Monthly Archives : October 2021

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With No Sign of Eruption’s End, Ash Blankets La Palma Island

31
Oct,2021

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A volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma that has been erupting for six weeks spewed greater quantities of ash from its main mouth Sunday, a day after producing its strongest earthquake to date.

Lava flows descending toward the Atlantic Ocean from a volcanic ridge have covered 970 hectares (2,400 acres) of land since the eruption began on Sept. 19, data from the European Union’s satellite monitoring service, showed. On the way down the slope, the molten rock has destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and forced the evacuation of over 7,000 people. 

But authorities in the Canary Islands, of which La Palma is part, have reported no injuries caused by contact with lava or from inhaling the toxic gases that often accompany the volcanic activity.

Experts said that predicting when the eruption will end is difficult because lava, ash and gases emerging to the surface are a reflection of complex geological activity happening deep down the earth and far from the reach of currently available technology.

The Canary Islands, in particular, “are closely connected to thermal anomalies that go all the way to the core of the earth,” said Cornell University geochemist Esteban Gazel, who has been collecting samples from the Cumbre Vieja volcano.

“It’s like a patient. You can monitor how it evolves but saying exactly when it will die is extremely difficult,” Gazel said. “It’s a process that is connected to so many other dimensions of the inside of the planet.”

Signs monitored by scientists —soil deformation, sulfur dioxide emissions and seismic activity— remained robust in Cumbre Vieja. The Spanish Geographic Institute, or IGN, said that a magnitude 5 quake in the early hours of Saturday was not just felt on La Palma, but also in La Gomera, a neighboring island on the western end of the Canary Islands archipelago.

IGN said the ash column towering above the volcano reached an altitude of 4.5 kilometers (15,000 feet) on Sunday before heavier wind scattered it. Many nearby towns and a telescope base further north that sits on a mountain at 2,400 meters above sea level (7,800 feet) were covered in a thick layer of ash.

The eruption has also turned the island into a tourist attraction, especially as many Spaniards prepared to mark All Saints Day, a Catholic festivity that honors the dead, on Monday.

Local authorities said some 10,000 visitors were expected over the long weekend and 90% of the accommodations on La Palma were fully booked. A shuttle bus service for tourists wanting a glimpse of the volcano was established to keep private cars off the main roads so emergency services could work undisturbed.

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Thousands Protest Results of Georgia’s Local Elections

31
Oct,2021

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Thousands of opposition supporters filled the street outside Georgia’s national parliament building Sunday to protest municipal election results that gave the country’s ruling party a near sweep. 

Candidates of the Georgian Dream party won 19 of the 20 municipal elections in runoff votes on Saturday, including the mayoral offices in the country’s five largest cities: Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Rustavi, Batumi and Poti. 

The opposition alleges fraud.

Nika Melia, the head of the main opposition party United National Movement and a mayoral candidate in Tbilisi, claimed that “the victories gained by the opposition in many municipalities were taken away…like they never happened.”

An election observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the “voting and counting were overall assessed positively despite some procedural issues, particularly during counting.”

“The persistent practice of representatives of observer organizations acting as party supporters, at times interfering with the process, and groups of individuals potentially influencing voters outside some polling stations were of concern,” the OSCE observers said in a statement.

Melia told the protest crowd, which shut down the capital’s main avenue, that opposition leaders would be sent to other cities to marshal supporters to come to Tbilisi for a massive rally on Nov. 7. 

The Saturday runoff elections were held after no candidate in the cities won an absolute majority during the first round of nationwide municipal elections on Oct. 2.

The elections were overshadowed by the arrest of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the founder of the United National Movement, on Oct. 1.

Saakashvili left Georgia in 2013; he was convicted in absentia of abuse of power and sentenced to six years in prison. He returned to Georgia from his home in Ukraine, hoping to boost the opposition in the first round of voting, but was arrested within a day and imprisoned. He called a hunger strike soon after his arrest.

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G-20 Leaders Pledge to End Financing for Overseas Coal Plants 

31
Oct,2021

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G-20 leaders meeting in Rome have agreed to work to reach carbon neutrality “by around mid-century” and pledged to end financing for coal plants abroad by the end of this year.

The final communique was issued Sunday at the end of a two-day summit, ahead of talks at a broader U.N. climate change summit, COP26, this week in Glasgow, Scotland.

Leaders in Rome addressed efforts to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in line with a global commitment made in 2015 at the Paris Climate Accord to keep global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and preferably to 1.5 degrees. 

“We recognize that the impacts of climate change at 1.5°C are much lower than at 2°C. Keeping 1.5°C within reach will require meaningful and effective actions and commitment by all countries,” the communique said, according to Reuters.

The group of 19 countries and the European Union account for more than three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Two dozen countries this month have joined a U.S.- and EU-led effort to slash methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.

Coal, though, is a bigger point of contention. G-20 members China and India have resisted attempts to produce a declaration on phasing out domestic coal consumption.

Climate financing, namely pledges from wealthy nations to provide $100 billion a year in climate financing to support developing countries’ efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change, is another key concern. Indonesia, a large greenhouse gas emitter that will take over the G-20 presidency in December, is urging developed countries to fulfill their financing commitments both in Rome and in Glasgow.

Also on Sunday, the U.S. and EU announced an end to tariffs on EU steel imposed by the Trump administration, ending a dispute in which the EU imposed retaliatory tariffs on American products including whiskey and power boats.

“Together the United States and the European Union are ushering in a new era of transatlantic cooperation that’s going to benefit all of our people both now, and I believe, in the years to come,” Biden told reporters on the sidelines of the G-20 summit.

Global supply chain

Biden will hold a meeting at the summit’s sidelines to address the global supply chain crisis.The group of 20 countries in the summit account for more than 80% of world GDP and 75% of global trade.

“The President will make announcements about what the United States itself will do, particularly in respect to stockpiles, to improving… the United States’ capacity to have modern and effective and capable and flexible stockpiles,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told VOA aboard Air Force One en route to Rome, Thursday. “We are working towards agreement with the other participants on a set of principles and parameters around how we collectively manage and create resilient supply chains going forward.”

Addressing global commerce disruptions has been a key focus for the Biden administration, which is concerned that these bottlenecks will hamper post-pandemic economic recovery. To address the nation’s own supply chain issues, earlier this month the administration announced a plan to extend operations around the clock, seven days a week, at Los Angeles and Long Beach, two ports that account for 40% of sea freight entering the country.

“Whether it’s you’re talking about medical equipment or supplies of consumer goods or other products, it’s a challenge for the global economy,” said Matthew Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some of the concrete measures to alleviate global supply chain pressure points may need to be longer term, such as shortening supply chains and rethinking dependencies, said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House

“Those are not quick fixes,” she said. “But the G-20 is historically set up really to be dealing with short-term crises. So, I think that there will be considerable effort made to really discuss and come to terms with that.”

While global supply chain issues are a key concern for the leaders in Rome, Goodman said he doubts the meeting will result in tangible solutions.

“It’s a very difficult group – the G-20 to get consensus to do very specific things. And this may be one area in which it’s going to be particularly difficult,” he added.

President Xi Jinping of China, considered to be the “world’s factory,” is not attending the summit in person. In his virtual speech to G-20 leaders, Xi proposed holding an international forum on resilient and stable industrial and supply chains, and welcomed participation of G-20 members and relevant international organizations.

Some information in this report comes from the Associated Press and Reuters.

 

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Biden Meets Erdogan Amid Simmering Tensions

31
Oct,2021

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U.S. President Joe Biden is meeting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome Sunday amid simmering tensions and strategic disagreements between Washington and Ankara.

A senior Biden administration official told reporters in Rome Saturday that the leaders would discuss a range of regional issues, including Syria and Afghanistan, and defense issues including Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and its request to purchase U.S. F-16 fighter jets.

The official said in the Sunday meeting Biden would warn Erdogan that the two countries will need to work to avoid crises such as Ankara’s recent threat to expel the U.S. and nine other countries’ ambassadors who pushed for the release of jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala.

“Precipitous action is not going to benefit the U.S.-Turkey partnership and alliance,” a senior administration official told reporters in Rome Saturday. “I’m not actually even sure we would have had the meeting if he [Erdogan] had gone ahead and expelled.”

In 2019, during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, the Pentagon kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program because of its purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems. Now Ankara wants to buy 40 F-16 fighter jets made by U.S. company Lockheed Martin and nearly 80 modernization kits for its air force’s existing warplanes.

U.S. lawmakers have urged the Biden administration not to sell F-16s to Turkey, saying Ankara has “behaved like an adversary.”

“This meeting is important for President Biden to send some messages to Turkey about what is and is not acceptable behavior from a NATO ally,” said Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said Biden will convey his expectations for Turkey as a partner in a range of issues including security challenges following U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, its role in the Black Sea region and performance in NATO.

Bilateral relations between the two NATO allies have also been strained over human rights. As president, Biden has pledged to restore human rights and democracy as pillars of U.S. foreign policy. In August of last year, before taking office, then-Democratic presidential candidate Biden advocated for a new U.S. approach to the “autocrat” Erdogan. Ankara slammed the comment as “interventionist.”

Since then, the two leaders have taken a more pragmatic approach to maintaining a relationship. Biden is keen to avoid another escalating flashpoint in the region following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Erdogan is embattled politically at home.

“The Turkish economy is faltering, he [Erdogan] is actually losing in popularity,” Ellehuus said. “Whether he’ll admit it or not, I think he needs to be perceived as having at least a cooperative relationship with President Biden.”

This is the second in-person discussion between the leaders under the Biden presidency, following a June meeting in Brussels, on the sidelines of the NATO summit. 

 

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UK, France Urged to Cool Down Escalating Fishing Spat

31
Oct,2021

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Britain and France faced calls Saturday to sort out their post-Brexit spat over fishing rights in the English Channel, which threatens to escalate within days into a damaging French blockade of British boats and trucks.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the dispute is testing the U.K.’s international credibility, while each country accused the other of being in breach of the post-Brexit trade agreement that Britain’s government signed with the European Union before it left the bloc.

As the war of words intensified, Britain said it was “actively considering” launching legal action if France goes through with threats to bar U.K. fishing boats from its ports and slap strict checks on British catches.

“If there is a breach of the (Brexit) treaty or we think there is a breach of the treaty then we will do what is necessary to protect British interests,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told British broadcasters in Rome, where he and Macron are both attending a Group of 20 summit.

At stake is fishing — a tiny industry economically that looms large symbolically for maritime nations like Britain and France. Britain’s exit from the economic rules of the 27-nation bloc at the start of this year means the U.K. now controls who fishes in its waters.

France claims some vessels have been denied permits to fish in waters where they have long sailed. Britain says it has granted 98% of applications from EU vessels, and now the dispute comes down to just a few dozen French boats with insufficient paperwork.

But France argues it’s a matter of principle and wants to defend its interests as the two longtime allies and rivals set out on a new, post-Brexit relationship.

The dispute escalated this week after French authorities accused a Scottish-registered scallop dredger of fishing without a license. The captain was detained in Le Havre and has been told to face a court hearing next year.

France has threatened to block British boats crossing the English Channel and tighten checks on boats and trucks from Tuesday if the licenses aren’t granted. France has also suggested it might restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands — British Crown dependencies that lie off the coast of France and are heavily dependent on French electricity.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex appealed to the EU to back France in the dispute, saying the bloc should demonstrate to people in Europe that “leaving the Union is more damaging than remaining in it.”

U.K. Brexit Minister David Frost called Castex’s comments “troubling” and accused France of a pattern of threats “to our fishing industry, to energy supplies, and to future cooperation.”

He said if France acted on the threats it “would put the EU in breach of its obligations under our trade agreement,” and said Britain was “actively considering launching dispute settlement proceedings,” a formal legal process in the deal.

He urged France and the EU to “step back.”

Many EU politicians and officials regard Frost, who led negotiations on Britain’s divorce deal, as intrinsically hostile to the bloc.

Macron, who is scheduled to meet Johnson on Sunday on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, defended France’s position and said the fishing dispute could hurt Britain’s reputation worldwide.

“Make no mistake, it is not just for the Europeans but all of their partners,” Macron told the Financial Times. “Because when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility.”

Macron said he was sure that Britain has “good will” to solve the dispute. “We need to respect each other and respect the word that has been given,” he said.

Johnson said the fishing issue was a distraction from fighting climate change — top of the G-20 leaders’ agenda at their meeting, which comes before a U.N. climate conference in Scotland next week.

“I am looking at what is going on at the moment and I think that we need to sort it out. But that is quite frankly small beer, trivial, by comparison with the threat to humanity that we face,” Johnson added.

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president and chairman of the northern French ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, said the spat was “ridiculous” and urged both sides to resolve it.

He told BBC radio that the dispute was over just 40 boats — “a drop in the ocean” — and that there would be “terrible” consequences if France carried out its threat of blocking British trawlers from French ports.

“If no agreement can be found, it will be a drama, it will be a disaster in your country because the trucks will not cross,” he said. 

 

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Day One of G-20 Summit Focuses on Global Minimum Tax, Pandemic Preparedness

31
Oct,2021

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The G-20 Summit hosted by Italy in Rome this weekend brought together leaders from the world’s major economies. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report from Rome.

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Climate Change Threatens Russia’s Permafrost and Oil Economy

31
Oct,2021

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Parts of the planet that were once thought to be permanently frozen are starting to thaw – posing problems for countries like Russia where permafrost covers vast areas of its territory. The thaw is threatening Russia’s oil economy as Oleksandr Yanevskyy tells us in this report narrated by Amy Katz.
Camera: Oleksandr Yanevskyy

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China’s Top Diplomat Visits Serbia, Albania Aiming to Deepen Ties

31
Oct,2021

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made stops in Belgrade, Serbia, and Tirana, Albania, this week, seeking to further the Chinese government’s “17+1” effort to promote trade and investment between Beijing and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe.

While Wang was received cordially in both countries, Serbia and Albania have taken somewhat different approaches to economic cooperation with Beijing through China’s Belt and Road initiative, which has funded infrastructure projects throughout the developing world.

A stop in Greece on Wednesday and a scheduled stop in Italy on Saturday served as bookends to Wang’s visit to the Balkans. The trip is widely seen as China’s attempt to shore up economic ties in the region, which has traditionally looked more toward the European Union for development assistance.

Friendship ‘made of steel’

In Serbia, officials presented Wang with a building permit for a stretch of railway from Novi Sad to Subotica, part of a larger project to modernize the railroad between Belgrade and Budapest, Hungary. The move reflects Serbia’s relative openness to Chinese investment in the country.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić reiterated that Belgrade supports the “one China” policy, which considers Taiwan part of China. Wang, in turn, said Beijing respects the territorial integrity of Serbia, a signal that Beijing will continue to refuse to recognize the independence of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Wang said the friendship between the two countries was “made of steel” and added, “Serbia is a country that has its own principles and that Beijing is proud to have such a friend.”

Vučić said that Serbia and China are implementing joint projects worth 8 billion euros ($9.3 billion) and trade between the two countries has tripled.

Large Chinese presence

According to Bojan Stanić, the assistant director for analytics at the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in addition to 1.5 billion euros ($1.73 billion) in direct foreign investment from China in the past five years, more than 20,000 people in Serbia work in Chinese-owned companies. Additionally, more than half of the suppliers of the Smederevo Ironworks, which is owned by the Chinese HBIS Group, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, are Serbian companies.

Serbia and China have had a strategic partnership agreement since 2009 and a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement since 2016. The latter involves more high-level meetings between both country’s officials, and more extensive personnel exchanges. China is the dominant lender for road construction in Serbia. Beijing is also the owner of the Bor mining complex and the Linglong tire factory, which is under construction.

Extensive Chinese ownership of businesses in Serbia has raised concerns about compliance with environmental protection and working condition regulations in factories.

Relationship unclear

Other concerns arise from the difficulty in understanding the relationship between Chinese firms and the Chinese Communist Party’s security services.

Igor Novaković, research director at the Center for International and Security Affairs Centre – ISAC Fund, said it is not always clear where a company’s commercial interest ends and the CCP’s political interests begin.

“I do not claim that companies operating in Serbia are dangerous in themselves, but when there is a connection between politics and business, then there is a danger of using business decisions in favor of the political interests of the country from which investments come,” Novaković said.

Belgrade visit

Wang traveled from Belgrade to Tirana Thursday, ahead of Friday’s meetings with Albanian President Ilir Meta, Prime Minister Edi Rama, and Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Olta Xhaçka.

In Belgrade, officials have historically been much more cautious with regard to Chinese investment and lending.

“The truth is that serious doubts have actually been raised about Chinese funding following the experiences in some African countries and in the Balkans as the time comes for debt refinancing, that is, debt repayment and liabilities that have placed the governments of these countries in great financial difficulties,” said Selami Xhepa, an economist and a member of the Assembly of the Republic of Albania.

“This has required some kind of renegotiation, or similar diplomacy, with the Chinese authorities,” he added. “I think market discipline is better than diplomatic negotiations.”

UN Security Council

Last year, Albania joined a group of nations, headed by the United States, that has shut out Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment essential to the rollout of 5G wireless service in the country.

Nevertheless, with Albania about to take a seat on the United Nations Security Council, of which China is a permanent member, experts saw Wang’s visit to the country as an important opportunity to cement ties between the two countries and open dialogue about issues important to Albania. Among those issues is China’s continued effort to block the recognition of Kosovo as an independent country, which Albania supports.

“China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and it is necessary to talk about Kosovo, about Kosovo’s accession to the United Nations, where China is a very big obstacle,” said Besnik Mustafaj, a former foreign minister of Albania who now serves as president of the Council of Albanian Ambassadors. “It is time to say that there is no parallelism between Kosovo and Taiwan, that Albania recognizes only one China.”

Ilirian Agolli of VOA’s Albanian Service and VOA’s Serbian Service contributed to this report.

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US, EU End Trump-Era Steel, Aluminum Tariffs

31
Oct,2021

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The United States and European Union have agreed to end a festering dispute over U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump in 2018, removing an irritant in transatlantic relations and averting a spike in EU retaliatory tariffs, U.S. officials said on Saturday. 

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told reporters that the deal will maintain U.S. “Section 232” tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% aluminum, while allowing “limited volumes” of EU-produced metals into the United States duty free. 

It also ends one of the biggest areas of friction between the allies and allows them to focus on negotiating new global trade agreements to address global excess steel and aluminum capacity mainly centered in China and reduce the industries’ carbon emissions. 

U.S. officials did not specify the volume of duty-free steel to be allowed into the United States under a tariff-rate quota system agreed upon with the EU. Sources familiar with the deal, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told Reuters that annual volumes above 3.3 million tons would be subject to tariffs. 

The deal grants an additional two years of duty-free access above the quota for EU steel products that won Commerce Department exclusions in the past year, U.S. officials said. 

The deal requires EU steel and aluminum to be entirely produced in the bloc — a standard known as “melted and poured” — to qualify for duty-free status. The provision is aimed at preventing metals from China and non-EU countries from being minimally processed in Europe before export to the United States. 

“The agreement ultimately to negotiate a carbon-based arrangement on steel and aluminum trade addresses both Chinese overproduction and carbon intensity in the steel and aluminum sector,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. “It shows that we can solve the climate crisis while at the same time better protecting our workers — that we don’t have to pick between climate or the economy.” 

President Joe Biden has sought to mend fences with European allies following Trump’s presidency to more broadly confront China’s state-driven economic practices that led to Beijing building massive excess steelmaking capacity that has flooded global markets. 

Raimondo said the deal will reduce costs for steel-consuming U.S. manufacturers. Steel prices have more than tripled in the past year to records topping $1,900 a ton as the industry has struggled to keep up with a demand surge after COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdowns, contributing to inflation. 

Europe exported around 5 million tons of steel annually to the United States before Trump’s imposition of the “Section 232” tariffs in March 2018 on national security grounds. 

The deal also eliminates Europe’s retaliatory tariffs against U.S. products including whiskey and Harley-Davidson motorcycles that were set to double on December 1, the U.S. officials said. 

The United States allows imports of steel and aluminum duty free from North American trade deal partners Mexico and Canada, with a mechanism that allows tariffs to be reimposed in the event of an unexpected surge in import volumes. 

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US, Europe Focus on Iran Nuclear Program at G-20

30
Oct,2021

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U.S. President Joe Biden will hold talks with European leaders over the Iran nuclear program Saturday afternoon, Rome time, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Italy, following Tehran’s announcement earlier this week that it is ready to resume negotiations before the end of November. 

Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek an agreement on the path to resume negotiations for a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement. The so-called E3+1 format will focus on “shared concerns about the state of Iran’s nuclear program,” the White House said.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA deal in 2018. Biden has said the United States will rejoin once Tehran returns to full compliance with the agreement’s restrictions on nuclear weapons development.

The Saturday talks will be a “study in contrast with the previous administration, since Iran was one of the areas of most profound divergence between the previous administration and the Europeans,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Rome Thursday.

“Here you’ll see Chancellor Merkel, President Macron, Prime Minister Johnson, and President Biden all singing from the same song sheet on this issue,” he said.

However, in his first in-person meeting with these NATO allies, Biden will also have to placate lingering resentment over the chaotic August U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left them scrambling to get their troops and citizens out as the Taliban took over Kabul. Analysts say the allies are likely to press Biden for firm commitments of better coordination on Iran, which they did not believe was given on Afghanistan.

On Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had ordered a full-scale review of the Afghan withdrawal. VOA asked Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre aboard Air Force One en route to Rome, Thursday, whether the announcement Afghanistan review was timed ahead of Biden’s G-20 trip. 

“I wouldn’t connect the two,” she said. “I don’t have much more to share about that.”  

Fresh sanctions

On Friday, ahead of the G-20, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions against two senior members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and two affiliated companies for supplying lethal drones and related material to insurgent groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Ethiopia.

With these sanctions Biden is signaling that his administration still has leverage and tools to pressure Tehran, said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.

“Iran’s sponsorship of regional instability continues to be on Biden’s radar,” she said. 

Iran swiftly called the penalties “completely contradictory behavior.”

“A government that talks about an intention of returning to the nuclear deal but continues Trump’s policy of sanctions is sending the message that it really is not reliable,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in remarks published on the ministry’s website.

“Iran is upset but its options to hit back are limited,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, who predicts that the sanctions will not stop Iran from returning to the negotiation table.

“It can refuse to return to the talks in Vienna but then it will increase the chances that Washington can better mobilize the international opinion against Iran as the main spoiler that is preventing a breakthrough in the nuclear talks.”

Analysts say Tehran is trying to avoid a scenario where the U.S. and Europe convince Russia and China that Iran’s nuclear program is too close to possible weaponization.  

“It’s likely Iran will return in part because Europeans – whom Iran sees as weaker than U.S. – and Russia with whom Iran does various deals, want Iran back,” said James Jeffrey, chair of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

Plan B

The United States and Israel have warned that they are exploring a Plan B if Tehran does not return in good faith to salvage JCPOA.

“Time is running short,” Blinken said at a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Washington earlier this month. “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course, and these consultations with our allies and partners are part of it.”

However, analysts say the Biden administration is unlikely to use military options nor would it greenlight the Israelis to strike. Jeffrey said the U.S. is more likely to rely on a combination of new sanctions and tougher position on Iran’s aggression in the region, alongside strategic ambiguity on military response should the talks fail.

While the Iranians do not think the Biden team has a serious military Plan B, Tehran cannot allow the nuclear stalemate to go on forever, Vatanka said. 

“One way or another, both sides – the US and Iran – need to put the brakes on this cycle of escalation,” he said.

VOA’ Anita Powell contributed to this report.

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Greece Bids Merkel Bittersweet Farewell

30
Oct,2021

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Angela Merkel has completed her final trip as German chancellor to Greece, a country where she was not overly welcome in the past because of the strict austerity measures she backed to keep Greece’s economy afloat.

Sticks, stones, gas bombs and heated demonstrations gripped Greece on Merkel’s first visit to Athens in 2012.

But now, a decade later, the outgoing chancellor got an almost indifferent public reception, walking freely along streets bare of any public protest or threat for the European politician many people here had dubbed an enemy.

Resentment, though, was obvious, and President Katerina Sakellaropoulou tapped into the nation’s mood, bidding Merkel farewell with criticism of the austerity policies she advocated for Greece, recalling the tough times the two countries faced during Greek financial crisis. 

There were times of difficulty and tension, she told Merkel with a stern face. Greeks had to pay a heavy price. And, Sakellaropoulou said, there were many times when Greece, as a European nation, felt alone.

The decade-long financial crisis saw a quarter of the country’s economy wiped out and 1.2 million Greeks losing their jobs. 

Many Greeks expected Merkel to return to the country with an apology for the bitter policies she supported because Germany was the single largest contributor to a bailout scheme that helped keep the Greek economy from crashing.

She instead came with a strong dose of self-criticism.

“I knew that I was asking a lot of the people in Greece, Merkel said. But she cited the role that previous leftist governments played in making the implementation of those policies more difficult, adding to social upheaval at the time,” Merkel said.

The remarks scored few points with Greeks. 

Political analyst Panayiotis Lampsias explains the nation’s reaction to Merkel.

Of course, she played a pivotal role in keeping Greece in the EU, and that should not be underestimated, he said. But this self-criticism comes too late, and now years later and on her way out, Lampsias added, Merkel has the luxury of being able to make such remarks.

In Greece’s post-crisis era, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reassured Merkel that the country would stick to fiscal discipline but not what he called, “blind austerity.”

Greece, he said, is no longer a source of crisis but a modern European state striving for a better future within the European Union.

Merkel’s vice chancellor, finance minister and likely successor Olaf Scholz accompanied her on the visit to Athens. He refrained from making any comment or offering any thoughts on whether Germany would ease up on its fiscal requirements, a concern nagging Greeks as Merkel departs the chancellorship.

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China Hits Reset on Belt and Road Initiative

30
Oct,2021

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Green energy is the new focus of China’s one-of-a-kind Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, that aims to build a series of infrastructure projects from Asia to Europe.

The eco-friendlier version of BRI has caught the attention of some 70 other countries that are getting new infrastructure from the Asian economic powerhouse in exchange for expanding trade.

The reset on China’s eight-year-old, $1.2 trillion effort comes after leaving a nagging layer of smog in parts of Eurasia, where those projects operate.

Now the county that’s already mindful of pollution at home is preparing a new BRI that will focus on greener projects, instead of pollution-generating coal-fired plants. It would still further China’s goal of widening trade routes in Eurasia through the initiative’s new ports, railways and power plants.

The Second Belt and Road announced in China on October 18, coincides with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which runs from Sunday through November 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. China could use the forum to detail its plans.

“China’s policy shift towards a more green BRI reflects China’s own commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2060 and its efforts to implement a green transition within China’s domestic economy,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist with the market research firm IHS Markit.

“Furthermore, China’s policy shift…also reflects the increasing policy priority being given towards renewable energy and sustainable development policies by most of China’s BRI partner countries,” he said.

The Belt and Road helps lift the economies of developing countries from Kazakhstan to more modern ones, such as Portugal. BRI also unnerves China’s superpower rival, the United States, which has no comparable program.

History of focusing on fossil fuel

China has a history of putting billions of dollars in fossil fuel projects in other countries since 2013, the American research group Council on Foreign Relations says in a March 2021 study.

From 2014 to 2017, it says, about 90% of energy-sector loans by major Chinese banks to BRI countries were for fossil fuel projects and China was “involved in” 240 coal plants in just 2016. In 2018, the study adds, 40% of energy lending went to coal projects. Those investments, the group says, “promise to make climate change mitigation far more difficult.”

South and Southeast Asia are the main destinations for coal-fired projects at 80% of the total Belt and Road portfolio, the Beijing-based research center Global Environmental Institute says.

Global shift toward green energy

Chinese President Xi Jinping said last year China would try to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030. The Second Belt and Road calls for working with partner countries on “energy transition” toward more wind, solar and biomass, the National Energy Administration and Shandong provincial government said in an October 18 statement. 

Some countries are pushing China to offer greener projects due to environmental pressure at home, though some foreign leaders prefer the faster, cheaper, more polluting options to prove achievements while in office, said Jonathan Hillman, economics program senior fellow at the Center for International & Strategic Studies research organization.

“There was a period in the first phase of the Belt and Road where projects were being shoveled out the door and with not enough attention to the quality of those projects,” he said.

Poorer countries are pressured now to balance providing people basic needs against environmental issues, said Song Seng Wun, an economist in the private banking unit of Malaysian bank CIMB. The basics still “take priority,” he said, and newer coal-fired plants help.

“Although I would say environmental issues (are) important, I think a lot of people don’t realize how much more efficient these more modern coal plants are, so I think we must have a balance,” Song said.

In the past few years however, cancellation rates of coal-fired projects have exceeded new approvals, Hillman said. “The action honestly has come more from participating countries,” he said. “They’ve decided that’s not the direction they want to go.”

In February, Chinese officials told the Bangladesh Ministry of Finance they would no longer consider coal mining and coal-fired power stations. Greece, Kenya, Pakistan and Serbia have asked China to dial back on polluting projects, Hillman said.

“The next decade will show to what extent the Belt and Road will drive green infrastructure,” London-based policy institute Chatham House says in a September 2021 report.

Belt-and-Road renewable energy investments reached a new high last year of 57% of its total for energy projects in 2020, according to IHS data.

New pledges at COP26?

COP26 is expected to showcase the environmental achievements of participating countries as they try to meet U.N. Paris Climate Change commitments, Biswas said.

China’s statements ahead of the conference so far differ little from past statements. But China’s energy administration said on October 18 that its second Belt and Road “emphasizes the necessity of increased support for developing countries” in terms of money, technology and ability to carry out green energy projects.

Chinese companies on BRI projects may eventually be required to reduce environmental risks, Biswas said. Those companies would in turn follow principles released in 2018 to ensure that their projects generate less carbon. A year later, as international criticism grew, Chinese President Xi added a slate of Belt and Road mini-initiatives, including some that touched on green projects.

But the 2019 plans were non-binding and untransparent, Hillman said. At COP26, he said, “I would take any big announcements with more than a grain of salt.”

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Biden Says Pope Supports His Holy Communion Rights

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Oct,2021

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U.S. President Joe Biden met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, ahead of his meeting with G-20 leaders. Biden said the pope supported his receiving Holy Communion, while some U.S. bishops want to deny him the sacrament over his stance on abortion. With Anita Powell contributing, White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report from Rome.

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Biden Acknowledges AUKUS Deal Rollout Was ‘Clumsy’

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Oct,2021

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U.S. President Joe Biden launched his whirlwind European diplomatic tour on a conciliatory note, saying Friday that the rollout of a security deal between the United States, Britain and Australia that cut out longtime ally France was “clumsy.”

“What happened was, to use an English phrase – what we did was clumsy,” Biden said. “It was not done with a lot of grace,” he acknowledged, next to French President Emanuel Macron in Rome ahead of the G-20 summit. The two spoke to reporters following their meeting which was notably held at Villa Bonaparte, the French Embassy to the Vatican, instead of a neutral venue.

The Indo-Pacific AUKUS security deal provides Australia with U.S. nuclear-powered submarines.  But buying U.S. subs meant Canberra cancelled the $65 billion deal it previously made with Paris for traditional submarines.

The diplomatic fallout was swift: Paris temporarily recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, saying they were not consulted in advance of the AUKUS deal.

“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not coming through,” Biden said Friday. “Honest to God, I did not know that you had not been.”

This modest concession matters, said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House. 

“It’s pretty clear that both Biden and Macron have a lot to lose and wish this relationship to work,” she said. “So, they are finding ways to signal that, including in this case an acknowledgment that stops short of an apology.”

Biden earlier committed to supporting France in their counterterrorism effort in the Sahel, where instability triggers waves of African migrants to aim for Europe.

“Clearly the U.S. made a tough call on how to deal with France in the run-up to this decision and, ultimately, the AUKUS partnership stands and France is outside of it,” Vinjamuri said.

Other key meetings 

Earlier Friday, Biden met with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a potential key ally in transatlantic relations at a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to leave office and Macron remains politically embattled at home.

They and other leaders will gather at the G-20 summit of the world’s wealthiest nations, hosted this year by Italy, which begins Saturday.

“Italy really is an anchor in southeastern Europe for the United States,” said Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

The White House said Biden thanked Draghi for Italy’s support following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, including by temporarily housing more than 4,000 Afghans who were on route to the U.S. in August. The leaders discussed challenges to security in the Mediterranean region and reaffirmed the importance of NATO’s efforts to deter and defend against threats.

Biden is also expected to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the summit’s sidelines. Erdogan recently threatened to expel the U.S. and nine other Western ambassadors over their support of a jailed Turkish philanthropist over charges of espionage, terrorism and attempts to overthrow the government – allegations that Western observers have called absurd.

“This meeting is important for President Biden to send some messages to Turkey about what is and is not acceptable behavior from a NATO ally, what his expectations are for Turkey being a partner in everything from follow-on security challenges from Afghanistan to Turkey’s role in the Black Sea region and Turkey’s performance in NATO,” Ellehuus said.

Observers, journalists and international partners have repeatedly asked when Biden will meet one-on-one with the leader of the country the U.S. considers its main adversary: China. But Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend the G-20 summit in person, nor the climate conference that will follow immediately after, in Glasgow. 

The White House has confirmed Biden and Xi will meet virtually before the year’s end.

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Pope to UN Conference: Don’t Waste Chance to Save the Planet

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Oct,2021

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Pope Francis issued an urgent appeal Friday to world leaders ahead of the U.N. climate conference to take “radical decisions” to protect the environment and prioritize the common good rather than nationalistic interests.

Francis delivered the “Thought for the Day” on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s morning radio program ahead of the Oct. 31-Nov. 13 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

In the message, Francis urged political leaders not to waste the opportunity created by the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic to change course and chart a future based on a sense of shared responsibility for a common destiny.

“It means giving priority to the common good, and it calls for a change in perspective, a new outlook, in which the dignity of every human being, now and in the future, will guide our ways of thinking and acting,” Francis said. “The most important lesson we can take from these crises is our need to build together, so that there will no longer be any borders, barriers or political walls for us to hide behind.”

Francis has made caring for God’s Creation one of the hallmarks of his papacy. In 2015, ahead of the last U.N. climate conference in Paris, he penned the first-ever ecological encyclical, “Praised Be,” in which he denounced how the “perverse” profit-at-all-costs global economic model had exploited the poorest, ravaged Earth’s natural resources and turned the planet into an “immense pile of filth.”

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Belarus Classifies Social Media Channels as ‘Extremist’ in New Crackdown

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Oct,2021

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The Belarusian interior ministry on Friday classified three of the country’s most popular opposition social media channels as extremist organizations, meaning that people can face up to seven years in prison for subscribing to them.

Social media channels such as Telegram messenger were widely used during mass street protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year both to coordinate demonstrations and share footage of a violent police crackdown.

The NEXTA news outlet, run by a Belarusian exile in Poland, has three channels on Telegram, including NEXTA Live, which has nearly 1 million subscribers in a country of 9.5 million.

“The Ministry of Internal Affairs has made a decision to recognize a group of citizens carrying out extremist activities through the Telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA-Live and LUXTA, an extremist organization and prohibiting its activities,” the ministry said in a statement.

Previously, anyone who reposted material from NEXTA risked a fine or detention for 30 days. But the new classification means subscribers could be prosecuted for participating in an extremist organization and be jailed for up to seven years.

“1.4 million more extremists appeared in Belarus today,” NEXTA wrote in a tweet. “Ministry of Internal Affairs recognized telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA Live and LUXTA as ‘extremist formations’. This means that criminal cases can be opened against creators, administrators and subscribers in #Belarus.”

Protests erupted last year after a presidential election that Lukashenko’s opponents say was blatantly rigged to keep the veteran leader in power.

Tens of thousands of people were detained and human rights activists say more than 800 people are now in jail as political prisoners since the protests.

The authorities have recently taken reprisals against citizens who voice dissent online. Hundreds of people were detained and face prison terms for making disrespectful comments about a KGB officer who died in a shootout in Minsk last month.

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