Russia Bars Eight EU Citizens in Sanctions Retaliation

Russia on Friday barred eight officials from European Union countries from entering the country in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Russian citizens by the EU.Russia’s foreign ministry said those banned included Vera Jourova, vice president for values and transparency at the executive European Commission, David Sassoli, the president of the European parliament, and Jacques Maire, a member of the French delegation at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.”The European Union continues to pursue its policy of illegitimate, unilateral restrictive measures against Russian citizens and organizations,” the ministry said in a statement.It accused the EU of “openly and deliberately” undermining the independence of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.Sassoli, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council chief Charles Michel said in a joint statement they condemned Russia’s “unacceptable” action in “the strongest possible terms” and said it showed Moscow had chosen a path of confrontation with the bloc.”The EU reserves the right to take appropriate measures in response to the Russian authorities’ decision,” they saidSassoli said in a tweet that no sanctions or intimidation would stop the parliament or him defending human rights, freedom and democracy.”Threats will not silence us. As Tolstoy wrote, there is no greatness where there is no truth,” his tweet read.Russia banned three officials from the Baltic states: Ivars Abolins, chairman of Latvia’s National Electronic Media Council, Maris Baltins, director of the Latvian State Language Center, and Ilmar Tomusk, head of Estonia’s Language Inspectorate.It also banned Jorg Raupach, Berlin’s public prosecutor, and Asa Scott of the Swedish Defence Research Agency.Scott was among officials who said Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny had been poisoned in Russia with a Soviet-era nerve agent.Navalny recovered from the poisoning in Germany and was detained upon his return to Russia in January, and sentenced in February to 2-1/2 years in prison for parole violations on an earlier embezzlement conviction that he says was politically motivated.The EU imposed sanctions in March on two Russians accused of persecuting gay and lesbian people in the southern Russian region of Chechnya. The EU also imposed sanctions on four senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin in March.

your ad here

With Eyes on China, Philippines, US Mull Saving Deal Manila Once Scrapped

Comments by Philippine officials indicate that, with a growing Chinese maritime threat, Manila now hopes the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States – which the Philippines once moved to terminate – survives, experts told VOA Thursday.
 
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. last year announced the country had suspended the announced termination of the agreement. The 1999 pact provides for arms sales, intelligence exchanges and discussions on military cooperation. It allows U.S. troops access to Philippine soil for military exercises aimed at regional security and local humanitarian work. Those measures shore up a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
 
Locsin said in a tweet earlier this month that negotiations over the pact were nearly finished, Philippine media reported last week. The talks began in February and coincided with China’s mooring of 220 fishing boats at a reef that Beijing and Manila dispute. Media reports quote Locsin saying the talks should be done within the coming week.
 
On April 10, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana, and they “affirmed the value” of the agreement, the U.S. Defense Department says on its website.
 
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a skeptic of the United States who announced the deal’s termination in February 2020, said on national TV just over two months ago he wanted to hear public opinion on the topic. Many lawmakers have already opposed the pact’s termination — which has been suspended twice.FILE – This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels at the Whitsun reef, in a disputed part of the South China Sea, March 23, 2021.Saving the deal
 
Philippine officials have not said negotiations would save the agreement, but specialists say they believe comments from Manila show officials hope it holds up.
 
“There’s an emerging consensus within the key agencies, and I think something that we can see in terms of public opinion as well,” said Herman Kraft, a political science professor at University of the Philippines at Diliman, pointing to comments by defense and foreign ministry officials.   
 
The Philippine government now wants the agreement updated to spell out explicitly that the United States would intervene to help defend outlying islands where Chinese vessels are most likely to appear, an academic close to Philippine defense officials said.  
   
The United States had governed the Philippines for more than five decades before allowing its independence after World War II. For Washington today, the Philippines represents one in a chain of Western Pacific allies that can work together to check Chinese maritime expansion. Former U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper had called the deal cancellation a “move in the wrong direction for the longstanding relationship we’ve had with the Philippines” in part because of the Asian archipelago’s location.
 
“Rather than maintain strategic ambiguity — this was the practice in the past — [Philippine officials] prefer some strategic clarity,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.Sino-Philippine maritime dispute
 
China and the Philippines dispute sovereignty over tracts of the South China Sea.
 
Their dispute eased in 2016 after Manila won a world arbitral court ruling against Beijing and Duterte pursued a new friendship with China. However, Philippine officials grew alarmed when about 100 Chinese boats showed up in 2019 near a Philippine-held islet in the sea and again when the fleet of 220 stopped at Whitsun Reef last month.
 
Ongoing “tension with China” gives the Philippine government a new incentive to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement, said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila.
 
China, which maintains Asia’s strongest armed forces, cites historic documents to support its claim to about 90% of the disputed sea. Four other governments call all or part of the same sea their own. China has alarmed many over the past decade by landfilling islets for military installations.  
 
Smaller claimants welcome a U.S. role in the dispute, and the United States — China’s superpower rival — doubled the number of warship passages through the sea in 2019 compared to 2018.
 Delicate decision
 
A decision in Manila to uphold the agreement would upset China, which could in turn increase its boat count in the disputed sea, Kraft said. It could go as far as banning Philippine fishing operations, he said. The sea is valued for fisheries as well as undersea fuel reserves.
 
However, Duterte risks being seen as weak at home if he reinstates the U.S. pact after thundering against it in February 2020, experts say. Duterte, a long-time anti-U.S. firebrand, ordered an end to the deal after the U.S. government canceled a visa for a Philippine senator and former police chief who was instrumental in a deadly anti-drug campaign that generated outrage abroad.
 
Duterte might end up letting his foreign affairs and defense secretaries handle the whole Visiting Forces Agreement process, Kraft said. The Philippines could technically keep suspending its cancelation of the deal every six months until deciding what to do, Araral said.
 
The government could extend the review process into mid-2022, when Duterte must step down due to term limits, Rabena said.
 
“He doesn’t have to say yes to it,” Rabena said. “What he does sometimes is that he just allows his cabinet members to do their thing.” 

your ad here

US Political Power Shifts West and South With Population

Shifts in the U.S. population over the past 10 years are causing an important reshuffling of the number of members of Congress some states will have. VOA’s Steve Redisch explains the political impact of the process called congressional reapportionment.

your ad here

US Drawdown from Afghanistan Now Underway

After 20 years, the final U.S. drawdown of troops from Afghanistan has begun, marking a watershed moment for both countries.  VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has the story.

your ad here

Russia Releases Video of Black Sea Military Drills

Russia’s defense ministry released video Friday of its warships firing rockets during military drills in the Black Sea, the Reuters news agency reported Friday.
 
The drills were conducted earlier this week amid rising tensions between Russia and the west over Russia’s military buildup near the border it shares with Ukraine.  
 
Russia said the troop buildup was part of drills it planned in response to what it said was NATO’s threatening behavior. Last week, Russia ordered a pullback of some troops from the border area.  
 
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a May 5-6 visit to Ukraine “to reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,” Blinken’s spokesman, Ned Price, said in a statement.
 Blinken Heads to Ukraine After Russia Sends 150K Troops to Border Trip aims to ‘reaffirm unwavering US support for country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,’ State Department saysRussia began naval combat drills Tuesday as the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Hamilton was entering the Black Sea to work with NATO and other allies in the area.
 
Russia’s Black Sea fleet said its Moskva cruiser would participate in live-fire exercises with other Russian ships and military helicopters, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
 
The drill took place as fighting in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed troops escalated sharply since January, despite a cease-fire that took effect last July.
 
The conflict began when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, since killing some 14,000 people, according to Ukraine’s government.
 

your ad here

COVID, Military Coup Pushing Half of Myanmar Into Poverty, UN Reports

The political fallout from the military coup in Myanmar and the coronavirus pandemic threaten to push half of the country’s population into poverty by next year, the United Nations warned Friday. The U.N. Development Program said in a report that up to 25 million people could be forced into poverty by early 2022 as businesses remain closed during clashes between the junta and anti-government protesters. “COVID-19 and the ongoing political crisis are compounding shocks which are pushing the most vulnerable back and more deeply into poverty,” U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Kanni Wignaraja told Reuters. In an interview with Associated Press, Wignaraja said, “The hardest hit will be poor urban populations and the worst affected will be female heads of households.” FILE – A trishaw rider waits for customers along an empty road in Yangon, Myanmar, April 9, 2021.The report said 83% of all households in Myanmar reported their incomes were nearly cut in half because of the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. It also reported the pandemic’s impact has resulted in an 11% increase in the number of people living below the poverty line, a rate it said could increase another 12% by early next year. Protests against the military coup have continued daily despite the threat of violence from authorities. A flash mob protest took place Friday in the country’s largest city of Yangon, with chanting banner-carrying demonstrators taking to the streets in heavy rain. Myanmar’s military government seized power on February 1. In a campaign to quell the protests, the government has killed at least 759 anti-coup protestors and bystanders since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks casualties and arrests. When the military removed Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government, it detained Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and imposed martial law across Myanmar. Suu Kyi led Myanmar since its first open democratic election in 2015, but Myanmar’s military contested last November’s election results, claiming widespread electoral fraud, largely without evidence. 
 

your ad here

As Chinese Maritime Threat Looms, Philippines, US Discuss Saving Deal Manila Once Scrapped

Comments by Philippine officials indicate that, with a growing Chinese maritime threat, Manila now hopes the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States – which the Philippines once moved to terminate – survives, experts told VOA Thursday.
 
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. last year announced the country had suspended the announced termination of the agreement. The 1999 pact provides for arms sales, intelligence exchanges and discussions on military cooperation. It allows U.S. troops access to Philippine soil for military exercises aimed at regional security and local humanitarian work. Those measures shore up a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
 
Locsin said in a tweet earlier this month that negotiations over the pact were nearly finished, Philippine media reported last week. The talks began in February and coincided with China’s mooring of 220 fishing boats at a reef that Beijing and Manila dispute. Media reports quote Locsin saying the talks should be done within the coming week.
 
On April 10, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana, and they “affirmed the value” of the agreement, the U.S. Defense Department says on its website.
 
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a skeptic of the United States who announced the deal’s termination in February 2020, said on national TV just over two months ago he wanted to hear public opinion on the topic. Many lawmakers have already opposed the pact’s termination — which has been suspended twice.FILE – This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels at the Whitsun reef, in a disputed part of the South China Sea, March 23, 2021.Saving the deal
 
Philippine officials have not said negotiations would save the agreement, but specialists say they believe comments from Manila show officials hope it holds up.
 
“There’s an emerging consensus within the key agencies, and I think something that we can see in terms of public opinion as well,” said Herman Kraft, a political science professor at University of the Philippines at Diliman, pointing to comments by defense and foreign ministry officials.   
 
The Philippine government now wants the agreement updated to spell out explicitly that the United States would intervene to help defend outlying islands where Chinese vessels are most likely to appear, an academic close to Philippine defense officials said.  
   
The United States had governed the Philippines for more than five decades before allowing its independence after World War II. For Washington today, the Philippines represents one in a chain of Western Pacific allies that can work together to check Chinese maritime expansion. Former U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper had called the deal cancellation a “move in the wrong direction for the longstanding relationship we’ve had with the Philippines” in part because of the Asian archipelago’s location.
 
“Rather than maintain strategic ambiguity — this was the practice in the past — [Philippine officials] prefer some strategic clarity,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.Sino-Philippine maritime dispute
 
China and the Philippines dispute sovereignty over tracts of the South China Sea.
 
Their dispute eased in 2016 after Manila won a world arbitral court ruling against Beijing and Duterte pursued a new friendship with China. However, Philippine officials grew alarmed when about 100 Chinese boats showed up in 2019 near a Philippine-held islet in the sea and again when the fleet of 220 stopped at Whitsun Reef last month.
 
Ongoing “tension with China” gives the Philippine government a new incentive to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement, said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila.
 
China, which maintains Asia’s strongest armed forces, cites historic documents to support its claim to about 90% of the disputed sea. Four other governments call all or part of the same sea their own. China has alarmed many over the past decade by landfilling islets for military installations.  
 
Smaller claimants welcome a U.S. role in the dispute, and the United States — China’s superpower rival — doubled the number of warship passages through the sea in 2019 compared to 2018.
 Delicate decision
 
A decision in Manila to uphold the agreement would upset China, which could in turn increase its boat count in the disputed sea, Kraft said. It could go as far as banning Philippine fishing operations, he said. The sea is valued for fisheries as well as undersea fuel reserves.
 
However, Duterte risks being seen as weak at home if he reinstates the U.S. pact after thundering against it in February 2020, experts say. Duterte, a long-time anti-U.S. firebrand, ordered an end to the deal after the U.S. government canceled a visa for a Philippine senator and former police chief who was instrumental in a deadly anti-drug campaign that generated outrage abroad.
 
Duterte might end up letting his foreign affairs and defense secretaries handle the whole Visiting Forces Agreement process, Kraft said. The Philippines could technically keep suspending its cancelation of the deal every six months until deciding what to do, Araral said.
 
The government could extend the review process into mid-2022, when Duterte must step down due to term limits, Rabena said.
 
“He doesn’t have to say yes to it,” Rabena said. “What he does sometimes is that he just allows his cabinet members to do their thing.” 

your ad here

Kenya Camps With More Than 400,000 Refugees to Be Closed Next Year

Kenya wants two refugee camps, which host hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries, to be closed by June 30 next year, the government said Thursday.
 
The announcement followed a meeting between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi about the status of the two refugee camps where 433,765 refugees and asylum-seekers live. Most of the people at the two camps are from Somalia and South Sudan.
 
“A joint team comprising officials from the Kenyan government and the [U.N. Refugee] agency will therefore be formed to finalize and implement a road map on the next steps towards a humane management of refugees in both camps,” a joint statement said.
 
Earlier this month, UNHCR presented Kenya with what it said were “sustainable rights-based measures” for finding solutions for the refugees’ long-standing displacement.
 
This followed a two-week ultimatum given by Kenya’s interior minister for the agency to come up with a road map to close the decades-old camps.
 
The push by Kenya’s government to shut down the camps sooner has been blocked after the High Court issued the temporary order, which will run for 30 days, after former presidential aspirant Peter Gichira filed a legal challenge seeking to block closure of the two camps.
 
UNHCR’s “sustainable and rights-based measures” to find solution for displacement of the refugees include voluntary return for refugees in safety and dignity, departures to third countries under various arrangements, and alternative stay options in Kenya for certain refugees from East African Community, or EAC, countries.
 
“We are serious about completing the repatriation program which we started in 2016, in full view of our international obligations and our domestic responsibility. We therefore reiterate our earlier position to close both Dadaab and Kakuma camps by June 30, 2022,” Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i said, according to the statement.
 
“I believe that the government and people of Kenya will continue to show their generous hospitality toward refugees as they have done for nearly three decades, while we carry on discussions on a strategy to find the most durable, appropriate and rights-based solutions for refugees and asylum-seekers residing in the refugee camps in Dadaab and Kakuma,” Grandi said.
 
Refugees from East African countries will be given the option of being issued a work permit for free so that they can integrate into Kenyan communities or return to their country of origin, Matiang’i said.
 
Kenya has said the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somalia border is a source of insecurity. Some officials have argued that it has been used as a recruiting ground for the jihadi rebels of al-Shabab and a base for launching violent attacks inside Kenya, but officials haven’t provided conclusive proof.
 
A Kenyan court in 2017 blocked the closure of Dadaab camp, saying it wasn’t safe for refugees to return to Somalia.
 
Kenya has been saying for years that it would like to close Daadab, near Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia, and which hosts nearly 200,000 mostly Somali refugees.
 
The Kenyan government’s latest demand is seen as retaliation against Somalia for insisting on pursuing a case at the International Court of Justice over a disputed maritime border between the two countries. Kenya wants the case settled out of court.
 
Kakuma camp in Kenya’s northeast has nearly 200,000 refugees, mostly South Sudanese nationals escaping civil war.
 

your ad here