Journalists Reflect on the Legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

As soon as he arrived with a small motorcade in rural Eureka, Illinois — population 5,400 — he was the center of attention.

“It looks like everyone in this small town is a photographer!” former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev exclaimed through his translator amid the crowd of cameras.

He wasn’t the biggest name to visit these parts, however. That distinction belongs to the man who was both Gorbachev’s adversary and his partner in reshaping geopolitics: former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Well before he was in the White House, Reagan attended Eureka College, graduating in 1932. In 2009, the college invited Gorbachev to accept an honorary degree, nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I diligently followed Gorbachev throughout his campus visit, managing to place myself on one side of a segment of the iconic Berlin Wall, gifted to the college in honor of Reagan, while Gorbachev stood across from me on the other side, reflecting on their historic relationship and the fall of that wall in Europe, both figuratively and literally, as my camera rolled.

“Ronald Reagan said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ And when I am asked what was my impression when he said that, I said that didn’t have much of an impact on us. We knew that Mr. Reagan, in his initial career, was an actor! But I still must say that my feelings about Ronald Reagan remain very high,” Gorbachev said through his translator.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was a patriot of his country, and that was immediately obvious when you encountered him or you listened to him. And to be clear, his country was the Soviet Union,” said Jeffrey Trimble, a former Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report who covered Gorbachev during the height of the Cold War. He later served as deputy director of U.S. international broadcasting.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was remarkably accessible to the journalistic community. This was the time of glasnost, of course, so it was relatively easy as a foreign correspondent to get direct access to Gorbachev,” Trimble said.

“He appeared genuinely interested in connecting with people,” said Andrew Nagorski, who worked in Moscow as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. “He did want to be respected. He did want to project a view of a younger generation,” he told VOA’s Russian Service.

That view continued into Gorbachev’s later years, when he delighted in answering questions from college students 60 years younger than him.

“What do you want to most be remembered for?” a young Eureka College student asked Gorbachev in a question-and-answer session during his 2009 visit.

“I reply to this question always the same way: History is a fickle lady,” Gorbachev replied.

“I think outside Russia, he will be remembered as a transformational figure,” Nagorski said.

When asked just how transformational, Gorbachev himself said, while standing near the section of Berlin Wall at Eureka College in 2009, that the global opinion of him might not be unanimous.

“There is still a debate as to what was done right by Gorbachev and Reagan and what was not done right,” Gorbachev admitted. “But no one can deny one very important fact: The Cold War was ended. We started the process of eliminating nuclear weapons, and relations between our two nations at that time turned into an excellent relationship. There was even euphoria in the Soviet Union for cooperation with the United States.”

Euphoria that has since transformed into apprehension amid a continuing war in Ukraine that has put Russia and the United States on opposing sides of a conflict.

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Biden Set to Address ‘Battle for the Soul of the Nation’

In a prime-time televised speech Thursday evening in Philadelphia, U.S. President Joe Biden is to speak about what White House officials characterize as “the battle for the soul of the nation.”

In the address outside Independence Hall, where the country’s Declaration of Independence was debated and adopted, and the Constitution was written by the Founding Fathers, the 46th U.S. president will discuss “how our rights and freedoms are still under attack. And he will make clear who is fighting for those rights, fighting for those freedoms, and fighting for our democracy,” according to the White House.

“It is striking President Biden is going to go there and give a speech, which is kind of an attempt to paint a big-picture view of where we are as a nation,” said prominent neoconservative political analyst Bill Kristol.

Biden should make the address — with midterm elections about two months away amid a highly polarized political environment — “not just a political stump speech, but really a more profound speech to all Americans,” Kristol said in a VOA interview. “I think it’s appropriate for the president to say, ‘Let’s step back here, and let’s be cautious about what we’re risking. And let’s be thoughtful about the way in which we conduct our politics.’”

Dartmouth University professor of government Brendan Nyhan predicts Biden will use the speech to “rally his party in advance of midterm elections that Democrats fear could go quite poorly for their side. But he’s also calling for Americans to reject the anti-democratic forces that have challenged the political system in this country.

“One of those approaches is partisan. The other one is in keeping with his role as president, as head of one of the three branches of government. I hope he can make a sober-minded case for the preservation of our democratic system.”

In recent days, Biden has been rhetorically battling Republican lawmakers, as well his predecessor, Donald Trump, and has sharply attacked the opposition party’s philosophy as “semi-fascism.”

In a speech Monday in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which was mainly about gun violence, the president criticized Republican lawmakers who he said have been warning of “blood in the street” if Trump is prosecuted.

Should the former president be prosecuted for mishandling classified information, “there’ll be riots in the streets,” U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham predicted on a Fox News program on Sunday.

But Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said Wednesday on Twitter, “If Trump doesn’t get prosecuted, it will mean the government thinks a former president is above the law, because you or I would absolutely be prosecuted for doing what he did.”

Trump, who lost to Biden in the 2020 election, is the subject of a federal investigation. He could face charges for retaining highly classified documents after he left office in January 2021 and related obstruction of justice charges, according to legal filings made by the Department of Justice.

A search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and private club in Florida by the Federal Bureau of Investigation prompted threats against the bureau’s agents. One man tried to breach the FBI’s office in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 11 before being fatally shot after an hourslong standoff with police.

“It’s sickening to see the new attacks on the FBI, threatening the life of law enforcement agents and their families for simply carrying out the law and doing their job,” Biden said in Monday’s speech in Pennsylvania.

Trump, who is considering another presidential run in 2024, has accused the Biden administration and the FBI of targeting him for political reasons. Before that, Republicans are hoping in this November’s midterm elections to wrest control of Congress from Democrats, who control the Senate and the House.

It is unclear if Biden in the Thursday evening address will mention Trump by name. He has accused the former president and his supporters of following an “extreme MAGA philosophy,” choosing “to go backwards, full of anger, violence, hate and division.”

MAGA refers to “Make America Great Again,” a slogan Trump popularized in his successful 2016 bid for president.

The stakes are high for Biden’s speech, according to Nyhan, who is also co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a watchdog group monitoring the status of American democracy.

“I believe U.S. democracy faces the greatest threat it has seen since we became a full-fledged democracy after the Civil Rights Movement [of the 1960s]. We’ve seen a violent insurrection that attempted to overturn a presidential election, and now we’re seeing threats of violence in response to efforts to enforce the rule of law,” Nyhan told VOA on Wednesday.

“Americans would be very clear-eyed about what they were seeing if they saw it in another country. And I think we need to recognize that the threat we see here at home is significant,” he said.

Trump, on his own online media platform, Truth Social, this week has continued to falsely insist he was the real winner of the 2020 election, demanding “immediately” a new presidential election — something that is not possible under the U.S. Constitution.

“What former President Trump is calling for would be an extra-constitutional step that would undermine the system of government we have in place, especially given that he was defeated in a free and fair election that has been shown to be free of the widespread fraud that he and his allies have falsely claimed,” explained Nyhan. “It is very worrisome to have a defeated president calling to be illegally reinstated in power.”

Kristol agreed, stating “it is revealing that Trump’s overheated rhetoric tosses aside one of our most basic constitutional norms.”

Unlike countries with parliamentary systems, the United States does not have snap elections.

“We don’t have votes of confidence where governments fall, presidencies fall,” noted Kristol, who was chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. “We have a presidential system with a four-year term.”

Trump contended this is justified because the FBI allegedly thwarted its own investigation into compromising information contained on a laptop of the president’s son, Hunter Biden.

A whistleblower claims FBI officials instructed agents not to investigate the laptop ahead of the 2020 election, saying the bureau was “not going to change the outcome of the election again,” according to Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican senator, who this week sent a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general demanding immediate steps be taken to investigate the FBI’s actions or lack of them regarding the computer.

“Every credible review, including by numerous judges — many of whom were appointed by Trump himself — repeatedly and emphatically rejected the claims of the Trump campaign,” Nyhan said. “There simply is no credible case against Joe Biden’s victory.”

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As Boris Johnson Departs, Britain’s Next Leader Faces Daunting Challenges

Britain will have a new prime minister next week, nearly two months after the resignation of Boris Johnson in July, following a series of scandals. As Henry Ridgwell reports, Johnson’s successor faces a series of daunting challenges — while Britain’s allies, including Ukraine, are watching closely.

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To Ukrainians, Gorbachev Remains an ‘Imperialist’

Mikhail Gorbachev could have been celebrated for involuntarily opening a path toward Ukraine’s independence, but his support for Crimea’s annexation and silence in the face of Russia’s invasion have stained his reputation there.

Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, triggered its demise in 1991, which led to the formation of 15 new independent countries including Ukraine.

But it is no accident that the Ukrainian government is still mute, a day after the death of Gorbachev, whose mother and wife were of Ukrainian origin.

Ukrainians walking through the streets of Kyiv on Wednesday did not mince their words about the leader of the “occupying” and “imperialist” Soviet power.

“I’m very happy he died. The more enemies and their supporters die, the happier I’ll be,” said 32-year-old Oleksandr Stepanov.

Katerina Boyuk, a 17-year-old student, is convinced that Gorbachev “did not really care” about Ukraine and that the country’s independence has “nothing to do” with him.

“He was just the ruler of the USSR, and he couldn’t manage to keep his throne,” she said.

“I think he’s as much of an aggressor as the current Kremlin leaders,” said Vytalya Formantchuk, 43, adding that Gorbachev “put a lot of effort into destroying Ukrainians, their culture and their language.”

The visible hostility of Ukrainians toward Gorbachev also stems from his silence regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Gorbachev, mostly popular in the West, never publicly commented on what has turned out to be the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.

One member of his close circle, Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov, said in July that Gorbachev was “disappointed, of course.”

Even worse, Gorbachev said he “approved” Moscow’s annexation of Crimea to Russia in 2014.

He argued that “the people” had spoken in the referendum on the unification of the peninsula to Russia, widely regarded as a sham.

Kyiv never forgave him for that.

Gorbachev is perceived in Ukraine “with a lot of skepticism — we do not share the enthusiasm we’ve been seeing in obituaries all around the world,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, philosopher and editor-in-chief of the website.

“His destiny is the same destiny as many Russian reformers who want reforms, but only up to a certain point: when people start questioning Russian imperialism and decolonization,” he said.

Gorbachev was Soviet leader in 1986, when Chernobyl’s No. 4 nuclear reactor exploded, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident and spreading radioactive contamination across Europe.

Moscow first tried to downplay the extent of the disaster, which delayed evacuation of locals.

Gorbachev is widely blamed for this and for the decision to maintain the May 1 parade in Kyiv five days later.

Thousands of people, including many children, marched through the city holding flowers and singing songs, blissfully unaware of the radioactive cloud surrounding them.

Gorbachev “was an ordinary Russian imperialist. He simply did everything he could to save the USSR and restore the Russian Empire, which is now waging war against us,” popular blogger and activist Yuri Kasyanov posted on Facebook.

Disliked by Russians, rejected by Ukrainians, Gorbachev still regularly talked about his Ukrainian roots.

“I am, after all, half Ukrainian. My mother was Ukrainian, and my wife, Raisa, was too. I spoke my very first words in Ukrainian, and the first songs I heard were Ukrainian,” he said in a 2015 interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel.

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American Nun, 83, Abducted by Jihadists in Sahel is Free

An 83-year-old American nun who was abducted by jihadists in northern Burkina Faso in April has been released, the Catholic Church said. 

Sister Suellen Tennyson, a nun with the Congregation of Marianites of the Holy Cross, had been kidnapped in the parish of Yalgo, where she had worked since 2014. 

In a statement, the bishop of the diocese of Kaya, Theophile Nare, announced “to all, that with great joy and gratitude to God,” Tennyson “has been released by her kidnappers.” 

She is “currently in a safe place … [and] in good health,” Nare said, in the statement that reached AFP on Wednesday, adding that he had no details about the conditions of her release but was “deeply grateful to all those who worked for it.” 

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed “the release of a U.S. citizen in Niger who had been held hostage in West Africa.” 

The spokesman did not identify the individual, but Tennyson was the only known American hostage in the region. 

“This individual will soon be reunited with loved ones. It is the wish of the individual to remain private at this time, and we ask that all respect that wish,” the spokesman said. 

Yalgo lies between the towns of Kaya and Dori, in the heart of a region of northern Burkina Faso that, like neighboring Niger, has been plagued by jihadists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. 

Thousands of people have died and nearly 2 million people have fled their homes in the 7-year-old insurgency. 

In April 2021, three Europeans who had been reported missing after an attack in eastern Burkina — two Spaniards and an Irishman — were “executed by terrorists,” the authorities said at the time. 


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Mississippi’s Capital Enters Second Day Without Running Water

Frustrated residents in Mississippi’s state capital faced a second day without drinking water and the prospect of long lines for bottled water handouts after a neglected treatment plant failed this week.

Many businesses were shuttered again in the city of Jackson, while local schools and Jackson State University, a historically Black college, resumed classes online. Store shelves once packed with bottled water stood empty as residents waited for cases of water to be distributed later in the day.

“Jackson is in a water crisis and we do not trust what water we get to even bathe in,” said Cassandra Welchlin, 49, a social worker. She said her family of five was fortunate because they could shower at her sister’s place outside the city.

As a stop-gap measure to restore pressure to the water system, crews scrambled to install a temporary pump at the O.B. Curtis plant, which stopped operating on Monday and left the city of about 180,000 people without running water.

The plant, long plagued by inadequate staffing and maintenance problems, broke down from complications after a weekend of heavy rain and flooding, angering residents of a city that is about 80% African-American.

Mayor Chokwe Lumumba told CNN he expected water to be restored to residents by the end of the week.

Governor Tate Reeves has declared a state of emergency for Jackson and surrounding areas and called up the state National Guard to assist in efforts to bring relief to the city.

Late on Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s administration approved an emergency declaration and ordered federal assistance to supplement the state’s response. The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will coordinate all disaster relief efforts in the state, the White House said.

In addition to bottled drinking water distributed at several sites, the state trucked in 10 tractor-trailers of non-potable water and was expecting another 108 trucks in the coming days, Stephen McCraney, the state emergency management director, told reporters. The non-potable supplies are intended for flushing toilets and washing clothes.

The city is likely to see some relief with the installation of the temporary pump which would boost the plant’s capacity, which had already been boosted to 40% by an emergency team.

Even so, the system was still short of sufficient water pressure to guarantee service citywide.

Even before the crisis, the city had been under a boil water notice for the past month due to “elevated turbidity levels,” which makes the water appear cloudy. That followed a string of disruptions to the city’s water supply in recent years caused by high lead levels, bacterial contamination and storm damage.

Reeves, a Republican, has alleged that the water treatment plant suffered from years of city mismanagement, while Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has accused the state of failing to support efforts to maintain and update the plant.

Each side had been offered differing accounts of why the treatment plant failed, though they appeared to agree on significant facts by Tuesday afternoon.

The governor, who previously blamed pump failures, conceded that a scenario earlier presented by the mayor was correct: that floodwaters had entered the plant and altered the chemistry of the water. That rendered the existing treatment inadequate, forcing the plant to shut down.

Many Jackson residents say that the lack of investment in Jackson’s water infrastructure reflected the racial makeup of the city, which is more than 80% Black or African American, according to U.S. Census data.

“Extreme racist politics are being put before the people. It’s time that we put that to the side,” said Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson resident and social justice organizer.

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Namibia Plane Crash Kills Family of German Tourists

Authorities in Namibia have confirmed a family of four German tourists and their pilot were killed when their plane crashed Tuesday during take-off in the country’s northern Zambezi Region.

Namibia’s Ministry of Works and Transport says it is investigating what caused the six-seater Cessna 210 to crash shortly after take-off, killing all five people on board.  

The ministry says the plane crashed on Tuesday afternoon near Impalila Island, on the Zambezi river in the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.

The plane was carrying four members of a German family on holiday. Namibian media report the pilot was South African.

Ministry spokesman Julius Ngweda told VOA the plane belonged to a local company, Scenic Air, but could provide no further details.

Scenic Air Managing Director Michael Bottger said in a press release the cause of the crash is not known.  

“Everyone at Scenic Air is devastated by this tragic event,” read the release, “and our deep and heartfelt condolences go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones.”

Namibia’s Police Chief Inspector Elifas Kuwinga told VOA authorities would release the names of the deceased after their next-of-kin were notified.

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Borrell Says EU Members Agree on Suspension of Visa Deal for Russians

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, says the bloc’s 27 members have agreed to suspend an agreement with Russia, which had made it easier for Russians to obtain tourist visas, as a sanction for Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Borrell announced the decision, which falls short of the total ban on visa issuance some countries sought, on Tuesday after the second day of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Czech capital.

A 2007 visa agreement to ease EU entry requirements for Russians was partially suspended in late February, targeting people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, such as Russia’s official delegations and holders of diplomatic passports. But it left so-called “ordinary Russians” untouched, allowing them to continue to enjoy EU visa-facilitation benefits, such as reduced waiting times and costs and the need to present fewer documents when applying.

Countries that share borders with Russia — the Baltic states, Poland, and Finland — have led the drive for more restrictive bans on visas for Russian tourists. With air service barred by the EU on flights from Russia, most travelers are using their land borders to travel on to other EU countries.

Borrell said the agreement is aimed at stopping Russians from “visa shopping” by applying for their travel documents with countries in the bloc where the rules are not as strict. Once granted a visa to an EU country, the holder of the document can then travel freely within the EU’s Schengen Area.

The suspension of the pact makes the EU visa process more complicated, more expensive, and more bureaucratic, as well as increasing waiting times for approval, according to European Commission guidelines.

Germany and France have led the other side of the debate, saying the limiting of visas to Russians would be counterproductive as the EU tries to fight for the “hearts and minds” of those Russians who don’t support Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine.

Kyiv has called for the bloc to ban issuing visas to all Russians except political dissidents.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told RFE/RL in an interview on August 30 that “calling this war a ‘Putin problem’ and not the problem of the Russian society that mostly supports its president is self-deception.”

All 27 EU members had to agree to any measure adopted that would limit the issuance of visas throughout the bloc.

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Fans of Princess Diana Gather to Mark Her Death 25 Years Ago

Fans of the late Princess Diana placed tributes outside the gates of her Kensington Palace home on Wednesday, marking the 25th anniversary of her death in a Paris car accident.

An arrangement of white chrysanthemums spelling out “Princess Diana” sat among dozens of photos and messages left by admirers, some of whom said they make annual pilgrimages to the spot to remember the tragedy.

“We just come here, do the memorial and, you know, we just chat about things that she used to do, you know, to … let people know that we will never forget the princess, we will never forget what she’s done,’’ said Julie Cain, 59, who traveled 300 miles (480 kilometers) from Newcastle in northern England. “We just want her legacy kept, like, going as long as possible.”

Diana died on Aug. 31, 1997, at the age of 36, stunning people around the world who felt they knew the princess after seeing her successes and struggles play out on TV screens and newspaper front pages for 17 years. The tributes left outside Kensington Palace on Wednesday were a small reminder of the mountains of flowers piled there in the days after Diana’s death.

Diana was the focus of constant media attention from the moment she was engaged to marry Prince Charles until the night she died. Her fairytale wedding, ugly divorce and efforts to build a new life all made headlines.

The public watched as she blossomed from a shy teenager into an international style icon who befriended AIDS patients, charmed Nelson Mandela and walked through a minefield to promote the drive to eradicate landmines. Along the way, she showed the royal family, particularly her sons William and Harry, how to connect with people and be relevant in the 21st century.

On Wednesday morning, Cain and her friend Maria Scott, 51, paid their respects to Diana as dawn broke over the palace, just as they do every year.

“There was just something about that girl that really stood out. And of course, I watched the wedding, the fairy-tale princess,’’ Scott said. “And, you know, you see, she was like part of your life because you were seeing that every day on the television. She was in newspapers, magazines. She was all over. And you felt like she was part of your life.” 


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Cameroon, Gabon Demarcate Border to Reduce Poaching in Congo Basin

Officials from Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville have agreed to demarcate their 100-year-old border to reduce border communities’ disputes over forestry and wildlife. The deal follows similar agreements with Gabon in May and the Central African Republic in June. Conservationists say having better defined borders will help crack down on wildlife poaching that has plagued the Congo basin.

Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon say they want to make their common border an instrument of peace and shared development, and stop potential border communities’ rivalry over natural resources.

Jacques Essissongo, Congo-Brazzaville’s director general of territorial administration, says experts from Cameroon and Congo who are meeting in Yaounde, are members of the technical sub-commission in charge of border demarcation. He says the experts must lay the groundwork for an effective and efficient demarcation of the over 460 kilometer Cameroon Congo border.

Essissongo said according to the document signed in Berlin, Congo and Cameroon share a 140-kilometer land border and over 320 kilometers of maritime and fluvial boundary.

Paul Atanga Nji, Cameroon’s minister of territorial administration, led the country’s delegation to the border demarcation meeting.

Nji says from Yaounde, experts will move to the border to make sure that demarcation begins within the shortest possible time.

“The experts will go to the field to mark the pillars and to give a comprehensive report on all the border issues between the Republic of Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. We have been working closely under the leadership of the two heads of state. They have given us all the support for us to do our job, they have given us all the facilities and we are very comfortable in exercising this mandate which has been given to us.”

Nji said their mandate includes planting boundary pillars destroyed by erosion and floods. He said some of the markers were either destroyed by rival communities, or crumbled with age. He said Congo and Cameroon have agreed to retrace their border in a way that will satisfy both states.

The two countries said they will use the border map drawn by former German and French colonial powers in 1908 as a guiding document.

Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, D.R Congo and Gabon belong to the Congo Basin which the U.N. says is the second largest rainforest in the world.

The U.N. says the Congo basin teems with unique animal and plant species whose protection is vital in preventing global warming.

Cameroon and Congo say demarcation will reduce border community conflicts over natural resources, especially forest and wildlife. Cameroon and Congo say border communities cross over to neighboring states in search of the resources and fighting erupts regularly.

Ofir Drori is director of Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement or EAGLE NETWORK, an international conservationist group that fights wildlife crimes. He says the Congo basin is one of the world’s highest poaching areas and border communities fight for resources.

Drori says wildlife knows no boundary, but if borders are demarcated, conservationists will be able to know where there are more wildlife crimes to finetune their anti-poaching activities.

“The poaching situation in north Congo is quite severe and we have many arrest operations in the area. Some of it is moving towards southeast Cameroon. We try to tackle especially the poaching of pangolins and illegal trade in pangolin scales moving from the Central African Republic to Cameroon in industrial scale [quantities]. EAGLE is taking care of these aspects in arrest operations with the governments in Cameroon and in Congo.”

Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic have already launched the demarcation of their borders established by German and French colonial powers in the late 19th century. The boundaries have not changed since the states gained independence in 1960, but there are frequent clashes among border communities.

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Global Tributes Pour in Following Death of Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev

Condolences and tributes are pouring in from around the world following Tuesday’s death of the former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. VOA’s Michael Brown reports on some of the early reactions.

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Democrats’ Chances in November Elections Seen as Improving

When Democrats took over the presidency and scored razor-thin majorities in both houses of Congress in 2021, the general expectation was that their hold on Washington’s levers of power came with an expiration date.

Conventional wisdom and U.S. election history suggested that in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans were likely to take over the House, the Senate, or both. 


Now, though, it’s beginning to look like President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats may have at least a chance to buck history and extend their control of the federal government for another two years.

To be clear, the odds are still in favor of Republicans taking over at least part of the federal legislative apparatus after the elections in November. Historically, the party of the sitting president tends to lose seats in Congress during midterms. The net loss of even one seat in the 50-50 Senate would flip it to Republican control, and in the House, the Democrats’ current nine-vote majority could easily disappear.


On top of that, the country is still adjusting to high price inflation, which has driven the cost of living up for most Americans. And Biden’s low job approval ratings in public opinion polls remain a drag on his party, though the approval numbers have ticked up in recent weeks. 


Tempering expectations 

However, a number of factors — some completely out of the Democrats’ control — have combined to boost the party’s public support, raise Biden’s abysmal poll numbers and create a sense of momentum for the party that was absent during much of the past year. Among them are a controversial Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights, a string of legislative and policy accomplishments, unexpectedly poor showings by some key Republican nominees and a decline in gasoline prices from high levels earlier in the year.


Democrats have even notched successes in special elections in recent months, including some in districts where Republicans were expected to perform well, leading experts to wonder if those elections presage a weaker-than-expected performance by Republican candidates in November.


“That sound you hear is the crash of expectations of big GOP [Republican] gains in the House this fall,” the Cook Political Report wrote last week, after a Democratic candidate unexpectedly won a House race in New York’s 19th Congressional District.


‘A decent summer for Democrats’ 

“It’s been a decent summer for the Democrats,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told VOA. “It looks a little bit better for them than it did.”


“In the House, I still think the Republicans are in good shape,” he said. “In the Senate, a couple of months ago, I thought it was really close, but that it would break toward the Republicans. I’m less sure of that now. The Senate is more of a clear toss up.”


In a recent Fox News interview, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel downplayed talk of a “red wave” that would sweep Republicans into power in November. 


“I’ve been saying forever that I hate the phrase ‘red wave,’” she said. “We have to earn every single seat in the House and the Senate to take it back.”

Roe v. Wade

One of the most significant factors at play in the midterm elections has nothing to do with the president or Congress. The decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old ruling protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, appears to have energized Democrat-leaning voters and could motivate other voters to support Democrats over Republicans in upcoming elections.


The decision was highly controversial — a large majority of Americans support some form of abortion rights — and was handed down by a court that is currently dominated by six conservative justices, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents. In the aftermath of the rulings, multiple states across the country have instituted total and near-total bans on the procedure, with others expected to take similar action in the future.


William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program, told VOA that of all the factors affecting November election expectations right now, “The most important was the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the public’s reaction to that decision. It had the effect of mobilizing a lot of Democrats and independents and even Republicans who were not pleased with the decision.” 


He added, “All of the survey evidence that I’ve examined suggests that it’s an issue working in favor of the Democrats and against the Republicans in this cycle.”


The Democratic Party platform — an expansive policy document issued every four years — has long supported abortion rights. While some elected Republicans back a woman’s right to abortion, the Republican Party’s platform has consistently opposed abortion.


Legislative and policy victories 

Another factor working in Democrats’ favor is a string of legislative victories notched this summer after months of stalemate in Congress. In recent months, Biden has signed a bipartisan gun control measure; a bipartisan bill expanding federal investment in semiconductors and other technology; and in August, a law making the largest federal commitment to fighting climate change in history.


Also in August, the president announced a major policy decision that forgave student loan debt owed by millions of Americans, worth up to $20,000 per borrower.


Neither the laws he signed nor the student debt relief he initiated went as far as many in his party wanted, but all of them constituted victories in policy areas very important to large swaths of the Democratic Party. 


Inexperienced nominees 

Particularly in the battle for control of the Senate, Republicans may have hurt their own cause by nominating candidates seen by many as radical, extremely inexperienced or both. This potential problem is especially obvious in a number of states where races were expected to be highly competitive.


In Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans nominated Mehmet Oz, a physician and television personality with no political experience to run against John Fetterman, the state’s popular lieutenant governor. Oz has never held elected office, and only moved to the state of Pennsylvania in late 2020, seemingly to make his Senate run possible.

In Ohio, Republicans nominated J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author, to run against Representative Tim Ryan. Among other controversial positions, Vance has advised former President Donald Trump that if he returns to the White House he should “Fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, [and] replace them with our people.” Acknowledging that such an action would be illegal, Vance called on Trump to do it anyway.


In Arizona, the Republican nominee Blake Masters is facing off against incumbent Senator Mark Kelly. Masters has a history of making highly controversial statements. He has endorsed the falsehood that Trump actually won the 2020 election, and he has appeared to endorse the “Great Replacement” theory, which holds that there is a conspiracy in place to dilute the voting power of white Americans through immigration.


All three Republican candidates have performed poorly and trail in polls. 


Candidate quality 

Galston said that nominating weak candidates in Senate races is much more dangerous than in House contests, where gerrymandering has made the overwhelming majority of seats safe for one party or the other, almost regardless of the nominee.


“Candidate quality matters a lot more in the Senate than it does in the House,” Galston said. “In the House, individuals are less well known, and it’s much more of a generic ballot, where if you’re Republican, the chances are very, very strong that you’ll vote for the Republican in the House race.” 


However, he added, “Senators are a lot more visible. They’re better known. And, especially if candidates are trying to win a Senate seat for the first time, how they present themselves to the public makes a big difference.”

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Health Official: Air Strike Hits Capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

An air strike has hit near a hospital in the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, said the head of another hospital which received casualties, less than a week after fighting shattered a four-month ceasefire.

At war since late 2020, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the region, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s central government have blamed each other for renewed conflict that is disrupting desperately-needed food aid.

Kibrom Gebreselassie, chief executive of Ayder General Hospital, tweeted that an area near Mekelle General Hospital had been hit late on Tuesday.

The extent of damage and casualties was unclear.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu, military spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane and the prime minister’s spokesperson Billene Seyoum did not respond to requests for comment.

Getachew Reda, the TPLF spokesperson, said on Twitter that at least three bombs had been dropped and that the Mekelle hospital was among the targets.

Another doctor at Ayder confirmed to Reuters he had heard three explosions late at night.

Reuters was unable to reach people in Mekelle for confirmation because the region has not had phone communication since Ethiopian troops pulled out more than a year ago.

The latest strike follows a hit on a children’s play area on Friday that killed seven people, including women and children.

Humanitarian convoys halted

Almost all of Tigray’s 5.5 million people need food aid, but humanitarian deliveries via the last remaining route — through neighboring Afar region — has been halted due to security concerns, a United Nations official said.

On Tuesday, the TPLF said an offensive had been broken and a counter-offensive launched. He underscored the devastation in the region, which has not had banking, phone or electricity services for more than a year.

Fuel restrictions have also limited aid distribution, while patients are dying for lack of medicine and equipment.

Restoring services is a key demand of the TPLF before peace talks. The government wants talks to begin without conditions.

On Saturday, the Ethiopian government communication service said it had pulled its forces out of the town of Kobo, in the Amhara region bordering Tigray, blaming the TPLF for sending “human waves” against the town and endangering civilians.

The government said Tigrayan forces were attacking in two directions — along the border with Amhara to the south and along the border with Afar to the east.

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India and China to Take Part in Joint Military Drills with Russia

India and China are among several countries taking part in Russia’s weeklong joint military drills scheduled to get underway on Thursday in the east of the country, according to Russia’s state-owned news agency Tass. 

While India has previously taken part in multinational military drills in Russia — an Indian contingent was part of Zapad military exercises held in September 2021 — analysts say its participation in the “Vostok-2022” military exercises in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaffirms New Delhi’s friendly ties with Moscow despite a tightening strategic partnership with the United States. 

“India’s participation in exercises in Russia is not unusual, but this time, they are also making a political point,” said Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “New Delhi is emphasizing that it will adhere to the independent position that it has taken in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and continue to remain neutral between the U.S. and Russia.”   

India has refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow. Its oil imports from Moscow have risen sharply this year as it takes advantage of deep discounts. 

India has defended its oil purchases as necessary for what it says is an energy deficient, developing country like India. “We have been very honest about our interests,” India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said earlier this month in Bangkok. “I have a country with a per capita income of $2,000. These aren’t people who can afford higher energy prices.”

Although India is currently purchasing weapons from other countries, including Israel and the United States, much of its existing weaponry is of Russian origin.

Analysts point out that India is unlikely to turn away from Russia anytime soon.

“India has an important relationship with Moscow with regard to defense and it has really no direct stake in the Ukraine crisis,” said Joshi. “If our national interest is served by maintaining ties with Russia, we will do so — that is India’s position.”  

For the time being, Washington appears to have accepted India’s position. Questioned about India’s participation in the Vostok military exercises earlier this month, State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said that the U.S. recognizes that reorienting a country’s foreign policy is a long-term challenge. 

“At the same time, we also recognize that there are countries around the world that have longstanding relationships, including security relationships, with countries like Russia, for example,” he told reporters at a press briefing. “Reorienting a country’s foreign policy or a country’s security establishment or defense procurement practices away from a country like Russia is not something that we can do overnight.” 

However, there are questions about how long India can continue to walk the middle ground between the United States and Russia amid the deepening tensions between the two countries. 

Analysts in Washington say that the U.S. appears to be taking a long view, with an eye toward trying to convince New Delhi that a long-term security partnership with Moscow is untenable. 

“Washington certainly worries about New Delhi’s enduring security partnership with Moscow,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center. “In the coming months, we can expect Washington to make the case to New Delhi that eventually Russia, sanctioned and cash-strapped, will no longer have the capacity to keep manufacturing and exporting weaponry to India.”

India for its part has maintained a low profile about the Russian drills — there has been no official word on its participation but sources in the Defense Ministry have confirmed that a contingent from India will take part. 

India’s military partnership with the United States is growing rapidly amid mutual worries over China. In mid-October, India and the U.S. will hold a joint military exercise as part of an annual military exercise known as “Yudh Abhyas” or “War Practice.” The location of the exercises — which according to reports will be 100 kilometers from the disputed India China border — is significant. 

For New Delhi, striking a balance between Russia and its partners in the Quad grouping that consists of India, U.S., Japan and Australia is also challenging. According to a report in the Deccan Herald newspaper, India will not take part in naval drills in the Sea of Japan that are part of the military exercises. New Delhi has close ties with Tokyo, which along with the U.S. and Australia is an important partner in efforts to counter China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

The strengthening Russia-China relationship could also emerge as a concern for New Delhi as tensions between India and Beijing over their border disputes show no signs of abating. While Beijing has joined drills with Moscow earlier, its participation in the Vostok military exercises reflects growing defense ties between the two countries amid tensions with the West, analysts say. 

“It is the first time the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has sent its Army, Navy and Air Force at the same time to a joint drill with Russia,” points out Bonnie S. Glaser, director with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “With the alignment between Moscow and Beijing growing closer, it can be expected that bilateral military ties will also likely increase.”

From Russia’s point of view, the participation of both India and China, who have tense bilateral ties with each other, underscores the country’s efforts to strengthen ties with both the large Asian economies.

Jagannath Panda, head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs said Moscow is hoping to ensure “Eurasian unity” against the West, “owing to its traditional partnership with India and the ideological friendship with China.

“Such a role has served Moscow well amidst Ukraine, as both countries have refrained from condemning Russian actions,” Panda said. 

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US Justice Department Cites Evidence of Obstruction in Trump Records Case

The U.S. Justice Department said late Tuesday it had evidence of likely efforts to obstruct the government’s investigation of classified documents being held at former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate.

A court filing cited a June declaration by a Trump representative saying all classified documents had been returned to the government, as well as statements by a Trump lawyer that all remaining White House documents were being held in a single storage room.

The Department of Justice said the lawyer forbade government personnel from looking inside boxes in the storeroom to confirm there were no other classified documents there.

Two months later, the FBI executed a search warrant at the site, seizing 33 boxes that contained more than 100 classified records, including some with the highest levels of classification.

The Justice Department said agents found some of the classified documents in a drawer in Trump’s office at the estate during that early August search.

Under U.S. law, presidential records belong to the government and must be turned over to the National Archives at the end of a leader’s term. Trump left office in January 2021.

Trump criticized the August search as unprecedented and unnecessary, saying he was cooperating with federal agencies. His lawyers have asked a federal judge to appoint a special master to review whether the documents seized include any privileged information.

The Justice Department said in its Tuesday filing that Trump was given plenty of time to comply with requests that he return the government records, and that a special team in the department had already completed the work of filtering out any privileged material.

A judge is set to consider Trump’s request further at a Thursday hearing.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Excitement Builds for Moon Missions Ahead of NASA’s Artemis Launch

NASA’s space shuttle program brought Brenda Mulberry and her husband from Tampa to Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1980s. Since then, Mulberry has operated “Space Shirts,” a space-themed clothing shop not far from Kennedy Space Center.

She said business slowed significantly when shuttle launches ended in 2011.

But this year is different.

“Excitement is over the moon,” said Mulberry, in between helping customers pay for armfuls of souvenirs.

People now flock to Mulberry’s store to get anything they can related to NASA’s new Artemis mission.

“On a normal day we might see 60 to 70 people in a day in our store,” she told VOA. “We’re seeing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds an hour. It’s a zoo.”

Artemis — NASA’s ambitious program to return to the moon — has generated renewed interest in space exploration ahead of the launch of the first unmanned test flight of the SLS, or Space Launch System, rocket and the Orion capsule, which will eventually carry astronauts back to the moon more than 50 years after the last Apollo mission visited the lunar surface.

Monday’s first launch date was scrubbed, disappointing throngs of tourists, but added to the anticipation for when the program’s first liftoff occurs. NASA will try again on Saturday.

“I call it the Artemis generation. Apollo had a twin sister — Artemis — and this is our generation,” said Branelle Rodriguez, an integration manager for NASA’s Orion capsule that will house astronauts traveling to the moon and back. “I think it’s a fantastic thing for us to experience, for people to go explore and create a presence on the moon.”

NASA astronaut Stan Love said the Artemis program will feature crews that pave the way for the first woman and person of color to stand on the lunar surface.

“We are going to broaden our demographics, so it won’t just be white guys on the moon,” Love told VOA during a recent interview at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA’s goals for the Artemis program include crewed missions to the moon for decades to come.

And that’s just the beginning.

“We’re going to establish a permanent [lunar] base, but I think long term, we want to go to Mars. NASA has said this is a steppingstone to Mars eventually,” said Doug Hurley, a retired NASA astronaut who now works on Artemis for Northrop Grumman, a government contractor.

NASA projects the budget for Artemis will reach $93 billion by 2025. While critics have pointed out the program is already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, Hurley says patience and expenditure will be rewarded.

“It takes time to build these complicated machines, but it’s worth it. I mean, when you look at NASA’s budget — one-half of 1% of the federal budget — and SLS is a small part of NASA’s budget. So, to me, it’s all perspective,” Hurley said.

Mulberry said criticism of the program is hard to find on Florida’s Space Coast. She credits Artemis with creating jobs and boosting tourism in a part of the state that suffered when the space shuttle program ended.

“I think everybody in the area underestimated the power this was going to have,” Mulberry told VOA.

Even though it’s an unmanned test flight, when Artemis 1 takes off on a planned six-week mission, it will provide valuable data for NASA and show how new systems function in space.

The first crewed mission back to the moon — to orbit but not to land — is Artemis 2, currently scheduled for 2024, with Artemis 3 scheduled to return astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025.

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Excitement Builds for Moon Missions Ahead of NASA’s Artemis Launch

After Monday’s scrubbed Artemis launch, NASA is awaiting liftoff of its first mission back to the moon — an unmanned test flight of its new rocket and capsule system. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on the excitement surrounding the Artemis program, which aims to one day send humans to Mars.

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Nigerian Authorities Pledge Support to Find Missing People

The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, says there were 64,000 cases of persons reported as having disappeared across Africa in the past year — nearly one-third more than the previous year. The ICRC says armed conflict is to blame for most of the disappearances, and Nigeria alone accounts for more than 25,000 missing people, including nearly 14,000 children, the highest in Africa.

A joint team of officials from the ICRC, National Human Rights Commission, the Humanitarian Affairs ministry and the army addressed journalists in Abuja Tuesday to commemorate the International Day of the Displaced.

Officials say the latest figures include more than 2,000 cases registered since January of last year, and do not represent the true state of things.

Officials said more than half of the missing persons were minors when they vanished, and that disappearances were mainly from armed conflicts, disasters, and risky migration via the desert and Mediterranean Sea.

Arrests, detentions and abductions were also cited as reasons for disappearances.

Yann Bonzon is the head of delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“The number of missing persons continues to rise every year, yet the ICRC knows that this figure represents a fraction of a wider undocumented humanitarian tragedy. These figures reveal [an] alarming fact that children are particularly more vulnerable than adults to disappearance in Nigeria as the conflict continues raging in the country,” he said.

Thirty-five active armed conflicts are raging in Africa, including the insurgency in northeast Nigeria that began more than 12 years ago. The war has spilled into neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Officials of the Nigeria humanitarian affairs and disaster management ministry have pledged to collaborate with other relevant authorities to help families of missing people reunite with their loved ones.

Nasir Sani-Gwarzo is the permanent secretary of the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry.

“I want to assure you that the ministry is working earnestly to develop humanitarian policies and provide effective coordination of national and international intervention to ensure strategic disaster mitigation, preparedness and response, managing the implementation of fair social inclusion and protection programs in Nigeria. We will work with the National Human Rights Commission, the ICRC to continue to pursue important initiatives to tackle the issue of missing persons in Nigeria,” he said.

Nigerian authorities last year launched a register for missing people and said they have had some success finding and reuniting them with their families.

They also say the ongoing conflict poses huge risks to progress.

Anthony Ojukwu is the executive secretary of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

“The issue of missing persons [has] become increasingly prominent in Nigeria, not only because of the consequence of the conflicts in the various parts of the country, but as a result of acts of criminality nationwide, senseless and ruthless killings, and armed hostilities. We have established the database of missing persons in Nigeria, which would address the gap which exists in documentation of cases, and also gives families the platform to engage with in addressing the cases of their missing loved ones,” he said.

Nigeria has been waging a war against armed conflicts ravaging its northeastern Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.

The U.N. estimates that more than 37,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced.

As the world remembers the missing people, authorities are renewing efforts not only to find them but to help families get closure.

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Global Reaction to Death of Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War without bloodshed but failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, hospital officials in Moscow said.

Below are some reactions from around the world:

Russian President Vladimir Putin: He expressed “his deepest condolences,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency. “Tomorrow he will send a telegram of condolences to his family and friends.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history. He did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the Cold War.

“On behalf of the United Nations, I extend my heartfelt condolences to Mikhail Gorbachev’s family and to the people and government of the Russian Federation.

“The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: “Mikhail Gorbachev was a trusted and respected leader. He played a crucial role to end the Cold War and bring down the Iron Curtain. It opened the way for a free Europe. … This legacy is one we will not forget.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III: “History will remember Mikhail Gorbachev as a giant who steered his great nation towards democracy. He played the critical role in a peaceful conclusion of the Cold War by his decision against using force to hold the empire together. … The free world misses him greatly.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “I always admired the courage & integrity he showed in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. … In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”

The Reagan Foundation and Institute: “The Reagan Foundation and Institute mourns the loss of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia.”

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Mikhail Gorbachev, Last Soviet Leader, Dies at 91

Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the demise of the Soviet Union and helped end decades of Cold War fear, earning a Nobel Peace Prize and the lasting enmity of millions of Russians bitter about the chaos unleashed by the collapse of the world’s largest country, has died at age 91.

The Central Clinical Hospital on the outskirts of Moscow told the state news agency Tass that Gorbachev died Tuesday night “after a serious and prolonged illness.”

Born in a rural corner of Russia less than 15 years after the Bolshevik Revolution to parents whose families had been peasants, Gorbachev became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, gathering global accolades for his role in reducing the threat of a nuclear apocalypse and in freeing millions of people from Soviet oppression in his country and beyond.

Just as notably, he was a target of the scorn of millions of Soviets who blamed him for the life-changing economic and social upheaval that accompanied the country’s collapse and for the loss of a mighty empire that spanned 11 time zones.

This was Gorbachev’s paradox: loved and loathed for a process that he set in motion and whose ultimate result was foreseen by few. It was a result that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rose to power less than a decade after Gorbachev resigned and remains in the Kremlin today, once called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Gorbachev made clear he never meant to bring down the country, repeating almost as a mantra that “the union could have been preserved.”

But despite occasional reversals, he ultimately sided with the forces of change that he helped unleash. And in retrospect, a dozen years after the Soviet Union was done, Gorbachev insisted that those momentous changes were the result of a conscious and very personal decision.

“Other people could have [come into office] and they might have done nothing to put the country on the road to humane, free and democratic development,” he said in an interview with RFE/RL in 2003.

Humble beginnings

In any case, Gorbachev will rank alongside such towering 20th-century figures as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — leaders who changed the fate of nations and had a profound impact on the lives of millions of people.

Born on March 2, 1931, into a poor family in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia’s Stavropol region, Gorbachev grew up amid the immense upheavals that roiled the Soviet Union in the first two decades of his life: collectivization, Stalin’s “Great Terror,” and the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is best known within Russia.

At about age 21, he joined the Communist Party while studying law at Moscow State University in 1952.

After marrying classmate Raisa Titorenko, Gorbachev returned to southern Russia, where he began to climb the ladder of the regional Communist bureaucracy, specializing in agriculture.

By 1970, he had risen to the top of the party hierarchy in Stavropol.

‘The state is there to serve the people’

In 1980, Gorbachev was appointed a full member of the Communist Party’s Politburo in Moscow.

To the surprise of many Kremlin watchers and Soviet citizens, he almost immediately began calling for reform, espousing twin doctrines that would become bywords for his time: “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring).

“The state is there to serve the people,” he said. “The people are not there to serve the state.”

That, according to Gorbachev, would be the new guiding principle.

Gorbachev and Raisa brought new style to the Kremlin, traveling around the USSR and abroad, plunging into crowds and leading impromptu discussions on the street.

A relaxation of economic regulations brought the rebirth of small businesses, cafes and restaurants for the first time since Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s. A partial lifting of censorship led to a renaissance in cultural life. Literary journals published previously banned authors, and theaters staged ever-more daring productions.

The disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986 forced a reluctant leadership to allow even greater freedom of expression and information. The government began to release political prisoners, most famously Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who designed nuclear weapons and later campaigned against them, resulting in his internal exile from 1980 to 1986.

Gorbachev called for an end to the arms race, and he improved relations with Washington, helping remove thousands of warheads that threatened Europe with destruction by signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987. In 1989, he ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, begun 10 years earlier under Leonid Brezhnev.

End of an empire

But all was not well in the empire. By 1989, what had begun as an effort to reform the Soviet Union’s economy and foreign policy had precipitated a crisis in industry and encouraged cries for self-determination that would soon engulf the entire region.

Gorbachev vastly underestimated the degree of economic decay. Shortages of basic household goods and foodstuffs were growing, and conservatives within the Communist Party grew ever-more strident in their criticism of his leadership.

He had also not counted on the fact that greater freedom would fan the forces of nationalism.

In October 1989, during a visit to East Berlin to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, Gorbachev signaled that Moscow would not try to turn back the clock.

A month later, the Berlin Wall fell.

“We have given up pretending to have a monopoly on truth,” Gorbachev said a few weeks after that, in a speech in Rome a day before a historic meeting with Pope John Paul II. “We no longer think that those who don’t agree with us are enemies.”

‘Freedom of choice’

In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to reducing East-West tensions, but he had precious little time to reflect on his achievement. While feted across Europe and the rest of the world, he continued to confront growing unrest at home.

On August 4, 1991, Gorbachev left with his family for his annual vacation in Crimea on the Black Sea, intending to complete a new version of a union treaty aimed to keep the USSR together as centrifugal force was pulling it apart.

On August 18, his chief of staff, accompanied by a group of senior government officials, arrived at the presidential dacha at Foros. They demanded that Gorbachev sign a decree declaring a state of emergency or resign. Gorbachev refused to do either. The officials confiscated the codes needed to launch the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. Gorbachev and his family were, in effect, under house arrest.

State television announced the imposition of a state of emergency “starting at 1600 Moscow time, on August 19, 1991,” claiming it was in response “to demands by broad sections of the population for the most decisive measures to prevent society from sliding toward a national catastrophe.”

Three days later, the coup collapsed, thanks to the incompetence of the plotters and the resistance demonstrated by Russia’s nascent political leader, Boris Yeltsin, and crowds of citizens who came out into the streets to oppose the attempted takeover.

‘A different direction’

In the months that followed, more republics declared independence from Moscow. On December 8, Yeltsin, along with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine, signed accords proclaiming the Soviet Union’s end and announcing the creation of a new entity called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Gorbachev stayed on in the Kremlin for a few more weeks, but power had slipped from his hands. On December 25, he resigned — stepping down as the leader of a country that had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1991, he founded The Gorbachev Foundation in an effort to maintain a voice in Russian affairs. In 1996, he ran for president but came in a distant seventh in a field of 10, with 0.5% of the vote. Later, he became a sometime critic of Putin, to whom Yeltsin handed the presidency on the last day of 1999.

Gorbachev was an approving voice for some of Putin’s most controversial actions on the international stage, including Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Suggesting he viewed the annexation in terms of Russia’s national interests, he told the media he would have acted “the same way” had he had the choice.

However, he continued to criticize many of Putin’s repressive domestic policies and opposed Putin’s decision to return to the presidency in 2012, when Dmitry Medvedev turned out to have been a placeholder after four years of hinting at reform. In 2013, Gorbachev commented that “politics is increasingly turning into imitation democracy.”

Gorbachev was also harshly critical of the United States, largely blaming Washington for poor ties by charging that it failed to develop good relations with Russia after the Soviet collapse.

In positions echoed by or echoing Putin’s, he accused the United States of relishing its status as the world’s sole superpower and lambasted the eastward expansion of NATO. He opposed NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which he had negotiated and signed with Reagan in 1987, as “not the work of a great mind.”

The ailing Gorbachev, who turned 91 a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, had made few public comments, about the war in Ukraine or anything else.

RFE/RL’s Jeremy Bransten contributed to this report.

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US Considers Halting Nicaraguan Imports Over Concerns About Its Government

Two top U.S. officials told VOA this week that the Biden administration is considering blocking imports from the impoverished nation of Nicaragua — a move that would deal a serious blow to the Central American country’s economy –— over U.S. objections to the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Daniel Ortega.

“There has been a dramatic deterioration of respect for democratic principles and human rights by the regime in Nicaragua, including the imprisonment of democratic leaders, members of the political opposition, students and journalists,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. “The Biden-Harris administration finds this unacceptable and condemns these actions.”

The U.S. imported nearly $4 billion in goods from Nicaragua in 2019, according to the office of the U.S. trade representative. Top U.S. imports from Nicaragua include clothing, precious metals, machinery, meat, coffee and sugar, though it’s not clear which products would be affected by this decision.

Regardless, analysts say, it would make a big difference, as the U.S. is, by far, the biggest destination for Nicaraguan goods.

“It would mean a significant cut in financing for the Ortega regime. It would mean less money in that system to pay off the cronies that it needs to pay off in order to stay in power,” Ryan Berg, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.

“It would mean less money for the security forces on the ground which comprise the police state, the day-to-day apparatus that the regime uses to keep protests to a minimum and to keep the opposition in check. And so, in short, I think this would really devastate the finances of the country,” he said.

Such a move by the U.S. could resonate in the region, said Evan Ellis, a professor at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

“I don’t see that this is going to restore democracy,” he told VOA, “but it is a signal to others in the region at this time contemplating following the path to dictatorship.”

The proposed import stoppage would follow a July decision to drop Nicaragua from the list of countries allowed to ship sugar to the U.S. at low import-tax rates.

Others say the administration needs to think beyond Nicaragua.

“I would go further; we need a regional approach,” Eddy Acevedo, chief of staff at the Wilson Center, told VOA. “This cannot be just purely bilateral. We need a regional approach to exert pressure on the regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally. The OAS [Organization of American States] has put together a coalition of over 20 countries that continue to condemn the Ortega regime and its abuse.

“And you know, it’s emblematic of what is going on in the region. We must stand up for values, and we must have credibility. We cannot forget that Ortega does not do this alone. The Ortega-Maduro alliance of repression, and exporting that repression across the region, is something that continues to occur,” he said, referring to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

But what about ordinary Nicaraguans, who have protested the regime at great personal risk? Cutting exports would hurt them too.

“We know — and I am sure that many in your audience also know — the argument of not adopting measures that harm the people of Nicaragua,” Guillermo Belt, a former adviser to the OAS, told VOA. “It’s a totally valid argument, but I wonder, has anyone consulted the people of Nicaragua? Has anyone asked the people of Nicaragua who suffer enormously from the consequences of the repression?”

Analysts predict that Ortega will stick to his usual script in response to a U.S. halt to Nicaraguan imports.

“What dialogue can there be with the devil?” Ortega said at a July celebration of Nicaragua’s revolution. “As Che [Guevara] said, you can’t believe the Yankees and imperialism one bit, not one bit, because it will finish you off. We would like to have good relations with the United States, but it’s impossible.”

Jorge Agobian contribute to this report.

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Russian Media: Ex-Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev Is Dead at 91

Russian news agencies are reporting that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has died at 91.

The Tass, RIA Novosti and Interfax agencies cited the Central Clinical Hospital.

Gorbachev’s office said earlier that he was undergoing treatment at the hospital.

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Ukraine Lawmaker Questions Kyiv’s Strategic Partnership With Beijing

While China’s strategic partnership with Russia “without limits” has been widely reported since the start of the war in Ukraine, much less known is the strategic partnership Ukraine and China forged in 2011. Now, that partnership is being questioned by a key lawmaker in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month sounded a soft tone on China, casting Beijing’s role in the conflict as “neutral” and inviting Chinese government and business to play an active role in his country’s rebuilding.

Back in June 2011, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Ukraine after stopping in Moscow. China and Ukraine agreed to boost cooperation in energy, technology, agriculture and trade. The two sides also upgraded their ties to a “strategic partnership.”

China is now Ukraine’s number one trading partner. While Ukraine figures less prominently in China’s overall trading, Beijing has been acquiring items of importance from Ukraine, including military equipment and critical minerals, such as those produced only in Mariupol and Odesa.

But a key lawmaker in Kyiv says the bilateral relationship should not be based only on those factors, given China’s officially declared “strategic partnership with Russia with no limit,” while Moscow has engaged in an all-out war on Ukraine.

Beijing “has failed this partnership,” Oleksandr Merezhko told VOA in a written interview from Kyiv. 

“In my personal view, Ukraine should seriously reconsider [its] strategic partnership with [the People’s Republic of China],” he said. “In fact, it’s totally absurd to have a strategic partnership with a country which: 1) has strategic partnership without limits with Russia (aggressor state committing genocide against Ukrainian nation); 2) amplifies Russian propaganda; 3) helps Russia to circumvent Western sanctions; 4) holds joint military drills with Russia,” Merezhko wrote.

“I don’t think that strategic partner of the aggressor state can be simultaneously our strategic partner. It makes no sense,” he added. 

Zelenskyy sounded a more conciliatory note toward Beijing during a recent online town hall with college students from Australia and during an on-camera interview with the South China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong but owned since 2016 by the mainland-based Alibaba Group.

China, Zelenskyy said, on both occasions, has shown “neutrality” in his country’s conflict with Russia. Zelenskyy underscored that “I really wanted the relationship with China be reinforced and developed every year” in a video clip put out by the South China Morning Post on August 3. He also highlighted China’s role in Ukraine’s reconstruction. 

“I would like China to participate in the rebuilding of all Ukraine,” he said, noting Ukraine’s rebuilding is going to be a huge undertaking. “I would like China and the Chinese business to join in the rebuilding process, and the [Chinese] state to join this,” Zelenskyy said in the video clip.

The largest international conference on Ukraine’s rebuilding to date has been the Lugano Conference held in July in Switzerland. China was not seen in the official “family photo” taken at the conference, which featured top officials from more than 20 democratic nations that have provided large amounts of aid to Ukraine.

Asked to comment on Zelenskyy’s recently published remarks, Merezhko said: “In democratic society, members of parliament might have a different point of view on some issues of parliamentary diplomacy than executive power.”

“I also believe that in economic matters, Ukraine should more rely upon Western business rather than Chinese business,” he added. 

According to recent reports, China’s purchases of Russian oil and gas products have almost doubled from a year ago; Chinese spending on Russian energy in July alone reached $7.2 billion, while China’s economy is showing significant signs of slowing.

Commenting on social media, Merezhko wrote that “Russia’s allies bear moral and political responsibility for its crimes against peace and global security” and “the West should introduce secondary sanctions against those Russia’s allies.”

Trade and economics weren’t the only factors Merezhko had in mind when he called into question his country’s decade-old “strategic partnership” with Beijing. Following recently published investigative reports that Chinese authorities have been putting dissidents in psychiatric hospitals and subjecting them to torture, Merezhko said such practices bring to mind “the same cruel totalitarian practices which were used by the Soviet repressive regime.”

“I don’t think such a country can be a strategic partner of any democratic country, including Ukraine,” he concluded.

Recently, Merezhko and more than a dozen fellow parliamentarians from three Ukrainian political parties formed a Taiwan friendship group. “Democracies should support each other to survive and win,” he wrote on Twitter.

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UN Panel Slams US Supreme Court’s Abortion Rights Decision

A United Nations monitoring committee has slammed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, saying it disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities from accessing safe abortion.

The 18-member committee issued its findings Tuesday on the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the United States and six other countries.

The committee says it is unfortunate the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs v. Jackson overturns nearly 50 years of the right of women to a safe and legal abortion. That, it says, will likely result in higher maternal and morbidity rates, and higher risk of unwanted pregnancies among racial and ethnic minorities.

Committee member Pansy Tlakula said the committee recommends U.S. federal and state branches of government take measures to ensure racial minorities, Indigenous women, and those with low incomes have access to safe abortions.

“The state must take measures to mitigate the risk of criminal prosecution against the women who do abortions and also to ensure that those who perform or the service providers who perform abortions should be protected against criminal prosecution,” Tlakula said.

She said the committee also recommends the states make it easy for women to travel to states where they can get safe, legal abortions.

The U.N. panel said it has received many submissions from nongovernmental organizations on issues of brutality and the excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies, on gun violence, and on racial profiling.

Tlakula said the U.S. delegation seemed quite willing to look at some of the issues raised by the committee. She said there have been some positive developments on advancing racial equity and on voting rights, which are under siege.

“In that regard, they have also adopted an executive order on promoting the rights of access to voting. So, there are quite a number of executive orders that they have adopted. They were quite willing also to look at the issue of reparations because we raised it with them as well,” she said.

The United States has four years in which to respond to the committee’s recommendations. However, the U.N. experts note some particularly pressing issues that must be implemented in one year.

In light of the Dobbs decision, those include the reproductive health and rights of women, particularly racial minorities, those of ethnic origin, and Indigenous women. The panel also wants fast action by the U.S. on issues related to gun violence and on measures aimed at improving the situation of migrants, asylum-seekers and stateless people.

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