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Sunday, December 20, 2015

France votes amid tensions around attacks, migration

December 06, 2015

PARIS (AP) — French voters are casting ballots Sunday for regional leaders in an unusually tense security climate, expected to favor conservative and far right candidates and strike a new blow against the governing Socialists.

Islamic State-inspired attacks on Paris Nov. 13 and a Europe-wide migrant crisis this year have shaken up France's political landscape. Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front is hoping the two-round voting that starts Sunday will consolidate political gains she has made in recent years — and strengthen its legitimacy as she prepares to seek the presidency in 2017.

The unpopular Socialist president, Francois Hollande, has seen his approval ratings jump since the Paris attacks, as he intensified French airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq and ordered a state of emergency at home. But his party, which currently runs nearly all of France's regions, has seen its electoral support shrivel in recent years amid economic disappointment.

Voters are choosing leadership for the country's 13 newly redrawn regions in elections that start Sunday and go to a second round Dec. 13. Le Pen is campaigning to run the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, which includes the port city of Calais, a flashpoint in Europe's migrant drama. Polls suggest she could win.

Her young niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, appears to be on even stronger footing in her race to lead the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, including the French Riviera and part of the Alps. A win for either would be unprecedented in France, for a party long seen as a pariah.

Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the conservative-leaning national business lobby issued a public appeal this week to stop the National Front's march toward victory. Le Pen has worked to undo its image as an anti-Semitic party under father and co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and has lured in new followers from the left, the traditional right and youth.

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and the exploits of IS, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, have bolstered the discourse of the National Front. It denounces Europe's open borders, what it calls the "migratory submersion" and what it claims is the corrupting influence of Islam on French civilization.

EU, Turkey seek better relations at emergency refugee summit

November 29, 2015

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders and the Turkish prime minister sealed a joint summit with a commitment to re-energize Turkey's long-stalled membership talks and bolster their common resolve to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

The 28 EU leaders were leaning hard on Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to stem the flow of migrants seeking a better future in Europe's heartland and European Council President Donald Tusk said the latest estimate showed that "approximately 1.5 million people" had illegally entered the bloc this year, a lot coming through Turkey.

It left the EU in need of help from Ankara, even if their recent relations have been sown with discord. On Sunday, it was hugs all around as Tusk and Davutoglu completed what they called a breakthrough summit to put relations on an even keel again.

"Turkish membership will be an asset," said Davutoglu after "no disagreements emerged" during the hastily-called emergency meeting. Both sides got concessions: The EU desperately needs Turkish help to contain the flow of migrants into the bloc, and Turkey resuscitated long-mothballed hopes to join a bloc in which it would, by population, become one of the biggest member states.

The refugee crisis has reminded European leaders just how much Turkey — whether a bloc member or not — is a pivotal partner for the EU and a buffer state from the bedlam rocking much of the Middle East in recent years.

French President Francois Hollande said Sunday that the EU will need to monitor Turkey's commitments "step-by-step," deal with the migrant crisis, fight extremism and help end Syria's political crisis. He said any funds for a 3 billion-euro ($3.2 billion) package to help Turkey deal with the migrants on its territory will be released progressively as the commitments are checked.

Davutoglu said that money wasn't earmarked for Turkey per se but for the refugees on Turkish soil. Yet the hundreds of thousands of migrants coming into the EU this year have caused the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and EU nations have been at pains to draw Turkey in as part of the solution.

"Turkey must do its utmost to contain the illegal immigration into Europe and the number of refugees has to decline substantially," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. As a sweetener it is again discussing issues that were long off the table.

Davutoglu said Turkey stood committed to help, but couldn't make hard promises. "I wish to say the number of migrants will decline, but we cannot say this because we don't know what's going on in Syria," he said.

As part of the carrot approach, the EU promises to make haste with talks on easing visa restrictions and fast-tracking Turkey's EU membership. "I want there to be an agreement so that Turkey takes on commitments. Europe supports it, and the refugees can be welcomed," Hollande said.

Davutoglu said he was "thankful to all European leaders for this new beginning, which is not just a beginning of a meeting but the beginning of a new process, which is very important for the future of our common bond in Europe."

The International Organization for Migration said almost 900,000 people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have entered Europe this year seeking sanctuary or jobs, a figure much lower than Tusk's assessment. More than 600,000 have entered through Greece, many after making the short sea crossing from Turkey, the IOM said.

More than 2 million refugees from Syria also live in Turkey, but according to Amnesty International, only around one in 10 are being helped by the government. The rest fend largely for themselves. Even if support for closer relations with Turkey has often been lukewarm at best in many of the EU member states, the refugee crisis has forced a drastic revision of relations with Ankara.

"Turkey is right to expect that the EU provides relief," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. Others though pointed out that any aid had to be offset by Turkish commitments on reform and respect for human rights.

Tusk put it straight to Davutoglu during the opening session of the summit. In return for EU aid, he said, "we expect to see an immediate and substantial reduction of irregular migrants arriving to Europe." Furthermore, he added, the EU nations want Turkey "to realize the common objective of coming closer together through reforms, the upholding of the highest standards of human rights and media freedom and the implementation of agreed roadmaps and benchmarks" that are part of the EU membership talks.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Turkey couldn't be given a "blank check" from the EU to help it handle the roughly 2 million Syrian refugees in the country and added his nation is not ready yet to free up money. And even if Turkey has long sought to join the bloc, Michel said Turkey is "far away from membership" and "there is much progress that needs to be made."

In a recent membership progress report on Turkey, the EU criticized Ankara's interference with its justice system and Turkish government pressure on the media. Last week, two more opposition journalists were jailed in Turkey.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that there was enough to bind both sides together. "Turkey and Europe need each other. We are facing the same problems — from the war in Syria to terrorism to the stability or instability for the region . we can be partners. We have to put all the issues we have on the table."

Maria Cheng contributed to this report.

UK army joins rescue teams amid severe flooding

December 07, 2015

LONDON (AP) — Britain's army was called in to help put down sandbags and evacuated people from their homes Sunday as stormy weather left the country's northern towns and cities severely flooded.

Storm Desmond's torrential rain and strong winds swept across northwestern England and Scotland over the weekend. In Cumbria, known for its scenic Lake District National Park, officials say rainfall between Friday and Saturday likely exceeded an average month's worth in the area.

The deluge left the Cumbrian city of Carlisle and hundreds of homes submerged. Many rivers burst their banks and in some streets, cars have been left almost entirely underwater. Rescue teams helped ferry those forced to leave their homes in boats.

About 60,000 homes in northern regions were left without power and electricity. In Kendal, rescue teams are searching for an elderly man who reportedly fell into a swollen river, and in London police say a 90-year-old man died after he was believed to have been blown into the side of a moving bus by a gust of wind.

Further flooding and disruption is expected as forecasters warn of more heavy rain on Monday in Scotland, northwestern England and Wales.

Travel chaos, floods as Storm Desmond hits Britain

December 05, 2015

LONDON (AP) — Authorities in Britain have closed roads, evacuated homes and issued severe flood warnings as stormy weather hits the country.

Weather forecaster the Met Office issued its highest red rain warning for northwest England and southwest Scotland, as Storm Desmond brings strong winds and heavy, persistent rain to those regions. The agency says it expects up to 200 mm (7.9 inches) of rainfall in the northwest region of Cumbria, especially over exposed mountains. The Environment Agency also warns of significant flooding around the country as river levels rise.

Dozens of highways and main roads were closed Saturday due to landslides or flooding.

Britain launches airstrikes on IS in Syria

December 03, 2015

AKROTIRI, Cyprus (AP) — British warplanes carried out airstrikes in Syria early Thursday, hours after Parliament voted to authorize air attacks against Islamic State group targets there.

Four Royal Air Force Tornados took off from a British air base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, shortly after the 397-223 vote by lawmakers in the House of Commons. A Ministry of Defense spokesman told the AP the planes had conducted strikes in Syria, and details about their targets would be provided later Thursday.

He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with British policy for government spokespeople. The RAF has been launching strikes against IS targets in Iraq since 2014. The decision to expand the campaign to Syria came after an emotional 10 1/2-hour debate in which Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain must strike the militants in their heartland and not "sit back and wait for them to attack us."

Opponents argued that Britain's entry into Syria's crowded airspace would make little difference, and said Cameron's military plan was based on wishful thinking that overlooked the messy reality of the Syrian civil war.

Cameron has long wanted to target IS in Syria, but had been unsure of getting majority support in the House of Commons until now. He suffered an embarrassing defeat in 2013 when lawmakers rejected a motion backing attacks on the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The mood has changed following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, claimed by IS, that killed 130 people. Both France and the U.S. have urged Britain to join their air campaign in Syria, and Cameron said Britain should not let its allies down.

He said Britain was already a top target for IS attacks, and airstrikes would reduce the group's ability to plan more Paris-style carnage. "Do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people?" he said. "Or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?"

He said that attacking IS was not anti-Muslim but "a defense of Islam" against "women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters." Cameron was backed by most members of his governing Conservative Party — which holds 330 of the 650 Commons seats — as well as members of the smaller Liberal Democrat party and others.

Labor, the main opposition, was divided. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn — who represents the left wing of the party — spoke against what he called a "reckless and half-baked intervention." But more than 60 Labor lawmakers, including senior party figures, voted in support of airstrikes, a move likely to make fissures between the right and the left of the party even worse.

Labor foreign affairs spokesman Hilary Benn said Britain could not "walk by on the other side of the road" when international allies were asking for help against IS "fascists." Britain already conducts airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq, and in August launched a drone strike that killed two British IS militants in Syria.

British officials say Royal Air Force Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets, armed with Brimstone missiles capable of hitting moving targets, would bring the campaign highly accurate firepower and help minimize civilian casualties.

President Barack Obama welcomed the British vote to join the air campaign in Syria, saying the Islamic State group "is a global threat that must be defeated by a global response." Critics claim British airstrikes will make little practical difference, and that ground forces will be needed to root out IS. Britain has ruled out sending troops, and critics of the government have responded with skepticism to Cameron's claim that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels on the ground.

Cameron stood by that claim Wednesday, though he conceded, "I'm not saying that the 70,000 are our ideal partners." Karin von Hippel, who was chief of staff to U.S. Gen. John Allen when he was the United States' anti-ISIS envoy, said force alone would not defeat the militants — but neither would diplomacy by itself.

"The Brits have expertise and capabilities," she said. Their involvement "brings moral authority and legitimacy to the fight." The British vote came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said NATO members were ready to step up military efforts against the Islamic State group — and held out hope of improved cooperation between the West and Russia to end Syria's four-year civil war.

A day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the United States would deploy a new special operations force to Iraq to step up the fight against the militants, Kerry said other countries could provide assistance that did not involve combat. He said the effort to expand operations would require more medical facilities, intelligence-gathering, military support structure, refueling operations, aerial defenses and other action.

The German Cabinet has approved plans to commit up to 1,200 soldiers to support the anti-IS coalition in Syria, though not in a combat role. Despite talk of increased international cooperation, tension has soared between Russia and Turkey after the shooting down of a Russian military jet by Turkish forces last week.

On Wednesday, Russia's deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, accused Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of benefiting from illegal oil trade with Islamic State militants. Erdogan called the claim "slander" and said Turkey would not "buy oil from a terror organization."

Russia and the United States also disagree about tactics in Syria, with Moscow backing Assad and Washington saying he must go. But Kerry, speaking after NATO meetings in Brussels, said that if Russia's focus on fighting IS was "genuine," it could have a constructive role in bringing peace. He didn't say whether the U.S. might be willing to bring Russia into its military effort against the group, as some members such as France have proposed.

The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said the bulk of Russia's air operations in Syria are still directed against moderate anti-Assad opposition forces, not Islamic State positions.

U.S. officials had hoped Russia would change its bombing focus after the Oct. 31 attack on a Russian airliner over Egypt, which killed 224 people. Asserting that the "vast majority" of Russian sorties targeted moderate groups, Breedlove said coalition forces were "not working with or cooperating with Russia in Syria" but had devised safety routines to make it easier for both groups.

The British debate was sometimes bad-tempered as opposition lawmakers demanded Cameron apologize for remarks, reportedly made at a closed-door meeting, in which he branded opponents a "bunch of terrorist sympathizers."

Cameron did not retract the comments but said "there's honor in voting for, there's honor in voting against" the motion to back airstrikes. From the passionate speeches in the House to the anti-war protesters outside Parliament, the debate recalled Britain's divisive 2003 decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on what turned out to be false claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Many lawmakers came to regret supporting the war and ensuing chaos, and blamed then-Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair for lacking a plan for post-war reconstruction.

Labor leader Corbyn said that "to oppose another reckless and half-baked intervention isn't pacifism. It's hard-headed common sense." Labor's Shabana Mahmood — one of the few Muslim lawmakers in Parliament — called IS "Nazi-esque totalitarians who are outlaws from Islam," but said she opposed the strikes because "we cannot simply bomb the ground, we have to have a strategy to hold it as well."

But Cameron said doing nothing was a worse option. "The risks of inaction are greater than the risks of what I propose," he said.

Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writers Danica Kirka and Gregory Katz in London, Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Deb Riechmann in Washington, Jamey Keaten in Brussels and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

British leader sets Syria airstrikes debate for Wednesday

November 30, 2015

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister David Cameron called for a debate and vote in Parliament on Wednesday on whether Britain should launch airstrikes against militants in Syria, arguing that the nation must stand with its allies in confronting extremism.

Cameron's statement Monday comes only hours after opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn decided that Labor Party lawmakers would be allowed to vote their conscience on the matter — rather than to keep party discipline and have a unified stance.

The move by the Labor leader gave Cameron confidence he had the votes to clinch an expansion of the mandate of British forces to hit Islamic State group militants — also known as ISIL — not just in Iraq, but Syria as well.

"I can announce that I will be recommending to Cabinet tomorrow that we hold a debate and a vote in the House of Commons to extend the airstrikes that we have carried out against ISIL in Iraq to Syria, that we answer the call from our allies and work with them because ISIL is a threat to our country and this is the right thing to do," he said.

Cameron has repeatedly said he wouldn't take the matter to Parliament unless he could be certain of victory, worried that Britain's prestige would be at risk. If the measure is approved in Parliament, British military operations are expected to start shortly afterward.

Britain's Royal Air Force is already part of a U.S.-led campaign against the militants in Iraq, and the question before lawmakers would be whether the mandate for the strikes should be expanded to Syria. Cameron has said, "we have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands," and argued that it made no sense to stop at borders that were ignored by the militants.

The government has been trying to build support among lawmakers for military action before calling the vote in Parliament. "It is in the national interest, it is the right thing to do, we will be acting with our allies, we will be careful and responsible as we do so, but in my view it's the right thing to do this to keep our country safe," he said after returning to his Downing Street office after attending the opening of climate talks in Paris.

The U.N. Security Council called last week for nations to unite against the extremists after the attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian civilian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Desert. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for those and other recent attacks.

The recently elected Corbyn, who is extremely skeptical about military interventions, faced a possible rebellion and mass resignations from legislators who back military action if he had used his position as party leader to force members to vote against the airstrikes.

Sweden will not take part in French strikes in Syria

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström announced yesterday that her country would not take part or support the French aerial attacks against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, Anadolu reported.

In a joint press conference held with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hellqvist, Wallström said: “France asked us to support its aerial operation in Iraq and Syria, but the Swedish government will not offer this support.”

The minister added: “[Sweden] might offer a logistic support represented by transmitting French troops to the region,” but nothing more.

In addition, she noted that her government would send 200 soldiers to Mali in 2017 to work under the UN leadership.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/22892-sweden-will-not-take-part-in-french-strikes-in-syrian.

PM: Danish vote shows 'considerable skepticism'

December 04, 2015

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The fact that 53 percent of Danish voters decided in a referendum to continue a decades-old opt-out from justice affairs in the European Union shows there is "considerable skepticism about the European project," Denmark's pro-EU prime minister said Friday.

Lars Loekke Rasmussen called the vote, which means Denmark can no longer be directly involved with the police organization Europol, "a slap in the face." He wrote on Facebook that Denmark should join the agenda of British Prime Minister David Cameron on future ties with the EU, which both countries joined in 1973.

Britain plans a referendum by the end of 2017 to decide whether it will leave the 28-nation bloc. Cameron wants to stay in — provided he can secure the changes he wants, including giving member states more autonomy, such as the power to restrict benefits for EU immigrants coming to Britain.

Loekke Rasmussen's vision for "a new balance" is "a strong Europe that really can make a positive difference (and) a slimmer EU, where countries can solve problems in their own way more meaningfully."

Gilles De Kerchove, the EU counter-terrorism coordinator who works closely with the bloc's agencies involved in the fight against extremists, including Europol, said the Danish referendum was "a very strong expression of some hesitation on the extent to which Europe can provide security."

"It's sad for me because Europe needs Denmark," De Kerchove told reporters. "When you see the added value of the (security) tools we are developing ... you need to be on board." Next Friday, Loekke Rasmussen meets with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels to start talks on reaching so-called parallel agreements that would allow Danes to continue cooperation with Europol, among others.

"We want to continue in Europol," said Soeren Espersen of the EU-skeptic, anti-immigration Danish People's Party. Denmark's second-largest party wants changes to the passport-free Schengen travel zone that recently came under pressure following the surge in migrant numbers in Europe. "We must have this fundamental discussion now."

Last week, the bloc changed the role of the European police agency, including banning opt-outs from EU justice policies for full members. Loekke Rasmussen's center-right government had argued that ending the 1992 opt-out would give Danes more say, while opponents said Danes would lose even more sovereignty to Brussels.

Turnout in Thursday's referendum was 72 percent.

Associated Press reporter Lorne Cook in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Danish referendum takes step away from EU, including Europol

December 03, 2015

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Danes voted Thursday to keep a 23-year-old opt-out from justice affairs, hence taking a step away from closer ties with the European Union, meaning it temporarily would end ties with Europol, even as the European law-enforcement agency is preparing to increase its role in fighting terrorism.

Projections on Denmark's two main television stations based on nearly all votes counted showed 53 percent wanted to keep the 1992 opt-out. "Danes are saying yes to cooperation but no to relinquishing more sovereignty to Brussels," said Kristian Thulesen-Dahl, head of the EU-skeptic, anti-immigration Danish People's Party. "What a fantastic evening," said Thulesen-Dahl, one of the "no" sides most prominent figures.

Pro-EU Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen said he now would have talks with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker aimed at reaching so-called parallel agreements that would allow Denmark to continue cooperation with Europol, among others.

During the two-week campaign, both sides have called for somehow being part of Europol — either directly, as the government suggested, or through parallel agreements, as the "no" side called for. The latter means Danes find themselves on the sidelines of the EU-wide police agency with no say in decision-making, like non-EU neighbors Norway and Iceland.

"It is a considerable 'no' which bothers me," said Loekke Rasmussen who heads a one-party center-right government, adding he has "full respect for the Danes' choice." Last week, the 28-member bloc changed the role of the European police agency, including banning opt-outs from EU justice policies for full members.

The pro-EU center-right government had argued that ending the opt-out would give Danes more say within the bloc, while opponents claim the opposite would happen — Danes will lose even more sovereignty to Brussels.

If Thursday's referendum results in continuing the opt-out, Henning Soerensen, a lecturer in lecturer in EU law at the University of Southern Denmark, fears a new agreement to rejoin Europol "could take years."

Danes "won't (then) have immediate access to Europol registers on foreign fighters in Syria, criminal motorbike gangs, etc.," he said. "Basically, it's a matter of what relation Denmark wants with the EU — inside or outside."

The vote comes three weeks after the deadly Paris attacks, reviving fears in the small Scandinavian country where officials say they have thwarted several terrorist attacks since the 2005 publishing of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that caused fiery protests in Muslim countries. In February, a gunman killed two people and wounded five in attacks on a free-speech event and Copenhagen's main synagogue.

The government had said that whichever way the vote goes it won't affect the country's immigration policy. Unlike neighbors Germany and Sweden, Denmark has not seen a recent surge in migrant numbers, chiefly because of its asylum rules, considered among the strictest in Europe.

Turnout was around 72 percent, the DR and TV2 channels said.

Sleepy days over for Venezuela congress

December 10, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's socialist lawmakers vowed Thursday to pass laws and make appointments until the last possible minute to protect their revolution before the opposition takes over congress next month on promises to revive an institution they say has been subservient to the presidency.

At the first session since the opposition won a landslide victory in Sunday's legislative election, lawmakers heard performances of patriotic songs and promised to never cooperate with the "bourgeoisie" leaders who will take control of the legislature Jan. 5. The election has created a divided government for the first time since the late President Hugo Chavez launched his socialist government here in 1998.

"We will never change our position, no matter what kind of blackmail or manipulation they throw our way," outgoing National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said. "We will be here until midnight on January 4.

The refusal to negotiate probably won't matter, given the opposition's two-third majority. Even the government workers in socialist red T-shirts patrolling the palm-tree-lined National Assembly compound say the body will be unrecognizable come next year.

"It's going to be more work, less singing," said Jimmy Toval, who has handled logistics in the legislature for 15 years. "The new guys are coming in to write laws." During 15 years of socialist control, Venezuela's congress has met infrequently to rubber-stamp the president's agenda, reducing its schedule to just one day a week. The public is not allowed in at all and reporters are corralled into a room far from the floor where they watch proceedings on a television with an inconsistent signal.

That televised view drew derision in 2013 when the camera averted its gaze from a fight on the assembly floor that sent high-profile opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to the hospital. It broadcast a shot of the ceiling instead.

Last month, lawmakers approved the president's budget proposal with minimal debate, as they have for years. At other times, they have danced around the chamber to drums and held sing-alongs. The detailed accountability reports and economic figures the body is supposed to receive annually have morphed into documents that read more like celebratory press releases or that have stopped coming in altogether.

While lawmakers have sometimes promised to investigate major scandals, like a 2013 prison riot in which dozens of inmates were shot to death, they rarely present conclusions. On Thursday, lawmakers gave a promotion to the judge who earlier this year convicted opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to more than a decade in prison for his role leading anti-government street protests in 2014. Human rights groups consider Lopez the region's highest-profile political prisoner, and the opposition has vowed to pass a law that would free him.

The legislature is expected to appoint a series of Supreme Court judges next week who would in theory be able to nullify the opposition's laws by finding them unconstitutional. Human Rights Watch has called this plan undemocratic.

If the Supreme Court began overturning laws, the opposition would likely try to impeach those judges or pack the court with their own picks. Government critics, who have had so little access to national media that they have relied on a YouTube channel to get their announcements out, have been eagerly outlining their plans to use the National Assembly's national television channel. They also insist they'll demand far more economic data from state intuitions.

Newly elected congressman Henry Ramos Allup, who leads the large opposition party Democratic Action, said any last-minute attempts to neuter the legislature will be undone as soon as the new lawmakers are seated. The opposition will have the power to remove Supreme Court justices it finds guilty of misconduct.

"These are acts of anger that are null and void," he told the television station Globovision. "Whatever they do, it's reversible."

Venezuelan opposition wins Congress, aims for supermajority

December 08, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's opposition rejoiced Monday after its shock triumph in legislative elections and waited anxiously for the final tally to see whether it secured a two-thirds supermajority that could dramatically wrest power from President Nicolas Maduro after 17 years of socialist rule.

The Democratic Unity opposition alliance declared Monday that it won the minimum number of seats needed to initiate a process to remove Maduro. But the National Electoral Council was slow to publish results despite the efficiency and transparency promised by the country's electronic voting system, and more than a full day after polls closed two races remained undecided.

The opposition won at least 110 seats in the incoming 167-seat legislature, including three representatives of Venezuela's indigenous community who plan to vote with the coalition, electoral authorities announced Monday night in their most-recent bulletin. The ruling Socialist party and its allies won 55 seats.

If the two undecided races break the opposition coalition's way it will give it the supermajority needed to sack Supreme Court justices, initiate a referendum to revoke Maduro's mandate and even convoke an assembly to rewrite Hugo Chavez's 1999 constitution.

Even if the opposition falls short, the landslide could unleash intense political battles. Since the late Chavez swept into power, the opposition has never held a branch of government. Both sides are more accustomed to hurling insults than negotiating across the country's vast political divide, and a protracted power struggle could rip apart an economic and social fabric already in tatters.

Maduro urged his supporters to accept Sunday's results, even as he recalled the long history of US-supported coups in Latin America and blamed the "circumstantial" loss on a right-wing "counterrevolution" trying to sabotage Venezuela's oil-dependent economy and destabilize the government.

"I can say today that the economic war has triumphed," said Maduro, who was surrounded by top socialist leaders in the presidential palace as he mostly pulled phrases from the stump speech he had been delivering before the election.

Hardliners in the opposition seemed similarly entrenched, preferring to talk about ending Maduro's rule before his term ends in 2019 rather than resolving Venezuela's triple-digit inflation, plunging currency and the widespread shortages expected to worsen in January as businesses close for the summer vacation.

Some opposition figures caution that the result has more to do with anger at Venezuela's woes than an embrace of the opposition. While even moderates pledged to use their new leverage to pass an amnesty for opponents jailed during last year's protests, putting food on the table is the priority for most Venezuelans.

"The opposition needs to accept this with a lot of humility," said political consultant Francisco Marquez, who managed one of the winning opposition campaigns. "This was a punishment vote and we will need to show people that we're up to the task."

Voting Sunday was mostly peaceful, though several ruling party governors, including Chavez's brother Adan, were videotaped braving boos and insults as they entered polling centers. Turnout was a stunning 74 percent, the highest for a parliamentary election since Chavez ended compulsory voting in the 1990s.

The scale of the political earthquake was such that socialists lost even in Chavez's home state of Barinas, where Adan Chavez is one of several family members holding high office. In the capital, the opposition won by almost 20 percentage points, even prevailing in the emblematic 23rd of January slum where a mausoleum holds the remains of Chavez, who is revered by the poor as their "invincible commander."

It was also a major blow to Latin America's left, which gained power in the wake of Chavez's ascent but has struggled more recently in the face of a region-wide economic slowdown and voter fatigue in some countries with rampant corruption.

Last month, Argentines rejected the chosen successor of President Cristina Fernandez, herself a close Chavez ally, turning instead to the relatively conservative mayor of Buenos Aires. And In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff is battling impeachment over a corruption scandal in her long-ruling Workers' Party.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Venezuelans for making their voice heard and called on authorities to tabulate and publish remaining results in a timely manner. "Dialogue among all parties in Venezuela is necessary to address the social and economic challenges facing the country, and the United States stands ready to support such a dialogue together with others in the international community," Kerry said in a statement

Maduro had repeatedly vowed to defend Chavez's legacy in the streets if his party lost, but he softened his tone in his initial post-election comments. Reining in Maduro, who became president after Chavez died in 2013, will be tough. He still has a near-complete grip on all other branches of government and state insititutions, and may be able to outflank a hostile congress when it convenes next month.

However, Maduro also faces the challenge of maintaining the loyalty of different factions of the Chavismo movement, including the military, Venezuela's traditional arbiter of political disputes. In a cryptic address late Sunday night before results were announced, Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino stood with the top military command and congratulated Venezuelans for peacefully fulfilling their civic duty, but in a departure from tradition under Chavez, made no statements in support of the Maduro government.

"We're in unchartered territory," said David Smilde, an analyst for the Washington Office of Latin America who has lived and worked in Venezuela for much of the past 20 years. "Never under Chavismo have we seen a divided government."

Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

Venezuela opposition claims victory ahead of vote results

December 07, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leaders of Venezuela's opposition are claiming victory ahead of official results in Sunday's crucial legislative elections that could alter the country's balance of power after 17 years of socialist rule.

Hours after polls closed, several opposition leaders took to the Internet to announce that they had won a majority of seats in the National Assembly for the first time since 1998. But with no official results released and the ruling socialist party not commenting, their claims could not be confirmed.

"The results are as we expected. Venezuela won," former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said on Twitter. "With great humility, serenity and maturity we accept what the people decided." An opposition victory would be a major setback for the socialist revolution started 17 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez, who until his death in 2013 had an almost-magical hold on the political aspirations of Venezuela's long-excluded masses.

It would also be a major blow to Latin America's left, which gained power in the wake of Chavez's ascent but more recently has been struggling in the face of a region-wide economic slowdown and voter fatigue in some countries with rampant corruption. Last month, Argentines elected a conservative businessman over the chosen successor of Cristina Fernandez, who was a close ally of Chavez. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff is battling low approval ratings and facing impeachment over a corruption scandal in her left-leaning Workers' Party.

President Nicolas Maduro had repeatedly vowed in recent weeks to take to the streets and defend the socialist system build by his mentor Chavez if his party lost, though on Sunday, he appeared to soften his tone.

"In Venezuela, peace and democracy must reign," he said after voting in a working-class neighborhood of Caracas. "I've said we'll take the fight to the streets, but maybe I was wrong. We can't go where we've always been."

If confirmed, it would be the opposition's first major electoral victory since Chavez became president, with Venezuelans tired of rampant crime, routine shortages of basic goods and inflation pushing well into triple digits. The economic crisis has worsened with this year's slump in oil revenue, which funds almost all public spending.

Voting proceeded mostly peacefully through the day, though fears of unrest prompted some Venezuelans to line up before dawn so they could cast their ballots and get off the streets. Alejandro Ramirez spent the day riding around to polling centers with a motorcycle gang to encourage government supporters to vote. "We must never let the right wing win here," he said as his group ringed a voting center in the pro-government stronghold 23 de Enero, as pro-Chavez salsa songs filled the street.

As voting wound down, several ruling party governors were caught on film braving boos and insults as they entered their polling places, including Chavez's brother Adan. Electoral authorities extended voting hours for an additional hour amid heavy turnout. Under Venezuelan law, polls must remain open as long as voters are in line waiting to cast ballots. Government opponents faced off with armed soldiers, and later, groups of red-clad government supporters on motorcycles.

A small opposition majority in the new 167-seat National Assembly would create only minor inconveniences for Maduro, such as denying him a budget for foreign travel and having committees scrutinize the executive's record. Some hardliners are also vowing to seek a recall referendum to cut short Maduro's term before it ends in 2019.

But reining in Maduro, who became president after Chavez died in 2013, would require new laws needing at least a three-fifths majority, or 101 seats — two more than now held by the socialists. Maduro's near-complete grip on other branches of government like the Supreme Court mean he can easily outflank a hostile congress.

A source in the anti-government camp who spoke on the condition of anonymity because results were not yet official told The Associated Press the opposition had won around 100 seats. The opposition, with little cash and little access to broadcast media, has struggled to compete in far-flung rural districts against the government's campaign machine. In 2010, voting nationwide was almost evenly split yet the government ended up seating 33 more lawmakers due to Venezuela's complicated electoral system.

Still, even a small victory would provide an important lift to the frequently outmaneuvered opposition. The socialist party has often touted its unbroken chain of electoral victories to defend itself against allegations that it's undemocratic.

Yosmeli Teran is one of the party's former supporters whose abstention this time around is believed to be one of the biggest contributors to the opposition's strength. Drinking rum at an informal street party, she resisted her neighbors' pleas to vote.

"This is a slum. I know it will never be a safe place. But if it could just be a little less violent. And if it could be a little easier to feed and clothe my son," she said.

Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

Brazil delays approval of Israeli ambassador

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Israel’s foreign ministry has revealed that the Brazilian government is delaying its approval of the new Israeli ambassador, who is the former head of the Israeli settlement council, Dani Dayan, Arab48.com reported on Friday.

According to the Israeli Channel 2 TV, a senior Israeli official called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene to end this crisis. He described Brazil’s act as a “rude and ugly boycott.”

Netanyahu, who also holds the foreign minister brief, appointed Dayan to the post. Brazil has not yet confirmed if it does not want to approve him. Media reports suggest that the foreign ministry is still hopeful about having his appointment confirmed.

Ministry officials are apparently waiting until after the Christmas break as there is potential political unrest in Brazil that might end up with the current president being ousted, in which case relations between the two countries may be eased.

The Times of Israel said earlier that Brazil’s delay in approving Dayan as ambassador means that it has decided not to give him the green light. The newspaper website reported an Israeli official as saying that Brazil is waiting for Israel to understand this “hint” and nominate someone else for the position.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/americas/22933-brazil-delays-approval-of-israeli-ambassador.

Rwandans vote to lift term limits; partial poll results

December 19, 2015

KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — The head of Rwanda's electoral commission said late Friday partial results show Rwandans have voted to lift term limits in order to allow President Paul Kagame extend his rule.

More than 98 percent from 21 out of 30 districts, representing 70 percent of registered voters, voted to lift term limits for Kagame, Mbanda Kalisa said. Kagame's supporters celebrated the announcement in the capital, Kigali.

Kagame, 58, is ineligible to run in 2017 because the Rwandan constitution limits a president to two terms. But if Rwandans approve the referendum, Kagame would be able to run for an additional seven-year term and then two-five year terms, which means he could possibly stay in power until 2034.

Kagame became president in 2000 after being Rwanda's de facto leader since the end of the country's genocide in 1994. He is credited with stabilizing the country and promoting economic growth after the mass killings, but critics say he is an authoritarian ruler who does not tolerate opposition and he is accused of human rights abuses.

Rwanda's political opposition criticizes the referendum as undemocratic and the U.S., a key Rwandan ally, has opposed Kagame's bid to stay in power. The Chairman of the National Electoral Commission Mbanda Kalisa said partial results will be released later Friday.

Many of the 6.4 million registered voters are expected to participate in the referendum. Kagame voted at Rugunga polling station in the capital, Kigali, accompanied by his wife and daughter. "What is happening is people's choice. Ask people why they want it," he said maintaining that it's the wish of the Rwandan people that he extends his term. He said he would announce his candidature "any time."

Ninety-two per cent of Rwandans want President Paul Kagame for third term, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos, a global research firm, that was released this week. "President Kagame is a hero and statesman like former Tanzania President Julius Nyerere," says Dan Gatera, a voter in Nyamata, east of the country. "The constitution should not be used to limit presidents who have talents."

Western diplomats voiced concerns about the vote. The European Union is worried that the opposition was not given adequate time to campaign against the referendum, said Michael Ryan, head of the EU delegation to Rwanda.

"There should have been adequate time for debates, and educating people about the changes made in the constitution," Ryan told journalists. The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda is the only opposition party which rallied Rwandans to vote against changing the constitution to extend presidential term limits.

Erica Barks-Ruggles, the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, said she is concerned because the referendum was organized very quickly. The move to change Rwanda's constitution was prompted by a petition signed by more than 3.7 million people. The petition was endorsed by the Senate and the lower house of Parliament last month and later by the country's Supreme Court.

If Rwanda's term limits are changed and Kagame runs again, he will join a growing list of leaders in East and Central Africa whose governments have prolonged their rule by changing the limits on presidential terms.

In 2005, Ugandan lawmakers changed that country's constitution, allowing President Yoweri Museveni to seek re-election in 2006 and 2011. He is running again in 2016. Neighboring Burundi has political unrest that started earlier this year when President Pierre Nkurunziza run and won a third term that many oppose saying it goes against the two five-year term limit imposed by the constitution.

There have also been protests in Congo over efforts by President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power for 15 years, to prolong his time in office.

Burundi rejects African Union peacekeeping force

December 20, 2015

KIGALA, Rwanda (AP) — Burundi's government on Saturday rejected the African Union's plans to deploy a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force to stop escalating violence triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza's extended tenure in office, a government spokesman said.

If the African Union sends troops without Burundi's consent it will be viewed as an attack, said government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba. Burundi has enough forces to maintain peace, he said. Burundi has been in turmoil since April when Nkurunziza's candidacy for a third term was announced. Violence escalated following Nkurunziza's re-election in July.

Last week 87 people died when an unidentified group attacked three military installations. Burundi's security forces responded by going on a rampage in parts of the capital, Bujumbura, regarded as centers of opposition. Police and military are accused of dragging more than 150 civilians from their homes and shooting them at point blank range, according to human rights groups. Burundi's government insists its troops acted professionally.

In response to the violence, the African Union on Friday authorized sending a peacekeeping force to Burundi to stop the political violence. The African Prevention and Protection Mission will be deployed to Burundi for at least six months and its mission can be extended, the African Union's Peace and Security Council said. The force's mandate will include protecting civilians under imminent threat and helping to create conditions for holding inter-Burundian dialogue. The African Union's decision was unusual as it did not seek an invitation from Burundi's government for the peacekeepers.

In another effort at mediation, Burundi's fighting sides are to meet on December 28 in Uganda to try to resolve the crisis, Uganda's defense minister said Saturday. Fourteen groups including Burundi's ruling party, opposition parties and civil society organizations are to attend the talks aimed at ending the violent political unrest in which hundreds have been killed, said Crispus Kiyonga, who is also the facilitator of the peace talks mediated by the East African Community. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will moderate the talks, he said.

However the chances for these negotiations are not certain as the Nkurunziza government refused to participate in previous talks. The United Nations Security Council, in a statement Saturday, expressed "deep concern about the escalation of violence in Burundi," condemning both the attack on the military installations and the retaliatory rampage in Bujumbura. The council urged all sides in Burundi to support Museveni's mediation effort and to cooperate with the African Union's plan to deploy a peacekeeping force.

At least 400 people have been killed since April 26, when it was announced Nkurunziza would run for a third term, according to human rights groups. Nearly 3,500 people have been arrested in the political crisis and 220,000 people have fled the country.

Nkurunziza's third term was opposed by many Burundians and the international community, who say it violates the country's constitution two-term limit. Nkurunziza argues that his first term in office does not count because he was elected by parliament and not by the people.

AP writers Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya and Risdel Kasasira in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.

Supernova explosion caught in the act

Paris (ESA)
Dec 17, 2015

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured the image of the first-ever predicted supernova explosion. The reappearance of the Refsdal supernova was calculated from different models of the galaxy cluster whose immense gravity is warping the supernova's light.

Many stars end their lives with a with a bang, but only a few of these stellar explosions have been caught in the act. When they are, spotting them successfully has been down to pure luck - until now. On 11 December 2015 astronomers not only imaged a supernova in action, but saw it when and where they had predicted it would be.

The supernova, nicknamed Refsdal, has been spotted in the galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223. While the light from the cluster has taken about five billion years to reach us, the supernova itself exploded much earlier, nearly 10 billion years ago.

Refsdal's story began in November 2014 when scientists spotted four separate images of the supernova in a rare arrangement known as an Einstein Cross around a galaxy within MACS J1149.5+2223 (heic1505. The cosmic optical illusion was due to the mass of a single galaxy within the cluster warping and magnifying the light from the distant stellar explosion in a process known as gravitational lensing.

"While studying the supernova, we realized that the galaxy in which it exploded is already known to be a galaxy that is being lensed by the cluster," explains Steve Rodney, co-author, from the University of South Carolina. "The supernova's host galaxy appears to us in at least three distinct images caused by the warping mass of the galaxy cluster."

These multiple images of the galaxy presented a rare opportunity. As the matter in the cluster - both dark and visible - is distributed unevenly, the light creating each of these images takes a different path with a different length. Therefore the images of the host galaxy of the supernova are visible at different times.

Using other lensed galaxies within the cluster and combining them with the discovery of the Einstein Cross event in 2014, astronomers were able to make precise predictions for the reappearance of the supernova.

Their calculations also indicated that the supernova appeared once before in a third image of the host galaxy in 1998 - an event not observed by any telescope. To make these predictions they had to use some very sophisticated modelling techniques.

"We used seven different models of the cluster to calculate when and where the supernova was going to appear in the future. It was a huge effort from the community to gather the necessary input data using Hubble, VLT-MUSE, and Keck and to construct the lens models," explains Tommaso Treu, lead author of the modelling comparison paper, from the University of California at Los Angeles, USA.

"And remarkably all seven models predicted approximately the same time frame for when the new image of the exploding star would appear".

Since the end of October 2015 Hubble has been periodically peering at MACS J1149.5+2223, hoping to observe the unique rerun of the distant explosion and prove the models correct. On 11 December Refsdal finally made its predicted, but nonetheless showstopping, reappearance.

"Hubble has showcased the modern scientific method at its best," comments Patrick Kelly, lead author of the discovery and re-appearance papers and co-author of the modelling comparison paper from the University of California Berkeley, USA. "Testing predictions through observations provides powerful means of improving our understanding of the cosmos."

The detection of Refsdal's reappearance served as a unique opportunity for astronomers to test their models of how mass - especially that of mysterious dark matter - is distributed within this galaxy cluster. Astronomers are now eager to see what other surprises the ongoing Hubble Frontier Fields program will bring to light.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Supernova_explosion_caught_in_the_act_999.html.

Russia expels Polish reporter in retaliatory move

December 18, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Russia is expelling a Moscow-based correspondent for a leading Polish newspaper in a retaliatory move after a Russian reporter was stripped of his right to reside in Poland amid suspicions of espionage.

Russia's Foreign Ministry on Friday ordered Waclaw Radziwinowicz, a correspondent for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, to leave Russia within 30 days. The ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the Polish journalist was ordered out of Russia "on the principle of reciprocity."

Poland's Foreign Ministry denounced the expulsion of Radziwinowicz as "unjustified" and "purely retaliatory" and said it would have "negative consequences" for relations between the two countries, which are already deeply strained over Russia's actions in Ukraine and other matters.

Roman Imielski, managing editor for the Gazeta Wyborcza, and the Polish Foreign Ministry said the move was in response to the expulsion from Poland of Leonid Sviridov, a Russian reporter with the Kremlin-funded Rossiya Segodnya news service. He left Poland last Saturday.

Poland's Internal Security Agency said last year that Sviridov was a threat to Poland's security, though it never revealed what evidence it had against him. Polish media said Sviridov was suspected of spying for Russia, something Sviridov denied.

Although Poland's security agency declared Sviridov a "danger to the Polish state" in 2014, authorities allowed him to remain in Poland for 14 more months while the administrative case against him ran its course.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Sviridov depicted himself as the victim of anti-Russian feeling in Poland as ties soured between the two nations. He argued that if he were really a danger, Polish officials would have expelled him long before.

But Jacek Kozlowski, an official for the province of Mazovia, where Warsaw is based, told the AP he had seen the security agency's file on Sviridov, and while he could not reveal its contents, he insisted the case against the Russia was strong.

Poland's Foreign Ministry insisted the expulsion of an experienced correspondent who has worked for many years in Russia was unfair. "(Radziwinowicz's) many years of work as a correspondent in the Russian Federation cannot in any way be compared to the activities that Leonid Sviridov carried out in Poland," the ministry said.

It said Sviridov's expulsion "had no connection with his activities as a journalist." The Polish ministry also said Russia's actions violate the principle of journalistic independence and "will have negative consequences on Polish society being informed about Russia and on Polish-Russian relations."

The Interfax news agency on Friday quoted Radziwinowicz as saying that he was ordered to leave Russia within a month and was stripped of his Foreign Ministry accreditation, which makes it impossible for him to work in Russia.

Radziwinowicz was reportedly involved in publishing a book of discussions between Gazeta Wyborcza's editor-in-chief Adam Michnik and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In a Twitter post on Friday, Navalny's associate Vladimir Ashurkov hailed the journalist for an "important role in preparing the book."

Russia opens new Stalin museums, grapples with his legacy

December 18, 2015

KHOROSHEVO, Russia (AP) — A bust of Josef Stalin stands on the front lawn of a house-turned-museum in this small village, where the Soviet leader is said to have stayed the night on his only visit to the front during World War II.

Inside, the museum director, a sturdy woman armed with a wooden pointer, takes a group of preteen students around the two-room house where Stalin strategized with his generals in August 1943 as the Red Army battled to drive out the Nazi troops.

Scholars estimate that under Stalin more than 1 million people were executed in political purges. Millions more died of harsh labor and cruel treatment in the vast gulag prison camp system, mass starvation in Ukraine and southern Russia and deportations of ethnic minorities.

But as Russia faces isolation abroad and deepening economic troubles at home, retelling an abridged account of triumphs past has become increasingly fashionable. President Vladimir Putin frequently cites the Soviet victory in World War II — Stalin's most touted achievement — in vowing to stand up to the West and defend Russia's interests.

"Of course, we have started to look at Stalin in a more favorable light," said Sergei Zaborovsky, a tour operator with the Military Historical Society. "Why now? Maybe it's because the situation in the world isn't the best. We need strength. We need something to unite us."

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Stalin's legacy was kept alive by the Communist Party, whose members carried his portrait to rallies, extolled his modernization policies and faithfully celebrated his birthday on Dec. 21. His real birth date is now believed to be Dec. 18, but the Communists will still wait until Monday to place flowers at his grave on Red Square. After Stalin's death in 1953, his body was placed in the Lenin Mausoleum, but in 1961 it was moved to a graveyard behind it after his successor denounced Stalin's cult of personality.

While the aging Communists are photogenic but largely ignored, their airbrushed version of Stalin has gone from fringe to increasingly mainstream. The number of Russians who say they have a negative view of Stalin has steadily declined, from 43 percent in 2001 to 20 percent today; a growing majority reports that they cannot properly judge the leader's time in office.

Museums and busts honoring Stalin have been sprouting up around Russia with an increasing regularity, especially this year as the nation commemorates the 70th anniversary of victory in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

The museum in Khoroshevo, about a three-hour drive from Moscow, is among those opened this year in the Tver region by the Military Historical Society, which is under the direction of Russia's culture minister. It is part of a "Path to Victory" tour, which also includes war monuments and a burned-out building destroyed during the war.

The museum focuses on Stalin's military and economic triumphs. It does not mention any military shortcomings or any other negative aspect of the war or Stalin's three decades in power. The director of the Khoroshevo museum, Lydia Kozlova, responds curtly to the idea that the museum gives a one-sided impression to visitors. She is equally terse when discussing "Western" historical interpretations that write off Stalin as a dictator. "This is not a Stalin Museum," she repeats throughout trip arrangements and throughout the tour.

"Stalin wasn't an angel — far from it — but he looked after the safety of his citizens," said Kozlova, surrounded by placards with the leader's picture and glowing reviews of his military prowess. "The point of this museum is to guard our history, to protect the facts."

Recasting Stalin as a great leader who made Machiavellian calculations is worrying at best, says Memorial, a Russian human rights organization that has gathered historical records about Soviet political repressions and works to perpetuate the memory of the victims.

Memorial has called for Stalin's image to be banned. "Of course we don't like that this museum was opened," said Yelena Zhemkova, a historian with the organization. While the Kremlin has shied away from either categorically condemning or condoning Stalin, there has been a crescendo in efforts to muzzle individuals, museums and non-government organizations that do not "properly" interpret history and to bring the historical narrative under government control.

Memorial this year was declared a "foreign agent," a label that brings stigma and slows the group's work. The respected Perm-36 gulag museum was also labeled a foreign agent earlier this year and was forced to close under pressure from local authorities who claimed the museum did not adequately show the flourishing cultural life in the labor camps. A new museum later reopened under the same Perm-36 name and with exhibits described as more "historically accurate."

A large, state-run gulag museum opened in the center of Moscow on the eve of the Oct. 30 day of remembrance of the victims of political repressions. While Memorial takes this as a positive sign, "it is still government owned," cautions Zhemkova. The museum exhibits avoid a critique of the Soviet system, but provide an accurate depiction of the gulag system.

A far-reaching de-Stalinization campaign is unlikely to take place anytime soon, says Lev Gudkov, the director of the independent Levada Center, who has conducted extensive polling on public perception of Stalin. Acknowledging that the Soviet system was criminal and that the entire Soviet system was criminal would lead to a "complete collapse of identity" for many Russians, Gudkov said. "They don't deny what Stalin did, but they prefer to look at him as the majestic sovereign, rather than the controversial ruler."

Leonid Kavtza, a history teacher at Gymnasium 1543 in Moscow, says Russians still harbor ideas of imperial greatness. "They're harkening back on something great that can never be recreated. Even when I was a young child under (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev, I remember hearing 'If only Stalin was here.' If the director of the shop sold spoiled produce 'If only Stalin was here,' If there was a line at the clinic, 'If only Stalin was here,'" Kavtza said. "But there was no such person who did this. They're thinking of a mythical Stalin."

And thus far, the federal history curriculum has done nothing to counter these assumptions of Stalin's greatness. In the wake of the Kremlin's hands-off approach toward Stalin and exaltation of World War II, a growing group of people have filled the silence with measured praise.

"It's important not to forget those who helped create the peaceful environment we live in today," Irina Mikhailova, who teaches at a school in Khoroshevo. "The Stalin museum is very important to us. We're proud to have it here."