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Friday, October 16, 2015

EU tries for new Turkey strategy to stem refugee flow

October 16, 2015

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders are offering Turkey aid, easier access to EU visas and sped-up membership talks in hopes of stemming an unprecedented flow of refugees. Now comes the hard part: persuading Turkey to sign on, and raising billions to make it work.

EU leaders meeting for a summit in Brussels late Thursday agreed to give "political support" for an action plan for Turkey to help it manage its refugee emergency. But details proved elusive and discussions in Ankara will continue in coming days.

Diplomats said the package could involve as much as 3 billion euros in aid. But EU members have been slow in offering money for the migrant crisis overall, and divided over how much to help migrants and how much to help Turkey.

Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, more than 2 million. Hundreds of thousands are housed in refugee camps but many more are left to fend for themselves, leading some people to try their luck on the arduous journey to Europe, which has seen some 600,000 new arrivals this year.

EU President Donald Tusk expressed "cautious optimism" about securing an agreement with Turkey on what he called "a demanding and difficult issue." "An agreement with Turkey makes sense only if it effectively contains the flow of refugees," he told reporters early Friday.

The plan would see Turkey improve its asylum and documentation procedures and beef up border security. A draft was presented to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week during a visit to Brussels but has yet to be officially accepted by Turkey.

Turkish officials have not publicly released details of their demands. After years of membership talks where the EU had the upper hand, now the EU is in a position of needing Turkey's help to ease the refugee crisis.

But EU leaders are concerned about authoritarian moves by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward the Kurdish minority and the media and justice system. Erdogan's government has been pushing for a long time for looser visa rules, and that would be a vote-getter for his party in Nov. 1 elections

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she is going to Turkey on Sunday to see if the promises made are feasible. She noted that Turkey had spent billions to take in Syrian refugees. French President Francois Hollande said he "insisted that if there is a liberalization of visas with Turkey ... it should be on extremely specific, controlled terms."

EU to bolster border agency as refugee emergency deepens

October 16, 2015

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders agreed Thursday to boost the protection of its outer frontiers to help contain the refugee emergency and gave its border agency more clout to deport people who do not qualify for asylum.

But the 28 leaders struggled to persuade a reluctant Turkey to do more to stop tens of thousands of refugees entering the bloc — despite new plans for increased financial support, the easing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and accelerating the country's EU membership talks.

Indeed the summit in Brussels — the fourth this year focused on the refugee crisis — bore little fruit, amid infighting between countries like Germany and Sweden who have taken a larger role in the refugee crisis and several eastern nations who have done less.

Senior EU officials also complained that many member states had failed to live up to pledges to provide more funds, and experts to help fingerprint and screen people. The meeting came as the International Organization for Migration said that more than 600,000 people had arrived by sea into Europe this year and more than 3,000 of them died trying to reach Europe to escape war or poverty. Many entered through Greece from Turkey — home to some 2 million Syrian refugees who have overwhelmed the country's coast guard and meager reception facilities.

The one positive note on Thursday was the agreement to boost the Frontex border agency, as the EU mulls whether to set up a European border guard, which could help patrol Greece's patchwork island border with Turkey.

"In the coming months, the agency will develop into a more operational body," EU Council President Donald Tusk said. "Our aim is to give Frontex the right to return irregular migrants on its own initiative and to make it more proactive in protecting external borders." Estimates based on EU figures suggest that possibly a third of the people arriving in Europe might not qualify for asylum.

But no fresh pledges of money were made, despite a promise by the leaders last month to stump up hundreds of millions of euros for Syrian refugees and to help Africa better manage its borders. "We are lacking 2.3 billion euros to be provided by member states," European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters after the summit. However, he said, the leaders promised this time that they would come up with the funds "in the next couple of weeks."

The Commission has complained that only three of 28 nations have pledged a total of just 12 million euros ($13.7 million) to a fund to help African nations better manage their borders. The pot is meant to total 1.8 billion euros (about $2 billion) over two years.

Frontex and the EU asylum office have appealed for a total of around 1,000 officers to help fingerprint people and decide whether they are eligible for asylum. So far, about a dozen of the 28 EU nations have offered around 130 personnel.

"We can, and must, do much better," Tusk said, adding that the influx of migrants could get much worse. In their final statement, the leaders gave "political support" for an action plan for Turkey to help it manage its own refugee emergency, but a final agreement proved elusive and discussions in Ankara will continue in coming days.

Meanwhile, thousands of people continue to risk the dangerous journey daily. Greece recovered seven more bodies off the island of Lesbos Thursday after a migrant boat collision, and shivering newcomers streamed into Croatia seeking aid and shelter.

In the Balkans, rain storms sweeping through Serbia and Croatia caught thousands as they made their arduous trek, leaving them standing in fields between two countries, in bitter weather, waiting for transport to destinations in western Europe.

Jelena Grbic from the Doctors Without Borders aid group said that often migrants arrive unprepared for cold weather, affecting women and children especially. "They have no winter clothes. Then they get respiratory diseases. Coughing, infections, fever, then they are completely exhausted," she said.

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, visiting the site, urged the EU leaders to boost external borders instead of putting up fences inside Europe, as neighboring Hungary has done. "This is the turning point when Europe is deciding whether it will be marked by walls and barbed wires or whether it will be a reasonable continent of cooperation that uses political means to address the causes of such misery," she said.

Lori Hinnant in Lyon, France; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Pablo Gorondi in Budapest; Nicole Winfield in Rome; John-Thor Dahlburg and Angela Charlton in Brussels; and Aida Cerkez in Opatovac, Croatia, contributed to this report.

Opposition holds pre-election rally in Belarus

October 10, 2015

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — About 1,000 demonstrators have held a protest in the Belorussian capital of Minsk ahead of the country's presidential election, the largest opposition gathering in the authoritarian country in five years.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has cracked down on opposition and the news media in his 21 years of rule, is certain to win a new term in Sunday's vote. Police did not interfere with the march and protest rally in Minsk on Saturday.

Rally participants carried placards reading "Stop Lukashenko" and "They have stolen the election from us." Officials say about 30 percent of the electorate voted in early balloting, which opponents say is rife with potential fraud.

Demonstrators also carried portraits of Svetlana Alexievich, the Belorussian author and Lukashenko critic who won the Nobel literature prize on Thursday.

Belorussian Nobel winner says Lukashenko to be re-elected

October 10, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — Svetlana Alexievich, the Belorussian author who just won the Nobel Prize for literature, said Saturday there is no doubt Alexander Lukashenko will be re-elected president this weekend because the process is entirely under his control.

Alexievich told reporters in Berlin that for Lukashenko, who critics call Europe's last dictator, "it plays absolutely no role how we will vote" in the election Sunday. She writes about the catastrophes, upheaval and personal woes that afflicted the Soviet Union and the troubled countries that succeeded it.

"As Stalin once said, it's unimportant who votes or for whom, what matters is who counts the vote," she said, speaking through a translator, at an event organized by her German publisher. "I don't think we expect any surprises and I think everyone has the feeling that what is going on in Russia and in Belarus will last a long time."

Alexievich also criticized the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying "one can no longer talk of democracy there." "We had the naive view in the 90s that there would be immediate freedom" with the collapse of the Soviet Union, she said. "But for freedom one needs free people, and we don't have free people yet."

Lukashenko did not acknowledge the Nobel until many hours after the award was announced, and then issued only a brief and seemingly grudging statement saying that he hoped the "award will serve our state and the Belorussian people."

Alexievich said she found it "a bit odd." "He eventually found the strength to bring himself to, even though he has a negative relationship with me because of what I say, and say about him," she said.

Winning the prize is "naturally a kind of protection for me" to continue to be outspoken, she said, but also gives her new obligations. "I have a feeling that I have new responsibilities," she said.

Belarus' Lukashenko set for re-election

October 10, 2015

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — In the 21 years under Alexander Lukashenko's rule, Belarus in many ways has seemed little different than the Soviet republic it once was. Dissent is stifled, sometimes harshly. The economy remains largely state-controlled. Even the flag is nearly identical to the Soviet-era emblem.

For all of that, he's nonetheless sure to win a new term in Sunday's presidential election. A poll by the state sociology institute in September tallied his support at 76 percent. Lukashenko came to power in 1994 as a fierce anti-corruption campaigner with a vague political program. The former director of a collective farm appealed to voters who were tired of bureaucrats pilfering the country. A year later, however, Lukashenko disbanded parliament and clamped down on the news media.

The marginalized opposition is in disarray: some of its leaders fled the country; others were jailed; three opposition leaders and one journalist went missing. After a massive protest on the night of the 2010 presidential election, eight of the 10 candidates were arrested. Some were imprisoned for long periods, one of whom was released only this August.

Lukashenko cultivates the image of "Batka" (Father); the presidential website says "this is what people with an authority and courage to protect their family and community were once called in our land." His photo opportunities often show him in the countryside: driving a tractor or harvesting grain with a scythe. His earthy provincial accent and knack for folklore augment his man-of-the-people aura.

Lukashenko has largely preserved the state-controlled Soviet type of the economy — albeit thanks to cheap Russia gas and Western loans. The unreformed economy may be crippling the country's long-term development, but it still puts bread on the table of pensioners and workers of unprofitable, unmodernized factories who look at the instability of neighboring Ukraine and the unpredictable Russia with dismay.

"Lukashenko instilled the worst Soviet myths in Belorussians, offering them warm bread instead of freedom," says Stanislav Shushkevich, the first president of independent Belarus, who lost to Lukashenko in 1994.

The 61-year-old president has three sons: 39-year old Viktor, an adviser on the national security council; Dmitry, 35, a functionary with the national Olympic committee; and 11-year-old Nikolai, also known as Kolya.

Lukashenko no longer lives with his wife — though it's not known if they're divorced — and Kolya effectively plays the role of First Lady. He posed with his father, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama last month in New York, where he also sat with the Belorussian delegation at the U.N. General Assembly.

Lukashenko said in an interview that Kolya tags along with him because the boy has a bad temper and won't listen to anyone else but him. "Kolya is making fun of the entire country," says opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko. "The older Kolya gets, the more speculation he attracts. When the father was dragging the boy along with him, it caused sympathy, now that he is a teenager, it is not funny anymore."

Lukashenko's political longevity rests on his remarkable ability to maneuver between Russia and the West, living off cheap energy from Russia and loans from Europe. He is a master of switching sides and changing horses to suit his agenda and stay in power.

When the European Union was pushing the Batka in 2009 to allow freedom of the press, abolish capital punishment and hold an election reform, Lukashenko said "no" and turned to Russia instead, agreeing to join Russian President Vladimir Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.

When Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea in March 2014 and threw its support behind separatist rebels in the east, Lukashenko looked just like the person who could help Putin legitimize his actions in Ukraine. But Lukashenko did not recognize Russia's land grab.

Soon after that officials in Washington and Brussels began to talk about lifting at least some of the sanctions which were slapped on Lukashenko and Belorussian companies in 2006. On Friday, an EU official said it may suspend sanctions on Belarus, following the release of political prisoners there earlier this year, signaling what could be the end of the nine-year-long international isolation.

"The lifting of the sanctions could herald a new phase of European diplomacy — with fewer sermons of European values but more practical issues," says Minsk-based analyst Yaroslav Romanchik. The access to European capital markets will help Belarus attract EU investment, cutting its dependence on Russia.

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian writer who was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize earlier this week and is a critic of Lukashenko, says the president is playing with fire, balancing between the unpredictable Putin and the West which is well aware of Lukashenko's weaknesses.

"Belarus would survive if it were to turn to the European Union," Alexievich says. "Lukashenko is in a tight spot, of course. He would love to let go of Russia but they (the Kremlin) won't allow it. On the one hand, he is bound by his past; on the other, there is Putin."

Ecuador asks UK to let Assange leave embassy briefly

October 15, 2015

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuadoran officials have asked the United Kingdom to let WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leave his asylum at country's embassy in London briefly for medical checks. Britain responded Thursday by saying he could have medical care but would be arrested if he leaves the embassy.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that Assange needs an MRI for a pain in his shoulder that began three months ago. Assange has been living at the embassy since June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual misconduct and rape of two women. He denies the accusations and said he believes that Sweden would send him to the United States to be face charges for the WikiLeaks publication of thousands of classified U.S. government documents.

"We are asking for a special safe conduct pass that lasts a few hours only so he can take a magnetic resonance and return under our protection," Patino said, adding, "and possibly beneath the protection of British police, if they want to put 10,000 police alongside the vehicle to take him to the hospital."

Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement that Britain would not "in any way seek to impede Mr. Assange receiving medical advice or care. We have made this clear to the government of Ecuador." But British officials have also made it clear that Assange faces arrest if he leaves the embassy.

On Monday British police withdrew a 24-hour guard from the building, but said they would still "deploy a number of overt and covert tactics" to arrest Assange if he left. Patino said an option would be for another country or the Red Cross to bring a portable MRI machine to the embassy.