White House Press Gala Offers Political Normalcy Despite COVID

Much of Washington is ready to party like it’s 2019, before the coronavirus, when the biggest risk at the annual White House press corps gala was more likely to be jokes that ruffled too many political feathers.

After the pandemic nixed the event in 2020 and 2021, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner returns Saturday night, with Joe Biden as the first sitting president to attend in six years after Donald Trump shunned it while in office.

Comedy is also back, with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah as headliner. Celebrities are, too: Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson are expected to turn up, and the Funny or Die comedy studio is co-sponsoring an after-party. The event also draws a large swath of government officials and other prominent figures. 

“Seeing the president of the United States come back, and the dinner come back, I think signals more than a pause in the pandemic,” said Harold Holzer, author of the book “The Presidents vs. The Press.” “We’re safe to talk to each other again.

“I think this relationship — even if it’s a one-night thing where witticisms are exchanged, and people make fun of others and each other — it’s a very healthy thing.”

It feels like the return of a modicum of normalcy for the nation’s capital, but it is also a reminder that COVID-19 remains a threat. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive this week and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top coronavirus expert, is skipping the dinner “because of my individual assessment of my personal risk.”

That raised questions about whether the 79-year-old Biden should go. The president is going to pass up the meal and turn up later for the program. He plans to be masked when not speaking.

Biden mentioned the dinner during a speech this week about Russia’s war on Ukraine, saying, “I’ve always had respect for the press but I can’t tell you how much respect I have watching them in these zones where they’re under fire.”

“Imagine if we weren’t getting that information,” the president added. “It would be a different world.” 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s plan to attend “does stand in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press on a nearly daily basis, but also never attended the dinner.” Trump gleefully boycotted the event and at times branded the media “the enemy of the people.”

After the recent Gridiron Club press dinner in Washington, dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and of Biden’s Cabinet and journalists, tested positive for COVID-19.

The White House is stressing the abundance of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce by 90% severe outcomes from the virus among those at highest risk. Still, Psaki has said of Biden, “We want to be very clear that it is possible he could test positive for COVID, just like any American.”

That’s because the U.S. is experiencing a COVID case spike from a highly contagious subvariant of omicron, with confirmed infections rising to about 44,000 per day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Though well below the maximum of 800,000-plus cases per day nationwide during the height of the omicron wave earlier this year, current statistics are probably undercounts given the increased availability of at-home COVID-19 tests whose results may not be reported to health authorities.

The White House Correspondents’ Association said it would require same-day antigen testing for its dinner attendees even before the Gridiron outbreak. It has since added a vaccination requirement for those attending Saturday’s gala, which will have a capacity exceeding 2,600 and is fully booked.

Despite the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, virus deaths and hospitalizations are near, or at, pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving less severe than earlier virus strains. Just over 300 people are dying in the U.S. each day from the virus, down from more than 2,600 daily earlier this year — with about 1,600 hospitalizations per day, declining from a peak of more than 21,000 daily in January.

The correspondents’ dinner debuted in 1921. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend three years later and all have since, except Trump. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon opted not to attend every year of their presidencies, however, and Ronald Reagan, then recovering from a assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment — but called in from Camp David.

“The thing I think this shows is the restoration to the health of the relationship,” said Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. “It’s still barbed, there are still tense moments. But that’s OK.”

After comedian Michelle Wolf’s sharp satire sparked controversy in 2018, the event the following year featured historian Ron Chernow. The return of celebrities this time recalls President Barack Obama’s administration, when the likes of George Clooney, Charlize Theron and Viola Davis attended.

As vice president in 2014, Biden appeared in a comedy video with the star of HBO’s “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which drew big laughs at the correspondents’ dinner. The White House director of speech writing, Vinay Reddy, and longtime Biden adviser Mike Donilon worked on Biden’s remarks for this year, the White House said, tapping material from a variety of people both inside and outside government.

Psaki already acknowledged trying to lower expectations, saying the speech is “not funny at all. Just kidding.” Presidential attempts at humor can be tricky, though.

At the 2011 dinner, Obama skewered an unamused Trump — in his presence — over Trump’s fictitious claims about the then-president’s birth certificate. Obama concluded by musing about Trump taking his job one day, saying, “He certainly would bring some change to the White House” as banquet hall screens flashed a parody image of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s grand façade fitted with a Trump logo, golden columns, a digital clock and a sign proclaiming “Hotel, Casino, Golf Course, Presidential Suite.”

That turned out to be prophetic, since Trump of course succeeded Obama — though the overhauls he eventually brought to the presidency stopped short of affixing his name to the White House.

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Quick Payoff Unlikely in Biden Order to Boost Lithium Mining  

President Joe Biden is turning to a Cold War-era law to boost production of lithium and other minerals used to power electric vehicles, but experts say the move by itself is unlikely to ensure the robust domestic mining Biden seeks as he promotes cleaner energy sources.

Biden’s action, part of his efforts to find alternatives to fossil fuels and combat climate change, does not waive or suspend existing environmental and labor standards, the White House said. Nor does it address the chief hurdle to increased domestic extraction of so-called critical minerals: the years-long process needed to obtain a federal permit for a new mine.

Even so, the mining industry and supporters in Congress cheered Biden’s use of the 1950 Defense Production Act to increase U.S. supplies of lithium, nickel and other minerals needed for electric-vehicle batteries and other clean-energy technology.

His March 31 executive order is a historic step by the White House to “recognize the critical importance of minerals and push to electrify the car industry,” said Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association.

But “unless we continue to build on this action” and approve new hard-rock mines, Nolan added, “we risk feeding the minerals dominance of geopolitical rivals” such as China and Russia.

“We have abundant mineral resources here,” he said. “What we need is policy to ensure we can produce them and build the secure, reliable supply chains we know we must have.”

Environmental worries

Environmentalists, meanwhile, worry that Biden is activating a war-time tool to boost mineral extraction that can contaminate groundwater and harm ranching and wildlife.

“The clean energy transition cannot be built on dirty mining,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks, an environmental group that has pushed for stronger restrictions on hard-rock mining.

Biden’s order directs the Defense Department to consider at least five metals — lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese — as essential to national security and authorizes steps to bolster domestic supplies. Biden and former President Donald Trump both used the defense production law previously to speed the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On minerals, Biden wants to ensure the U.S. has enough lithium and other materials needed for EV batteries, heat pumps and large-capacity batteries for the electric grid. A majority of global lithium production comes from China, Australia, Argentina and Chile, while Russia dominates the global nickel market, and the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest cobalt producer.

“We need to end our long-term reliance on China and other countries for inputs that will power the future,” Biden said, vowing to “use every tool I have to make that happen.”

 

‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’

Although lithium reserves are distributed widely across the globe, the U.S. is home to just one active lithium mine, in Nevada. New and potential lithium mining and extracting projects are in various stages of development in Nevada, Maine, North Carolina and California. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has labeled California the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and two projects there could produce lithium by 2024.

Under Biden’s order, the Pentagon is authorized to spend millions of dollars to support a range of activities, including feasibility studies to determine economic viability of a proposed mine and develop mineral-waste recycling programs. The money also could help existing mines and other industrial sites produce valuable materials, the Pentagon said. For example, a copper mine could also produce nickel.

It’s unclear how much money will be available for mining, but the Defense Department is authorized to keep up to $750 million on hand for its strategic and critical material stockpile.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., called Biden’s order “a good first step toward expanding our electric vehicle battery manufacturing and infrastructure.” But she and other lawmakers said the U.S. needs a long-term strategy to improve the domestic supply chain of critical minerals.

“Unless the president streamlines permitting, we should not expect to see any meaningful increase in American mineral production,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. At a recent committee hearing. Barrasso urged Biden to “stand up to mining opponents in his own party.”

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, called Biden’s order misguided.

“Fast-tracking mining under antiquated standards that put our public health, wilderness and sacred sites at risk of permanent damage just isn’t the answer,” he said.

Grijalva and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced legislation to modernize the 1872 law that governs hard-rock mining in the U.S.

“Our current mining law was put in place before we even knew what a car was, much less an electric one,” Grijalva said. “Modernizing this relic of a law isn’t extreme or anti-industry — it’s just common sense.”

Mining companies have extracted hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of gold, silver, copper and other minerals from federal lands over the past 150 years “without paying a cent in federal royalties,” Grijalva and Heinrich said in a statement. The House bill would establish a 12.5% royalty on new mining operations and an 8% royalty on existing operations.

Mining law reform

The bill also would set up a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund to make the industry pay for cleanup of abandoned mine sites.

About 40% of the watersheds in the Western U.S. are contaminated by hard-rock mine drainage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt reserves are within 56 kilometers of tribal lands.

Indigenous people living near a proposed lithium mine in Nevada assailed Biden’s order.

“I believe this is going to be the second coming of environmental destruction,” said Day Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe and an organizer with People of Red Mountain, a group that opposes the vast Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada.

Another Nevada lithium mine is planned near a desert ridge where a rare wildflower has been proposed for listing as an endangered species. The mine’s developer, Australia-based Ioneer, said the expected habitat protections for the rare Tiehm’s buckwheat would not affect its mining activities, and company operations would not jeopardize conservation of the species.

Opponents dispute that. Hinkey said the first environmental crisis was caused by the fossil fuel industry “and I believe this next one will be lithium mining.”

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‘A Huge Demand’: Ukrainian Women Train to Clear Landmines

Learning to identify and defuse explosives is something Anastasiia Minchukova never thought she would have to do as an English teacher in Ukraine. Yet there she was wearing a face shield, armed with a landmine detector and venturing into a field dotted with danger warnings.

Russia’s war in Ukraine took Minchukova, 20, and five other women to Kosovo, where they are attending a hands-on course in clearing landmines and other dangers that may remain hidden across their country once combat ends.

“There is a huge demand on people who know how to do demining because the war will be over soon,” Minchukova said. “We believe there is so much work to be done.”

The 18-day training camp takes place at a range in the western town of Peja where a Malta-based company regularly offers courses for job-seekers, firms working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.

Kosovo was the site of a devastating 1998-99 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces that killed about 13,000 people and left thousands of unexploded mines in need of clearing. Praedium Consulting Malta’s range includes bombed and derelict buildings as well as expanses of vegetation.

Instructor Artur Tigani, who tailored the curriculum to reflect Ukraine’s environment, said he was glad to share his small Balkan nation’s experience with the Ukrainian women. Though 23 years have passed, “it’s still fresh in our memories, the difficulties we met when we started clearance in Kosovo,” Tigani said.

Tigani is a highly trained and experienced mine operations officer who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army during the 1980s. He has been deployed in his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya, and conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.

During a class last week, he took his trainees through a makeshift minefield before moving to an improvised outdoor classroom featuring a huge board with various samples of explosives and mines.

While it is impossible to assess how littered with mines and unexploded ordnance Ukraine is at the moment, the aftermaths of other conflicts suggest the problem will be huge.

“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians each year during and long after active hostilities have ended. The majority of victims are children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross testified at a December U.N. conference.

“Locating (unexploded ordnance) in the midst of rubble and picking them out from among a wide array of everyday objects, many of which are made of similar material is a dangerous, onerous and often extremely time-consuming task,” the Red Cross said.

Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that monitors clearance efforts worldwide, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with unexploded ordnance as of October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq carrying the heaviest burdens, followed by Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24. Russian forces have bombed cities and towns across the country, reducing many to rubble.

Military analysts say it appears Russian forces have employed anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine has used anti-tank mines to try to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.

With Ukrainian men from 18 to 60 years old prohibited from leaving their country and most engaged in defending it, the women wanted to help any way they could despite the risks involved in mine clearing.

“It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you are in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who is from central Ukraine.

Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland early in the war. She went back to Ukraine and then joined the demining training to help make sure it’s safe for her children when they return home to the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a rocket attack on a crowded train station killed more than 50 people this month.

Katelik said her only wish is to reunite with her family and see “the end of this nightmare.” Knowing how to spot booby-traps that could shatter their lives again is a necessary skill, she said.

“Acutely, probably as a mother, I do understand that there is a problem and it’s quite serious, especially for the children,” Katelik said.

Minchukova, wearing military-style clothes, said she was doubtful that normal life, as they all knew it before the war, would ever fully return.

“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I’m dreaming about peace, about sleeping in my bed not worried about going to bomb shelters all the time. I miss the people I lost.”

The Kosovo training center plans to work with more groups of Ukrainian women, both in Peja and in Ukraine.

“We’re planning as well to go to Ukraine very soon and start with delivery of courses there, on the theater” of war, Tigani said.

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Despite Payment, Investors Brace for Russia to Default

Prices for Russian credit default swaps — insurance contracts that protect an investor against a default — plunged sharply overnight after Moscow used its precious foreign currency reserves to make a last-minute debt payment Friday.

The cost for a five-year credit default swap on Russian debt was $5.84 million to protect $10 million in debt. That price was nearly half the one on Thursday, which at roughly $11 million for $10 million in debt protection was a signal that investors were certain of an eventual Russian default.

Russia used its foreign currency reserves sitting outside of the country to make the payment, backing down from the Kremlin’s earlier threats that it would use rubles to pay these obligations. In a statement, the Russia Finance Ministry did not say whether future payments would be made in rubles.

Despite the insurance contract plunge, investors remain largely convinced that Russia will eventually default on its debts for the first time since 1917. The major ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have declared Russia is in “selective default” on its obligations.

Russia has been hit with extensive sanctions by the United States, the EU and others in response to its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and its continuing military operation to take over Ukrainian territory.

The Credit Default Determination Committee — an industry group of 14 banks and investors that determines whether to pay on these swaps — said Friday that they “continue to monitor the situation” after Russia’s payment. Their next meeting is May 3.

At the beginning of April, Russia’s finance ministry said it tried to make a $649 million payment due April 6 toward two bonds to an unnamed U.S. bank — previously reported as JPMorgan Chase.

At that time, tightened sanctions imposed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevented the payment from being accepted, so Moscow attempted to make the debt payment in rubles. The Kremlin, which repeatedly said it was financially able and willing to continue to pay on its debts, had argued that extraordinary events gave them the legal footing to pay in rubles, instead of dollars or euros.

Investors and rating agencies, however, disagreed and did not expect Russia to be able to convert the rubles into dollars before a 30-day grace period expired next week.

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Conservation Group Urges Tracking of Botswana’s Big Tusk Elephants

The Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, a group that focuses on the conservation and management of the country’s wildlife, says placing electronic tracking collars on big tusk elephants could help prevent indiscriminate hunts. The idea follows the recent killing of a so-called big tusker during a sanctioned hunt, which sparked outrage among conservationists.

The association’s chief executive, Isaac Theophilus, said while his organization is satisfied that the hunt of bull elephants is being handled properly, tracking some big tusk elephants could help.

An electronic elephant collar helps keep track of the animal so that unsanctioned hunts of these animals for their tusks can be prevented.       

“The hunt from the point of view of the association is that it was perfectly legal,” Theophilus said. “We are happy with the size of the trophy that was harvested, and we are glad we still have such big tuskers. Going forward, the association would like to work hand-in-hand with [the] government to ensure that we monitor elephant populations out there. Go out there and collar a few of the so-called big tuskers and follow them to ensure that they are not harvested or anything like [that].”  

Theophilus contended the criticism of Botswana’s decision to reintroduce hunting in 2019 is unjustified. The southern African country recently opened its annual hunting season, which ends in September.

“The issue might have attracted criticism from certain quarters that do not value Botswana’s conservation efforts,” he said. “This particular hunt is a very good tusker. We should as a country be very appreciative that our conservation efforts are bearing fruit. We still have big elephants in the conservation areas, particularly in the concession areas and in the parks, where no hunting is done.” 

Local professional hunter Randy Motsumi said hunters always target old bulls with big tusks, which is what their clients demand.

“Mostly the hunters are looking for big bulls, which are old and no longer breeding,” Motsumi said. “If natural death could have occurred, who would have benefited? No one would have benefited. The animal was going to rot in the bush. Now hunters have shot a bull and it has fed more than 700 people. There is money in the government coffers and the community got employed. All these people have gained from only one big elephant that is no longer breeding.”               

Conservationist Map Ives said shooting big elephants is what drives the hunting industry.

“It is truly an impressive elephant, and the hunting of large tusks elephant is very much at the core of what the hunting industry is selling to its customer base in the United States in particular,” Ives said. “That is what the professional hunting industry is all about; is to find the biggest, largest animal because they have lists and books of records, and everybody wants to be in that book of records and publish a story about him.”     

Among critics of the decision to gun down a big tusk elephant is British Conservative Party Member of Parliament Roger Gale. He argued that tourists pay for photographic safaris to see the big tuskers, and he is opposed to Botswana’s decision to reintroduce trophy hunting.

But Botswana government spokesperson William Sentshebeng says Gale seeks to undermine Botswana’s pragmatic and sustainable conservation policy.

While elephant populations are declining elsewhere on the continent, Botswana has seen its herd grow to more than 130,000, while the most it can support is estimated at 55,000.

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Satellites Detect California Cow Burps, a Major Methane Source, From Space

Satellites have detected methane emissions from belching cows at a California feedlot, marking the first time emissions from livestock – a major component of agricultural methane – could be measured from space.

Environmental data firm GHGSat this month analyzed data from its satellites and pinpointed the methane source from a feedlot in the agricultural Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, California in February.

This is significant, according to GHGSat, because agricultural methane emissions are hard to measure, and accurate measurement is needed to set enforceable reduction targets for the beef-production industry.

GHGSat said the amount of methane it detected from that single feedlot would result in 5,116 tons of methane emissions if sustained for a year. If that methane were captured, it could power over 15,000 homes, it said.

Agriculture contributes 9.6% to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and about 36% of methane emissions, mostly from livestock.

The Biden administration late last year announced its plan to crack down on methane emissions from the U.S. economy.

The EPA unveiled its first rules aimed at reducing methane from existing oil and gas sources that require companies to detect and repair methane leaks. The Agriculture Department rolled out a voluntary incentive program for farmers.

At last year’s climate talks, more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% and to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Much of this reduction would need to come from the livestock industry, according to the U.N. food agency, which said that livestock accounts for 44% of man-made methane emissions.

Several methods to reduce livestock methane emissions are being tested, including adding seaweed to cattle diets.  

GHGSat provides its data to the United Nations’ International Methane Emissions Observatory program.

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Eastern DRC Residents Accuse Army of Abuse

Forced to flee her home, 62-year-old Agathe fears never to see peace again as she recounts the violence she has faced in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But the abuse Agathe has suffered in the territory of Masisi in North-Kivu province is not by rebels who have terrorized the area for more than a quarter of a century, but by soldiers.

“I tried three times to go home, but the soldiers who took control of the village behaved like those in the forest,” says Agathe, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, referring to rebels.

“They force us to work for them, they steal half of our crops. They ask us to pay taxes to access our own fields and when we don’t pay, they whip us.”

Agathe, like thousands of others displaced in Masisi, fled the fighting between DRC armed forces and rebel groups after the authorities declared a “state of siege” in the troubled region nearly a year ago.

The stringent measure gave the army and police full powers to run the administration and wage war on the hundred or so armed groups.

But in witness testimony and reports, civilians accuse soldiers of murder, rape, torture, looting, forced labor and collaborating with rebels.

“We thought that the state of siege would put an end to harassment, but in fact, it’s much worse,” says a civil society figure, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

“The extortion by soldiers is taking place in broad daylight and with complete impunity,” the person says.

‘Shot on the spot’

A U.N. document seen by AFP tells of troops committing hundreds of abuses including “attacks on protected people and places … abduction, recruitment and use of children,” as well as sexual violence and torture.

The abuses were documented in Masisi between May 6 last year and February 9, 2022, the U.N. Joint Human Right Office in DR Congo (UNJHRO) says.

A religious leader blames commanders. “The people will never be safe here while soldiers’ rations are stolen by their commanders,” he charges.

A health worker describes how soldiers from the 3410e regiment stormed into a health center in Loashi, 10 kilometers from central Masisi, in February looking for a rebel before they “shot him on the spot with three bullets.”

In another incident in December, soldiers from the same regiment raped 15 women held in underground cells after they were accused of witchcraft, according to a report by UNJHRO.

The soldiers demanded $200 for the release of each woman and refused to let them access health care, it adds.

The region’s armed forces spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Ndjike, told AFP he was not aware of any accusations against the regiment.

“If necessary, they will respond [to any claims] … it’s not a problem.”

Several sources said the 3410e regiment left Masisi earlier this month, which Ndjike did not deny.

Sitting on a bench, a despondent Agathe remembers the happier times of her youth. “When I was a young girl, we could walk freely, there was no kidnapping, no shootings, no harassment,” she says, describing a world she no longer believes will return.

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Remembering Havel, Czechs Feel Moral Responsibility to Help Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven home the importance of NATO and the European Union for many of their newest members, according to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who was in Washington this week for the funeral of Czech emigre and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“The reason we joined these two organizations is that it won’t happen to us,” Lipavsky, said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

The fact that Ukraine did not manage to enter the two Western institutions “created a gray zone” that Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited, said Lipavsky, who had discussed the challenge facing Ukraine, among other topics, in an interview with VOA earlier in the day.

The people of Ukraine “want to be part of the Western society, they want democratic elections, they want freedom of speech,” and they want to enjoy the prosperity that comes with them, he said. “I feel our moral responsibility to help them.”

Lipavsky is part of a newly sworn-in coalition government comprising both conservatives and progressives. Led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala, the new Czech administration is expected to pursue an internationalist foreign policy that promotes democracy and human rights, harkening back to an era when the country was led by playwright-turned political leader Vaclav Havel.

On his limited itinerary in Washington, Lipavsky paid tribute to Havel, who is memorialized in what is known as the “Freedom Foyer” of the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. There, his bust sits in close proximity to those of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Lipavsky gifted his American hosts with a collection of Havel photographs, including photos of Havel with Albright, who was born in then-Czechoslovakia and whose father was a member of the Czechoslovakian diplomatic corps.

 

The friendship between Havel and Albright was stressed by Lipavsky and other Czech dignitaries who came to Washington for the funeral. Among them were Czech senate president Milos Vystrcil, the senate foreign affairs committee chairman and three former ambassadors to the United States.

 

Albright is credited with having played a critical role in ushering the Czech Republic and other Central and Eastern European countries into NATO.

“Madeleine Albright made that possible, because she knew — she had suffered the consequences of policy failures, including American policy failures” in the 1930s and ’40s, said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, at the Atlantic Council event alongside Lipavsky.

“Vaclav Havel, along with Poland’s Lech Walesa, pushed [then U.S. President] Bill Clinton on NATO enlargement,” Fried recalled. “One of their arguments was — I was around, I remember — ‘we have a window now to do it, don’t you Americans blow it!’ ”

Fried added that Havel and Walesa might not have “quite put it that way, but that was more or less their way, what they were saying.”

Speaking to VOA earlier by telephone, Fried took issue with widespread reports of “backsliding” on democratic governance in the former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe. “Except for Hungary,” he said, he sees the countries in the region “going back to their roots” of fighting for freedom and democracy.

Lipavsky, for his part, said he believes the countries of the region are attracted to the West by its “democratic identity.”

“This identity is built upon the vision that every person can pursue his and her own happiness, and you have very basic values like human rights, rights to own [property], rights to think, freedom of speech,” he said. “Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, want to be part of that, is part of that.”

The Ukrainian people are “literally fighting and dying” for the very same choice, he said, and the Czech Republic will do its utmost to help them to prevail against Russia and become a member of the club of like-minded nations that is the EU.

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