Category: Europe

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After Merkel: Who Will Win the German Election?

Berlin is basking in late summer sunshine. Along the banks of the River Spree, residents enjoy the last warm days before the change of season. Germany – and the rest of Europe – are about to witness the end of an era: after 16 years, the sun is setting on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s time in power.  

Germans will head to the polls Sunday (September 26) for the country’s general election. Whichever party emerges with the biggest share of the vote will likely appoint the leader of a coalition government.  

Chancellor Merkel remains hugely popular among German voters, with approval ratings still hovering around 60 percent, a remarkable figure after four terms in office. However, her Christian Democratic Union party is struggling in the election campaign, with the latest opinion polls showing support of around 22 percent. In recent weeks that figure has at times fallen below 20 percent, for the first time since World War II.  

The Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor is 60-year-old Armin Laschet, who is attempting to woo voters with a promise of continuity. “The cohesion of Europe in these difficult times, a climate-neutral industry and strong economy, and a clear course for national security,” he promised voters in the latest TV debate last Sunday.  

Voters may approve the message, but not necessarily the man himself. During a visit to the flood-devastated regions of Germany in July, Laschet was caught on camera laughing during a speech by the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His approval ratings haven’t recovered.  

Instead, the Social Democrats’ (SPD) candidate, Olaf Scholz, is leading in the polls with around 25 percent. He is a former mayor of Hamburg and finance minister in the current coalition government, now favored to succeed Merkel.

“The Social Democrats’ strong position is a surprise,” says Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Freie University in Berlin and an expert on the SPD. “In the last years, they’ve continuously sunk lower in the polls. Many said that this wasn’t just a crisis for the party, but the start of their demise.”

“The poor performance of the Conservatives (CDU) has been to the benefit of the Social Democrats. So really, in a crowd of blind people, Scholz is the one-eyed man, and that makes him the king. He has a stable position in the polls, you could say a good performance as minister, and where he lacks charisma and charm, he makes up for in stability – all aided by the weaknesses of the competition,” Neugebauer told VOA.  

Scholz appeared confident of victory in the latest TV debate Sunday. “Many citizens can see me as the next head of government, the next chancellor… And I make no secret that I would most like to create a (coalition) government together with the Greens,” Scholz said.  

Earlier in the summer, the Green Party had been leading in the polls, and it seemed its 40-year-old leader, Annalena Baerbock, was about to usher in a dramatic change of the political guard in Germany. Support for the Greens, however, has fallen back to around 15 percent, putting them in third place.  

Paula Piechotta, the Green Party candidate for the city of Leipzig, told VOA the party is ready to form a coalition government – but has clear red lines. “Because of the (little) time that is left to actually act successfully on combating climate change, we will not be able to compromise a lot when it comes to climate policies,” Piechotta said.

Smaller parties, including the Free Democrats or the Left party, could be kingmakers in a coalition and will likely demand specific government positions or policies in return.

All three main parties have ruled out working with the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is polling around 10 percent nationally. Support for the AfD is much higher is some regions of the former East Germany, says analyst Neugebauer. “If you go to areas with weaker economic development, a higher rate of unemployment, a low level of education, poor service in particularly rural areas, like health care, schools, transportation, then you have higher support for the AfD than in areas where these problems are not present.”   

So what are issues driving voters? Polls show a clear generational divide – reflected among voters who spoke to VOA. “I think the first important topic for me is for sure, climate change,” said 28-year-old Berlin resident Jun Kinoshita. Thirty-five-year-old voter Corinna Anand agrees. “For me the most important issue is climate change. Climate, education, child care.”

For Dirk Zeller, a 54-year-old voter from the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, money is the biggest worry. “Pensions – that they’re stable. Jobs. Lots of things are more expensive. Gas, electricity. How is that going to continue to develop? Can we afford it, as simple people?”  

Fifty-four-year-old Brigitte, who did not want to give her full name, said social inequality is rising in Germany. “The richest Germans only got richer, even with the coronavirus. Meanwhile, lots of people saw their means of living deteriorate and today, they have bigger problems than before. I don’t see that any of the parties are offering initiatives there,” she told VOA.

Few Germans expect immediate change. Talks to form a coalition government will likely take months and Merkel will remain in charge until the rival parties can agree on her successor.  

Merkel has been seen as a pillar of stability in Europe for almost two decades – and the coming changes in Germany will be felt around the world, says analyst Neugebauer. “Just based on their existing international resumés, none of the candidates can simply step into the role of Ms. Merkel. They will have to grow into the role.”

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German Election: Who Will Take Over From Angela Merkel at the Heart of Europe?

Germans are preparing to choose a new leader in elections scheduled September 26 to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down. As Henry Ridgwell reports from Berlin, Merkel has been seen as a pillar of stability in Europe for almost two decades — and the coming changes in Germany will be felt around the world.

Camera: Henry Ridgwell

 

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Anti-Putin Protests Fail to Materialize After Sunday Vote

Results from Russia’s parliamentary and local elections Sunday have given a boost to the allies of President Vladimir Putin, who will now retain their majority. After denouncing alleged fraud, the Communist Party – the second largest in parliament – called for demonstrations in the Russian capital Monday but few people appeared. Jon Spier narrates this report from the VOA Moscow bureau.

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EU Rallies Behind Macron as Dispute Between France, US, Britain Worsens

The Australian decision to cancel a $66 billion deal to buy 12 French diesel-electric submarines and to purchase instead at least eight more sophisticated nuclear-powered attack boats from Britain and America continues to reverberate with French officials smarting at what they see as a betrayal by London and Washington.

 

And there are few signs the dispute will abate any time soon.

 

European Union leaders are rallying behind France in the dispute over the shelving of the multi-billion-dollar French deal and Canberra’s decision to sign up to a trilateral Asia Pacific security pact, known as AUKUS, with the United States and Britain, an alliance notably excluding Paris. 

Speaking after a meeting Monday among EU foreign ministers held in New York on the sidelines of this week’s annual gathering for the United Nations General Assembly, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the foreign ministers “expressed clear solidarity with France.”

 

Borrell chided Washington and London saying, “More cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation” was needed among Western powers in the Indo-Pacific region where China is the major rising power and is promoting alarm among its neighbors. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN, “One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why.” 

 

French anger 

 

Last week France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington — a dramatic demonstration of French anger. And France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has accused U.S. President Joe Biden of continuing the “unilateralism, unpredictability, brutality” of his predecessor Donald Trump, says he does not intend to meet his U.S. counterpart, Antony Blinken, while in New York.

 

“I myself do not intend to meet the Secretary of State Blinken,” Le Drian told reporters Monday. The French have also been avoiding timetabling a phone conversation between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.

 

France claims not to have been consulted by Australia about the plan to scupper what the French once branded the “deal of the century;” Australia says it did raise concerns with Paris for months over the contract, which was struck in 2016. Australian politicians have been emphasizing that the French contractors had fallen well behind schedule. “This has been a farce from day one,” Stephen Conroy, a former Australian senator, told Australian broadcaster Sky News. “This was a deal that was destined to fail,” he says.

 

French officials say they were only informed last week in writing just hours before the announcement by Britain, the US and Australia of an agreement that will see Australia become only the seventh state in the world with a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. 

 

France’s reliability in question 

 

While the core Australian decision rested on Canberra’s military assessment of its needs in the Indo-Pacific region, prompting an equipment upgrade, the move to exclude France from the trilateral defense pact, reveals much about Anglo-American suspicions of France’s reliability as a partner, say some former Western foreign and defense ministers and diplomats.

In defense circles in Washington and London, France is often seen as a frenemy, all too ready to grab commercial and diplomatic advantage over the United States and Britain and to exercise an independent mindedness that can make it an unpredictable military ally going back to General Charles De Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw France abruptly from NATO.

 

Former British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt accused France Tuesday of wanting to have its cake and eat it, having one foot in the U.S.-led alliance while on the other pushing for an alternative French-led European defense alliance and backing an EU investment deal with China which granted better access to Europe’s single market than given to post-Brexit Britain. “France has long believed Europe should build an independent defence capability,” he wrote Tuesday for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. 

 

An alternative defense arrangement that loosens transatlantic ties with Washington is not conceivable without British backing, he says. The French are “bitterly aware that our central involvement in a new Asian military alliance led by the U.S. makes it much less likely that any European alliance, with or without Britain, would ever be a credible alternative to American leadership,” he says.

 

Another former British foreign minister, Willam Hague, agrees “the petulant French reaction to the consequent loss of a huge defence contract does little to elicit sympathy.” And he notes in a commentary: “Paris would not have hesitated to do the same the other way round.” But he says that as the AUKUS initiative develops beyond submarines into areas such as artificial intelligence, it should be open for others to join, including Canada and European allies such as France. 

 

But analyst Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, an international security and risk consultancy firm in London, believes Washington and London should have been much more diplomatic, and instead of blindsiding Paris should have consulted and offered the French a slice of the new deal. “There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing the U.S. and the U.K. to the table, like splitting the contract in three,” he told VOA. 

 

“It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France since in the past few months France has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region,” he says. “Indeed, back in March China complained about French military activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there,” Guitta said. 

 

 

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3rd Russian in Skripal Poisoning Could Be Charged

Police in Britain said Tuesday they have enough evidence to charge a third Russian in the 2018 nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy in the city of Salisbury, England.

Authorities identified the third suspect as Sergey Fedotov, also known as Denis Sergeev, and said he was a member of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.

They said the list of possible charges includes conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, possessing and using a chemical weapon, and causing grievous bodily harm.

Prosecutors have already charged two other suspected military intelligence members in the attack that used the nerve agent Novichok to target Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who both survived.

A British woman later died from contact with the nerve agent, and a police officer became critically ill.

Russia has denied involvement in the attack.

In a separate development Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was responsible for the 2006 killing of former agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Litvinenko died after drinking tea at a London hotel laced with Polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the court’s conclusion Tuesday, calling the ruling unfounded. 

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How a Western Military Pact for Nuclear Subs Affects China

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia on Thursday announced what the Royal Australian Navy describes on its website as an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” known as AUKUS (Australia, U.K. and U.S.). It says Australia will get at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, to be built domestically using American technology.

The use of nuclear-powered Australian submarines in the Indo-Pacific has angered China by threatening to curb its expansion in the same waterways, experts say. 

The three-country security deal came after Australia pulled out of an earlier deal with France for diesel-electric submarines, angering Paris. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian even went as far as to describe Australia’s decision to back out of the deal as a “stab in the back.” On Friday, France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia. 

Analysts point to the partnership as the latest Western effort to vie with China for control over seas that Beijing calls its own despite territorial spats with other Asian governments, including Western allies. One disputed waterway is the resource-rich South China Sea.

Nuclear-powered submarines mean stealthier, faster-moving vessels, while Britain’s participation suggests a wider program and not just another U.S.-led effort targeting China, scholars say. The subs are expected to be ready by 2035.

“Operationally, it should bother the Chinese, because if Australia does get nuclear subs, then it can stay on station in places like the South China Sea or East China Sea for more or less permanent deployments,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Submarines won’t come online right away, he said, but for the first five to 10 years, what is important is “what (the partnership) says about Australia’s posture and willingness to stand up to China and whatever the posture changes are for the U.S.,” Poling said. Washington might eventually increase military rotations and exercises with Canberra, he said.

China’s maritime conflicts 

Beijing claims about 90% of the South China Sea, where it has angered Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines by building artificial islets and passing ships through the contested waters. It vies with Japan over sovereignty in parts of the adjoining East China Sea.

Western countries have taken new notice of their former Cold War foe as the Chinese navy grows rapidly and its ships turn up as far away as Alaska.

AUKUS calls for the sharing of military-related automation, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. Quantum technology can help detect submarines and stealth aircraft. Australia, Britain and the United States have committed to a “comprehensive program of work” over the next 18 months, the Australian navy says.

‘Worst possible contingencies’ 

Nuclear-powered subs based in Australia could reach the South China Sea in a day and stay indefinitely, said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. Alternatively, they might enter the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea or Southwest Pacific, he added.

He said Australia, in pitched political and trade fights with China since 2015, intends to help the United States defend any Chinese movement that’s “inimical” to Australian allies.

“These subs are primarily to boost Australian defenses against a rising China that is challenging not only the U.S. in the region but also all our countries, including Australia, and there is a growing military challenge from China that is very real, and we are preparing for all sorts of worst possible contingencies, including the prospect for a major power war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan some time in this decade,” Davis said.

China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and regularly sends military planes into its airspace. Taiwan’s government, opposed to unification with China, has found growing support from the West.

“Taiwan will have a side (of its population) that cries out, ‘That’s great. England, America and Australia are coming to do a check and balance against China,’ said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

British officials joined the tech-sharing deal as part of their “idea of global Britain” following their departure from the European Union, Poling said. Its participation as a non-Indo-Pacific country angers China particularly, Huang said.

AUKUS follows other Western-spearheaded efforts such as the 16-year-old Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among India, Japan, Australia and the United States. Western-allied countries periodically pass ships through the South China Sea on their own. China normally protests.

Stern words, deeds in China

China calls the AUKUS deal a danger to the Indo-Pacific region. “For the United States, U.K. and Australia to launch nuclear submarine cooperation severely disrupts regional peace and stability, increases the arms buildup race and wrecks the hard work of international disarmament,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday.

Asia’s chief superpower isn’t standing by either. On September 1, China implemented its Revised Maritime Safety Traffic Law to counter foreign ships that pass near its coasts. The law tightens Chinese control over the East and South China seas by giving Beijing power to stop a range of foreign vessels.

“The United States Navy, if it was ordered to conduct a freedom of navigation (operation), that just sets up a confrontation, because how are you going to stop an American warship?” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

China could follow up AUKUS further by restricting additional Australian imports, Davis said. Canberra, however, has already found new foreign markets for its all-important coal and wine because of earlier friction with China.

 

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After Merkel: What Role for Germany on Global Stage?

As Germany prepares to elect a new leader in elections scheduled for September 26, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor will face a series of immediate geopolitical challenges. Among the most pressing is the rise of China.

Beijing’s economic push into Europe, part of its “Belt and Road” initiative, has seen Chinese state-owned firms invest in critical infrastructure including ports, railroads and highways.

Hamburg is Germany’s biggest port, handling more than 8.5 million shipping containers every year, and a key artery for Europe’s largest economy and exporter. If current plans are approved, a large share of the port will soon be sold to Beijing. 

More than 30% of the containers handled at Hamburg are shipped to and from China, four times more than second-place United States. Chinese state-owned shipping firm Cosco wants to buy one-third of the shares in the city’s Tollerort terminal. 

Hamburger Hafen and Logistik AG (HHLA), the company that currently owns Tollerort, says the deal is a natural step in an evolving relationship. “We want to bind Cosco, with whom we have been working together for 36 years, closer to us,” HHLA boss Angela Titzrah recently told journalists. Hamburg’s mayor also supports the deal and says it is vital for growth in the face of competition from Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium.

Critics say Germany should be much more wary of the deal. Jürgen Hardt is a lawmaker from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “In China, business plans are not mainly the reason to do business, but (are instead) political decisions of the Communist Party,” Hardt told VOA. “Therefore, we should look very carefully on such a deal. I would prefer to have an exchange of shares between Hamburg harbor and maybe Shanghai harbor.” 

Hardt says this is unlikely, as China does not allow foreign companies to own its infrastructure.

China: friend or foe?

Germany’s geopolitical dilemma echoes that of Hamburg. Is China friend or foe?

The European Union describes China as a “negotiating partner, economic competitor and systemic rival.” In recent years, tensions have grown over Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population, the crackdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong and military expansion in the South China Sea. Germany has found itself caught in the middle, says analyst Liana Fix of the Körber-Stiftung Foundation of International Affairs in Berlin. 

“Europe and the European Union is undecided about which way to pursue. On the one side they feel the pressure from the United States. On the other hand, there are also economic interests especially for member states that are highly dependent on China,” Fix told VOA.

Germany’s leadership could be out of step with the population, according to a recent poll by the Körber-Stiftung Foundation.

“We asked the German public to what extent they would support sanctions towards China, even if it hurts their economy, for human rights issues for human rights violations. And there the majority of Germans said they would support sanctions against China,” Fix said. 

Russia

With Russia too, Germany finds itself caught between East and West. Despite Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel has pushed ahead with the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was completed earlier this month. It will carry Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine, which has until now benefitted from lucrative transit fees.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy offered Merkel a blunt warning following her visit to Kyiv last month. “I believe that (Nord Stream 2) is a weapon. I believe that not to notice that this is a dangerous weapon, not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe, is wrong,” Zelenskiy told reporters August 22. 

The United States also opposes the pipeline and has imposed sanctions on Russian companies involved. That has triggered some resentment in Germany, says analyst Fix. “The strong opposition from the United States has to some extent led to a reaction in Germany which said, ‘OK, why is the United States getting involved in our energy policy?’” Fix said.

With Germany phasing out coal and nuclear power over the coming years, a reliable supply of gas is seen as crucial, according to Rüdiger Erben, a member of the Social Democratic party in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. “Germany has experienced over many years that Russia is actually a very reliable partner when we’re talking about energy questions,” he told VOA. 

Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ 

Meanwhile, the European Union is seeking what it calls greater “strategic autonomy” to reduce Europe’s reliance on the United States for its security. France is highly supportive of the move, but Germany has stopped short of endorsing the formation of any “EU army.”

The United States signed a deal with Britain and Australia last week to help Canberra build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, in the process cancelling a deal with France to design diesel-electric subs. “It’s a good opportunity to remind ourselves, to reflect on the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy a priority. This shows that we must survive on our own,” the EU’s ‘s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told reporters September 16.

Merkel’s successor

Navigating global affairs won’t be easy for Germany’s next leader, says analyst Gero Neugebauer of the Freie University in Berlin. 

“The majority of German people see that Germany is currently in a crisis situation. Globalization is at play. The war in Afghanistan. Conflict in Europe. The question of what impact globalization has on jobs. Migration. Climate change.”

Neugebauer added that the main candidates in the election are not well known outside Germany. “Merkel’s successor will have either limited international experience, or none at all.” 

 

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US Eases Foreign Coronavirus Travel Restrictions

The United States said Monday that starting in early November it will ease its coronavirus restrictions for foreign travelers arriving in the country. 

Foreign travel to the U.S. had been largely curbed during the 18-month pandemic, even as European nations in recent months eased restrictions on American travelers ahead of the summertime vacation season. 

Under the new U.S. policy, White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said foreign travelers will again be allowed into the country if they can demonstrate proof of being fully vaccinated before they board a flight and show proof of a negative COVID-19 test administered within three days of their flight. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson applauded the U.S. action, saying foreign travelers will be able to get to the U.S. before its annual Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated this year on November 25. 

“That’s a great thing,” Johnson said. “I thank the president (Joe Biden) for progress we have been able to make.” 

The U.S. Travel Association trade group also welcomed the move, saying it will “help revive the American economy.” 

“This is a major turning point in the management of the virus and will accelerate the recovery of the millions of travel-related jobs that have been lost due to international travel restrictions,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement Monday. 

Fully vaccinated travelers to the U.S. will not be required to be quarantined, as has been the case in some foreign countries. 

But Biden’s administration, in its effort to push millions more Americans to get inoculated, said unvaccinated Americans returning from overseas will need to be tested within a day of their flight and again after they return home. 

More than 181 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, according to government health officials, but it is estimated that 70 million people eligible for the vaccine have so far declined, for one reason or another, to get vaccinated. 

The new policy replaces a patchwork of restrictions first instituted by former President Donald Trump last year and tightened by Biden earlier this year that restricted travel by foreigners who in the prior 14 days had been in Britain, the European Union, China, India, Iran, Brazil or South Africa. 

Zients said the new policy “is based on individuals rather than a country-based approach, so it’s a stronger system.” 

He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will also require airlines to collect contact information from international travelers to facilitate contact tracing if there is a coronavirus outbreak related to foreigners arriving in the U.S. 

It is uncertain under the new policy which vaccines would be acceptable to U.S. authorities, with Zients saying that would be left up to the CDC. Vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are used in the U.S. 

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.​ Some information also came from Reuters and The Associated Press. 

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US, EU Denounce Parliamentary Elections in Russia

The United States said Monday that laws against “extremism” in Russia prevented opposition parties from a fair shot in parliamentary elections.

 

“The Russian government’s use of laws on “extremist organizations,” “foreign agents,” and “undesirable organizations” severely restricted political pluralism and prevented the Russian people from exercising their civil and political rights,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Monday.

 

“Furthermore, we do not recognize holding elections for the Russian Duma on sovereign Ukrainian territory and reaffirm our unwavering support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Price added.

 

Longtime Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party claimed a decisive victory in the elections while many politicians who support jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny were barred from running.

 

Britain also said Monday that the prevention of opposition politicians from running, and intimidation of voters was not in accordance with Russia’s international commitments to free and fair elections.

 

“The measures taken by the Russian authorities to marginalize civil society, silence independent media and exclude genuine opposition candidates from participating in the elections undermine political plurality and are at odds with the international commitments that Russia has signed up to,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement Monday.

 

Within Russia, many candidates in parties opposing Putin’s United Russia claimed the vote had been rigged. In at least 15 districts, opposition candidates who were initially ahead in vote tallies all lost when electronic votes were counted.

 

“I know that such a result is simply not possible,” communist candidate Mikhail Lobanov wrote on Twitter, calling for people to gather to discuss “next steps.”

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Putin’s United Russia Claims Victory amid Allegations of Vote-Rigging

Russia’s Sunday election results came as no surprise to opponents of President Vladimir Putin — it was a foregone conclusion, they have been warning for months.

The Kremlin barred most genuinely independent candidates – first and foremost supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny – from running for the 450-seat Duma.

The polls were held against the backdrop of a crackdown on dissent, leaving little doubt that Putin’s ruling United Russia Party would romp home to victory yet again and retain its parliamentary majority.

The party claimed victory a few hours after the polls closed Sunday after three days of voting amid claims of ballot stuffing, vote-rigging and the marshaling of public-sector workers to back United Russia candidates.

United Russia official, Andrei Turchak, said his party was on target to win more than 300 of the 450 seats in the Duma, telling reporters in Moscow that the party was likely to emerge with 315 seats in Russia’s lower house of parliament.

On Monday, Russia’s election commission reported preliminary results — after 90% of the vote had been counted — that United Russia had secured 49% of the votes for candidates drawn from party-lists and about 87% of the vote where a deputy is elected in each constituency. Half of the seats in the Duma are allocated by party list voting and the other half are appointed through majority voting in constituencies.

Polling data ahead of the election suggested that just 26% of Russians were ready to vote for United Russia.

Irregularities

Throughout the three days of voting across 11 time zones, poll observers and voters reported thousands of violations. Videos were posted on social-media sites showing purportedly ballot stuffing, independent monitors thrown out of polling stations and the few opposition candidates allowed to stand assaulted.

A video shot in the Saratov region depicted two female poll workers feeding dozens of ballots into a voting machine after polling had ended. Another from Kemerovo shows ballot-stuffing, as a poll worker tries to obscure what is happening by attempting to block the view.

The independent Golos monitoring organization listed by Sunday more than 4,500 cases of reported poll violations. It said it had received “numerous messages” from people who said they were being forced by their employers to vote.

Long lines formed at some polling stations Friday, according to local reports. Navalny supporters suggested that meant state workers were being mobilized to vote by the Kremlin and local authorities.

“Every time [under Putin], elections have looked a little less like elections. Now this process is complete,” exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told the Echo of Moscow radio station last week. “The next time our people will vote for real will be after they earn that right on the barricades,” he added.

Claiming outside interference

The head of Russia’s electoral commission rejected claims of widespread irregularities, saying the criticism was part of “a planned, deliberate campaign, well-funded from abroad.” Ella Pamfilova also accused anti-Kremlin activists of “fabricating fake reports” about voting violations. Russia’s interior ministry spokesperson told reporters that no “significant violations” had been registered.

The electoral commission said it had only found 12 cases of ballot stuffing across the entire country. United Russia’s Turchak said the party had not detected significant violations that could sway election results.

This year’s Duma election was the first time since 1993 that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, decided not to send an observation team, a decision taken in response to strict limitations imposed by Russian authorities.

The claims of Russia’s electoral commission that the elections were free and fair were rejected Monday by Western politicians, including the former foreign minister of Lithuania, Linas Linkevičius, who said on Twitter the election was a “mockery & farce.” He added: “Worst is that manipulation of democratic instruments has become norm in that country,” he said, adding that the “results of ‘elections’ should not be recognized.”

Low turnout

Despite what Kremlin critics and opposition figures say was a manipulated election, not all went according to plan, they add. Even alleged vote-rigging could not disguise a low 46% turnout, lower than in Russia’s last parliamentary elections five years ago. And there were signs Monday of voting problems for United Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where officials repeatedly delayed announcements of preliminary results.

Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician, who served as Russia’s deputy minister of energy in 2002, tweeted Monday of his suspicions that poll officials were “trying to rewrite the protocols” and to dismiss as fraudulent two million votes cast electronically in Moscow.

Opposition figures remain fuming at the decision last week by Google and Apple to bow to Kremlin pressure and to remove from their stores a Smart Voting app devised by jailed Russian opposition leader Navalny. The youth-oriented Smart Voting app offered a guide on how to vote tactically for the best-placed candidate not affiliated with United Russia, which meant in many places voting for candidates offered by the Communist Party.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former campaign manager, accused the U.S. tech giants of having “caved in to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected last week the allegation of political censorship, telling reporters in Moscow the app was removed in observation of the “letter and spirit” of Russian law. Russian authorities had threatened the two companies with financial penalties unless they deleted the app.

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Spain’s Plan to Curb Soaring Energy Prices a Sign of Growing State Intervention

Spain has led a rebellion over soaring energy prices across Europe which analysts fear could endanger the continent’s economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madrid’s leftist coalition government last week approved a shock plan to divert $3.05 billion from utility companies to consumers over the next six months until gas prices are expected to stabilize.

Across the continent, governments are offering or considering providing state help to ease the pain felt by rocketing wholesale gas prices which increased electricity bills and some utilities companies have been forced out of business or seen their share prices fall.

Analysts at S&P Global Platts told VOA that electricity prices have increased because of an increase in the price of natural gas as emissions heavy coal plants have been retired.

Utilities companies also face higher prices for carbon allowances required by the European Union’s emissions trading system, which is designed to cut greenhouse gases, the consultants added.

As the world economy recovered from the pandemic, demand for energy has also surged. Supply from Russia has slowed down and demand in Asia is high which has put pressure on energy international markets.

Europe is more vulnerable to energy price rises because it imports about 60% of its gas from Russia, Algeria and Libya which pushes up prices, compared with the U.S. which benefits from relatively low prices for gas due to its abundant domestic sources.

Italy is using money from the emissions permits granted by the EU to lower bills, the Associated Press reported, while France is sending checks for $117.8 to consumers who are already receiving help paying their utility bill.

Britain is considering offering state-backed loans to energy firms after companies asked for government help to cover the cost of taking on customers from energy companies that have gone bust, Reuters reported.

State intervention  

Analysts said the Spanish government’s intervention in the energy market was being repeated across Europe as domestic economies came under increased pressure because of the rising cost of energy.

“What we are seeing is other governments getting involved to try to help the situation as happened in Spain. Situations differ in different countries but there is a growing need to ease the energy price situation while prices are so high,” Daniel Carralero, of the Critical Observatory of Energy, told VOA.

In Spain, protests mounted against energy companies after electricity prices rose more than 200% in the past year and the issue has become politically sensitive for the leftist government which pledged to help those unable to pay energy bills.

Spain’s Environment minister Teresa Ribera told reporters last week that the country’s emergency measures would cut prices for consumers by 22% for the rest of 2021.

Energy companies will have to meet the higher costs while these measures are in place, but they will be reimbursed through higher tariffs later, meaning that the overall cost to them will be neutralized, the government said.

However, energy companies oppose the Spanish government’s plan.

The Association of Electric Power Companies, Aelec, which represents major utility companies including Iberdrola, Endesa, Viesgo and EDP, in a statement said the Spanish government’s measures “go against the efficiency of the market, European orthodoxy and create a climate of legal uncertainty”. It is considering taking legal action.

The Spanish Nuclear Forum, which represents the nuclear sector and some utilities companies, warned the new measures would provoke a shutdown of the industry.

Analysts have been mixed in their reaction to Spain’s intervention in the energy market.

James Huckstepp, an analyst at S&P Global, said the Spanish government was temporarily tampering with the energy market.

“This is another way of subsidizing gas and power, making it artificially cheap for the end user and hence keeping demand higher than it might otherwise would be,” he told VOA.

What remains to be seen is whether the surge in energy prices will dent hopes for a real economic recovery from the pandemic.

Jorge Sanz, a consultant at Nera Economic Consulting, told VOA he hoped the effect on economic activity would be short-lived.

“If energy prices continue to rise then it will slow down the European recovery but if it is only a short-term shock then it will not have a major effect,” he said.

“The indications are that it will not last longer than this year. We have to hope.”

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Thousands March in Ukraine’s Pride Parade

Thousands marched in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Sunday for LGTBQ rights, an annual march that was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Waving rainbow flags, roughly 7,000 people — down from the record of 8,000 in 2019 — marched through the capital city. Police flanked the marchers.

Kateryna Lytvynenko, a Pride participant, told The Associated Press: “(We) are here at the Pride (march) to support the LGBTQ community in Ukraine. We are here to promote human rights because LGBTQ rights are human rights and, unfortunately, the community faces a lot of violence and discrimination in Ukraine still.”

Artyom, who said he was an IT expert, told Agence France-Presse: “Hate exists in these territories, in post-Soviet countries, only because of a lack of respect. It also exists in Europe and in the West, but at a much lower level. They respect human rights there, while in our country the respect for human rights is only just starting to develop.”

The march was peaceful, and no clashes were reported.

Several hundred anti-gay rights activists held their own rally in a park in Kyiv, the AP reported.

Kristian Udarov, who said he was a right-wing activist and pro-Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter, told AFP: “We are here today to protect family and Christian values, to protest against LGBT propaganda, because we are against it. LGBT is just people playing politics, and frankly it’s an illness.”

A number of Western diplomats, including staff from the U.S. and U.K. embassies, took part in the Pride march, tweeting their support for the movement, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“Embassy Kyiv community members participated in #KyivPride2021 to show support for the freedom, dignity, and equality of all people – including LGBTQI+ persons,” the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said in a tweet. “We salute law enforcement for ensuring participants’ safety.” 

 

“So fantastic to be out on the streets alongside my cool @UKinUkraine colleagues and friends supporting LGBTQ groups in Ukraine,” Melinda Simmons, Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine, wrote in a tweet. 

Homophobia is widespread in Ukraine. A survey published in August by sociological group “Rating” said 47% of respondents had a negative view of the gay community.

While government support for LGBTQ rights has increased in recent years, the country does not allow same-sex couples to be married or adopt children, and workplace discrimination laws do not encompass sexual orientation.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters.

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France Cancels Defense Meeting with United Kingdom

France has canceled a meeting between Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly and her British counterpart planned for this week after Australia scrapped a submarine order with Paris in favor of a deal with Washington and London, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Parly personally took the decision to drop the bilateral meeting with British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, the sources said.

The French defense ministry could not be immediately reached. The British defense ministry declined comment.

The sources confirmed an earlier report in the Guardian newspaper that the meeting had been canceled.

The scrapping of the multibillion-dollar submarine contract, struck in 2016, has triggered a diplomatic row, with Paris recalling its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.

France claims not to have been consulted by its allies, while Australia says it had made clear to Paris for months its concerns over the contract.

French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden will speak by telephone in the coming days to discuss the crisis, the French government’s spokesman said on Sunday.

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Lava Shoots up From Volcano on La Palma in Spanish Canary Islands 

A volcano erupted on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma on Sunday, sending fountains of lava and a plume of smoke and ash into the air from the Cumbre Vieja national park in the south of the island. 

Authorities had already begun evacuating the infirm and some farm animals from the surrounding villages before the eruption, which took place on a wooded slope in the Cabeza de Vaca area at 3:15 p.m. (1415 GMT), according to the islands’ government. 

Immediately after the eruption, the municipality urged residents in a statement to “exercise extreme caution,” and stay away from the area and off the roads. 

The population of nearby villages were told to go to one of five centers to be evacuated, and soldiers were deployed to help. 

Spanish television showed fountains of lava shooting into the sky, and plumes of smoke could be seen from across the island. 

There had been more than 22,000 tremors this week in the Cumbre Vieja area, a chain of volcanoes that last had a major eruption in 1971 and is one of the most active volcanic regions in the Canaries. 

The earliest recorded volcanic eruption in La Palma took place in 1430, according to the Spanish National Geographical Institute (ING). 

In 1971, one man was killed as he was taking photographs near the lava flows, but no property was damaged. 

 

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Lava Shoots up From Volcano on La Palma in Spanish Canary Islands 

A volcano erupted on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma on Sunday, sending fountains of lava and a plume of smoke and ash into the air from the Cumbre Vieja national park in the south of the island. 

Authorities had already begun evacuating the infirm and some farm animals from the surrounding villages before the eruption, which took place on a wooded slope in the Cabeza de Vaca area at 3:15 p.m. (1415 GMT), according to the islands’ government. 

Immediately after the eruption, the municipality urged residents in a statement to “exercise extreme caution,” and stay away from the area and off the roads. 

The population of nearby villages were told to go to one of five centers to be evacuated, and soldiers were deployed to help. 

Spanish television showed fountains of lava shooting into the sky, and plumes of smoke could be seen from across the island. 

There had been more than 22,000 tremors this week in the Cumbre Vieja area, a chain of volcanoes that last had a major eruption in 1971 and is one of the most active volcanic regions in the Canaries. 

The earliest recorded volcanic eruption in La Palma took place in 1430, according to the Spanish National Geographical Institute (ING). 

In 1971, one man was killed as he was taking photographs near the lava flows, but no property was damaged. 

 

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