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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Kim Jong Un promotes younger sister after congress

By Elizabeth Shim
May 10, 2016

SEOUL, May 10 (UPI) -- Kim Jong Un's younger sister has been appointed to the central committee of the Korean Workers' Party.

Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be 28, already holds positions of power in the North Korean government, and is frequently seen by her brother's side during state trips around the country.

She is reportedly the deputy director of the Workers' Party and handles top priorities on behalf of North Korea's propaganda department.

Kim Yo Jong made her political debut in March 2014, when her name was mentioned following the election results of the Supreme People's Assembly, Yonhap reported.

Her rise to power is drawing comparisons to the rise then demise of her aunt Kim Kyong Hui, who went missing after her husband, Jang Sung Taek, was executed on charges of treason and corruption in late 2013.

As Kim Jong Il's sister, Kim Kyong Hui was a trusted confidante who was appointed a member of the party when she was in her early 40s, at a later stage in life than Kim Yo Jong.

Kim Kyong Hui's name has been missing from a list of North Korean Cabinet members since December.

Kim Yo Jong was seen Tuesday in Kim Il Sung Square, on stage with her brother to observe a military rally, according to South Korea press.

The younger Kim was seen collecting bouquets of flowers on behalf of her brother – a sign that could mean her role in the regime is changing. In previous appearances, Kim was seen walking a few steps behind her brother, or even at a farther distance.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Kim Yo Jong is likely to play a more important role in the years ahead.

Political changes are sweeping across the North Korean landscape after the Seventh Party Congress.

Another development that affects senior officials is a change in official titles, South Korean news service News 1 reported.

Pyongyang's state newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced that the title of "secretary" is to be abolished and to be replaced with a new title – vice chairman.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/05/10/Kim-Jong-Un-promotes-younger-sister-after-congress/8381462892814/.

Hong Kong pro-democracy candidates retain veto in key vote

September 05, 2016

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong pro-democracy candidates won enough seats in a pivotal legislative election to retain veto power over the southern Chinese government's proposals, setting the stage for a new round of political confrontations with Beijing, official results showed Monday.

The big winners included a group of young candidates who took part in massive 2014 pro-democracy street protests and are now seeking to change the way the city is governed by Beijing. Pro-democracy candidates needed to secure at least 24 of 70 seats in the Legislative Council in order to block government attempts to enact unpopular or controversial legislation, such as a Beijing-backed revamp of how the city's top leader is chosen that sparked the 2014 protests.

Official results for most constituencies showed that they won at least 27 seats. Full final results are still to be announced. Record turnout in Sunday's vote helped sweep the newcomers into office, most notably Nathan Law, a 23-year-old former student protest leader, who garnered the second-highest number of votes in his six-seat Hong Kong Island constituency.

Law's party, Demosisto, founded earlier this year with teen protest leader Joshua Wong, advocates a referendum on "self-determination" on the future status of Hong Kong, which is in the middle of a 50-year transition period to Chinese rule.

"It shows how Hong Kong people want to change," Law told reporters when asked about his victory. "People are voting for a new way and new future of our democratic movement." In another surprising result, Yau Wai-Ching, 25, and Sixtus "Baggio" Leung, 30, of Youngspiration also secured seats. Their group was formed during the 2014 protests and proposes a similar plan as Demosisto.

The newcomers pulled off their startling victories by riding a rising tide of anti-China sentiment as they challenged formidably resourced pro-Beijing rivals. They were part of a broader wave of radical activists who campaigned for Hong Kong's complete autonomy or even independence from China, highlighting fears that Beijing is violating its promise to let the city mostly run itself, as well as frustration over the failure of the 2014 protests to win genuine elections for Hong Kong's top leader.

That represents a break with the established mainstream "pan-democrat" parties, who have demanded voters be able to elect more lawmakers as well as the city's top leader, or chief executive — currently chosen by a panel of pro-Beijing elites — but never challenged the idea that Hong Kong is part of China.

Leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong will have to reconsider their hard-line approach toward rising pro-democracy opposition after it backfired, "because now with the entry of a new generation of young democrats into the legislature, the politics inside the legislature will be very fierce," said Sonny Lo, a political analyst at The Education University of Hong Kong.

About 2.2 million people, or 58 percent of registered voters, cast ballots for the Legislative Council, the highest turnout since the city's 1997 handover from Britain. Another rookie, 38-year-old land reform campaigner Eddie Chu, was the election's biggest surprise, winning 84,121 votes, the highest number of votes received by any of the more than 200 candidates competing for 35 seats in geographic constituencies.

"I hope to renew the democratic movement of Hong Kong," Chu said. He too wants to focus on promoting a self-determination movement. "That is my political goal in Hong Kong." Results for five more "super seats" chosen by voters citywide were still being counted.

Another 30 seats are taken by members representing business and trade groups such as accounting, finance, medicine and fisheries, most of which support Beijing because their members have close ties to China's Communist elite on the mainland.

New wave of anti-China activists set for Hong Kong vote win

September 04, 2016

HONG KONG (AP) — A new wave of anti-China activists appeared headed for victory in Hong Kong's most pivotal elections since the handover from Britain in 1997, which could set the stage for a fresh round of political confrontations over Beijing's control of the city.

While official results were yet to be released, preliminary tallies on Monday indicated that youthful candidates from groups that emerged in the wake of 2014 pro-democracy street protests are on track to win seats.

Counting in some areas was delayed because of the record turnout. About 2.2 million people, or 58 percent of registered voters, cast ballots for lawmakers in the Legislative Council, which was the highest since the handover.

The newcomers were riding a rising tide of anti-China sentiment as they challenged formidably resourced pro-Beijing rivals for seats. Some backed the previously unthinkable idea of independence for Hong Kong, which has added to divisions within the broader pro-democracy movement and overshadowed the election.

Last month, officials disqualified six pro-independence candidates in an attempt to tamp down the debate, though other candidates with similar views made the cut. Student Nathan Law, who helped lead the 2014 protests, looked to be one of the biggest winners. The 23-year-old's party, Demosisto, which he formed with teen protest leader Joshua Wong, advocates a referendum on "self-determination" of Hong Kong's future. He was expected to win a seat in the Hong Kong Island constituency after receiving the second-highest number of votes, with 90 percent of ballots counted.

In another surprising result, two candidates from the group Youngspiration, 25-year-old Yau Wai-ching and 30-year-old Sixtus "Baggio" Leung, look set for victory. The latter stepped in to run after a friend, Edward Leung of Hong Kong Indigenous, was disqualified for advocating independence.

Voters are choosing lawmakers to fill 35 seats in geographic constituencies. Another 30 seats are taken by members representing business and trade groups such as accounting, finance, medicine and fisheries. Five more "super seats" are chosen by voters citywide.

At stake is the power to keep the city's widely unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, and his government in check. "Pan-democrat" lawmakers currently control 27 of 70 seats, compared with 43 held by lawmakers friendly to Beijing.

The democrats need to keep control of at least a third of the seats, which gives them veto power to block government attempts to enact unpopular legislation, including a possible renewed attempt to enact Beijing's controversial election revamp that triggered the 2014 street protests.

Barzani to Divide Mosul Post-ISIS into Three Provinces

Dalshad Abdullah

07 September 2016 Wednesday

Erbil-Kurdish politician Siru Qadir revealed on Tuesday that President of Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani has proposed a solution for Mosul’s post-ISIS stage.

Barzani’s solution, according to the Kurdish politician, lies in dividing the province into three new separate provinces and holding a referendum in which the citizens decide whether they want to join the region or not.

Qadir also said that during his last visit to Baghdad KRG’s Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani told Iraqi Prime Ministers and the other Iraqi parties that the solution for problems between Kurdistan and Iraq lies in dividing the region from Iraq.

Moreover, Qadir told Asharq Al-Awsat that a new stage will start after liberating Mosul from ISIS. “This stage,” according to Qadir, “is considered a dangerous one if there was no prior plan, and Masoud Barzani is stressing on the necessity of providing a plan for post-ISIS in Mosul since the region cannot return as it was and be threatened by those extremists.

Therefore, Peshmerga forces will not withdraw from the regions they liberated until these regions are put within an administrative framework and their fate is determined.”

Qadir added: “In the meantime, Mosul’s problem has become Iraq’s problem as the only problem remaining for Kurds is in Mosul.”

A Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian war is expected to be waged in Mosul too with the presence of Sunni forces, ISIS terrorist group and the arrival of Popular Mobilization militias to the province.

All these pave a way for religious and sectarian conflicts to occur if no prior plan was put to control it and prevent any sectarian bloodshed, Qadir said.

The Kurdish politician further explained that Barzani’s proposal indicates that Mosul should be divided into three separate provinces, each given to Shi’ite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds.

This proposal is considered the best solution for Nineveh’s current problem, he said.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.
Link: http://english.aawsat.com/2016/09/article55357921/barzani-divide-mosul-post-isis-three-provinces.

Egypt fourth highest illiteracy rate in Arab world

September 8, 2016

Egypt has the fourth highest rate of illiteracy in the Arab world with 14.5 million people aged 10 and over would couldn’t read or write in 2015, statistics released by UNESCO revealed yesterday...

Released to make World Literacy Day, the figured showed that of the 23.7 per cent of the population who were illiterate, 9.3 million were female.

Yemen has the highest illiteracy rate in the Arab world with 30 per cent of its population unable to read and write. Morocco came second with 28 per cent and Sudan third with 24 per cent.

Meanwhile, Palestine has the lowest illiteracy rate among Arab countries with only three per cent of its population affected.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160908-egypt-fourth-highest-illiteracy-rate-in-arab-world/.

Dozens detained at teacher demo in southeast Turkey


DIYARBAKIR - Turkish police on Friday fired tear gas and water cannon on hundreds of demonstrators in the Kurdish-majority southeast protesting against the suspension of over 10,000 teachers for suspected links to militants, an AFP journalist reported.

Around 200 protesters, including affected teachers, gathered in front of the education directorate in Diyarbakir, whistling and shouting slogans, in protest of the suspensions which targeted educators mainly from the region.

"We will win by resisting!" and "Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!" the group shouted.

The police called the demonstration "illegal" and urged protesters to disperse before using tear gas and water cannon when the group kept on their protest across the road.

At least 30 protesters were detained by police, the AFP journalist said.

Turkey on Thursday suspended 11,500 teachers suspected by the education ministry of having engaged in activities in support of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) listed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.

A Turkish official said the teachers were placed on paid leave until a formal investigation was concluded.

The suspension came just over a week before the new school year gets underway in Turkey.

The number of suspended teachers was expected to climb to 14,000 -- a figure first pronounced by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim during a key visit to Diyarbakir last weekend. There are 850,000 teachers in Turkey.

The Turkish military has waged a relentless offensive against the PKK in the southeast and in northern Iraq, after the rupture of a ceasefire last year.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the PKK first took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out an independent state for Turkey's Kurdish minority.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=78628.

Turkey eases EU fears on migrant deal

September 09, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's foreign minister has suggested that a landmark deal to stop migrants reaching the European Union can be salvaged despite disagreement on conditions for relaxing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens traveling to the bloc.

Easing concern across Europe, Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters during a joint news conference with top EU officials Friday that a "common understanding" had emerged and that a consensus could be reached. He said, however, that a "concrete road map" should be worked out to lift travel restrictions.

"I believe that with this understanding we will overcome the problem," Cavusoglu said after talks with EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn. Europe's migration crisis will be a central issue at next week's EU leaders' summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, as the member states remain rattled by Britain's referendum vote to leave the EU and recent gains for the nationalist vote in Germany.

In Athens, the leaders of France, Italy and five other EU Mediterranean countries gathered Friday to discuss immigration and the continent's debt crisis. "It's important to issue a message of cooperation at this important time, following the Brexit vote and with populists and extremists trying to block Europe," French President Francois Hollande said.

"In the name of Europe, its southern members are facing difficulties on the migration issue ... So they must be helped, reinforced, so that we can allow for asylum seekers, but so there can also be an efficient control of immigration."

More than a million refugees and migrants traveled from Turkey to Greece and on to other EU countries. But numbers have declined dramatically since Balkan nations fenced off their borders and the EU-Turkey deal took effect in March. Border closures have left some 60,000 migrants and refugees stranded in Greece, most in hastily built camps.

Turkey had threatened to scrap the deal — which also promises 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) to help support refugees in Turkey — if the EU failed to fulfill by October a promise to grant Turkish citizens the right to visa-free travel.

Plans to loosen visa rules came to a standstill after Turkey balked at the EU's demand that it relax its anti-terrorism laws, over concerns they could be used to target academics and journalists. With the EU-Turkey deal still largely holding, Athens is pressing EU members to abide by commitments under a relocation program which has covered less that 10 percent of the 33,000 placements promised to migrants in Greece so far.

Greece was also angered by suggestions it should return to EU immigration rules that existed before last year's crisis. A government spokesman on immigration said Athens rejected calls to reactivate the so-called Dublin Regulation, which requires migrants to apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach and would allow other EU members to send asylum-seekers back to Greece.

"A country such as Greece which receives a large number of refugees from Turkey, and also hosts a large number of refugees — practically without any outside help — cannot be asked to receive refugees from other European countries," Giorgos Kyritsis told The Associated Press. "That would be outrageous."

Malta's prime minister, speaking at the end of the Athens conference, also criticized EU migration policy. "The current system of tackling migration in Europe is simply not working," Joseph Muscat said. "The Dublin system is out of synch with reality, and here are six countries which are saying 'we need to fix that for Europe to remain and to be relevant.'"

Paphitis reported from Athens. Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Menelaos Hadjicostis in Istanbul, and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.

Turkey scraps winter time change


ANKARA - Turkey will not turn its clocks back from this winter, staying on summer time all year round in a bid to better utilize daylight, according to a decree published in the official gazette on Thursday.

The decision will also apply on the Ankara-backed breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), meaning the divided Mediterranean island will have two different time zones in the winter months.

The clocks in Turkey went forward one hour from March 27 for summer time, in line with the rest of Europe.

But this setting will now remain in place throughout the year across the country, according to the decree adopted at the cabinet meeting the day earlier.

The clocks were to have gone back one hour on October 30 when Turkish summertime officially ends.

But now, there will be no winter adjustment and Turkey will stay all year round on summer time.

The decree, which immediately comes into force, said the decision was aimed at "making more use of daylight" during the winter time.

The decision means that Turkey will be three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) all year long and two hours ahead of continental Europe in winter.

"I abolished the winter-summer time difference," Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a speech to provincial governors.

"There will be no confusion now. The hours will be the same in winter and summer.

"You will change, not the hours. Time economy," he quipped to the governors.

Meanwhile the TRNC, which is recognized only by Ankara, followed Turkey's decision and will also stay on summer time all year round, according to a decision made by its cabinet on Thursday.

The decision means that when winter starts on October 30, the internationally-recognized Greek Republic of Cyprus will be one hour behind the Turkish breakaway north until summer time resumes.

The island, which joined the EU in 2004, has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking union with Greece.

The latest round of long-stalled UN-brokered peace talks were launched in May 2015, with both sides expressing hope an elusive Cyprus settlement can finally be reached in 2016.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=78598.

UN: Fighting displaces 100,000 in central Syria in 8 days

September 07, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Intense fighting between Syrian government troops and insurgents in Syria's central Hama province displaced some 100,000 people over eight days between late August and early September, the U.N. humanitarian agency said.

Earlier this month, insurgents pushed northward in Hama province, surprising government troops and dislodging them from areas they controlled around the provincial capital, also called Hama, including a military base and towns and villages near the highway to Damascus.

The offensive, led by an ultraconservative Islamic group, Jund al-Aqsa, and also involving several factions from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, incurred an intense government bombing campaign that killed dozens of people. The fighting and the aerial bombardment sent tens of thousands of people fleeing for safety, creating the latest wave of displacement, part of a pattern that has left nearly half of the Syrian population displaced since the war began in 2011.

In a "flash update " on Tuesday, OCHA said figures from a camp coordination group show nearly half of the displaced from Hama arrived in the neighboring rebel-held Idlib governorate. Others fled toward government-controlled Hama city, where four mosques were converted into temporary shelters, OCHA said. Dozens of schools in rural areas of Hama province were also turned into shelters.

A shortage of shelter space means many displaced families are sleeping outdoors in parks in Idlib, the U.N. agency said. Most of those fleeing left towns and villages in government areas as the rebels advanced. They feared a violent government response to the insurgent offensive, according to Ahmad al-Ahmad, an activist from Hama. "Wherever the regime is driven out of an area, it ends up destroying it," he said in a text message to The Associated Press.

In at least one airstrike last week, government warplanes struck a van carrying displaced people fleeing Suran, a town north of Hama city, activists said. The government says it is targeting "terrorists."

OCHA said the United Nations has sent an "inter-agency convoy with life-saving supplies to Hama" and was evaluating the humanitarian situation. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war, now in its sixth year. Of those, 4.8 million are refugees with nearly 7 million displaced internally.

In London on Wednesday, Syrian opposition leaders unveiled a plan for a political transition designed to bring an end to the war. It called for the departure of President Bashar Assad after six months and for elections to be held after two years.

The High Negotiations Committee envisaged a three-phase plan, beginning with six months of negotiations with Assad's government to develop a signed agreement on the "basic principles" of the transition process.

This would be followed by the establishment of a transitional government body and the departure of Assad "and his clique," according to HNC chief Riad Hijab. The HNC called for U.N.-supervised elections to be held 18 months thereafter. Hijab conceded there were formidable obstacles hindering the implementation of this plan.

Keaten reported from Geneva.

Jarabulus reborn: 'It's fantastic knowing IS is no longer a threat'

Tuesday 6 September 2016

KARKAMIS, Turkey – Murad returned to his hometown of Jarabulus on 25 August just one day after it was liberated from the Islamic State (IS) group by a coalition of Turkish forces and Syrian rebel fighters.

The battle for Jarabulus was won easily after IS militants fled the area hours before Operation Euphrates Shield was even launched by Turkey. Since its beginning last month Turkish forces and Syrian rebels have cleared IS from more than 90km of the Turkish border.

In Jarabulus, Murad, a journalist, said normal life had resumed and he thanked Turkey for its first direct military intervention in the five-year Syrian war.

“Right now, everything is under control – at least here in the city,” he said. “I’m happy to say life has been steadily returning to these streets. A few shops have already been reopened – a sure sign of people starting to feel safe again.”

Murad fled to Turkey more than three years ago in July 2013 when IS first seized control of Jarabulus. Most of his family stayed behind and several of his relatives were killed in suicide bombing attacks carried out during IS’s brutal reign.

Before IS took over, Jarabulus had a population of around 30,000. Over the past three years that number has halved but many people are now returning.

Murad's family home was undamaged despite the fierce conflict that has raged in his town and across Syria since President Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with brute force in mid-2011.

And although the town has been scarred by the war, those now returning were unable to contain their joy at it being liberated. A rake-thin man crossing the Syria border back to Jarabulus praised the Turkish forces who freed his home town.

“It is a fantastic feeling, knowing that Daesh is no longer a threat,” he said. “We were all very glad to see the launching of the Turkish military operation.

“These soldiers here, they are our lads. We’re hoping nothing bad happens to them. Many of the houses in Jarabulus have been demolished – there’s graffiti on every step – but the town itself, well, it managed to survive.”

After joining street celebrations rejoicing the town’s liberation, the old man sat with friends and family in the shade to escape the afternoon heat. While drinking tea and eating home-grown grapes, the man lamented how his town had become embroiled in politics.

“All of us, we’re very simple folks,” he said. “We were never much interested in politics. But then the war came and it has a huge impact on us. We’re all really hoping we’re not about to see Daesh try to get revenge.”

The caution people feel amid the celebrations is reinforced by the fact war is still visible around Jarabulus. Thick black smoke still rises regularly above the olive groves on the outskirts of the town.

The regular thud of bombs and tank fire can be heard in the streets, reminding residents that they are not yet fully secure. A few kilometers away on the Turkish side of the border near the town of Karkamis, a military base is packed with tanks and checkpoints.

A local field hospital and two dozen ambulances are set up nearby and provide evidence of the dangers involved in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria. Wounded Turkish soldiers, Syrian rebels, and civilians have received treatment at the hospital.

Civilians who survived the IS occupation of Jarabulus have spoken about how their were starved over the past year, as supplies ran dry. They were banned by IS from farming their land as the militants planted landmines instead of crops.

A local police commander in the Karkamis said Turkish forces had largely moved on from Jarabulus and advanced 30km into Syrian territory.

Few Turkish soldiers have remained in Jarabulus, but those who have stayed have been busy clearing the town of the mines laid by IS militants before they fled to other towns under the group’s control.

For the Turkish troops who have pushed on past Jarabulus, an equal priority is ensuring Kurdish forces are not allowed to maintain a presence west of the Euphrates river.

Ankara has been clear that they view Kurdish militia forces in Syria on their border as a threat to their national security, given the proximity to Turkey’s Kurdish dominated and restful southeast.

Several high-ranking Turkish diplomats in Ankara said on condition of anonymity that the 90km area cleared along the Turkey-Syria border could become a buffer zone designed to hold back Kurdish forces as well as IS.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Monday that he had discussed the idea of a "safe zone" along the border of Syria - a plan he has raised several times in recent years.

But the Turkish intervention in Syria has not just allowed Ankara to satisfy its political goals, it has also opened up an easier passage for humanitarian aid to reach desperate refugees.

At the Onucipay crossing near the border town of Killis, hundreds of Turkish trucks have entered Syria carrying food and humanitarian provisions. At the refugee camp on the Syrian border, which currently holds 20,000 people, refugees with sunken and sun-burned faces said they would not be able to hold out much longer.

Sahi, from the border town of Azaz, said his hometown has been the scene of constant fighting for five years. Azaz is now under the control of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, but its strategic importance lies in that it has been a key supply route to Aleppo – the partially rebel-held second city of Aleppo.

Before the war it only took 45 minutes to travel between Azaz and Aleppo. But with the Syrian army – backed by Russia and Iran – laying siege to the supply route, it has left some 300,000 civilians in rebel-held areas of Aleppo unable to receive food through the Azaz route.

Ahmet, a 50-year-old man from Syria's Idlib province, said he had been happy to see Turkey retake Jarabulus but he added that he does not have faith it will lead to a wider impact in the Syrian civil war.

“We were glad to see Turkey and the Free Syrian Army liberate Jarabulus,” he said while sipping tea at a shop close to the Syrian border. “It was an important message to send out... but I don’t know what to expect now.”

Two of Ahmet’s three sons fought for two years with the Free Syrian Army – a ragtag group of Syrian rebels who have received strong backing in their war against President Assad from Gulf States and the West.

“All the time my city is being bombed by the [Assad] regime and by Russia. No one is here to defend us,” he said. “We have been left to fend for ourselves. All of us that have stood up against Assad’s regime have been branded as Islamic extremists.”

Ahmet said that the fact Turkey seized Jarabulus so quickly, after more than three years of occupation by IS, was evidence more could have been done to stop the group’s rise in Syria.

“For years Daesh were allowed to do as they pleased,” he said. “They could have been easily destroyed a long time ago. Even Turkey hasn’t fought them as fiercely as it could have done.”

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkey-syria-karkamis-jarabulus-new-frontline-1894295638.

Turkmenistan does away with age cap for president

September 14, 2016

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Lawmakers in the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan on Wednesday adopted amendments to the country's constitution which pave the way for a life-long presidency for the incumbent leader.

Turkmenistan, an authoritarian former Soviet republic, has been ruled by 59-year old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a trained dentist, since 2006 when he succeeded the previous president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who had been granted a life-long presidency. Niyazov had a genuine personality cult with his book, Rukhnama, taught at school as the cornerstone of education.

Turkmenistan's parliament and Council of the Elders on Wednesday voted unanimously to extend the presidential term in office from five to seven years and do away with the 70-year age limit for the head of state.

Speaking at the annual session of the Council of the Elders which brings together community leaders, lawmakers and members of the government, Berdymukhamedov said the amendments were drafted "by all of our people, based on multiple requests from our citizens, political parties" as well as unnamed international experts.

Berdymukhamedov was re-elected for his second term in office with 97 percent of the vote in 2012.

Brazilian lawmakers vote to strip ex-speaker of his seat

September 13, 2016

Cunha has been accused by Brazilian prosecutors of receiving millions of dollars in bribes linked to the mammoth corruption scandal at state-run oil giant Petrobras. But the issue before the Chamber of Deputies was only whether he lied about having secret banking accounts in Switzerland.

Cunha, who said the accounts belonged to a trust, was pressured into resigning as speaker after the accounts came to light, but he had refused to give up his post as a lawmaker. He was in his fourth term.

As speaker, Cunha was the main driver behind the impeachment process that led to the Senate trying left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff and removing her from office last month. Cunha has been a key ally of new President Michel Temer, who had been Rousseff's vice president, but after the vote he accused Temer's administration of joining in the effort to punish him for the removal of Rousseff.

"This was a political process because I kicked off the impeachment proceedings. They wanted a trophy," he said at a news conference. "The current administration adopted the agenda of removing me from office," he said, adding that he planned to publish a book telling about the behind-the-scenes dealings that led to the impeachment of Rousseff.

With the loss of his congressional seat, Cunha also loses his partial immunity from prosecution. In Brazil, only the country's top court can decide to charge and try federal lawmakers. Prosecutors have alleged that Cunha is one of those tied to the Petrobras scandal, in which more than $2 billion in bribes was purportedly paid to obtain inflated contracts from the energy company. The case has ensnared some of Brazil's most powerful lawmakers and business executives.

Ex-speaker latest to fall in Brazil's corruption scandals

September 13, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The once powerful speaker of Congress' lower house is the latest top politician to fall before the mammoth corruption scandals that have caused widespread anger among Brazilians.

In a 450-10 vote late Monday, the Chamber of Deputies stripped the congressional seat from Eduardo Cunha, who has been accused of corruption and obstruction of justice. Nine legislators abstained. Although prosecutors allege Cunha received millions of dollars in bribes linked to the mammoth corruption case at state-run oil giant Petrobras, lawmakers considered only the issue of whether he had lied about having secret bank accounts in Switzerland.

Cunha, who said the accounts belonged to a trust, was pressured into resigning as speaker in July after the accounts came to light, but he had refused to give up his post as a lawmaker. He was in his fourth term and was considered one of the most powerful men in Brazil.

As speaker, Cunha was the main driver behind the impeachment process that led to the Senate trying left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff and removing her from office last month for allegedly violating fiscal rules to hide problems with the government's budget.

Cunha has been a key ally of new President Michel Temer, who was Rousseff's vice president, but after the vote he criticized Temer, saying his administration did not stand by him. He blamed his removal on the impeachment of Rousseff.

"This was a political process because I kicked off the impeachment proceedings. They wanted a trophy," Cunha said at a news conference. "The current administration adopted the agenda of removing me from office," he said, adding that he planned to publish a book telling about the behind-the-scenes dealings that led to the impeachment of Rousseff.

With the loss of his congressional seat, Cunha also loses a legislator's partial immunity from prosecution. In Brazil, only the country's Supreme Court can decide to charge and try federal lawmakers. Now the corruption allegations against him will be investigated by a lower court judge seen as harsher than the top court, which was dealing with the cases until now.

Prosecutors accuse Cunha of corruption and money laundering for his role in negotiating Petrobras contracts for drill ships and say he received an illegal payment of $5 million. Swiss prosecutors say Cunha held secret bank accounts at Julius Baer bank, with media reports putting their value in December at 2.4 million Swiss francs ($2.5 million). Brazilian investigators say Cunha also has had undeclared accounts in the U.S. since 1990 totaling more than $20 million. He denies any wrongdoing.

Against a backdrop of Brazil's worst recession in decades, the Petrobras scandal has ensnared some of the country's most powerful lawmakers and business executives. Prosecutors say a total of more than $2 billion was paid in bribes by companies to obtain inflated contracts from the energy company.

If he had remained speaker, Cunha would have been next in line for the presidency if anything happened to Temer. He entered politics in the 1990s as a fundraiser for President Fernando Collor de Mello, the first Brazilian leader elected after military rule ended in 1985. Cunha's power began to erode in the middle of last year after a plea bargain deal led to testimony linking him to multimillion-dollar Swiss bank accounts.

French, German ministers in Ukraine to revive peace deal

September 14, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — French and German foreign ministers visited Ukraine Wednesday in a bid to shore up a 2015 peace deal that has floundered amid continuing fighting in eastern Ukraine. Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko to discuss ways to secure a durable cease-fire and implement the political provisions of the Minsk agreement, which was brokered by France and Germany.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 9,500 people since it began in April 2014. The February 2015 deal helped end large-scale battles, but smaller clashes have continued to claim lives and a political settlement has stalled.

Separatist rebels on Tuesday declared a unilateral cease-fire, and Steinmeier said at a news conference that Ukraine agreed to observe the truce starting midnight Wednesday, according to Interfax. He added that if the cease-fire holds, it would create conditions for pulling back the conflicting sides' troops from several areas.

Ayrault said that securing the truce and pulling back troops should help set the ground for the next phase of the settlement, in which the Ukrainian parliament would adopt constitutional changes giving a special status to the rebel regions and call elections there, Interfax said.

The Minsk deal envisaged that Ukraine gets back control of the rebellious regions' border with Russia, widely seen as a conduit for weapons, after granting them broad autonomy and holding local elections there.

That provision of the Minsk deal has drawn strong criticism from Ukrainian nationalists, and an attempt to push it through parliament would heap pressure on Poroshenko. When the Minsk deal was first struck, many accused him of betraying the motherland, so he has dragged his feet on seeking the parliament's approval for the explosive issue.

Ukraine has accused Russia of failing to withdraw its troops and weapons from the east, but Moscow has denied it has any presence there. The Kremlin, in turn, has argued that Ukraine has failed to meet its end of the Minsk deal by not providing autonomy for the eastern regions and call elections there.

Ayrault and Steinmeier will travel to Ukraine's east on Thursday, but are expected to stay at a safe distance from the areas controlled by the separatists. A French diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the issue, said the withdrawal of more weapons should follow if the cease-fire holds and voiced hope that a relevant agreement could be concluded in the coming days. He added that they had received "positive signals" from Poroshenko.

Elaine Ganley contributed to this report from Paris.

Czech lawmakers pass divisive conflict of interest amendment

September 14, 2016

PRAGUE (AP) — Czech lawmakers approved legislation Wednesday that limits the business activities of future government ministers, angering a governing coalition party which says the law is targeting its leader — the country's finance minister and a favorite to become the next premier.

In a 135-39 vote in Parliament's lower chamber, coalition and opposition lawmakers agreed to ban ministers from owning media. The law also would bar companies where ministers have more than a 25-percent stake from receiving state subsidies, taking part in public tenders and accessing investment aid.

The legislation was an amendment to the country's conflict of interest law and was approved despite fierce resistance from the ANO (YES) movement led by Finance Minister Andrej Babis which voted against the law.

ANO accused its government coalition partners, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, of directly attacking Babis, whose media empire includes two major newspapers and a popular radio station, and whose agriculture and chemical conglomerate Agrofert receives state and EU subsidies.

Babis' centrist movement came in a surprise second in the 2013 parliamentary elections with an-anti corruption message and is currently a favorite to win the ballot in 2017, paving the way for Babis, the country's most popular politician, to become the next prime minister.

Agrofert includes about 250 companies and employs almost 34,000 people. "It is against the principles of rule of law to adopt laws which regulate activities of one single person," ANO lawmaker Jaroslav Faltynek said during a debate before the vote.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka welcomed the lower chamber's endorsement of the legislation, which still needs Senate and presidential approval. "The oligarchs will have to make a choice: to be in the government or get subsidies, public contracts and media ownership," Sobotka tweeted.

ANO is considering whether to take legal action, but isn't planning to leave the government. "It's a law that prevents businessmen from participating in politics," said Babis, a billionaire sometimes dubbed the "Czech Berlusconi," a comparison to Silvio Berlusconi — the Italian media tycoon who until recent years dominated his nation's politics. "It's an absurd theater."

Call to expel Hungary from EU for ‘outrageous’ refugee policy

September 13, 2016

Luxembourg’s foreign Minister Jean Asselborn has demanded that Hungary should be excluded from the European Union for its “massive violation of EU fundamental values”.

In an interview with German daily Die Welt on Tuesday, Asselborn criticized Hungary’s treatment of refugees as well as Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policies undermining the independence of the judiciary and the press.

“Anyone who, like Hungary, builds fences against refugees fleeing war, or who violates freedom of press and judicial independence, should be excluded from the EU temporarily, or if necessary forever,” he said, adding that refugees in the country are treated almost worse than animals.

“The EU cannot tolerate this kind of misbehavior. That sounds outrageous. But that’s the only possibility to preserve the cohesion and values of the European Union,” he added.

Asselborn called to change the fact that suspending a member state requires unanimous agreement of other EU member states according to existing treaties.

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto replied to Asselborn, saying: “Like a nihilist, he is working diligently to destroy European security and culture.”

Szijjarto defended controversial measures of his government to stop refugees from crossing into Europe.

“Hungarians have defended Europe throughout history, and they are doing the same now,” he argued, in remarks published by Hungarian news agency MTI.

After the country had experienced a refugee influx in the past year, it established fences on the border with Serbia and Croatia – actions that prompted international condemnations.

In less than three weeks, the country will hold a referendum that will ask citizens: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160913-call-to-expel-hungary-from-eu-for-outrageous-refugee-policy/.

German nationalist leader seeks renewed use of Nazi-era term

September 12, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — A leading member of Alternative for Germany, the nationalist party whose recent elections successes have shaken the country's political system, faced fierce criticism Monday after calling for a racially charged term favored during the Third Reich to be rehabilitated.

Party co-chairwoman Frauke Petry said in an interview published Sunday that words such as "voelkisch" shouldn't be taboo any longer. The term refers to people who belong to a particular race and was frequently used by the Nazis — their party paper was called Voelkischer Beobachter.

"We should finally regain a relaxed, not uncritical but normal way of dealing with our nation and terms such as 'Volk' and words that are derived from it," she told weekly Welt am Sonntag. Asked whether she would include the word "voelkisch," Petry responded that she doesn't use the term herself but dislikes the fact that it is only used negatively.

"Let's work on giving the term a positive connotation," she said. Her remarks prompted a swift backlash from politicians, commentators and historians who warned that Petry's party — known by its acronym AfD — was trying to legitimize ideas that were once at the core of Adolf Hitler's Nazi ideology.

"Her statement that one should work on giving the term 'voelkisch' a positive meaning is disgusting," daily Neue Westfaelische wrote in an editorial. The paper accused Petry of trying to blur the lines between conservative and extreme-right opinions.

Volker Beck, a Green Party lawmaker who heads the German-Israeli parliamentary group, called Petry's comments "dangerous arson." "The voelkisch ideology of the 20th century resulted in National Socialist race hatred and the mass murder of Auschwitz," Beck said.

AfD has become a potent electoral force in Germany since it was founded three years ago, sweeping into four state Parliaments on a wave of anti-migrant sentiment this year, most recently in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. The party is polling double-digit figures in advance of a vote in the city-state of Berlin on Sunday.

Along the way, AfD has tried to portray itself as the only true defender of the German "Volk." Although it has a common root with the English word "folk," the term Volk gained an ethnic connotation in the early 19th century to signify the unity of German people who lived in dozens of mini-states across Central Europe. Nationalist sentiment didn't evaporate with Germany's unification in 1871 but rather grew into a myth of German uniqueness in the world.

The Nazis latched on to that, and encapsulated it in their slogan, "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer" — "One People, One Nation, One Leader" "There's a fundamental difference with the word as it's used in the French or English-speaking world," historian Pascal Begrich said.

While some of its uses are ambiguous — such as AfD's regular call for popular referendums, or Volksabstimmungen — other phrases have raised eyebrows. When one of the party's local chapters posted a Christmas message to Facebook followers urging them to think about their responsibility toward the "Volksgemeinschaft" — the community of people belonging to the same Volk — experts pointed out that this was a phrase straight out of the Nazi dictionary.

AfD rallies commonly include placards accusing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government of being "Volksverraeter" — traitors to the Volk — for allowing hundreds of thousands of migrants into Germany last year.

Gideon Botsch, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam who has watched AfD's rise, said the party has absorbed ideas from far-right thinkers who claim that Germany's white population is being intentionally diluted.

The notion that a conspiracy is behind the recent influx of migrants to Germany has echoes of the country's dark past, Botsch warned. "They try to avoid openly anti-Semitic images but it's clear that there are close parallels to anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish ideas," he said.

Heidrun Kaemper, a linguist at the Institute of German Language, noted that AfD's rhetoric is imbued with notions of "us" and "them." The party's program portrays migrants as uneducated and their women as excessively fertile compared with "women of German origin."

AfD's focus on national self-interest has already translated into concrete proposals to strengthen Germany's armed forces, weaken international institutions such as the EU that were designed to keep Germany's power in check after World War II, and return to the principle of granting citizenship only to those who can prove they have German blood.

AfD also wants more "positive, identity-inspiring aspects of German history" to break up what it calls the "current focus of Germany's culture of remembrance on the period of National Socialism." It's the only time the party mentions the country's Nazi past in its program.

So far, AfD's tone and message seem to be striking a chord among a growing number of Germans, especially those who feel unrepresented by established parties. "They are reacting to a mood in the population," said Botsch.

EU chief Tusk: No new centralized powers to deal with crises

September 13, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — The best way to deal with the myriad of crises the EU is facing is for national capitals to broker common solutions instead of giving more powers to centralized EU institutions in Brussels, European Union President Donald Tusk said Tuesday.

In a bleak outlook on the state of the European Union, Tusk said EU institutions like the executive Commission have a simple task: to "support the priorities as agreed among member states, and not impose their own."

This would mean containing the powers of politicians like Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is seen as the most important EU official along with EU Council President Tusk. Juncker himself will be giving an official State of the European Union address at the EU parliament early Wednesday, a speech which has been hotly anticipated for weeks, but Tusk already stole some of his thunder.

His comments came in the traditional letter he writes to leaders ahead of a summit, but the missive ahead of Friday's Bratislava meeting of EU leaders, minus Britain's Theresa May, was exceptionally long and deeply wrought compared to the short matter-of-fact messages he usually sends.

The dislike for the EU's centralized powers, like those of Juncker's Commission, was key in the British referendum campaign which resulted in the nation's stunning June 23 decision to leave the EU. Tusk said it would be "a fatal error" to consider the British exit, or Brexit, a national issue only, but instead painted it as a symptom of unease across the union of 28 nations and half a billion people.

"It is also true that the Brexit vote is a desperate attempt to answer the questions that millions of Europeans ask themselves daily," including those about security, sovereignty, cultural heritage and way of life, Tusk wrote. And he said the answers the member states seek now run counter to the long-held dream of an ever-closer union, and for some, a federalist super state.

In the past, the EU Commission has been essential in pushing through rules and regulations that have set up the EU's famed single market where companies have been able to do business within an increasingly seamless community. But too often, the EU's institutions have been criticized for red tape and interference in too many facets of people's lives.

After a whirlwind tour of capitals over the past days, ahead of the summit in the Slovak capital, Tusk said that "my talks with you clearly show that giving new powers to European institutions is not the desired recipe."

Even though EU leaders have already had a short meeting without Britain, the Bratislava summit is seen as a fundamental opportunity to change tack and re-instill a sense of confidence in the EU as a common bond for more practical cooperation between nations.

Even the location of the summit, away from Brussels, has been seen by some as an indication the appetite for so many things happening in "Brussels" is on the wane. Tusk is calling for a break with the past.

"Today many people, not only in the UK, think that being part of the European Union stands in the way of stability and security," he wrote. "People in Europe want to know if the political elites are capable of restoring control over events and processes which overwhelm, disorientate, and sometimes terrify them."

In the wake of the migration crisis, Tusk wants the Bratislava summit to center on restoring effective controls of external borders. He said that all too often, people have heard "politically correct statements that Europe cannot become a fortress, that it must remain open. The lack of rapid action and of a uniform European strategy have weakened citizens' trust."

He also had a message for wayward Britain, warning that as long as it doesn't officially notify it will leave, there should be no backroom negotiations on terms. And he insisted that if the EU stuck together well during the split-up "there will be no room for doubt that it is a good thing to be a member of the union."

Nigerian refugees return to celebrate Eid

12 September 2016 Monday

Around 5,000 people who had been displaced by Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria celebrated Eid al-Adha at home for the first time in six years on Monday.

The town is at the heart of territory dominated by Boko Haram during a terror campaign that began in 2009 and has seen at least 20,000 killed and 2.3 million displaced. Over that period the group seized territory the size of Belgium before being pushed back by the military.

“Praise be to Allah that we can gather to pray at Eid this year, six years after Boko Haram forced us out of our town,” resident Babagana Ali said.

Lawan Goni Hassan, the town’s chief imam, added: “Allah has ended Boko Haram’s evil agenda.”

State Governor Kashim Shettima was present in Konduga to observe Eid and inspire confidence among the local population.

“My coming to this place with other officials is to inspire confidence in the multitude of our people who have been traumatized by the insurgency,” he said.

Over the last week, buses organized by the state government began transporting people from Maiduguri to newly liberated areas.

However, Boko Haram remains a threat in the area. On Saturday, a man was killed and three passengers injured when gunmen fired on vehicles 50 km (31 miles) outside Maiduguri, the Vanguard news website reported.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/haber/177307/nigerian-refugees-return-to-celebrate-eid.

Russia opposition recalls protests before parliamentary vote

September 13, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is preparing to hold a parliamentary election next week. The last time Russia held one was in 2011, when fraud allegations set off a wave of protests in Moscow, among the largest in Russia's post-Soviet history.

The vote, in which no genuine opposition members won parliamentary seats, galvanized opponents of Vladimir Putin and the dominant United Russia party so much that large protests arose sporadically for five months. It was a time of both anger and hope for Kremlin opponents who had come under increasing pressure since Putin became Russian president in 2000.

But the protest movement effectively ended on May 6, 2012, when police in the area of Bolotnaya Square clashed violently with demonstrators who were protesting the inauguration of Putin for a third term as president the next day. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, many ended up in prison after trials that dragged on for years and Russian lawmakers soon passed new severe penalties for anyone taking part in unauthorized protests.

As Russia gets ready for the Sept. 18 parliamentary election, here are vignettes of three people caught up in those tumultuous months.


Baronova's activist nature propelled her into the spotlight as a spokeswoman for protest organizers. Five years later, the trained chemist is taking her activism in a new direction by running for parliament.

As an independent candidate and one strongly at odds with the establishment, she holds no expectation of winning, but believes it's worth making a stand.

"I want Russia to be a normal European country, that's it," Baronova said in her office in central Moscow where a photo hangs of benefactor Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who spent a decade behind bars as Russia's most famous political prisoner. "I want us to have the rule of law, independent courts, good health care — and of course, freedom of speech."

Even if an unexpected victory came to her, she thinks the opposition forces would have little immediate effect on Russia's politics.

"I will not have lots of opportunities to change something in parliament — because even if we have 18, 20 or 30 independent deputies in parliament, there will still be more than 400 deputies from the ruling party, who will push the buttons as Putin says," she said.

Her candidacy hasn't received much support from opposition groupings, she complained, and she said that she's been accused of being a Kremlin stooge for wanting to take part in the political process at all.

The opposition "has always been super-divided: the so-called Russian liberals always have lots of opinions and they are never ready to do a real job," she said.


When the judge finally gives his verdict, Anna Gaskarova doesn't cry. Almost imperceptibly, her shoulders slump and a sad smile comes to her lips.

In 2013, her husband Alexei Gaskarov was imprisoned for his participation in the Bolotnaya protests, convicted of attacking police at the rally. Since then, Anna has repeatedly appealed for her husband's early release, saying that the allegations are false and politicized.

"I am so used now to hearing the words 'rejected' and 'leave him in custody' that in fact I no longer expect anything new," she said after the latest court hearing in Tula, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Moscow. "But I always hope that a miracle is possible and that the judge will unexpectedly do something the others don't do."

Gaskarov will be released at the end of October, but his wife continued her legal pleas even as the light at the end of the tunnel came close.

"It is just not possible to give up and not do everything you can ... to try to free him earlier than to continue suffering and thinking we could have done more," she said.


One of the rising younger stars in Moscow's lively arts sphere, painter Diana Machullina was one of the marchers in the ill-fated Bolotnaya protest.

She says she sees the creative process, with its constant demand for change and development, as naturally opposed to the political status quo.

"Contemporary art is opposed to what the government wants, which is to leave things as they are and to protect a status quo which suits them," she said.

But she thinks that many artists have been ground down by the repressive climate that settled in after Bolotnaya, forcing them into self-censorship.

"After Bolotnaya there is definitely censorship and we can't even quantify how far this extends, as many people are censoring themselves so that even before a person tries to do something, he stops himself so we don't even know what could have been forbidden," she said.

"Everything I saw on that day bore out how I feel about those in power. I have always been convinced that power is not good and even changes people who may have come to power with good intentions," she said.

Kate de Pury and Jim Heintz contributed to this report.

Russian opposition faces infighting, apathy at upcoming vote

September 12, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — On a rainy evening the day after parliamentary elections in December 2011, popular blogger Alexei Navalny led a rally of thousands of angry Muscovites who complained of blatant and pervasive fraud at polling stations across the Russian capital.

After months of protests, it seemed that change was inevitable — yet five years later Navalny is just a bystander, watching a parliamentary election campaign from the sidelines, his Party of Progress barred from participating.

The Sept. 18 vote offers few choices for voters in big cities who raised their voices in 2011, only to be drowned out by the nationalist euphoria that followed Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. President Vladimir Putin's United Russia and three quasi-opposition parties that derided the protesters are expected to dominate in the polls again. Up for grabs are 450 seats in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament. Putin, who enjoys high popularity ratings, won't be up for re-election himself until 2018.

"People want something new but they're being fed the same stuff that was around in 1995," Navalny told The Associated Press at his office in south Moscow. "I want to run, I'm confident we would make it (to parliament) but we're not allowed," he added.

Since the 2011 protests, Navalny has faced frequent detentions, a smear campaign in state media and two criminal cases — widely seen as retribution — resulting in a suspended sentence that bars him from running for office until at least mid-2018. Before his first conviction in 2013, the 40-year-old lawyer ran for Moscow mayor and won a third of the vote, a stunning result given that he had no access to television and street advertising.

With Navalny barred from running, his associates filed stacks of documents four times to get their own party registered, only to have the registration officially canceled over a disputed deadline less than a year later.

That leaves opposition-minded voters a choice between two parties that openly speak against the Kremlin: former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's Parnas party and Yabloko, led by the same man for 23 years.

Lyubov Ozerova, 48, who traveled 120 kilometers (75 miles) to attend a recent Parnas meeting in Moscow, says she trusted Putin until his foreign policy, the annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine began to take its toll on the economy, reversing more than a decade of almost uninterrupted growth. She believes most people in her town are unlikely to vote.

"People don't have faith in anything anymore," she said. "Most people are too busy with their own problems." Alexei Makarkin at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies says such voter attitudes stem from unfulfilled expectations: "In 2011 people turned up to protest, but for ordinary people nothing has changed."

Parnas' top candidates are an unlikely mix in a liberal party: They include bow-tie wearing history professor Andrei Zubov, a monarchist who wants to introduce a tsarist-era song as the new national anthem, and nationalist blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev, who laments a growing income gap and corruption and attracts about 100,000 views to his daily video blogs.

Maltsev talks about current events in the manner of someone sharing pickled cucumbers and a shot of vodka with a neighbor. The 52-year old former regional councilman starts every program by announcing the countdown to the day he believes the next Russian revolution will happen. Parnas leadership came under fire for fielding Maltsev as its number two candidate, in part because of his history of anti-Semitic statements.

Parnas leader Kasyanov expects Maltsev to steal votes from populist parties that criticize the government but stop short of targeting Putin. The risk is that brash figures like Maltsev could alienate Parnas' core liberal voters.

"It's a risk we have to take in order to get a wider front of support," Kasyanov told The Associated Press. Maltsev's appearances at televised debates became an instant hit on social media, with him likening the Putin regime to a disease — a "protracted gonorrhea," to be more precise.

As a political outsider from the regions, Maltsev helps Parnas deflect attention from Kasyanov, who is regarded by hardline pro-Kremlin activists as a corrupt bureaucrat and Western spy. In August, pro-Kremlin activists attacked Kasyanov outside a campaign event in southern Russia. In February, a group of men threatened him in a Moscow restaurant and rammed a cake into his face. No one was arrested in either case.

Kasyanov says he has almost become accustomed to the attacks. "For other candidates, though, it's something new, they are upset and nervous but they understand this proves that we speak the truth and that we are the only (party) that the Kremlin is afraid of," he said.

Over the years, Putin has built a political system that includes the ruling United Russia party and the Communist Party, the LDPR and Just Russia, which all brand themselves as the opposition when they campaign, although they never dare to criticize Putin publicly. And when the time comes to vote for unpopular Kremlin-initiated bills, these parties almost always vote in favor.

"Urban voters have no political representation in the Duma and they would like to have it but this cunning Kremlin system made it so that even without vote rigging we will have no representation," Navalny says.

In a way, Yabloko, founded in 1993 by economist Grigory Yavlinsky and two associates, has been part of that system. Yabloko has never gone as far as Navalny in attacking Putin personally. Yabloko has rejected joining forces with Parnas for this campaign, refusing "to make a coalition with nationalists and fascists," Yavlinsky says in a clear dig at Maltsev.

Asked about the same old faces appearing in this campaign, including himself, Yavlinsky says "if you have no independent television in the country, it's very difficult to present new politicians." Political analysts say the real reason is that voters don't want new faces.

"There is no demand for new faces among most voters, especially after Crimea and 2014," says Makarkin, the political analyst. "Most people just sit and watch and they're afraid of change. There's a feeling of depression and fatigue which has a direct impact on the voters, on the turnout and the interest in politics and politicians."

An opinion poll conducted by the Levada polling agency in August showed that 62 percent of Russians say they don't think that the Duma elections could change things. In a sign of the Kremlin's unease at Levada's findings, which also include declining ratings for United Russia, Levada earlier this week was named a foreign agent, a stigma that could eventually lead to its closure.