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US, EU and China vie for influence in Eastern Europe

September 17, 2018

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — President Donald Trump on Monday reaffirmed Washington’s support for a business summit that aims to boost connectivity in Eastern Europe and improve ties between the region and the U.S. and European Union.

But the West is not the only major player in the region. Shortly before European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry arrived in Bucharest for the two-day Three Seas Initiative Business Forum, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila met a top Chinese official, saying Romania wanted to export more to China and attract more investment from there.

The timing of the visit by Shen Yueyue, a senior official in the National People’s Congress, may raise eyebrows in the light of one of the biggest summits Romania has hosted in recent years. Yet it shows how Romania and its neighbors are using regional leverage to attract the best deal for the less developed part of the bloc. It’s something the EU is watching closely.

Regional analyst Radu Magdin said Central and East European countries are “bold enough to know what they want and self-aware enough to use great power competition to their advantage.” He said Hungary was adept at playing “a multiple game involving the EU, some conservative circles in the U.S. as well as China and Russia.”

Romania has traditionally good relations with China, dating back to the communist era, but has failed to capitalize on Chinese pledges such as building a rail network, Magdin said. As a result, China has done more business with Hungary, Serbia and Ukraine.

Setting the tone for the summit which is headlined “Enhancing European and Trans-Atlantic cooperation,” Trump sent a letter Monday to President Klaus Iohannis saying the 12-member Three Seas Initiative could expand infrastructure, business connections, strengthen energy security and reduce trade barriers.

“The United States remains a proud partner in these efforts …. in this strategically important region,” Trump wrote. The Bucharest summit comes two months after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met central and eastern European leaders in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, for the seventh “16+1” summit, with countries hoping for state-backed Chinese investment.

Magdin said that “everyone is paying attention to competing (regional) initiatives, but Brussels is the most attentive … as the biggest risk is an EU divide” between Eastern and Western Europe. He added that the EU may introduce legislation that would prohibit major non-EU investments in the future.

Meanwhile in Bucharest, Juncker, Perry, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and other heads of state arrived to discuss about 40 government-approved projects that aim to boost regional connectivity in transportation, energy and the digital fields.

Joining them were officials and bankers from the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the World Bank. The Thee Seas initiative is a cooperation of European Union members located between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas. Austria is the only member that wasn’t formerly communist. The first summit was held in 2016. Trump attended the second summit in 2017 in Warsaw, Poland.

Earlier Monday, Yueyue and Dancila embraced and held hands tightly, and Dancila said Romania wanted to “intensify economic and commercial relations.”


US regrets Turkey’s boycott of Europe’s rights conference

September 11, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A U.S. official said Tuesday that Washington is disappointed that Turkey is staying away from Europe’s largest human rights conference for a second straight year because it wasn’t allowed to prevent the participation of non-governmental organizations that it finds objectionable.

The Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency, tweeted Monday that “Turkey is the only country boycotting … because it insists on having the ability to veto NGOs wishing to participate.” Ambassador Michael Kozak, the head of the U.S. delegation to the conference, said that Washington “regrets that Turkey chose not to attend” this year’s meeting, known officially as the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.

“Turkey’s presence would have ensured that its point of view was heard,” Kozak said in a statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday. The yearly two-week conference, which opened Monday in Warsaw, is devoted to democracy and human rights. It is organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which comprises 57 states from North America, Europe and Central Asia.

The conference is unique because it allows civil society groups, no matter how small, to participate on an equal footing with governments. With many of the participants from countries with authoritarian governments in the former Soviet space, it is sometimes the only chance some democracy activists have to address government representatives from their own countries.

The Turkish delegation staged a walkout of the meeting last year after failing to block groups affiliated with cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for a failed 2016 coup. This year, no Turkish delegation showed up at all, its seat empty.

The Turkish government alleges that groups affiliated with Gulen’s movement are part of terrorist movements. It frequently accuses the West of sheltering Gulenists and not providing it with sufficient support against the network.

The OSCE’s position is that allegations from a government against an organization without evidence or due process aren’t enough for a ban. Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at Freedom House, a U.S.-based human rights group, said that other countries, including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, have also in the past objected to the presence or activities of certain groups at the conference. To give governments veto power, he said, “would send a very worrisome precedent.”

“They would strike off lots of names, and then it would be a closed garden and there would be no discussion,” Schenkkan told the AP by phone on Tuesday.

Poland marks Army Day with parade, call for US military base

August 15, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s president voiced hope for a permanent U.S. military presence in his country, speaking as the nation put on a large military parade on its Armed Forces Day holiday Wednesday replete with tanks and people marching in historic uniforms.

Poland is fearful of Russia’s renewed aggression, and President Andrzej Duda said that a permanent presence by the U.S. Army would “deter every potential aggressor.” The U.S. military, on its own and as part of a NATO effort, began rotating troops in and out of Poland and other nervous countries on NATO’s eastern flank, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Poland has recently been lobbying for a permanent U.S. base and more American forces. There hasn’t yet been a response on whether Washington will agree to a move that would be expensive and sure to infuriate Moscow.

Some of the troops from the U.S. and other allied countries also marched in the parade. Poland considers the U.S. its key protector, with some doubts about whether Europe’s NATO members really would ever come to its defense.

Duda said if the economy allows, he also wants Poland to increase its own defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2024, above the current 2 percent NATO target, which Poland already meets. The parade is part of a national holiday observed every Aug. 15 that celebrates Poland’s defeat of Russian Bolsheviks in 1920 near Warsaw — celebrated as a near-miraculous victory for a country that has seen more than its share of defeat and occupation in past centuries.

“We won. Yes, we won. We Poles won,” Duda said. “Today we look with pride at those times.” This year’s event was especially large and colorful to mark the centenary of Poland regaining its independence in 1918 after having been swallowed up for 123 years by Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

There was a show of military might by the armed forces, while hundreds of members of historical reconstruction groups also paraded in historic uniforms, including from the Middle Ages, the Napoleonic era and the 20th century.

France’s Macron turns away from Trump in laying out roadmap

August 27, 2018

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron laid out his roadmap for the country’s diplomatic priorities in the year to come during a 90-minute speech to France’s ambassadors Monday. Notably, Macron appeared to be shifting his approach to the United States and President Donald Trump, with whom he has had such a demonstrative relationship the two leaders were teased about their “bromance.”

His speech focused on strengthening the European Union to face today’s challenges rather than counting on the U.S. support that had two world wars as a crucible. Since his election last year, Macron repeatedly tried to convince Trump not to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. France’s 40-year-old pro-EU president also urged Trump not to impose tariffs on European steel and aluminum.

Bromance or not, his efforts were in vain. On Monday, Macron urged the European Union to take more responsibility for its own defense . A look at other issues on his roadmap:


The continent’s future was Macron’s major focus. Nine months before the next European parliament election, he stressed the need to make the EU more “sovereign.” He has pledged to redouble efforts to counter rising nationalism in Europe.

He closed the door to further talks about Turkey’s accession to the EU and proposed instead a “strategic partnership” with Russia and Turkey. To promote his proposals, Macron plans to visit Denmark and Finland this week and to meet with counterparts from Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands next week. After that, he is scheduled to host German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris.


In line with France’s position, Macron said he wants the EU to reach an agreement with Britain on the terms of its departure from the bloc and future relations with it by the end of the year.

“Brexit is a sovereign choice that we must respect, but it is a choice that cannot happen at the expense of the European Union’s integrity,” he said.

Macron added: “France wishes to maintain a strong, privileged relationship with London, but not at the expense of the European Union dissolution.”


Macron’s comments weren’t new to the French ambassadors. He often advocates the value of multilateralism over each country pursuing what might be best for it alone.

During his speech, he specifically criticized what he described as the current “aggressive and unilateral trade policy” of the United States.

“Multilateralism is, in effect, going through a major crisis, which is striking all of our diplomatic relationships, above all because of American policy,” Macron said in his pointed remarks. “The partner with whom Europe had built the order of post-war multilateralism seems to turn his back on this common history.”


No major shift. Macron said France’s main priority is to fight the Islamic State and that he does not consider Syrian President Bashar Assad’s departure a pre-condition of ending the country’s long civil war.

Yet maintaining Assad in power would be a “fatal error,” Macron said. He stressed the importance of a negotiated political transition.

“It is not up to France to appoint the future leaders of Syria,” the president said. “But it is our duty and our interest to ensure that the Syrian people will be in a position to do so.”

Macron also called on Russia and Turkey to use their influence in the region to help bring the war to a close.

Florida Democrats nominate first black candidate for governor

AUG. 28, 2018

By Ray Downs

Aug. 28 (UPI) — Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis each defeated the establishment picks in their respective gubernatorial primaries in Florida and will face each other in November.

Gillum, the Mayor of Tallahassee, will become the first black candidate of a major party to run for governor in the Sunshine State. The 39-year-old had been trailing in the polls for months behind former congresswoman Gwen Graham, whose father Bob Graham was a former governor and U.S. Senator of Florida, and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

But with the help of an enthusiastic progressive base and endorsements from national figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and celebrities like actress Gabrielle Union, Gillum surged in the polls this week and edged Graham 34 percent to 31 percent., according to The New York Times voting numbers.

Gillum finished strong in each of Florida’s major cities, including Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville and his home city of Tallahassee. He also handily beat Graham in the state’s two largest counties — Miami-Dade and Broward — by winning more than twice the amount of votes she received there.

Levine, thought to have been the second most-popular candidate of the three for several weeks, finished a distant third with about 20 percent of the vote and lost his home county of Miami-Dade to Gillum by nearly 10,000 votes.

On the Republican side, DeSantis, a U.S. congressman from the Jacksonville area, stomped Adam Putnam, a former congressman and current Commissioner of Agriculture in Florida, with more than 56 percent of the vote.

Putnam carried nearly 37 percent.

Putnam had long been considered the favorite to win the GOP primary with state party backing and big donations from the biggest corporate entities in the state, including supermarket chain Publix, U.S. Sugar, Florida Power & Light and Disney.

But in polls over the past two months, DeSantis began to pull away from Putnam with the help of a strong endorsement from President Donald Trump, who rallied for him in Florida this month.

DeSantis has also been a regular face on Fox News. According to Politico, DeSantis appeared on the network more than 100 times this year.

“That’s a lot of exposure,” Rick Wilson, an MSNBC contributor and veteran GOP ad maker, told Politico. “Fox News has become a silo of the Fox/Trump media ecosystem, and DeSantis is on the list as one of their favorites.”

Source: United Press International (UPI).


War hero and presidential candidate John McCain dies at 81

August 26, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. John McCain, who faced down his captors in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp with jut-jawed defiance and later turned his rebellious streak into a 35-year political career that took him to Congress and the Republican presidential nomination, died Saturday after battling brain cancer for more than a year. He was 81.

McCain, with his irascible grin and fighter-pilot moxie, was a fearless and outspoken voice on policy and politics to the end, unswerving in his defense of democratic values and unflinching in his criticism of his fellow Republican, President Donald Trump. He was elected to the Senate from Arizona six times but twice thwarted in seeking the presidency.

An upstart presidential bid in 2000 didn’t last long. Eight years later, he fought back from the brink of defeat to win the GOP nomination, only to be overpowered by Democrat Barack Obama. McCain chose a little-known Alaska governor as his running mate in that race, and turned Sarah Palin into a national political figure.

After losing to Obama in an electoral landslide, McCain returned to the Senate determined not to be defined by a failed presidential campaign in which his reputation as a maverick had faded. In the politics of the moment and in national political debate over the decades, McCain energetically advanced his ideas and punched back hard at critics — Trump not least among them.

The scion of a decorated military family, McCain embraced his role as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, pushing for aggressive U.S. military intervention overseas and eager to contribute to “defeating the forces of radical Islam that want to destroy America.”

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, McCain said simply: “That I made a major contribution to the defense of the nation.” One dramatic vote he cast in the twilight of his career in 2017 will not soon be forgotten, either: As the decisive “no” on Senate GOP legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, McCain became the unlikely savior of Obama’s trademark legislative achievement.

Taking a long look back in his valedictory memoir, “The Restless Wave,” McCain wrote of the world he inhabited: “I hate to leave it. But I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. … I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”

Throughout his long tenure in Congress, McCain played his role with trademark verve, at one hearing dismissing a protester by calling out, “Get out of here, you low-life scum.” But it was just as notable when he held his sharp tongue, in service of a party or political gain.

Most remarkably, he stuck by Trump as the party’s 2016 presidential nominee even when Trump questioned his status as a war hero by saying: “I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain declared the comment offensive to veterans, but urged the men “put it behind us and move forward.”

His breaking point with Trump was the release a month before the election of a lewd audio in which Trump said he could kiss and grab women. McCain withdrew his support and said he’d write in “some good conservative Republican who’s qualified to be president.”

By the time McCain cast his vote against the GOP health bill, six months into Trump’s presidency, the two men were openly at odds. Trump railed against McCain publicly over the vote, and McCain remarked that he no longer listened to what Trump had to say because “there’s no point in it.”

By then, McCain had disclosed his brain cancer diagnosis and returned to Arizona to seek treatment. His vote to kill the GOP’s years-long Obamacare repeal drive — an issue McCain himself had campaigned on — came not long after the diagnosis, a surprising capstone to his legislative career.

In his final months, McCain did not go quietly, frequently jabbing at Trump and his policies from the remove of his Hidden Valley family retreat in Arizona. He opposed the president’s nominee for CIA director because of her past role in overseeing torture, scolded Trump for alienating U.S. allies at an international summit, labeled the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy “an affront to the decency of the American people” and denounced the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki as a “tragic mistake” in which the president put on “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

On Aug. 13, Trump signed into law a $716 billion defense policy bill named in honor of the senator. Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act in a ceremony at a military base in New York — without one mention of McCain.

John Sidney McCain III was born in 1936 in the Panana Canal zone, where his father was stationed in the military. He followed his father and grandfather, the Navy’s first father-and-son set of four-star admirals, to the Naval Academy, where he enrolled in what he described a “four-year course of insubordination and rebellion.” His family yawned at the performance. A predilection for what McCain described as “quick tempers, adventurous spirits, and love for the country’s uniform” was encoded in his family DNA.

On October 1967, McCain was on his 23rd bombing round over North Vietnam when he was shot out of the sky and taken prisoner. Year upon year of solitary confinement, deprivation, beatings and other acts of torture left McCain so despairing that at one point he weakly attempted suicide. But he also later wrote that his captors had spared him the worst of the abuse inflicted on POWs because his father was a famous admiral. “I knew that my father’s identity was directly related to my survival,” he wrote in one of his books.

When McCain’s Vietnamese captors offered him early release as a propaganda ploy, McCain refused to play along, insisting that those captured first should be the first set free. In his darkest hour in Vietnam, McCain’s will had been broken and he signed a confession that said, “I am a black criminal and I have performed deeds of an air pirate.”

Even then, though, McCain refused to make an audio recording of his confession and used stilted written language to signal he had signed it under duress. And, to the end of his captivity, he continued to exasperate his captors with his defiance.

Throughout, McCain played to the bleachers, shouting obscenities at guards to bolster the spirits of fellow captives. Appointed by the POWs to act as camp entertainment officer, chaplain and communications chief, McCain imparted comic relief, literary tutorials, news of the day, even religious sustenance.

Bud Day, a former cellmate and Medal of Honor winner, said McCain’s POW experience “took some great iron and turned him into steel.” McCain returned home from his years as a POW on crutches and never regained full mobility in his arms and leg.

He once said he’d “never known a prisoner of war who felt he could fully explain the experience to anyone who had not shared it.” Still he described the time as formative and “a bit of a turning point in me appreciating the value of serving a cause greater than your self-interest.”

But it did not tame his wild side, and his first marriage, to Carol Shepp, was a casualty of what he called “my greatest moral failing.” The marriage to Shepp, who had been in a crippling car accident while McCain was imprisoned, ended amiably. McCain admitted the breakup was caused by “my own selfishness and immaturity.”

One month after his divorce, McCain in 1981 married Cindy Hensley, the daughter of a wealthy beer distributor in Arizona. In one day, McCain signed his Navy discharge papers and flew west with his new wife to a new life. By 1982, he’d been elected to the House and four years later to an open Senate seat. He and Cindy had four children, to add to three from his first marriage. Their youngest was adopted from Bangladesh.

McCain cultivated a conservative voting record and a reputation as a tightwad with taxpayer dollars. But just months into his Senate career, he made what he called “the worst mistake” of his life. He participated in two meetings with bank regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a friend, campaign contributor and savings and loan financier later convicted of securities fraud.

As the industry collapsed, McCain was tagged as one of the Keating Five — senators who, to varying degrees, were accused of trying to get regulators to ease up on Keating. McCain was cited by the Senate Ethics Committee for “poor judgment.”

To have his honor questioned, he said, was in some ways worse than the torture he endured in Vietnam. In the 1990s, McCain shouldered another wrenching issue, the long effort to account for American soldiers still missing from the war and to normalize relations with Vietnam.

“People don’t remember how ugly the POW-MIA issue was,” former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a fellow Vietnam veteran, later recalled in crediting McCain for standing up to significant opposition. “I heard people scream in his face, holding him responsible for the deaths of POWs.”

Over three decades in the Senate, McCain became a standard-bearer for reforming campaign donations. He denounced pork-barrel spending for legislators’ pet projects and cultivated a reputation as a deficit hawk and an independent voice. His experience as a POW made him a leading voice against the use of torture. He achieved his biggest legislative successes when making alliances with Democrats.

But faced with a tough GOP challenge for his Senate seat in 2010, McCain disowned chapters in his past and turned to the right on a number of hot-button issues, including gays in the military and climate change. And when the Supreme Court in 2010 overturned the campaign finance restrictions that he’d work so hard to enact, McCain seemed resigned.

“It is what it is,” he said. After surviving that election, though, McCain took on conservatives in his party over the federal debt and Democrats over foreign policy. McCain never softened on his opposition to the U.S. use of torture, even in the recalibrations of the post-9/11 world. When the Senate in 2014 released a report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the 9/11 attacks, McCain said the issue wasn’t “about our enemies. It’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

During his final years in the Senate, McCain was perhaps the loudest advocate for U.S. military involvement overseas – in Iraq, Syria, Libya and more. That often made him a critic of first Obama and then Trump, and placed him further out of step with the growing isolationism within the GOP.

In October 2017, McCain unleashed some his most blistering criticism of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy approach — without mentioning the president by name — in describing a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

Few politicians matched McCain’s success as an author. His 1999 release “Faith Of My Fathers” was a million seller that was highly praised and helped launch his run for president in 2000. His most recent bestseller and planned farewell, “The Restless Wave,” came out in May 2018.

Rashida Tlaib – First Muslim woman elected into US Congress

AUG. 8, 2018

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Former Michigan state legislator, Rashida Tlaib, won the Democratic primary on Tuesday for the US House seat to represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District and potentially first Muslim woman to become US Congresswoman.

Rashida Tlaib, a 42-year-old mother of two children, and a daughter of two Palestinian immigrants, was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1976. She later went on to study politics and subsequently law.

Tlaib ran a progressive anti-establishment campaign, focusing on environmental protections and opposing tax cuts for big corporations.

She also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The campaign raised over $1 million, which gained 33.6% of the vote, as opposed to her rival, Detroit Council President Brenda Jones, who only took 28.5% of the vote.

Following the win, Tlaib described her combination of emotions as a “happy chaos.”

She added that “it has been amazing to interact with families at polling locations. I feel very much supported.”

Tlaib will represent the 13th Congressional District, which is the only congressional district entirely within one county. She is the second Muslim to serve in the Michigan State House of Representatives, after James Karoub, and the second Muslim woman to serve in a state legislature nationwide after Jamilah Nasheed from Missouri House of Representatives.

Since there are no Republican candidates contesting for the House seat, Tlaib will enter Congress unopposed, following a special election on November 6, 2018, when she will officially replace John James Conyers, the current US Representative for Michigan.

It is almost certain that Rashida Tlaib will enter into Congress and become the first Muslim Palestinian-American US congresswoman in the nation’s history.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.


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