnership Mission in Niger that was launched in February and consequently “has no legal obligation” related to that partnership. It also dismissed the EU Civilian Capacity-Building Mission established in 2012 to strengthen Niger’s internal security sector, effectively revoking its approval for the missions. The developments are the latest in growing political tensions between Niger and the EU since the July coup. In a rare visit on Sunday, a Russian delegation led by Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense Yunus-Bek Yevkurov met with Niger’s junta leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, and Minister of State for National Defense Salifou Mody. The two sides held more meetings on Monday to discuss military and defense issues. “At the center of the discussions is the strengthening of cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense,” Niger’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, hinting at formal political ties with Moscow, which has no embassy or military personnel in the country. Most of Niger’s foreign economic and security allies have sanctioned the country, including France, which had 1,500 troops operating in Niger. All of them have been asked to leave. Analysts say that although regional and international sanctions to force the junta to reverse its coup have squeezed the country, they have also emboldened the military government as it consolidates its hold on power and seeks new partnerships. Russia has been active in parts of Africa through its private mercenary Wagner Group, from the Central African Republic, where the mercenary forces have helped provide security services to the government, to Mali, where they are partnering with the army in battling armed rebels and where the Yevkurov-led delegation also visited. The Wagner Group was one of the first sources of help that the military leaders in Niger reached out … “Niger Ends Security, Defense Partnerships with EU”

UK’s Giant Pandas Leave Edinburgh Zoo, Return to China

The U.K.’s only giant pandas left Edinburgh for China on Monday after spending 12 cub-less years in the Scottish capital.  It was hoped that female Tian Tian (“Sweetie”) and male Yang Guang (“Sunshine”) would produce a cub during their stay at the Edinburgh Zoo.  But the bears, who even had a special black, white, grey and red tartan created in their honor, never succeeded in conceiving.  “It’s sad that Tian Tian hasn’t bred here. We would obviously really have liked her to have done so, but this is not unusual with giant pandas,” said Simon Girling, head of veterinary services at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS).  “I think we’re all quite sad to see them go. They are two lovely individuals, lovely characters, and we’ve got to know them really well.”  The pandas were transported to the airport in metal crates and loaded into a cargo plane with a pallet of bamboo ahead of their flight back to China.  They will spend time in quarantine on arrival in China before being re-homed at a sanctuary in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province.  The pandas arrived at Edinburgh Zoo in December 2011 as part of a 10-year agreement between the RZSS and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which was later extended by two years.  During their stay in Edinburgh, the popular pair even had a special tartan created in their honor, in black, white and grey representing their fur, and red to symbolize China. Difficult to breed   But it was soon clear the two were not eager to breed. The zoo and veterinarians from China made eight attempts at artificial insemination between the pair. There was also a failed attempt to artificially inseminate Tian Tian in 2013.   The giant panda breeding program was stopped in 2021 after Yang Guang was treated for testicular cancer and later was castrated.  Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, with bears losing interest in mating the natural way — or simply not knowing how. A female panda has a single estrus cycle in the spring in which she is fertile for only 24 to 36 hours, according to the Pandas International conservation organization.    “We have made a significant contribution to our understanding around giant panda fertility, husbandry and veterinary care — which has been of real benefit to efforts to protect this amazing species in China,” … “UK’s Giant Pandas Leave Edinburgh Zoo, Return to China”