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Archive for April, 2017

Poland police forcibly remove anti-nationalist protesters

April 29, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Police in Poland used force Saturday to remove a few dozen protesters who tried to block a march in downtown Warsaw by a nationalist organization celebrating its anniversary. The protesters chanted “Poland, free from fascism!” and sat down in the street as they waited for marchers from the National-Radical Camp to arrive.

The group, supported by Poland’s nationalist government, was celebrating 83 years since its foundation. A few hundred members marched with white-and-red flags, chanting anti-migrant slogans. Police detained and handcuffed some in the group protesting the march, since they had not obtained authorization for it. The new law regulating public gatherings was introduced by the conservative ruling Law and Justice party. Police also used force on journalists reporting about the event, pushing and even kicking them.

The nationalists’ march was directed down a different route in the Polish capital to avoid clashes with their opponents. Every march now must be authorized or face sanctions.

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Polish leader welcomes NATO troops, hails ‘historic moment’

April 13, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish leaders welcomed a new multinational NATO battalion to Poland on Thursday, with the president calling it “a historic moment for my country.” The near-permanent deployment of a NATO battalion under U.S. command marks the first time NATO troops have been placed so close to Russian territory, a step the Kremlin denounces as a threat to its own security.

But Polish President Andrzej Duda said the deployment, to Poles, stands as a symbol of liberation and inclusion in the Western democratic world. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that generations of Poles have waited for this moment since the end of the Second World War,” Duda said in the northeastern town of Orzysz as he addressed the troops and the U.S. and British ambassadors.

The battalion of about 1,000 troops is led by the United States, but includes troops from Britain and Romania. Croatian troops are expected to join later. Their base of operations, Orzysz, is 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the border with Kaliningrad, a Russian territory on the Baltic Sea separated from the Russian mainland.

While NATO has held exercises in the region in past years, the deployment marks the alliance’s first continuous troop presence in the area that was considered by defense experts as vulnerable. Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said the NATO presence guarantees the security of NATO’s eastern flank.

The NATO deployment is separate from a U.S. battalion of 3,500 troops that arrived in Poland earlier this year and which is headquartered in southwestern Poland, near the German border. Both missions are responses to calls for greater U.S. and NATO protection by a region fearful after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for a rebel insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Schism rifts Poland’s ruling party over minister’s assistant

April 12, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A conflict has erupted in the top ranks of Poland’s ruling party that pits the party’s powerful chairman against the country’s defense minister. At the center of the dispute is a 27-year-old male assistant to Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz who has enjoyed unusual privileges, raising eyebrows in Warsaw.

Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski on Wednesday suspended the assistant, Bartlomiej Misiewicz, from the party and ordered a commission to investigate the lucrative defense industry jobs and other preferential treatment he has received. Misiewicz was to appear before the commission Thursday.

The moves are meant to “protect the good image of the Law and Justice party,” party spokeswoman Beata Mazurek said. In his role as ministry spokesman, Misiewicz has been saluted by soldiers and called “minister,” honors not normally imparted to civilians.

Misiewicz, a former pharmacy assistant without a university degree, also has been given lucrative jobs in the defense industry under Macierewicz. His treatment has raised ethics concerns in a party that won office promising to fight corruption.

He was appointed last year to the supervisory board of Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (PGZ), one of the largest defense consortiums in Central Europe. The company’s bylaws state its board members must have college degrees, but the rules were changed to let Misiewicz join.

The Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper reported this week that Misiewicz was given a job with PGZ that pays 50,000 zlotys ($12,500) a month, huge sum in a country where the average pre-tax wage is about $1,150 a month.

The company denied the claim, but it appeared to be the trigger for Kaczynski’s decision to order an investigation into Misiewicz. Some observers think Misiewicz is part of a larger power struggle between Kaczynski and the defense minister.

“It’s a new war at the top,” said Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, head of a small opposition party, PSL.

Macedonia’s head seeks emergency talks after parliament riot

April 28, 2017

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia’s president called an emergency meeting of political leaders Friday, hours after demonstrators — mostly supporters of the country’s dominant conservative party — invaded parliament and assaulted opposition lawmakers.

Police said 77 people, including opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, the head of a small ethnic Albanian opposition party and 22 police, were injured in the overnight riot when demonstrators stormed the legislature and attacked lawmakers to protest the election of a new speaker despite a months-old deadlock in efforts to form a new government.

It was unclear whether opposition party leaders would heed President Gjorge Ivanov’s call for a meeting to defuse the tension. The European Union condemned the violence, and said that the cornerstones of democracy should be respected.

Clashes lasted for hours Thursday night, with police initially doing little to stop the invasion. Eventually, they used stun grenades to evacuate the building, and free lawmakers and journalists trapped inside.

Macedonia has been gripped by a deep political crisis for more than two years, and repeated efforts — including international mediation — have failed to improve things. The country has been without a government since elections in December failed to give any party a governing majority.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Friday that “violence is unacceptable, even more so when it happens in the house of democracy.” Mogherini, attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Malta, called the incident a “serious crisis that can be dangerous.”

Lawmakers attacked as protesters storm Macedonian parliament

April 28, 2017

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Chaos swept into Macedonia’s parliament Thursday as demonstrators stormed the building and attacked lawmakers to protest the election of a new speaker despite a months-old deadlock in efforts to form a new government.

Clashes over several hours injured 77 people, including 22 police officers and several lawmakers, authorities said. Neighboring countries along with the European Union and United States expressed concern at the small Balkan nation’s escalating political crisis.

Dozens of protesters, some of them masked, broke through a police cordon after the opposition Social Democrats and parties representing Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority voted to name a new parliament speaker.

Many of the protesters were supporters of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, whose conservative party won elections in December but didn’t get enough votes to form a government on its own. He has been struggling to put together a coalition government and his supporters have been holding nightly street rallies for two months across the country to protest the political situation.

Shouting, hurling chairs and grabbing camera tripods abandoned by startled journalists, the protesters attacked lawmakers, including opposition leader Zoran Zaev, who was seen bleeding from the forehead. TV footage showed a bloodied Zaev and other Social Democrat lawmakers surrounded by protesters waving national flags, shouting “traitors” and refusing to allow them to leave.

A tense standoff lasted several hours, and hundreds of protesters swarmed through the parliament building. Police said 30 lawmakers and a number of journalists who had been trapped inside were eventually evacuated safely.

After being initially overwhelmed, police fired flash grenades and clashed with protesters, expelling them from the building. Lawmaker Ziadin Sela, who heads a small ethnic Albanian party, was the most seriously injured, police said.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov went on television to appeal for calm and “for reasonable and responsible behavior.” Speaking in a brief address to the nation, Ivanov said he had summoned the leaders of the country’s main political parties for a meeting Friday.

The U.S. Embassy in Macedonia and senior European Union officials condemned the violence, while neighboring Greece warned that Macedonia might be “sliding into deep political crisis.” Zaev, 42, was later cheered by hundreds of supporters when he appeared with several lawmakers from his party outside the Social Democratic headquarters in the capital of Skopje.

In a statement, the party accused rival conservatives of inciting the violence and stirring “hatred and division” among the Macedonian people. Macedonia has been without a government since the elections. Coalition talks broke down over ethnic Albanian demands that Albanian be recognized as an official second language. One-fourth of Macedonia’s population is ethnic Albanian.

Amid the coalition negotiations, the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia, as the Balkan nation’s parliament is known, has been deadlocked for three weeks over electing a new speaker. Zaev suggested early in the day that a speaker could be elected outside normal procedures, an idea immediately rejected by the prime minister’s party as an attempted coup. Zaev went ahead with the vote, and a majority in parliament elected Talat Xhaferi, a former defense minister and member of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration. Protesters exploded in anger and fought their way into the building.

Despite the return of calm, a small group of demonstrators ignored instructions by police to leave the area early Friday and they set up tents in a small park near parliament.

Associated Press writers Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Derek Gatopoulos and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

Icelandic language at risk; robots, computers can’t grasp it

April 22, 2017

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees “Solarfri” posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means “when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather.”

The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Artic. Hundslappadrifa, for example, means “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind.”

But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both for mass tourism and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.

Linguistics experts, studying the future of a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in an increasingly globalized world, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir told The Associated Press that Iceland must take steps to protect its language. She is particularly concerned that programs be developed so the language can be easily used in digital technology.

“Otherwise, Icelandic will end in the Latin bin,” she warned. Teachers are already sensing a change among students in the scope of their Icelandic vocabulary and reading comprehension. Anna Jonsdottir, a teaching consultant, said she often hears teenagers speak English among themselves when she visits schools in Reykjavik, the capital.

She said 15-year-old students are no longer assigned a volume from the Sagas of Icelanders, the medieval literature chronicling the early settlers of Iceland. Icelanders have long prided themselves of being able to fluently read the epic tales originally penned on calfskin.

Most high schools are also waiting until senior year to read author Halldor Laxness, the 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, who rests in a small cemetery near his farm in West Iceland. A number of factors combine to make the future of the Icelandic language uncertain. Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country’s single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say one in two new jobs is being filled by foreign labor.

That is increasing the use of English as a universal communicator and diminishing the role of Icelandic, experts say. “The less useful Icelandic becomes in people’s daily life, the closer we as a nation get to the threshold of giving up its use,” said Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland.

He has embarked on a three-year study of 5,000 people that will be the largest inquiry ever into the use of the language. “Preliminary studies suggest children at their first-language acquisition are increasingly not exposed to enough Icelandic to foster a strong base for later years,” he said.

Concerns for the Icelandic language are by no means new. In the 19th century, when its vocabulary and syntax were heavily influenced by Danish, independence movements fought to revive Icelandic as the common tongue, central to the claim that Icelanders were a nation.

Since Iceland became fully independent from Denmark in 1944, its presidents have long championed the need to protect the language. Asgeir Jonsson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland, said without a unique language Iceland could experience a brain drain, particularly among certain professions.

“A British town with a population the size of Iceland has far fewer scientists and artists, for example,” he said. “They’ve simply moved to the metropolis.” The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic.

“Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field,” Jonsson said. Icelandic ranks among the weakest and least-supported language in terms of digital technology — along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese and Lithuanian — according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance assessing 30 European languages.

Iceland’s Ministry of Education estimates about 1 billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.

Svandis Svavarsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament for the Left-Green Movement, said the government should not be weighing costs when the nation’s cultural heritage is at stake. “If we wait, it may already be too late,” she said.

Hungary still defiant on US university after Brussels summit

April 29, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The Hungarian government remained defiant Saturday over the possible closure of Budapest-based Central European University, founded by billionaire George Soros. The issue was on the agenda during Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s meeting in Brussels with leaders of the European People’s Party, of which his Fidesz party is a member.

The EPP was unusually direct in its criticism of Orban over CEU, a government campaign called “Let’s stop Brussels” and a draft bill targeting civic groups which receive foreign funding. EPP president Joseph Daul said that in light of objections by the European Commission and after consultations with Hungarian civic groups and the academic community “we have come to the conclusion that dialogue alone is not enough.”

The EPP “will not accept that any basic freedoms are restricted or rule of law is disregarded,” Daul said in a statement. “The EPP wants CEU to remain open, deadlines suspended and dialogue with the U.S. to begin.”

Both Daul and EPP spokesman Siegfried Muresan posted messages on Twitter saying Orban said Hungary would comply with the commission’s requests and EU laws. While Orban said he was ready for cooperation with the commission, the EU executive, he indicated he was unwilling to eliminate new amendments to the law on higher education which could force CEU to stop operating as it currently does.

CEU, in Budapest since 1993, is accredited in Hungary and New York state, its graduate degrees are recognized both in Hungary and the U.S., but it has no U.S. campus. Orban says that issuing a U.S. degree without having a U.S. campus gives CEU an unfair advantage over other domestic universities.

“The existence of higher education institutions without actual activities operating as offshore mailboxes will not be permitted by Hungarian legislation in the future, either,” Orban’s press office said, adding that the government does not want to close the university and seeks to settle the legal dispute over the matter with the EU.

The government says it has no objections to the university issuing only Hungarian diplomas, but CEU says that would practically destroy its mission and its appeal to foreign students. CEU enrolls 1,440 students from 108 countries, including over 300 from Hungary.

If it fails to comply with the new conditions, CEU would be prevented from enrolling new students after the end of the year. CEU thanked EPP for its “unequivocal statement of support for our academic freedom.”

“We are grateful for the EPP’s call to suspend the deadlines and start negotiations,” said CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff. “We have called for negotiations from the beginning and we want them to reach a successful conclusion so that we can get back to work.”

Orban, who briefly studied at Oxford University thanks to a Soros scholarship in 1989, says he seeks to transform Hungary into an “illiberal state” modelled on countries like Turkey and Russia. He sees an ideological foe in Soros and his “open society” ideal and blames the Hungarian-born American for supporting migration through his backing of non-governmental groups like the Hungarian Helsinki Foundation and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which advocate for asylum-seekers.

The government says a draft bill on NGOs receiving more than about $25,000 a year only seeks to increase “transparency.” NGOs, however, see the legislation scheduled to be passed in May as an attempt at intimidation and stigmatization.

Daul said that “NGOs are an integral part of any healthy democracy … and they must be respected.” Still, Daul’s harshest words were for Orban’s anti-EU campaign, which claims bureaucrats in Brussels want Hungary to raise taxes and energy prices and take in illegal migrants.

“The EPP has also made it clear to our Hungarian partners that the blatant anti-EU rhetoric of the ‘Let’s stop Brussels’ consultation is unacceptable,” Daul said. “The constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years, have reached a level we cannot tolerate.”

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