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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Erdogan: Do those who support Syrian regime value human life?

Friday, 04 December 2015

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday asked if a regime that kills its own citizens or those that support it value human life, in an apparent reference to Syria and Russia.

Speaking during the commemoration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Erodgan said: “Can a regime that killed 380,000 of its citizens with chemical and traditional weapons and displaced 12 million others have any relation to humanity? Can those who provide unconditional support to this regime, regardless of its massacres, and make every blatant effort to keep the regime in power, give value to human life?”

“Do you believe that those who kill children, civilians and innocent individuals standing in line for bread, under the pretext of combating Daesh, have a sense of humanity?” he asked.

The Turkish president noted that those with disabilities make up 10 per cent of the world’s population, according to UN statistics, pointing out that those with disabilities make up 13.3 per cent of Turkey’s population.

Erdogan stressed the Turkey is continuing its efforts to provide the conditions that allow for individuals with disabilities to rely on themselves and not remain in need of assistance and to provide more opportunities for them to work.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/22648-erdogan-do-those-who-support-syrian-regime-value-human-life.

Turkish ambassador: Palestinian blood is expensive and Israel must stop violating it

Friday, 04 December 2015

“Israel must know that the blood of the Palestinian people is expensive", Mustafa Sarnic, the Turkish ambassador to the Palestinian Authority (PA), said, noting that Tel Aviv’s policies prompted Palestinians to rise up to “defend” Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Sarnic stressed the need to fully remove the blockade of the Gaza Strip and called on Islamic countries to stand alongside the Palestinians.

In his statements to Felesteen newspaper, Sarnic added that the Israeli side must stop its violations against Palestinian people.

He added that Al-Aqsa Mosque "belongs to all Muslims and is holy land."

"Palestine is the land from which the heavenly journey of Muhammed (pbuh) began and the first direction of prayer for Muslims, so everyone, not just Turkey but all Islamic countries, must stand alongside Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem and the Palestinian people as we always do."

With regards to the Israeli blockade, Sarnic said: “The blockade imposed on the Palestinian people must be completely lifted, especially in the Gaza Strip.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/22651-turkish-ambassador-palestinian-blood-is-expensive-and-israel-must-stop-violating-it.

Official: Turkey will find new markets

Friday, 04 December 2015

Turkey will eventually find new markets and create new opportunities in the energy sector, the President of the Russia-Turkey Business Council Tuncay Ozilhan said yesterday.

Ozilhan said that the effects of the Russian sanctions will be temporary for Turkey.

“As our prime minister pointed out, there will be new markets for Turkish goods and new energy opportunities will arise. There may be short term difficulties, but after Turkish risk is managed through diversification, perhaps a good economic structure will emerge,” he told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.

Ozilhan explained that Turkish businessmen have very important investments in Russia and contribute to the Russian economy by generating employment, tax revenues and brands.

“The problem must be solved on the table with diplomatic negotiations. And investors should not be disturbed. I hope and wish that tensions will ease and problems will be negotiated and solved on the table. I wish all parties show self-sacrifice for the sake of both countries’ investors and people,” Ozilhan said.

“Turkish investors came to Russia in a time when other companies left the country,” Ozilhan said and wished “reason would prevail.”

While Russia insists that it's aircraft was not in Turkish airspace, Turkey has refused to apologise for downing the aircraft, an action that it's allies in NATO believe to be justified.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/22646-official-turkey-will-find-new-markets.

Once accommodating neighbors now turn back Syrian refugees

January 13, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — After taking in a million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has quietly changed course in recent months, forcing refugees to return to Syria — where they are at risk of persecution or death — or stay illegally, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The situation is drawing attention at a time when Turkey and Jordan have also tightened their admission policies. A Human Rights Watch report published Tuesday warned that Lebanon's new regulations have "set the stage for a potentially explosive situation."

Even as conditions in Syria deteriorate in a fifth year of war, Lebanon last week forcibly repatriated 407 Syrians who were stranded at Beirut airport after Turkey tightened its visa restrictions with little notice. It was by far the largest such forced repatriation to date.

Amnesty International called the action "an outrageous breach of Lebanon's international obligations," which require that it not return vulnerable people to a conflict zone. "Syrians have no value here. They've closed the door on us," said a 34-year-old refugee from Raqqa, the Islamic State group's de facto capital in northeastern Syria, who is now living and working as a doorman in Beirut. He refused to be named for fear of expulsion.

Lebanon in 2015 reversed a longstanding open-door policy for Syrians that allowed them to enter the country and reside here relatively unencumbered. At a minimum, they must now pay $200 per adult for a permit that lasts between six and 12 months, to say nothing of the onerous bureaucratic process that accompanies each application.

Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said most of refugees have lost their legal status over the past year because of the new regulations. "That's not just an abstract notion. If you don't have legal status, you basically cannot cross any checkpoints. So men cannot leave the house," said Houry.

Security checkpoints dot the country's Bekaa Valley and the north, where most Syrians are living. "That means you have to send the kids to work, because they aren't usually stopped. It also means if a woman gets sexually harassed, she cannot complain to the police, because she will be arrested," Houry said.

The situation is similar in Turkey, which has over two million refugees. Ankara began implementing visa restrictions for Syrians entering the country as part of its efforts to stem the flow of migrants into Europe. That decision reversed a long-standing agreement that allowed visa-free entry to Syrians.

Jordan insists it has kept its borders open to Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict in 2011. However, it has increasingly tightened its admissions policy. A remote stretch of desert between Syria and Jordan has been the only land access route for Syrian refugees since mid-2013. In recent months, growing numbers of refugees have amassed in an area near a berm, awaiting entry. Government spokesman Mohammed Momani said earlier this week that about 16,000 refugees are gathered there. He said 50 to 100 are allowed in each day, with priority given to women, children, the elderly and the ill, adding that "security is the first priority."

The U.N. refugee agency warned in December that conditions at the berm are deteriorating and that a majority of those waiting for admission, often for months, are women and children. The U.N. refugee agency says Jordan hosts about 630,000 refugees. In recent months, thousands have left by plane to Turkey and from there to Europe, while others have gone back to Syria. The exodus was sparked, in part, by further cuts in assistance to refugees by cash-strapped aid agencies.

Syrians now have two avenues to stay in Lebanon, either by relying on their precarious status as a United Nations-registered refugee, or by finding a Lebanese citizen to sponsor them. Human Rights Watch said obstacles on the U.N. route were increasingly pushing Syrians into the murky sponsorship trade.

"The sponsorship requirement is a recipe for abuse," said Houry. Of the 40 refugees interviewed for the report, only four have been able to renew their residency since January 2015. Over a million Syrians are registered as refugees with the UNHCR in Lebanon — equivalent to one-quarter of the resident population — though the number has declined over the past year as families find their conditions untenable. They are thought either to have returned to Syria or attempted a perilous escape to Turkey or Europe.

Over 90 percent of the refugees are trapped in debt, and 70 percent live below the poverty line, according to a recent United Nations study. Anti-refugee sentiment has crept into the fragile Lebanese political order as the war in Syria drags on. In October 2014, months before the new residency regulations came into effect, the government voted to stop receiving refugees, and in January, it prohibited the UNHCR from registering any more.

The U.N. estimates around half of Syria's population has been displaced, perhaps the starkest indicator of the ruthlessness of the war. Another Syrian refugee in Beirut, who identified himself by his nickname Abu Ali to remain anonymous to Lebanese authorities, said he came to Lebanon in 2012 and this year lost his residency because of the new regulations.

"I can't put my daughter in school because we are now illegally residing in the country," he said, speaking at the sandwich shop he works at in Beirut. Short of options in Lebanon, some families have pooled resources to send a husband or son to Turkey, where they can then set off for Europe, seeking asylum.

An official at Lebanon's General Security bureau, in charge of immigration and border control, denied that the new restrictions are aimed at forcing Syrians to return. "There was a lot of pressure at our border, and we had to organize our criteria for entry," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

"It is not to force people to leave."

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

Aid convoys reach outskirts of 3 besieged Syria villages

January 11, 2016

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Aid convoys arrived to the outskirts of a besieged rebel-held town near the Lebanese border on Monday with enough supplies to last for a month, as another convoy headed to two besieged villages in northern Syria — part of a large-scale U.N.-supported aid operation in the war-ravaged country, Syria's official news agency and aid groups said.

A group of residents gathered at the main entrance to Madaya, hoping to receive desperately needed food and medicine. The town, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of Damascus, has been blockaded for months by government troops and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Opposition activists and aid groups have reported several deaths from starvation in recent weeks.

The U.N.-supported aid operation was agreed on last week and appeared to be proceeding Monday. Syria's Red Crescent President Abdul Rahman Attar said the convoy reached the outskirts of Madaya shortly after midday, according to a statement posted on the organization's Twitter account.

A similar convoy reached the outskirts of the Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya in Idlib province, both under siege by rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria alongside Assad's forces, reported on its Al-Manar television channel that 40 trucks were expected to enter the northern villages, with another 40 headed to Madaya.

The situation in Madaya is the latest example of both sides using hunger as a weapon in Syria's war, now in its fifth year. The town has attracted particular attention in recent days because of reports of deaths and images of severely malnourished residents that have circulated across social media. The images prompted a media war two weeks ahead of a new round of peace talks between the government and opposition expected to take place in Geneva.

Some government supporters have used social media to mock the photos, saying they were fake, while others claimed it was the rebels who were withholding food from needy residents. The aid group Doctors Without Borders says 23 patients have died of starvation at a health center it supports in Madaya since Dec. 1 — including six infants under 1 year of age and five adults over the age of 60.

Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N.'s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, said almost 42,000 people in Madaya are at risk of further hunger and starvation. In Madaya, Al-Manar showed a group of people including women and children waiting for the convoys at the town's main entrance. In interviews, they accused fighters inside of hoarding humanitarian assistance that entered the town in October and selling them to residents at exorbitant prices.

"Our children are dying of hunger," a school teacher told the station, saying she walked to the entrance of the town to make sure she received the assistance directly. The U.N.'s World Food Program has said it will ship one month's worth of food for more than 40,000 people to Madaya from Damascus, and enough for 20,000 people to Foua and Kfarya from the city of Homs.

Also Monday, SANA reported that rocket, presumably fired by rebels, hit a residential neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo, killing three children and wounding two other people. It said the Syrian army had begun a large offensive in the countryside to the west of the city.

And in the northern village of Kafranbel, two prominent activists were released after being detained by the extremist Nusra Front. The two men, Raed Fares and Hadi Abdullah, were abducted by Nusra, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, in an early morning raid Sunday that saw their opposition radio station, Radio Fresh, shut down.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and other sources inside Syria, reported their release some 12 hours later. The release was also noted on the station's social media pages. In Damascus, Iran's Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli reasserted his country's support for Syria at a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Mohammad al-Shaar.

"The Syrian government has demanded our support against terrorism and we, anyway, stood alongside (President Bashar) Assad, who enjoys his people's support," he said. "We see the conditions in Syria are moving forward in a good way."

Associated Press writers Brian Rohan and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Fatah hails Assad and Egyptian army in anniversary celebration

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Palestinian Fatah movement has hailed the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and the Egyptian army during a celebration of its 51st anniversary in Damascus, Quds Press has reported. The secular movement also attacked Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood during the event, which was attended by Fatah officials from Syria and the occupied West Bank, as well as regional Ba’ath Party leader Arkan Al-Shofi.

Surrounded by a heavy security presence, the speakers at the celebration stood under two large portraits of Syrian President Assad and Fatah’s leader — and Palestinian Authority President — Mahmoud Abbas.

West Bank Fatah leader Jamal Mohesin spoke to the audience about the daily suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. He described the Israeli prime minister as the “new Nazi and current Hitler” who receives full support from the United States, the “leader of universal terror.” He insisted that any regional coalition which does not blacklist the Israeli occupation is “not right”, pointing out that Israel wants neither a Palestinian state nor even a tiny state in the Gaza Strip.

Mohesin praised the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, accusing the movement of forging a coalition with the United States and Turkey to establish a state in Gaza. “All hail the Egyptian army which undermined the conspiracy and ended the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” he said.

The Fatah official claimed that the Brotherhood is directed by Turkey, Qatar and NATO. In closing, he criticized “the sedition” of Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and accused Al-Jazeera of “trying to corrupt the ideology of the Arab nation.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23269-fatah-hails-assad-and-egyptian-army-in-anniversary-celebration.

Jordan stops charging Palestinians for work permits

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Jordanian Cabinet yesterday issued a decision to exempt temporary Jordanian passport holders from work permit fees, noting that stamps and any additional costs should be collected under the Labor Law.

Jordan had previously imposed fees on the work permits of temporary Jordanian passport holders, most of whom are Gazans residing in Jordan. The decision sparked protests and criticism in light of the deteriorating living conditions of people in the Gaza Strip.

According to unofficial estimates, the number of Gazan Palestinians living in Jordan ranges from between 700,000 and 900,000. They do not enjoy full citizenship rights, and they are not allowed to work in the official state institutions or study in government schools and universities. Rather, they study under the "parallel" education system or the international system applied in Jordanian state universities.

Gazans in Jordan are given identity cards and a passport without a national number.

Palestinian refugees living in Jordan who are not from Gaza and who came to the country after the 1948 and 1967 wars enjoy full citizenship rights.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23267-jordan-stops-charging-palestinians-for-work-permits.

MP resignations leave Tunisia's Ennahda party with parliamentary majority

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Two female MPs of the parliamentary bloc of Nidaa Tounes resigned from the party on Monday, bringing the number of those who have resigned to 21 members out of 86.

A resigned member from Nidaa Tounes Walid El-Gallad named the two MPs as Huda Slim and Rabha Bin Hussein.

Tunisian Radio Shems FM quoted El-Gallad as saying that there are eight other members who announced their resignations from the party as a first step.

This leaves the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, previously the minor coalition party, with a parliamentary majority.

The Nidaa Tounes party has been plagued by continuous resignations as a result of internal divisions and the resignation of the former Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk from the party.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/23297-mp-resignations-leave-tunisias-ennahda-party-with-parliamentary-majority.

Algeria gives PA treasury $26m

Monday, 11 January 2016

Algerian Ambassador to the Arab League Nazir Al-Arbaoui gave the Head of the Arab League Nabil Al-Arabi a cheque for $26 million as a contribution to the Palestinian Authority’s budget, Al-Resalah newspaper reported.

Al- Arbaoui said this is Algeria’s contribution towards the Arab League’s annual support for the PA’s budget.

A statement issued by the Algerian embassy in Cairo said that by handing over the cheque, Algeria has “completely fulfilled its pledges to support the resistance of the Palestinian people.”

It also said that this donation expresses the “continuous” Algerian support for achieving the legal Palestinian goal which is the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/23273-algeria-give-pa-treasury-26m.

Qatar will continue aiding Palestine, reconstructing Gaza

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Qatari Ambassador Mohammed Al-Emadi said yesterday that his country will continue aiding Palestine and reconstructing what the Israeli occupation destroyed in the Gaza Strip, Felesteen newspaper reported.

Al-Emadi met with the Deputy Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Bahar in his office in Gaza and passed the greetings of the Qatari Emir to the Palestinians and to the people of Gaza, stressing that the Qatari support for Gaza will continue.

He also said that the Qatari Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza would continue to guarantee the entrance of the materials needed for the reconstruction of houses destroyed by the Israeli occupation.

The Qatari ambassador said that his country is doing its best to guarantee a "decent" life for Palestinians, noting that it is working to solve the electricity crisis.

Meanwhile, Bahar hailed Qatar’s support for the Palestinian people, pointing out that Qatari has been carrying out vital projects in Gaza.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23293-qatar-will-continue-aiding-palestine-reconstructing-gaza.

S. Korea leader calls for Chinese help to punish North Korea

January 13, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's president on Wednesday urged North Korea's only major ally, China, to help punish Pyongyang's recent nuclear test with the strongest possible international sanctions.

Park Geun-hye's comments came as Seoul said North Korea sent leaflets across the border describing her and her government as "mad dogs," as Cold War-style propaganda warfare between the rivals deepened.

South Korea, the United States and others are pushing hard to impose fresh sanctions and other punitive measures on the North for what Pyongyang said was a hydrogen bomb test one week ago. There is widespread skepticism over the H-bomb claim, but whatever the North detonated underground will likely push the country closer toward a fully functional nuclear arsenal, which it still is thought not to have.

On Wednesday, Park said in a nationally televised news conference that South Korea will push as hard as it can for "the strongest" sanctions that can force change in North Korea. Diplomats at a U.N. Security Council emergency session last week pledged to swiftly pursue new sanctions. For current sanctions and any new penalties to work, better cooperation and stronger implementation from China, the North's diplomatic and economic protector and a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, is seen as key.

"Holding the hands of someone in a difficult situation is the mark of the best partner," Park said, referring to China and South Korea's need to punish the North. "I trust China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, will play a necessary role."

Beijing has recently shown signs that it's losing patience with North Korea over its repeated provocation. But China is still seen as reluctant to clamp down on the North in part because of fears that a toppled government in Pyongyang would see millions of desperate North Koreans flooding across the border with China and a U.S.-backed South Korean government in control of the Korean Peninsula.

Responding to the North's test, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged China to end "business as usual" with North Korea. But in a telephone conversation with his South Korean counterpart Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it clear that Beijing supports dialogue to resolve the nuclear standoff. His reported remarks sparked speculation in Seoul that China has no intention of joining in any harsh punishment on the North.

Top nuclear envoys from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan were set to meet later Wednesday in Seoul to discuss sanctions against the North. On Thursday, the South Korean nuclear envoy is to fly to Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart, according to Seoul's Foreign Ministry.

In the wake of the nuclear test, the two Koreas have settled into a Cold War-era standoff. Since Friday, South Korea has been blasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda and K-pop songs from huge speakers along the border, and the North is using speakers of its own in an attempt to keep its soldiers from hearing the South Korean messages.

Park said South Korea will continue its loudspeaker campaign, calling it "the surest and most effective psychological warfare tool." Park said past broadcasts helped frontline North Korean soldiers learn the truth about Pyongyang's authoritarian rule and defect to South Korea. "The most powerful threat to totalitarianism is the power of truth," she said.

South Korea's military and police announced Wednesday they have found thousands of anti-South leaflets in Seoul, border towns and other areas. Officials said they believe the leaflets were likely sent over the border attached to balloons by the North's military.

Similar North Korean propaganda leaflets were discovered on a South Korea border island between late 2013 and early 2014. Such leafleting, however, by the North is still rare, though South Korean activists occasionally send anti-Pyongyang leaflets in balloons across the border.

The leaflets found earlier Wednesday included such messages as "Let's knock down the Park Geun-hye group like we do mad dogs," and "The U.S. must immediately stop its anachronistic hostile policy on North Korea."

Germany charges 4 with forming far-right terror group

January 13, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — German prosecutors have charged three men and one woman with forming a far-right terror group and planning to bomb a refugee shelter, officials said Wednesday.

The four are alleged to have created a group two years ago that went by the name Oldschool Society, using social media to recruit new members and promote far-right ideas, federal prosecutors said. The group became increasingly radical and, in mid-November 2014, members discussed how to manufacture explosives and the possibility of attacking Islamic extremists and asylum-seekers in Germany.

The four — identified only as Andreas H., 57; Markus W., 40; Denise Vanessa G. 23; and Olaf O., 47, in line with German privacy rules — are accused of forming and being members of a "terrorist organization" and planning an explosion, prosecutors said.

Andreas H. and Markus W. were described as the group's president and vice president. "There was a concrete plan to carry out an explosives attack on an inhabited refugee shelter near Borna in connection with their second meeting from May 8-10, 2015," prosecutors said. The town is southeast of Leipzig in the eastern state of Saxony, which has been a hotbed of anti-foreigner sentiment.

Markus W. and Denise Vanessa G. allegedly traveled to the Czech Republic in May 2015 to purchase fireworks and the group discussed how to make them more dangerous by wrapping nails around them. They were arrested May 6 as part of nationwide raids, before the attack could take place. All four are in prison pending trial.

Separately, Hannover prosecutors said Wednesday they charged two men, aged 25 and 31, and a 24-year-old woman with attempted murder and attempted arson for allegedly throwing a gasoline bomb through a window at an asylum-seekers' home in northwestern Germany.

The three are alleged to have thrown the improvised device in August through a ground-floor window in a school in Salzhemmendorf that had been converted to house about 30 asylum seekers, setting fire to a mattress and a rug in an unoccupied room. The early-morning blaze was quickly extinguished.

Prosecutors said the three have admitted to the attack, but not to their motivation. German authorities have recorded a rise in attacks against refugees over the past year amid an unprecedented influx of asylum-seekers. While most of the attacks are believed to have been carried out by people with no previous affiliation to far-right groups, authorities believe neo-Nazi groups could stage violent attacks ever since the existence of the self-styled National Socialist Underground came to light four years ago.

The NSU allegedly killed eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007, and is believed to be behind two bombings and 15 bank robberies. The group's sole survivor, Beate Zschaepe, and four alleged supporters are currently on trial in Munich.

David Rising contributed to this report.

EU opens case against Poland over new media, court laws

January 13, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Wednesday escalated its standoff with Poland's new government, deciding to open a case over new laws affecting the country's constitutional court and media that have been criticized as running counter to the bloc's fundamental principle of the rule of law.

EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said his executive will carry out a preliminary assessment — the first step in a drawn-out procedure that could ultimately lead to suspending Polish voting rights in the 28-nation bloc.

Timmermans said he wanted specific explanations about changes in procedure at the constitutional tribunal "which could potentially limit the leeway for action in the court and increase political influence" on it.

The debate is seen in Poland as undue meddling in national affairs and in Brussels as a potential danger that democratic standards in the bloc's members may be slipping. "Poland is an extremely important member state," Timmermans said.

In Warsaw, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo defended her government's moves. "Poland has the right to take sovereign decisions concerning the course of home affairs or how the media need to be organized. This is a sovereign decision of any state, including Poland," Szydlo said.

The Polish government said Timmermans has been invited to Warsaw for talks on the Polish laws. In December, Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, which has a parliamentary majority, took steps to gain influence in the constitutional tribunal, which is supposed to be an independent arbiter with the power to block the government's legislation. It is currently dominated by judges linked to the opposition.

In addition, Poland's president signed a law last week that heads toward giving the government full control of state radio and television, a move that critics see as undermining free speech. Even before Wednesday's announcement, the Polish government criticized the EU for wading into Polish affairs.

"In the future, please have more restraint in instructing and reprimanding the parliament and the government of a sovereign, democratic country," Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro wrote to Timmermans.

On Wednesday, Timmermans said "regardless of the tone of the letter, it is clear they want to have a discussion with us." The EU has had similar issues with Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a recalcitrant member on many EU issues, has stressed his support for Poland.

The EU has never had to move toward suspending the voting rights of a member state. The threat of such a measure and the long procedure "worked in the case of Orban's overreach in Hungary," said Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the ALDE liberal group in the EU Parliament, who urged Timmermans to "do the same before the situation in Warsaw gets out of control."

Scislowska reported from Warsaw

Head of Venezuela's new opposition congress ready to fight

January 13, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leaning back in the mahogany chair that belonged to his socialist predecessor, new congress boss Henry Ramos doesn't seem worried about being branded an out-of-touch conservative intent on burying the memory of late President Hugo Chavez and ousting his successor.

On the contrary, he's ready for a fight. "If you call me a dinosaur, you're saying a dinosaur is what voters want. I didn't get here falling from a parachute," said Ramos, 72, who last week became president of the first opposition congress Venezuela has seen since Chavez launched his socialist revolution nearly two decades ago.

"We're not seeking confrontation, but if they insist...." he added with an arch of his eyebrow. A veteran politician, Ramos on Jan. 5 was sworn in to replace outgoing legislative leader Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer widely seen as the revolution's enforcer.

Now second in the line of succession after President Nicolas Maduro's vice president, Ramos promises to be just as much of a polarizing figure as Cabello. During his first tumultuous days on the job, he seated three opposition lawmakers despite a Supreme Court order barring them from taking office.

He was also recorded on videotape telling workers to remove all portraits of Chavez from the neoclassical capitol and take them to presidential palace "or the trash." Ramos came under fire for the video, distributed by his own press chief, which infuriated the socialist government. State television played the video over and over. The video also rankled some allies who want the opposition to keep the focus on an economic crisis marked by triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages.

Ramos makes no secret of his swanky tastes. While top socialist officials dance to salsa music on live TV and proclaim their devotion to Venezuela's rice, beans and shredded beef dish, Ramos expounded on his love for expensive whisky, classical music and haute cuisine as smoke from his assistants' cigarettes curled toward the chandeliers in his office during an interview with The Associated Press.

After being re-elected to congress in December's landslide legislative election victory, Ramos beat out moderates in the opposition coalition to take the leadership gavel by doing what even his detractors say he does best: negotiating behind closed doors, in this case aligning with opposition hardliners who have adopted a six-month deadline to recall Maduro from office.

But he's never been known for his personal grace. In a 2006 diplomatic cable, then-U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield called Ramos "repellent" as well as "crude, abrasive, arrogant, and thin-skinned." In the same memo, he compares Ramos' style to that of Chavez.

Like the late populist leader, Ramos excels at playing to his base and driving his opponents to act in anger. Members of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela responded to his removing of all images of Chavez from the congressional compound by vowing to plaster every corner of Caracas with posters of the late leader. They also successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to nullify any action taken by the new congress until the legislative leadership removes the three contested opposition lawmakers he seated.

Maduro has also doubled down on hardline policies in recent days. He left moderates spluttering last week when he appointed a new economic czar who says inflation does not exist in real life. "The more Maduro takes a confrontational approach, the stronger he makes Henry Ramos's position," said Javier Corrales, who teaches Latin American politics at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

"If he were to make a peace offering of some sort, it would divide the opposition, because some are willing to make pacts with the government," said Corrales. "But Maduro has done nothing to divide and conquer."

In addition to serving in congress several times, Ramos has been a leader for decades in the Democratic Action party, which co-governed Venezuela during an era of politics that preceded Chavez when elites dominated the government.

In 2005, Ramos led a disastrous campaign to sit out legislative elections, a strategy that ultimately handed complete control of congress and other major institutions to the socialists. These days, he gets to the office by 5 a.m., surrounds himself with a young staff, and doesn't slow down for anyone, including a doctor who told him to lay off pork after undergoing open heart surgery.

Some worry that Ramos' combative style is pushing the country toward a dangerous showdown. The chaotic sidewalks beyond Ramos' heavy golden drapes are decorated with graffiti calling him a clown. A video of socialist supporters burning his effigy has begun circulating online.

But many in the opposition believe that a clash with the socialist government is inevitable, and see Ramos as the best man to stand firm. On the possibility of a negotiation, Ramos said that smart leaders can reflect and make changes.

But he could not resist needling his political adversary. "Maduro is not about to die from intelligence," he said.

Russia warns cuts needed to avoid repeat of '98 crash

January 13, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's leaders are warning the government will need to make more cutbacks if the nation is to avoid a repeat of the 1998 financial crash, the country's biggest post-Soviet economic trauma.

The economy, which is heavily reliant on its massive oil and gas industry, is getting hammered by the plunge in global energy prices. State revenues are running dry and the cost of living is soaring for Russians as the currency drops.

Faced with the prospect of the economy languishing in recession in an election year, the government sought Wednesday to manage expectations. "Our task is to bring the budget in line with new realities. If we don't do that, then the same thing will happen as in 1998 and 1999, when the people pay through inflation for what we haven't done," finance minister Anton Siluanov was quoted as saying by state news agency Tass.

At the time, Russia devalued its currency and defaulted on its debts, events that caused inflation to jump to around 85 percent. Analysts say Russia's situation is not as dire now, as it has very little debt. But its economic prospects grow darker as energy prices drop.

The International Monetary Fund forecast in November that the Russian economy would shrink by 0.6 percent in 2016. Since that estimate was made, oil has dropped almost another 40 percent, to about $30 per barrel. The Russian budget drawn up in October is based on oil at $50 a barrel.

That leaves few opportunities for the government's traditional largesse to voters ahead of September's parliamentary elections, a key test for the ruling United Russia party, which has much lower levels of popularity than President Vladimir Putin's soaring personal ratings. The last legislative elections in 2011 saw United Russia win a majority but were dogged by allegations of electoral fraud that led to street protests.

In a warning against "populism" at a conference in Moscow, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tried to temper hopes for the future. Quoting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he said "there can be no liberty without economic liberty," before adding: "However, liberty does not come without responsibility ... It's always nice to make promises about a bright future, but promises must be kept."

As Russia burns through once-ample cash reserves, the budget adopted in October increasingly seems a relic. "If the oil price continues to fall, the parameters of the budget will require correction," Medvedev said. "That needs to be understood. We need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, as other countries are doing."

Following 10 percent cuts in most budget areas in 2015, with a few exceptions such as military spending, further reductions will be a test of public support for the government. Alexander Zhukov, a senior United Russia figure who is also deputy speaker, said Wednesday the ax would likely fall first on investment projects, something he said was "deeply unpleasant" but necessary to avoid painful cuts to social spending.

Consumer price inflation was over 12 percent last year, accompanied by increasing cases of unpaid wages and particular concern over rising food prices pushed up by Russia's ban on food imports from the European Union and other countries.

On the opening day of the Gaidar Forum in Moscow, traditionally a start-of-year showcase for Russian government policy following the 10-day New Year break, there was a mood of grim endurance. Leading figures did not echo the assurance that Putin regularly made in the fall that "the peak of the crisis is behind us," instead focusing on the challenges yet to come. Low energy prices are the "new normal," Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said.

Ulyukayev said that the budget deficit could hit 7.5 percent of GDP in 2016 because of the low oil price, compared to a planned deficit for 3 percent outlined in the budget, in comments reported by RIA Novosti.

To raise funds, privatization of state-owned banks and oil company Rosneft has been discussed, though similar ideas have been raised in the past to no avail.