From The Alpha and the Omega - Chapter Eight
by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved
"KING OF THE NORTH 2020 JANUARY-MARCH"

    This file is attached to http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterEight/BeastThatCameOutOfTheSea.htm from “Beast That Came Out Of The Sea” - Chapter Eight by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved.
Or return to the Astronomical Events To Appear Between 2014 Through 2017 A.D. or continue to King Of The North in 2020 April-June

KING OF THE NORTH 2020 JANUARY-MARCH

WTO REGION 6 IN 1995 CENTRAL ASIA - RUSSIA, ARMENIA, GEORGIA, AZERBIJIAN, CUBA
  • Today Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the north.    The region consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

WTO REGION 5 IN 1995 WESTERN ASIA/EASTERN EUROPE – BALKAN STATES, POLAND, ROMANIA, HUNGARY, BULGARIA, CZECHO-SLOVAKIA, YUGOSLAVIA, ALBANIA, ESTONIA, LATVIA, LITHUANIA.
  • Today Western Asia is 23 countries as a subregion: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Yemen.
  • Today Eastern Europe is the eastern part of the European continent.    There is no consensus on the precise area it covers, partly because the term has a wide range of geopolitical, geographical, cultural, and socioeconomic connotations.    It is projected to be *Cyprus, *Czech Republic, *Estonia, *Hungary, *Latvia, *Lithuania, *Malta, *Poland, *Slovakia, Slovenia, *Bulgaria, *Romania and *Croatia.
        The above countries with an * in front of them are part of the European Union in todays world.
    • The Balkan peninsula or the region includes: (Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Italy, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia) with Greece and Turkey excluded.
    • Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Moldova are part of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) set up to help ex-communist states harmonise their economic and legal systems with EU demands.
    • On 2/6/2019 Macedonia the tiny ex-Yugoslav republic became the 30th member of a formal signing of the NATO accession protocol and expects Macedonia – now known officially as North Macedonia to formally join the alliance in 2020.    Three other ex-Yugoslav republics – Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro – have already joined NATO, as have other countries in the Balkan region including Albania, Bulgaria and Romania.


    So as 2019 has passed do we know who the "King of the North" is?
    "Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.    The king will do as he pleases.    He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods.    He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, for what has been determined must take place." (Daniel 11:35,36).
    The king of the north mentioned in verses Daniel 11:36-45 is the same King from the North (also known as the stern-faced king or the horn power) that was introduced in Daniel 8.    Notice how this point is demonstrated.
    Verse 35 points to the appointed time of the end, and verse 36 describes a king who will be successful until the time of wrath is completed.
Rev. 17:11 The Eighth Head: The Seventh Head (revived Roman Empire) will grow an Eighth Head in verse 11 (Some claim this to be "The scarlet animal that is to be destroyed).
    Rev. 17:11 And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth (‘Ogdoos’ eighth is connected to ‘Okta’ eight; here the vision shows that the seventh head will briefly sprout another as an eighth head or an outgrowth which will be destroyed; “the eighth” king, his “wound being healed,” Rev. 13:3, Antichrist manifested in the fullest and most intense opposition to God.    He is “the little horn” with eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things, before whom three of the ten horns were plucked up by the roots, and to whom the whole ten “give their power and strength,” in Rev. 12:13, 17.), and is of the seven (originally came from the seven heads; The eighth is not one of the seven restored, but a new power or person proceeding out of the seven, and at the same time embodying all the God opposed features of the previous seven.    For this reason there are not eight heads, but only seven, for the eighth is the embodiment of all the seven.),
and goeth into perdition (‘Apoleia’ indicating loss of well-being, not of being, is used of the Beast, the final head of the revived Roman Empire; In the birth-pangs which prepare the “regeneration” there are wars, earthquakes, and disturbances, at which Antichrist takes his rise, from the sea, Rev. 13:1; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:9-11.).
(Paraphrased: “The scarlet animal that died is the eighth king, having reigned before as one of the seven; after his second reign, he too, will go to his doom.”).
    [No one can really narrow down who or what this new entity came from, but the following is food for thought.    I ran across a news article dated 6/9/2018 on my “KingOfTheWest2018.htm" file and I discovered the following statement, was made in it and was titled "Russia joined the G-7 in the late 1990s almost a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, making the group the G-8."    And as it is seen above in prophecy the seventh head will briefly sprout another as an eighth head, which was Russia, the eighth as one of the seven.    So as it says above "in his second reign," which was in 2018, "he too, will go to his doom.]
    Most likely this king is the Russian president Vladimir Putin because of his continued push to be in the scene and his interfacing into other areas.
    He is still in search of new nuclear missile with unlimited range, immune to enemy intercept, capable of penetrating any missile defense and can reach virtually any target around the world, “No defense systems will be able to withstand it nicknamed RS-28 Sarmat rocket — “Satan 2,” to wipe out an area the size of Texas or France.
    Putin has deployed a new hypersonic nuclear missile is highly maneuverable, allowing it to easily evade missile defense systems an Avangard missile developed by Almaz-Antey Air and Space Defence Corporation, and the new Space Force was the new system for deterence forcing China to get in on this.
    Russia deployed the S-350 Vityaz a new generation short-to-mid range surface-to-air defence missile complex and Pantsir-S and S-400 complexes to Crimea, and Arctic region, the Baltic Sea, and easternmost Khabarovsk region, and their a new Russian missile, the Novator 9M729 (called SSC-8 by NATO), and the Vityaz (Knight) is a short-to-mid range surface-to-air defence missile system.
    Kiselyov, close to the Kremlin, said the “Tsirkon” (‘Zircon’) hypersonic missile that Russia is developing could hit the targets in less than five minutes if launched from Russian submarines.    Hypersonic flight is generally taken to mean traveling through the atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound.    “For now, we’re not threatening anyone, but if such a deployment takes place, our response will be instant,” he said.    Kiselyov is one of the main conduits of state television’s strongly anti-American tone, once saying Moscow could turn the United States into radioactive ash.    Speed of sound 767 mph; 667 kilometre in 2.9 sec or a mile in 4.7 sec, therefore the missile 5 times can do it in 0.94 seconds and 1000 miles in 17 minutes.
    During 2019 I could see that several Eastern Europe countries wanted to join the other EU countries to change the policies of the Progressive Socialist parties who have pushed their valaues on all of the European Union's 28 nations for economic growth, security, family values, christian roots and forced Islamic Shria Law issues.
    Do you think that the nations newspapers in Russia put out fake news on Putin, which I assume they do not since they would be shut down that day.    The reason I said this is for the U.S. NY Times and Washington Post that if you keep pushing the Progressive Socialists Liberal Democrat views as you are doing you might find yourself being shut down for what you say in your paper like many of the countries in the world if that future occurs.    What concerns me the most is that is what you want.
    Russia also intends to propose holding a three-way summit on Syria in Russia with Iran and Turkey.    Keep in mind that Syria is a northern country bordered on Israel, and here we have Russia, Turkey and Iran making decisions of what will occur in Syria, and I see that the King of the North, King of the South, and possibly King of the East are setting up a future of biblical proportions, and the King of the West may be out of this picture as God wanted it to be to snare them when the time comes.
    Russia knows what is going on as the OPEC/USA is keeping oil prices down which is putting pressure on Iran, especially now that sanctions are in full effect.    Putin also began pumping alot of oil since he remembered when Reagan lowered the price of a barrel as low as $20, and they could not buy enough wheat to feed them and that forced Russia to tear down the Berlin wall.    Oil was at $55 a barrel in 2019, so more oil pumped is $25 a barrel profit which he knew what Trump was doing to Iran.
    The U.S. was under the Progressive Socialist Liberal Democrats from 2009 to 2018 as Obama and his Czars slowly behind closed doors implemented their changes to the U.S.A. and controlled the press in such away that we did not know what they were doing until the public caught on in 2014 and elected the Republicans to control the House and the Senate, and in 2016 the Deplorables elected a Republican president Donald J. Trump who is turning it around and being attacked constantly.
    Ukranians have been in the corruption of Oligarchs for so long they cannot tell who is who to believe and do not forget that Hillary, Obama and Joe Biden were part of that mess also and several presidents even used Paul Manafort for that issue to interfere in Ukraines politics.    A new Ukraine president Zelensky who was a comedian is taking over and trying to stop the corruption and the war with Russia over the Crimea, and is helping Trump against the corruption in his area.
    It was good to see that Hungary's Orban, and Poland's leaders have won some respect as those who stands by their beliefs and does not sell their souls to the liberal Geroge Soros prodigees and the EU leftist trying to control everyone.
    The Space Race is on again who can afford it and who will achieve it?
    The end of the year was filled with all the connection of Russia with Turkey, China, North Korea, Ukraine and Syria.     When Trump pulled our troops out of Syria and whether the prophecy below represents the beginning of the events happening in late October 2019 is still to be determined if Daniel 11:40-45 claims it represents the Northern King’s Conquests     Ezekiel 38:1 and 18 or Ezekiel 39:1-8 which states about the entwining of Russia the King of the North and the Mideast Nations and the King of the South into the prophecy above in the very near future as the King of the West has pulled out of this mess which I think Trump made the right call probably due to God's influence.
    The following image below is seen at http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterSix/Psalm83.htm so you can tell by the verses above who are the countries today.
    Well, lets see what happens in 2020.


2020 JANUARY-MARCH

1/1/2019 Austrian conservatives and Greens reach coalition deal, Greens say
FILE PHOTO: Austrian politician Sebastian Kurz speaks during the EPP congress in Arena Zagreb
hall in Zagreb, Croatia, November 21, 2019. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic/File Photo
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday reached a coalition deal with the Greens to ensure his return to power and bring the left-wing party into government for the first time, a Greens spokeswoman and a source close to the talks said.
    The deal comes three months after Kurz’s party clearly won a parliamentary election on Sept. 29 with 37.5% of the vote, requiring a coalition partner to command a majority in the lower house.    The Greens finished fourth with 13.9%.    Kurz and his Greens counterpart will issue statements later in the evening.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by David Gregorio)

1/1/2020 Czech PM would allow higher 2020 budget deficit if slowdown worsens
FILE PHOTO: Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives for the second day of the
European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech government could allow the 2020 central state budget deficit to grow beyond a planned 40 billion crown ($1.77 billion) gap to boost investments if a slowdown worsens, Prime Minister Andrej Babis told Czech Television on Wednesday.
    Babis’ government is planning higher spending in the 2020 budget for pension and public sector salaries and new investment while keeping the deficit target unchanged from 2019.
    Overall public finances, which include the budget along with regional governments and the health insurance system, should end in a slight surplus, according to Finance Ministry forecasts.
    The ministry predicts growth slowing to 2.0% in 2020 from 2.5% seen in 2019.
    Babis told the state broadcaster that a bigger central state budget gap would be allowed if more investment was needed.
    “If the economy slows and the private sector does not invest as much as before, then we will have to compensate for that,” Czech TV cited him as saying.
    The economy has maintained growth, driven largely by strong domestic consumption, but it is predicted to lose some steam next year as weakness abroad, especially in its main trading partner Germany, dents exports.
    The Czech Republic has been one of the best fiscal performers in the European Union in recent years.    But spending rises from Babis’ government have been criticized by many economists and the opposition for leaving little wriggle room in budgets during times of downturn.
    The budget showed a 38.6 billion crown deficit at the end of November, the deepest gap for the 11-month period since 2014.    Finance Minister Alena Schillerova has said the full-year deficit could end at around 30 billion crowns.
    The ministry is due to release 2019 budget data on Friday.
(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Alison Williams)

1/1/2020 Bombings, shootings on the rise in Sweden in 2019 by OAN Newsroom
A view of damaged balconies and windows at a block of flats that were hit by an explosion,
in Linkoping, Sweden, Friday, June 7, 2019. (Jeppe Gustafsson/TT News Agency via AP)
    Sweden ended 2019 with a spike in bombings across the nation, which has prompted concern among security officials. The Crime Prevention Council estimated 236 incidents happened in the first 11 months of last year.    The figure marked a major increase from all of 2018, when 162 incidents were recorded.
    An official with the Swedish Police Authority said bombings and explosions have changed over the past year.
    “The phenomenon of explosives as weapons in conflicts is relatively new,” stated Stefan Hector.    “This means that we have considerable uncertainty as to where the parts for the explosive charges come from.”
A man lays flowers and a candle outside a restaurant, the scene of a shooting on
Saturday, in Malmo, Sweden, Sunday Nov. 10, 2019. (Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency via AP)
    Bombers are reportedly using more homemade explosive devices and attacks are happening in places where more members of the public are put in danger.
    “These are used either to hurt or intimidate, but now there is a new recklessness,” said Hector.    “The bombers are indifferent to the fact that people could be hurt.”
    Shootings have also increased across the country and are being linked to gang violence.

1/1/2020 Austrian conservatives and Greens strike New Year’s coalition deal
Leader of Austria's Green Party Werner Kogler and head of People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz
shake hands after delivering a statement, in Vienna, Austria January 1, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz struck a coalition deal on Wednesday with the Greens to ensure his return to power and bring the left-wing party into government for the first time, three months after Kurz won a parliamentary election.
    The deal marks a swing left for Kurz, whose last coalition was with the far-right Freedom Party.    It also means Austria will join fellow European Union member states Sweden and Finland in having the Greens in government, albeit in a junior role, at a time of growing calls for urgent action on climate change.
    After a final round of coalition talks on New Year’s Day and two days of leaks of new Cabinet members’ names, Kurz and his Greens counterpart said they had struck a deal, as widely expected. They held off, however, on providing details of their plans – those will be presented to the public on Thursday.
    “We have reached an agreement,” Kurz told reporters standing next to Greens leader Werner Kogler.
    The two will become chancellor and vice chancellor of the new government, and the Greens will control just four of 15 ministries, roughly reflecting their performance in the Sept. 29 election, which Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) won with 37.5% of the vote while the Greens came in fourth with 13.9%.
    “It is possible to reduce the tax burden and to ecologize the tax system,” Kurz said, referring to core campaign pledges of each party and hinting at the deal’s contents.    The Greens said they wanted an investment package in environmental measures and to make products that damage the environment more expensive.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)

1/2/2020 Power imbalance in new Austrian coalition shows as deal is unveiled by Francois Murphy
Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen welcomes head of People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz
the presidential office in Vienna, Austria January 2, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    VIENNA (Reuters) – The dominant position of Austrian conservatives led by Sebastian Kurz in their new governing alliance with the Greens was clear on Thursday as they presented a coalition deal heavy on law-and order measures that will displease the Greens’ base.
    Kurz struck a coalition deal on Wednesday with the Greens to ensure his return to power and bring the left-wing party into government for the first time, three months after he won a parliamentary election.
    Their alliance means Austria will most likely join Sweden and Finland in having the Greens in government at a time of growing calls for urgent action on climate change.    Unlike in those countries, however, Austria’s Greens are joining a conservative-led government.    They are also the junior partner.
    “We have very intentionally united the best of both worlds,” Kurz told an event outlining details of the agreement.
    The new alliance is being watched closely in neighboring Germany as a potential model for Angela Merkel’s conservatives.
    “It is possible for the Greens to keep their main campaign pledges and for us,” he said, meaning a hard line on immigration and on “political Islam” for him, twinned with tax cuts and a balanced budget, and environmental measures plus greater transparency in government for the Greens.
    The deal published on Thursday includes measures championed by his previous government in coalition with the far right as Kurz seeks to appeal to his base but also to disgruntled far-right voters after a video sting scandal in May brought down that party’s leader and ended their coalition.
    Kurz emerged relatively unscathed from the scandal, even gaining voters in the Sept. 29 parliamentary election.
    The deal includes raising the age until which girls are banned from wearing a headscarf in school to 14 from around 10, an extension of a policy introduced under Kurz’s last coalition.
    It also includes reviving a disputed plan for preventive custody of potentially dangerous individuals, even if they have not committed a crime, which was put forward under the previous coalition after a fatal stabbing apparently committed by an asylum seeker in February.
    Such measures will be harder for many Greens supporters to swallow than measures such as cutting the corporate tax rate to 21% from 25%.     The coalition deal must still be approved by the Greens’ decision-making body, the Federal Council, on Saturday.
    While few expect the Federal Council to block the deal, immigration and security are likely to be constant sources of friction within the coalition.
ONLY OPTION
    Greens leader Werner Kogler, however, touted successes of his own, such as increasing the tax on flights out of Austria and investments in expanding public transport. The plan includes making Austria climate neutral by 2040.
    “I will let you decide if the proportion – we calculated it – is exactly 1:2.7,” he said, referring to each party’s measures in the deal and their respective vote shares of 37.5% and 13.9%.
    That is also roughly reflected in their share of ministries – the Greens will control four out of 15.
    “Flying will, slightly but still … become more expensive,” Kogler said.    “In the medium term also taking the train will become cheaper.”
    The current tax on flights out of Austria, ranging from 3.50 euros ($3.90) to 17.50 euros per passenger depending on distance, will be replaced by a flat rate of 12 euros.    The existing road toll for trucks will also increase for the most polluting vehicles.
    A more thorough review on establishing “price truth” in carbon emissions will be carried out, to be implemented from 2022, the plan said.
    For Kogler, this was the best deal possible since his party did not have several potential coalition partners as Kurz did.
    “The Greens have only this possibility to put into effect what they … were elected for,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle in Vienna and Michael Shields in Zurich; Editing by Frances Kerry and Giles Elgood)

1/3/2020 U.S. slaps sanctions on Cuba defense minister over support for Venezuela’s Maduro
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on human rights in Iran
at the State Department in Washington, U.S., December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on Thursday on Cuba’s defense minister, accusing him of human rights violations and supporting socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
    Washington blacklisted Leopoldo Cintra Frias, minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba (MINFAR), and his children, Deborah Cintra Gonzalez and Leopoldo Cintra Gonzalez, in its latest action targeting Havana for its support of Maduro.
    Pompeo said MINFAR had been involved in the torture of Venezuelans and subjected them to “cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment for their anti-Maduro stances” alongside Maduro’s military and intelligence officers.
    The designation bars Cintra, a career military officer who joined Fidel Castro’s rebel army in 1957, and his children from entering the United States.
    The Cuban Embassy in Washington could not immediately be reached for comment.
    “As Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, Cintra Frias bears responsibility for Cuba’s actions to prop up the former Maduro regime in Venezuela,” Pompeo said.
    “Dismantling Venezuela’s democracy by terrifying Venezuelans into submission is the goal of MINFAR and the Cuban regime,” Pompeo added.
    The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president.    Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival presidency last year, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham.
    But Maduro retains the support of the military, runs the government’s day-to-day operations and is backed by Russia, China and Cuba.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

1/4/2020 Austria’s Greens overwhelmingly back coalition with conservatives by Francois Murphy
FILE PHOTO: Head of People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz delivers a statement
in Vienna, Austria January 2, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    SALZBURG, Austria (Reuters) – Austria’s Greens on Saturday formally approved a coalition deal with conservatives led by Sebastian Kurz, backing their leader’s argument that it would keep the far right out of power and bring ambitious environmental reforms despite misgivings.
    The parties struck the deal on New Year’s Day, paving the way for Kurz to return to power three months after winning an election and for the left-wing environmentalists to enter government for the first time.
President Alexander Van der Bellen will swear in the new government on Tuesday, his office said.
    The awkward alliance is being closely watched in Germany, where the electoral balance is similar, at a time of growing calls for urgent action on climate change.
    Many Greens have balked at elements of Kurz’s law-and-order agenda, despite their leader Werner Kogler saying the deal had to reflect their party’s smaller share of the vote.    The Greens won 13.9% compared to 37.5% for Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP), whose last coalition was with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).
    “The future is made of courage.    Yes but also of the force of will, of a plan,” Kogler told a party congress whose approval he needed to seal the coalition deal.    He added that it “makes a difference” whether Kurz governs with the Greens or the FPO.
    He received a standing ovation and repeated applause before 93% of delegates backed the deal in a show of hands.
    Kurz has made a hard line on immigration and “political Islam” his trademark, and the deal includes extending a ban on headscarves in schools until the age of 14 from around 10 currently.
    The OVP-FPO coalition collapsed in May when FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught in a video sting offering to fix state contracts.    A provisional government of civil servants has been in place since June.
MAKE IT SO
    The new coalition deal resurrects some of the previous Kurz government’s ideas such as preventive custody for people deemed a threat to public safety, proposed after a fatal stabbing apparently committed by an asylum seeker.
    Many Greens expressed misgivings.
    “It is not enough to say that we blocked the FPO,” Flora Lebloch from the party’s youth wing said, calling Kurz’s OVP “an authoritarian right-wing party
    The dominant mood, however, was one in favor of compromise.
    “Sometimes you have to work with the Klingons,” one delegate from the eastern province of Burgenland said in a Star Trek-themed speech, arguing the party should “boldly go where no Greens have gone before.”
    Another contentious point is that the Greens’ plan to overhaul taxation to better price in planet-warming carbon emissions has been put off until 2022.
    “What will happen in 2022?    I don’t know yet either,” said Kogler.    “But we will work on it and fight for it to move forward.”
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Ros Russell)

1/5/2020 Croats vote to elect new president from candidates of two biggest parties
FILE PHOTO: Presidential candidate Zoran Milanovic speaks on stage after entering the second round of Croatia's
presidential election, at his campaign headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia December 22, 2019. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
    ZAGREB (Reuters) – The polling stations across Croatia opened at 0600 GMT on Sunday for voters to elect the country’s new president in a race pitting the candidates of the two biggest parties.
    In the first round of voting two weeks ago, former prime minister Zoran Milanovic, who is Social Democrats’ candidate, came first among the 11 candidates with 29.6% of votes.    He finished ahead of the incumbent president, the conservative Croatian Democratic Union’s (HDZ) Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic with 26.7%.
    The opinion polls and analysts suggest that the race for the next five-year presidential term, which begins in February, could be tight, although some give a slight advantage to Grabar-Kitarovic.
    “I believe that she has somewhat bigger chances as the Croatian electorate is generally slightly right-leaning.    In any case, this election is a kind of a preliminary stage for the parliamentary election later this year,” said political analyst Zarko Puhovski.
    The polling stations close at 1800 GMT and the first preliminary results will be known around 1900 GMT.
    The presidential role is to a large extent ceremonial as the head of state cannot veto laws, but has a say in foreign policy, defense and security matters.
    Milanovic, who was the prime minister from 2011 to 2015, ran his election campaign on promises that he would fight corruption that he said had intensified since he left power and the conservatives took over.
    The conservatives say Milanovic’s government ran poor economic policy that piled up public debt.
    Croatia, which took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1, is set to hold the next parliamentary election in the autumn.
    In the opinion polls, the ruling HDZ party is slightly ahead of the Social Democrats in popularity.
(Reporting by Igor Ilic. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/6/2020 Putin invites Merkel to Russia to discuss Middle East crisis
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines
of the G-20 summit in Osaka, western Japan, Saturday, June 29, 2019. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Russia on Jan. 11 for talks with President Vladimir Putin on the crisis triggered by the killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike, the Kremlin press service said.
    Merkel will make the trip on the invitation of Putin and they will also discuss the situation in Syria, Libya and Ukraine, it said.
    Merkel’s spokesman said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas would accompany her on the trip.
    Soleimani, viewed as the second most powerful man in Iran, was killed at Baghdad airport last Friday by a U.S. drone.
    The attack has taken long-simmering U.S.-Iranian hostilities into uncharted waters and stoked concerns about a major conflagration.
(Reporting by Andrey Kuzmin in Moscow, Michelle Martin in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/7/2020 Exclusive: Russian clinic treated mercenaries injured in secret wars by Maria Tsvetkova
People walk past the Sogaz International Medical Centre, which treats injured
Russian mercenaries, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, January 6, 2020. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
    ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) – A St. Petersburg clinic that is run and partly owned by people with ties to President Vladimir Putin has provided medical treatment to Russian mercenaries injured abroad, according to three people with knowledge of military contractors being treated, a clinic employee, a reporter’s witness account and company records.
    The previously unreported medical treatment for private military contractors wounded in combat overseas, including in Libya and Syria, shows fighters have received indirect support from the country’s elite even as the Kremlin denies they fight abroad on its behalf.
    Under Russian law, all medical organizations are obliged to report combat injuries to the police for investigation and it’s illegal for a Russian citizen to participate in armed conflict as a mercenary.
    The clinic is owned by large insurance company AO Sogaz, which counts among its senior officials and owners relatives of Putin and others linked to the president, according to the SPARK database, which aggregates data from business registries.
    The clinic’s general director, Vladislav Baranov, also has a business relationship with Putin’s elder daughter, Maria.    Reuters has no evidence of the daughter’s involvement in the treatment of military contractors.
    Reached by phone, Baranov told Reuters: “Forget about our clinics, that’s my advice for you.”    In response to written questions, he said: “I don’t want to communicate with you.”
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We have no information on this at all.”    The defense ministry, Sogaz and Putin’s daughter did not respond to requests for comment.
    Russian private military contractors have clandestinely fought in support of Russian forces in Syria and Ukraine, Reuters and other media have previously reported.    The contractors are recruited by a private military group known as Wagner Group whose members are mostly ex-service personnel.
    Wagner fighters were also deployed in Libya to support eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, according to two former Wagner military contractors.    Haftar is battling against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.
    The Russian state denies it uses mercenaries and has said those fighting in Ukraine and Syria are volunteers.    Putin has said that Russian private military contractors were present in Syria, but that they provided security services and that they have nothing to do with the Russian state or its army and have the right to work in any country as long as they don’t violate Russian law by taking part in combat. [nS8N1YP037]
    Putin, when asked at his annual news conference on Dec. 19 about the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya, said: “Do you believe what Western media report?    Do you believe everything?”    Russia, he added, was in contact with both Libya’s internationally recognized prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and Khalifa Haftar.
    Wagner Group’s founder, Dmitry Utkin, couldn’t be reached for comment.
WOUNDED COMMANDER
    Smoking a cigarette in the clinic’s backyard in late October, Alexander Kuznetsov said he had been to Libya and that Russians there were “fighting international terrorism to protect Moscow’s interests.”    He sported bandages and attached to his arm was a metal device that is an external metal fixation device of the type used to treat complex bone injuries.    He declined to discuss his injuries.
    A former Wagner fighter who was treated at the clinic and another private military contractor, when presented with a photograph of Kuznetsov, identified him as the commander of a Wagner Group assault unit who had been injured while fighting in Libya.    Kuznetsov confirmed he was a private military commander, but didn’t specify for which group.
    The clinic, which opened in 2010, is one of a string of private medical facilities Sogaz has opened across Russia, according to the company’s website.
    The Sogaz clinic has offered services to Wagner fighters since at least 2016, according to the former Wagner fighter who was treated at the clinic.    He said he had been treated for an injury in recent years in the same clinic along with five or six other wounded mercenaries.    He had sustained the injury in Syria, he said.
    Another Wagner contractor had received medical treatment at the Sogaz clinic after also being severely wounded in Syria, his mother told Reuters.
    In both cases, medical services were free of charge for the fighters, the contractor and the mother said.    They said they did not know who covered the expenses.
    The mother said that one of the medical services her son had received cost $10,000, something she learned from medical documents.    Reuters didn’t review these documents and was unable to confirm this.
    Asked who was paying for his treatment, Kuznetsov, the injured commander, also said he did not know.
    Sogaz provides Russian army personnel and members of Russia’s National Guard with life and health insurance, according to an official government database of state contracts.
TIES TO PUTIN
    Putin’s elder daughter is co-founder and a board member of another business that the clinic’s general director Baranov is also general director of, a medical company called AO Nomeko, according to company records in the SPARK database and the company’s website.    Nomeko lists the Sogaz unit that runs the clinic treating mercenaries as one of its “partners” on its website, without providing more specifics.
    She has previously pursued a biomedical career specializing in the endocrine system and did so using a married name, Faassen, Reuters has reported.
    Putin’s daughter now uses Vorontsova as her last name, according to references to her previously published research articles on the website of the medical research institute where she works.
    Maria has not publicly confirmed being Putin’s daughter and the Russian president says little about his family life.
    A police department in charge of St. Petersburg did not respond to a request for comment about whether the clinic had reported treatment of fighters injured overseas.
    Sogaz’s deputy chief executive is Mikhail Putin, who according to local media is a son of one of Putin’s cousins.    The Kremlin has confirmed he is a distant relative of the president.
    A son of another Putin cousin, Mikhail Shelomov, owns a 12.5% stake in Sogaz through a company called Accept, according to official company records.
    Yuri Kovalchuk, whom Putin has publicly referred to as a friend, and his wife hold a stake in Sogaz indirectly, according to company records.    The couple own nearly half of a company that controls 32.3% of Sogaz through another firm called OOO Akvila, the records show.
    And, Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller, who worked at the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s with Putin before he became president, chairs Sogaz’s board of directors, according to the company’s website and company records.
    Mikhail Putin, Shelomov, the Kovalchuks, and Miller didn’t respond to requests for comment about the clinic treating private military contractors injured in combat overseas.    Gazprom declined to comment in response to questions addressed to Miller and Mikhail Putin.
    Akvila and the company the Kovalchuks indirectly hold their stake in Sogaz via couldn’t be reached for comment.
(Additional reporting by Rinat Sagdiev; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low and Andrew Osborn.)

1/7/2020 German Greens cringe at Austrian peers’ coalition deal with Kurz
FILE PHOTO: Austria's designated Chancellor and head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz looks on at the presidential
office during the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Vienna, Austria January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s environmentalist Greens have baulked at concessions their Austrian peers have made on immigration policy to clinch a coalition deal with conservative Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz that puts them in government for the first time.
    Kurz returned to power on Tuesday as his coalition cabinet with the Greens was sworn in.    Austria joins Sweden and Finland in having the Greens in government at a time of growing calls for urgent action on climate change.
    In contrast to those fellow European Union member states, Austria’s Greens are not governing with the center-left, making this an interesting test case. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives could opt for a similar coalition after an election due by next year.
    But Germany’s Greens were quick to take issue with the Austrian coalition deal.
    “There will be no such thing in Germany,” Greens leader Annalena Baerbock told the TAZ newspaper.
    The deal includes raising the age until which girls are banned from wearing a headscarf in school to 14 from around 10, an extension of a policy introduced under Kurz’s last coalition, which was with the far right.
    It also includes reviving a disputed plan for preventive custody of potentially dangerous individuals, even if they have not committed a crime, which was put forward under the previous coalition after a fatal stabbing apparently committed by an asylum seeker in February.
    “This agreement is not a blueprint for Germany,” said German Greens lawmaker Luise Amtsberg, who specializes in immigration policy.
(Writing by Paul Carrel; editing by Nick Macfie)

1/7/2020 Austria’s Kurz back in power with Greens after far-right fiasco by Francois Murphy
Austria's designated Chancellor and head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz looks on at the presidential office
during the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Vienna, Austria January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrian conservative Sebastian Kurz returned to power on Tuesday as his coalition cabinet with the Greens was sworn in almost eight months after his alliance with the far right collapsed in the wake of a video sting.
    The about-face was a political necessity for the 33-year-old, who emerged relatively unscathed and even gained voters after the scandal in which far right leader Heinz-Christian Strache was shown offering to fix government contracts at a dinner party in Ibiza.
    With the far right in disarray after Strache’s resignation, Kurz has formed an awkward alliance with the left-wing Greens, who long railed against his hard line on immigration and “political Islam”     They have struck a coalition deal that twins many of those policies and tax cuts with environmental measures.
    “After Ibiza … and the parliamentary election in autumn, the circle is now closing,” President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Greens leader, said as he swore in the new cabinet, who did not give speeches.    “The carefully rebuilt (public) trust must now be strengthened.”
    Austria joins Sweden and Finland in having the Greens in government at a time of growing calls for urgent action on climate change.
    In contrast to those fellow European Union member states, Austria’s Greens are not governing with the center-left, making this an interesting test case.    German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives could opt for a similar coalition after an election due by next year.
CAN IT LAST?
    Whether the Austrian experiment can last five years until the next scheduled election is likely to depend on whether the Greens can show supporters they obtained enough concrete results from their alliance with an ideological adversary.
    Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) and the Greens have carved up ministries roughly in proportion to their scores in the Sept. 29 parliamentary election, which the OVP won with 37.5% of votes.    The Greens came fourth on 13.9%. The OVP will control ministries including finance, interior and defense.
    The Greens are in government for the first time.
    Many Greens have, however, baulked at measures in the deal including extending a ban on headscarves in schools until the age of 14 and preventive custody for people deemed a threat to public order but who have yet to commit a crime.    It also defers a tax overhaul to better price in carbon emissions until 2022.
    Asked by ORF radio if that timeline was too slow given the wildfires in Australia, Kurz said: “I do not think it is a good idea to turn Austrian politics on its head because of bush fires in Australia.”    He has said tax cuts are his priority this year.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

1/7/2020 Poland’s president says he won’t attend Holocaust event in Israel
FILE PHOTO: Poland's President Andrzej Duda addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly
at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Tuesday he had declined an Israeli invitation to attend a Holocaust memorial event this month as organizers would not allow him to speak there, even though others including Russian President Vladimir Putin would.
    “As the president I will not take part in the event that will take place on Jan. 23 in Jerusalem,” Duda said in a televised speech.
    Duda also expressed dissatisfaction that the representatives of Russia, France, Britain, Germany and the United States would be able to speak at the event, hosted by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, while Poland would not be able to.
    “The inability to speak in regards to this matter is against the interests of the (Polish) Republic,” Duda said.
    Polish leaders have been infuriated by comments made by Putin last month suggesting that Poland shares responsibility for World War Two.
    Putin said Poland – which in September 1939 was invaded first by Nazi Germany from the west and then by Soviet forces from the east – had helped bring disaster on itself by conniving in the previous year in plans to dismember Czechoslovakia, its southern neighbor.
    “There are accusations that are completely counter to historical truth and serve as an attempt to diminish us as a country and to falsify the historical truths of World War Two,” Duda said on Tuesday, responding to Putin’s comments.
    The ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz will take place a few days before Poland holds its own event at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in southern Poland on Jan. 27.
    Millions of Poles – including the vast majority of its large Jewish population – were killed by the Nazis in World War Two.
    Poland was forced to join the Soviet bloc after the war, only regaining its freedom in 1989 as Moscow’s domination of eastern Europe crumbled.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Anna Koper, Editing by Marcin Goclowski and Gareth Jones)

1/7/2020 Russia’s Putin makes rare visit to Syria, meets Assad
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria
in this handout released by SANA on January 7, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS -
THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE
    BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin met Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, the Russian leader’s second trip to Syria since Moscow intervened decisively on the Syrian president’s behalf in the country’s civil war.
    The visit comes at a time of heightened regional tension – Assad’s other main military ally, Iran, has said it will retaliate against the United States for the killing of an Iranian general in a drone strike.
    Qassem Soleimani, who was one of the key figures in Syria’s war as the architect of Iranian military operations in the Middle East, had just arrived in Iraq from Syria when he was killed by a U.S. drone on Friday at Baghdad airport.
    Russian and Iranian support has helped Assad win back nearly all the territory lost to rebels who tried to overthrow him during the civil war that began nearly nine years ago.
    Syrian state news agency SANA showed a photograph of Putin smiling as he shook Assad’s hand and said they had listened to a military presentation by the head of Russian forces in Syria.
    Putin and Assad discussed recent developments in the region and plans to “eliminate terrorism” in the Idlib region, one of the last pieces of Syrian territory held by anti-Assad insurgents, SANA reported.
    Putin also delivered greetings to Russian forces in Syria.
    Accompanied by Assad, Putin visited the Old City of Damascus including, the 8th century Umayyad mosque and an ancient church.
    “I think Putin is there to reinforce the Russian position in Syria and with the person of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially as Iran’s position has been indelibly weakened, since Soleimani was essentially Iran in Syria,” said David Lesch, an expert on Syria.
    Though Iran and Russia worked together to beat back the anti-Assad insurgency, tensions have occasionally surfaced between them on the ground, where analysts say they have been vying for influence.
    Putin is due to hold talks on Wednesday with President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, which has sent forces into much of northern Syria to beat back Kurdish-led forces that had been backed by the United States.
    Putin’s previous trip to Syria was in 2017, when he visited Russia’s Hmeymim air base.
    Putin told Assad that much had been done to restore Syrian statehood, while Assad thanked Putin for his assistance in restoring peaceful life in Syria, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, citing the Kremlin.    Putin will visit several facilities in Syria during the trip, it added.
    Soleimani, the Iranian general killed last week, had played a critical role in supervising Iran-backed ground forces to support the Syrian government during the war and coordinated with Moscow ahead of its intervention in 2015.
(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Polina Devitt in Moscow and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson)

1/7/2020 Poland’s Senate speaker to seek EU advice on judicial reforms
FILE PHOTO: A guard officer walks into the Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland
August 13, 2018. Picture taken August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s Senate speaker will go to Brussels on Wednesday to consult European Union officials over how to limit the damage from Warsaw’s latest clash with its EU partners over reforms of the judiciary.
    The nationalist Polish government rushed draft legislation through the lower house of parliament, or Sejm, last month that would allow the dismissal of judges who question its judicial reforms.
    The European Commission, the EU executive, says the legislation would imperil the rule of law in Poland and has launched legal steps against Warsaw over earlier reforms of the judiciary to try to preserve the independence of courts.
    The Sejm is controlled by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), which says the reforms are necessary to make the judiciary more efficient and effective.
    But the Senate is dominated by the opposition and could redraft or reject the draft law, though the Sejm would still have the power to overturn the Senate’s decision.
    “I am going (to Brussels) out of concern for my country … not following the rule of law and democracy could lead to Poland getting cut off from EU funds,” Senate speaker Tomasz Grodzki, whose position makes him Poland’s most powerful opposition figure, told Reuters.
    “One should do everything to avoid this danger and to make sure this situation doesn’t come to pass.”
    The Commission has warned it could cut funds paid out to EU member states that undermine courts and the rule of law.
    Grodzki said he would meet European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova and that Polish Senate lawyers would consult with Commission experts.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Editing by Marcin Goclowski and Timothy Heritage)

1/8/2020 Denmark to move some of its troops from Iraq to Kuwait
FILE PHOTO: Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen arrives for the NATO leaders
summit in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
    COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Denmark will temporarily move some of its military personnel based at the Iraqi al-Asad base and in Baghdad to Kuwait due to security concerns in the wake of an Iranian missile attack on the air base early on Wednesday.
    Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told reporters on Wednesday that 30 to 40 people out of more than 130 would stay at the base.
(Reporting by Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Alison Williams)

1/8/2020 Russia, Turkey launch new gas line, vow Mideast security by OAN Newsroom
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 2nd right and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, 2nd left, along with Serbia’s President
Aleksandar Vucic, right and Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov left, symbolically open a valve during a ceremony in Istanbul
for the inauguration of the TurkStream pipeline, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
    Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart have inaugurated the dual natural gas line that connects the two countries.    While speaking at the opening ceremony on Wednesday, Putin hailed the ‘Turkstream’ gas pipeline as a symbol of the fruitful cooperation between Russia and Turkey.
    The pipeline will deliver Russian gas through Turkey to customers in southern and southeast Europe across the Black Sea.
    President Putin said Russia’s latest energy deal is a “unique, unprecedented system for transporting gas” that will benefit “the whole world.”
    “We live in a difficult world. Unfortunately, in the region where we are now, there is a serious tendency to aggravate the situation.    But Turkey and Russia show completely different examples, the examples of interaction and cooperation for the benefit of our peoples, the peoples of all of Europe and the whole world.    I’m sure we will act in the same way in the future and we will achieve more success.” – Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center right, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, center, along with Serbia’s
President Aleksandar Vucic, center second right, Bulgarias’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, left of Putin, and Russian
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, second left from Putin, and other officials symbolically open a valve during a ceremony in Istanbul for the
inauguration of the TurkStream pipeline, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
    The two leaders have also held talks in Istanbul, where they discussed bilateral relations as well as several international issues.

1/9/2020 Russia’s Putin oversees hypersonic missile test near Crimea
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony marking the formal launch of the TurkStream pipeline which will carry
Russian natural gas to southern Europe through Turkey, in Istanbul, Turkey January 8, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday oversaw military exercises from a naval vessel in the Black Sea near Crimea, including the test launch of a hypersonic air-launched Kinzhal missile, the Kremlin said.     A pair of MiG-31K interceptor jets test fired the Kinzhal (Dagger) missile at a target on a military test site, the Kremlin said. The exercise involved several navy vessels.     Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has since built up military infrastructure on the peninsula.
    The first public outing of the Kinzhal occurred during a Red Square military parade in May 2018 and was one of several world premieres for Russian weapons.
    Putin disclosed the Kinzhal’s existence in March that same year along with other missile systems he touted as unbeatable, describing how they could evade any enemy defense.,br>     Russian media have said it can hit targets up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles) distant with nuclear or conventional warheads and that the missiles have already been deployed in Russia’s southern military district. (Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Writing by Alexander Marrow and Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

1/9/2020 Boris Johnson “one of Europe’s bravest politicians”: Hungarian PM Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds an international news conference
in Budapest, Hungary, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “one of Europe’s bravest politicians” and the European Union should aim for strong strategic relations with Britain after it leaves the bloc, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday.
    He spoke after chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said a comprehensive agreement on the future relationship between the bloc and Britain would take longer than the 11-month transition period that begins after Britain’s Jan. 31 exit.
    Orban, an anti-immigrant nationalist, has often clashed with EU authorities in Brussels over compliance with democracy standards but has never suggested Hungary should also depart the bloc, from which it receives major annual development funding.
    “I believe a generous and strategic cooperation is needed with the British in the coming period when they are no longer members of the EU,” Orban told a news conference.
    “I regard Boris Johnson one of the bravest European politicians,” he said, adding that “the whole world was against” Johnson and his eurosceptic Conservative Party still won a large majority in December’s national election, ending a long parliamentary deadlock over the terms of Brexit.
    Orban said he believed the EU “misunderstood” the situation if it believed a good set of relations was primarily in the interest of Britain after Brexit, as this was just as much in the interest of the EU’s 27 remaining members including Hungary.
    He said post-EU Britain would be successful and that it had opened a “fantastic door, a fantastic opportunity” for itself.    “I am sure there is a success story in the making there.”
    Budapest’s interest in Britain’s future after Brexit arises in part from the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who work in Britain; London is often cited as Hungary’s second biggest city.
    Britons voted 52%-48% for Brexit in a 2016 referendum, with calls to control immigration one of the major factors in the outcome after over four decades of EU membership.
    Britain will leave the EU at the end of this month but the agreed transition phase means it will remain bound by all the bloc’s rules and pay into the EU budget until the end of 2020.
    Barnier cast doubt on Johnson’s end-of-year timetable for an agreement defining long-term trade and other ties.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/9/2020 Hungary PM says European conservatives losing influence, flags new party grouping
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds an international news conference
in Budapest, Hungary, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The European People’s Party, the European parliament’s umbrella centre-right bloc, is losing influence as it has shifted toward liberal and centrist policies which needs to change, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday.
    “If the European People’s Party is unable to change course, then a new initiative will be needed in European politics, a new direction,” Orban told a news conference.
    “If we cannot achieve this change within the People’s Party, then we will present a new initiative in European party life, because we need to create a counterweight to the rise of (French President Emmanuel) Macron’s movement,” Orban said.
    The EPP suspended membership of Orban’s Fidesz party last year over concern about Orban’s populist anti-immigration campaigns and erosion of the rule of law, freedom of the press and minority rights under his tenure.
    Orban said the question was whether his ruling Fidesz would be able to have an impact on the EPP’s future direction and in the coming weeks this will become clearer.
    Orban, a staunch opponent of mass immigration to Europe from the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, said the EPP should return to its conservative roots on issues of immigration, the traditional family model and the supremacy of national culture.
    He declined comment on whether this meant he would try to forge a new conservative group within the European Parliament, however, he noted that he had met with his Polish ally, ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski this week.
    The EPP has said it would send a group of “wise men” to investigate conditions in Hungary and decide whether to keep Fidesz among its ranks, a process that new EPP Chairman Donald Tusk expects to close by the end of January.
    Orban said he had not seen any document drawn up by the panel and did not know whether such a document existed.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai and Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Toby Chopra)

1/9/2020 Hungary wants EU position on Iran to be closer to U.S. stance: PM
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds an international news conference
in Budapest, Hungary, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary wants the European stance on the U.S.-Iran conflict to be closer that held by the Unites States, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday.
    The European Union’s foreign ministers meet on Friday in Brussels to discuss the Iran crisis, with a focus on easing tensions between Washington and Tehran.
    European Council President Charles Michel said on Thursday he had spoken to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and urged Tehran to comply with a 2015 arms control agreement with world powers to curb its nuclear ambitions.    Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
    Meanwhile U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday urged world powers to quit the accord that Washington abandoned in 2018 and work for a new deal.    Iran has rejected new talks.
    “I would like for the European stance, which is not clear on this Iranian issue, to be oriented toward the Israeli-United States stance,” Orban told a news conference.
    Orban, who has frequently chafed at EU policy, met Trump last year, when Trump lauded him for being tough on immigration, a policy area in which the two leaders have similar visions.    Orban also has warm relations with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
    Orban said conditions were in place to evacuate Hungarian troops from Iraq if necessary.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai and Krisztina Than; Editing by Toby Chopra and Alison Williams)

1/10/2020 Court in breakaway Georgian region annuls contested vote
FILE PHOTO: The president of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, arrives to attend Venezuelan President
Nicolas Maduro's ceremonial swearing-in in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Supreme Court of breakaway Georgian region Abkhazia on Friday overturned a presidential election that had returned the incumbent but triggered rowdy protests.
    The isolated region, which broke away from Georgia after the Soviet Union collapsed, saw protesters on Thursday break into government headquarters to demand the exit of local president Raul Khajimba, who was re-elected in September.
    A majority of lawmakers in the local legislature had voted on Thursday for his resignation, TASS news agency reported.
    On Friday, Abkhazia’s Supreme Court said in a statement it had decided to declare the election results void, reversing an earlier decision to uphold them, following a petition by opposition leader Alkhas Kvitsinia.
    It ruled that a new election must be held.
    Khajimba and his supporters plan to appeal, TASS said.
    Located in the South Caucasus along the coast of the Black Sea, Abkhazia is considered by most nations to be a part of Georgia.    However, Russia recognized its independence and that of South Ossetia region after winning a short war against Georgia in 2008. Russia has troops based in Abkhazia.
    TASS said protesters complained neither candidate had won over 50% of votes in the September election, despite the electoral system requiring an absolute majority.
(Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

1/10/2020 U.S. seeks to squeeze Cuba by further curbing flights to island
FILE PHOTO: People walk at an entrance of the Jose Marti International Airport
in Havana, Cuba, September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/File Photo
    WASHINGTON/HAVANA (Reuters) – The United States is curbing public charter flights to Cuba in a further effort to squeeze the Cuban government’s income, the U.S. State Department said on Friday, prompting an outcry from officials in Havana.
    The Trump administration, in its latest effort to roll back warmer U.S-Cuba ties established by the Obama administration, said it would only let some charters into Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport but did not say how many.
    U.S. officials, in October, banned regularly scheduled flights to all Cuban cities except Havana.
    “Today’s action will further restrict the Cuban regime’s ability to obtain revenue, which it uses to finance its ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its unconscionable support for dictator Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
    Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and other Cuban officials blasted the move, calling it a violation of human rights that would hinder family reunification.
    The flight caps would punish Cubans “on both sides of the Florida Strait,” the foreign ministry’s General Director for U.S. Affairs Carlos Fernandez de Cossio tweeted.
    Republican U.S. President Donald Trump has clamped down on Havana following the historic move by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama to reopen U.S.-Cuba ties. His administration has imposed sanctions over Cuba’s support for Maduro.
    Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in an address to parliament last month, said new U.S. sanctions were being imposed on average every week on top of the decades-old embargo and the country should expect more of the same in 2020.
    “That is a turn of the screw every seven days to suffocate our economy,” he said.
    The State Department said public charter flight operators would have 60 days to wind down their Cuba operations.
    The U.S. Department of Transportation will set an “appropriate cap” of flights allowed to Jose Marti airport and will release more details “in the near future,” Pompeo said.
    Havana’s ambassador in Washington, on Twitter, wrote that the restrictions would push more visitors to “use Cubana Airlines domestic flights or other Cuban companies for local transportation.”    He also the United States was seeking to “limit the amount of people that see CUBA reality by themselves.”
    Nearly 624,000 Cubans living abroad visited their homeland in 2019, of which a record 552,800 were from the United States, Cuba has said.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Marc Frank in Havana; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)

1/10/2020 Venezuela opposition calls on U.S. to step up pressure on Maduro ally Russia by Matt Spetalnick
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attend a meeting
at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia September 25, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition is calling on the United States and other countries to step up pressure on Russia over its support for socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the opposition’s envoy to Washington said on Friday.
    Carlos Vecchio, opposition leader Juan Guaido’s representative to the United States, said Russia’s role backing Maduro economically, diplomatically and militarily was of growing concern as OPEC member Venezuela’s political crisis has dragged on.
    “I request to the international community to hold accountable Russia for what they are doing in Venezuela,” Vecchio told reporters in Washington.    The pressure campaign, he said, should also extend to Russian oil giant Rosneft, which has helped Venezuela market its crude since Washington imposed sanctions on the South American country’s state oil company PDVSA last January.
    Since early last year, the United States and dozens of other countries have recognized Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.
    But Maduro remains in power, backed by the military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.    A senior White House administration official told Reuters in October that President Donald Trump’s frustration over the lack of results had spurred aides to ready further actions.
    Vecchio’s focus on Russia echoes comments by Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s envoy on Venezuela, who told reporters earlier this week that “as the regime has become more and more desperate… they have relied more and more on Russia.”
    Abrams told Reuters in October that the administration was taking a “closer look” at Russia’s role in helping Maduro remain in power.    But since then the United States has not taken any major action against Moscow over its Venezuela ties.
    Vecchio said new steps against Russia, including sanctions, should be also be taken by the European Union and the rest of the international community.
    Moscow has acted as a lender of last resort for Venezuela, with the government and Rosneft providing at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006.
    Guaido invoked the constitution last January to assume a rival presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Maduro has accused Guaido of leading a U.S.-orchestrated coup attempt.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

1/10/2020 Romanian PM says aims to trigger snap election
FILE PHOTO: Newly appointed PM Ludovic Orban during the swearing in ceremony at the Cotroceni
presidential palace, in Bucharest, Romania, November 4, 2019. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS
    BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romanian liberal Prime Minister Ludovic Orban said on Friday he will try to trigger a snap parliamentary election by mid-year in an attempt to restore confidence after years of political instability.
    The European Union state is currently expected to hold local and parliamentary polls in June and late 2020, respectively, with no more elections scheduled after that until 2024. Previous election years have shown policymaking all but stops until lawmakers are sworn in.
    Orban’s minority government came to power in early November after the previous Social Democrat (PSD) cabinet was toppled in a no-confidence vote after three years in power.    His Liberal Party currently leads in opinion polls.
    The Social Democrats’ expansionary fiscal and wage policies have increased Romania’s budget and current account deficits, while changes to judicial legislation seen by Brussels as endangering the rule of law have dented investors’ appetite.
    The PSD remains the country’s largest party, with the most parliamentary seats.
    A snap election can be triggered only if parliament rejects two successive prime minister proposals within sixty days.    Analysts have said such a feat would be extremely difficult with fragmented and polarized parliamentary groupings.
    “Let me be clear, President Klaus Iohannis and I have decided early elections are what is best for Romania,” Orban told reporters after meeting the president.
    He said last year’s European and presidential elections have shown Romanians no longer wanted the Social Democrats in power.
    “Parliament is currently dominated by the PSD, which acts as a brake on the government, and it is necessary that citizens elect their representatives to be a mirror image of their wishes,” said Orban, who declined to comment on how he would trigger snap polls.
    The Romanian leu was flat against the euro.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

1/11/2020 Thousands protest against Poland’s plan to discipline judges
A woman holds Polish an EU flags as she attends a protest against judiciary
reform in Warsaw, Poland January 11, 2020. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Thousands of people, including judges and lawyers from many EU member states, marched through Warsaw on Saturday to protest against what they say are government attempts to curb the powers of the judiciary in Poland.
    Last month Poland’s lower house of parliament approved a draft law that would allow judges who question the government’s reforms to be disciplined.
    The European Commission has said the planned legislation would imperil the rule of law, deepening a standoff with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
    In 2017 the European Parliament invoked Article 7 of its governing treaty against Poland for persistently flouting democratic rules, the first time it had used the procedure.,br>     The latest legislation was drawn up after some judges questioned the independence of peers nominated by a panel set up by the PiS-dominated parliament after nationalists won the 2015 elections.
    PiS says the new law is necessary to make the judiciary more efficient.
    But critics say it will curb the judges’ independence, putting pressure on them to rule in favor of government policies.    Poland’s Supreme Court said in December Warsaw could end up leaving the EU over the dispute.
    Saturday’s protest, tagged as “1,000 Robes March,” was headed by a group of judges wearing robes and carrying banners that read “The right to independence” and “The right to Europe.”
    “It is not usual for us to go out in robes to protest against depriving people from their right to courts,” said Krystian Markiewicz, President of the Polish Judges Association Iustitia, one of the march organizers.
    “We are doing this for the citizens.”
    Judges from 22 European countries, including Germany, France and Spain, participated in the protest, Iustitia said.
    The march started in front of the Supreme Court, passed the president’s office and ended at the parliament building to symbolize the principle of separation of powers, which the organizers say is now under threat.
    “The situation is very serious, at least in our judgment, and that’s why we are herez,” Jose Igreja Matos, President of the European Association of Judges, told Reuters.
    A government spokesman told Reuters: “We believe that the bills that are being adopted in Poland regulate stability of the legal system.”
    Ahead of the march, a PiS spokesman was quoted by private broadcaster TVN24 as saying that judges should not get involved in politics.
    “We’ve come here to support Polish judges.    We are here for the rule of law, not for politics,” John MacMenamin, a judge of the Supreme Court of Ireland, told a press conference ahead of the protest.
    The upper house of parliament where the opposition has a slim majority, could reject the draft legislation, but the PiS-controled lower house would still have the power to overturn any changes.
(This story corrects para 16 to say John MacMenamin is a judge at the Supreme Court of Ireland, not England).
(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko and Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Clelia Oziel)

1/11/2020 Russia’s Putin: Russians fighting in Libya do not represent the state
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in Yalta, Crimea
January 10, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin, asked on Saturday whether mercenaries known as the Wagner Group, were fighting in Libya, said that if there are Russians in Libya, they are not representing the Russian state, nor are they paid by the state.
    Russian private military contractors have clandestinely fought in support of Russian forces in Syria and Ukraine, Reuters and other media have previously reported.    The contractors are recruited by a private military group known as Wagner Group whose members are mostly ex-service personnel.
    The Russian state denies it uses mercenaries abroad.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Frances Kerry)

1/11/2020 Russia’s Putin: time to hold Libya peace talks in Berlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands prior
to the talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 11, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a joint press-conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow on Saturday, said it was time to hold Libya peace talks in Berlin, as it was important to end the conflict in the country.
    Turkey and Russia this week urged Libya’s warring parties to declare a ceasefire on Sunday as warring factions clashed and carried out air strikes in a conflict drawing increasing foreign involvement and concern.
    Merkel said at the same press-conference that Germany plans to start sending out invitations for Libya peace talks soon.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

1/11/2020 German chancellor Merkel says Berlin will host Libya peace talks
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint news conference
in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 11, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Libyan peace talks will be held in Berlin, as Turkey and Russia appealed to the north African nation’s warring factions to enter a ceasefire.
    “We hope that the joint efforts by Russia and Turkey will lead to success, and we will soon send out invitations for a conference in Berlin,” Merkel said on Saturday during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
    She stressed that the United Nations would lead talks if a meeting were to take place in Berlin, and that Libya’s warring parties would need to play a major role to help find a solution.
    The aim was to give Libya the chance to become a sovereign and peaceful country, Merkel said.
    Putin expressed support for the process, saying it was a “timely” idea and necessary to bring the conflict in Libya to an end.
    The comments came days after Turkey and Russia urged Libya’s warring parties to declare a ceasefire.
    Fayez al-Serraj, head of Libya’s internationally recognized government, said he welcomed the peace initiative by Russia and Turkey.
    “The condition is the withdrawal of the attacking party, which does not seem willing to do so,” he said after holding talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome on Saturday.
    Libyan forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said this week they had taken control of the strategic coastal city of Sirte in a rapid advance preceded by air strikes.
    Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army was also considered responsible for a deadly drone attack on a military academy in the capital Tripoli.
    Conte said on Saturday he expressed his “consternation” to General Haftar for the January 4 attack in Tripoli, after meeting him in Rome earlier this week.
    “We are working hard as a government for the immediate goal of a ceasefire and to steer the conflict towards a political solution,” Conte said.
    Turkey backs al-Serraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and has said it will send military advisers and possibly troops to reinforce its support, while Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside General Haftar.
    Asked if he was aware of the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya Putin said: “If there are Russian citizens there, then they are not representing the interests of the Russian state and they are not receiving money from the Russian state.”
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Giulio Piovaccari in Milan; writing Edward Taylor in Frankfurt and Sabine Siebold in Berlin; editing by Alexander Smith and Mike Harrison)

1/11/2020 Putin: Large-scale war in Middle East would be ‘disastrous’ by OAN Newsroom
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a journalist’s question during his and German Chancellor Angela Merkel joint news conference
following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
    Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hopes a large-scale conflict in the Middle East doesn’t happen.    Putin made the comment on Saturday after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He added he has seen small military activities in the region already.
    The Russian leader said he would like to avoid large-scale fighting, which he believes would be a disaster for the Middle East and the world.
    Putin claimed conflict in the region would also lead to additional refugees around the world.
    “It will lead to a new large-scale exodus of people, from the territories of their traditional residence, to new flows of refugees,” he said.    “Not only to Europe, but also to other regions.”
    Putin and Merkel also discussed Iran’s increasing abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal.    They said both sides are pushing Iran to return to the conditions of the joint plan.

1/13/2020 Rival Libyan leaders to hold Moscow peace talks on Monday: news agencies
FILE PHOTO: Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an international
conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Libya’s warring rival leaders will hold peace talks in Moscow on Monday alongside representatives from Russia and Turkey, Russian news agencies cited the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying.
    The talks come after a ceasefire in Libya, initiated by Turkey and Russia, saw a lull in heavy fighting and air strikes on Sunday, though both factions accused each other of violating the truce as skirmishes continued around the capital Tripoli.
    Monday’s Moscow talks will be attended by Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), and by Fayez al-Serraj, who heads the rival Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Russian news agencies reported.
    Russia and Turkey’s foreign and defense ministers would also take part in the talks, the Interfax news agency cited the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying.
    Lev Dengov, the head of the Russian contact group on Libya, said the warring factions would discuss “the possibility of signing a truce and the details of such a document,” Interfax reported.
    Libya, which has been mired in turmoil since the toppling of strongman Muammar Gaddafi, has had two rival governments since 2014.    The conflict between the forces of the two factions has wrecked the country’s economy, fueled migrant smuggling and militancy, and disrupted oil supplies.
    The Russo-Turkish peace push, the latest international attempt to stem the violence, comes more than nine months into an offensive on Tripoli by the LNA led by Haftar.
    Turkey backs Haftar’s rival, Serraj, who heads the Tripoli-based GNA, while Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside Haftar’s LNA forces.
    Asked about those mercenaries, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that any Russian citizens fighting in Libya were not representing the interests of the Russian state or receiving money from it.
    During a visit to Moscow on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin wanted to host Libyan peace talks to build on what she said she hoped would be successful joint efforts by Russia and Turkey to stop the conflict.
(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

1/13/2020 Leader of Georgian breakaway region resigns after protests
FILE PHOTO: The president of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, arrives to attend Venezuelan
President Nicolas Maduro's ceremonial swearing-in in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The leader of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia tendered his resignation late on Sunday following days of protests, the president’s office said.
    Crowds of protesters broke into the president’s headquarters on Thursday and demanded the exit of local president Raul Khajimba, who led the region from 2014 and won a second term in September.
    “The president is resigning the powers of head of state in the name of peace and stability in the country,” the president’s office said in a statement on its website.
    Abkhazia broke away from Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.    Most countries still consider it a part of Georgia, but Russia recognized its independence after winning a short war against Georgia in 2008.    Russia has troops in Abkhazia.
    Vladislav Surkov, an influential Kremlin official, traveled to the isolated region on Sunday and held talks with leaders of the opposition, the RIA news agency reported.
    The local parliament in Abkhazia is expected to formally accept Khajimba’s resignation on Monday and appoint an interim head, the TASS news agency reported.
(This story was refiled to correct misspelling of “tendered” in first paragraph)
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/13/2020 U.S. cancels charter flights to Cuba with exception of Havana by OAN Newsroom
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefs reporters about additional sanctions placed on Iran, at the White House,
Friday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Washington with and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
    The U.S. is sharply reducing flights allowed to Cuba in an effort to reduce revenue to the communist government.    On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a cancellation of all charter flights to Cuba with the exception of capital city Havana.     This comes after the U.S. terminated commercial flights to Cuba late last year.
    Pompeo said the action prevents the Castro regime from using the profits to repress Cuban people.    The secretary continued his stance that the Cuban government is oppressing its citizens as he said when commercial flights were cancelled.     “Sadly, Cuba’s most prominent export these days is not cigars or rum, it’s oppression,” he stated.    “Day talk with the regime has failed…cozying up to Cuban dictators will always be a black mark on this great nation’s long record, of defending human rights.”
    According to the State Department, nine airports in Cuba will be affected and charter companies will have 60 days to discontinue all flights.
FILE – In this Aug. 31, 2016 file photo, airport workers receive JetBlue flight 387, the first commercial flight between the
U.S. and Cuba in more than a half century, holding a United States, and a Cuban national flag, on the airport tarmac in
Santa Clara, Cuba. The Trump administration is banning U.S. flights to all Cuban cities except Havana. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)
    Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called the move a “violation of human rights,” adding that it would hinder family reunification.
    President Trump has expressed his intent to weaken the power of Venezuela’s embattled President Nicolas Maduro, who is backed by Cuba.
    “The Trump administration is committed to helping grow the wave of democracy, good governments and openness, which is steadily building throughout the entire western hemisphere,” he stated.
    Pompeo said the Department of Transportation is expected to set an appropriate cap of flights allowed to enter Havana and will release more details in the near future.

1/14/2020 Russian hackers targeted Ukrainian company at center of impeachment storm: cybersecurity firm by Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter
FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of laptop users are seen next to a screen projection of binary code are seen
in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russian military hackers tried to steal emails from the Ukrainian energy firm where Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, had a seat on the board, a U.S. cybersecurity firm said on Monday.
    Energy company Burisma Holdings Ltd was at the center of attempts by U.S. President Donald Trump last July to pressure Ukrainian authorities to announce an investigation into the Bidens for purported corruption, an effort that has led to the Republican being impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
    California-based Area 1 Security identified the hacking of Burisma and linked it to Russia’s Main Directorate of Military Intelligence, or GRU.    The same hacking group, known as “Fancy Bear” by cybersecurity researchers, breached the Democratic National Committee in 2016 in what U.S. investigators described as part of an operation to disrupt that year’s election.
    “You can see this attack really is starting to parallel with what we saw in 2016,” Oren Falkowitz, Area 1’s chief executive, said in an interview.
    The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.    Officials at the U.S. National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment.
    Burisma did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    A source close to Burisma told Reuters the company’s website had been subject to multiple break-in attempts over the past six months but did not provide further details.
    What data the hackers were looking to steal is not clear, Area 1 said.    Breaching Burisma could yield communications from, to, or about Hunter Biden, who served as a director between 2014 and 2019.    A leak of stolen data could potentially affect the impeachment process and U.S. electoral contest.
    Area 1 said it became aware of the Russian targeting of Burisma after its email security scanning product found suspicious evidence online, including “decoy domains” – websites designed to imitate legitimate email services used by Burisma’s subsidiaries.
    Publicly available domain registration records examined by Reuters show that the hackers created the decoy domains between Nov. 11, the day before U.S. Democrats began their first public impeachment hearings, and Dec. 3, the day before the House Judiciary Committee took up the issue.
    The records show that the same people also registered fake domains for a Ukrainian media company, named Kvartal 95, in March and April 2019.    Kvartal 95 was founded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and multiple employees of the station have since joined his administration.
    Kvartal 95 and representatives for Zelenskiy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
    Area 1’s report said it discovered the GRU had targeted two subsidiaries of Burisma, KUB Gas LLC and Esko Pivnich, as well as CUB Energy Inc, which was affiliated with the firm, using lookalike domains intended to trick employees into providing their email passwords.
    Burisma and its subsidiaries share the same email server, Area 1 said, meaning a breach at any of the companies could expose them all.
    The report gave a limited indication of how Area 1 determined that the lookalike domains were the work of the GRU, pointing mainly to similarities in how the hackers had previously set their digital traps.    Area 1 co-founder Blake Darche said unpublished data gathered by his firm linked the operation to a specific officer in Moscow, whose identity he was unable to establish.
    But Darch said “we are 100 percent certain” that the GRU was behind the hacking.
    An outside researcher, Kyle Ehmke of Virginia-based cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect, who reviewed the malicious domains flagged by Area 1, said based on the information he had seen, he believed “with moderate confidence” that the websites were devised by the GRU
.
    Ehmke said that the hacking operation against Burisma used tools and methods consistent with Russian hackers associated with the GRU, but that a complete picture was lacking.
    Russian spies have routinely targeted Ukrainian energy firms with cyberattacks since Russia threw its weight behind a separatist takeover in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
    Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Joe Biden, did not comment directly on the hack but said in an email: “Any American president who had not repeatedly encouraged foreign interventions of this kind would immediately condemn this attack on the sovereignty of our elections.”
    U.S. intelligence officials have issued warnings that Russia is working to intervene in the November 2020 election.    Trump is seeking reelection and Biden is a potential opponent out of a dozen Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.
    Trump denies he did anything wrong by asking Ukrainian officials to investigate Hunter Biden’s relationship with Burisma.    There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, who reject Trump’s allegations of graft, and officials in his administration have rebuked his claims about them.
(Reporting by Christopher Bing Raphael Satter; Polina Ivanova in Kiev, Ukraine contributed; Editing by Chris Sanders, Grant McCool and Gerry Doyle)
[SINCE I SAW NO OFFICIAL NAMES OF WHO IS MAKING THIS CLAIM I WILL ASSUME THAT THIS IS THE DEEP STATE TRYING TO LEGITIMATE BIDEN’S CRIME OF QUID PRO QUO EXTORTION OF THE EMOULENT CLAUSE OF THE CONSTITUTION BY BRIBING THE UKRANIAN PRESIDENT TO FIRE A PROSECUTOR INVESTIGATING BURISMA WHERE HIS SON HUNTER BIDEN WORKED.    I DO NOT CARE IF IT IS THE RUSSIANS GETTING THE TRUE INFORMATION ABOUT BIDEN AND IF IT PROVES WHAT GUILANI HAS DISCOVERED MORE POWER TO THEM.].

1/14/2020 EU executive may seek injunction against Polish law muzzling judges
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses the European
Parliament in Strasbourg, France, January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission will discuss on Tuesday whether to ask the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court, for an injunction against a Polish law that would allow the ruling party to discipline judges questioning government reforms.
    The European Union has previously argued that the draft legislation would imperil the rule of law and has launched a legal action in defense of Polish courts’ independence.
    “We will discuss the topic today within the ongoing infringement procedure,” Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference before discussions among all EU commissioners in Strasbourg.    “It is a question of intermediate measures to be taken by the European Court of Justice that will be the essence of the debate.”
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski, editing by Robin Emmott and John Stonestreet)

1/14/2020 Hungary’s law on NGO foreign funding is unlawful: EU court adviser
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds an international news
conference in Budapest, Hungary, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Hungary’s law that requires civil organizations to disclose their foreign donors is in breach of European Union rules that protect the bloc’s fundamental rights, a legal adviser to the EU’s top court said on Tuesday.
    The law is part of a series of measures against what the government deems unfair foreign influence that are linked to its feud with Budapest-born U.S. billionaire George Soros.    Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly accused non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by Soros of political meddling.
    The crackdown has led the European Parliament to open a procedure against Hungary for allegedly breaching EU fundamental rights that could lead to the suspension of the country’s voting rights in the EU.
    Tuesday’ opinion, which is not binding on the court but is likely to be upheld in the final ruling, is a new blow to Orban’s government, which is accused in Brussels of limiting its citizens’ rights with a series of laws that could restrict the independence of judges, the media and civil society.
    The law requires civil organizations that receive funding from abroad to disclose in a public online register their foreign funders with donations exceeding 500,000 Hungarian forints ($1,670), once their foreign funding reaches a threshold set by the authorities.
    The legal adviser to the European Court of Justice said the 2017 law violated the principle of free movement of capital within the 28-country bloc because it required disclosure only for foreign funding.
    The law also unduly interferes with fundamental rights, such as the respect of private life and the protection of personal data, as it requires a disproportionate disclosure of donors’ personal information, legal adviser Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona said.
    Opinions of legal advisers are usually reflected in the court’s subsequent rulings.    If Hungary is found to be in breach of EU rules, it must change the law or face the risk of fines.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/15/2020 Putin proposes giving parliament power to choose Russia’s PM
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday he wanted to give parliament the power to choose Russia’s prime minister along with other responsibilities, but said he would like to keep Russia’s strong presidential system in place.
    The comments, at Putin’s state of the nation address, come as observers watch for clues as to how he might reform the political system before 2024 when his current presidential term ends and the constitution requires him to step down.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

1/15/2020 Russian government resigns to allow Putin to change the country’s constitution by OAN Newsroom
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, center left, attend a cabinet
meeting in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP)
    The entire Russian government resigned following President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to change the country’s constitution.    Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced his resignation on Wednesday, shortly after Putin’s annual State of the Nation Address.
    Reports said his departure will pave the way for Putin to implement amendments to shift power from the president to parliament.
    The Russian president stressed the new shift of power will not affect the fundamental bases of the country’s rule of law.    He also said these reforms are necessary to bring the Russian constitution up to date.
    “Of course, you cannot help but agree with those who say that the Russian constitution was adopted over a quarter of a century ago already,” stated President Putin.    “The state of affairs since then has changed drastically.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the State Council in Moscow, Russia,
Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP)
    Reports suggested Putin’s proposal will help him maintain power as prime minister when his fourth presidential term ends in 2024.
    “Russia is facing pivotal and historical challenges,” he said.    “Everything must be ultimately decided by the people.”
    The Russian president said changes to the constitution will be put up to a national vote soon.    He has also nominated Mikhail Mishustin, Head of the Federal Taxation Service, to take over as Prime Minister.

1/16/2020 Russia’s prime minister, entire Cabinet resign by Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
    In a surprise move, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned along with the country’s entire Cabinet, Russian state news agency Tass reported Wednesday.
    Medvedev made the announcement after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin unveiled a series of constitutional changes that Medvedev said would alter the country’s balance of power.    Medvedev is a longtime close Putin ally.    He has served as Russia’s prime minister since 2012. Before that, he spent four years as president, 2008-12.
    Mikhail Mishustin, the head of Russia’s tax agency, was named the new prime minister.
    Tass said Putin thanked Medvedev for his service but noted that the prime minister’s Cabinet failed to fulfill all the objectives set for it.    The news agency said Putin plans to name Medvedev as a deputy in Russia’s Security Council.    It was not immediately clear whether Putin asked for Medvedev to go and if his role in the Security Council – which he accepted – is a promotion or a demotion.     Putin, who has been in power in Russia for more than two decades, is a former KGB officer who rose out of the shadows of Russia’s intelligence agencies when it was still the Soviet Union.    Medvedev’s resignation could be a sign that Putin wants to try to extend his 20year rule after his term of office formally expires in 2024.
    Putin also previously served as Russia’s prime minister.    When he swapped jobs with Medvedev in 2012, the move sparked large-scale protests in Russia.
    Late last year, Putin hinted at possible constitutional amendments to redistribute powers among the president, the Cabinet and parliament.    He didn’t specify what changes could be made.    However, the announcement was viewed as a sign that he intended to curtail the prime minister’s powers and continue ruling as president.
    Under Russia’s existing constitution, Putin would not be entitled to seek another presidential term in four years’ time.    Russia’s constitution only permits presidents to serve two consecutive terms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev meet
with members of the government in Moscow on Wednesday. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

1/16/2020 Russia’s ruling party approves Mishustin as PM: aide to parliament speaker
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, on Thursday unanimously approved Mikhail Mishustin’s candidacy as prime minister ahead of a formal parliamentary vote, Anastasia Kashevarova, an aide to parliament’s speaker said on social media.
    Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is expected to vote on Mishustin’s candidacy later on Thursday. United Russia has a majority in the Duma.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes the day before that would give him scope to extend his grip on power after leaving the presidency, and picked Mishustin as prime minister after Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet stepped down.
(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

1/16/2020 Putin shake-up could keep him in power past 2024 as cabinet steps aside by Andrew Osborn and Vladimir Soldatkin
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes on Wednesday that would give him scope to extend his grip on power after leaving the presidency, and picked a new prime minister after Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet stepped down.
    Most importantly, Putin suggested diminishing the powers of the presidency and beefing up those of the prime minister.
    The dramatic moves were widely seen as preparing the ground for 2024, when Putin, now 67, is obliged to leave the presidency after occupying the Kremlin or the prime minister’s job continuously since 1999.
    Putin nominated Mikhail Mishustin, 53-year-old head of the tax service, as the next prime minister.    Mishustin, who will be quizzed by parliament on Thursday, has played ice hockey with Putin but has little public profile and had not been spoken of as a possible candidate.
    He will inevitably be viewed as a possible successor to a shrunken presidency, as will members of his cabinet, many of whom are expected to be new to government.
    Critics have long accused Putin, a former KGB officer, of plotting to stay on in some capacity after his term ends to wield power over the world’s largest nation – and one of its two biggest nuclear powers.
    His proposals, which he suggested should be put to a referendum, would give him the option of taking an enhanced role as prime minister after 2024 or a new role as head of the State Council, an official body he said he was keen to build up.    He could even become speaker of a new, supercharged parliament.
    Opposition politician Leonid Volkov said it looked as though Putin was digging in.
‘LEGAL COUP’
    “It’s clear to everyone that everything is going exclusively towards setting Putin up to rule for life,” he wrote on social media.
    Dmitry Gudkov, another opposition politician, said Putin, re-elected last year for his fourth term, had decided to re-arrange everything around him now rather than wait until closer to 2024.
    “Constitutional coups like this occur and are completely legal,” wrote Gudkov.
    Under the current constitution, which sets a maximum of two successive terms, Putin is barred from immediately running again, but his supporters find it hard to imagine Russian political life without him.
    It was unclear when a referendum on the changes might be held or when the changes could take effect, but Putin told the political elite in his annual state-of-the-nation speech that he wanted the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, to have the power to choose the prime minister and other key positions.
    “It would increase the role and significance of the country’s parliament … of parliamentary parties, and the independence and responsibility of the prime minister,” he said.
    Hours after Putin set out the changes in his annual state-of-the-nation speech, Medvedev said he was stepping down as prime minister to give Putin room to carry out his plans.
    Putin thanked Medvedev, a longtime ally, for what he had achieved, adding, perhaps with an eye on complaints about Russia’s listless economy: “Not everything worked out of course – but then, nothing ever works out totally.”
    Putin said Medvedev would take on a new job as deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, which Putin chairs.
DOMESTIC AGENDA
    Putin remains popular with many Russians who see him as a welcome source of stability, even as others complain that he has been in power for too long, that their pensions and standard of living are being steadily eroded, and that poverty is widespread and healthcare poor.
    Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Putin appeared to be moving to limit the power of a presidential successor.
    Trenin also tweeted: “Mikhail #Mishustin’s elevation to Russia’s PM is designed to get more competent leadership in Cabinet, which will have to focus on all-important domestic agenda.    Medvedev’s career isn’t over, Putin still needs him in transition scenario. He remains what he’s always been: (Putin’s) alter ego.”
    Medvedev’s resignation took Russian markets by surprise.    The rouble and stocks suffered sharp losses before rebounding to make gains amid the uncertainty.
    “In a nutshell, we take this announcement as an attempt by Putin to shake up Russia’s polity and refocus the administration on implementing the president’s well-telegraphed but slowly progressing public spending program,” Citi said in a note.
    The rouble dropped to 61.81 to the dollar after the news reports about the government but soon regained ground to stand little changed at 1800 GMT.
    Against the euro, the rouble briefly dropped to 68.86, but recovered to stand 0.3% higher at 68.58 by 1810.
    The dollar-denominated RTS share index <.IRTS> fell 1% on the day minutes after the resignation reports, but rebounded to finish 0.17% lower.    The rouble-based MOEX Russian share index <.IMOEX> closed up 0.1%.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin, Maria Tsvetkova, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, Polina Ivanova and Andrey Kuzmin; editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

1/16/2020 Russian parliament backs Putin’s pick for PM after ‘January Revolution’ by Andrew Osborn and Anton Zverev
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian parliament overwhelmingly backed President Vladimir Putin’s surprise choice for prime minister on Thursday after what one daily called a “January revolution,” a major political overhaul that some say could set Putin up as leader for life.
    The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, gave its backing to Mikhail Mishustin, a 53-year-old with almost no political profile, endorsing his nomination with 383 votes of 424 cast.    Nobody voted against him; there were 41 abstentions.
    Mishustin, who has headed the country’s tax service and played ice hockey with Putin, said he would name his cabinet in the near future.    Putin signed a decree appointing him prime minister soon afterwards.
    His elevation is part of a sweeping shake-up of the political system announced by Putin on Wednesday, which led to the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister along with his government.
    The changes are widely seen as giving Putin, 67, scope to extend his grip on power once he leaves the presidency in 2024.    He has dominated Russian politics, as president or as prime minister, for two decades.
    The sudden and radical overhaul cements Putin’s control of the transition process and is seen by some as an attempt to reduce intra-clan infighting between now and 2024.
    The abrupt departure of Medvedev’s government also allows Putin to show he is responding to public discontent after years of belt-tightening and an unpopular pension age hike.
    Medvedev, head of the government since 2012, has been a lightning rod for Russians’ frustrations overseeing an economy buffeted by a 2014-16 downturn, Western sanctions and swings in the price of oil, Russia’s life blood.
    Real wages have been falling for over five years and have gradually eroded the government’s popularity ratings, raising the prospect they could start bleeding into Putin’s own ratings, analysts and critics of the Kremlin said.
    That was seen as a concern for the Kremlin ahead of a parliamentary election next year and as something that could make a smooth transition for Putin harder to achieve.
    “There were large suspicions that if this stagnation continued and everything remains as it is, then the make-up of the new (parliament) would be considerably less friendly towards the Kremlin,” said Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at the BCS Financial Group.
    Critics have long accused Putin, a former KGB officer, of plotting to stay on in some capacity after his term ends to continue to wield power over the world’s largest nation, which is also one of its two leading nuclear powers.
    The constitutional reform proposals, which he set out on Wednesday and suggested should be put to a referendum, would give him the option of taking an enhanced role as prime minister after 2024 or a new role as head of the State Council, an official body he said he was keen to build up.
    Putin on Thursday held a meeting with a working group he set up to consider his proposals.    He gave it around a month to finish its work, Russian news agencies reported.
PUTIN TO “RULE FOR LIFE”?
    Opposition politician Leonid Volkov said it looked as though Putin was digging in.
    “It’s clear to everyone that everything is going exclusively towards setting Putin up to rule for life,” he wrote on social media.
    A senior U.S. official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter said Putin had too much to lose by giving up power altogether.
    “I cannot imagine him leaving power, whether that is in government or not.    He is going to be protecting himself and his wealth and his authorities, guaranteeing his security,” said the official.
    It was not unusual for authoritarian leaders to shuffle the people around them, said the same official.
    “If you look at other long-term leaders who have behaved like Putin in terms of authority and control, they often replace their teams … they develop new cadres,” he said.
    The Kommersant business daily on Thursday called Putin’s shake-up “the January revolution.”    The proposals looked, Kommersant wrote, like the start of many more changes to come.
    Under the current constitution, which sets a maximum of two successive terms, Putin is barred from immediately running again for the presidency in 2024, but his supporters find it hard to imagine Russian political life without him.
    Putin remains popular with many Russians who see him as a welcome source of stability, even as others complain that he has been in power for too long.
    Andrei Kolyadin, a former employee at the Russian presidential administration, told Reuters in an interview that Putin could morph into a national leader, possibly heading up the beefed up State Council, and help his presidential successor navigate the system he built.
    “If (by 2024) there has not been a revolution in which everyone dies … then of course the person who managed this system (Putin) will keep influence over it regardless of whether he is inside the system or even in retirement,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Alexander Marrow, Polina Ivanova, Maria Kiselyova,Katya Golubkova and Tom Balmforth in Moscow and by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

1/16/2020 Mikhail who?    Weary Russians welcome change of prime minister by Tom Balmforth and Anton Derbenev
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Few people on the streets of Moscow on Thursday had heard of Mikhail Mishustin, the former Federal Tax Service chief plucked from relative obscurity by President Vladimir Putin this week to serve as new prime minister.
    But many welcomed the abrupt exit of his long-time predecessor and said sweeping changes at the top had been a long time coming in a country where people are fed up with a stagnant economy that has hit them in their pockets.
    “Our authorities aren’t completely stupid, they understand some changes are needed,” said theater actor Artyom Dadyvov, 22.
    Dmitry Medvedev, the outgoing prime minister, has presided over the economy since 2012, a turbulent period that saw real wages start to fall after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and living standards eroded as prices rose.
    “If this had all continued it would have meant serious stagnation and there could have been some kind of revolution and the tsar could be toppled,” said Davydov, using the Russian term for monarch to describe Putin.
    People’s yearning for change may help explain why Putin replaced Medvedev, a close ally and protege, but one whose public approval ratings have been on a downward slide since 2014.
    “They need to demonstrate stark changes, social promises, care for people, the end of stagnation.    And to demonstrate it in such a way that people take it seriously,” said Leonid Volkov, an opposition politician.
    Analysts said Medvedev, a former president, had become a political liability and his exit helps create the impression of real change.
DETACHED IMAGE
    Medvedev was dogged by allegations of graft, which he denied, and lampooned by the Russian media for allegedly falling asleep during Putin’s speeches.
    “Many people were fed up with him and thought he was an incompetent,” said Vladimir Petrov, 42, an editor at a television station.
    Many say a throwaway comment Medvedev once made – telling a group of old women in a Russian province to “hold on” after saying to them there was no money left to solve their problems – symbolised his sometimes detached image.
    Bespectacled and balding, 53-year-old Mishustin cut a schoolmasterly air as he fielded questions on Thursday in parliament, where lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to back his appointment.
    Some Russians had been hoping for someone a bit younger.
    “The new generation should come into politics, people aged 40-45 should be in government and in the presidency, like Putin was when he had just come to power,” said Natalia Zhukova, 50, a doctor by profession.
    Some Russians dismissed Putin’s shake-up on Wednesday – the entire Cabinet stepped down in addition to Medvedev – as meaningless cosmetic change.
    “They (the authorities) don’t love the people, that’s the problem.    Look at how poor people have become,” said Vladimir Yatsenko, 69.
(Editing by Frances Kerry)

1/16/2020 Ukraine asks FBI to help probe suspected Russian hack of Burisma by Ilya Zhegulev
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine has asked the FBI in the United States for help to investigate a suspected cyberattack by Russian military hackers on Burisma, an energy company caught up in the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump.
    The Ukrainian interior ministry on Thursday also announced an investigation into the possible illegal surveillance of the then American ambassador to Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch, following the release of encrypted messages this week by the U.S. Congress as part of the impeachment case.
    Burisma Holdings was at the center of attempts by Trump last July to persuade Ukraine to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden, who is the son of Democratic U.S. presidential contender Joe Biden and used to have a seat on the Ukrainian company’s board.
    Trump’s efforts have led to the Republican being impeached on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.    The president, who denies wrongdoing, faces a trial at the U.S. Senate that could have consequences for his efforts to seek a second term in a November election.
    California-based cybersecurity company Area 1 Security on Monday identified the hacking of Burisma and linked it to Russia’s Main Directorate of Military Intelligence, or GRU.
    The same hacking group, known as “Fancy Bear” or “APT28” by cybersecurity researchers, breached the Democratic National Committee in 2016 in what U.S. investigators described as part of an operation to disrupt that year’s election.
Russia’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment about Area 1 Security’s assertions.
    “It is noted that the hacking attack was probably committed by the Russian special services,” Ukrainian interior ministry official Artem Minyailo said at a briefing.
    Minyailo said Ukraine had asked the FBI and Area 1 Security for assistance regarding information that hackers stole personal employee data and emails from executives at Burisma and other companies.    These other companies included the media production company of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he said.
    Zelenskiy was a comedian and actor before going into politics.
    There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, who reject Trump’s allegations of corruption.
    “The national police has initiated the creation of a joint international investigation team, to which FBI representatives have already been invited by the ministry,” Minyailo said.
    The U.S. Department of Justice referred Reuters questions to the FBI, which declined to comment. The U.S. Department of State did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
    Asked whether Trump would bring up the reported hacking of Burisma the next time he met Russian President Vladimir Putin, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters: “Sure, maybe he will.    But again I think any time you mention Burisma, if you really care about investigations, if you really care about the truth, then let’s dig into Burisma.”
YOVANOVITCH SURVEILLANCE PROBE
    A leak of stolen data could potentially affect the impeachment process and the 2020 U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3.
    What data the hackers were looking to steal is not clear, Area 1 said. Breaching Burisma could yield communications from, to, or about Hunter Biden, who served as a director between 2014 and 2019.
    A source close to Burisma told Reuters earlier this week the company’s website had been subject to multiple break-in attempts over the past six months but did not provide further details.
    Ukraine’s cyber police said they had not formally received any request from Burisma for help.
    Ukrainian officials said they were also probing allegations that Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, was subject to illegal surveillance before Trump fired her in May.
    These allegations surfaced in messages which were released on Tuesday as the U.S. Senate prepared to begin the trial of Trump, who has denounced the impeachment process as a partisan sham.
    U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN on Thursday he had sent a letter to the State Department seeking an immediate briefing.
    “I’m looking for a vigorous investigation of what went on here,” he said.
    A batch of documents released included encrypted messages between Florida businessman Lev Parnas and Robert Hyde, a Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut, disparaging Yovanovitch and apparently providing updates on her movements in Kiev.
    Hyde denied wrongdoing, saying on Twitter he had never been in Kiev.
    Interior ministry official Denys Lenets said at the briefing that Ukraine’s position was not to interfere in U.S. domestic affairs, but added: “Ukraine cannot ignore such illegal activities on the territory of its own state.”
(Reporting by Ilya Zhegulev, Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Susan Heavey, Steve Holland, Lisa Lambert, Humeyra Pamuk and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Pravin Char)

1/16/2020 Ukrainian government looking into threats against former Amb. Yovanovitch by OAN Newsroom
FILE – In this file photo dated Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies
before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, FILE)
    The Ukrainian government is looking into alleged threats against former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.    Officials announced the probe on Thursday, which will look into comments made by Rudy Giuliani’s associate, Lev Parnas, and congressional candidate Robert Hyde.
    In text messages, which were recently released by the House, Hyde suggested Yovanovitch was under surveillance by unknown individuals.    He has refuted the allegations of a nefarious motive behind the texts.
    During a recent interview, Parnas said he did not believe Hyde’s remarks.
    “I didn’t take it seriously.    If you see, I didn’t even respond to him most of the time.    I didn’t want him to get rowdy, if I saw him next time, and say, ‘Oh, why didn’t you type a response?’    I would just amuse him until eventually, as you can see, I cut him off.” – Lev Parnas, indicted businessman.
FILE – In this Dec. 2, 2019, file photo, Lev Parnas arrives at court in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
The Ukrainian probe will determine if these communications were a violation of Ukrainian and, possibly, international law.

1/17/2020 Russia claims Iran shot down civilian plane after it was alerted that U.S. fighter jets were in the region by OAN Newsroom
In this photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left,
and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, attend the talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and Turkish Defense
Minister Hulusi Akar, in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)
    Russia’s foreign minister said Iran was on the lookout for stealth U.S. fighter jets at the time it wrongly shot down a Ukrainian airliner.    While speaking Friday, acting Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed Iran was under the impression at least six U.S. fighter jets were above Tehran when it struck down the civilian plane.
    The Russian official also claimed the country was expecting a second attack from the U.S. at the time.    Lavrov admitted some details of the situation are still murky, but added that he is not excusing Iran for its actions.
    “There is information that the Iranians were expecting another attack from the United States after the strike, but did not know what form it might take,” he stated.    “There were at least six (U.S.) F-35 fighters in the air in the Iranian border area (at the time)…this information has yet to be verified, but I’d like to underline the edginess that always accompanies such situations.”
Mourners attend a memorial, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, in North Vancouver, British Columbia, to remember Canadian victims in
the deadly downing of a Ukrainian airliner the week before, in Iran. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
    Many Iranian citizens have called for the resignation of those responsible for the plane strike, which killed all 176 passengers and crew onboard.    Despite their calls and regardless of global scrutiny, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently told his people enemies are using the downing of the plane to overshadow the death Iranian Gen. Qasem Solemani.
[YOU CANNOT JUSTIFY STUPIDITY WHAT IF TRUMP HAD BOMBED IRAN THEY WOULD HAVE ACCUSED HIM OF EVERY CRIME IN THE BOOK.    EXCEPT YOUR PUNISHMENT IRAN.].

1/18/2020 Hundreds of Serbians march in capital, demand action on air pollution by OAN Newsroom
A man walks on the bank of Sava river in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
    Serbians are taking to the streets of the country’s capital to demand officials do more to tackle air pollution.    On Friday, several hundred protesters, donning surgical masks and respirators, gathered in Belgrade to demand change.
    Experts said fumes from aging cars and the country’s heavy reliance on coal burning power plants have contributed to its record breaking levels of air pollution.
    Recent data ranked Belgrade the world’s fifth most air polluted city, surpassing Delhi and Beijing.
    “I am here to express my fear about the air pollution situation.    I think people need to go out and say that this is an alarming situation, that it has never been so terrible to see the air.    The number of air polluting particles is alarmingly high and there are measures to reduce it.” – Ivana Vuinovic, protester
A man wearing a face mask attends during a protest against the high levels of air pollution
in Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
    Serbia is a candidate to enter the European Union, but its entry could be delayed due to its air quality.    The levels of pollution in the country fall short of EU environmental standards.
    A UN report last year estimated people in the region are losing 1.3 years from their life span due to air pollution.
A girl walks across a bridge in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

1/18/2020 Despite shake-up, Putin rejects idea of Soviet-style leaders for life by Andrew Osborn
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a 3D panorama 'Memory speaks. The road through the war'
in St.Petersburg, Russia, January 18, 2020. Dmitri Lovetsky/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday he did not want Russia to return to the late Soviet-era practice of having lifelong rulers who died in office without a proper succession strategy.
    His comments, made to World War Two veterans in St Petersburg, came days after he unveiled a sweeping shake-up of the political system which led to the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister along with his government.
    Putin, in a surprise move, picked Mikhail Mishustin, the low-profile head of the country’s tax service, as the country’s next prime minister.    Russians are now waiting to hear which ministers will keep their jobs in a new government.
    Putin’s changes, which would amend the constitution to create new centers of power outside the presidency, were widely seen as giving the 67-year-old scope to extend his grip on power once he leaves the presidency in 2024.    He has dominated Russian politics, as president or as prime minister, for two decades.
    Critics accuse Putin, a former KGB officer, of plotting to stay on in some capacity after his term ends.    They suspect he wants to continue to wield power over the world’s largest nation, which is also one of its two leading nuclear powers.
    In his comments on Saturday, Putin, who has already said he wants to limit future presidents to two terms in power despite currently serving out his fourth term himself, rejected the idea of Russian presidents for life.
    Asked by a war veteran on the occasion of the 77th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad if it was time to abolish term limits for presidents altogether, Putin said: “As regards (presidential) terms for staying in power I understand … that (concern over this) is linked for many people with worries about societal, state and domestic and external stability."
    “But it would be very worrying to return to the situation we had in the mid-1980s when state leaders stayed in power, one by one, until the end of their days and left office without ensuring the necessary conditions for a transition of power.    So thanks, but I think it would be better not to return to that situation.”
    The late Soviet period was characterized by a series of elderly leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko who all died in office, sparking a scramble by others to grab power.
    Putin’s comments are likely to be seen as reinforcing the idea that he plans to exit the presidency in 2024 as per the current constitution, but are unlikely to appease critics who think he’ll find a way to continue wielding influence behind the scenes in a different enhanced role.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn, editing by Christina Fincher)

1/20/2020 Russian opposition wants big protest over Putin’s plan to ‘rule for ever’
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting to prepare amendments to the Russian constitution at
Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia January 16, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition said on Monday it planned to stage a big protest next month against President Vladimir Putin’s proposed constitutional changes, which it cast as a ploy for Putin to rule for life.
    Putin, in a surprise move, last week unveiled a sweeping shake-up of the political system which led to the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister along with his government.
    Putin’s changes, which would amend the constitution to create new centers of power outside the presidency, were seen by many as giving the 67-year-old scope to extend his grip on power once his term expires in 2024.
    Opposition politician Ilya Yashin on Monday announced what he said were coordinated opposition plans for a protest march against Putin’s initiative on Feb. 29 in Moscow.
    “Society needs a big and genuinely mass protest,” wrote Yashin, who said Putin’s changes amounted to a move to “rule for ever.”
    “It will be a political march, the main aim of which will be to call for the rotation of power and to protest against the usurpation of power,” said Yashin.
    Yashin said the protest, permission for which he said would now be requested from the Moscow authorities, had the support of a wide range of anti-Kremlin groups including opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
    Navalny publicized Yashin’s message on social media.
    Putin has dominated Russian politics, as president or as prime minister, for two decades.    His proposed changes, which are set to be put to a nationwide vote on an as yet unspecified date, have not so far triggered major protests.     Over 1,000 people marched through Moscow on Sunday in an event one Kremlin critic tried to turn into a protest against the reforms, but many demonstrators chose to voice dissent about other issues instead.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

1/20/2020 Ukraine to press for plane crash black boxes as Iran minister visits by Pavel Polityuk
FILE PHOTO: General view of the debris of the Ukraine International Airlines, flight PS752, Boeing 737-800
plane that crashed after take-off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran
January 8, 2020 is seen in this screen grab obtained from a social media video via REUTERS
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine will press Iran to hand over the black boxes from the crash of a Ukrainian passenger plane at a meeting with a visiting Iranian delegation on Monday, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko told reporters.
    Ukraine would convey the message to visiting Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mohammad Eslami, that returning the black boxes would show that Iran wanted an unbiased investigation of the crash, Prystaiko said.
    “His main task is to apologize and acknowledge what happened. We hope that we can go a little further than just political discussions and discuss practical problems.    Among them in particular is the return of the black boxes,” Prystaiko said.
    Iran had said on Sunday it was trying to analyze the black boxes from the airliner its military shot down this month, denying an earlier report it would hand them to Ukraine. All 176 aboard the flight died.
    “At first they stated that they were handing them over, then the same person stated that they were not handing them over.    This created some misunderstanding in Ukraine and we were starting to be asked: are they being handed over or not?
    Many of those killed had were Iranians with dual citizenship, but Iran does not recognize dual nationality and on Monday said it would treat the victims as Iranian nationals.
    Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, said there were still no firm plans for downloading the recorders.    Ottawa and other capitals have called for the black boxes to be sent abroad.
    The Jan. 8 plane disaster has heightened international pressure on Iran as it grapples with a long-running dispute with the United States over its nuclear program and its influence in the region that briefly erupted into open conflict this month.
    The Iranian military has said it downed Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 in error in the aftermath of tit-for-tat strikes by the United States and Iran.    But authorities delayed admitting this, prompting days of protests on Iran’s streets.
    Ukraine held a ceremony at Kiev’s Boryspil airport on Sunday as the bodies of 11 citizens, including nine crew, were returned to Ukraine.
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle)

1/20/2020 Ukraine Foreign Minister: Black boxes from downed airliner belong to Ukraine, demand they be returned by OAN Newsroom
Relatives hold photos of the soldiers killed as they defended Donetsk airport in 2014-15 in a war conflict with Russia-backed
separatists during a commemorating ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 20, 2019. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
    Ukraine’s foreign minister said he will press a visiting Iranian delegate to return the black boxes from the plane that was shot down earlier this month.    Representatives from Ukraine and Iran are reportedly set to meet Monday with Iran acknowledging and apologizing for downing the passenger jet.
    While speaking to reporters, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said he hopes the meeting goes further than just political discussions and into “i>practical problems.”    He noted the boxes ultimately belong to Ukraine.
    “Unfortunately, at first they stated that they were handing the black boxes over, then the same person stated that they were not handing them over,” Prystaiko explained.    “This created some misunderstanding in Ukraine and we were starting to ask: are they being handed over or not?
Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystayko gestures while speaking to the media during a news conference
in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Prystaiko said that Ukraine will demand compensation from Iran if it’s confirmed that the
Ukrainian airliner that crashed near Tehran this week was downed by an Iranian missile. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    On Sunday, Iran said it was analyzing the black boxes and denied an earlier report suggesting it was preparing to hand them over to Ukraine.    Canada has also pressed Iran to hand the boxes over to either Ukraine or France.

1/20/2020 Cuban tourism sector braces for further drop in U.S. visitors by Mario Fuentes
Tourists walk in Trinidad, Cuba January 17, 2020. Picture taken January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer
    TRINIDAD, Cuba (Reuters) – In the colonial Cuban city of Trinidad, handicrafts shop owner Lourdes Milan says she has already slashed prices due to the drop in U.S. visitors following Washington’s tightening of sanctions and she’s worried the situation will worsen this year.
    Trinidad, a five-hour drive east of Havana, was one of the top destinations for the Americans that poured into Cuba after the Obama administration eased decades-old restrictions on travel to the island during a short-lived 2014-2016 detente.
    But the number of U.S. visitors dropped by 21.9% last year after the Trump administration tightened those restrictions again and banned the recently re-instated cruises, according to data published this month in Cuban state magazine Excelencias.
    The U.S. visitors number will likely drop again this year due to new U.S. curbs on U.S. flights to Cuba that have come into effect since December.
    “We are reducing prices to the minimum because there is very little tourism,” said Milan, who had not sold a single product by midday despite January being high season for tourism in Cuba.
    The total number of visitors to the island dropped by 9.6% last year to 4.275 million, according to Excelencias.
    Slight rises in arrivals of Cubans living abroad and Canadians were unable to compensate for the double-digit decline in U.S. visitors – mostly via cruise ships – and a smaller drop in European tourists.
    Paolo Spadoni, associate professor in the department of social sciences at Augusta University in the state of Georgia, said the full impact of the U.S. ban on cruises would be felt even more this year, as it was implemented last June.
    Moreover, the Trump administration barred U.S. airlines from flying to all destinations in Cuba besides Havana in December and announced this month it would curb public charter flights too.
    “Now, all itineraries have to start in Havana, which means they cost more,” Liliana Guerra, commercial vice director at Cienfuegos’ Hotel Jagua, run by the Spanish hotel chain Melia, said in front of a swimming pool devoid of guests.
    “We are seeing a decrease in the arrival of Cubans from abroad who used these airports nearby to visit their families and then would stay in our hotel as a kind of family tourism.”
    The tourism ministry’s delegate in Cienfuegos, Jose Gonzalez, said U.S. sanctions on oil shipments to Cuba were also having a knock-on effect.    Some boat operators, for example, have had to shut sporadically due to lack of fuel.
(Reporting by Mario Fuentes in Trinidad, Cuba; Writing by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Paul Simao)

1/20/2020 Putin speeds up Russian political shake-up, details new power center by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state
residence outside Moscow, Russia January 20, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin accelerated a shake-up of Russia’s political system on Monday, submitting a constitutional reform blueprint to parliament that will create a new center of power outside the presidency.
    Putin also replaced Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, who had held the role since 2006, a move suggesting his planned changes could reach beyond the political system and the government.
    In a surprise move, Putin announced plans for reforms last week. Long-time ally Dmitry Medvedev then resigned as prime minister along with the government, saying he wanted to allow room for the president to make the changes.
    Putin’s proposed changes are widely seen as giving him scope to retain influence once his term expires in 2024 though he said at the weekend he did not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.
    In draft amendments submitted to the State Duma lower house, Putin offered a glimpse of how his reforms look on paper.    Under his plan, some of the president’s broad powers would be clipped and parliament’s powers expanded.
    In one of the biggest changes, the status of the State Council, now a low-profile body that advises the president, would for the first time be enshrined in the constitution.
    Putin, 67, has not disclosed what he plans to do once he leaves the Kremlin.    One option could be to head the beefed-up State Council once he leaves the presidency.
    Under his proposals, the president would pick the make-up of the State Council which would be handed broader powers to “determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy.”
    His changes also envisage preventing any future president serving more than two terms.    Putin first became president in 2000 and is now in his fourth term as head of state.
OPPOSITION PROTEST MARCH
    Chaika, 68, has long been one of the most powerful figures in the Russian justice system and has faced allegations of corruption from the political opposition which he denies.
    The Kremlin said Chaika was moving to another, unspecified, job and proposed Igor Krasnov, deputy head of the Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, to replace him.
    Krasnov, 44, has led high-profile criminal investigations including the inquiry into the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015.
    Russia’s opposition said on Monday it planned to stage a protest march next month against the reforms.
    “Society needs a big and genuinely mass protest,” wrote opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who said Putin’s changes amounted to a move to “rule forever.”
    The Duma is due to discuss Putin’s amendments on Thursday.
    Putin has said the public will be invited to vote on the proposed changes.
    Andrei Klishas, a senior lawmaker involved in drafting the legislation, said the vote might be held once parliament approved the legislation, the RIA news agency reported.
(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Alexander Marrow and Anton Zverev, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/21/2020 Russia gets new government in what Putin calls major renewal by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Maria Kiselyova
FILE PHOTO: Kremlin aide Andrei Belousov attends a session of the St. Petersburg
International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian government on Tuesday which he called a break with the past and included a new economy minister and first deputy prime minister, but many senior ministers stayed on.
    The government was formed less than a week after Putin unveiled a sweeping shake-up of the political system, which led to the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister with his entire government.
    Putin went on to pick 53-year-old former tax chief Mikhail Mishustin, who has almost no political profile, as his new prime minister.
    Putin’s wider shake-up, which envisages changing the constitution, is seen as preparing the ground for 2024, when Putin, now 67, is obliged to leave the presidency after occupying the Kremlin or the prime minister’s job continuously since 1999.
    Critics have long accused Putin, a former KGB officer, of plotting to stay on in some capacity after his term ends so that he can wield power over the world’s largest nation – and one of its two biggest nuclear powers.
    The new government could be intended to reboot the government’s flagging image and shift attention to Putin’s drive to lift falling real incomes and drive ahead with big national infrastructure projects which he hopes will catapult his country into a new economic league.
    “The most important task is to increase the welfare of our citizens and strengthen our statehood and the position of our country in the world.    All these are absolutely attainable goals,” Putin told the new government.
    “We have achieved a very balanced government.    We have enough people who worked in the previous government, as well as a major renewal.”
    Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, Energy Minister Alexander Novak, Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov all kept their jobs in the government.
    Putin named Andrei Belousov, his economy advisor since 2013, as Russia’s new first deputy prime minister, replacing Anton Siluanov who had held the role since May 2018.
    Belousov, 60, in 2018 proposed making major metals and mining companies pay a windfall tax, sending their share prices lower, although that proposal was subsequently watered down.
    Belousov made headlines last year when he confirmed his friendship with businessman Artem Avetisyan, whose legal battle with private equity fund Baring Vostok has rattled the business community.
    That case, which saw the arrest last year of Baring Vostok investor Michael Calvey, a U.S. national, and other executives has hurt the investment climate and stymied economic growth, Kremlin critics say.
    Putin also approved 40-year-old Maxim Reshetnikov, a former regional governor, as economy minister, replacing Maxim Oreshkin who spent just over three years in the role.
    Reshetnikov has previously worked in the Moscow mayor’s office and from 2012-17 headed the Moscow government’s department for economic policy and the development of the capital.
(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Andrey Ostroukh, Alexander Marrow, Tom Balmforth, Polina Devitt and Maria Tsvetkova, Writing by Andrew Osborn, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/21/2020 Top Hungarian lawyer accuses PM Orban of harming rule of law by Marton Dunai
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds an international news
conference in Budapest, Hungary, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s top defense lawyer accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Tuesday of undermining the rule of law through his refusal to accept two court decisions that require payouts of state funds.
    Orban, long at odds with the European Union on a range of issues, said this month his government would disobey court orders to compensate former prisoners for inhumane treatment and would also not pay a court-mandated fine to a Roma community in eastern Hungary in a case of alleged school segregation.
    However, in an apparent climbdown, a government decree on Tuesday instructed the justice minister to compensate prisoners only at “the very last minute allowed by the law,” and called for an immediate review of regulations governing such payments.
    “(The government has) affected confidence in justice and especially court decisions, and I must say the rule of law,” Hungarian Bar Association Chairman Janos Banati told Reuters.
    “If the state can disobey rulings, people can later decide to skip paying taxes they deem unfair, or ignore a court ruling on child custody… That’s the most dangerous aspect of this.”
    “A democratic state (means) everyone accepts court decisions,” Banati added.
    A government spokesman declined to comment on Banati’s criticism.    Orban’s spokesman was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.
    Orban, a nationalist, has regularly dismissed concerns over the rule of law in Hungary and says they are fabricated by his political opponents, often at the behest of Hungarian-born, U.S.-based billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whom he accuses of disrespecting Hungary’s sovereignty.
    Another senior lawyer, Gyorgy Magyar, echoed Banati’s criticism of the government’s approach to the law.
    “They want to pick which ruling to honor and which to ignore.    In that case, they don’t really even need the courts, do they?    They can just tell everyone what’s right and wrong,” said Magyar, an ally of Gergely Karacsony, the opposition mayor of Budapest.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/21/2020 Swiss uncovered suspected Davos spy plot by Russian ‘plumbers’: paper
FILE PHOTO: A police officer stands guard near the Congress Center ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF)
annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Swiss officials foiled an apparent spying operation by Russians posing as plumbers in Davos, site of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, a newspaper reported on Tuesday, but police did not confirm key details of the account.
    The report in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper said the two Russians were checked by Swiss police in August last year in the ski resort, which is hosting the WEF gathering of the global business and political elite this week.    The pair presented diplomatic passports and left the country, the paper said.
    Police in the eastern Swiss canton of Grisons said two men with Russian diplomatic passports had been the subjects of a routine identity check in Davos in August 2019, but no connection had been established between their visit and the WEF.
    “It is true that we checked two Russian citizens in Davos and they identified themselves with diplomatic passports, but we could not ascertain any reason to detain them.    They were allowed to go,” a cantonal police spokeswoman said, adding police had never identified the men as plumbers.
    A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Bern dismissed the report, saying two Russian diplomats accredited outside Switzerland had been checked and allowed to go on their way.
    “Diplomatic passports are given to high-ranking officials, not to manual laborers,” he said.    “I think this was probably a dumb joke.”
    Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, said she was not aware of the incident.
    Investment fund manager Bill Browder, who has led a campaign to expose corruption and punish Russian officials whom he blames for the death of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after complaining of mistreatment, said the alleged incident showed the reach of the Russian state.
    “The Russians are actively targeting all of their enemies in all different countries – they have huge resources and Davos is an important place, and this is the one place I can come and personally challenge Russian officials over the murder of Sergei Magnitsky,” Browder told Reuters Today in Davos on Tuesday.
    Russian prosecutors have said they suspect Browder of ordering a string of murders, including of Magnitsky, in a twist the financier has dismissed as ludicrous.
(Reporting by Kathryn Lurie in Davos and Michael Shields in Zurich; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/22/2020 Putin says Russia has to be strong presidential republic by Vladimir Soldatkin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with students at the Sirius educational
centre in Sochi, Russia January 22, 2020. Sputnik/Alexey Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia must remain a strong presidential republic, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday when asked about a possible transitional period once he steps down in 2024.
    Last week Putin, who under the constitution cannot run for another presidential term, proposed constitutional changes that would give him scope to extend his grip on power after leaving the presidency.
    The suggestions include reducing the powers of the presidency and beefing up those of the prime minister, prompting speculation that Putin might be eyeing a return to a job he held from 2008 to 2012.
    “Our country, obviously, has to be a strong presidential republic.    That’s the first thing. And then, we have so many ethnic groups, nationalities, ways of life, it is practically impossible to integrate in the framework of a parliamentary republic,” Putin said, in comments which seemed to contradict last week’s message.
    Putin, who is 67, was speaking at a televised meeting with Russian students in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
    Asked by one student whether Russia should consider setting up some kind of transitional institution as happened in Singapore, Putin said this was not appropriate for his country.
    Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, was named the Minister Mentor, an advisory position, after his retirement from active politics, to help provide stability.
    “He was an outstanding man… That’s true, he was, I don’t know, around 30 years in power, and he founded the country, that’s true… You want me to be the Minister Mentor?
    “What you propose, would undermine the institution of the presidency.    I think that for such a country as Russia this is not applicable,” said Putin, who has dominated Russian politics as president or prime minister for two decades.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Polina Ivanova; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/22/2020 Putin hoping to secure economic legacy with reshuffle: sources by Andrey Ostroukh and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin meet with members of the
new government in Moscow, Russia January 21, 2020. Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian government reshuffle that brought in a new first deputy prime minister and a new economy minister is an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to secure his economic legacy, say two sources close to the government, but it also carries risks.
    The reshuffle, which remodeled the government’s economic decision-making bloc, is fuelling concerns about higher state spending and inflation risks, though analysts say they expect Russia’s robust fiscal framework to survive.
    Putin approved the new government on Tuesday and described it as a break with the past.
    The sources said Putin hopes the reshuffle will help accelerate implementation of a vast state spending plan seen as the centerpiece of what may be his final presidential term.
    The plan envisages breathing new life into Russia’s stagnant economy by spending more than 25 trillion rubles ($404 billion) between now and 2024 on major projects in 13 areas, including health, education and infrastructure.
    In the reshuffle, Andrei Belousov, Putin’s economic adviser since 2013 and a key architect of the spending plans, was appointed first deputy prime minister, replacing Finance Minister Anton Siluanov who had held that role since May 2018.
    Maxim Reshetnikov, a former regional governor, was appointed Russia’s new economy minister, replacing Maxim Oreshkin.
    Putin, 67, is due to step down as president in 2024, though many say a proposed constitutional shake-up he is pushing through at the moment is designed to allow him to continue wielding influence in another role.
    Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister since 2012, had been in charge of implementing the economic plan until Putin abruptly replaced him last week with former tax chief Mikhail Mishustin.
    “Putin could see (Medvedev) wasn’t doing anything, it was infuriating that he was just sitting and waiting for the presidency to fall to him again,” said one of the sources who regularly meets Russian officials.
    Medvedev served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 as the constitution barred Putin for a third consecutive term.
VISIBLE REBOOT
    Putin had grown unhappy with Medvedev’s failure to deliver at a time when falling real wages and declining government popularity risked deepening public anger, another source close to the government said.
    The second source said Putin was concerned about the impact of falling living standards and a plan to hike the pension age, and wanted a visible reboot to assuage public anxiety and speed up the roll-out of his national projects.
    “We need to realize the national projects more actively so that people feel changes to their lives and around them soon,” Mishustin, Putin’s new prime minister, told his cabinet at their first meeting on Tuesday.
    However, the promotion of Belousov, who has a reputation as a proponent of state capitalism, is causing concern among some investors.
    His appointment “implies a shift from the economic agenda and tight fiscal policy to spending and the National Projects,” Alfa Bank said in a note to clients.
    Higher state spending could create inflationary risks, which will limit room for further rate cuts by the central bank while wiping out Russia’s budget surplus.
    In the old set-up, Finance Minister Siluanov had been crucial in implementing a prudent fiscal policy, known as the budget rule, designed to shield the economy from swings in the price of oil.
    But his demotion and Belousov’s elevation open the door to possible change.
    “The appointment of Belousov raises concerns about a softening of fiscal policy,” said Kirill Tremasov, a former economy ministry official who heads research at Locko Invest firm.
    However, Moody’s credit rating agency said Russia would be able to cope with higher state spending, given its low public debt and the rebuilding of fiscal reserves following the implementation of its fiscal rule in 2018 and some spending under-execution in recent years.
(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt, Polina Nikolskaya, Darya Korsunskaya and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Gareth Jones)

1/23/2020 Putin’s political shake-up backed by Russian parliament in initial vote
FILE PHOTO - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with students at the Sirius educational
centre in Sochi, Russia January 22, 2020. Sputnik/Alexey Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s lower house of parliament unanimously gave its initial backing on Thursday to sweeping constitutional changes proposed by President Vladimir Putin which are widely seen as an attempt to extend his influence after he steps down.
    The reforms, which Putin unveiled last week, were backed by all 432 lawmakers who took part in the vote in the State Duma, as the lower house of parliament is known.    Nobody voted against or abstained. The Duma is controlled by the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party.
    The changes are seen as giving Putin scope to retain influence once his current presidential term expires in 2024, though he said at the weekend he did not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.
    The legislation would for the first time enshrine the status of the State Council, now a low-profile body that advises the president, in the constitution.    Some of the president’s broad powers would also be clipped and parliament’s powers expanded.
    Putin, 67, has not disclosed what he plans to do once he leaves the Kremlin.
    Before they become law, the constitutional amendments must be approved by the lower house of parliament in two further votes before being voted on by the upper house, examined by regional parliaments, and then signed by Putin.
    Russia’s constitution has not been changed since 1993.
    Parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said the lower house would hold its next reading of the legislation on Feb. 11 and that parliament might manage to complete the overall approval process by the end of February, Russian news agencies reported.
    Putin has said that the changes should also be put to a nationwide vote.    But it remains unclear what form such a vote would take and when it will be held though some Russian media have suggested it will take place in April.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

1/23/2020 Putin: “Everything will be okay” for U.S.-Israeli woman jailed in Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a statement as he is received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and his wife Sara (not pictured) ahead of the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem memorial
centre in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. Heidi Levine/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said during a visit to Israel on Thursday that he had given assurances to the mother of Naama Issachar, a U.S.-Israeli woman jailed in Russia on drug charges, that “everything will be okay” for her daughter.
    Israel has called on Russia to release Issachar who was sentenced by a Russian court to seven and a half years in jail on drug offences in October.
    The New Jersey-born woman was arrested in April last year after police found nine grams of cannabis in her bags during a stopover at a Moscow airport.
    Putin, who is in Jerusalem to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, made the comments at a meeting with Issachar’s mother and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
    “I have met Naama’s mother.    It’s clear to me that she is from a very good, honorable family.    I know the position of (Israeli) Prime Minister who is asking me to make an appropriate decision.    All this will certainly be taken into account when the final decision is made,” Putin said.
    “The mother is very worried, I can see that.    I told her and I want to repeat it again: everything will be fine,” he added.
(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyova; editing by Andrew Osborn)

1/23/2020 Ukraine PM in Davos: government and prime minister do not plan to resign
FILE PHOTO - Oleksiy Honcharuk, Ukrainian politician nominated to become new Prime Minister, addresses lawmakers
during the first session of newly-elected parliament in Kiev, Ukraine August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s government and Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk do not plan to resign and have good relations with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Honcharuk said on Thursday.
    “The government is not going anywhere, we continue to work and do not plan any resignations,” Honcharuk told an economic forum in Davos.
    Last week Honcharuk offered to quit after an audio recording suggested he had criticized the president.    Zelenskiy allowed him to keep his job.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/23/2020 Russian hackers targeted Ukrainian company at center of impeachment storm: cybersecurity firm by Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter
A general view shows a building, which reportedly houses an office of a subsidiary of the Ukrainian energy
company Burisma Holdings Ltd, in Kiev, Ukraine January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russian military hackers tried to steal emails from the Ukrainian energy firm where Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic U.S. presidential contender Joe Biden, had a seat on the board, an American cybersecurity firm said on Monday.
    Energy company Burisma Holdings Ltd was at the center of attempts by President Donald Trump last July to pressure Ukrainian authorities into announcing an investigation into the Bidens for purported corruption, an effort that has led to the Republican being impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
    Trump denies he did anything wrong by asking Ukrainian officials to investigate Hunter Biden’s relationship with Burisma.    There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, who reject Trump’s allegations of graft.
    California-based Area 1 Security identified the hacking of Burisma and linked it to Russia’s Main Directorate of Military Intelligence, or GRU.    The same hacking group, known as “Fancy Bear” or “APT28 by cybersecurity researchers, breached the Democratic National Committee in 2016 in what U.S. investigators described as part of an operation to disrupt that year’s election.
    “You can see this attack really is starting to parallel with what we saw in 2016,” Oren Falkowitz, Area 1’s chief executive, said in an interview.
    The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.    Officials at the U.S. National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment.
    Burisma did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    A source close to Burisma told Reuters the company’s website had been subject to multiple break-in attempts over the past six months but did not provide further details.
    What data the hackers were looking to steal is not clear, Area 1 said.    Breaching Burisma could yield communications from, to, or about Hunter Biden, who served as a director between 2014 and 2019.    A leak of stolen data could potentially affect the impeachment process and the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
    Area 1 said it became aware of the Russian targeting of Burisma after its email security scanning product found suspicious evidence online, including “decoy domains”: websites designed to imitate legitimate email services used by Burisma’s subsidiaries.
    Publicly available domain registration records examined by Reuters show that the hackers created the decoy domains between Nov. 11, the day before U.S. Democrats began their first public impeachment hearings, and Dec. 3, the day before the House Judiciary Committee took up the matter.
    The records show that the same people also registered fake domains for a Ukrainian media company, named Kvartal 95, in March and April 2019.    Kvartal 95 was founded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and multiple employees of the company have since joined his administration.
    Kvartal 95 and representatives for Zelenskiy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
    Area 1’s report said it discovered the GRU had targeted two subsidiaries of Burisma – KUB Gas LLC and Esko Pivnich – as well as CUB Energy Inc, which previously did business with the company, using lookalike domains intended to trick employees into providing their email passwords.
    Burisma and its subsidiaries share the same email server, Area 1 said, meaning a breach at any of the companies could expose them all.
    The report gave a limited indication of how Area 1 determined that the lookalike domains were the work of the GRU, pointing mainly to similarities in how the hackers had previously set their digital traps.    Area 1 co-founder Blake Darche said unpublished data gathered by his firm linked the operation to a specific officer in Moscow, whose identity he was unable to establish.
    But Darche said “we are 100 percent certain” that the GRU was behind the hacking.
    An outside researcher, Kyle Ehmke of Virginia-based cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect, who reviewed the malicious domains flagged by Area 1, said based on the information he had seen, he believed “with moderate confidence” that the websites were devised by the GRU.
    Ehmke said that the hacking operation against Burisma used methods consistent with Russian hackers associated with the GRU, but that a complete picture was lacking.
    John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis with U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye, told Reuters the domains discovered by Area 1 are “consistent” with other known APT28 activities.
    Russian spies have routinely targeted Ukrainian energy firms with cyberattacks since Russia threw its weight behind a separatist takeover in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
    U.S. intelligence officials have issued warnings that Russia is working to intervene in the November 2020 election.
    Trump is seeking re-election and Biden is a leading opponent out of a dozen Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.
    Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Joe Biden, did not comment directly on the hack but said in an email: “Any American president who had not repeatedly encouraged foreign interventions of this kind would immediately condemn this attack on the sovereignty of our elections.”
(Reporting by Christopher Bing Raphael Satter; Polina Ivanova in Kiev, Ukraine contributed; Editing by Chris Sanders, Grant McCool and Gerry Doyle)
[Sounds like the DEEP STATE is trying to prove that Russians are doing their dirty tricks again and they are trying to blame it on Trump again.    The Democrats are getting desperate.    Who is John Hultquist?    He does not work for Trump so he is a liberal hack.
John Hultquist leads the analysis team that tracks cyberespionage threats for FireEye's government and commercial clients.    His team has uncovered dozens of cyberespionage operations including publicly known operations such as the Russian Sandworm hackers who carried out attacks on the Ukrainian grid.
FEC ruled San Francisco-based Area 1, founded by former N.S.A. staffers Blake Darche, who serves as chief security officer.
Oren Falkowitz, Area 1’s chief executive. Co-Founder and CEO, previously he worked at the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command..
    IT IS NOTED THAT ALL THREE ARE IN CALIFORNIA IN PELOSI LAND, AND A HAVEN FOR LIBERAL DEMOCRATS WHO HATE TRUMP AND WERE FORMER NSA WORKERS AFTER TRUMP CLEANED OUT THE DEEP STATE IN THE NSA, CIA, DNI, FBI, DOJ.]

1/23/2020 Polish conflict over judges heats up after vote, court ruling
FILE PHOTO: An image of scales is pictured on a pillar of the Supreme Court in
Warsaw, Poland October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo
    WARSAW (Reuters) – The conflict over judges in Poland deepened on Thursday, as a supreme court ruling and a parliament vote ratcheted up tensions over an issue that has set the country on a collision course with the European Union.
    Poland’s top court ruled on Thursday that judges appointed under new government rules do not have the right to issue judgments there.    The governing nationalists Law and Justice (PiS) believe it has no right to make such a decision.
    At the same time, Polish lawmakers voted in favor of a bill that would allow judges who criticize the government’s reforms to be disciplined, setting the stage for fresh conflict with Brussels which says the law is designed to muzzle judges.
    The Supreme Court ruling underlines the divisions around the Polish judiciary, with some judges questioning the legitimacy of judges appointed by a reformed body which critics say is politicized.
    “Such a person does not have the right to issue judgments in criminal cases… in civil cases a panel of judges including a person appointed in this way is against the law,” said Supreme Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf, referring to judges appointed under the new rules.
PARLIAMENT VOTE
    Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament voted 234-211 to disregard the rejection by the Senate of a law which would allow judges who criticize the government’s reforms to be disciplined.
    The opposition-dominated Senate voted 51-48 to reject the bill on Friday, but it is not able to block the reform, which will become law if it is signed by President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally.
    Duda, who faces a presidential election this year, offered a strident defense of PiS’s reforms on Friday, saying he would not allow anybody to tell Poland “in foreign languages” what system it should have.
    PiS says the bill, which was rejected by the opposition-controlled Senate, is necessary to avoid chaos in the legal system, as some judges have started questioning the legality of the appointment of others.
    But Brussels, human rights activists and lawyers believe the bill is designed to stop criticism of the government’s wide-ranging reforms, which they say aim to increase government control over the judiciary.
(Reporting by Anna Koper, Pawel Florkiewicz and Alicja Ptak; writing by Alan Charlish and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

1/23/2020 Putin proposes 2020 summit with leaders of Russia, France, China, U.S. and UK
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the World Holocaust Forum marking 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi
extermination camp Auschwitz, at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/Pool
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed holding a summit between the leaders of Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain in 2020 to discuss the conflict in Libya and other global problems.
    Putin, who was speaking during a trip to Israel, said Moscow was ready for a “serious conversation” with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, that there was much to discuss and that the summit could happen anywhere in the world.
    “In any country, at any point of the world that is convenient for our colleagues.    Russia is ready for this kind of serious conversation,” he said.
    “There are many tasks before us. We discussed one of them very recently in Berlin…That is Libya.    And we need to return to this problem at the Security Council and adopt the corresponding resolution,” he said.
    Putin, who was in Israel on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said holding such a summit would be an important symbolic step ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two.
    “We discussed (this) with several colleagues and as far as I understand in general we saw a positive reaction to holding a meeting of the heads of the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” he said.
(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/24/2020 Uzbekistan to ease restrictions on moving from provinces to capital
FILE PHOTO: Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev attends a news conference with his Kazakh counterpart
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Tashkent, Uzbekistan April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/File Photo
    TASHKENT (Reuters) – Uzbekistan will liberalize its domestic migration system which bars provincial dwellers from moving to the capital unless they have already secured a job there, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said on Friday.
    The system inherited from the Soviet era in effect barred those living in the provinces from seeking jobs in Tashkent, with the result that many people have chosen to find employment abroad instead.
    “We have kept our people shackled for 30 years, it’s true,” Mirziyoyev said in his annual address to parliament.
    Tashkent, which is undergoing a construction boom and offers higher wages compared with the provinces, has a population of 2.5 million, and more than 30 million Uzbeks live elsewhere in the Central Asian country.
    Unemployment is one of the biggest concerns for Mirziyoyev’s government which has been implementing a series of economic reforms over the last three years that have increased demand for labor in the capital.
    In another move aimed at reducing unemployment, Uzbekistan plans to train a million people in software programming skills, Mirziyoyev said on Friday.
(Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov, Editing by William Maclean)

1/24/2020 Norway PM shakes up cabinet after right-wing party exit
FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister and leader of Norwegian Conservative Party (Hoyre), Erna Solberg speaks
during a news conference in Oslo, Norway January 20, 2020. NTB Scanpix/Terje Bendiksby via REUTERS
    OSLO (Reuters) – Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg on Friday announced her biggest cabinet reshuffle since taking power in 2013, replacing or repositioning two-thirds of ministers in the hope of reviving the Conservative-led coalition’s prospects.
    Solberg this week lost her majority in parliament following the shock exit from government by the right-wing Progress Party over a decision to bring a woman suspected of Islamic State affiliation home to Norway from Syria.
    While Progress vowed to still back Solberg as prime minister, opinion polls point to an overwhelming lead for Norway’s center-left opposition parties ahead of a general election in 2021.
    The overall size of the cabinet was cut to 20 from 22, and 13 out of the 20 posts would see a new appointee, either from inside or outside the current government lineup, including those of finance, oil and energy, justice and transport.
    Veteran Conservative Party lawmaker Jan Tore Sanner was appointed finance minister, moving from the education ministry, putting him in charge of fiscal policy and of overseeing the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund with $1.1 trillion in assets.
    Meanwhile, 33-year-old Tina Bru, a rising star among the Conservatives, will take charge of the oil and energy portfolio, charting the course for western Europe’s largest petroleum industry at a time of rising concern over climate change.
(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, editing by Gwladys Fouche)

1/24/2020 Putin appoints former economy minister Maxim Oreshkin as adviser
FILE PHOTO - Russia's Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin is seen before President Vladimir Putin's annual
address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia January 15, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday appointed former economy minister Maxim Oreshkin as his adviser following the resignation of his government last week, a Kremlin decree said.
    Oreshkin, 37, was replaced as economy minister this week by 40-year-old Maxim Reshetnikov, a former regional governor.    Putin also named Vladimir Medinsky, who was replaced as culture minister during the reshuffle, as one of his advisers.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Shri Navaratnam)

1/24/2020 Bulgaria expels two Russian diplomats for espionage
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva speaks to the media in
Sofia, Bulgaria, January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Dimitar Kyosemarliev
    SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria expelled two Russian diplomats who prosecutors suspect were involved in espionage and gave them 48 hours to leave the Balkan country, the foreign ministry said on Friday.
    EU and NATO member Bulgaria, which traditionally keeps close links to Russia, expelled another diplomat over espionage allegations in October and declined to grant a visa to Russia’s incoming defense attache.
    The Russian Embassy in Sofia said the two diplomats would leave Bulgaria, but Moscow reserved its right to respond to their expulsions.    The embassy said Sofia had handed diplomatic notes to the ambassador without providing any proof that the two had acted in a way incompatible with their status.
    Earlier on Friday Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zharieva said the two would most likely be expelled after the foreign ministry was informed about the prosecutors’ allegations.
    “We will undertake the action that we are obliged to undertake and will most probably declare them ‘persona non grata’,” she said.
    In a separate statement, prosecutors said that a first secretary at the consular section of the Russian embassy had been involved in espionage since 2017, seeking information about the electoral process.
    A second diplomat, serving at Russia’s commercial representation office in Sofia, had been collecting information on energy and energy security since October 2018, some of which were state secrets, prosecutors said.
    “The decision of the Bulgarian authorities to disseminate this information publicly prior to notifying the Embassy does not correspond to the traditionally constructive spirit of relations between our states,” the Russian embassy said in a posting on its Facebook page.
    Bulgaria was Moscow’s most reliable ally in eastern Europe during Soviet times.    Despite periodic strains in their post-Soviet ties, however, Russia remains Bulgaria’s biggest energy supplier.
    The Balkan country declined to join its NATO and EU allies in expelling Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in Britain in 2018.
    But on Thursday, prosecutors charged three Russians with the attempted murder of an arms trader and two other Bulgarians whose poisoning is being investigated by Sofia for possible links with the 2018 nerve-agent attack on Skripal.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/25/2020 Putin orders Prosecutor General to review protester’s conviction
FILE PHOTO: A participant holds a placard while standing behind a metal barrier during a rally to demand the release of jailed protesters,
who were detained during opposition demonstrations for fair elections, in Moscow, Russia September 29, 2019. The placard shows protester
Konstantin Kotov, who was sentenced to four years in prison for participation in unauthorized rallies. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the Prosecutor General to investigate if a guilty verdict for Moscow protester Konstantin Kotov was lawful, the Kremlin said.
    A Moscow court sentenced Kotov, a 34-year-old programmer, to four years in prison in September for “repeated” participation in unauthorized rallies, under a widely criticized law that has made non-violent protests a criminal offence.
    The court said Kotov “disregarded basic constitutional principles” because he continued to take part in unauthorized protests after being found guilty of violating legislation on public gatherings.
    Putin ordered an investigation into Kotov’s conviction to establish if the verdict was lawful and justified, the Kremlin said on its website.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; editing by David Evans)

1/25/2020 Poland accuses Brussels of double standards in judiciary row
FILE PHOTO: A woman holds Polish an EU flags as she attends a protest against judiciary reform
in Warsaw, Poland January 11, 2020. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland accused the European Union on Saturday of double standards for questioning the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, intensifying a spat between Warsaw and Brussels ahead of a visit by the bloc’s top rule of law official.
    Poland’s legal system has been thrown into chaos, with cases being postponed, since its top court decreed that rulings made by judges appointed under new government rules could be challenged. At the same time, parliament passed a law that critics say aims to muzzle judges.
    The European Commission said on Friday it was “very concerned” about the situation, warning that the legitimacy and independence of the Constitutional Tribunal had been seriously undermined.
    Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski called the Commission’s position “a very serious inconsistency.”
    “We treat this … as a very serious use of double standards regarding what expectations the Commission has of Poland and of itself,” he said.
    Jablonski referred to a European Commission recommendation issued in late 2017, in which the EU’s executive body called on Polish authorities to “refrain from actions and public statements which could undermine further the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, the ordinary courts, judges, individually or collectively, or the judiciary as a whole.”
    The ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) had previously asked the Constitutional Tribunal to investigate whether the Supreme Court had the right to rule on the legitimacy of judges appointed under the new rules.
    Critics say that the Constitutional Tribunal, headed by Julia Przylebska who is described by PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a “close friend,” is not independent.
    The European Commission asked the EU’s highest court on Friday to freeze the new law passed by parliament on Thursday that allows for the dismissal of judges who are critical of government changes to the judiciary.
    The EU’s Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova is due to be in Warsaw on Tuesday to meet ministers and the Supreme Court president Malogorzata Gersdorf among other officials.
(Reporting by Anna Koper and Alan Charlish; Editing by Helen Popper)

1/26/2020 Cuba says Trump administration pressured Bolivia to worsen ties
A view of Cuba's Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, January 24, 2020. REUTERS/David Mercado
    HAVANA (Reuters) – A day after Bolivia suspended diplomatic relations with Cuba, Havana accused its interim government of having sought to sabotage bilateral ties ever since it took power last year, partly under pressure from the Trump administration.
    Communist-run Cuba was a key ally of Bolivia’s former leftist President Evo Morales – who resigned amid a political crisis and protests in November – and has supported his assertion that he was toppled in a foreign-backed “coup
    Bolivia’s conservative interim President Jeanine Anez, meanwhile, has tried to align the country more closely with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which is cranking up sanctions on Cuba.
    “The acting authorities unfurled a ferocious campaign of lies against Cuba … in particular against the Cuban medical cooperation, inciting violence against our staff,” the Cuban foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
    “It is not casual that the facts described here coincide with a brutal, politically-motivated U.S. campaign against the international medical cooperation Cuba provides to dozens of countries.”
    Cuba’s foreign ministry also said U.S. officials had, since the departure of Morales, “applied pressure on Bolivia to impose a deterioration in relations with Cuba.”
    The U.S. State Department was not immediately available for comment.
    Cuba’s health service is the country’s most important hard currency earner, sending more than 50,000 health workers to more than 60 countries.
    That program, though, has come under increased fire over the past two years, with critics accusing Cuba of treating doctors as “slave labor” or using them to fuel unrest abroad. Cuba denies the accusations.
    Thousands of Cuban doctors have returned home after agreements with Brazil and Ecuador were ended over the past year and a half.
    Bolivia’s foreign ministry said in November: “There have been a number of accusations that Cuban citizens have been involved in these aggressive acts that have tormented our country in recent days.”
    Cuba responded by terminating its medical mission, saying Bolivian officials were fostering violence against the around 700 doctors by claiming they were instigating rebellion.
    The spat was revived on Wednesday, when Anez said the Cuban government kept 80% of the payments that Bolivia made for the work of Cuban doctors in the country.
    Cuba’s foreign ministry denied this, saying on Saturday that from 2006 to 2012, the Caribbean island nation had actually covered all the costs of medical cooperation with Bolivia, at more than $200 million per year.
    It was from then that Bolivia started paying for the medical services due to its improved economic situation.
    “But it never transferred one dollar to Cuba, nor did Cuba receive any revenue,” the ministry said.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Tom Hogue)

1/26/2020 Bulgaria on path to adopt euro in 2023: IMF’s Georgieva
FILE PHOTO: IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva attends a news conference ahead of the
World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria’s plans to enter the eurozone’s waiting room this spring and adopt the euro currency in 2023 are “completely foreseeable,” the head of the International Monetary Fund said on Sunday.
    The Balkan country, a European Union member since 2007, hopes to join the precursor to eurozone membership, the ERM-2 exchange rate mechanism, by the end of April and adopt the euro in 2023.
    “My expectations are that the plans for Bulgaria’s eurozone entry will happen exactly as made,” IMF head Kristalina Georgieva told national BNR radio.
    “Of course one should not say ‘hop’ until one jumped, but things are looking very good,” she said.
    Georgieva said the European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde “sees very positively” Bulgaria’s push for eurozone entry and told her at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “it seems Bulgarian would soon be spoken in my hall where eurozone meetings take place.”
    Georgieva, who is of Bulgarian origin, said eurozone entry will be beneficial for the country and provide more monetary security and shield it from global uncertainty.
    Bulgaria, whose lev currency is already pegged to the euro, meets the nominal criteria to adopt the single currency, with healthy public finances and low debt, but is also one of the EU’s poorest and most corrupt member states.
    A comprehensive assessment at six Bulgarian lenders by the ECB last year found capital shortfalls at two locally owned banks, but both First Investment Bank <5F4.BB> and Investbank has since announced plans to raise their capital.
    “Bulgaria as a whole stands very well.    There are two banks that had some issues but they are working on them and I do not see any problems,” Georgieva said.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova, Editing by William Maclean)

1/27/2020 Slovenian PM Sarec resigns and seeks early election by Marja Novak
FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister of Slovenia Marjan Sarec arrives to attend the European Union
leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Pool
    LJUBLJANA (Reuters) – Slovenian Prime Minister Marjan Sarec said he was sending his resignation to parliament on Monday and called for an early election, saying his minority government could not push through important legislation.
    The government coalition of five center-left parties held only 43 out of 90 seats in parliament and lost the informal support of the opposition Left Party in November, finding it ever harder to get bills through parliament.
    “With this coalition, this situation in parliament, I cannot fulfill the expectations of the people,” Sarec told a news conference. “I would be able to fulfill them after an election.”
    Just before his statement, the national news agency STA reported the resignation of Finance Minister Andrej Bertoncelj.
    On Friday, Bertoncelj issued a statement protesting new legislation proposed by Sarec’s LMS party, under which the budget would cover losses of the national health system, saying that would not be acceptable.
    Analysts said the opposition center-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), which is the largest party in parliament, is likely to try to form a new government. An early election would take place only if that attempt fails.
    The next election is scheduled for the middle of 2022.
(Reporting By Marja Novak; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/27/2020 Poland to sign $4.6 billion F-35 fighter jet deal: minister
FILE PHOTO: Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak speaks during U.S. Vice President
Mike Pence's arrival in Warsaw, Poland, February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland will sign a contract worth $4.6 billion for 32 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets, Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak tweeted on Monday.
    Poland has long been expected to buy the jets as part of efforts to bolster its armed forces in the face of renewed Russian assertiveness in eastern Europe.
    The signing ceremony will take place at 1400 GMT on Friday in Deblin, eastern Poland, Blaszczak said.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish; editing by Jason Neely)

1/27/2020 Poland, Israel condemn resurgent anti-Semitism at Auschwitz commemoration by Joanna Plucinska and Maayan Lubell
Auschwitz survivors Kseniia Olkhova and Lidia Turovskaya, visit the Auschwitz museum a day prior to the 75th anniversary of the liberation
of Nazi German concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz, in Oswiecim, Poland January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel
    OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) – The presidents of Israel and Poland called on Monday for greater efforts to combat anti-Semitism as the world marked 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp amid concerns over a resurgence of anti-Jewish prejudice.
    More than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, perished in the camp’s gas chambers or from starvation, cold and disease.
    “Our duty is to fight anti-Semitism, racism and fascist nostalgia, those sick evils that … threaten to eat away at the foundations of our democracies,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said at a venue near the former camp, which is now a museum.
    Polish President Andrzej Duda, who did not attend Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial last Thursday because he was not allowed to speak, thanked Rivlin for his presence at Auschwitz.
    “This presence is a sign of remembrance, it is a visible sign of opposition to inhuman treatment, hatred, against all forms of hate, especially racist hate,” Duda said.
    Set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland in 1940, at first to house Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz became the largest of the extermination centers where Adolf Hitler’s plan to kill all Jews – the “Final Solution” – was put into practice.     It was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945.
    Returning to the site where her relatives were murdered, 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Yvonne Engelman, who now lives in Australia, recalled the horrors of the camp.
    “We could hear children coughing, crying, choking from the gas and also the smell of human flesh and the great fear we experienced that maybe you will be the next victim,” she said.
    During a somber ceremony at the gate to the camp, Duda spoke of the chilling efficiency of the Nazis’ genocidal plan, which included vast crematoria to burn the bodies of victims.
    “For years the factory of death operated at full capacity. Smoke was rising from the chimneys, the transports were rolling.    People walked and walked in their thousands.    To meet their death,” he told a gathering that included several dozen ageing survivors, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.
PERNICIOUS” ATTITUDES
    Studies show that anti-Semitic sentiment persists, especially in Europe, despite the scale of the Nazi atrocities, the powerful testimony of survivors and the number of films, books and exhibitions chronicling the Holocaust.
    A 2019 survey by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League showed that about one in four Europeans harbor “pernicious and pervasive” attitudes towards Jews, compared with 19% of North Americans.
    In Germany, 42% agreed that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust,” it said.    Two people were killed in a shooting near a synagogue in eastern Germany in October, in what officials called an anti-Semitic attack.
    Despite the joint message on anti-Semitism, Monday’s event highlighted tensions between Poland and Israel over Holocaust remembrance.
    Rivlin called on Poland not to politicize the history of the Holocaust, a reference to the insistence of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government that Poles had behaved entirely honorably during World War Two.
    As part of a broader policy of historical revisionism, PiS seeks to highlight Poland’s own suffering in the war, when some six million Poles, including three million Polish Jews, were killed and Warsaw was razed to the ground.
    While celebrating the thousands of Poles who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust, PiS ignores others who helped the Germans and killed Jews.
    “We shall forever hold sacred and cherish the courage of the … thousands of Poles,” Rivlin said.    “We remember that during the war the Polish nation fought with great courage but we remember too that there were not a few in the Polish nation who stood by and even contributed to the murder of Jews.”
    In addition to Jews, more than 70,000 Poles were deported to Auschwitz, as well as 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and several thousand other people.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Department would contribute an additional $2 million to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.
    Two years ago its director, Piotr Cywinski, appealed to donor countries for more support.    Germany was until now the only country to respond, although the United States and Poland had previously been big donors.
(Additional reporting by Alicja Ptak, Pawel Florkiewicz, Marcin Goclowski, Wojciech Zurawski and Malgorzata Wojtunik; Writing by Justyna Pawlak and Alan Charlish; Editing by Gareth Jones and Giles Elgood)

1/28/2020 Poland willing to mull compromise with EU on rule of law: justice minister by Marcin Goclowski and Joanna Plucinska
FILE PHOTO: European Values and Transparency Commissioner-designate Vera Jourova of Czech Republic attends
her hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 7, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland is willing to consider a compromise with the European Union on its selection of judges under certain conditions, its justice minister said on Tuesday after talks with a senior EU official on rule of law concerns.
    “I declared readiness to convince my colleagues from the ruling camp to consider coming up with a new model for choosing judges,” Zbigniew Ziobro told journalists after meeting EU Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova in Warsaw.
    Jourova, however, said she did not gather from the meeting that any compromise had been proposed, adding that the discussion focused on differences in position and these were very clear.
    She added the door to a dialogue between Poland and the EU on judicial reform was open and the EU hoped to find a long-term solution to tensions between Warsaw and Brussels.
    Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s eurosceptic, nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party has introduced a series of judicial reforms which EU officials and democracy activists say may breach the bloc’s standards on rule of law.
    Last week, Poland’s Supreme Court said rulings made by judges appointed under new government rules could be challenged, resulting in a number of cases being postponed.
    On the same day, parliament passed a law that critics say aims to muzzle judges.    The European Commission has asked the EU’s highest court to freeze the new law, which allows for disciplining judges critical of government changes to the judiciary.
    The European Commission said last week it was “very concerned” about the situation – a message it has repeated since the law was proposed late last year.
    The threat for Poland is that Brussels may limit funding for countries that infringe the rule of law, said Polish Senate speaker and opposition politician Tomasz Grodzki, who was one of the first officials to meet Jourova on Tuesday.
    “(I want) to have a message back for (European Commission President) Ursula von der Leyen…that the door for the dialogue with Poland is open,” Jourova told journalists in Warsaw.
    The PiS government has asked Poland’s constitutional court to examine whether the Supreme Court, the top judicial body, has the right to rule on the legitimacy of judges appointed under its reforms.
    The European Commission said last week that the independence and legitimacy of the constitutional court had been seriously undermined by PiS reforms.
(Additional reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz and Alicja Ptak; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/28/2020 Warning shots fired as migrants rush Serbia’s border with Hungary
A Hungarian police officer secures the Hungary-Serbia border crossing of Roszke
seen from Horgos, Serbia, January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
    HORGOS, Serbia (Reuters) – A Hungarian security officer fired three warning shots early on Tuesday after about 60 migrants tried to force their way through a checkpoint on the border with Serbia, and Serbian police said later they had arrested 37 people for trying to cross the frontier illegally.
    No one was wounded in the incident, which took place at the Roszke/Horgos border crossing, Hungarian police spokeswoman Szilvia Szabo said.
    Hungarian police said the group tried to enter the European Union member state at the crossing at about 0430 GMT, prompting the security officer on site to fire the warning shots.
There are thousands of migrants stuck in Serbia, with more than 6,000 migrants living in government-operated camps.
    On Tuesday, in the village of Horgos, on the Serbian side of the border crossing, a group of about two dozen migrants from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Morocco said they were beaten up by Hungarian police and sent back to Serbia.
    Some showed cuts and bruises, but Reuters was not able to verify their accounts.
    “My friends they have tried to cross the border and the police of Hungary, they reacted badly about that, they were hitting them, they broke their phones,” said Mohab, a migrant from Morocco, who acted as an interpreter for the group.
    “They shoot bullets in the air and people run,” he said     The crossing was the scene of a large-scale riot at the peak of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, when police clashed with hundreds trying to break through the frontier into the EU.
    Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban subsequently ordered a steel fence erected along Hungary’s border, curbing arrivals.
    But migrant traffic started increasing again late last year and there are currently several hundred attempted illegal crossings per week.
    Most of Tuesday’s group failed to cross the border, and the four who managed to enter Hungary were intercepted, police said, adding that the crossing had been closed.
    A larger highway checkpoint for international passenger and freight traffic remained open, police said.
(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs in BUDAPEST and Aleksandar Vasovic in HORGOS, Serbia; editing by John Stonestreet)
[TO THE DEMOCRATS IN THE U.S. ABOVE IS PROOF THAT WALLS WORK AND TRUMP IS ON TRACK TO DO THAT WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT SO "GET OVER IT".].

1/28/2020 Croatia PM sacks health minister amid property declaration claim
FILE PHOTO: Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic addresses the European Parliament
in Strasbourg, France, January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
    ZAGREB (Reuters) – Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic sacked Health Minister Milan Kujundzic, the government’s spokesman said on Tuesday, a day after Kujundzic admitted “technical irregularities” in declarations about his property assets.
    The Jutarnji List daily, citing local property registers, said at the weekend that Kujundzic had failed to declare two apartments he owned on the island of Pag, as required under Croatian law, when he took office in October 2016.
    Kujundzic denied he had done anything illegal, while Plenkovic did not comment directly on the newspaper’s allegations, instead saying it was up to Kujundzic to clarify his situation.
    Plenkovic has yet to nominate Kujundzic’s successor, who will take over one of the most challenging ministerial portfolios.
    The public health service has been in arrears for years and puts a large strain on a state budget that the government is trying to keep in balance to satisfy criteria for adopting the euro in 2023 or 2024.
    The conservative-led government is facing a national election in the autumn but before that, in the spring, Plenkovic faces a contest with more conservative opponents for leadership of his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
    In an opinion poll last week the biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats, moved marginally ahead of the HDZ for the first time in almost four years.
    Plenkovic reshuffled his cabinet last July with six new incumbents after some ministers stepped down following media allegations of questionable real estate deals.
(Reporting by Igor Ilic; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/29/2020 Bulgarian government survives no-confidence vote over water crisis
FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borissov arrives to attend the European Union
leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Pool
    SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria’s government survived as expected on Wednesday a parliamentary vote of no-confidence brought by the opposition Socialists after thousands of people have been left with water shortages since November, leading to public protests.
    A total of 124 deputies in the 240-seat parliament voted against the fourth no-confidence vote against the center-right coalition government led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, while 102 lawmakers were in favor.
    The Socialists sought to topple the government which came to office in 2017, accusing it of failing to prevent severe water shortages in the western city of Pernik – a crisis that led to the ousting of Environment Minister Neno Dimov earlier this month.
    The Socialists also blamed the government for failing to impose proper controls over garbage imports and serious air pollution in many cities of the Balkan country.
    Prosecutors have charged Dimov with deliberate mismanagement for allowing industrial use of the water of a dam that provides drinking water to about 100,000 people in the city of Pernik despite its decreasing levels.
    The government has since come up with a plan to divert part of Sofia’s water supply to Pernik and tighten border controls of imports of scrap and waste materials.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov and Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Toby Chopra)

1/29/2020 Supreme Ruler Putin? Kremlin non-committal on proposed new job description by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in
Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, January 23, 2020. Alaa Badarneh/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Wednesday that President Vladimir Putin had no view on a proposal that would see his job description change to Supreme Ruler from head of state after a government commission said it was considering the idea.
    The title change is one of an array of possible alterations to the Russian constitution put forward by members of a government commission set up after Putin earlier this month said he wanted to change the Russian basic law.
    Putin, 67, proposed his own constitutional changes, which were widely seen as giving him scope to retain influence once his current presidential term expires in 2024, though he has said he does not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.
    The overhaul, which triggered a change in government, also cemented Putin’s control of the transition process and was seen by some as an attempt to reduce intra-clan infighting between now and 2024, while allowing Putin to show he is responding to public discontent after years of belt-tightening.
    The State Duma, the Russian lower house of parliament, has already given its backing to his reforms in a preliminary vote. The government commission is considering further possible changes.
    “There are… some very curious proposals among those put forward.    For instance, they proposed renaming the position of head of state to ‘Supreme leader’,” Pavel Krasheninnikov, the government commission’s co-chair, told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta government newspaper.
    When asked about the idea on Wednesday, the Kremlin was non-committal, calling it a “new initiative” and one of various proposals that may or may not be implemented.
    “Right now all this is at the discussion stage,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.    “President Putin has no view on this.”
    Other proposals include formally recognizing Russia’s status as a “victorious power” in World War Two and recognizing Orthodox Christianity as the country’s main religion, the Kommersant newspaper reported.
    “Naturally some (of the proposals) will be eliminated, some will be accepted and from this the commission’s sought-after result will appear,” Peskov told reporters.
    Russia’s TASS news agency said Vladimir Zhironovsky, leader of the nationalist pro-Kremlin LDPR party, had suggested the president be known as the Supreme Leader many times in order to move away from job titles derived from foreign languages.
(Editing by William Maclean)

1/29/2020 Slovenia president to start talks on resolving crisis on Feb. 4 by Marja Novak
FILE PHOTO: President of Slovenia Borut Pahor speaks during a news conference after the
Brdo-Brijuni Process Leaders' Meeting in Tirana, Albania May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Florion Goga
    LJUBLJANA (Reuters) – Slovenian President Borut Pahor plans to start formal talks with parliamentary parties on February 4, seeking to resolve a political crisis sparked by the resignation of center-left Prime Minister Marjan Sarec on Monday.
    Sarec, who took power in September 2018 to lead the first minority government in Slovenian history, said his government did not have enough seats in parliament to push through important legislation.
    The president’s office said in a statement that Pahor has 30 days to nominate a candidate for the role of prime minister or inform the parliament that he will not put forward a name.
    Parliamentary members will then have a further 16 days to nominate their own candidates.    If no candidate is nominated or no candidate can secure the backing of a majority in parliament, the president would be required to call an early election.
    According to parliamentary speaker Dejan Zidan, an early election could take place in the second half of April.
    Parties have already started informal talks about forming a new government, with much depending on the center-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), the largest parliamentary party with 26 out of 90 seats but which has so far been in opposition.
    The executive board of the SDS is due to meet on Thursday when it could decide whether to attempt to form a new government or opt for a snap election, Slovenia’s fourth such vote in a row.
    Regular elections are scheduled to take place in mid-2022.
(Reporting By Marja Novak; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

1/30/2020 New U.S. envoy tells Russia to “end nightmare” for jailed ex-Marine by Alexander Marrow and Tom Balmforth
U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan speaks with journalists after his meeting with Paul Whelan, a U.S. national arrested
and accused of espionage, outside a detention centre in Moscow, Russia January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States’ new ambassador to Russia urged Moscow on Thursday to release a former U.S. Marine accused of spying, and said Russian investigators had failed to present credible evidence to back up their case.
    Days after starting as U.S. ambassador, John Sullivan accused Russian authorities of “shameful treatment” of Paul Whelan, who was detained by security agents in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28, 2018 and accused of espionage.
    Whelan, 49, denies the charges against him and holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports.    At court hearings over the past year, he has said he is being ill treated.
    The case, in which Whelan be jailed for 20 years if he is found guilty, has strained U.S.-Russian ties that are already under pressure from an array of issues including the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and election-meddling allegations.
    On Thursday, Sullivan visited Whelan in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.    It was one of the ambassador’s first public appearances since he presented his credentials at Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 21.
    “It’s time for this nightmare to end, and for Paul to go home,” Sullivan said in comments published by the U.S. embassy on social media.
    “[His] case has gone on far too long. Investigators have shown no evidence – zero.    Russian authorities show no credible justification for isolating Paul, and refuse to allow Paul to get proper medical attention.    This is shameful treatment.”
    Russia’s Foreign Ministry has dismissed Whelan’s allegations of ill-treatment and accused him of trying to stir up noise around his case.
    Moscow says Whelan was caught red-handed with a computer flash drive containing classified information.    Whelan says he was set up in a sting operation and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.
    Previous efforts to secure Whelan’s release, including an appeal in December, have been ignored.
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/30/2020 In Poland, France’s Macron hopes to reset ties and build up business by Joanna Plucinska and Michel Rose
FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (not pictured) attend
a joint statement at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Pool
    WARSAW/PARIS (Reuters) – When French President Emmanuel Macron toured eastern Europe just weeks after being elected in 2017, he shunned Poland and delivered a stinging attack on its leaders.
    Poland, he said, was isolating itself in Europe and its people deserved better of their nationalist government.    Warsaw hit back at his comments, made in Bulgaria, by calling him “arrogant” and “inexperienced.”
    Macron will finally visit Poland next week, hoping to reset ties with a country he has loudly criticized over reforms of the judiciary, which he sees as undemocratic, and a climate change policy at odds with many of Warsaw’s European Union partners.
    By visiting Poland days after Britain leaves the EU, Macron is signaling the importance of one of the bloc’s biggest member states.    In an attempt to strengthen ties, he will propose new investment plans and try to build nuclear and military partnerships during the Feb. 3-4 visit, French and Polish officials said.
    “A country so central can’t be seen as being on the defensive all the time,” a French diplomat told Reuters.
    Macron could face an uphill battle on many fronts.    Polish officials told Reuters they are skeptical that the new technologies France hopes to sell are beneficial for Poland.
    Relations between Poland and France soured after Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government scrapped a $3.4 billion helicopter deal with Airbus in 2016, angering France, which thought the deal was largely agreed.
    Since then, France and Poland have been on the opposite sides of many arguments.
    Macron, a fervent European integrationist, has decried nationalist governments like Poland’s and criticized, along with the EU executive, and efforts by PiS to put Polish courts and media under more government control
.
    Both countries want to keep generous funding for their agricultural sectors in the EU budget, but Paris is pushing for more action on migration and the climate, while Warsaw has rejected EU policies on both matters.
RE-BALANCING” ACT
    It is not clear to what extent Macron will press Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda on issues of disagreement when he meets them on Monday.
    A French diplomat said Macron wanted to “re-balance” what Paris sees as Poland’s “Buy American” policy, and would propose military and industrial cooperation in areas such as telecoms and nuclear energy.
    “France and Poland have similar interests to be achieved at the EU level,” a Polish government source said, pointing to nuclear power policies and agriculture.
    France has long pushed the sale of French nuclear technology to Poland, with Macron raising the subject with Duda on the sidelines of a NATO summit in London in December, according to two Polish officials with knowledge of the talks.
    Polish government officials said there was a consensus that Poland wanted to build some nuclear plants but was considering using nuclear technology from the United States and South Korea.
    Two Polish officials said they had doubts about the French defense and nuclear offers.
    “There are a series of signals that there were problems,” one official said, citing regulatory issues.
    The construction of France’s new generation Flamanville 3 EPR nuclear reactor in northern France has been hampered by technical problems and construction is years behind schedule.
    A French diplomat acknowledged talks on nuclear technology were at a very early, political stage.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Agnieszka Barteczko and Justyna Pawlak in WARSAW, Gabriela Baczynska in BRUSSELS, Michel Rose and Bate Felix in PARIS, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/30/2020 U.S. Ambassador to Russia calls for Paul Whelan’s release by OAN Newsroom
The new U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan speaks to the media after visiting Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine
who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr)
    The new U.S. ambassador to Russia said a former U.S. Marine, who is imprisoned in the country, is suffering in confinement.    On Thursday, Ambassador John Sullivan met with Paul Whelan, who’s been in custody in Russia since the end of 2018 on allegations of spying.    Sullivan is now calling for his release.
    “It’s time for this nightmare to end, and for Paul to go home,” he said.
    Sullivan stated there is “no evidence and clearly no crime” in the case.    He added Whelan has been denied proper medical attention.
    “His health has clearly deteriorated since he was arrested over 13 months ago,” said the ambassador.    “He hasn’t received medical treatment for those medical problems which…are extremely uncomfortable and potentially a serious threat to his health.”
FILE- In this Aug. 23, 2019, file photo, Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018,
speaks while standing in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a court room in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
    The 49-year-old Whelan has maintained his innocence and said he’s been mistreated during his imprisonment.
    He has been isolated from his family for more than a year now.    Sullivan noted it can take as much as six months to receive letters from home.

1/31/2020 Pompeo pledges support for Ukraine as impeachment trial rumbles by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrive to
attend a joint news conference in Kiev, Ukraine January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
    KIEV (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored Washington’s support for Ukraine on a visit to Kiev on Friday, as both countries sought to smooth over relations buffeted by the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
    Ukraine was thrust center stage in a domestic political battle in Washington last year as Trump faced down allegations he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the son of his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
    Pompeo has also walked back from comments he was accused of making to a National Public Radio reporter ahead of his trip that appeared to play down Ukraine’s importance to Americans.
    Pompeo is the most senior U.S. official to travel to Ukraine since the impeachment process began, and his visit comes just as Trump’s impeachment trial appeared set to wrap up as early as this weekend.
    “Pompeo assured Ukraine of the full support of the United States in stopping Russia’s aggression and restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in full,” a Ukrainian statement said after Pompeo met Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko.
    Ukraine counts on Washington for diplomatic support and military aid to buy Javelin anti-tank missiles and other hardware as it battles Russian-backed fighters in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.
    Trump temporarily froze nearly $400 million in U.S. security assistance shortly before speaking to Zelenskiy in a July phone call, prompting accusations from Democrats he had misused U.S. foreign policy for personal gain.
    Trump’s camp has called on Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.
    Asked before the trip whether he would raise Burisma or the Bidens with Ukrainian officials, Pompeo had said: “I don’t want to talk about particular individuals.”
    Democrats had hoped to hear from former National Security Adviser John Bolton as a witness in Trump’s impeachment trial.
    A report, which Bolton has not denied, said Bolton in an upcoming book has written that Trump told him he wanted to freeze military aid to Ukraine until it investigated Biden and his son Hunter.
    Trump has denied any wrongdoing and called the impeachment process a “witch hunt.”
    Zelenskiy has denied being pressured by Trump to launch investigations and said Ukrainians were “tired” of the impeachment saga.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets; Writing by Matthias Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

1/31/2020 EU court will not intervene in Croatia-Slovenia border dispute
FILE PHOTO - A view of Slovenian city Portoroz and Piran/Savudrija bay from Croatian
village Kanegra, Croatia, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s top court ruled on Friday that it had no jurisdiction to settle a border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia, complicating Croatia’s accession to the Schengen free-travel area.
    Slovenia had argued that its fellow EU member could be sued under EU law because it was not implementing a 2017 border ruling by the intergovernmental Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
    The European Commission has said Croatia meets the technical criteria for Schengen membership, but Slovenia is unhappy with Croatia’s rejection of the ruling, and has the power to veto its accession.
    “The Court of Justice of the European Union lacks jurisdiction to rule on a border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia,” the court said, adding that the two states were required to find a solution between themselves.
    The two Balkan countries have argued for years about the course of their land and sea border at Piran Bay on the Adriatic Sea.
(Reporting by Marine Strauss @StraussMarine; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/31/2020 Hungary to build more prisons to tackle overcrowding, halt inmates’ lawsuits by Marton Dunai
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds an international news
conference in Budapest, Hungary, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas/File Photo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary will begin an ambitious prison-building program in an attempt to stem a tide of costly lawsuits by inmates complaining of overcrowding and inhumane conditions, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday.
    Orban accused “business-savvy lawyers” of exploiting the conditions to launch 12,000 lawsuits against the Hungarian state for breaking EU prison standards, leading to penalties of 10 billion forints ($33 million) in total.
    “I have never seen such prison business in my life,” he told state radio MR1.    “It’s mind-blowing.”
    Orban, who has often come under fire from the European Union and rights groups over his perceived erosion of the rule of law since he took power in 2010, announced plans for more prisons to reduce the prison overcrowding and disarm “malignant lawyers.”
    Last week, Orban drew criticism from top lawyers for suggesting his government would disobey court orders to pay compensation over the inhumane treatment of prisoners.    The government later signaled it would pay the fines.
    Orban also raised eyebrows by refusing to pay a fine of 100 million forints to a Roma community in Gyongyospata, eastern Hungary, which had sued the state because of illegal segregation in the local school.
    On Friday, Orban said the school’s move to separate Roma students had been an attempt to stem an exodus of students caused by what he said was the unruly and often violent behavior of the local Roma minority.
    “Non-Roma in Gyongyospata began to feel that they had to back down and apologize, despite being the majority,” Orban said.    “They feel like they are in a hostile environment in their own homeland.”
    Orban’s populist rhetoric on ethnic minorities, the rule of law and civic liberties led the European People’s Party, the EU’s conservative umbrella group, to agree on Wednesday to extend his Fidesz Party’s suspension from the group.
    Orban has several times threatened to leave the EPP, saying it has lost touch with conservative voters and demanding a return to a tougher stance on issues like migration and cultural identity.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/1/2020 Pompeo visits Belarus as Minsk’s ties with Moscow fray by Andrei Makhovsky
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko greets U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, February 1, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Pool
    MINSK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Belarus on Saturday, seeking to “normalize” ties at a time when relations between Minsk and its traditional ally Russia are under strain.
    The United States and the European Union have been frequent critics of authoritarian rule and the human rights record in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been in office since 1994.
    But Western powers have lifted most sanctions on Belarus since Lukashenko released political prisoners and showed more tolerance for political opposition.
    Ties also improved after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, which Belarus refused to recognize.    Belarus and the United States plan to bring back ambassadors to their respective countries after a 10-year hiatus.
    Pompeo, the most senior U.S. official to visit in more than two decades, said at a meeting with Lukashenko that Washington supported the independence of Belarus while being aware of Minsk’s longstanding ties to Russia.
    “We are not talking about a choice between us and them (Russia). We are talking about diplomatic relations,” Pompeo said, via a translator.
    Washington would appoint a new ambassador to Minsk soon, he added.
    Relations between Belarus and Russia soured after the two sides failed to agree on an oil supply contract for this year.
    The row fed into a broader dispute between Moscow and Minsk in which Lukashenko has accused the Kremlin of trying to bully Belarus into a union with Russia.
    In another boost to ties, Washington omitted Belarus from a list of countries under a travel ban after earlier signaling its possible inclusion.
    “It is very good that you, after all kinds of misunderstandings in relations between Belarus and the United States, absolutely baseless misunderstandings … you risked coming to Minsk to look at this country,” Lukashenko told Pompeo.
    Lukashenko has said he held talks with the United States and other countries to supply oil as an alternative to Russia.
    In the run-up to Pompeo’s visit, a senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration said:
    “This is an era of great power competition and an opportunity to compete for influence.”
    “And we are hearing from the Belarusians language about how they want to look at new opportunities … and this will give us an opportunity to talk about that,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    Russia sees Belarus as a buffer zone between it and the West, and it has helped prop up Lukashenko with loans and energy subsidies. But it started to scale back that help last year.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/1/2020 Secy. Pompeo visits Belarus, offers to provide 100% of the nation’s oil and gas by OAN Newsroom
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei shake hands
during a joint news conference in Minsk, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if offering to supply Belarus with 100 percent of the nation’s oil and gas.    Pompeo made the offer after arriving in the capital of Minsk on Saturday.
    He said the United States stands ready to help the country become less reliant on Russia and pursue “sovereignty and independence.”
    This came after Russia recently cut off oil and gas to the nation.    President Alexander Lukashenko has stated he believes the move was meant to undermine the nation’s autonomy.
    Secretary Pompeo said the United States will help support Belarus in every way they can.
    “We’ll have an ambassador here before too long.    All of these things I hope you will see as a good faith effort to truly engage politically, diplomatically. Our team will work tirelessly to help engage economically as well.” – Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State
    He went on to say he is confident the U.S. and Belarus can make real progress.
Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, right, gestures while speaking to U.S. Secretary of State
Mike Pompeo during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

2/2/2020 Protesters opposed to Russian Constitution changes detained
    ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Russian police in St. Petersburg detained participants in a small Saturday protest of proposed changes to the country’s constitution. No official protest figures or information about possible charges was immediately available.    The St. Petersburg news website Fontanka.ru said 10 people were detained. Russian President Vladimir Putin last month called for constitutional amendments that are widely seen as a strategy for him to remain in power once his term ends in 2024.

2/2/2020 Kosovo parties sign long-awaited deal to form government
FILE PHOTO: Albin Kurti, leader of the Self-Determination movement (Vetevendosje party), speaks to supporters after
preliminary results of the parliamentary election in Pristina, Kosovo, October 7, 2019. REUTERS/Florion Goga
    PRISTINA (Reuters) – Kosovo’s two biggest parties reached a deal on Sunday to create a new government almost four months after the Balkan country held snap elections following the prime minister’s resignation.
    Albin Kurti, the 44-year-old leader of the leftist Vetevendosje (Self Determination) party said he would become prime minister under the deal and work with the centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and other groups.
    “We have signed the deal,” Kurti told a joint press conference with LDK leader Isa Mustafa.
    Parliament – where the coalition parties together have 77 of the parliament’s 120 seats – will vote on the agreement on Monday, he added.
    The new coalition will also include six groups representing Serbs, Turks, Bosniaks and other ethnic minorities.
    The October election, the country’s fourth since declaring independence in 2008, was called after Ramush Haradinaj resigned as prime minister after being summoned for questioning by an EU-funded war crimes court that sits in The Hague.
    Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO air strikes drove out Serbian forces accused of expelling and killing ethnic Albanian civilians in a two-year counter-insurgency.
    One of the biggest challenges for any government will be to negotiate a deal with neighboring Serbia, which has refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

2/2/2020 Ukraine wants larger compensation for its citizens killed in plane shootdown in Iran
FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a joint news conference after a Normandy-format
summit in Paris, France December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Pool/File Photo
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday that Kiev was not satisfied with a size of compensation Iran had offered to families of Ukrainians killed in the downing of a plane near Tehran last month and would seek larger payments.
    “As for the Iranian side, they immediately offered us $80,000 for each family… It is too small.    We will press for a larger amount,” Zelenskiy told Ukrainian “1+1” TV.
    The airliner was struck by a missile on Jan. 8 shortly after it left Tehran en route to Kiev.    Iran admitted its forces had shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane in error, after initially denying it had a role in the incident. All 176 people aboard, including 11 Ukrainians, were killed.
    Zelenskiy also said that Ukraine still was waiting for Iran to hand over the black boxes of the plane.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/2/2020 Secy. Pompeo opens door for greater investments between U.S., Kazakhstan by OAN Newsroom
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the Akorda
presidential residence in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the president of Kazakhstan on Sunday. Pompeo held a joint news conference alongside the nation’s leader, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in the nation’s capital.
    He said the United States and Kazakhstan have a long history as partners for peace and allies of NATO.
    The secretary urged the country to join the U.S. in reducing its dependence on China and Russia, particularly in its use of oil and gas.    He warned that investments with Russia and China could come at a cost to the country’s sovereignty.
    “We fully support Kazakhstan’s freedom to choose to do business with whichever country it wants,” said Pompeo.    “But I’m confident that the country will get the best outcome when it partners with American companies.”
    He went on to praise the nation for its efforts in battling the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China.    Pompeo will make his way to Uzbekistan to meet with more top officials in the near future.

2/3/2020 Macron visits Poland in bid to reset frosty relations by Joanna Plucinska
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech as he attends the annual dinner of CCAF (Co-ordination Council of
Armenian organisations of France), in Paris, France , January 29, 2020. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS
    WARSAW (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron visits Poland on Monday and Tuesday in an effort to reset frosty relations at a time when the departure of Britain from the European Union is reshaping political alliances in the bloc.
    Arriving in Warsaw days after Brexit, Macron is signaling the importance of one of the EU’s biggest members, despite a relationship marked by clashes over issues ranging from climate change policy and NATO to Poland’s adherence to the rule of law.
    In an attempt to strengthen ties, he will propose new investment plans and try to build nuclear and military partnerships, French and Polish officials said.
    “Perhaps we won’t be best friends right away but we can gradually rebuild working relations,” an official close to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Reuters.
    Relations between Poland and France soured after Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government scrapped a $3.4 billion helicopter deal with Airbus in 2016, which France thought was largely agreed.
    Since then, France and Poland have been on the opposite sides of many arguments.
    “This is a very important visit, groundbreaking in a way. We were criticized by France, and also we did not spare criticism against France … But there is a chance we will leave this period behind us,” Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz told state press agency PAP.
    Macron, a fervent European integrationist, has decried nationalist governments like Poland’s and criticized, along with the EU executive, efforts by PiS to put Polish courts and media under more government control.
    “The visit itself shows that these issues are not an obstacle in developing bilateral cooperation,” PAP quoted Czaputowicz as saying.
    He added that during Macron’s visit Poland and France will agree a strategic cooperation plan for the 2020-2024 period.
    Both countries want to keep generous funding for their agricultural sectors in the EU budget, but Paris wants more action on migration and the climate, while Warsaw rejects EU policies on both matters.
    Macron may however be keen to explore new alliances in Europe amid tensions with Germany over his ambitious reform plans.
    “Paris is looking for another partner to work on the future of Europe.    Berlin is not delivering,” said Michal Baranowski, director the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw, a think-tank.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
[Since the UK got out of the EU they sent Macron to make sure that Poland and Hungary do not consider the same but he is in a fight with the values they have versus what the EU is pushing their socialist views on them.].

2/3/2020 Russia to expel foreigners with coronavirus, halts passenger trains to China by Katya Golubkova and Tom Balmforth
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin attends a meeting with his deputies
in Moscow, Russia February 3, 2020. Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia plans to expel foreigners who test positive for the fast-spreading new coronavirus, Interfax news agency reported on Monday, as nations worldwide try to curb an outbreak that has killed 361 people in China since it emerged in December.
    Russia, which has a 4,300-km (2,670-mile) border with China, reported two cases of the virus last week, in the Siberian region of Tyumen and the far eastern Zabaykalsky region, both involving Chinese nationals.
    Russia’s military will start flying back Russian citizens from China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the virus, on Monday, taking 130 people back out of a total more than 600, officials have said.
    Separately, Russia had moved 58 of its citizens back from China’s border regions as of Feb. 1, the regional Primorsk government said on its Instagram account over the weekend.
    The Primorsk region also opened special isolation zones on Sunday for Chinese arriving in Russia, where they will be held for 14 days irrespective of whether they have tested positive for the virus.
    So far, there have been no confirmed cases in the region, the government said. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishushin said on Monday that Russia plans to expel foreigners who test positive for the virus, Interfax reported.
    Mishushin also proposed to move dates for the Russian annual economic forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, initially set for Feb. 12-14, to a later date.
    Moscow has already restricted direct flights to China, with planes arriving at a special terminal at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and all passengers being checked.    Russian Railways suspended passenger trains to the country from midnight.
(Reporting by Katya Golubkova, Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Nick Macfie)

2/3/2020 Pompeo closes Eastern Europe, Central Asia tour in Uzbekistan by OAN Newsroom
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, listens to Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov speak during a
C5+1ministerial meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an official stop in Uzbekistan for the final destination in his Eastern Europe and Central Asia tour.    In the country’s capitol on Monday, Pompeo held a summit with a handful of foreign ministers from six neighboring countries and met with the nation’s president.
    Ministers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan discussed economic relations as well security.    Meanwhile, Secretary Pompeo took a hardline stance against China. He urged officials to be wary of Chinese investments and encouraged them to join the U.S. in condemning the country’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minorities.
    Secretary Pompeo went on to address U.S. peace talks with the neighboring Taliban. He made the following comments on the topic:
    “The Taliban weren’t able to demonstrate either their will, or their capacity, or both, to deliver on a reduction in violence and so what we are demanding now is demonstrable evidence of their will and capacity to reduce violence, to take down the threats, to deliver peace and stability and regional security for themselves.”
    Secretary Pompeo and Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyevalso discussed Chinese influence in their bilateral talks.

2/3/2020 Slovenia’s largest party calls for coalition talks by Marja Novak
FILE PHOTO: Janez Jansa, leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), speaks to the media and
supporters after an election in Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 3, 2018. REUTERS/Borut Zivulovic/File Photo
    LJUBLJANA (Reuters) – Slovenia’s centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), the biggest in parliament, has invited all other parties in the assembly to coalition talks following the resignation of centre-left Prime Minister Marjan Sarec.
    A week after Sarec quit, saying his minority coalition government lacked support in parliament to push through important legislation, the SDS said on Monday coalition talks would start on Friday.
    “Most probably we are facing the fourth early election (in a row) but of course it is also possible that a new ambitious and majority government is formed for the rest of this mandate,” said SDS leader Janez Jansa, who is also an ex-prime minister.
    Several parties have indicated they might be willing to join a government under the SDS although Jansa failed to form a government when his party emerged from the last election in 2018 as the NATO and European Union member state’s biggest party.
    The SDS has 26 of the 90 seats in parliament.    Potential allies include the centre-left Party of Modern Centre with 10 seats, conservative New Slovenia with seven seats and pensioners’ party Desus with five seats.
    The centre-left SAB, which has five seats, has called for all parties except the SDS to explore whether it is possible form a government.    It said parliament should be given a chance to change the electoral system to allow people to vote for candidates rather than parties.
    Serac’s coalition included five centre-left parties and held 43 seats in parliament.
    President Borut Pahor is due on Tuesday to start official talks with parliamentary parties and has until the end of this month to nominate a candidate for prime minister or tell the parliament he will not propose anyone.
    If that happens, parliamentarians will have another 16 days to propose candidates.    If the impasse continues, Pahor must call a snap election.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/3/2020 Kosovo approves new government, PM vows to be tough negotiator with Serbia by Fatos Bytyci
Newly elected Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti waves after taking an oath during
a parliament session in Pristina, Kosovo February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Laura Hasani
    PRISTINA (Reuters) – Kosovo’s parliament approved a new government on Monday after weeks of coalition talks, and Prime Minister Albin Kurti promised to take a tough stance in negotiations with Balkan rival Serbia.
    Kurti, 44, also told parliament before the vote of approval – won with 66 votes in the 120-seat assembly – that he would fight corruption and nepotism, which foreign businesses cite as the main obstacles to investment in Kosovo.
    After weeks of coalition talks following a snap election in October, Kurti’s leftist Vetevendosje (Self Determination) party reached a deal with the centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo on Sunday to create a government.
    One of the main challenges facing the government, which also includes six groups representing Serbs, Turks, Bosniaks and other ethnic minorities, is negotiating with Serbia.
    Serbia lost control of Kosovo after NATO bombing in 1999 to drive out Serb forces following a counter-insurgency in which more than 13,000 people, mainly Kosovo Albanians, were killed.
    Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but Belgrade does not recognize its independence and the two have not normalized ties.
    European Union-sponsored talks between Kosovo and Serbia came to a halt in November 2018 when Kosovo introduced a 100% tax on goods produced in Serbia.    In the election campaign, Kurti said he would lift trade tariffs but introduce other measures.
    “With Serbia we will have a full reciprocity in trade, politics and economy.    I am ready to lead the talks with Serbia,” Kurti told parliament.
    He said he his government would sue Serbia before the International Court of Justice for crimes Serbian forces are accused of committing during the 1998-99 war.
    Kurti said he intends to introduce three-month military conscription and, promising to fight corruption, he said “there will be no individual or company that will be more powerful than the state.”
    The finance minister will be Besnik Bislimi, a macroeconomics professor who studied in Germany.
    Kosovo held the October election following the resignation of Ramush Haradinaj as prime minister after he was summoned for questioning by an EU-funded war crimes court.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/3/2020 France and Poland should consider nuclear energy cooperation: minister
FILE PHOTO: French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire reacts after his New Year address to France's economic actors
and the press at the Bercy Finance Ministry in Paris, France, January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
    WARSAW (Reuters) – France and Poland should consider cooperation in nuclear energy, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Monday, as central Europe’s largest economy looks for ways to reduce its dependence on coal.
    Poland generates most of its electricity from coal but is planning to build its first nuclear power station to reduce carbon emissions.    However, it is struggling to work out a financing model for the project.
    “It would be good for France and Poland to examine together the possibility of collaboration in the nuclear domain,” Le Maire said during an economic forum in Poland.
    Le Maire also stressed the importance of European companies protecting their industrial data.
    “It is legitimate that France, Poland, Europe protect their most critical technologies, protect technologies which have required public money,” he said.
    “Let’s put in place a sovereign European cloud to protect our industrial data which is our most important property.”
(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko and Alan Charlish; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

2/4/2020 Russia sends Lavrov to Venezuela to ‘counteract’ U.S. sanctions by Tom Balmforth
FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reacts during a joint news conference
in Colombo, Sri Lanka January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Venezuela on Friday in a show of support for President Nicolas Maduro, a socialist who Washington wants out of power.
    Russia has helped Maduro weather a political crisis as the United States has targeted Caracas with sanctions and, like dozens of other countries, recognizes opposition politician Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate interim leader.
    Moscow has denounced the U.S. sanctions as illegal and damaging, while Venezuela’s opposition has urged Washington to step up pressure on Russia for its economic, diplomatic and military support of Maduro.
    Lavrov, foreign minister since 2004, flies to Latin America on Wednesday, stopping in Cuba before heading to Mexico on Thursday and Venezuela the next day.
    His trip follows a tour by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of four former Soviet states – Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – in a region that Moscow sees as its backyard.
    In Venezuela, Lavrov will meet Maduro as well as Executive Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza for talks that will broach deeper cooperation on energy, mining, transport, agriculture and defense, Russia’s foreign ministry said.
    “The agenda includes a discussion of steps … to counteract illegal unilateral sanctions that worsen the socioeconomic situation in Venezuela,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
    The United States last year ratcheted up diplomatic pressure on Venezuela and imposed sanctions on the OPEC member’s state oil company, PDVSA.
    Venezuela’s opposition disputed the legitimacy of Maduro’s re-election to a second term in 2018, and opposition leader Guaido proclaimed himself interim president in January last year, winning the backing of Washington and other countries.
    Maduro has remained in power though, backed by the military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.
    In Mexico, Lavrov will meet Foreign Secretary Luis Ebrard Casaubon to discuss economic and trade ties as well as cooperation with the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC).    In Cuba, Lavrov will meet his counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Zakharova said.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)

2/4/2020 Russia sets up Siberia quarantine to prepare for potential virus spread by Maria Kiselyova and Gleb Stolyarov
FILE PHOTO: A member of Sheremetyevo International Airport's security service wears
a protective mask outside Moscow, Russia February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Tuesday it was preparing for the potential spread of China’s coronavirus as authorities closed schools and cancelled public events in some regions, though officials attributed that simply to flu.
    Russia has a 4,300 km (2,670-mile) land border with China and last week reported its first two cases of coronavirus in Siberia.    Both involve Chinese nationals.
    Moscow has restricted border crossings from China, suspended direct passenger trains and commercial flights, except for some that are being routed through a separate terminal at a Moscow airport to make screening passengers easier.
    The government has also granted authorities enhanced powers to deport any foreigners who contract the virus.
    “We are preparing ourselves for a possible wide spread of the infection,” Deputy Health Minister Sergei Krayevoy said, according to the Interfax news agency.
    The virus has killed more than 420 people and infected more than 20,000, nearly all inside China, although cases have been recorded in 23 other countries and regions, and there have been two deaths in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
    Two Russian military planes were due to help evacuate 130 Russians stranded at the epicentre of the outbreak in China’s Hubei province, officials said.
    Authorities are setting up a quarantine area in Siberia’s Tyumen region, where those evacuated will be held under observation for 14 days, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said.
    Russia’s consumer health watchdog has told people to wear medical masks on public transport and to change them regularly, but authorities in Russia’s Far East said a sudden spike in demand for masks was threatening to create shortages.
    “Don’t buy masses of medical masks,” the Primorsk region’s government wrote on social media, adding that the next big delivery of masks was not expected until Feb. 14.
    In St Petersburg, the celebrated Mariinsky Theatre postponed a Feb. 11 performance by a Chinese national opera and dance troupe until a “more favourable time when listeners can enjoy the music without worrying unnecessarily
    At least two regions – Ulyanovsk and nearby Samara on the Volga river around 900 km (560 miles) east of Moscow – have closed schools until the end of the week because of seasonal flu cases that officials said were not linked to coronavirus.
    All large public events in Ulyanovsk have also been cancelled, the regional government said.    No coronavirus cases have been reported in either region.
    “All countries in the world want to show that they can control this situation, so they’re all trying to do their best,” said Alexei Zhdanov, who flew into Moscow from Beijing wearing a mask.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Gleb Stolyarov, Tom Balmforth, Lev Sergeev; additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-FarberWriting by Katya Golubkova/Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alex Richardson)

2/4/2020 Ukraine’s last planned plane from China to arrive in Kiev
An officer of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service wearing a protective mask checks the passport
of a passenger, who arrived from China on the last planned Ukrainian flight before a ban over coronavirus,
at the Boryspil International Airport outside Kiev, Ukraine February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – The last planned Ukrainian flight from China before a ban over coronavirus is enforced was due to arrive in Kiev shortly with around 200 passengers on board, Ukraine International Airlines said on Tuesday.
    It said the plane, coming from the Chinese resort town of Sanya, was due to land at 2:28 p.m. (1228 GMT).
    Deputy director of Kiev’s Boryspil airport last week said Ukraine would suspend direct flights to China over coronavirus fears from February 4.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/4/2020 North Macedonia hopes for NATO accession ratification in March
FILE PHOTO: Newly elected President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski attends his inauguration
ceremony in Skopje, North Macedonia, May 12, 2019. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
    WARSAW (Reuters) – North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski said on Tuesday that he expects Spain, the final country needed to ratify its North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) accession, to be ready to do so in March.
    “If everything goes to plan concerning the political process, around March 10 that process should finish.    There will remain some technical details that our parliament in Skopje will have to deal with,” Pendarovski told reporters during a visit to Poland.
    NATO members signed an accord last year allowing the ex-Yugoslav republic to become the 30th member of the U.S.-led military alliance, after a deal with Greece ended a long dispute over its name.    Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia.
    The last NATO member that needs to ratify the accession is Spain and Pendarovski said he expected that Madrid will be ready to do so next month.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish; Writing by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Giles Elgood)

2/4/2020 Russia rejects appeal from former U.S. Marine held on spying charges
FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, stands inside a defendants' cage during
a court hearing on extending his pre-trial detention, in Moscow, Russia October 24, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Tuesday upheld a decision to keep former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in custody until March 29 pending trial on charges of espionage.
    Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in December 2018 and accused of spying.    He denies the charges and says he was framed.
    He could face 20 years in prison if found guilty.
(Reporting by Maxim Shemetov, writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Maria Kiselyova)

2/4/2020 Russian priests should stop blessing nukes: church proposal by Tom Balmforth
FILE PHOTO: An Orthodox priest blesses Russian paratroopers marching during Paratroopers' Day celebrations, the annual holiday of
Russian Airborne Troops, at their military unit in the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian priests should refrain from the practice of blessing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction that can inflict indiscriminate loss of life, according to new guidelines being discussed by the Russian Orthodox Church.
    During two decades in power, President Vladimir Putin has aligned himself with the Orthodox Church, which has also developed closer ties with the ministry of defense.
    Russian priests have long appeared in images sprinkling holy water on submarines, ballistic missiles, Soyuz space rockets and other pieces of hardware as part of rituals to bless them.
    But some of that is set to stop if the church approves a document drawn up by an Orthodox Church commission.
    “The blessing of military weapons is not reflected in the tradition of the Orthodox Church and does not correspond to the content of the Rite,” the document, on the Moscow patriarchate’s website, says.
    Blessing or sanctifying weapons that can kill an “indefinite number of people” must be excluded from pastoral practice, it says.
    The proposals will be discussed until June 1 and the public should also take part in the debate, the church’s Moscow branch said.
    In a striking symbol of close defense-church ties in Russia, the armed forces are building their own sprawling cathedral at a military themed park outside Moscow. It is set to be one of the tallest Orthodox churches in the world.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

2/5/2020 Finland to offer new fathers as much paid leave as mothers
Finland's Minister of Social Affairs and Health Aino-Kaisa Pekonen holds a news conference on the family leave reform in Helsinki, Finland February 5, 2020. Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen via REUTERS
    HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland’s woman-led center-left government plans to nearly double the length of paternity leave to give new fathers the same amount of paid time off work as new mothers, it announced on Wednesday.
    Paid paternity leave will be extended to nearly seven months, in line with maternity leave.    Around half can be given to the other parent.
    Pregnant women are also entitled to a month of pregnancy leave before the expected date of birth.
    Minister of Health and Social Affairs Aino-Kaisa Pekonen said the aim of the “radical reform” was both to improve gender equality and to boost a declining birth rate.
    “This enables better equality between parents and diversity among families,” she said.    She noted that other countries such as Sweden and Iceland had seen increases in their birth rates after offering more leave for fathers.
    Finland’s governing coalition is made up of five parties, all led by women, of whom four are under 35 years old.    Increasing gender equality has been one of the government’s aims since it took office in December.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/5/2020 Russian S-400 missile delivery to India to begin by end-2021: RIA citing official
FILE PHOTO: People walk past Russian S-400 missile air defence systems before the military parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary
of the battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, in the city of Volgograd, Russia February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Maleyeva/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will begin delivering S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to India by the end of 2021, agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday quoted a Russian official as saying.
    India signed a $5 billion deal for S-400 missiles in 2018, drawing warnings from the United States that such an acquisition would trigger sanctions as part of a wider program against Russia.
    “The contract is being implemented on schedule.    The first shipment is due by the end of 2021,” Deputy Director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), Vladimir Drozhzhov, said at Defence Expo 2020 in Lucknow, India, according to RIA.
    In November, the same agency cited the general director of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, Alexander Mikheev, as saying deliveries would start in September 2021.
(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Alexander Marrow; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/5/2020 Russia says alarmed by U.S. deployment of low-yield nuclear missiles by Alexander Marrow
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov speaks during a news conference
in Moscow, Russia February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/Files
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is alarmed by the U.S. Navy’s decision to deploy low-yield nuclear missiles on submarines since they heighten the risk of a limited nuclear war, a Russian official said on Wednesday.
    Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the deployment of the W76-2 warhead in the name of strengthening deterrence had caused Russia great concern over U.S. nuclear strategy, Russian news agencies reported.
    The U.S. Defense Department said on Tuesday the Navy had fielded a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, something the Pentagon says is needed to deter adversaries like Russia.
    Ryabkov said Russian rearmament and “promising models of military equipment” meant the U.S. warheads were not a direct threat to Russian security but were concerning nevertheless.
    “The appearance on strategic carriers of low-power warheads means arguments previously voiced by the American side about the possible use of such a device are now being realized in metal form, as products."
    “This reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war.    This is extremely alarming.”
    Russia’s misgivings over U.S. nuclear policy have grown since Washington pulled out of a landmark strategic arms accord, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), in August, citing violations by Russia that Moscow denies.
    It means the New START accord, signed in 2010, is the last major nuclear arms control treaty between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.    It limits the number of long-range nuclear warheads they can deploy.
MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE
    Low-yield nuclear weapons, while still devastating, have a strength of less than 20 kilotons.    The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, had about the same explosive power.     The argument for these weapons is that larger nuclear bombs are so catastrophic that they would never be used, meaning they are not an effective deterrent.    With less destructive power, the low-yield option would potentially be more likely to be used, serving as an effective deterrent, U.S. military officials have said.
    On Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin held a ceremony at the Kremlin to welcome 23 new foreign ambassadors to Moscow, including Washington’s new envoy, John Sullivan.
    Putin said peace and security on the planet largely depended on the stability and predictability of relations between Russia and the United States based on equality, mutual respect of sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s affairs.
    “We are ready for meaningful dialogue with the American side, including in the sphere of arms control and strategic stability,” Putin said.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

2/5/2020 Romanian lawmakers topple centrist cabinet, weeks of political jostling ahead by Luiza Ilie and Radu-Sorin Marinas
FILE PHOTO: Newly appointed PM Ludovic Orban during the swearing in ceremony at the Cotroceni presidential palace,
in Bucharest, Romania, November 4, 2019. Picture taken November 4, 2019. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS
    BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romanian lawmakers toppled the three-month-old centrist minority government of Prime Minister Ludovic Orban on Wednesday, raising the prospect of an early parliamentary election which Orban’s party says it is confident of winning.
    Ousting the cabinet will likely usher in weeks of political wrangling and stalled policymaking at a time when widening budget and current account deficits are pressuring assets and rating outlooks.
    Striving to regain power after being ousted themselves in a censure motion in October, the Social Democrats, which spearheaded the no-confidence vote, have criticized Orban for trying to alter electoral laws without public debate ahead of a mayoral ballot in June.
    Official data showed 261 lawmakers voted to topple Orban.    The motion needed 233 votes to pass.
    Commentators said the vote could open the way for an early election which Orban’s Liberal Party (PNL) and its key ally, President Klaus Iohannis are seeking in order to take advantage of the Liberal’s rising approval ratings.
    Iohannis said “a first step toward a snap election has already been made today.”
    “I see an enthusiastic, pro-reform cabinet that wanted to repair what the PSD has damaged over the past years,” said Iohannis.    “On the other hand I see a PSD that is anti-reforms … so I wish myself to adopt a stance that leads to early elections.”
    He said consultations with political parties will start on Thursday morning and “maybe a nomination for a premier will come until the evening.”
    Iohannis has made it clear his choice would be Orban.
    Orban’s PNL has doubled its popularity ratings to about 47% since a 2016 parliamentary election, while PSD’s have halved to about 20% over the same period.
    A snap election can be triggered only if parliament rejects two successive prime minister proposals within sixty days.    Analysts have said the likely outcome is extremely unclear given fragmented and polarized parliamentary groupings.
    “Knowing the chronic lack of consistency among Romanian politicians, as well as interpretation variations from the Constitutional Court, it is impossible to anticipate what will happen,” said Sergiu Miscoiu, a political science professor at Babes-Bolyai University.
    “From now on, policymaking is done, we’re left with policy crushing.    It’s possible that the precariousness of the (government) will weaken already low trust in state institutions.”
    Romania, a European Union member, is due to hold local and general elections in June and December respectively.
    “The road toward early elections is difficult, but they would remove fiscal uncertainties, being positive for local financial assets,” BCR Bank said in a note.
    The Romanian leu traded 0.3% firmer to the euro after the vote.
    “This government has landed on its feet,” Orban, who will now serve as an interim prime minister, said when asked about the possibility of an early poll.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie and Radu-Sorin Marinas; Editing by Toby Chopra and Hugh Lawson)

2/5/2020 French change of tone boosts Balkan states’ hopes of joining EU by Robin Emmott and Michel Rose
FILE PHOTO: European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner-designate Oliver Varhelyi of Hungary speaks during his
hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, November 14, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) – France has welcomed the European Union’s proposed changes to the way it admits new countries, which could smooth the path towards membership for Balkan countries after President Emmanuel Macron blocked accession talks.
    The EU’s enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi unveiled a new methodology for admitting new member states on Wednesday.    The reforms were forced by Macron blocking the start of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania – a decision EU chiefs described as a historic error – and demanding changes to the bloc’s so-called enlargement process.
    The proposals would give existing EU members more powers to pause or reverse the process of admitting new nations, or even force countries to restart entry talks in some policy areas.
    “It’s a step in the right direction,” an Elysee official said in Paris.    “There’s a real change of methodology that is being proposed.    It’s an important and positive one.”
    Asked if the reform was enough to dispel French objections, the official said Paris would consult with other EU countries in the spring before making a decision.
    In Brussels, Varhelyi stressed the EU still aimed to admit six Balkan countries into the bloc – North Macedonia and Albania, as well Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia.
    Serbia and Montenegro are the most advanced in their negotiations and could join the bloc later this decade.    North Macedonia and Albania are next in line to open talks.
    The European Commission – the EU’s executive body – needs to get France on board with the accession process before a Zagreb summit with the six Balkan states in May.
‘MEMBERSHIP OFFERED TO REGION’
    Varhelyi said enlargement was “geo-strategic”, a reference to a view that the EU cannot stem its waning global influence without stabilizing the Balkans.     “We continue to have full enlargement as a goal,” he told a news conference after publishing the European Commission reforms, which were reported by Reuters on Tuesday.     “EU membership is offered to the entire region, including Kosovo.”     Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move not recognized by five of the EU’s 27 member states.
    Macron’s decision in October to block the process of admitting North Macedonia and Albania was backed by the Netherlands and Denmark.    The French president argued that the enlargement process was “too bureaucratic” and “automatic” and should give existing member states more power to reverse the process if the situation in candidate countries deteriorated.
    The following month France, which says it supports accession for the Balkans nations in the long term, submitted a proposal for changes.
    One EU diplomat urged Paris to allow membership talks to move forward with North Macedonia and Albania.
    “The Commission has built a solid bridge for France. We are counting on Paris to walk over this bridge now,” the diplomat told Reuters.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Michel Rose; Editing by Marine Strauss and Pravin Char)

2/5/2020 Poland to hold first round of presidential election on May 10
FILE PHOTO: Poland's President Andrzej Duda attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the "death wall" at the former Nazi German
concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, during the ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the
camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel/File Photo
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland will hold the first round of its presidential election on May 10, a vote that will decide whether the ruling nationalists can press ahead with policies criticized by Brussels and the opposition.
    The Law and Justice (PiS) party has vowed to pursue judicial reforms that critics say have marginalized Poland in the EU, but a defeat for the incumbent, PiS ally Andrzej Duda, would threaten the government’s agenda as the president has the power to veto laws.
    “This year we have very important elections,” Elzbieta Witek, the parliamentary speaker, told reporters.    “The presidential elections will be held on May 10.”
    Duda is ahead in the polls, with a survey in the weekly Polityka giving him 41.7% in the first round.    Opponents include Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska of the center-right Civic Platform, and Robert Biedron of the Left grouping.
    If nobody gets more than 50% of votes, a second round is held two weeks later, and the candidate with the most votes wins.
    On Tuesday, Duda stepped up the conflict with Brussels by signing a law that critics say aims to muzzle judges critical of the government’s reforms.    Poland has also clashed with the EU over migration and climate change, among other issues.
    PiS won a second term in October on the back of promises to raise living standards to match those of the West and hefty social handouts.
    However, the party lost control of the upper house, the Senate. While the Senate can delay bills and its speaker, Tomasz Grodzki, has taken a prominent role in opposing PiS’s judicial policies, it cannot block bills entirely, a power reserved for the president.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Marcin Goclowski and Giles Elgood)

2/5/2020 Ukraine security services search TV channel office over PM wiretap
FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk (L) and leader of servant of the people fraction,
. David Arakhamia attend a parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine November 13, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s security service said on Wednesday it had searched an office of the “1+1” TV channel over what it said it was an illegal wiretap that nearly led to the resignation of the prime minister.
    In January, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk submitted a letter of resignation after some media published an audio in which he appeared to criticize the president while talking to ministers and central bank officials.
    Honcharuk has previously said the recording had been doctored and was made up of different fragments of what had been said at government meetings.
    President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has not accepted the resignation and urged law enforcement bodies to determine who was involved in making the recording.
    “The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) conducted a pre-trial investigation into the illegal use of special technical means of obtaining information at the premises of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine,” the SBU said in a statement.
    It added that its investigators had found that “individuals who periodically visited the office of “1+1? may be involved in the unlawful use of special technical means of obtaining information.”
    The security service said it suspected undisclosed individuals had edited and distributed the audio recordings.
    The TV channel, which is owned by one of Ukraine’s most powerful tycoons, Ihor Kolomoisky, with whom Zelenskiy had close business ties, accused the SBU of trying to put pressure on journalists who produce investigative programs.
    The SBU denied that, saying “We are talking about an impartial and comprehensive investigation into a criminal case of an illegal wiretap of the head of government.”
    Zelenskiy, a television sitcom star, was elected in a landslide election last April.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

2/6/2020 Romania’s president asks outgoing PM Orban to form government by Radu-Sorin Marinas
Romanian interim PM Ludovic Orban delivers a speech before a no-confidence vote session in the
Romanian Parliament in Bucharest, Romania February 5, 2020. Inquam Photos/George Calin via REUTERS
    BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania’s president on Thursday asked outgoing Prime Minister Ludovic Orban to form a new government around the premier’s centrist Liberal party, moving a step closer to an early parliamentary election which Orban is widely expected to win.
    The move by Klaus Iohannis is part of a plan agreed with his centrist ally Orban to force elections six months early, in order to take advantage of the Liberal’s (PNL) rising popularity and cement their grip on power for the next four years.
    On Wednesday, lawmakers toppled Orban’s three-month-old Liberal minority government in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence spearheaded by the opposition Social Democrats (PSD), the country’s largest grouping.
    Iohannis has made clear his choice would only be Orban, to be sure he gets rejected by the legislators and lead to the dissolution of parliament.
    “As I have repeatedly said, a snap poll is my first option, it is the correct choice.    I decided to ask Ludovic Orban to form a new cabinet,” Klaus Iohannis told reporters after holding consultations with parliamentary political groupings.
    Parliament is considered dissolved and a snap election is held if legislators reject two successive prime minister proposals within 60 days.    Pundits have said, however, the likely outcome is unclear given fragmented political groupings.
    Orban’s PNL has doubled its approval ratings to about 47% since a 2016 general election, while PSD’s have halved to about 20% over the same period – chiefly due to its staunch attempts to weaken the judiciary.
    Analysts say the sooner Romania has a new government in command of a comfortable majority in parliament, the better will be its emerging economy, especially when considering important fiscal adjustments required this year.
    A confidence vote could take place as early as next week.
(Editing by Jon Boyle and …)

2/6/2020 Serbia should accept EU expansion reforms, president says
FILE PHOTO: Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic attends the opening of the
50th World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia should accept the European Union’s proposed changes to the way it admits new countries, which could smooth the path toward membership for Balkan countries, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday.
    A day earlier, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, proposed giving existing EU members the power to delay or reverse the process of admitting new nations or to force countries to restart entry talks in some policy areas.
    Vucic said Belgrade would now “diligently study” the proposed reforms before a EU summit with the six Balkan states in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, in May.
    “As the president, I personally prefer the new methodology,” Vucic told reporters after meeting Varhelyi in Belgrade.
    The expansion reforms were forced by French President Emanuel Macron, who last year blocked the start of membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania and demanded changes to how new members are admitted.
    In Belgrade, Varhelyi said the EU still aims to admit six Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
    Serbia and Montenegro are the most advanced in their EU entry talks, hoping to join this decade.    North Macedonia and Albania are next in line to open talks. Kosovo and Bosnia are lagging behind.
    “My goal is that by the end of my mandate, in the next four and a half years, at least one country from the Western Balkans should be ready to join in,” Varhelyi said.
    Before joining, Serbia must mend ties with Kosovo, its former, predominantly Albanian southern province, which seceded in 2008, almost a decade after a bloody war there.
    Serbia must also improve its economy, business climate, the rule of law, media freedoms and root out corruption and organized crime.
    The European Commission – the EU’s executive body – needs to get France on board with the accession reforms before the Zagreb summit in May.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Larry King)

2/6/2020 Ukrainian lawmakers: U.S. relations remain uncertain despite ‘impeachment hoax’ failure by OAN Newsroom
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky arrive for
a joint news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday Jan. 31, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool via AP)
    Members of Ukrainian parliament are saying bilateral ties with the U.S. remain uncertain, despite the acquittal of President Trump.    On Thursday, Ukrainian lawmakers expressed hope for sensible and businesslike relations with the U.S.     They said ties between the two countries must focus on diplomatic partnership.    The MPs also denounced extreme partisanship on Capitol Hill and called out attempts by some U.S. lawmakers to politicize foreign relations.
    Officials added the U.S. should develop a coherent bipartisan approach to its foreign policies.
    “Ukraine does view the United States as our partner,” stated MP Inna Sovsun.    “We do expect that the situation in Washington D.C. around the impeachment will not influence and will not change the bipartisan support that Ukraine has been receiving in the past few years in fighting the Russian aggression in the east and in Crimea.”
    Ukrainian lawmakers also said recent headlines have tarnished the image of their country abroad and were a “major disappointment.”
[The Democrats and the Obama administeation policies and the fake news services in the U.S. have given our country a bad name to the world because of the Ukraine political hack impeachment hoax as even they can see that the Trump administration is under attack and is improving that situation.].

2/7/2020 Mexico in talks with Russia to buy new batch of military helicopters: foreign minister
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference,
in Mexico City, Mexico February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
    MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday said Mexico was in talks to buy a batch of Russian-made military helicopters.
    Mexico has long-standing military ties with Russia and the Mexican armed forces use an extensive fleet of Russian-made helicopters.
    Lavrov, on a visit to Mexico, said a new supply agreement with Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms exporter could follow an earlier purchase of about 50 Russian helicopters.
    “The Mexican side is currently considering concrete proposals from Rosoboronexport, including the supply of helicopters,” Lavrov said.
    In 2018, Mexico’s then-incoming President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, said he would cancel the planned purchase of eight military helicopters from its main security partner, the United States, as part of cost-cutting measures.
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Marianna Parraga; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Hogue)

2/7/2020 Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov hits out at U.S. ‘provocations’ in Venezuela by Marianna Parraga
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gestures as he speaks during a news
conference, in Mexico City, Mexico February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
    MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday denounced U.S. foreign policy in Venezuela, criticizing U.S. “provocations” and attempts to create what he called a pretext for military intervention.
    Lavrov’s censure of Washington, on a low-profile visit to Mexico, came at an awkward time for the host nation.    Mexico’s government has been going out of its way avoid antagonizing the Trump administration, meeting its demands over immigration and other issues to avoid punitive U.S. measures.
    Russia and the United States have repeatedly clashed over Venezuela, where Russian oil companies and military advisers are playing a key role in support of the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.
    The United States and dozens of other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has been trying to oust Maduro, as Venezuela’s rightful president.    Washington has imposed sanctions in a bid to dislodge Maduro.
    Lavrov condemned attempts to remove Maduro as not “useful,” and said Washington’s threats against Venezuela were counterproductive.
    Lavrov said the United States was “threatening that all options are on the table” and was involved in “provocations” in Venezuela.
    “No one can solve the problems of Venezuelans for them, but others may very well try to prevent them from negotiating.    We see such attempts aimed at setting a pretext for a military intervention,” Lavrov said, according to Russian state news agency Tass.
    “Russia and Mexico agree that this will be categorically unacceptable,” Lavrov added, according to Tass.
    Lavrov met with Mexican counterpart Marcelo Ebrard on Thursday and afterwards said U.S. foreign policy was stuck in the past, accusing Washington of bullying tactics.
    “The United States thinks that everything is allowed and in the meantime they threaten the interlocutors, including punishments and sanctions,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Mexico City, according to a live translation of his comments into Spanish.
    While Lavrov spoke warmly of a shared vision for Latin America with Mexico, his Mexican counterpart Ebrard did not make a public appearance with him.    During last year’s visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ebrard and Pompeo met the press together.
    “It’s a snub,” Jorge Castaneda, a Mexican former foreign minister, told Reuters.    “It just shows how subservient this government has become to the Americans.”
    Mexico’s foreign ministry, in a statement, said it shared with Russia its “vision” for its rotating presidency of a regional body, known as CELAC, which was established by Venezuela as a counterweight to the U.S.-backed Organization of American States (OAS).
    Mexican and Russian positions on Venezuela have moved closed under Mexico’s leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with both calling for talks without pre-conditions.    However, Mexico has been less vocal in regards to the future of Maduro amid its efforts to have smooth relations with Washington.
(Reporting by Marianna Paragga; writing by Drazen Jorgic; additional reporting by Sharay Angulo and Adriana Barrera; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Lincoln Feast.)

2/7/2020 Residents of North Macedonia’s capital protest air pollution by OAN Newsroom
High school students in North Macedonia protested in December against high levels of air pollution in Skopje. (Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters Photo)
    One of Europe’s most polluted cities has continued calls for cleaner air.    This week, residents and environmental experts protested in North Macedonia’s capital city of Skopje.
    The city has struggled with hazardous levels of air pollution for years, with levels reaching five to 10 times higher than recommended.     Protesters demanded urgent government interventions to tighten emission standards for older cars, household heating and construction projects.
    A local meteorologist said the city’s pollution issues were due in part to its mountainous location.
    “It is an urban area in the bottom of Skopje valley surrounded by high mountains in all directions,” explained environmentalist Eli Pesevska.    “They represent an obstacle to a more frequent air advection and wind with effective speed.”
    Medical officials in North Macedonia have estimated more than 3,000 people die from air pollution in the country each year.

2/7/2020 Russia foreign minister slams U.S. sanctions during visit to Venezuela by Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shakes hands with his Venezuelan counterpart Jorge Arreaza
during a meeting in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba
    CARACAS (Reuters) – Russia’s foreign minister on Friday slammed U.S. sanctions against Venezuela during a visit to Caracas, providing a public show of support for President Nicolas Maduro as Washington mulls ramping up pressure on the South American nation.
    Sergei Lavrov arrived in Caracas on Thursday, only hours after the U.S. State Department suggested its Venezuela sanctions program could begin targeting Russia, whose oil companies have helped Maduro by buying much of the OPEC nation’s crude.
    Assistance from Russia could be decisive for Maduro to boost oil production and restore economic growth after a surprise opening of the economy last year that followed years of hyperinflation and the exodus of 5 million people.
    “We have agreed to deepen our economic, commercial and investment cooperation in several areas despite the illegitimate sanctions,” Lavrov said alongside Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez following an afternoon meeting with Maduro.
    “The most promising sectors are energy, natural resources and industry,” Lavrov said in comments broadcast on state television, without providing details.
    U.S. President Donald Trump met at the White House this week with opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
    “We consider sanctions to be unacceptable,” Lavrov said during an earlier televised meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart, Jorge Arreaza, and other Venezuelan officials.    “It is outrageous that unilateral actions by the United States affect social and humanitarian projects.”
    Lavrov also said “unilateral” actions by Washington could interfere with humanitarian projects. He voiced support for a government-backed dialogue effort as an alternative to “uprisings and interventions.”
    Opposition leaders have said Maduro uses dialogue proceedings as a stalling tactic.
    U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams said on Thursday that Russia’s support for Maduro’s government may “no longer be cost-free.”
    On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department said it imposed sanctions on Venezuela state-run airline Conviasa, which it said was being used to “shuttle corrupt officials around the world.”
    “The Trump administration will not allow Maduro and his proxies to continue stealing from the Venezuelan people and abusing state-owned assets to advance their own corrupt and destabilizing activities,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
    It is not evident that Washington is prepared to impose sanctions on Russian oil companies due to the potential impact on crude markets.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; Editing by Will Dunham, Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)

2/8/2020 Russia says Israel nearly shot down passenger plane in Syria
    MOSCOW – Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that Israeli air forces nearly shot down a passenger jetliner in Syria during a missile strike on the suburbs of Damascus.    In a statement Friday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said the strike occurred about 2 a.m. local time Thursday.    He said four Israeli F-16 fighter jets hit the suburbs of Damascus with eight missiles without taking into account that a passenger plane with 172 people on board from Tehran, Iran, was preparing to land around the same time.

2/8/2020 Ethnic clashes in Kazakhstan leave eight dead, scores wounded
A view shows a burnt house following a recent brawl and a series of clashes in a village in the
southern Zhambyl province, Kazakhstan February 8, 2020. Tengrinews/Alikhan Sariyev via REUTERS
    NUR-SULTAN/ALMATY (Reuters) – Eight people were killed and scores wounded in a series of clashes overnight in villages in Kazakhstan’s southern Zhambyl province, with homes and businesses torched, the interior minister said on Saturday.
    Some 70 people were involved in the initial confrontation on the outskirts of Masanchi village, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan, Yerlan Turgumbayev told a news briefing.
    Violence spread to several nearby villages and crowds clashed with police, wounding two officers with gunshots, and torched dozens of buildings and cars.    Police detained 47 people and confiscated two hunting shotguns, Turgumbayev said.
    The area is home to many members of the Dungan minority group, Muslims of ethnic Chinese origin who control many of the local businesses.    It was unclear what sparked the clashes between groups of young male Dungans and ethnic Kazakhs.
    State television station Khabar showed the aftermath of the violence in one of the villages, with small stores and two-storey family houses destroyed by fire.
    Police and the National Guard had brought the situation under control, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in a statement on Saturday, ordering authorities to take steps to maintain calm in the villages.
    Tokayev called for a thorough investigation and instructed security agencies to prosecute those spreading ethnic hate speech, “provocative rumours and disinformation>”
    Information Minister Dauren Abayev said authorities had temporarily closed a large outdoor market in Kakakhstan’s largest city Almaty due to the threat of further violence.
    An eyewitness told Reuters he saw many Dungan families cross the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border on Saturday to be met by relatives on the Kyrgyz side.
    “They meet those who cross the border and take them to their homes.    It’s mostly women, children and the elderly,” said the man, who asked not to be named.
    The violence has exposed the fragility of inter-ethnic relations in Kazakhstan, an oil-rich nation of about 19 million.    It has long prided itself on fostering harmony among the complex mix of 120 ethnicities that it inherited from the Soviet Union.
(Reporting by Tamara Vaal in Nur-Sultan and Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty; Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Editing by Stephen Coates and Ros Russell)

2/8/2020 Ukraine’s president asks pope to help win release of prisoners of war by Philip Pullella
FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a joint news conference after a
Normandy-format summit in Paris, France December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Pool/File Photo
    VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked Pope Francis on Saturday for help to win the release of prisoners of war held by Russia and Russian-backed separatists.
    “(The pope) does everything possible to achieve peace and harmony throughout the world,” Zelenskiy said in a tweet after their meeting at the Vatican.
    “I asked for help with the release of Ukrainians captured in Donbass, Crimea and Russia,” he said.
    Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and its subsequent support for separatists in a conflict in eastern Ukraine.
    The Vatican has diplomatic relations with both Ukraine and Russia.
    Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the east completed a large-scale prisoner swap on December 29 in the breakaway Donbass region.    It is not clear how many Ukrainian government soldiers are still being held, but activists say there are about 100.
    Zelenskiy won a landslide election victory in April, promising to end the five-year-old conflict and bring prisoners home.
    The 42-year-old president, a former comedian, said he emerged from the meeting with the pope, who is nearly twice his age, “inspired by our talk about peace in Ukraine
    During the photo session of the meeting, which was open to reporters, Francis gave Zelenskiy a medal of St. Martin of Tours and said he hoped the saint “will protect your people from war.”
    A Vatican statement made no mention of what the pope and Zelenskiy spoke about in their private talks.
    It said the president did discuss the conflict and its effects on the civilian population in separate talks later with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and its foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Editing by Ros Russell)

2/8/2020 Polish judiciary changes are a ‘destruction’: EU commissioner
FILE PHOTO: European Values and Transparency Commissioner-designate Vera Jourova of Czech Republic speaks during her
hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 7, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s overhaul of its judiciary constitutes “destruction” not reform, EU Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera     Jourova said in an interview published on Saturday, amid growing concern that Poland’s nationalists are seeking to muzzle judges.
    Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s eurosceptic, nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party has introduced a series of judicial reforms that EU officials and democracy activists say may breach the bloc’s standards on the rule of law.
    Its most recent reforms aim to discipline judges who question court appointments under new rules, introducing measures that critics say are designed to silence dissent.
    “This is no longer a targeted intervention against individual black sheep, similar to other EU member states, but a case of carpet bombing,” Jourova told German weekly magazine Der Spiegel.
    “This is no reform, it’s destruction.”
    Her comments came as over a thousand demonstrators gathered in front of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw to support the reforms, arguing they are necessary to protect Poland’s sovereignty.
    Protesters carried Polish flags and placards saying “EU’s politicians, hands off Polish courts” and “We support the reform of courts.”    A series of protests against the reforms have also taken place across Poland in recent months.
    PiS says the reforms will make the court system more efficient and root out the leftovers of communism.    Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, signed the most recent changes into law this week.
    Jourova said the Commission was scrutinizing the new law and keeping all legal options open.
    She visited Poland in January and met with a number of Polish officials, including Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, Senate speaker and opposition member Tomasz Grodzki and Poland’s Human Rights Commissioner Adam Bodnar.
    During her visit, she expressed a willingness to enter into a dialogue with Poland’s government.
    Her visit came after the European Commission said it was “very concerned” about the Polish changes to the judiciary.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Christoph Steitz and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Editing by Ros Russell)

2/8/2020 Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov slams U.S. sanctions against Venezuela by OAN Newsroom
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gestures at the end of his visit, as Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez stands
behind, at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed U.S. sanctions against Venezuela during his visit to Caracas.    Lavrov was joined by President Nicolas Maduro at a press conference on Friday, where he reiterated Russian support and solidarity against pressure by the U.S.
    “We have firmly expressed our support to Venezuela’s sovereignty, our solidarity with the Venezuelan leadership and nation in their battle against illegal pressure, which is being imposed by the U.S. and its allies,” he said.
    He also vowed to boost bilateral trade between the two countries and to develop cooperation in various sectors.
    “It’s also important to develop military cooperation to help Venezuela defend themselves against outside threats,” stated Lavrov.    “We reiterate our solidarity with, and respect for, the Venezuelan people against the illegitimate pressure by the United States and those who support such measures.”
    The foreign minister added he supports a government backed dialogue as an alternative to uprisings and interventions.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, right, shakes hands with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
during a photo opportunity at the end of their meeting at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela,
Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. Lavrov is visiting Venezuela in a show of support for Maduro as mounting pressure from Washington
threatens to cut off the socialist leader from a key financial ally in Moscow. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

2/9/2020 Armenia to hold referendum on Constitutional Court in April
FILE PHOTO: Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General
Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
    YEREVAN (Reuters) – Armenia will hold a referendum on suspending the powers of a majority of members of its Constitutional Court, a move seen by political analysts as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s attempt to remove judges who have opposed him.
    A bill on holding the referendum on April 5 was adopted by parliament earlier this week and signed by President Armen Sarkissian on Sunday.
    The constitutional amendments would suspend the powers of seven judges who were appointed before a peaceful revolution against corruption and cronyism which brought Pashinyan to power two years ago.    The court’s two other judges, who were appointed later, will maintain their powers.
    Pashinyan on Thursday called the Constitutional Court’s decisions a “threat to democracy.”
    Last September the court ruled that a criminal case against Armenia’s former president Robert Kocharyan was partly unconstitutional.    Kocharyan has been charged with acting unlawfully by introducing a state of emergency in March 2008, following a disputed election.
    “The only hope of the former corrupt regime is pinned on the Constitutional Court and its president Hrayr Tovmasyan,” Pashinyan told parliament on Thursday.
    Tovmasyan was charged in December with abuse of power while he was the country’s justice minister.    He has denied the charges.
    The seven judges were appointed by the Republican party, who ruled the country at the time, and former president Serzh Sarksyan.
    Members of the Republican party, now in opposition, criticized the decision to hold the referendum.
    “This is an illogical, illegal and unconstitutional change,” the party said in a statement.
(Reporting by Nvard Hovhannisyan; writing by Margarita Antidze; editing by Kirsten Donovan)

2/10/2020 Romanian opposition ask court to overturn move to renominate PM
FILE PHOTO: Newly appointed PM Ludovic Orban during the swearing in ceremony at the Cotroceni
presidential palace, in Bucharest, Romania, November 4, 2019. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS
    BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania’s opposition Social Democrat Party (PSD) said on Monday they would go to court to challenge President Klaus Iohannis’s move to renominate the ousted Ludovic Orban as prime minister, which could derail plans to trigger an early election.
    Lawmakers last week toppled Orban’s three-month-old minority government, potentially opening the way for an election that his Liberals (PNL) are confident of winning.
    The next day, Iohannis, an ally of the centrist Liberals, asked Orban to form a new government.
    That cabinet is set to be voted down in parliament – the first of two proposed governments that need to be rejected by lawmakers within 60 days to trigger an election, which would then take place a few months ahead of schedule.
    Shortening the election cycle could be a relief for markets if it puts an end to years of political instability.
    But analysts have warned that a snap election is hard to bring about, especially in view of Romania’s fragmented and disparate parliamentary groupings.
    They say the process of triggering it will mean weeks or months of wrangling and stall policymaking at a time when widening budget and current account deficits are pressuring Romanian shares and bonds and rating outlooks.
    Orban’s PNL has doubled its support in opinion polls to about 47% since 2016, while the Social Democrats (PSD) have broadly lost half their support, falling to about 20%.
    PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu said he had turned to the Constitutional Court because a nominee for prime minister must come from a majority party or alliance and Orban, having lost a no confidence vote, did not meet this condition.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

2/10/2020 Russia quarantines Chinese diplomat as coronavirus precaution: Interfax
FILE PHOTO: A member of Sheremetyevo International Airport's security service wears a protective
mask outside Moscow, Russia February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian authorities have quarantined a Chinese diplomat as a safety precaution against the coronavirus outbreak, the Interfax news agency reported on Monday.
    Consul General Cui Shaochun arrived in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on Thursday to take up his new post but was told to stay at home for two weeks, Russian foreign ministry official Alexander Kharlov was quoted as saying.
    The Chinese consulate in Yekaterinburg did not answer calls on Monday.
    Russia has reported two cases of the coronavirus and has isolated hundreds of Russian and Chinese nationals who recently arrived from China to screen them for the virus.
    Nearly 150 people who were evacuated from the epicentre of the outbreak, the Chinese city of Wuhan, have been placed in a fenced-off recreation facility in Siberia near the location where one of the infected people is receiving treatment.
    More than 100 Chinese citizens are quarantined in a sanatorium in Yekaterinburg or in a dormitory in a nearby town.
    The overall death toll from the epidemic has passed 900, with all but two of the deaths in mainland China.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, editing by Thomas Balmforth, Jon Boyle and Timothy Heritage)

2/11/2020 Swiss government lobbies for EU ties as ‘Brexit moment’ looms by Michael Shields
FILE PHOTO: An EU flag flies beside Switzerland's national flag near the German-Swiss
border in Rheinfelden, Germany, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd WIegmann/File Photo
    ZURICH (Reuters) – The Swiss government on Tuesday urged voters to reject a referendum brought by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party to end an accord with the European Union on the free movement of citizens.
    Should the party win the binding vote on May 17 in what is being called Switzerland’s “Brexit moment,” the country could lose its privileged access to the EU single market that is the lifeblood of its economy.
    It could also end up kicking Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, out of the Schengen system of passport-free travel and the Dublin accord on asylum requests, Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter told a news conference in Bern.
    “We would really reach a point where we would have to start from scratch in forming our ties with the EU,” she said.
    A rupture in bilateral ties would put Switzerland in a much tougher spot than Britain after Brexit, as the EU would have no duty to negotiate, she said.
    “We would practically be a supplicant to our biggest trading partner,” she said.    The EU absorbed 52% of Swiss goods exports and generated 70% of Swiss imports in 2018.
    The referendum drive reflects unease with the influx of foreigners who make up a quarter of the Swiss population.
    Net migration from the EU and EFTA countries Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein increased by nearly 32,000 last year, half the number in 2013, Keller-Sutter noted.
    Business leaders say they need skilled foreign workers.
    The eurosceptic People’s Party – the biggest in parliament and with two of the seven federal cabinet seats – has long fought to take national control of immigration.
    It is not uncommon for different parties in the Swiss government to pursue different policy ideologies as all important issues in the country are dealt with by referendums.
    The party’s proposal would allow a year to negotiate an end to free movement, but chances of this are practically nil given the EU’s hard line on a policy tenet.
    A “guillotine clause” means ending free movement would scupper other pillars in a web of 120 custom-made bilateral pacts, including accords on the mutual recognition of industrial standards, public procurement, agriculture, research, and transport by land and air.
    The Swiss government has long struggled to revamp EU ties.
    Brussels wants the Swiss to endorse a new treaty that would have Bern routinely adopt single market rules and create a more effective platform to resolve disputes.
    The Swiss have dragged their feet for months while trying to forge consensus on how to proceed, annoying Brussels and triggering a row over cross-border stock trading.
    The treaty ran aground amid opposition that spanned the normally pro-Europe center left to the anti-EU far right.    Critics say the pact infringes Swiss sovereignty to the extent that it would never get through parliament or pass a referendum.
(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by William Maclean and Alison Williams)

2/11/2020 Ukraine’s president fires chief of staff after reports of turf war
FILE PHOTO: Andriy Bogdan, a lawyer and adviser to new President Zelenskiy, attends a news conference in front
of the Presidential administration headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday dismissed his chief of staff Andriy Bogdan, a lawyer whose links with a prominent tycoon had made him one of Zelenskiy’s most controversial appointments since taking office last year.
    No official explanation was immediately given for the dismissal but it came after reports of a turf war between Bogdan and Andriy Yermak, a senior presidential aide who has now been appointed to replace him.
    Zelenskiy appeared to hint at this in an interview published by Interfax Ukraine on Tuesday, saying that internal conflicts within his team had prevented it from working effectively.
    Bogdan did not immediately comment on his dismissal.
    The ousted chief of staff was previously a lawyer for Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest men.    Kolomoisky owns the TV channel that brought Zelenskiy fame as a sitcom star, and the president’s business ties to him have been a red flag to some investors.
    Bogdan represented Kolomoisky in a legal battle with the government over control of Ukraine’s biggest commercial lender, PrivatBank, a case that has weighed on whether the International Monetary Fund will disburse new loans to Ukraine.
    “Bogdan previously worked as a lawyer for Kolomoisky so never really managed to shake the perception that he was in the Kolomoisky camp still,” said Timothy Ash at BlueBay Asset Management.
    “His departure, if confirmed, would be well received by the market as it would give hope of a step forward in reforms – which at this stage seem to be running into sand,” he wrote, shortly before news of Bogdan’s dismissal was confirmed.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/11/2020 Senior appointments in Moscow and Kiev point to tentative thaw by Tom Balmforth and Natalia Zinets
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony for newly appointed foreign ambassadors to
Russia, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 5, 2020. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) – New senior appointments in Moscow and Kiev on Tuesday pointed toward a tentative thaw in ties, after the Ukrainian president’s new chief of staff offered guarded praise for the man put in charge of the Ukraine file in the Kremlin.
    While there was no indication whether the timing of the announcements was intentional, the simultaneous appointments in the two capitals were seen in both countries as signs of a new approach to a conflict that has killed over 13,000 people.
    In Kiev, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy elevated aide Andriy Yermak, who had acted as an envoy in prisoner exchanges with Russia in recent months, to the post of chief of staff.
    In Moscow, the Kremlin said that the relationship with Ukraine would now be handled by the Ukrainian-born deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, Dmitry Kozak, sidelining a noted hardliner, Vladislav Surkov.
    Yermak told the Ukraine 24 TV channel on Monday, before either appointment was formally announced, that he had met Kozak and thought he was an improvement on Surkov.
    A senior source involved in Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia said: “Our experience with Kozak…shows he has been constructive, kept his word and we have had the impression he has been focused on achieving the results that we got.”
    Russia and Ukraine have been enemies since 2014, when a pro-Moscow president was toppled in Kiev and Moscow responded by seizing and annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.    Moscow-backed separatists then launched an uprising in eastern Ukraine, leading to a conflict which has persisted despite a 2015 ceasefire.
    Both countries were keen to play down the prospect of an abrupt change in their relationship.
    “The change in the leadership in the office of the president in no way affects the policy of the state,” Zelenskiy’s office said in a statement.    Opposition politicians from the Fatherland party and the bloc of Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, said Yermak’s elevation signaled a softening of policy toward Russia.
    In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who announced Kozak’s appointment as head of Ukraine policy, also criticized Kiev for making statements which Peskov said ran counter to undertakings given at a peace summit in Paris in December.
SIGNS OF THAW
    Nevertheless, there have been other signs of a possible thaw since the Paris summit, also attended by French and German leaders, which was followed by the prisoner exchange overseen on the Ukrainian side by Yermak.
    The likelihood that Surkov would step aside has been discussed for weeks.    Alexei Chesnakov, a political analyst who used to work for Surkov in Russia’s presidential administration, announced last month that Surkov had resigned “because of a change in policy regarding Ukraine.”
    “The decision was made by Surkov and will not change.    I know it from Surkov himself.”
    Another source close to Surkov told Reuters that Surkov had reacted sharply to Kozak’s appointment, but that his resignation had not yet been confirmed and he might be given a new post.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow and by Ilya Zhegulev and Matthias Williams in Kiev; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/11/2020 Russia to consider making former presidents senators for life
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony for newly appointed foreign ambassadors to
Russia, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 5, 2020. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian presidents could be made senators for life when they leave office under a proposed reform, a senior lawmaker said on Tuesday, a status that would give them immunity from prosecution.
    The initiative, drawn up by a government commission, follows sweeping changes to Russia’s political system proposed last month by President Vladimir Putin.
    Putin’s proposals, which were accompanied by a government reshuffle, would shift power away from the presidency and were widely seen as being designed to help him extend his grip on power after he leaves the presidency in 2024.
    The lower house of parliament backed the changes in a preliminary vote last month.    The commission’s proposals will also be put to a vote.
    Among them is a suggestion presidents become lawmakers for life in the upper house of parliament once their terms in the Kremlin end or they resign, Pavel Krasheninnikov, the working group’s deputy head, said, Interfax news agency reported.
    Under Russian law, lawmakers in the lower and upper houses of parliament are immune to criminal prosecution.
    Krasheninnikov said the idea had been put forward by members of the working group and was based on their study of upper houses of parliament in other countries.    He did not say the move was meant to shield former presidents from criminal prosecution.
    He said it would allow Russia to tap into the “colossal experience and knowledge” of former presidents.
    The commission has already put forward an array of other proposals, including one that would change Putin’s job description to Supreme Ruler.
    Before they become law, the constitutional amendments must be approved by the lower house of parliament in two further votes before being voted on by the upper house, examined by regional parliaments, and then signed by Putin.
    Putin has said the changes would be put to a nationwide vote, but it is unclear when that could take place.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Tom Balmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

2/12/2020 New Ukraine chief of staff: compromises possible in Russia talks
FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (R) and Andriy Yermak (L), a senior presidential aide, visits
in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s new chief of staff Andriy Yermak said there could be compromises in Kiev’s negotiations with Moscow over the future of the Donbass region but also stressed there could be no elections while Ukraine did not control the borders there.
    Yermak was speaking a day after his appointment, which coincided with Russia installing a new point person on Ukraine who was deemed to be less hawkish than his predecessor.
    “There can certainly be compromises during the negotiations,” Yermak said.    “But we have talked about this many times, and I also want to add that I am ready and will continue to do this: speak with all patriotic, adequate, reasonable forces in this country.”
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans)

2/12/2020 Russia’s security service tells internet firms to hand over user data: The Bell
FILE PHOTO: Cars drive past the headquarters (C) of the Federal Security Service
in central Moscow, May 14, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has ordered some of the country’s major internet companies to give it continuous access to their systems, The Bell investigative website reported late on Tuesday, citing three sources at the firms.
    It said the measure would affect a string of Russian internet services that have been added to a list of entities obliged to hand over user data and messages to Russian law enforcement agencies on request.
    The list, drawn up by Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor, contains more than 200 entities such as popular messenger service Telegram, some Yandex services, social network VK and classified advertisement website Avito.ru.
    Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the report.
    The Bell said the orders, which the companies received last year, demanded they install equipment allowing FSB employees to have continuous access to their information systems and the keys to decode users’ communications.
    Companies that fail to comply can be blocked.
    Russia’s increased regulation of the internet has drawn criticism from some opposition politicians and sparked protests by activists who are concerned about what they say is the state’s growing presence in the online world.
    Russia has in the past attempted to block access to the Telegram messenger service after it refused to give state security access to users’ secret messages.
    The authorities have also started to focus their attention on foreign services as well, including dating app Tinder.
    Tinder said last year that it had agreed to be added to Roskomnadzor’s register but had not divulged users’ personal information.    The Bell did not say whether Tinder had been ordered by the FSB to hand over users’ data and communications.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

2/12/2020 Facebook says it dismantles Russian intelligence operation targeting Ukraine by Jack Stubbs
FILE PHOTO: A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken January 6, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
    LONDON (Reuters) – Facebook on Wednesday said it had suspended a network of accounts used by Russian military intelligence to seed false narratives online targeting Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe.
    “Although the people behind this network attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to Russian military intelligence services,” Facebook said in a statement.
    Facebook, which has struggled to stop governments and political groups using its platform to spread false or misleading information, regularly announces it has shut down disinformation campaigns from countries including Russia.
    The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.    Moscow has previously denied Western allegations of political meddling, including findings by U.S. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller that it used social media accounts in an attempt to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential vote.
    Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said the latest Russian operation used more than 100 accounts on Facebook and its Instagram photo-sharing platform to create fake personas, often posing as journalists in the targeted countries.
    These accounts then contacted local media and politicians to plant false stories about politically divisive issues, such as corruption allegations, ethnic tensions in the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea and the downing of a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine in 2014.
    “We’ve known for a long time that these people look for authentic voices to amplify their narratives,” Gleicher told Reuters.    “It is more of a classic intelligence operation, trying to manipulate key individuals to achieve a high impact.”
    Researchers at social media analytics firm Graphika, who reviewed the accounts before they were suspended by Facebook, said most of the activity dated back to 2016 and 2017, although some accounts were active as recently as this year.
    The network failed to gather more than a few thousand followers but was able to get articles published in some local media outlets, said Ben Nimmo, Graphika’s head of investigations.
    The fake journalist personas also conducted interviews with Kremlin critics, tricking them into making unguarded comments and then sharing the messages online, he said.
    “The operation tried to poison the well of information by using false personas to plant pro-Kremlin and anti-Western narratives online and in local news outlets,” said Nimmo.
Facebook said it had also suspended two other groups of accounts, unconnected to the Russian operation.    One was linked to a previously-identified Iranian network that has targeted the United States and the other to a PR firm in Vietnam.
(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/12/2020 Russia’s trust in Putin falls to six-year low despite high approval rating: pollster
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government
in Moscow, Russia, February 5, 2020. Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian public’s trust in President Vladimir Putin fell to its lowest in six years last month, the Levada opinion pollster said on Wednesday, despite the Russian leader’s approval rating remaining high.
    Putin’s approval rating dropped sharply following an unpopular move to raise the pension age in 2018 and years of falling incomes, but it has stabilized in recent months and risen slightly to 68%, according to the pollster.
    Despite that recovery, however, the public’s trust in Putin has continued to recede and in January it hit 35%, a sharp drop from 59% recorded in November 2017, according to Levada.
    Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the pollster, said the level in January was the lowest it has been since before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted Putin’s ratings to surge.
    Putin has dominated Russia’s political landscape as president or prime minister since he came to power in 1999.
    His current term in the Kremlin ends in 2024, but he announced sweeping constitutional changes last month that are widely seen as being designed to help him extend his grip on power after he leaves office.
    Levada said the poll was conducted on Jan. 23-29. A total of 1,603 people were polled across Russia.
    Volkov said the mixed poll results showed that Russians approved overall with Putin, but that there is also some feeling of fatigue with him as a political figure.
    “It’s a situation when they approve of him, but the significance of Putin as a figure is falling.    He’s not seen as irreplaceable and so on, but they approve of his work,” he said.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by William Maclean)

2/12/2020 Russia accuses Turkey of breaking Syria deals, rejects Erdogan claim by Andrew Osborn
FILE PHOTO: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attends the annual end-of-year news conference of Russian President
Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019. Picture taken December 19, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Wednesday accused Turkey of flouting agreements it had made with Moscow on Syria and of aggravating the situation in Idlib where Syrian forces have made gains in their campaign to eliminate the last insurgent bastion in a nine-year-old war.
    That offensive has fueled violence in Idlib, in northwest Syria and bordering Turkey, forcing thousands of civilians to flee and drawing in the Turkish military which has seen 13 of its soldiers killed by Syrian shelling in the last 10 days.
    In one of the strongest signs yet that Syria is placing relations between Moscow, which backs the Syrian government, and Ankara, which backs Syrian anti-government rebels, under increasing strain, the Kremlin, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Defense Ministry all accused Turkey of bad faith.
    The Kremlin said Turkey had failed to deliver on a promise to neutralize militants in Idlib, something it called unacceptable, the Foreign     Ministry reminded Ankara its forces were in Syria without the blessing of the Syrian government, and the Defense Ministry said Turkish troops were seriously aggravating the situation on the ground in Idlib.
    The Defense Ministry also flatly rejected an allegation made by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who said Russian forces and Iran-backed militias were “constantly attacking the civilian people, carrying out massacres, spilling blood.”
‘NON-FULFILMENT’
    “Statements by Turkish representatives about alleged attacks by Russian forces on civilians in the Idlib de-escalation zone do not correspond with reality,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
    “The real reason for the crisis in the Idlib de-escalation zone unfortunately is the non-fulfilment by our Turkish colleagues of their undertakings to separate moderate opposition militants from terrorists.”
    It said the presence of Turkish troops and armor in Idlib was making the situation there much worse, as was the transport of weapons and ammunition across the Syrian-Turkish border.
    Russia took issue with Turkey after Erdogan said his military would strike Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Syrian government fought to regain control of Idlib.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to a deal on Syria it had struck with Ankara, but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib to be unacceptable and in contravention of that same agreement.
    Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, hashed out a deal with Turkey in 2018 to create a de-militarized zone in Idlib, but those agreements and others between the two countries have come under strain amid mounting tensions in the region.
    “In particular, according to this document (the agreement), the Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralized,” said Peskov.
    “We continue to note with regret that these groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities,” Peskov told reporters.
    “This is unacceptable.”
(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrey Kuzmin; Editing by Nick Macfie)

2/12/2020 Kosovo’s new PM, cabinet accept halving of their salaries
FILE PHOTO: Newly elected Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti and other government members take an oath
during a parliament session in Pristina, Kosovo February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Laura Hasani/File Photo
    PRISTINA (Reuters) – Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and cabinet ministers will accept a halving of their salaries in an attempt to demonstrate that the new government plans to tackle wage inequality.
    Kurti’s predecessor, Ramush Haradinaj, doubled his salary two years ago from 1,500 euros ($1,637) to 2,950 euros, a move that drew strong criticism in a country where one third of the population is unemployed. His ministers also got big pay increases.
    “I propose to undo the (previous) government decision and for salaries (of ministers) to return to where they were before,” Kurti said before the cabinet approved his decision.
    Kurti had promised during last year’s election campaign to take a salary cut and push for greater wage equality if his leftist party Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) won.    He reached a coalition agreement with a center-right party after lengthy talks and the new government took office on Feb. 3.
    Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but is still not recognized by Belgrade, remains one of the poorest countries in Europe and is dogged by corruption and nepotism.
    Kosovo’s statistics office said the average salary in the private sector was 401 euros in 2018, but 573 euros in the bloated public sector, where having political connections or enough money to bribe officials is required to land a job.
    The International Monetary Fund has said the gap between private and public sector salaries is undermining Kosovo’s financial health and competitiveness.
    Kosovo, a country of 1.8 million people, expects economic growth of around 4 percent this year but economists say this would not be enough to tackle unemployment and poverty.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/13/2020 In wake of impeachment, U.S. senators to visit Ukraine by Patricia Zengerle
FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a joint news conference
after a Normandy-format summit in Paris, France December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Pool
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three U.S. senators will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kiev on Friday, seeking to reinforce the importance of his country as a strategic U.S. ally after he found himself at the center of President Donald Trump’s acrimonious impeachment trial.
    “The U.S.-Ukraine relationship is as important now as ever,” Republican Senators Ron Johnson and John Barrasso and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said in a statement on Wednesday announcing their trip.
    “The future of Ukraine matters to the United States and we must make sure Ukraine knows that we view them as a strategic ally,” they said.
    Johnson and Murphy last met with Zelenskiy in Kiev on Sept. 5, as his government was dealing with Trump’s decision to freeze nearly $400 million in security assistance.
    Murphy told reporters at a news conference in Washington with Johnson on Sept. 10 that Ukrainian officials did not have a full understanding of why the money might be withheld, and that they had brought up the issue in every meeting during their trip.
    That decision, and Trump’s telephone call with the Ukrainian leader to discuss it, became central to an investigation of Trump that led to his impeachment by the Democratic-led House of Representatives late last year.
    The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump last week. His defense argued that the money had been withheld because of corruption in Ukraine, not to put pressure on Zelenskiy.    Trump insisted his call with Zelenskiy had been “perfect.”
    Democratic impeachment managers contended that Trump withheld the money to put pressure on Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic rival to Trump as he seeks re-election this year, and Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian company.
    Johnson is chairman, and Barrasso and Murphy are members, of a Senate subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell)

2/13/2020 ‘There will be dad and mum’: Putin rules out Russia legalizing gay marriage
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the working group on proposals for amendments to the Russian
Constitution at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia February 13, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday Russia would not legalize gay marriage as long as he was in the Kremlin.
    He made clear he would not allow the traditional notion of mother and father to be subverted by what he called “parent number 1” and “parent number 2.”
    “As far as ‘parent number 1’ and ‘parent number 2’ goes, I’ve already spoken publicly about this and I’ll repeat it again: as long as I’m president this will not happen.    There will be dad and mum,” Putin said.
    During his two decades in power, Putin has closely aligned himself with the Orthodox Church and sought to distance Russia from liberal Western values, including attitudes toward homosexuality and gender fluidity.
    He made the comments as he met a state commission to discuss changes to Russia’s constitution.
    The commission was set up last month after Putin announced sweeping changes to Russia’s political system that are widely seen as being designed to help him extend his grip on power after his scheduled departure from office in 2024.
    Other proposals have since been put forward and Putin was asked to comment on a proposal to add a line in the constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
    “We need only to think in what phrases and where to do this,” he replied.
    In separate comments during the meeting, Putin said he backed an idea to make it unconstitutional for Russia to give away any part of its territory, a move likely to irritate Japan and Ukraine that have land disputes with Moscow.
    Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has been in a decades-long dispute with Tokyo over ownership of a chain of islands in the Pacific that Moscow seized from Japan at the end of World War Two.
    Russia and Japan have been holding talks on the latter dispute which has prevented the countries formally signing a peace treaty after World War Two.
    “We have talks under way with our partners on certain questions, but I like the idea itself,” Putin said.    “So let’s instruct the lawyers, ask them to formulate this in the right way.”
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Timothy Heritage)
[Putin knows how to deal with that issue so he does not have to see their parades, influence of TV shows, and attempts to change their documents and they can still hide in their closets, which defies the oncoming age of the Scarlet Woman.].

2/13/2020 Russia alarmed by U.S. Air Force visit to Norwegian island
FILE PHOTO: Two U.S. Air Force F-22 stealth fighter jets are about to receive fuel mid-air from a KC-135 refueling plane over Norway
en route to a joint training exercise with Norway's growing fleet of F-35 jets August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Shalal/File Photo
    MOSCOW/OSLO (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday it was alarmed by a trip to a Norwegian outpost in the Arctic by a U.S. Air Force unit and urged Oslo to refrain from what it said were de-stabilizing moves in the strategic region.
    A squadron of U.S. Air Force staff visited Norway’s air base on the island of Jan Mayen in the North Atlantic in November to test the airfield and to see whether U.S. C-130J Super Hercules military transport planes can land there.
    Tensions have been rising in the energy-producing Arctic as climate change has opened up the region, and Russia has built up its own military presence there and touted the potential of the Northern Sea Route across its northern flank.
    Moscow has repeatedly raised concerns over NATO-member Norway’s military spending, its moves to develop its military infrastructure and the deployment of foreign military personnel in the country.
    Commenting on the U.S. visit to the island, the Russian Foreign Ministry told Reuters Moscow believed Norway’s recent military activity was ultimately aimed at Russia and that such actions destabilize the region.
    “…the sheer fact of the possible presence of the U.S. Air Force on the island, albeit occasional, is alarming,” it said.
    “We hope Oslo will be responsible and far-sighted in building its policy in the north and will refrain from actions that undermine regional stability and damage bilateral relations,” the ministry said.
    Earlier this month, Moscow accused Norway of restricting its activities on the archipelago of Svalbard, a remote chain of islands in the Arctic, and said it wanted talks with Oslo to have the issue resolved.
    The U.S. Air Force visit has also raised questions in Oslo.
    Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen has played down the implications of the visit on the security situation in the north and Norway’s relationship with Russia.
    “Individual transport flights to Jan Mayen with planes from allied countries will not impact the security policy picture in the north,” he told parliament.
    He said a request to help with transport flights to Jan Mayen was sent to allied countries in 2019 as Norway’s air force was stretched.
    He said planes from military forces from Austria, Sweden, Denmark and France had flown to Jan Mayen between 2017 and 2019.
    “Jan Mayen will not be used for military activities,” he said.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; editing by Tom Balmforth and Timothy Heritage)

2/13/2020 Greenpeace activist applies for top job at Poland’s coal-burning utility
FILE PHOTO: Belchatow Power Station, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant operated by
PGE Group, is pictured near Belchatow, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Greenpeace activist, Pawel Szypulski, said on Thursday he was applying for the chief executive job at Poland’s biggest utility PGE, with a plan to eliminate polluting coal from the group’s power production by 2030.
    State-run PGE generates electricity mostly from burning lignite and hard coal.    The group plans to invest more in renewable sources of energy, mostly in offshore wind, but Szypulski says this is not enough.
    “One can no longer continue the business as if there was no climate crisis.    I will apply for the job today,” Szypulski told reporters in the front of PGE headquarters in Warsaw.
    He added that PGE, which owns Europe’s biggest coal plant in Belchatow, central Poland, should intensify investment in renewable sources as burning coal weighs on its financial results amid rising carbon emission costs.
    Szypulski said his first decisions as PGE CEO would be to scrap the company’s plan to invest in a new lignite deposit in Zloczew, which is expected to extend Belchatow’s life, and to prepare a detailed scheme for a phase-out of coal by 2030.
    His plans are in line with recommendations from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a U.S.-based think-tank, included in its latest report on PGE.
    “Lignite today accounts for more than half of all PGE’s generation, but we find it is loss-making on average long before 2030 under a higher carbon price outlook.    Even under a low-carbon price outlook, lignite will only account for a small fraction of PGE profits after 2025,” the IEEFA reports said.
    The deadline for applying for the PGE CEO job and other roles in the management board is Feb. 14.
    Top jobs in Poland’s state-run companies are generally considered to be politicized.
    PGE’s current CEO, Henryk Baranowski, was appointed in March 2016. Before that he was a deputy minister in the Law and Justice (PiS) government.
    “I am convinced that I meet the criteria for the job,” Szypulski said.
(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko; editing by David Evans)

2/13/2020 NATO defense ministers discuss Russia’s latest missile deployment, arms race by OAN Newsroom
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, second right, meets with U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper, second left, prior to
a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)
    NATO defense ministers and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg are discussing Russia’s recent deployment of advanced cruise missiles.    During the second day of their meeting in Brussels, NATO officials agreed to maintain deterrence strategies against the Kremlin while also seeking to strengthen dialogue.
    “We have seen an unprecedented increase in defense spending across Europe and North America, with an extra $400 billion invested by the end of 2024,” said Stoltenberg.    “This is making NATO stronger, but we need to keep up the momentum to keep our nations safe in a more unpredictable world.”
    He said NATO will not mirror the Kremlin’s actions by deploying more weapons.    He emphasized that both sides must avoid provocations.
    He went on to say the latest military build-up increases the risk of miscalculation and misunderstanding, which could potentially spark a new conflict in Europe.
    “We do whatever we can to prevent a new arms race,” stated Stoltenberg.    “A new arms race, especially with nuclear weapons, is not good.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to receive credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors
to Russia in Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

2/14/2020 Russia hints at Belarus joining it in a unified state in exchange for oil deal: Lukashenko
FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting with Russian President
Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia February 7, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MINSK (Reuters) – Moscow has hinted at giving Minsk a deal on energy prices in exchange for Belarus joining Russia in a unified state, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday, the state news agency Belta reported.
    Russia and Belarus have been discussing possible deeper integration in a union state for around two decades, but have failed to agree on key points, including a united currency.
    Lukashenko met Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week, but the two failed to agree on a new deal for oil supplies in 2020.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, Writing by Alexander Marrow; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/14/2020 Russian, Turkish foreign ministers to meet on Sunday amid Syria tensions: Ifax
FILE PHOTO: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a
joint news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia January 13, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Munich on Sunday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, the Interfax news agency reported on Friday.
    On Thursday evening, Russia’s foreign ministry criticized statements from Ankara about Syria’s Idlib, after Turkey said it would use force against rebel groups violating a ceasefire in the region.
(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Writing by Alexander Marrow; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/14/2020 Let’s move on from impeachment, visiting U.S. Senators tell Ukraine’s leader by Natalia Zinets
U.S. Senators Ron Johnson, John Barrasso and Chris Murphy attend a news briefing following their meeting
with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kiev, Ukraine, February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – A group of three U.S. Senators visited Kiev on Friday to convey a message of continued bipartisan support for Ukraine after it got entangled last year in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
    The United States has been the most powerful backer of Ukraine in its standoff with Russia over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist fighters in a simmering conflict in the eastern Donbass region.
    But their relationship was tested after Trump froze nearly $400 million in security aid and pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate one of the Republican president’s Democratic rivals, former vice president Joe Biden.
    Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives but was acquitted this month in the Republican-led Senate.
    “I think we all are confident that President Zelenskiy does not want to be involved in U.S. politics, and we hope that any pressure (that) existed in the past to do so is over,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said after meeting the Ukrainian leader.
    “Our message is we want to put this impeachment question behind us, and we want to be moving together, Republicans and Democrats, in supporting Ukraine.”
    Murphy was accompanied to Kiev by Republican Senators Ron Johnson and John Barrasso.
    In a statement, posted on his office’s website, Zelenskiy said he wanted to change Ukraine’s global image so that people did not associate the country with corruption.
    At the heart of the impeachment case was a transcript of a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Biden.
    The fallout from the impeachment trial continued in Washington this week, as Trump said the military may consider disciplining former National Security Council aide Alexander Vindman, who testified in the case.
    Asked if he regretted sending Giuliani to Ukraine last year, Trump said on Thursday in a radio interview: “No, not at all.”    He also defended engaging Giuliani, a former New York mayor.
    “Rudy is a high-quality guy,” he said in an interview that aired on iHeart Radio.
    Trump also said he may stop allowing government aides to listen in on his telephone calls with foreign leaders.
    Barr this week acknowledged that the U.S. Department of Justice was accepting and reviewing information from Giuliani ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, sparking concern from Democrats and some legal experts.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/14/2020 Leaders of Ukraine, Russia discuss release of prisoners
FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a meeting with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda
during the events dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the former Nazi German concentration
and extermination camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland January 27, 2020. Adrianna Bochenek/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone about the release of Ukrainian citizens detained in Russia, eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Zelenskiy’s office said in a statement on Friday.
    They also discussed preparations for the next meeting of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in the so-called ‘Normandy’ format.
    Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatist fighters in the Donbass region in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.
(Reporting by Matthias Williams)

2/15/2020 Macron defends closer dialogue with Russia, sees no alternative
French President Emmanuel Macron looks on during a panel discussion at the annual
Munich Security Conference in Germany February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
    MUNICH (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday that Europe’s policy of defiance towards Russia in recent years had failed and, as nobody wanted to confront Moscow directly, the only option was to have a closer dialogue to resolve differences.
    “I hear the defiance of all our partners, I’m not mad, but I know that being defiant and weak … it is not a policy, it’s a completely inefficient system,” Macron told the Munich Security Conference, adding that he saw none of his allies willing to confront Russia.
    “There is a second choice which is to be demanding and restart a strategic dialogue because today we talk less and less, conflicts multiply and we aren’t able to resolve them.”
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Paul Carrel)

2/15/2020 Who needs an Oscar? I’m popular in U.S. now, jokes Ukrainian leader by John Irish
FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a meeting with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda
during the events dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the former Nazi German concentration
and extermination camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland January 27, 2020. Adrianna Bochenek/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS
    MUNICH (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former comic actor, joked on Saturday that after dreaming of Oscars and popularity in the United States, he had achieved at least the fame part through President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
    Asked at the Munich Security Conference about Ukraine being dragged into U.S. politics, Zelenskiy reverted to his previous career as a comedic actor when he played a fictional president in a popular TV series.
    “I get many questions about impeachment everywhere,” said Zelenskiy, who took office in 2019.
    “In my previous profession as a producer, screenwriter and actor, I wanted an Oscar and wanted to be very popular in the United States.    Now I am very popular in the USA, but I didn’t want to find (it in) such a way.”
    Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, charged with abusing his office by pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival.    He was acquitted this month in the Republican-led Senate.
    At the heart of the impeachment case was a transcript of a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
    “It’s like Santa Barbara… or no, Dallas,” Zelenskiy said, referring to U.S. TV shows and how questions on impeachment repeatedly come back to him.
    The United States has been the most powerful backer of Ukraine in its standoff with Russia over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist fighters in a simmering conflict in the eastern Donbass region.
    Zelenskiy said he wanted to change Ukraine’s global image so that people did not associate the country with corruption.    He also thanked the United States for all its help, asked for more and said he was was ready for more time with Trump.
    “If it helps Ukraine, I am ready for the next call with Mr Trump.”
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/15/2020 Russia and Turkey are close but will disagree, Lavrov says
FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the annual
Munich Security Conference in Germany February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
    MUNICH (Reuters) – Russia has good ties with Turkey but will sometimes disagree, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday.
    “We have very good relations with Turkey, that does not mean we have to agree on everything.    Full agreement on all issues cannot be possible between any two countries,” Lavrov told the Munich Security Council.
    Turkey is purchasing a Russian S-400 missile defense system in defiance of its NATO allies but the two countries support opposing sides in Libya.    The fighting in northwestern Syria has led to testy exchanges between Russia, which supports an offensive by Syrian troops, and Turkey which has deployed its own soldiers to support insurgents trying to halt the advance.
(Reporting by Jack Stubbs, editing by Robin Emmott)

2/16/2020 Ukrainian President Zelensky ‘ready’ for next call with President Trump by OAN Newsroom
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during talks with journalists
in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said he’s ready for his next phone call with President Trump.    During an interview with CNN Friday, he stated he’s willing to speak with the United States President again if it will help Ukraine.
    Zelensky’s’ phone call with President Trump last year was at the center of the impeachment probe after a whistle-blower alleged the U.S. president of pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, walks after inauguration ceremony
in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, May 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    However, Zelensky denied this and thanked everyone in America for supporting Ukraine.
    “If this way will help Ukraine I am ready for next call with Mr. Trump…” stated the Ukrainian president.    “…I want to thank you guys and thank everybody and thank USA and just ordinary American people, first of all, for support of Ukraine.”
    Zelensky said he’s trying to set up a White House meeting, which he wants to be special with positive outcomes for both countries.

2/16/2020 North Macedonia parliament dissolves, sets poll date, after EU shuns talks
FILE PHOTO: Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev addresses the press during
a news conference in Skopje, North Macedonia October 19, 2019. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
    SKOPJE (Reuters) – North Macedonia’s parliament dissolved itself on Sunday and set April 12 for an early election, eight months ahead of the end of the current term, in what is seen as a major test for the pro-EU policies of former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats.
    The move, endorsed by 108 deputies in the 120-seat parliament, follows Zaev’s resignation last month that came after the European Union failed to give his country a date to start talks on joining the bloc.
    Zaev’s cabinet was replaced by an interim government led by Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski which was tasked to ensure conditions for a free and fair vote.
    “I have signed the decision (to set the date) for early elections on April 12,” Talat Xhaferi, the parliamentary speaker, told deputies.
    French President Emmanuel Macron in October refused to let North Macedonia start EU entry talks, despite concerns over increased Chinese and Russian meddling in the Balkans.
    Skopje had expected to be granted a date to start accession talks after settling a dispute with neighboring Greece by changing the country’s name to North Macedonia from Macedonia.    Macron also led a group of EU leaders who ruled out opening talks with Albania.
    Serbia and Montenegro also aspire to join the European Union but the enlargement process has also largely stalled amid concerns in the West about immigration and the strains of Brexit.
    Bosnia and Kosovo, the other two EU hopefuls from the Balkans, are lagging far behind.
    Earlier this month, EU’s enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, proposed giving EU members the power to delay or reverse the process of admitting new nations or to force them to restart entry talks in some policy areas.
    North Macedonia is expected to become the 30th member of NATO early this year, once its accession has been ratified by all the member states of the U.S.-led alliance.
(Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

2/16/2020 Hungarian PM Orban signals tax cuts, tough times for economy by Krisztina Than
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to the media before talks with German Chancellor
Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, February 10, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary will cut taxes on labor and for small firms, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Sunday as he warned of tough times ahead for a domestic economy hobbled by stagnation in the euro zone.
    Hungary’s economy expanded 4.9% last year but on Friday the government cut its forecast for 2020 from 4% to 3.5%, which would be the slowest growth rate in four years.
    “I see dangerous years ahead … We need to take serious steps to defend what we have achieved so far,” Orban said in an annual state of the nation speech that reviewed his decade in office.
    “We will have to focus our efforts on preserving jobs in 2020 and also perhaps in the years after… In such times, tax cuts are needed.    So, we will reduce the tax on labor and on small businesses,” he added without giving details.
    A nationalist who has often clashed with European Union authorities over his clampdowns on immigration, Orban has pursued a mix of go-it-alone economic policies, shifting Hungary’s debt financing towards domestic borrowing while keeping the budget deficit low.
    But his critics say corruption has increased, and oligarchs close to him have benefited significantly from state contracts and EU funds.
    Orban, who had enjoyed consistently high popularity ratings since first being elected, said a key question was if Hungary could maintain growth against the backdrop of stagnation in the euro zone, its main export market.
    He also cited “demographic decline” and the climate crisis as threats.
    He said the government had approved a climate protection plan that included tighter environmental regulations for multinational firms, a sixfold increase in solar power capacity over 10 years, and the launch of a green government bond.
    Think tank Eurasia Group said only an economic downturn could endanger Orban’s solid base of support.
    “For this reason, the government will continue to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy while the central bank will keep interest rates low, despite rising inflation,” it said in a note to clients.
    Hungary’s next national elections are due in 2022.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/17/2020 Russia’s Lavrov, after Pompeo meeting, says felt more constructive U.S. approach
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shake hands at the conclusion of a
joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, U.S., December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week that he had felt a more constructive approach from Washington when it came to the U.S.-Russia strategic dialogue.
    The two top diplomats met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Friday in an encounter that neither side has so far spoken about in detail.
    “I felt certain small moves toward a more constructive approach by our American partners,” Lavrov said on his ministry’s website on Monday.
    Lavrov said the two men had spoken about issues related to strategic dialogue between Russia and the United States and about arms control.
    The last remaining major arms control treaty between Moscow and Washington, the New START accord, expires next year. Russia has said it is ready to extend it, but U.S. officials have called it flawed and outdated.
    The treaty is the last major nuclear arms control treaty between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers and limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads they can deploy.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

2/18/2020 U.S. blacklists unit of Russian oil giant to hurt Venezuela’s Maduro by Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis
FILE PHOTO: The Rosneft logo is pictured on a safety helmet in Vung Tau, Vietnam April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday ramped up pressure on Venezuela, blacklisting a subsidiary of Russian state oil major Rosneft that President Donald Trump’s administration said provides a financial lifeline to President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
    The U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Rosneft Trading SA, the Geneva-based trading unit of Rosneft, as Washington targeted Moscow over its backing of Maduro’s government.
    The move further complicates already-fraught U.S.-Russian relations.    Russia condemned the sanctions, saying they amounted to unfair competition and would not deter Moscow from continuing to work with Venezuela. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the move would further damage relations with Washington and undermine global free trade.
    Rosneft called the sanctions an “outrage” and said the company did not engage in any illegal activities, the TASS news agency reported.
    U.S. officials accused the Rosneft subsidiary of propping up the Venezuelan oil sector and engaging in “tricks” and ship-to-ship transfers to actively evade American sanctions.
    “I think this is a very significant step, and I think you will see companies all over the world in the oil sector now move away from dealing with Rosneft Trading,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, told reporters.
    Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin added in a statement, “The United States is determined to prevent the looting of Venezuela’s oil assets by the corrupt Maduro regime.”
    Abrams said Rosneft Trading now handles about 70 percent of Venezuelan oil.    U.S. officials have warned companies worldwide about dealings with Rosneft Trading.
    The United States in January 2019 recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the OPEC nation’s legitimate interim president in the aftermath of Maduro’s 2018 re-election that was widely described as fraudulent.    Washington has ratcheted up sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Maduro’s government.
    Maduro remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.    Maduro has overseen an economic collapse and the socialist president has been accused of corruption and human rights violations.    His clinging to power has been a source of frustration for Trump, U.S. officials have said privately.
    Along with the sanctions, the United States also issued a general license allowing companies 90 days to wind down their transactions with Rosneft Trading.    Tuesday’s sanctions freeze any U.S.-held assets of Rosneft Trading and the subsidiary’s chairman of the board and president, Didier Casimiro, who serves as a vice president of the parent company.
    Rosneft shares fell 2.7 percent, underperforming oil prices and the broader Russian index.    The sanctions announcement came soon before the close of the Russian market.
    A senior Trump administration official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said, “The global markets – oil markets – are adequately supplied, and so we think while this is a serious action, global markets will remain stable.”
    It was unclear whether Tuesday’s move will reduce export revenue flowing to Maduro’s government, which continues to enjoy Moscow’s backing in a stand-off reminiscent of the Cold War.    Russia and China have called U.S. sanctions against Venezuela illegal.
‘DEEP DIFFERENCES’
    The decision to impose the sanctions was cleared by Trump, a senior administration official said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday discussed the blacklisting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the Munich security conference in Germany, the official said.
    “Obviously we have deep differences over what is happening in Venezuela and what is the way out for Venezuela,” Abrams said, when asked about Pompeo’s discussion with Lavrov.
    Moscow has acted as a lender of last resort for Venezuela, with the government and Rosneft providing at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006, and has also provided diplomatic support.
    Rosneft is the world’s largest listed oil company by output.    Through units including Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading it took more than a third of Venezuela’s oil exports last year, according to PDVSA’s documents and Refinitiv Eikon vessel tracking data, for reselling to final customers, mainly in Asia.    That way it became the largest intermediary of Venezuelan oil amid U.S. sanctions.
    U.S. officials have been mindful of the need for caution in targeting a company as large and far-reaching as Rosneft because of the risk of causing unintended damage to American and allies’ interests.
    The Treasury Department eased sanctions on Russian aluminum giant Rusal and one unit of Chinese shipping company COSCO after they sparked mayhem in markets and supply chains.
    The United States will have conversations with China and India, the leading buyers of Venezuelan oil, and with Spanish officials over Spanish company Repsol’s activities regarding Venezuela, Abrams said.    Repsol declined comment.
    The Trump administration has implemented a broad sanctions program against Maduro’s government and has urged the armed forces to turn against him. Maduro has accused the United States of preparing an invasion.
    The U.S. action was announced just weeks after Guaido visited Washington and met with Trump.    Maduro has called Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Dmitry Zhdannikov, Brian Ellsworth, Marianna Parraga and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Mary Milliken and Will Dunham)

2/18/2020 Fighting flares in eastern Ukraine, Kiev and rebels blame each other by Natalia Zinets and Andrew Osborn
An armoured personnel carrier of Ukrainian armed forces fires a weapon from its position on the front line near the village of Krymske
in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, Ukraine January 30, 2020. Picture taken January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Oleksandr Klymenko
    KIEV/MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Ukrainian solder was killed and four others injured on Tuesday when heavy fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine, the country’s military said, as it and Russian-backed separatists blamed each other for the flare-up.
    The violence was some of the worst since a Paris summit in December tried to narrow positions between Kiev and the separatists on implementing a peace deal, and it comes ahead of a possible second summit on the same issue in Berlin.
    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he would convene a national security council meeting to discuss the latest flare-up in the country’s Donbass region.
    “This is not just a cynical provocation… it is an attempt to disrupt the peace process in the Donbass, which had begun to move through small but continuous steps,” Zelenskiy said in a statement.
    He later said he did not believe the fighting would stymie efforts to end the conflict, in which more than 13,000 people have been killed since 2014 despite a 2015 ceasefire deal.
    Announcing the death of one of its soldiers, Ukraine’s military also accused Russian-backed forces of using heavy shelling to try to breach Ukrainian lines.
    But the separatists accused Ukrainian government forces of attacking first, saying a small group of soldiers had tried and failed to break through their lines.    It said the group had stumbled into a minefield which had left two Ukrainian soldiers dead and three others injured.
    Ukrainian forces had then shelled civilian areas, they said.
    The Kremlin said it had seen reports of the clashes and was looking into them.    It said it did not know what had triggered the violence.
    Ukraine, Western countries and NATO accuse Russia of sending troops and heavy weapons to prop up separatist fighters in Donbass, a charge that Moscow has denied.
    Zelenskiy came to power last year promising to end the conflict.    Since then, Ukraine and Russia have implemented some confidence-building measures, including prisoner swaps and phased troop withdrawals in designated areas.
    Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone last week, the Ukrainian leader’s office said.
(Addtiional reporting by Tom Balmforth; Writing by Matthias Williams/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/18/2020 Russia to consider making ex-presidents immune from prosecution: RIA
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds after his speech to the State Counci
in Moscow, Russia, January 15, 2020. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian presidents could be made immune from criminal prosecution once they leave office under proposed constitutional reforms, a senior lawmaker said on Tuesday.
    The proposal, made by a parliamentary working group, comes after President Vladimir Putin last month announced sweeping reforms to the political system that would shift some powers away from the presidency.
    Putin’s initiatives, which were followed by a government shake-up, are widely seen as a way to allow him to extend his grip on power after his term ends in 2024.
    The proposals by the parliamentary working group assessing Putin’s reforms include making former presidents immune from criminal prosecution, said Pavel Krashennikov, the group’s co-chair.
    “The president of Russia, having ceased to exercise his powers, has immunity.    We have this (proposed reform),” he said at a working group meeting, RIA news agency reported.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters he would not comment on the working group’s proposal at this stage.
    Krashennikov had said earlier this month that Russian presidents could be made senators for life after their term.    Lawmakers in the lower and upper houses of parliament are immune to criminal prosecution under Russian law.
    The working group has already put forward an array of other proposals, including one that would change Putin’s job description to Supreme Ruler from head of state.
    Russia’s lower house of parliament has already backed Putin’s proposed reforms in a vote last month.
    For the group’s proposals to be adopted, they must be approved by the lower house of parliament in two further votes before being voted on by the upper house, reviewed by regional parliaments and then signed by Putin.
    Putin has said that the proposed changes would be put to a nationwide vote, but a date has yet to be set.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mike Collett-White)
[AS YOU CAN SEE THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE HAVE NO VOTE ON WHAT LAWS ARE PASSED WHICH IS COMMUNISM SO I HOPE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ESPECIALLY DEMOCRATS READ THIS BEFORE THEY VOTE FOR BERNIE SANDERS TO PUSH HIS MARXISM POLICIES ON THE U.S. EVEN THOUGH IT HAS BEEN WRAPPED IN THE CLOTHES OF SOCIALISM BUT THEN THEY ARE STUPID ENOUGH TO THINK THAT THE GLOBALIST WHO HAVE TRIED TO CHANGE OUR CAPITALISM FOR THE LAST 11 YEARS ARE JUST AS BAD SO WAKE UP AND GET WITH THE PROGRAM OF KEEPING AMERICA GREAT.
SO COULD THE ABOVE ARTICLE SHOW THAT THE POSSIBLE KING OF THE NORTH IS SETTING UP HIS FUTURE COURSE TO DO WHAT HE WANTS TO DO
.].

2/18/2020 Croatia’s new president Milanovic takes office, urges solidarity by Igor Ilic
Croatia's new President Zoran Milanovic speaks during his swearing-in ceremony held at the
Presidental office in Zagreb, Croatia, February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
    ZAGREB (Reuters) – Croatia’s new president Zoran Milanovic urged more solidarity in society as he formally took office on Tuesday, and called for vigilance against populist approaches to issues such as climate change that may distort or ignore scientific facts.
    Unlike his four predecessors who were sworn in at Zagreb’s mediaeval St. Mark square that houses the government and the parliament buildings, Milanovic, 53, chose to organize a smaller ceremony at his office on a hill in a largely residential area overlooking central Zagreb.
    “The majority of voters can vote for a decision that there are no climate changes or that it is not a problem,” Milanovic told a gathering of top state officials.    “It won’t change the truth that the problem exists.”
    He said the truth was one thing and another thing was “a legitimate political will to do something with that truth, or do nothing.”
    “Independent media, the judiciary and the scientific community are the strongest defense against any form of tyranny,” Milanovic, who was prime minister from 2011 to 2015, said.
    Milanovic, candidate of the opposition Social Democrats, won the five-year presidential term in early January against the outgoing president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, candidate of the ruling conservative HDZ party.
    “I will not be a corrective, but a constructive (political) factor,” Milanovic said.
    The role of the president in Croatia is largely ceremonial.    He has no power to veto laws, but has a say in security, defense and foreign policy matters.
    “Strengthening solidarity and social inclusiveness, more just distribution of wealth, and a fight against clientelism are the main and the most effective tools against inequality and alienation in society,” Milanovic said.
(Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by David Holmes)

2/19/2020 Russia and Turkey failed to reach agreement at Syria talks: Lavrov
FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a news conference with his Jordanian counterpart
Ayman Safadi following their talks in Moscow, Russia February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia and Turkey failed to reach an agreement at talks in Moscow aimed at easing tensions over the Syrian province of Idlib, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.
    Lavrov, told a news conference that Syrian government forces, which are mounting an offensive in Idlib, were upholding previous agreements on the region but also reacting to provocations.
    Lavrov said militant attacks on Syrian and Russian forces in Idlib were continuing.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/19/2020 Russia: Only matter of time before Turkey attacks Syria’s Idlib province by OAN Newsroom
Turkish army artillery arrives in the east of Idlib, Syria, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (AP Photo)
    Russia recently said a Turkish military operation against Syrian forces in the Idlib region would be a “worst-case scenario.”    A Kremlin spokesperson said Russia has made its final warnings about an “imminent” Turkish attack in Syria.
    The official said Moscow failed to deescalate tensions between the two countries.    This came after Syria killed over a dozen Turkish troops in an operation to retake rebel held areas in its Idlib province.
    Russia emphasized Turkey will likely retaliate soon.
    “If it is about military operation against terrorist groups in Idlib, it would be in line with Sochi agreements,” stated spokesman Dmitry Peskov.    “Neutralization of those terrorist groups, who currently possess powerful infrastructure, weaponry, hardware and ammunition, is a duty of the Turkish side.”
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he will give Syrian forces until the end of the month to withdraw from Idlib.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses to his ruling party’s legislator
at parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
    Meanwhile, the U.S. has expressed deep concern over Russia’s recent escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine.    In a Wednesday tweet, a state department spokeswoman said the U.S. stands in solidarity with its allies in condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine.
    She cited the administration’s support for President Zelensky and his commitment to peace in the region.
    Officials have also called on Russia to abide by a ceasefire it signed under the Minsk Protocol.    The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine spoke out against this week’s attack against the Ukrainian military in Donbass by Russian backed forces.
In this video grab provided by the RU-RTR Russian television, a woman stands next to her home, that was distroyed
during cross fire between     Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, in Zaitseve,
Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

2/20/2020 Kremlin accuses U.S. of causing Russia’s diplomats visa problems
FILE PHOTO: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov speaks during the annual end-of-year news conference of Russian President
Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019. Picture taken December 19, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Thursday that the United States was causing problems for Russian diplomats by not issuing them visas in good time, something it said was impeding their work at the United Nations.
    “This is hindering the work of the United Nations and it is a big problem,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyova; editing by)

2/21/2020 Slovaks remember murdered journalist before election that may oust ruling party
A general view of a protest rally marking the second anniversary of the murder of the investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee
Martina Kusnirova, one week ahead of country's parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/David W. Cerny
    BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Thousands of people across Slovakia held gatherings on Friday to mark the second anniversary of the murder of an investigative journalist that shook the country’s political scene and may redraw the political map in next week’s election.
    Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were shot dead on Feb. 21, 2018 in a case that prosecutors traced to an influential businessman, who is now standing trial for procuring the murder. Three others are charged with helping organize and carry out the murder.
    The businessman, Marian Kocner, has denied the charges.    One of the others charged has admitted to shooting the couple, while the two others have pleaded not guilty.    Another man was sentenced to 15 years after a deal with the prosecution under which he admitted to helping facilitate the murder.
    Prosecutors have said evidence showed Kocner had communicated with figures in state bodies and the justice system, and several senior officials were forced to resign.
    “They uncovered scandals, theft, corruption on the highest levels,” said Iveta Kovacova, one of those gathered at a commemoration in the capital, Bratislava, holding a banner mourning the slain young couple.
    “But I think a lot of work still must be done for this country to run normally.”
    Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign after the murders but his center-left Smer party stayed in power and remains the most popular group.
    Still, the party has lost a large part of its support ahead of the Feb. 29 parliamentary election.
    Final opinion polls last week showed a group of five to six opposition parties ranging from progressives to conservatives may try to join forces to oust Smer from power, with anti-graft movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLANO) closing in on Smer.
    Kuciak’s father, Jozef Kuciak, called on people to vote.
    “I want to ask you all to take part in the election, and chose with your heart and your head,” he said at one of the commemoration events in the capital.
(Reporting by Jiri Skacel and Tomas Mrva; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/21/2020 With selfie, Ukrainian health minister joins coronavirus evacuees in quarantine by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets
Men stand on a balcony of a sanatorium where the evacuees from coronavirus-hit China's Hubei province are quarantined,
in the village of Novi Sanzhary in Poltava region, Ukraine February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s health minister joined evacuees from China in quarantine in a sanatorium on Friday in a show of solidarity after fears over the possible spread of the coronavirus led to clashes between protesters and police.
    Posting a selfie on her Facebook page, Zoriana Skaletska said she would spend two weeks in a room there and would carry out her government duties by phone and Skype.
    Everyone inside the sanatorium was feeling well and showed no signs of infection, she said.
    “So, I’m finally in a room where I’ll spend the next two weeks,” she wrote.
    Skaletska decided to join those in quarantine after people in the town of Novi Sanzhary, where the sanatorium is located, clashed with police, burned tires and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from China.
    Despite reassurances from the authorities, the protesters worried they could be infected by the virus and wanted the evacuees moved away.
    Skaletska said she was amazed by what she described as the panic and aggression towards the evacuees, and hoped her setting a personal example would change minds.
    Speaking to parliament, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk said misinformation about the coronavirus was being spread from within and outside Ukraine.
    The authorities are trying to find the source of bogus emails sent on behalf of the health ministry erroneously declaring there had been confirmed coronavirus cases in Ukraine, when so far there have been none.
    In another example, Honcharuk cited an incident of Russian officials asking a wagon-load of passengers traveling on a train from Kiev to Moscow to disembark after a Chinese woman with fever was found to be traveling on board.
    Ukraine’s health ministry said the woman had not been infected with the coronavirus.
    Police detained 24 people in Thursday’s clashes.
    The authorities had appealed for calm, saying the evacuees were screened to make sure they were not infected before being allowed to fly.
    “Our health minister has agreed to stay with the citizens in this medical institution,” Honcharuk said.    “This way her example will prove that there is no danger to Ukrainian citizens.”
    President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to Ukrainians not to vilify those returning from China.
    “We constantly say that Ukraine is ( part of) Europe,” he said.    “Yesterday, frankly, in some episodes it seemed that we are the Europe of the Middle Ages, unfortunately. Let’s not forget that we are all people.”
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Ros Russell and Angus MacSwan)

2/21/2020 Norway rejects Moscow’s claim it violated Svalbard Treaty by Nerijus Adomaitis
FILE PHOTO: An aerial view shows snow-covered mountains in Svalbard, August 3, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo
    OSLO (Reuters) – Norway has rejected Russian accusations of violating the terms of an international treaty regulating activities on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, as a diplomatic spat over Russian operations there escalated.
    Russia complained earlier in February that Oslo-imposed rules were restricting activities of Russian organizations there, calling for bilateral consultations, and on Thursday accused Norway of violating the Svalbard Treaty. [L8N2A463U]
    But in an email to Reuters on Friday the Norwegian foreign ministry said Norway was pursuing a consistent and predictable Svalbard policy which was fully in line with a long-agreed treaty.
    Separately Norway’s Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jense told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK that Svalbard was Norwegian territory according to the treaty.    “At the same time, those who accede to the treaty must be treated equally.    We do this to the highest degree,” he said.
    The latest escalation comes amid growing tensions in the Arctic between the West and Russia, both of which have been building up their military presence there as climate change opens up new shipping routes and creates opportunities to explore for natural resources.
    Norway has sovereignty over Svalbard under a 100-year-old treaty but citizens of all its signatory countries, including Russia, can settle and conduct business there on an equal basis.
    A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman told a news briefing on Thursday that Norway had been “practically violating the treaty” in recent years, harming bilateral relations, after Oslo rejected calls for talks.
    Moscow didn’t question Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard, but wanted to address specific challenges, she added.
    Hundreds of Russians are registered as living on Svalbard and a Russian coal mining company has for decades operated in the town of Barentsburg.
    Moscow had long-term plans to strengthen and diversify its presence in Svalbard, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Norway in a letter on Feb. 3.
(Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis; Editing by David Holmes)

2/21/2020 ‘Enemies of the people’: Coronavirus evacuees endure hostile return to Ukraine by Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams
Tourists from around the world pose for a photograph at the airport in Wuhan, China February 20, 2020 in this
picture obtained by Reuters from social media on February 21, 2020. INSTAGRAM/@JULIA_VOLOK via REUTERS
    KIEV (Reuters) – Julia Volok says some of her fellow passengers expected a warm welcome on their arrival in Ukraine after finally being evacuated from the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in China’s Hubei province this week.
    Instead Volok, a 26-year-old Chinese-language student, and her fellow evacuees found their buses being pelted with projectiles by protesters on Thursday as they approached the sanatorium where they have started a mandatory two-week quarantine.
    “We heard the window smash and everyone fell down into the aisle,” she told Reuters by phone.
    “No country has met its citizens like that,” she said.    “We were bombarded, as enemies of the people, and this is very unpleasant. … We have not done anything wrong to anyone.”
    Despite repeated reassurances from the government that there was no danger, the protesters feared being infected by the virus.    Ukraine has no confirmed coronavirus cases and the government says all evacuees were screened before being allowed to board their flight home.
    The protests have died down and Volok and the others have now settled into the sanatorium, joined by Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska, who will stay there for the duration of their quarantine in an act of solidarity after Thursday’s violence.
    One of the other Ukrainians inside, Aleksandra Volkova, had posted footage on social media of a room inside the facility which had basic furniture, a door that did not lock and a shower which she said gave her an electric shock.
    But Volok stressed that these were minor problems and that the evacuees were happy and also grateful to the police, some of whom were injured while protecting them from the protesters.
    “The fact that the door does not close is a small problem.    We are not here for life, two weeks is not such a long time,” she said.
    Her room has a TV.    The inmates have been given a SIM card to make phone calls.    They can finally eat Ukrainian food after spending time abroad.
    “Beet salad is a huge delight,” Volok said.
    She had been in China for a year-and-a-half, studying Chinese in Beijing, and had been in Wuhan in the Hubei province on holiday.
    She spent her last weeks there shut up in her home, waiting to be evacuated, and lived off the food she already had in her house.
    To pass the time in the sanatorium, she plans to do some exercise inside the room and read books she has downloaded.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

2/21/2020 Moscow deploys facial recognition technology for coronavirus quarantine
FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a poster simulating facial recognition software at the Security China 2018
exhibition on public safety and security in Beijing, China October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow is using facial recognition technology to ensure people ordered to remain at home or at their hotels under coronavirus quarantine do so, the mayor of the Russian capital said on Friday.
    Russia has temporarily barred Chinese nationals from entering the country to curb the spread of the virus, but has welcomed Russians who return home with an order to spend two weeks at home, even in the absence of symptoms.
    Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, said some 2,500 people who had landed in the city from China had been ordered to go into quarantine.    To prevent them leaving their apartments, the authorities are using facial recognition technology in the city to catch any offenders, he said.
    “Compliance with the regime is constantly monitored, including with the help of facial recognition systems and other technical measures,” he wrote on his website.
    In one case described by Sobyanin, surveillance footage showed a woman who had returned from China leaving her apartment and meeting friends outside.    The authorities were able to track down the taxi driver who had taken her home from the airport thanks to video footage, Sobyanin said.
    Sobyanin said the city was also forced to carry out raids against possible carriers of the virus, something he said was “unpleasant but necessary.”
    The Moscow mayor’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
    Sobyanin said last month that the city had begun using facial recognition as part of its city security surveillance programme.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had not seen details of the actions being taken in Moscow but that measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus should not be discriminatory.
    The clamp down on quarantine rules comes after a woman in St. Petersburg staged an elaborate escape from a hospital where she said she was being kept against her will.
    The incident, which resulted in a court ordering her to return to the quarantine facility, raised questions about the robustness of Russia’s coronavirus quarantine measures.
    Russia has reported two cases of the illness – two Chinese nationals who have since recovered and been released from hospital, according to the authorities.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; additional reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva; Editing by Christina Fincher)

2/22/2020 Russian, Turkish defense ministers discuss stabilization in Idlib
FILE PHOTO: Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gestures during a news conference after bilateral talks
between Italy and Russia at Villa Madama in Rome, Italy February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has discussed the situation in Syria’s Idlib with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar, Russian news agencies reported on Saturday.
    “During the telephone conversation they discussed issues of stabilization of the situation in Idlib de-escalation zone,” Interfax agency reported, citing a statement from the Defence Ministry.
(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Editing by)

2/22/2020 Kazakhstan detains dozens of anti-government protesters
Kazakh law enforcement officers detain a man during a rally held by opposition
supporters in Almaty, Kazakhstan February 22, 2020 REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev
    ALMATY (Reuters) – Kazakh police detained dozens of opposition supporters who staged public protests against the government of the Central Asian nation on Saturday.
    Demonstrations have intensified since the resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev last March after almost three decades in power.    Nazarbayev nominated close ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as successor, ensuring his victory in a subsequent snap election.
    Tokayev has promised to adopt a more liberal approach towards dissent and ease the restrictions on protests and the creation of political parties.    But some opposition activists dismissed the proposed reforms as cosmetic.
    Protesters who gathered in the capital Nur-Sultan on Saturday held banners that read “Why are people poor in rich Kazakhstan?” and demanded the release of political prisoners in the country, which has significant oil resources.
    Opposition supporters in Almaty, the country’s largest city, gathered in greater numbers to demonstrate in a central square, voicing similar demands.
    One of two separate protest groups in Almaty was led by activists trying to establish a new opposition party who complained the authorities had disrupted their founding congress by detaining and harassing would-be delegates.
    The group’s leader, journalist Zhanbolat Mamay, was detained late on Friday and charged with calling for a public rally not sanctioned by the government – which is illegal in the former Soviet republic of 19 million people.
    Hundreds of policemen arrived on the scene, easily outnumbering the few dozen activists, and swiftly dispersed the rally.
    Mamay and his supporters will press ahead with plans to establish the Democratic Party ahead of next year’s parliamentary election, his wife Inga Imanbay told the rally before police led her away along with other protesters.
    Hours later, supporters of another government critic, exiled former banker and politician Mukhtar Ablyazov, attempted to hold a demonstration at the same location.
    The government has accused Ablyazov of embezzling billions of dollars from a local bank after having its chief executive murdered – allegations he denies.
    Police made dozens more arrests at the second protest, bringing the total number of people detained to around 100.    At least 18 people were detained at a rally in Nur-Sultan.
(Reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva; Additional reporting by Tamara Vaal in Nur-Sultan; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Pravin Char)

2/23/2020 Serbia shows support for China during coronavirus outbreak by OAN Newsroom
Travelers wear face masks as they walk outside of the Beijing Railway Station
in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
    Serbia came to the aide of China as it battles to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
    At a Saturday concert in Central Belgrade, dozens of people offered encouragement for China, who has seen thousands die due to the deadly virus.    During the event, Belgrade Deputy Mayor Goran Vesic spoke about the friendship between Belgrade and China.
    “Our message today from Belgrade to all Chinese friends is that Belgrade is thinking about Wuhan,” stated Vesic.    “We will be by your side, so you can overcome these difficulties, so China can continue to progress, because when China is well, Serbia will be well also.”
    The Chinese Ambassador Chen Bo expressed her gratitude toward Serbia for the outpouring of support.
    “I want to thank Serbian people for strong support,” stated Ambassafor Bo.    “Friendship between China and Serbia will be even stronger.”
    At this time, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in Serbia.     The virus has claimed the lives of more than two-thousand Chinese citizens.

2/23/2020 Hungarians march to protest PM Orban’s anti-Roma campaign by Krisztina Than
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures as he talks to the media during the second day of the European Union leaders
summit, held to discuss the EU's long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – More than 2,000 Hungarians, including Roma families and civil groups, marched to parliament on Sunday to protest against the government’s refusal to pay compensation to Roma children who had been unlawfully segregated in a school in eastern Hungary.
    Nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has come under fire from the European Union for his perceived erosion of the rule of law, suggested the state should disobey court orders to pay compensation to Roma children in the village of Gyongyospata and provide training instead.
    Lower courts have ordered the state to pay damages in a lawsuit that has been dragging on for almost a decade.    Hungary’s top court is due to make a final ruling soon.
    With the economy slowing, and his anti-immigration campaign losing steam, analysts say Orban is seeking to mobilize his voters by targeting independent courts, the Roma minority, and the NGOs who help them.
    “The meddling of the government in the Gyongyospata restitution issue is unlawful and violates the rule of law and the independence of the courts,” protest organizers said on Facebook.
    Protesters held up banners saying “No one is above the law” and “The future cannot be built on hatred.”
    Orban has been in power since 2010 and his ruling Fidesz party is leading in opinion polls because of its anti-immigration stance.
    However, Fidesz suffered a surprise setback in a municipal election last October, losing Budapest to the opposition.
    Orban has said “a court ruling citing segregation has stirred up public opinion by awarding large sums of money to some Roma residents,” adding that everyone must work to receive money.
    He has also said “business-savvy lawyers” exploited overcrowded prison conditions to launch 12,000 lawsuits against the government for breaking EU prison standards.    Senior lawyers said Orban was undermining the rule of law.
    Fidesz has said people connected with Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros helped Roma launch the lawsuits.    The party has campaigned for years against Soros, who promotes liberal causes.
    By Sunday, close to 500 psychologists had signed a petition saying that the government campaign could fuel hatred between Roma and non-Roma.    Roma make up 5-7% of Hungary’s population.
    Robert Laszlo, an analyst at liberal think-tank Political Capital, said Orban was trying to energize his base with his new campaign.     This will include a “national consultation” next month when questionnaires will be sent to millions of Hungarians on the issues of payments to Roma and compensation for prisoners.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Giles Elgood)

2/24/2020 With mask and hashtags, Ukraine minister fights coronavirus rumors from quarantine by Ilya Zhegulev
Ukraine's Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska wears a protective suit and a mask while speaking with evacuees from
coronavirus-hit China's Hubei province at a sanatorium in the village of Novi Sanzhary in Poltava region, Ukraine,
in this picture obtained from social media February 24, 2020. FACEBOOK/Ukraine's Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska via REUTERS
    KIEV (Reuters) – When Ukraine Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska felt her messages about the coronavirus epidemic were not cutting through, she decided to join nearly 100 people in a quarantine facility to stop panic from spreading among the general public.
    Ukraine has not recorded a single coronavirus case but the arrival last week of a planeload of evacuees from China, none of whom are believed to be infected, sparked violent protests outside the sanatorium where they were housed.
    Skaletska moved into the facility for the duration of their two-week quarantine.    On Monday, wearing a mask and protective suit, she met the inmates, posting pictures on Facebook with the hashtag #IamnotafraidofthevirusIamwithyou.
    Her decision has attracted both praise and criticism from people who called it a publicity stunt.    While she did not expect them, Skaletska told Reuters the brickbats did not bother her.
    “If I let all this get into my head, I would not have been able to stand working in the ministry from the first week. There are bots, there are people who do not understand, they need somewhere to post their indignation,” she said.
    Last Thursday people in the town of Novi Sanzhary, where the sanatorium is located, clashed with police and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying the arrivals from China.
    Despite reassurances from the authorities, the protesters worried they could be infected and wanted the evacuees moved away.
    While speaking to Reuters via Skype from the sanatorium, Skaletska got a call from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday evening.
    “Everything is OK, I am not crying anymore,” she told Zelenskiy, after stress and lack of sleep in the aftermath of the protests had brought her to tears.
    Moving to the sanatorium meant Skaletska missing her daughter’s 10th birthday on Friday.
    “I called her in the evening, I said, ‘Yaryna, I’m sorry, the state needed help, don’t be jealous,'” Skaletska said.    “She replied, ‘I am jealous and, actually, the state will owe me.'
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Gareth Jones)

2/24/2020 Russia, Turkey preparing talks on fighting in Syria’s Idlib province: TASS
FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a news conference with his Jordanian counterpart
Ayman Safadi following their talks in Moscow, Russia February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia and Turkey are preparing talks on how to de-escalate fighting in Syria’s Idlib province, TASS news agency reported on Monday, citing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
    “Another series of consultations, which we hope will lead us to an agreement on how to ensure that this is indeed a de-escalation zone and that terrorists do not operate there, is being prepared now,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.
(Reporting by Polina Devitt; editing by Jon Boyle)

2/24/2020 Dark horse of Slovak election woos voters with tough anti-graft message by Jan Lopatka
FILE PHOTO: A man walks past election posters of The Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) leader Igor Matovic,
ahead of the country's parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia February 21, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – With its slogan “Let’s beat the mafia together,” Igor Matovic’s anti-graft movement has ridden a wave of public anger over corruption to emerge as the unexpected favorite to oust Slovakia’s ruling party in a Feb. 29 election.
    The vote is the first since the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018 prompted mass street protests, forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Robert Fico and launched a number of investigations into cozy ties between politicians, business and justice officials.
    An influential businessman is on trial charged with orchestrating the murder.
    “In this atmosphere, I feel it on the streets, people in Slovakia have risen up to say that is enough,” Matovic told Reuters.
    Matovic, 46, expressed surprise at the meteoric rise of his Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLANO) in the opinion polls, which have put it almost neck-and-neck with the ruling left-leaning Smer party.
    “We thought we would take third or fourth place but it is now possible that we come first,” he said, adding he had yet to decide whether he would want to serve as prime minister.
    The party’s election campaign stunts have included lighting 5,000 candles outside the government building to symbolize deaths that OLANO says were caused by shortfalls in healthcare funding due to corruption.
    OLANO has promised to enact policies on social spending and fighting corruption that people support in its ongoing internet survey if it sweeps to power.
    Matovic also took a swipe at right-wing governments in neighboring Hungary and Poland that have clashed with the EU over the rule of law and media freedoms, saying: “We want to show in this election that central Europe has not gone crazy.”
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn and Gareth Jones)

2/25/2020 Trump warns of more U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil sector by Nidhi Verma and Aftab Ahmed
FILE PHOTO: An oilfield worker walks next to drilling rigs at an oil well operated by Venezuela's state oil
company PDVSA, in the oil rich Orinoco belt, April 16, 2015.. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins -/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The United States is preparing to impose more sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, in an attempt to choke financing to President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
    “You will be seeing something on that in the not too distant future,” Trump told a news conference in Delhi when asked if     Washington would impose more sanctions on Venezuela or on Indian firms that buy Venezuelan oil from third parties after imposing sanctions on a trading unit of Russian oil giant Rosneft.
    “There could be very serious sanctions,” he said without giving details.    “You are going to see in a little while. You are asking a question right in the middle of us doing something.”
    The United States imposed sanctions last week on Rosneft Trading SA as it emerged as a key intermediary for the sale of Venezuelan oil.
    India and China are the important buyers of Venezuelan oil, with India importing about 342,000 barrels per day for Venezuela in 2019, according to tanker data obtained by Reuters.
    Reliance Industries Ltd, operator of the world’s biggest refining complex, and Nayara Energy, part-owned by Rosneft, are the only Indian buyers of Venezuelan oil.    The two firms had been purchasing Venezuelan oil from Rosneft.
    U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told Reuters on Monday that new sanctions against Venezuela’s oil sector will be more aggressive in punishing people and companies that violate them.
    Trump said Venezuela had been “wealthy 15 years ago and very wealthy 20 years ago, the wealthiest in all of Latin America.”
    “When you look today they don’t have water, they don’t have basic food, they have no medicines… We are watching Venezuela very closely.    We don’t like it, not at all,” he said.
    Since the latest sanctions were announced, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA has shifted several oil cargoes from Rosneft Trading to TNK, another Rosneft affiliate, Reuters reported on Monday, citing internal PDVSA documents.
    Rodent’s units take Venezuelan oil as repayment for billions of dollars in loans extended to Venezuela in recent years.    They also swap Venezuelan crude for imported fuel that the poverty-stricken South American country desperately needs.     Other firms taking Venezuelan oil as repayment of loans or late dividends – including U.S. oil major Chevron Corp and Spain’s Repsol SA – have not been sanctioned by Washington.
(Editign by Timothy Heritage)

2/25/2020 Romania president launches new consultations to form government by Radu-Sorin Marinas
FILE PHOTO: Romania's President Klaus Werner Iohannis arrives for the second day of a special European Council summit in
Brussels, Belgium February 21, 2020, held to discuss the next long-term budget of the European Union. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania’s centrist President Klaus Iohannis will launch fresh consultations to form a government on Wednesday, two days after the constitutional court overturned his re-nomination of ousted Liberal Party leader Ludovic Orban as prime minister.
    Legislators toppled Orban’s three-month-old minority government earlier this month in a confidence vote spearheaded by the opposition Social Democrats (PSD), the country’s largest parliamentary group.
    Iohannis promptly called on Orban to form a new government, but the PSD asked the court to block this.
    “I will call for fresh consultations with political parties on Wednesday,” Iohannis told reporters.    “My intention is to give the country a government, we need to unlock this political deadlock.”
    The PSD argued a nominee for prime minister must be able to form a functioning parliament majority and Orban, having lost a no-confidence vote, did not meet this condition.    The court agreed, urging the president to “proceed to designate a new candidate for the prime minister job.”
    Iohannis’ re-nomination of Orban has been seen as a ploy to bring on early elections, as if parliament rejects two successive proposed cabinets within 60 days a snap election is triggered.    Orban’s party has said it is confident of winning an election.
    The PSD would not benefit from an early election.    They have lost roughly half their support since winning parliamentary polls in late 2016.
    Orban’s ousted cabinet is running the country on an interim basis, with limited powers, as widening budget and current account deficits put pressure on assets and rating outlooks.
    The Romanian leu dropped to a record low on Monday, partly driven by political uncertainty, and on Romania’s longer-term government bonds fell sharply on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

2/25/2020 Slovak leading party pushes pensions rise in last-gasp before election
    A woman walks past an election poster of Smer party candidate and Slovakia's Prime Minister
Peter Pellegrini, ahead of the country's parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia February 21, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – Slovakia’s long-ruling leftist Smer party, facing slipping support before a national election this month, pushed a rise in pension payments through parliament on Tuesday amid criticism from opposition parties looking to unseat it.
    Slovaks vote for a new parliament on Saturday, and final polls showed Smer’s lead shrinking and its coalition partners possibly dropping out of parliament, opening up the opportunity for several opposition parties to form a majority.
    Smer, the ruling party for 12 of the last 14 years, has led the country through a period of strong growth in recent years that has helped to improve public finances, although it has pushed off plans to balance the budget.
    It has suffered a drop in popularity after an investigative journalist’s murder in 2018 stoked public anger over graft.
    Several opposition parties have called Smer’s step a “desperate” attempt “to buy votes” and they criticized Smer’s move to approve the legislation in a shortened procedure.
    Smer pushed the bill through parliament helped by one of its two ruling coalition partners, the nationalist SNS, and some opposition lawmakers, including those from the far-right LSNS.
    Smer chairman and former Prime Minister Robert Fico said before the vote that Slovakia could afford the new spending.
    “I was prime minister for 10 years, (we can manage the extra expenditure) hands down, with such a tax collection, such a growth pace which is planned,” he told reporters.
    The government abandoned plans last year to balance the budget and sees the 2020 budget running a deficit of 0.49% of gross domestic product.
    Under the bill, the elderly will receive an extra monthly pension at the end of the year, while widows, people on disability payments and others will also receive extra cash.
    The total cost to the 2020 budget is estimated at 442 million euros and 477 million euros in 2021.
    The parliament may vote on two similar bills on Wednesday.    Together, doubling child benefits and cancelling highway toll for passenger cars would cost 360 million euros from 2021.
    The independent state Council of Budget Responsibility has warned that all the three bills combined could widen the deficit by 0.5% of GDP in 2020 and by 0.8% in the following years.
    The public sector deficit could then widen to 1.79% of GDP this year and past the European Union-mandated 3% ceiling in 2022.
(Reporting by Robert Muller; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/25/2020 Cash-starved Cuban state sells used cars for dollars for first time by Nelson Acosta
A price list is shown at a government lot where used cars are for sale, in Havana, Cuba February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer
    HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s cash-strapped government on Tuesday began selling used cars for dollars at a single Havana outlet, a first for the Communist-run state and a further step toward the dollarization of a segment of its retail sector.
    Around a hundred people showed up to look at the cars, representing a hodgepodge of brands and models.    Around one in 20 Cubans owns a car and the cost puts them out of the reach of many citizens, in a country where the average wage is below the equivalent of $100 per month.
    Yoan Orlando Milian, a 37-year-old who splits his time between Miami and Havana, said he had camped out for days to be the first in line to purchase a car.
    “I will do anything for my family.    And this is a good option for my wife and kids in Havana,” he said from the window of his 2011 Toyota Land Cruiser that he had bought for $80,000 – more than double the amount he might expect to pay in the United States.
    Cuba first legalized in 2014 the sale and purchase of cars manufactured after the 1959 revolution, but for convertible Cuban pesos, which are officially valued at a dollar though worthless outside the country.
    The state maintains a monopoly on foreign trade and retail sales.
    Previously, the new and used cars were priced at more than four times the factory price.    Now available for dollars through use of a bank card, the government says it will discount 10% from the former price as it opens more outlets and makes new vehicles available.
    Reinier Ramos, from the central Cienfuegos province, said he had come to Havana three days earlier to stake a claim on a car.
    “I want to buy a Geely at $35,000 or MG3 for $34,000,” he said, referring to two Chinese brands.
    Ramos, a civil engineer, said he had sold a car and received money from family abroad for the purchase.
    Cuba’s state-run economy is going through a liquidity crisis due to the implosion of ally Venezuela’s economy and the tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo under President Donald Trump.
    The government has opened around 80 “dollar stores” selling items such as home appliances and car parts that it has to buy abroad in tradable currencies.    The state had previously sold such items for convertible pesos.
    Cuban stores continue to sell food and basic household items in convertible pesos or its other currency, the local peso.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; writing by Marc Frank; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

2/26/2020 Cuba puts leading dissident on trial, his supporters say by Sarah Marsh
FILE PHOTO: Jose Daniel Ferrer, who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the country's largest dissident group, holds up a t-shirt
with the writing "God, Fatherland, Freedom" in Palmarito de Cauto, Cuba, March 25, 2012. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo/File Photo/File Photo
    HAVANA (Reuters) – One of Communist-run Cuba’s leading dissidents, Jose Daniel Ferrer, was due to go on trial on Wednesday on charges of abducting and assaulting a man, his supporters said, in a controversial case that is being closely watched worldwide.
    The Cuban government has not confirmed that Ferrer was going on trial, but it has confirmed that he was arrested and is in jail.    European officials, Amnesty International and the U.S. Embassy in Havana have said they will be watching the trial.
    Ferrer, 49, is the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), one of the country’s largest and most active opposition groups.    The government calls him a U.S.-financed counterrevolutionary but said he was not jailed for his political views.    It accused him instead of being a violent common criminal who kidnapped a man and caused him serious injuries last September.
    Supporters of Ferrer, who was arrested last Oct. 1, say the charges are false and merely an attempt to silence a vocal critic.    They say the trial – which foreign media have not been invited to cover – is a sham.
    The case has garnered international attention, with global rights organizations, the European Parliament and the U.S. government calling for Ferrer’s release.
    “It cannot be a crime to criticize policies that have set Cuba’s development tumbling backwards for the past 61 years,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in an open letter to his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez on Monday.
    Cuban official media on Wednesday did not mention the trial, which Ferrer’s supporters say is taking place in his hometown Santiago de Cuba, around 500 miles east of Havana.
    The lawyer assigned to the activist by the state informed Ferrer’s wife Nelva Ortega late on Tuesday that the trial would start on Wednesday at 0830, according to Ferrer’s sister Ana Belkis Ferrer.    Ortega could not immediately be reached for comment.
    Ferrer’s sister, who lives in the United States, told Reuters she had been keeping in touch with Ortega and UNPACU members by phone, but their lines appeared to have been cut on Wednesday.
    “Very early in the morning, they told me the courthouse had been besieged by security agents,” she said.
    Ferrer was one of 75 dissidents arrested in 2003 during a nationwide crackdown known as the Black Spring.    He was released on parole in 2011 and soon after formed UNPACU.
    In recent years, it had become unusual for the authorities to arrest a prominent dissident figure for more than a week, although they continued to regularly detain rights activists for a few hours or days.
    Ferrer’s case underscores an increase in repression of late, government critics say, likely related to increased U.S. hostility under President Donald Trump and deepening of Cuba’s economic problems.
    Cuba and its arch-nemisis the United States had undergone a detente in 2014-2016 during the administration former U.S. President Barack Obama.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by David Gregorio)

2/26/2020 Romania’s president asks finance minister Citu to form government by Radu-Sorin Marinas
FILE PHOTO: Romania's President Klaus Werner Iohannis arrives for the second day of a special European Council summit in Brussels, Belgium
February 21, 2020, held to discuss the next long-term budget of the European Union. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania’s centrist President Klaus Iohannis appointed interim Finance Minister Florin Citu as prime minister-designate to try to form a transitional government until a parliamentary election in November, seeking end to political deadlock.
    Lawmakers toppled Prime Minister Ludovic Orban’s three-month-old minority government this month in a confidence vote spearheaded by the opposition Social Democrats, the country’s largest parliamentary group.
    The Romanian leu hit fresh record lows this week, partly driven by political uncertainty in one of European Union’s poorest members, and the country’s longer-term government bonds fell sharply on Tuesday.
    “I want to quickly unlock this deadlock, my nominee for prime minister is the finance minister,” Iohannis told reporters after consultations with political groupings.
    “I do hope he’ll soon put together a cabinet line-up and governing program and present it to legislators.”
    Orban’s ousted cabinet is running the country on an interim basis, with limited powers, as widening budget and current account deficits put pressure on assets and rating outlooks.
    U.S.-educated Citu, who has worked for the European Investment Bank and New Zealand’s central bank, must put together a cabinet within 10 days, and will then need to gain parliament’s vote of confidence.
    Citu’s Liberal party has doubled its approval ratings to about 47% since a 2016 election, while support for the Social Democrats has halved to about 20% over the same period.
(Editing by Chris Reese and Alison Williams)

2/26/2020 Russia suspends some South Korea flights, Iranian visas over coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova attends a session of the St. Petersburg International
Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia May 24, 2018. Vladimir Smirnov/TASS/Host Photo Agency/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it would suspend flights to and from South Korea from March 1 to prevent the spread of coronavirus, except those operated by national carrier Aeroflot and a subsidiary, Aurora.
    Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said Russia would also stop issuing visas for regular and transit travel to Iranian citizens from Feb. 28 and was advising Russians against traveling to Italy.
    Russia had already imposed various restrictions on travel to China, its biggest trade partner, and has barred entry to many Chinese citizens.    Those measures as well as others already in place will be extended until April 1, Golikova said.
    Flights arriving from South Korea and Iran will be routed through a separate terminal at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport that is also currently being used for China flights, she said.
    Russia’s S7 airline protested at the decision to let Aeroflot continue flying to South Korea despite the curbs, saying this amounted to a “crude violation” of open market competition between airlines, TASS news agency reported.
    Hundreds of people have been quarantined in Russia to stop the virus spreading. Moscow authorities have carried out raids on potential carriers of the virus – individuals at their homes or hotels – and used facial recognition technology to enforce quarantine measures.
    Two Chinese nationals were hospitalized in Russia with coronavirus, but they have since recovered and been discharged, according to authorities.
    Additionally, three Russian nationals contracted the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked in Japan.    Officials said on Wednesday the three were now receiving treatment in Russia.
(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov/Maria Tsvetkova; additional reporting by Alexander Marrow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

2/26/2020 Russia’s Putin agrees to hold nationwide vote on constitutional changes on April 22: Ifax
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an annual meeting of the Interior Ministry
in Moscow, Russia February 26, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday agreed to hold a nationwide vote to allow Russians to have their say on a raft of changes to the country’s constitution on April 22, the Interfax news agency reported.
    Interfax cited Pavel Krasheninnikov, a lawmaker, as saying Putin had agreed to the proposal.
    Putin proposed constitutional changes last month that could give him scope to extend his grip on power after leaving the presidency in 2024.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

2/26/2020 Putin defends police violence, political repressions by OAN Newsroom
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with members of a working group created to discuss constitutional
amendments in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
    Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended political repressions in his country.    On Wednesday, the leader accused the Russian opposition of provocations against what he called “public order.”
    He claimed anti-government protesters have rallied in the streets to gain a moral high ground over corrupt officials.    He added they blocked traffic to “provoke security forces to swing their batons.”
    Human rights groups have raised concerns over the excessive use of violence by Russian police against their own citizens, as well as the harsh prison sentences given to some protesters.
    Putin made it clear that regime protection remains his main priority.
    “Nobody resorts to swinging a baton without a reason.    If people are acting within the existing rules and laws, who’s going to swing the baton? On the contrary, (the police) would protect them.    It is not enough to just blame the authorities, in order to convince the electorate that those who do the blaming are exactly those people needed.    It is necessary to provide a positive program.” – Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
Riot police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against constitutional reforms carried out by the leadership of
Russia near the Constitutional Court building in St.Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
    Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Russians continue to rally across the country to denounce rampant corruption, the stagnant economy and the faltering regime.

2/27/2020 ‘Are you real?’ Putin quashes rumors he uses a body double
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbay Jeenbekov
at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged he was offered the chance to use a body double to make appearances in public for security reasons, but said he declined the offer and never used one.
    Putin, 67, who has dominated Russian politics for more than two decades, has long been the subject of conspiracy theories in Russia – all of them unsubstantiated – that he uses a body double or even a small army of them.
    One of the more elaborate theories compares photographs of Putin over the years, claiming to have identified a number of different individuals posing as him.
    But during an interview with TASS news agency aired on Thursday, Putin was shown a list of popular Internet searches purportedly associated with his name, one of which was entitled “Putin body double evidence.”
    Asked “Are you real?” by the interviewer, Putin replied “Yes” before going on to deny that he uses a lookalike for public appearances for his own safety.
    But he said he had been offered the opportunity.
    “I declined these body doubles.    This (the offer) was during the most difficult periods of the fight against terrorism,” Putin said, adding that he was referring to the beginning of the 2000s.
    Russia fought a war in the southern Muslim majority region of Chechnya in the early years of Putin’s first term and was frequently targeted in attacks by Islamist militant groups.
    Putin said in the same interview that he didn’t use a mobile phone.    He had access to a special official phone, he said, that could connect with any number he wanted.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Timothy Heritage)

2/27/2020 Vladimir Putin inspects Russia’s answer to Disneyland before grand opening
Officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin, visit the Dream Island
amusement park ahead of its upcoming inauguration in Moscow, Russia February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/Pool
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin inspected Russia’s answer to Disneyland on Thursday, the country’s first large-scale indoor theme park which Moscow says will be the biggest of its kind in Europe when it opens on Saturday.
    The theme park, called “Ostrov Mechty” – or Dream Island – is built in the shape of a toy castle that spreads across 30 hectares in an industrial neighborhood in southern Moscow and is filled with rides, attractions and restaurants.
    Joined by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Putin strolled through the park inspecting a scale model of the facility and stopping to take pictures with a group of disadvantaged children brought in for his visit.
    Russia has strived in recent years to build bigger and better facilities than the West to show it remains a force to be reckoned with, and has prided itself on major construction and infrastructure projects.
    Dream Island is no exception.
    Municipal authorities say it is the largest indoor theme park of its kind in Europe and that its main glass dome is several times larger than the dome at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and more than double the size of one atop the German Reichstag in Berlin.
    The new facility has drawn criticism from some quarters however for its extravagance and unusual design and popular blogger Ilya Varlamov ranked it seventh on his list of Russia’s top 100 ugliest buildings.
    Russia remains under Western sanctions over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and has struggled to find meaningful economic growth.    But it has pressed ahead with big infrastructure projects regardless.
    In 2014 it opened what it said was the largest shopping mall in Europe, and Putin last year opened a rail route linking Russia’s two biggest cities to Crimea over a giant new bridge.
(Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Alison Williams)

2/27/2020 Kremlin rebuffs Turkey’s Erdogan on proposed Syria meeting with Putin
FILE PHOTO: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attends the annual end-of-year news conference of Russian President
Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Thursday that President Vladimir Putin had no plans to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on March 5 to discuss the situation in Syria’s Idlib region despite statements by Erdogan saying such a meeting was likely.
    The Turkish president said on Wednesday he would probably meet Putin in Istanbul for talks on Idlib next week.
    “Putin has other working plans for March 5,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
(Reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

2/27/2020 EU’s Varhelyi: accession talks with two Balkan states could open in weeks
FILE PHOTO: European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner-designate Oliver Varhelyi of Hungary attends
his hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, November 14, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – The European Union could open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia within weeks as both countries have made good progress in their preparations, the European Commission’s enlargement chief, Oliver Varhelyi, said on Thursday.
    France, which blocked the opening of talks with Tirana and Skopje in October, indicated earlier in February that membership talks could start if the European Commission gave them a positive review in March.
    Varhelyi said that the Commission’s report, due to be released next week, was encouraging.
    “There is serious progress in both countries. I am very encouraged by the fact that these two countries have chosen to accelerate (their preparations),” he said after a meeting of the Visegrad Group with the western Balkans states hosted by Prague.
    “With this report I do hope to convince member states that they are ready and we should be ready to open negotiations,” Varhelyi said, adding he hoped “very much to start negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in the coming weeks.”
    If allowed to go ahead with membership talks, approval would set the stage for a summit with EU leaders and all six western Balkan candidate countries – Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and North Macedonia – in Zagreb in May.
    French President Emmanuel Macron had refused to approve the start of accession negotiations at a summit in October, saying the process of admitting new members needed to change.
    This month, the Commission suggested reforms to the accession process along the lines of a French proposal made in November, giving EU governments more say and making it easier to stop or reset negotiations and freeze funds.
    Membership talks usually take years to complete.
(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Giles Elgood)

2/28/2020 Belarus announces first case of coronavirus: TASS
A security guard looks through a gate of a hospital for infectious diseases, after Belarus registered the first case
of coronavirus infection in the country, in Minsk, Belarus February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarus registered the first case of coronavirus infection in the country, Russian news agency TASS reported on Friday, citing the Belarussian Ministry of Healthcare.
    “We would like to inform you that February 27 tests conducted at the Republican Scientific and Practical Center of epidemiology and microbiology showed the presence of coronavirus 2019-nCoV in one of the students from Iran,” TASS quoted the ministry.
(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

2/28/2020 Montenegro’s president accuses Serbia and Russia of undermining independence by Aleksandar Vasovic
Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic speaks during an interview with Reuters
in Podgorica, Montenegro February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
    PODGORICA (Reuters) – Montenegro’s president accused Serbia and Russia on Friday of using the Serbian Orthodox Church to undermine his country’s pro-Western government as it seeks European Union membership.
    Milo Djukanovic, who has ruled for over three decades, said that a series of rallies against a religion law which have been led by Serbian Orthodox clerics in the tiny Balkan country were intended “to question Montenegro’s independence.”
    Metropolitan Ilarion, a Russian Orthodox Church cleric, has voiced support for the interests of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.    Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is loyal to the Moscow patriarchate, joined protests this week in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.
    “If you are asking whether this is a continuity of the (attempted) destruction of Montenegro and obstruction of its intention to continue its path to … European and Euro-Atlantic integrations, there’s no doubt in that,” Djukanovic told Reuters in an interview.
    “Moscow was unequivocal in stating its interests in the ongoing (religion) problem in Montenegro.”
    Djukanovic accused Belgrade of reviving the nationalistic concept of a Greater Serbia that contributed to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and former Yugoslavia’s collapse.
    “We have no doubt that … all the mechanisms of the implementation of the Greater Serbian state project … have been put into motion, and that Montenegro is also a target,” he said.
    Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, dismissed Djukanovic’s remarks, saying: “Nobody could possibly undermine his own doings more than himself.”
    Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic rejected Djukanovic’s comments.    Referring to protests he has faced un the country of 620,000, she said he had “a problem in his own country and with he citizens of Montenegro.”
    “I am surprised by the rhetoric of President Djukanovic … Serbia has abandoned 1990s long time ago and turned to the future,” Brnabic said, adding that Serbia was demanding for Serbs in Montenegro only the right to their own language and religion.
EU AMBITIONS
    The protests that began in December are over a law which would allow the state to take ownership of church property if the church cannot prove it owned it before 1918 – when the-then Kingdom of Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of Yugoslavia.
    The Serbian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion in Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people, and has around 12 million members, mainly in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.
    Serbia and Montenegro are both negotiating entry to the EU. Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, but Belgrade is not seeking membership of the defense alliance.
    Ethnic Serbs account for around a third of Montenegro’s population. Many Serbians have roots in Montenegro and families in the country, while tens of thousands of Montenegrins reside in Serbia.
    Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has said Belgrade will not interfere in Montenegro’s affairs, but also said Serbia will help the Serb minority there.
    “Serbia is rushing headlong into a dangerous trap of protection of allegedly endangered rights of (minority) Serbs … while endangering the sovereignty of other states,” Djukanovic said.
(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/29/2020 Ukraine’s prime minister submits resignation again: NV
FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk speaks during a news briefing following protests
against the arrival of evacuees from coronavirus-hit China's Hubei province in the village of
Novi Sanzhary in Poltava region, Ukraine February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk submitted his resignation for a second time after reports that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy might be gearing up to sack him, Ukrainian news outlet NV reported on Friday night.
    Honcharuk declined comment.
    Zelenskiy has convened a special parliament meeting on Wednesday, which Ukrainian media reported could include discussions on government personnel changes.
    Replacing Honcharuk would come at a time when confidence in Zelenskiy’s government has fallen. The former actor and comedian won a landslide election victory last year promising to end the war in the Donbass and tackle corruption.
    Deputy Prime Minister Denys Shmygal could be made acting prime minister while a permanent replacement was found, NV said.
    Honcharuk last week denied he had submitted his resignation or discussed his departure with Zelenskiy, but his position has been under scrutiny since the leak in January of a recording that suggested he had made unflattering comments about Zelenskiy.
    Zelenskiy himself acknowledged meeting Serhiy Tihipko, a businessman and veteran politician who was touted in the Ukrainian media as a potential replacement for Honcharuk.
    Any reshuffle would come just as Ukraine is trying to secure the release of billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund, which is contingent on Kiev’s progress in passing reforms and tackling graft.
    Zelenskiy has also prioritized ending the war in Donbass but while he has implemented some confidence-building measures with Russia, including prisoner swaps, the conflict simmers on.
    Ukrainians’ confidence in the government’s ability to tackle key issues has waned, a report by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed last week.
    Only 25% of Ukrainians think the authorities have been successful in resolving the Donbass conflict compared to 40% in December, it said.    About 83% said the fight against high-level corruption had been unsuccessful compared to 76% in December.
    Support for Honcharuk fell to 8% from 12% over the same period, while 33% have a negative view of him now.
    In Ukraine, it is parliament that has the power to appoint and fire the prime minister and the government.    Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party has a majority in the chamber, meaning Zelenskiy could sack Honcharuk without needing the approval of other political parties.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Ilya Zhegulev and Natalia Zinets; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Stephen Coates and Frances Kerry)

2/29/2020 Slovaks poised to oust ruling Smer party in election clouded by graft by tomas mrvabr>
People walk past an election poster of For the People leader Andrej Kiska, ahead of the country's parliamentary election
in Bratislava, Slovakia February 28, 2020. The poster reads: "Heads up Bratislava". REUTERS/David W Cerny
    BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Voters look poised to oust the centre-left Smer party that has dominated Slovakia’s political landscape for more than a decade in a national election on Saturday overshadowed by anger over high-level graft.
    Opinion polls ahead of a two-week moratorium before the ballot pointed to a rapid rise for anti-corruption movement Ordinary People (OLANO), increasing chances it may form a centre-right majority with smaller conservative and liberal parties to outmanoeuvre Smer.
    OLANO founder and leader Igor Matovic has pledged to clean up Slovak politics, an ambition encapsulated in his party’s slogan: “Let’s Beat the Mafia Together.”
    “We can get rid of government that used its power to make itself and connected people rich,” he said in the final television debate this week.    “Poor people were paying for that, sick people were dying unnecessarily, and young people were leaving Slovakia.    Let’s turn that around.”
    The political shift in the euro zone member state, which has avoided fights with Brussels unlike its central European Visegrad Groups neighbors Hungary and Poland, started with the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.
    An investigation unearthed communications between a businessman now on trial for ordering the hit and politicians and judicial officials. He has denied the charges.
    The killing led to the biggest street protests in the post-communist era, forcing Smer leader Robert Fico to resign, though his party’s coalition held on to power.
    Polling stations across the country of 5.5 million opened at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) and were due to close at 10 p.m. Results were expected on Sunday.
    OLANO’s support surged after Matovic filmed a video outside a former Smer finance minister’s villa in France last month and called for the property to be confiscated.
    Matovic, 46, told Reuters last week he wanted to be a conciliatory voice toward the EU within Visegrad.
    The former owner of regional newspapers, a lawmaker since 2010, calls himself a social conservative and economic liberal.
    In the European Parliament, OLANO is aligned with the centre-right European People’s Party.
    “What could happen would be some differentiation from other Visegrad countries and leaning towards Germany or the German-French (European) engine,” said political scientist Pavol Babos from Comenius University in Bratislava.
    An OLANO-led government might struggle to agree on policies, however, as it would be made up of up to six parties including eurosceptics, conservatives and progressives.
    Smer was seen scoring its worst result since 2002, although it might still end up as the biggest party.    Its nationalist and Hungarian minority allies faced the threat of dropping out of parliament.     It might try to retain power by securing support from the far-right People’s Party, but political analysts said that option looked increasingly unlikely.
    No new government is likely to lift Slovakia’s opposition to accepting migrants or allowing gay partnerships or marriages.
(Reporting by Tomas Mrva and Jan Lopatka; Writing by Jan Lopatka, Editing by John Stonestreet and Christian Schmollinger)

2/29/2020 Hungary to boost border protection after PM Orban, Erdogan discuss migration
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to the media before talks with German Chancellor
Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, February 10, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/File Photo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Hungary would strengthen the protection of the southern border after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan informed him in that Turkey could no longer hold back the flow of migrants.
    “During a phone call earlier today on migration and the current war situation in Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan informed PM Orban that there is enormous pressure on Turkey and that they can no longer hold back the flow of migrants,” the government’s press office said in a statement late on Friday.
    Orban convened a meeting of his security cabinet which decided that “Hungary must strengthen the protection of its borders and pay special attention to developments on the Balkan migration route.”
    Refugees in Turkey headed towards European frontiers on Friday after an official said the borders had been thrown open, a response to the escalating war in Syria where 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by Russian-backed Syrian government troops.
    The EU said that Ankara had made no formal announcement of any change in policy at the border.
    One of the most vociferous opponents of Muslim immigration into Europe, Orban won a third term in power in 2018.    During the peak of the migration crisis in 2015 he had effectively sealed Hungary’s southern border with a fence.    Hungary was a transit route for hundreds of thousands of migrants heading through the Balkans to western Europe.
    Turkey’s neighbors Greece and Bulgaria, both European Union member states, vowed not to admit the migrants and reinforced their borders following Ankara’s threat to reopen the frontier.
    It was closed under an accord between Turkey and the European Union that halted the 2015-16 migration crisis when more than a million people crossed into Europe by foot.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than, editing by Louise Heavens)

2/29/2020 Polish opposition presidential candidate promises to rebuild ties with EU
Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the candidate of the main Polish opposition party Civic Platform (PO), poses
for a picture with supporters during a convention to inaugurate her campaign ahead of the upcoming>br> presidential election, in Warsaw, Poland February 29, 2020. Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland should rebuild ties with the European Union, do more to fight climate change and spend millions of dollars on healthcare, the main opposition challenger in May’s presidential elections told hundreds of supporters on Saturday.
    Polls suggest Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, of the centrist Civic Platform party, would be just behind incumbent nationalist President Andrzej Duda if the second round of the vote was held today.
    “I will be seeking friends not enemies for us, I will rebuild true partnerships with the EU and the United States,” she told a rally in Warsaw.
    “Our children are suffocating from smog and our government, instead of investing in clean technologies, invests in Russian coal and does not allow Poles to use European green money.”
    Her rival Duda is allied to the ruling eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party which has clashed with Brussels over migration, climate change policies and other issues since coming to power in 2015.
    It has also introduced judicial reforms which EU officials say may breach the bloc’s standards on the rule of law.    PiS says changes are needed to make courts more efficient and move the country on from its communist past.
    PiS won a second term in October on the back of promises to raise living standards and make hefty social handouts.
    But it lost control of the upper house, the Senate.    The Senate can delay bills but only the president can block them — a fact that has raised the political stakes for May’s presidential vote.
    Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, a member of PiS, gave a speech on Saturday accusing Kidawa-Blonska’s Civic Platform party of failing to deliver on policy promises in the past.
    According to opinion polls, Kidawa-Blonska would lose the first leg of the election scheduled for May 10, as the large number of opposition candidates have diluted her support.    There are six candidates running for president’s office.
    But polls suggest she would be just 2 percentage points behind in the second, decisive leg of the vote two weeks later.
    Meanwhile, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz from the conservative agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) who currently ranks third in the race, is the only candidate that would stand a chance to unseat Duda if he made it to the second leg, according to a recent poll.
    For the first round however he is seen scoring 10 percentage points less than Kidawa-Blonska.
    During a rally on Saturday in the southern city of Rzeszów, Kosiniak-Kamysz called for a rethink of Poland’s policy towards Russia and a resumption of small cross-border traffic between Poland and the Russian region, Kaliningrad.
    “One has to rethink policy towards Russia… This dialogue has to start with human relations, with small cross-border cooperation,” he said.
    Relations with Russia have deteriorated under PiS.
    For years, Kaliningrad residents enjoyed a special permission to travel back and forth across the Polish border.    But Poland suspended that pact in 2016, citing security concerns.
    Poland has long been one of the strongest supporters within the European Union of maintaining sanctions against Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
(Reporting by Marcin Goclowski and Alicja Ptak; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Clelia Oziel)

2/29/2020 Thousands in Montenegro march against religion law by Aleksandar Vasovic
Believers gather in front of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica before a protest march against a new law
on religious freedom and legal rights of religious organizations in Podgorica, Montenegro February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Stevo Vasiljevic
    PODGORICA (Reuters) – Thousands of people, led by Serbian Orthodox Church clerics, marched peacefully through the Montenegrin capital Podgorica on Saturday in protest against a law they fear will be used to target the church’s assets and status.
    Protests have been under way since December following the adoption of a law which allows the state to take over the property of a religious community if it cannot prove it owned it before 1918 – when the-then Kingdom of Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes that preceded Yugoslavia.
    The Serbian Orthodox Church is the largest denomination in Montenegro, a tiny Balkan country of 620,000 people.    The Church has about 12 million followers, mainly in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro.
    The marchers were led by Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is loyal to the Patriarchate in Moscow and priests who chanted hymns.    They also waved Serbian flags and church banners, and halted at one point to say prayers.
    “When they (the government) … started snatching people’s soul, the churches and religious sites … then the people stood up,” said Matija Spasojevic, 24, from the northern city of Niksic.
    Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic accused Serbia and Russia on Friday of using the Orthodox Church to undermine his country’s independence, NATO membership and its attempt to join the European Union.    Belgrade and Moscow dismissed the accusations, made in an interview with Reuters.
    Bishop Joanikije, the head of a diocese in Montenegro’s north, told Reuters this week that the law “contains elements of discrimination (against the Serbian Orthodox Church) in comparison to other property owners in Montenegro.”
    The Serbian Orthodox Church, which had a role in fomenting the nationalism that contributed to the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, sees Montenegro as its medieval cradle and owns churches, monasteries and other property there.
    Joanikije said that although the Serbian Orthodox Church, has attempted to distance itself from politics in Montenegro, the clergy and faithful “have the right to a say.”
    “This (protest) is about religious and property rights … about the dignity and the right to existence,” he said.
    Ethnic Serbs account for around a third of Montenegro’s population.    Many Serbians have roots and families in Montenegro, while tens of thousands of Montenegrins reside in Serbia.
    “Firstly, I am a Serb and only then a Montenegrin,” said Dragomir Drobnjak, 67, a pensioner from Podgorica.
    Serbia and Montenegro are both negotiating entry to the EU but Belgrade is not seeking membership in the defense alliance.
(This story was refiled to fix name of city to Niksic in 5th paragraph)
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/29/2020 Austria hints at border closures in echo of Europe’s last migration crisis
FILE PHOTO: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz meets Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (not pictured)
at Downing Street in London, Britain, February 25, 2020. Matt Dunham/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hinted on Saturday that borders could be closed across the Balkans in response to a rush of migrants towards Greece from Turkey, echoing action taken during Europe’s 2015-16 migration crisis.
    Greek police fired teargas to push back hundreds of migrants gathered on the border with Turkey on Saturday, as a crisis over Syria shifted onto the European Union’s doorstep.
    Ankara says it will no longer contain hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers after an air strike on Idlib in northwestern Syria killed 33 Turkish soldiers.
    “We are in constant contact with our partners in the EU and along the western Balkan route.    Should the protection of the EU’s external borders not succeed, then Austria will protect its borders,” Kurz, a critic of Turkey’s government and a hawk on illegal immigration, said in a statement.
    His comments hinted at a response similar to that of 2016 when he was foreign minister and Austria coordinated a series of border closures in Balkan countries between it and Greece to block a new wave of arrivals.
    Kurz won power in 2017 after taking a hard line on immigration, pledging to prevent a repeat of 2015’s influx, in which Austria took in the equivalent of about 1% of its population in asylum seekers.    He formed a government at the time with the far right, which had a similar stance on the issue.
    That conservative-far right coalition collapsed amid scandal in May and he now shares power with the left-wing Greens, though his government has maintained much of the previous coalition’s stance on immigration.
    “A situation like 2015 must absolutely not be repeated.    Our aim must be to protect the EU’s external borders properly, to stop illegal migrants there and not to wave them through,” Kurz said.
    Austria was ready to send extra police to countries on the border, he said, apparently referring to Greece and Bulgaria.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

3/1/2020 Tajikistan set to elect parliament loyal to strongman leader
FILE PHOTO: Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon arrives for a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty
Organization (CSTO) heads of state in Minsk, Belarus November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko/File Photo
    ALMATY (Reuters) – Tajikistan votes in a parliamentary election on Sunday that will produce a legislature loyal to President Imomali Rakhmon who has run the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation for a quarter of a century.
    Of the seven parties contesting the 63 lower house seats only one, the Social Democrats, has openly criticized the 67-year-old leader who wields sweeping powers in the Persian-speaking Muslim country of 9 million.
    Another opposition group, the Islamic Renaissance Party, was outlawed shortly after the 2015 election – in which it failed to win any seats – as the authorities accused it of being behind a failed coup attempt.
    The People’s Democratic Party led by Rakhmon dominates the parliament which plans in the near future to move into a new building gifted by China, the main investor in Tajikistan’s economy.
    No large-scale polls indicating voter preferences were conducted before the vote, but few observers expect any change to the political status quo.
    “The level of respect of fundamental freedoms has further deteriorated since the last elections and the choice between political alternatives is limited in the absence of independent media and a functioning opposition,” the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a report last month.
    The parliamentary election also appears to shed little light on Rakhmon’s plans with regards to a presidential election this autumn when his seven-year term expires.    The president has not said whether he plans to run again.
    Neither of Rakhmon’s two eldest children who are already prominent public figures is running in the election.    His elder son Rustam Imomali is mayor of the capital Dushanbe and is eligible to run for the presidency.    His daughter Ozoda Rakhmon serves both as presidential chief of staff and senator.
    The Dushanbe government plans to announce the preliminary results of the vote on Monday.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Nazarali Pirnazarov in Dushanbe)

3/1/2020 Slovak anti-corruption opposition parties score emphatic election win by Tomas Mrva and Jan Lopatka
Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) party leader Igor Matovic speaks to the media at his party's
headquarters during the parliamentary election, in Trnava, Slovakia, February 29, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Slovak opposition led by the Ordinary People party (OLANO) won an emphatic victory in the country’s parliamentary election, as voters angry with graft routed the ruling centre-left Smer that has dominated the political scene for over a decade.
    Results from 96.16% of voting districts showed on Sunday that OLANO, a politically amorphous, pro-European Union and pro-NATO movement focused on fighting corruption, took 24.95% of the vote, far ahead of the ruling Smer with 18.5%.
    Support for OLANO surged in recent weeks, from less than 6% late last year, concentrating a protest vote fed by the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée two years ago.
    Seats won by other liberal and conservative parties gave OLANO a strong position to lead negotiations to form a new centre-right government.
    OLANO leader Igor Matovic has pledged to clean up politics, an ambition encapsulated in his party’s slogan: “Let’s Beat the Mafia Together.”
    “We take the result as a request from people who want us to clean up Slovakia.    To make Slovakia a just country, where the law applies to everybody regardless if he is rich or poor,” Matovic said after most of the votes were counted.
    Matovic said he would reach out to leaders of three other parties – the liberal Freedom and Solidarity, the conservative For the People of former president Andrej Kiska, and the socially conservative, eurosceptic We Are Family – to form an alliance that would have constitutional majority of over 90 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
    Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini from Smer acknowledged defeat and said the party’s run in the office, for 12 out of the past 14 years, may be over.
    “A probable departure of our party into opposition is not such a surprise,” Pellegrini told reporters.
    Smer scored its worst result since 2002.    Its nationalist and Hungarian minority allies did not win any seats, the first time in decades that Hungarians will not be represented.
    The political shift in the euro zone member state, which has avoided fights with Brussels unlike its central European Visegrad Group neighbors Hungary and Poland, started with the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée.
    An investigation unearthed communications between a businessman now on trial for ordering the hit and politicians and judicial officials.    The defendant has denied the charges.
    The killing led to the biggest street protests in the post-communist era, forcing Smer leader Robert Fico to resign, though his party held on to power.
    Matovic, 46, told Reuters last week he wanted to be a conciliatory voice toward the EU within Visegrad.
    The former owner of regional newspapers and a lawmaker since 2010, Matovic calls himself a social conservative and economic liberal but refuses to pin down OLANO on the left-right or liberal-conservative scale.
    In the European Parliament, OLANO is aligned with the centre-right European People’s Party.
    “I would like to send a positive signal,” Matovic said, adding that he did not want European partners to feel Slovakia was a corrupt place “where journalists and their fiancees are murdered just because someone unearthed corruption.”
    He said he would strive for better education for the underprivileged Roma minority, and wanted the Roma, Hungarian and Ruthenian minorities to feel equal.
    Predictions that the far-right, anti-EU and anti-NATO People’s Party could make strong gains were not borne out and the party won just over 8%.
    For an election poll graphic, click: https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/SLOVAKIA-ELECTION/0H001R8E0C3S/index.html
(Reporting by Tomas Mrva and Jan Lopatka; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Tom Hogue)

3/1/2020 Russian, Turkish foreign ministers discuss Syria, other matters
FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends the Human Rights Council
at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 25, 2020. PREUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Chavushoglu agreed on the need to create a “favorable atmosphere” to improve working relations between their countries, the Russian foreign ministry said on Sunday.
    “The ministers have declared in favor of the adoption of measures to create a favorable atmosphere that will facilitate the effectiveness of the dialogue on the implementation of agreements in support of the Syrian settlement and other issues on the agenda of Russian-Turkish relations,” the ministry said.
    Lavrov and Chavushoglu, in a phone call, also discussed preparations for the upcoming meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan.
(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Mark Potter)

3/1/2020 Russia and Ukraine plan next prisoner swap in March: Kiev
FILE PHOTO: Servicemen of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic speak during the exchange of prisoners of war (POWs) with
Ukraine near the Mayorsk crossing point in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 29, 2019. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine said on Sunday it had held talks with the Kremlin on swapping all remaining prisoners from the conflict in east Ukraine, and the next exchange might take place later this month.
    Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy agreed in December to send prisoners home, and scores were handed over just before the end of the year.
    But many others are still being held, casting a shadow over efforts to roll out a peace deal and, eventually, settle the status of the disputed region where the fighting raged between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
    The head of the Ukraine president’s office, Andriy Yermak, met senior Kremlin official Dmitry Kozak in Minsk, the presidency said.
    “The parties discussed the issues of the mutual release of the detainees,” and the plan was to hold the next exchange in March, it added, without giving details on the size of that swap.
    The conflict that broke out in 2014 killed more than 13,000 people, left a large swathe of Ukraine de facto controlled by the separatists and aggravated the deepest east-west rift since the Cold War.
    The full release of prisoners could help thaw relations that have been frozen since Russian forces annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

3/2/2020 Putin says Russia does not plan to go to war with anyone – TASS
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbay
Jeenbekov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia does not plan to go to war with anyone, but wants to dissuade other countries from engaging in conflict with Moscow, the TASS news agency reported on Monday.
    Putin made the comments in a TASS interview which the Russian news agency began releasing extracts of in installments on Feb. 20.    Monday’s comments were included in the sixth such installment.
    The publication of the remarks came amid rising tensions in Syria’s Idlib region where Russia is backing Syrian government forces against Turkey.
(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/2/2020 Russian constitution must define marriage as heterosexual, Putin says by Andrew Osborn
FILE PHOTO: Activists of a local LGBT community put tape over their mouths while walking during a protest
against discrimination in Saint Petersburg, Russia April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin has proposed amending the Russian constitution to spell out that marriage means a union between a man and a woman and nothing else, a senior politician was cited as saying on Monday by the RIA news agency.
    Putin, who has aligned himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and sought to distance Russia from liberal Western values, has proposed a shake-up of Russia’s political system that critics say may be designed to extend his grip on power after 2024, when he is due to leave the Kremlin.
    He and his supporters see that overhaul as an opportunity to modify the constitution to enshrine what they see as Russia’s core moral and geopolitical values for future generations.
    Putin on Monday submitted his constitutional proposals to parliament just before the deadline, RIA cited Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy chairman of the lower house, as saying.
    “For me, the most important one is his proposal to enshrine in basic law the concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman,” Tolstoy added.
    Putin said last month Russia would not legalize gay marriage as long as he was in the Kremlin.    He said he would not let the traditional notion of a mother and father be subverted by what he called “parent number 1” and “parent number 2.”
    President Vladimir Putin has proposed amending the Russian constitution to spell out that marriage means a union between a man and a woman and nothing else, a senior politician was cited as saying on Monday by the RIA news agency.
    Putin, who has aligned himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and sought to distance Russia from liberal Western values, has proposed a shake-up of Russia’s political system that critics say may be designed to extend his grip on power after 2024, when he is due to leave the Kremlin.
    He and his supporters see that overhaul as an opportunity to modify the constitution to enshrine what they see as Russia’s core moral and geopolitical values for future generations.
    Putin on Monday submitted his constitutional proposals to parliament just before the deadline, RIA cited Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy chairman of the lower house, as saying.
    “For me, the most important one is his proposal to enshrine in basic law the concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.”
    Putin said last month Russia would not legalize gay marriage as long as he was in the Kremlin.    He said he would not let the traditional notion of a mother and father be subverted by what he called “parent number 1” and “parent number 2.”
    Homosexuality in Russia, where the influence of the socially conservative Orthodox Church has grown in recent years, was a criminal offence until 1993, and classed as a mental illness until 1999.
    Under Russian law, only heterosexual couples can adopt children in Russia.
    Western governments and human rights activists have criticized the Russian authorities for their treatment of LGBT+ people.    Gay British singer Elton John was among those to speak out against a 2013 law that banned the dissemination of “gay propaganda” among young Russians.
    Under the law, any event or act regarded by the authorities as an attempt to promote homosexuality to minors is illegal and punishable by a fine.    The law has been used to stop gay pride marches and to detain gay rights activists.
    Putin has said he is not prejudiced against gay people, but that he finds a Western willingness to embrace homosexuality and gender fluidity out of step with traditional Russian values.
    Homosexuality in Russia, where the influence of the socially conservative Orthodox Church has grown in recent years, was a criminal offence until 1993, and classed as a mental illness until 1999.
    Only heterosexual couples can legally adopt children in Russia.
    Western governments and human rights activists have criticized the Russian authorities for their treatment of LGBT+ people.    Gay British singer Elton John was among those to speak out against a 2013 law that banned the dissemination of “gay propaganda” among young Russians.
    Under that law, any event or act regarded by the authorities as an attempt to promote homosexuality to minors is illegal and punishable by a fine.    The law has been used to stop gay pride marches and to detain gay rights activists.
    Putin has said he is not prejudiced against gay people, but that he finds a Western willingness to embrace homosexuality and gender fluidity out of step with traditional Russian values.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)
[THIS IS EMBARRASSING TO ME THAT A COUNTRY LIKE RUSSIA IS TELLING US A TRUTH AND IS TRYING TO UPHOLD THE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLE THAT MARRIAGE IS FOR ONE MAN AND ONE WOMAN AND THE UNITED STATES IS NOT DEMANDING THAT AND STOP THE SINS OF MANKIND AGAINST THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, ISSAC AND JACOB AND THE SCARLET WOMAN CONTINUES TO PURSUE HER AGENDA.].

3/2/2020 Russia, Turkey may have committed war crimes in Syria, U.N. says by Stephanie Nebehay
Paulo Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic attends a news conference
during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Russia killed civilians in air strikes in Syria last year while rebels allied to Turkey carried out murder and pillage in Kurdish areas, U.N. investigators said on Monday – actions it said could amount to war crimes by both Moscow and Ankara.
    A report by a U.N. commission found that Russia – the Syrian government’s main ally against rebels and militants – conducted air strikes on a popular market and a camp for displaced people that killed dozens of civilians in July and August.
    “In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas,” the report said.
    It also described abuses by rebels allied to Turkey during an assault on Kurdish-held areas, and said that if the rebels were acting under the control of Turkish military forces, those commanders may be liable for war crimes.
    Paulo Pinheiro, the commission’s chairman, said it had added names linked to the latest crimes to its confidential list of suspected perpetrators.    It has received 200 requests from judicial authorities worldwide for information on crimes committed during Syria’s nine-year war, he told a news briefing.
    In the report, which covered the period from July 2019 to February 2020, investigators denounced “deliberate” attacks by the Syrian government and allied forces on protected civilian sites, including hospitals and schools.
    “There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing a population to force it to move.    We are seeing that picture emerging very clearly for example in Idlib where, because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out,” said panel member Hanny Megally.
    Russian-backed Syrian government forces have thrust deep into Idlib province in the far northwest in a campaign to retake the last country’s significant rebel pocket. The onslaught has forced around one million civilians to flee.
    Up to 10 children have died from the cold in the last weeks due to living in the open at the Turkish border, Megally said.
    The U.N. report blamed Russia for an air strike in the city of Maarat al-Numan on July 22 when at least 43 civilians were killed.    Two residential buildings and 25 shops were destroyed after at least two Russian planes left Hmeimim air base and circled the area, it said.
    Weeks later, an attack on the Haas compound for displaced killed at least 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others, the report said.
    It also called on Turkey to investigate whether it was responsible for an air strike on a civilian convoy near Ras al Ain that killed 11 people last October.    Turkey has denied a role in the strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said was conducted by Turkish aircraft.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/2/2020 Czech Republic cancels flights, bars fans from races over coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives for the second day of the European Union leaders summit, held
to discuss the EU's long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic will stop flights with South Korea and cities in northern Italy and bar spectators from an international biathlon event this week due to coronavirus concerns, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Monday.
    The central European country took the measures after reporting its first three cases of the virus on Sunday in people who had visited or lived in northern Italy, the area with the largest outbreak of coronavirus in Europe.
    Some universities kept students away while bus line operator RegioJet also planned to suspend its Prague-Venice-Rome and Prague-Milan international routes at the end of the week.
    The stoppage of flights to and from the Italian cities of Milan, Venice and Bologna will last for two weeks and could be extended, Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said.
    One of those infected by coronavirus was a teacher at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague who had attended a conference in Italy, prompting the school to cancel classes on Monday and Tuesday as they map out his contact with students and colleagues.
    The Czech Technical University was also keeping students and staff from some departments at home on Monday after the patient’s colleague visited the school last week, the university said.
    In the country’s second largest city Brno, Mendel University said it would shift to an online course regime and cancel lessons until March 15 due to worries about coronavirus contagion.
    Babis said the state security council, which met on Monday to debate precautions to stop the spread of the virus that has infected more than 86,500 worldwide, would convene again on Wednesday to decide on a possible ban on large gatherings.
    The council decided on Monday to go ahead with a World Cup biathlon event in Nove Mesto, 165 km (102 miles) southeast of Prague, but without spectators.    The event usually attracts tens of thousands from around Europe.
(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/3/2020 Ukrainian prime minister to exit in sweeping reshuffle by Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams
FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk attends a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk has resigned and the finance minister, foreign minister and the prosecutor general could also exit in a sweeping reshuffle this week, lawmakers from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party said on Tuesday.
    Zelenskiy has put forward Deputy Prime Minister Denys Shmygal to replace Honcharuk, lawmaker Galyna Yanchenko told reporters after a party meeting ahead of a special parliamentary session convened by the president on Wednesday.
    Honcharuk’s office declined comment and Finance Minister Oksana Markarova’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
    The reshuffle will put into the spotlight Ukraine’s commitment to reforms at a time when it is trying to finalize a new loan program from the International Monetary Fund that is seen as crucial to economic stability and investor confidence.
    Zelenskiy came to power in a landslide election victory last year as an actor and comedian with no prior political experience, promising to tackle corruption, implement reforms and curb the influence of oligarchs on politics.
    But recent surveys suggest his government’s popularity has declined after patchy progress on a commitment to end the war against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region, and to fight high-level graft.
    The reshuffle points to the elevation of some establishment figures to higher levels of power.    Shmygal used to work for DTEK, Ukraine’s largest energy group owned by the country’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov.
    Markarova’s potential replacement, Ihor Umansky, became the acting finance minister in Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s government in 2009.
    “Markarova’s exit is a big loss – and why?” said Tim Ash of BlueBay Asset Management.    “Why replace a proven reformer?
    Lawmakers may also hold a no confidence vote in Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka, whose progress on reforming the general prosecutor’s office was praised in a statement by the G7 group of ambassadors on Tuesday as reports of his possible exit gathered steam.
    “The president and Shmygal presented the potential composition of the cabinet…We expect big changes,” Yanchenko said.
    Honcharuk’s position has been under scrutiny since the leak in January of a recording that suggested he had made unflattering comments about Zelenskiy, though at the time the president said he would give the prime minister a second chance.
    Honcharuk’s government has also tussled with Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest tycoons who has been fighting to reverse the 2016 nationalization of PrivatBank, the country’s largest lender, which he used to own.
    In order to secure new IMF loans, the government has tried to pass a law on banking insolvency through parliament that would bar PrivatBank from returning to Kolomoisky.
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Nick Zieminski/Mark Heinrich)

3/3/2020 Slovak president to ask OLANO to form coalition government after election win
FILE PHOTO: Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova is pictured after casting her vote during the
country's parliamentary election, in Pezinok, Slovakia February 29, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Slovakia’s President Zuzana Caputova will on Wednesday ask election winner Igor Matovic, leader of the anti-graft Ordinary People party (OLANO), to head talks on forming a government, she said.
    Caputova met with the heads of OLANO’s potential coalition partners on Tuesday.    “They expressed readiness to continue talks with the OLANO leader on the creation of a new government,” she said on Facebook.
    In a fragmented vote on Sunday, OLANO – a politically amorphous, pro-European Union and pro-NATO movement – won 25%, beating center-left Smer, which has dominated Slovakian politics for over a decade into second place with 18.3%.
    Support for OLANO, campaigning on a strong anti-graft message, surged in the final weeks of the campaign, rising from less than 6% late last year.
    Matovic, 46, will seek to form a four-party coalition.
    His prospective partners are: Sme Rodina (We are Family), a socially conservative party that placed third; the liberal SaS (Freedom and Solidarity) party; and the centrist Za Ludi (For the People) of former president Andrej Kiska.
    The coalition would hold a clear majority in parliament with 95 of 150 seats, but analysts have said it could be fragile.
    Matovic, a lawmaker since 2010 who is known for publicity stunts, calls himself a social conservative and economic liberal but declines to put political labels on his OLANO party.
    We are Family has allied with Italy’s League party of Matteo Salvini and the National Rally of France’s Marine Le Pen on a European level.    Its pro-business leader Boris Kollar has said the coalition should avoid legislating on contentious issues like same sex civil partnerships or abortion.
    SaS leader Richard Sulik was a part of a government coalition that unseated Smer in 2010 but it fell apart less than two years later when Sulik’s faction missed a confidence vote.
(Reporting by Tomas Mrva; editing by John Stonestreet)

3/3/2020 Putin critic Navalny accuses Russia of emptying and freezing his bank accounts by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn
FILE PHOTO: Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally to mark the 5th anniversary
of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's murder and to protest against proposed amendments
to the country's constitution, in Moscow, Russia February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Tuesday accused Russian authorities of emptying and blocking his bank accounts and those of his close family, a move he said was unfair and aimed at strangling him and his supporters financially.
    Navalny, 43, an outspoken opponent of President Vladimir Putin who has tried to build an anti-Kremlin movement by exposing official corruption, said his own accounts had been frozen as had the bank cards of his wife, son, daughter and parents.
    Navalny said that accounts belonging to him and his wife had not only been blocked since Monday, but were now overdrawn to the tune of 75 million roubles ($1.13 million).
    His 11-year-old son’s savings, the result of weekly pocket money handouts, had also disappeared, he said on his website https://navalny.com/p/6305.
    The Kremlin declined to discuss the blocking of Navalny’s accounts, saying bank freezes were not a matter for the president’s office.
    Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, said the freezes appeared linked to a criminal case opened by investigators into suspected money laundering by his Anti-Corruption Foundation, allegations he says are fabricated.
    The investigation was opened last August after Navalny called on people to attend rallies that grew into Moscow’s biggest sustained protest movement in years before fizzling out.
    “I’m not going to lie, this is fairly unpleasant. My parents are elderly people, pensioners.    Like everyone they have illnesses, medicine (to buy) and so on.    No idea how they’ll pay for their utilities,” he said.
BARRED FROM ELECTION
    Navalny was barred from running for president in 2018 because of a past conviction on charges he has called trumped up.    Putin won that election by a landslide.
    Navalny said on Tuesday he believed authorities were trying to sideline him at a sensitive political time when Putin is pushing for major constitutional changes and may be thinking of calling snap parliamentary elections this autumn.
    Putin announced plans for an array of constitutional reforms earlier this year that his critics say may be designed to extend his grip on power after his presidential term ends in 2024 and he is due to step down.
    Navalny and allies are set to file a case to the European Court of Human Rights on Friday alleging the money laundering case is part of a campaign of intimidation and harassment against them, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre said.
    Russia’s Justice Ministry in October formally labeled Navalny’s anti-corruption group a “foreign agent,” meaning it can be subjected to spot checks and face bureaucratic scrutiny.
    Separately, the TASS news agency reported on Tuesday that Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, whom Navalny has targeted in his investigations, was suing Navalny for smearing his reputation, though only for a symbolic sum of one rouble.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

3/4/2020 On Ukraine visit, Canada minister presses Iran for access to black boxes from plane crash
Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne speaks during
news conference in Riga, Latvia March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
    KIEV (Reuters) – Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne on Wednesday urged Tehran to allow access to the black boxes from a Ukrainian passenger plane that was accidentally shot down over Iran in January.
    “We do expect from Iran to give access to the black box without any further delay,” Francois-Philippe Champagne said during a press conference with his Ukrainian counterpart Vadym Prystaiko, while on a visit to the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
    Iran has so far resisted handing over the black boxes from the Ukraine International Airlines flight that was downed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards after mistaking it for a hostile target.
    Canada has pressed Iran for a complete and independent investigation.
    Many of the 176 who perished in the disaster were Iranians with dual citizenship.    Canada had 57 citizens on board.
    “We have questions and we expect Iran to provide answers,” Champagne said.
    “I always say transparency is the best antidote to conspiracy, so we should demand from Iran in one voice, the international community, to provide access to these black boxes, to allow for transparency so that justice can be carried out.”
(Reporting by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

3/4/2020 Ukraine president jettisons PM in search for ‘new brains’ to revive economy by Pavel Polityuk and Ilya Zhegulev
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a speech during a parliamentary session
in Kiev, Ukraine March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy ousted Oleksiy Honcharuk as prime minister after just six months in a reshuffle on Wednesday, saying that “new brains and new hearts” were required to revive the economy and tackle corruption.
    At a special parliament session, lawmakers voted to accept the resignation of Honcharuk, 35, who left as Ukraine’s youngest and most short-lived prime minister since independence in 1991.
    He was replaced by Denys Shymgal, who said his immediate challenge was to stave off an economic and budget crisis.    He wanted to revise the 2020 budget, cut the salaries of ministers and some officials, and also said the strong hryvnia currency had hurt exports.
    The shake-up threw Ukraine’s commitment to reforms into focus at a time when it is trying to finalize a new loan program with the International Monetary Fund that is seen as crucial to economic stability and investor confidence.
    Other more experienced operators also joined the cabinet, signaling a change of direction for Zelenskiy, who was elected last year as an outsider who would bring new faces to politics.
    Finance Minister Oksana Markarova was axed for Ihor Umansky, who was acting finance minister a decade ago under Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
    Speaking before the vote, Zelenskiy criticized the government for failing to arrest an industrial slump and for being soft on tackling graft, while seeking to reassure Ukraine’s international partners of his commitment to reforms.
    “Yes, indeed, this is the first government where there is no high-level corruption.    But not stealing is not enough.    This is a government of new faces, but faces are not enough,” Zelenskiy said.    “New brains and new hearts are needed.”
PATCHY PROGRESS
    Zelenskiy also took a swipe at foreigners being on the supervisory board of state-run firms – many of which were appointed with the backing of international donors – saying Ukrainian citizens felt like a minority on them.
    An actor with no political experience who played a fictional president in a comedy series, Zelenskiy swept to power in a landslide win last year.
    But his administration’s popularity has sagged after patchy progress on a commitment to end the war against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region and to tackle graft.
    Shmygal, the new prime minister, used to work for DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy group, owned by the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.
    The new government “is radically different because we took into account society’s demand for professionals.    We took people who are authorities in their fields,” Oleksandr Kachura, a lawmaker in Zelenskiy’s party, told Reuters.
    “Previously, this was considered a drawback, but now it is perceived differently.”
    Honcharuk’s position had been under scrutiny since the leak in January of a recording that suggested he had made unflattering comments about Zelenskiy.
    His government also tussled with Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest tycoons, who has been fighting to reverse the 2016 nationalization of his former bank PrivatBank, the country’s largest lender. Zelenskiy, whose TV show became a hit on a station owned by Kolomoisky, denies that his business ties with the tycoon influence policy decisions.
    In order to secure new IMF loans, Honcharuk’s government had tried to pass a law on banking insolvency that would bar PrivatBank from returning to Kolomoisky.
    “This is a victory for Kolomoisky and his people,” a source in Zelenskiy’s party said of the cabinet overhaul.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Ilya Zhegulev and Natalia Zinets; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Peter Graff, Nick Macfie and Alexander Smith)

3/4/2020 Hungary will defend EU against migrant wave, Orban says by Marton Dunai and Anita Komuves
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks as he attends a news conference during the summit of the Visegrad Group (V4)
countries, to discuss response to the spread of the coronavirus, in Prague, Czech, Republic March 4, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Wednesday a new wave of migrants trying to cross the border from Turkey into the European Union must be stopped as far south as possible and his government was ready to help frontline Greece.     “It won’t be enough just to defend the Greek-Turkish border,” said Orban, a staunch anti-immigrant populist.     “As a last resort, as in 2015, there are the Hungarians,” he said.    “Even if Greece’s attempt is successful, the EU border must be defended…which Hungary will do,” he told a news conference with Central European leaders.
    Turkey, alarmed by the prospect of another wave of refugees fleeing war in northwest Syria, said last week it will no longer uphold a 2016 deal with the EU to keep hundreds of thousands of migrants on its soil in return for EU aid.
    Since then, more than 10,000 migrants – mostly from Syria, other Middle Eastern states and Afghanistan – have massed on the Greek border hoping to get to western Europe.    Greek security forces have used tear gas to stop them crossing.
    “We will give all the help we can for Greece to stop this…Orban said."    “We must do something about (them).”
    Orban has campaigned for years to draw up strong EU defenses and deal with migrants in Africa and Asia, before they ever reach European soil.    He said on Wednesday that about 130,000 migrants were already in the Balkans from previous influxes.
    Europe should follow the policies Hungary adopted years ago, he said.
    In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, Orban had a razor wire fence built along Hungary’s southern border, complete with sensors, floodlights and frequent patrols by border forces.
    The fence has been criticized for years as has Orban’s policy to turn back virtually all migrants at the border, sometimes by depriving them of food in holding zones at border crossings.
    Migrants have trickled through the Balkans for years.    Their numbers have picked up behind the fence in recent months and an increasing number of them have been trying to breach it, police figures show.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai and Anita Komuves; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

3/4/2020 Putin says Russia targeted from abroad by fake news on coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the working group on proposals for amendments
to the Russian constitution, in Moscow, Russia February 26, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has been targeted from abroad by foes spreading fake news about the coronavirus to sow panic, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday.
    Putin’s remarks came as Russia’s communications regulator said it had shut down access to some social media posts containing falsehoods about the virus outbreak.
    “The Federal Security Service reports that they (the fakes) are mainly being organized from abroad.    But unfortunately this always happens to us,” Putin said on Wednesday, in televised remarks at a government meeting.    “The purpose of such fakes is clear: to sow panic among the population.”
    A Russian cyber security company, Group-IB, on Monday identified what it said were thousands of fake news posts on messaging services and social networks such as Russia’s VK alleging that thousands of Muscovites have caught the virus.
    Russia has not reported any confirmed cases of people contracting coronavirus on its territory, although six people who picked up the virus elsewhere have received or are receiving treatment in Russia, according to authorities.    The social media posts alleged that the government was covering up cases.
    Interfax news agency said Russian authorities had identified people suspected of circulating false reports about the virus.    An earlier headline from the news agency said people had been detained for spreading false reports, but Interfax later said this was inaccurate.
    Russia has long brushed off accusations from other countries about spreading fake news on social media.
    Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications regulator, said in a statement it was blocking access to an array of social media posts on VK as well as on Facebook.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyova; additional reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva and Nadezhda Tsydenova; Editing by Peter Graff)

3/4/2020 Austrian Chancellor Kurz: Turkey released migrants to attack Greece, EU by OAN Newsroom
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz arrives with government members to advise on the situation in Austria after several people
was infected with the new coronavirus at the federal chancellery in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, March 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Roland Zak)
    Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has criticized Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for releasing new waves of migrants into Europe.    According to Kurz, Erdogan’s decision to release hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Europe was an attack on both Greece and the European Union.
    He added Austria will not accept any new migrants from the Middle East.
    Last week, Turkey unleashed a large mass of migrants into Europe and accused the EU of failing to support Ankara in the Syrian conflict. EU officials argued Turkey is now in violation of a 2016 agreement on fighting mass migration.
Migrants stand as others wait to enter buses at the port of Mytilene on the northeastern
Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
    “It is necessary that everybody stands by its commitments and fulfill its commitments,” stated French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.    “All sides must continue the proper application of the 2016 agreement, and we do not give in on this issue.”
Austrian leaders have said all migrants seeking entry will be contained in detention camps and deported.

3/4/2020 President Zelenskiy appoints Denys Shmygal as new prime minister, orders anti-corruption reforms by OAN Newsroom
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March, 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has finally accepted the resignation of his prime minister amid the ongoing reshuffle of his government. On Wednesday, Zelenskiy accepted Oleksiy Honcharuk’s resignation and stated he needs “new brains and new hearts” to purge corruption in his country.
    He previously declined the prime minister’s resignation request after a highly publicized spat between the two.
    President Zelenskiy has appointed Denys Shmygal to fill the role.    He immediately ordered the new prime minister to undertake a series of economic and fiscal reforms.
Ukraine’s newly elected Prime Minister Denys Shmygal looks on at the parliament session hall in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Lawmakers voted vice prime minister Smygal to be the country’s new prime minister replacing Oleksiy Honcharuk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    “There are various reasons why I am standing here at the podium today.    It is economic recession, risks of budget crisis, condition of the industry, medicine and social protection of population, issues of energy security, public utility payments.    The most important reason, which the president always stresses on, is welfare of Ukrainian citizens.” – Denys Shmygal, newly appointed Prime Minister of Ukraine
    The country’s new budget will reportedly cut salaries for ministers and other government officials while supporting economic activity in the private sector.

3/5/2020 Russian court fines Putin critic’s group over foreign agent law – group spokeswoman
FILE PHOTO: Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally to mark the 5th anniversary
of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's murder and to protest against proposed amendments
to the country's constitution, in Moscow, Russia February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Thursday fined opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation 500,000 roubles ($7,536) for failing to identify itself as a foreign agent on social media, Navalny’s spokeswoman said.
    Russia’s Justice Ministry formally labeled the group a foreign agent in October after Navalny called on people to attend rallies that grew into Moscow’s biggest sustained protest movement in years before fizzling out.
    Civil society groups designated as foreign agents, a term that carries a negative Soviet-era connotation, can be subjected to spot checks and face intense bureaucratic scrutiny.
    MBK media, an outlet financed by Kremlin critic and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reported that Navalny’s group had been fined by the court for not identifying itself as a foreign agent on Instagram.
    Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokeswoman, confirmed the report.
    Navalny has tried unsuccessfully to contest the foreign agent designation in court, something he has cast as part of a coordinated government campaign aimed at stifling his activities.
    Navalny was barred from running for president in 2018 because of a past conviction on charges he has called trumped up. Putin won that election by a landslide.
    On Tuesday, Navalny accused authorities of emptying and blocking his bank accounts and those of his close family, a move he said was unfair and aimed at strangling him and his supporters financially.
    He said authorities were seeking to sideline him at a sensitive political time when Putin is pushing for major constitutional changes and may be thinking of calling snap parliamentary elections this autumn.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/5/2020 Erdogan flies to Moscow for Syria ceasefire talks with Putin by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during meeting at the
parliament in Ankara, Turkey, March 4, 2020. Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan flew to Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over a potential ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib, where their militaries are facing off in a war that has displaced nearly a million people in three months.
    A senior Turkish official told Reuters that a ceasefire was likely to be finally agreed at the meeting, after weeks of diplomacy failed to halt fighting between Turkey and allied Syrian rebels and Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
    “Political diplomacy will be more determinant today than military diplomacy,” the official said.
    Russian air strikes have propelled a push by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to retake the last large rebel-held territory in the northwest.
    That has sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in a nine-year war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.
    Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funneled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the government advance and avoid a wave of refugees over its southern border.
    The fighting has killed some 60 Turkish troops since early February and raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, which operate on opposing sides of the front lines.
MORE CIVILIANS DIE
    A Turkish security official said overnight clashes were “low in intensity for the first time in a while” ahead of the Moscow meeting, but Idlib residents reported heavy shelling by Turkish troops and air strikes by Russian and Syrian forces.
    At least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of internally displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defense workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.
    Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the strikes hit civilians sheltering in a farm.
    Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib.
    The Turkish defense ministry said in the last 24 hours it destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes.
    Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. To extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said it would not abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.
    Erdogan, who was due to meet Putin at 1100 GMT, said on Wednesday he expected his talks with Putin to reach a rapid ceasefire in northwest Syria.
    Turkey wants Russia to “use its influence to ensure the attacks stop, a ceasefire is established and the Sochi agreement is re-established,” another Turkish official said of the 2018 deal signed by Moscow and Ankara establishing a demilitarized zone on the edge of the Idlib region.
    The official added that U.S. counterparts on Wednesday pledged Washington’s “unconditional” support for Turkish military and humanitarian activities in Idlib.     James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria who met Turkish officials on Wednesday, told a conference in Istanbul on Thursday that while the United States supports Turkey, it still has “very serious concerns” over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses last year.
(Additional reporting by Eric Knecht in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Dominic Evans)

3/5/2020 Swiss report first coronavirus death
FILE PHOTO: The University Hospital (CHUV) is pictured in Lausanne, Switzerland, June 16, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    ZURICH (Reuters) – A 74-year-old woman in western Switzerland has died after contracting the new coronavirus, the country’s first death from the rapidly spreading disease outbreak, regional police said on Thursday.
    The woman had been hospitalized at Lausanne’s University Hospital in the canton of Vaud since Tuesday, police said. She was a high-risk patient suffering from chronic disease, authorities added.
    In Switzerland, 58 infections have been confirmed so far.    The country has frequent exchanges with neighbor Italy, where around 3,100 people have been diagnosed with the disease and 107 died, as well as France and Germany, where coronavirus cases have also been reported.
    Swiss health authorities said on Wednesday that so far mostly young people had contracted the disease in Switzerland, but were likely to pass it on to older people who are more at risk.
    The Swiss government has banned events and gatherings of more than 1,000 people and advised people to keep their distance, avoid shaking hands and refrain from the traditional Swiss triple-kiss greeting.
    Companies like UBS and Nestle have imposed travel bans, while fragrance maker Givaudan on Wednesday opted to shutter a site near Zurich because an employee contracted the disease.
(Reporting by John Miller and Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Michael Shields)

3/5/2020 Moscow imposes ‘high alert regime’ to stem coronavirus outbreak
FILE PHOTO: Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin attends a military parade on Red Square
in central Moscow, Russia November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow authorities announced a “high alert regime” and imposed extra measures on Thursday to prevent a spread of the coronavirus in the Russian capital.
    A document posted on the Moscow mayor’s website said that Russians who return from China, South Korea, Iran, France, Germany, Italy and Spain and other states who display possible “unfavorable” signs of coronavirus should self-isolate themselves at home for 14 days.
    This will mean not going to work or to studies, it said.
    Moscow, a city of more than 12 million people, will also step up checks of those arriving from countries with coronavirus contagion, and its emergency center dealing with the issue will now work around the clock.
    Russia has not reported any confirmed cases of people contracting coronavirus on its territory, although six people who picked up the virus elsewhere have received or are receiving treatment.
    Authorities are now trying to prevent any spread of the virus by cancelling some international flights and recommending people against traveling abroad.
    On Thursday, Russia canceled its flagship annual St Petersburg International Economic Forum, usually chaired by President Vladimir Putin and scheduled for early June, as a precaution against the coronavirus.
    Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on his blog that Moscow could hardly avoid the coronavirus completely and could not readily limit business activity including services sector companies and retailers.
    “Millions of people work there. It would have a harmful impact on the economy and on citizens’ prosperity (to shut them down),” Sobyanin said.
    Global alarm over the coronavirus’s rapid spread has sent the rouble tumbling because of a steep drop in oil prices.    But senior officials have played down the possibility of a major impact on the Russian economy.
    Russia is fiscally prepared to cope with a drop in oil prices, its finance minister said on Thursday, as OPEC tries to convince Moscow to support the market with a deeper output cut in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/5/2020 Ukraine’s prosecutor general axed in parliament no-confidence vote by Matthias Williams and Natalia Zinets
FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka reacts during a
news conference in Kiev, Ukraine October 4, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s prosecutor general was axed in a parliamentary vote on Thursday night, the latest casualty in a sweeping reshuffle by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that has raised questions about the country’s reform momentum.
    The United States and the European Union had given public backing to prosecutor general Ruslan Ryaboshapka for his efforts to root out corruption and shed corrupt or under-qualified officials by making them reapply for their jobs through an exam.
    Ryaboshapka was also in the spotlight last year as the man to decide whether to launch an investigation into former U.S. vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, in what became a key issue in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
    But lawmakers in parliament, where Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party commands an unprecedented majority, voted to remove him in a no-confidence motion hours after the president criticized him for not producing results.     The vote came a day after Zelenskiy jettisoned most of his cabinet, including the prime minister.     The reshuffle dragged down bonds on Thursday, sparked by worries about the pace of reforms and Ukraine’s ability to seal an International Monetary Fund deal that is seen as key to investor confidence.
    “My personal opinion is very simple: if there are no results – the person should not remain in their job,” Zelenskiy was quoted by Interfax Ukraine as saying before the vote.
    Lawmakers from various parties criticized Ryaboshapka for not prosecuting cases pro-actively enough, including against the circle of previous President Petro Poroshenko.
    One opposition lawmaker said removing Ryaboshapka would pave the way for an independent investigation into Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden used to be a board member.
    Zelenskiy was elected by a landslide last year but his ratings have sagged in part because of a perception that his government was not doing enough to tackle high-level corruption.
    Ryaboshapka said lawmakers got rid of him because he had pushed genuine reform for the first time since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, in a way that threatened their interests.
    “For 28 years, the Prosecutor General’s Office was an instrument of pressure and political repression,” he said.
    “For 28 years, the prosecutor’s office was a source of personal enrichment for the elite and, as a result, the oligarchs in prosecutors’ uniforms.”
    Zelenskiy’s party has suggested one of their lawmakers, Serhii Ionushas, as Ryaboshapka’s replacement.    The president was a comic actor before entering politics, and Ionushas was a lawyer whose company did work for Zelenskiy’s production studio.
    Following Ryaboshapka’s exit, Artem Sytnyk, the head of the Western-backed National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, could be next in the firing line.
    Morgan Stanley’s Alina Slyusarchuk and Simon Waever on Thursday flagged the “increased risks to reform momentum, IMF cooperation and the fiscal balance,” from the reshuffle.
    “…the pressure on the Prosecutor General Ryaboshapka and the Head of the NABU Sytnyk might be interpreted as a step back for the anti-corruption efforts,” they wrote in a note to clients, downgrading their stance on the country’s hard-currency debt to “dislike.”
(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/5/2020 Erdogan, Putin announce ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province by OAN Newsroom
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands after a joint news conference
followed six-hour talks in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province.    The announcement came after Thursday’s face-to-face meeting between the two leaders.
    The ceasefire is reportedly slated to start at midnight local time.
    According to reports, Putin called for the meeting.    He claimed fighting in the northeastern region of the country had become so intense that it required one-on-one talks.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to the media as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 2nd right, listens
after six-hours of talks in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
    Erdogan has expressed hope that the meeting would lead to measures to calm the fighting.
    “Undoubtedly, our meeting today on the Idlib talks was of great importance,” he said.    “The situation in the region is very tense, I know that the world’s eyes are on us.”
    Russian airstrikes have aided a push by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to retake the rebel-held region.
    Fighting in the region has raised concerns of a direct conflict between Russia and Turkey.    Roughly 60 Turkish troops have been killed in the region since last month.

3/6/2020 Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib by Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during meeting at the
parliament in Ankara, Turkey, March 4, 2020. Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold in the northwest of the country.
    “I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.
    Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday.    “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”
    Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups.    Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed.
    The latest offensive in Idlib by Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air strikes, sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.
    The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.
    Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funneled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.
    Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.
    Assad himself has vowed to recapture “every inch” of Syrian territory, but his depleted military depends heavily on Moscow’s power and Iranian-backed militias on the ground.    Iran was not a party to Thursday’s deal.
    Apart from Idlib, a large stretch of northern Syria remains outside Assad’s control, held by Turkey and its rebel partners, and by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.
MORE DEATHS
    The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.
    They agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.
    In a joint statement, they said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.
    The Russian and Turkish defense ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.
    The deal did not spell out – as Erdogan has repeatedly demanded – that Syrian forces withdraw to the edge of the Idlib “de-escalation zone,” around which Turkey has stationed a dozen military observation posts, most of them now surrounded by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
    The fighting, which raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed around 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month.    Two hours after the joint announcement Turkey’s defense ministry said two soldiers were killed after Syrian government forces opened fire in Idlib.
    Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.
    Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defense workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.
    Russia denies targeting civilians.
    Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more.    Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

3/6/2020 Russian rouble falls beyond 68 vs. dollar to 14-month low as oil prices dive by Alexander Marrow
FILE PHOTO: A view shows a Russian one rouble coin in this picture illustration taken October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian rouble slid past 68 versus the dollar on Friday to fresh 4-month lows as investors sought safe assets amid the aggressive spread of the coronavirus and as oil prices tumbled after an OPEC pact with Russia fell apart.
    Moscow refused to support deeper oil cuts to cope with the outbreak of coronavirus and OPEC responded by removing all limits on its own production, sending oil prices into a tailspin and to their lowest since July 2017.
    Russian stocks plunged to 18-month lows with volatility plaguing emerging markets as the virus, which has infected more than 100,000 people globally and caused 3,400 deaths, continued to spread rapidly beyond China.
    By 1720 GMT, the rouble was 1.1% weaker against the dollar at 68.37 , touching its lowest mark since January 2019 on the day.    Against the euro, the rouble had lost 2% to trade at 77.35 , also a 14-month low.
    Brent crude oil , a global benchmark for Russia’s main export, was down 8.2% at $45.9 a barrel, and has now lost around a third of its value this year.
    Analysts at BCS Global Markets said this created fiscal problems for the Russian government.
    “For Russia’s budget to match with the current oil price, the exchange rate must be significantly higher than the current mark,” they said in a note.
    Russia’s finance minister said on Thursday Moscow would be able to cope with a drop in oil prices.
    Risk sentiment swung again on Thursday, said VTB Capital analysts, as markets returned their focus to the spreading fallout of the coronavirus, with numerous announcements of new travel restrictions and event cancellations.
    Russia on Thursday evening canceled its flagship annual St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which was scheduled for June, as a precaution.
    Russian stock indexes were at 18-month lows, hampered by increased risk aversion.
    The dollar-denominated RTS index <.IRTS> was down 5.0% at 1,258.0 points.    The rouble-based MOEX Russian index <.IMOEX> was 3.5% lower at 2719.5 points.
    For Russian equities guide see
    For Russian treasury bonds see <0#RUTSY=MM>
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/7/2020 Hungary’s ‘Easy Riders’ on a mission to help victims of abuse by Krisztina Fenyo
Members of the 'Easy Riders', a Hungarian bikers group, gather to help a domestic
violence victim in Budapest, Hungary March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Szilvia Morucz wishes she had found out sooner about a group of Hungarian bikers on a mission to help victims of domestic violence.
    Now a member of the “Easy Riders” group herself, Morucz told Reuters she had suffered daily verbal abuse, death threats and violence, including a broken finger, at the hands of her former partner during a seven-year relationship.
    The mostly male members of the 900-strong group ride to scenes of violence in a show of force and support for the victims, and help them to find ways to move out of their homes or take legal action against abusive partners.
    “We act like friends to the abused victims, or perhaps even more like friends because a friend and relative may not be free just when needed,” Morucz said.
    Civil organizations say they lack the resources to help victims effectively, and initiatives such as the bikers group are helping to fill the gap.
    “There are only three centers where such victims are helped … but no one knows about them, and even if they did it would soon turn out that they too have big capacity problems,” said Vera Mero, a member of a Hungarian civil group helping abused women.
    Morucz, who secured a restraining order against her ex-partner last year, said the bikers helped put her ordeal behind her and spurred her to help other women escape domestic violence.
    “We are there for her regardless of where she lives, who she is, what she does,” she said.
(Editing by Helen Popper)

3/8/2020 Moscow threatens with prison for failure of ‘self-isolation’ over coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: A general view of the city centre and steam rising from chimneys of a heating power plant
on a frosty day in Moscow, Russia February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow city authorities threatened prison terms of up to five years on Sunday for people failing to self-isolate in their homes for two weeks after visiting countries hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
    The city government had announced a “high alert regime” and imposed extra measures on Thursday to prevent a spread of the illness in the Russian capital.
    Those who return from China, South Korea, Iran, France, Germany, Italy and Spain and other states showing possible “” signs of coronavirus should self-isolate themselves at home for 14 days, Moscow city hall has said.
    The Moscow healthcare department said on Sunday that those disregarding the regulation risked severe punishment including imprisonment of up to five years.
    There have been 15 cases of coronavirus infections reported in Russia so far.
(Reporting by Anron Zverev; Writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Frances Kerry)

3/9/2020 Robots step in as cheap labor dries up in Eastern Europe by Gergely Szakacs and Jason Hovet
Robotic arms sort and load yogurts onto pallets at a distribution centre near Prague, Czech Republic, February 17, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    KOSZARHEGY, Hungary (Reuters) – Istvan Simon’s factory in western Hungary churns out more than a million plastic parts a day but on a busy morning in one of its large production halls there is only the sound of machines clicking and whirring. Workers have all but disappeared.
    Similar transformations are underway on production lines across the European Union’s eastern wing as surging wage bills undermine the region’s reputation as a cheap production base.    Factory owners from Hungary to the Czech Republic and Poland find themselves with little choice but to invest in the automation of their manufacturing processes if they want to remain competitive.
    Manufacturing in the region has boomed since the EU expanded eastwards in the mid 2000s, with companies such as automakers Audi and Daimler opening local production lines and spawning supplier ecosystems, but more recently strong economic growth has led to a shortage of workers and rising wages.
    “We can see human labor being replaced with machinery and artificial intelligence,” Hungarian union leader Zoltan Laszlo said. “Not just in the car sector … but also in the steel and machinery industries.
    “Such investments can already be seen in these sectors, leading to job losses.    You need to glue numerous tiny slivers together and all of a sudden you get the big picture.”
    Employment figures are one indication the region’s industry may be at a turning point.
    While Hungary’s economy grew nearly 5% last year and manufacturing investments rose at the fastest pace in three years, the sector shed nearly 23,000 jobs, ending a six-year run of annual employment growth. Czech data showed a year-on-year loss of almost a thousand manufacturing jobs in the third quarter of 2019, suggesting employment in the sector could have declined for the first time since 2013 over the full year.
    “There are no operators in this hall right now,” said Peter Simon, chief executive of Simon Plastics, as he overlooked a line of machines making plugs for car parts, a key product line at the company founded by Istvan, his father, 35 years ago.
    “Wages are going up, the prices of robots are coming down, so this is the way to get returns,” he said.    Looking to expand output but pressured by surging wages and falling prices, all of the company’s recent 1 billion forint ($3.32 million) investment was spent on automation.
    The company hasn’t cut any of its 400 jobs so far, finding other positions for those whose work has been replaced by robots, but it intends to automate its remaining manual work after a 50% jump in operator wages over the past three years.
JOB LOSSES
    Although the automation process has so far been a gradual one, Josef Stredula, head of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions, said based on various estimates up to 10% of jobs could disappear.
    “Big changes are awaiting us,” Stredula said, adding that while automation may ease the burden of heavy or repetitive manual work it was important to ease the transition, for example by retraining affected workers.
    “We have to do everything to make the future not so bleak but relatively easier for everyone.”
    Staffing company Hays recently noted that the average annual wage increase in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary of around 10% was far higher than in many western countries and estimated that almost 5% of Hungarian jobs, or 200,000 roles, could be fully automated over the next decade.
    Hungarian recruitment portal profession.hu registered an 11% fall in manufacturing sector job postings last year.    In the Czech Republic, Grafton Recruitment has seen a similar drop, while consultancy Deloitte has estimated around half of current jobs could be replaced by machines.
    “It is only a question of when it will be more economical for most companies to start with automation on a much bigger scale,” said David Marek, Deloitte’s chief economist in Prague.
NOT BLACK AND WHITE
    At a distribution center near Prague, Czech yoghurt maker Hollandia Karlovy Vary installed three robotic arms last year to sort and load yoghurts onto pallets, replacing the work of 10 people who were moved to other positions.
    Meanwhile, Poland’s largest clothing retailer LPP plans to invest in logistics and automation in a bid to improve margins and combat higher labor costs.
    Judit Kovacs, a manager at human resources company Randstad , said factories with high capacity utilization in western Hungary had started reducing headcount by attrition over the past year, while new plants in eastern Hungary were being planned with a high degree of automation as investors looked to curb their labor market exposure.
    It’s not only manufacturing that is falling to the machines, insurance company Allianz’s Hungarian unit, for example, is automating data processing to offset rising wage costs.
    The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) expects robot sales in major Eastern European economies to rise through 2022 but although it acknowledges that some jobs will disappear, it does not foresee a major net effect on employment.
    “The question is not do I invest in manual labor or automation,” IFR General Secretary Susanne Bieller said, explaining that automation could help companies maintain a competitive edge over cheaper production hubs elsewhere in the world.
    “You cannot see this in black-and-white terms.”
(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs and Jason Hovet; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

3/9/2020 Markets snapshot: Oil wreck, bear stocks, rouble trouble
A passerby wearing a protective face mask following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walks past an
electronic display showing Asian markets indices outside a brokerage in Tokyo, Japan, March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
    LONDON (Reuters) – A massive oil price collapse overnight and the fast-spreading coronavirus has led to wild price swings across global financial markets on Monday, with some moves as great as 25%.
    Those moves came as Saudi Arabia launched a price war with Russia, sending investors already panicked by the coronavirus fleeing for safety.
    When was the last time oil giants such as BP and Shell shed one-fourth of their value?    Never.
    The list below highlights some of the biggest price moves and their significance:
** Brent crude fell as much as 31.4%, the biggest daily drop since the first Gulf War
** The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries fell further to a record low of 0.4624%, having halved in just three sessions
** With swings in yield, markets are now fully pricing in a rate cut of 75 basis points by the Federal Reserve on March 18
** The 10-year Bund yield fell to a record low of -0.863%
** U.S. stock futures plunged 5% to hit their daily down limit and halt trading
** London’s FTSE 100 <.FTSE> shed 8.4% a few minutes after the open in its worst single-day drop since the financial crisis
** London-listed Shell plunged 23% and BP 29% in their worst-ever intraday rout
** The Russian rouble is down over 8%, on track for its worst drop since December 2014, also when oil prices plunged
** The dollar extended its slide in Asia to as low as 102.60 yen , depths not seen since late 2016
** Emerging-market stocks <.MSCIEF> dropped over 4% and the world’s biggest listed entity, Saudi Aramco <2222.SE>, traded below its IPO price for the first time
(Reporting by Thyagaraju Adinarayan and additional reporting by Marc Jones in London; editing by Larry King)

3/10/2020 Polish president calls off big election rallies due to coronavirus by Alan Charlish
FILE PHOTO: Polish President Andrzej Duda addresses supporters during a convention to inaugurate his campaign ahead of
the upcoming presidential election in Warsaw, Poland February 15, 2020. Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Polish President Andrzej Duda has said he will not organize large campaign meetings in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus, raising questions over how the outbreak will affect the election due in May.
    The presidential election will decide whether the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party can fully implement its agenda, including a further overhaul of the judiciary that has put it at loggerheads with Brussels, as the president can veto laws.
    Duda is a PiS ally and is ahead in the polls, consistently scoring over 40%. If no candidate scores more than 50% in the first round there will be a runoff vote, which most polls show Duda narrowly winning against any opposition candidate.
    “I have made the decision that I will not organise large meetings in connection with my presidential campaign, because these are meetings that hundreds of people come to,” state news agency PAP quoted Duda as saying late on Monday.
    “It seems to me that the risk that this may lead to the spread of coronavirus is too great.”
    The country of 38 million people has reported 17 cases of coronavirus.    No one has died from the virus in Poland.
    Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University, said the decision could benefit Duda.
    “For the president this is quite comfortable, because he is widely recognised and he doesn’t have to go and show himself,” she said.
    “It makes things much more difficult for the other candidates and also opens the possibility that the elections might not be held on the scheduled dates.”
    The opposition’s leading candidate Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska said on Twitter that she too was putting big rallies on hold.
    The spokesman for Andrzej Duda’s campaign, Adam Bielan, said that all trips on the president’s campaign bus had been canceled but he would continue to travel around the country in his capacity as president.
    Poland said on Monday that it would introduce checks on its borders in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.    It has also said that events involving over 1,000 people should be canceled.
    On Tuesday, the deputy head of the president’s office Pawel Mucha told private broadcaster Polsat News that he currently saw no reason to change the date of the elections, with the first round due on May 10, and a runoff penciled in for May 24.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

3/10/2020 Czech prime minister says China’s ambassador should be replaced
FILE PHOTO: Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives for the second day of the European Union leaders summit, held to
discuss the EU's long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – China should replace its ambassador in the Czech Republic after the Chinese embassy sent a threatening letter to Czech authorities, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said, a position that may further strain relations between the two countries.
    In January, China’s embassy in Prague said in a letter sent to the Czech president’s office that Beijing would retaliate against Czech companies operating in China if a senior Czech lawmaker went ahead with a planned visit to Taiwan.
    The Jan. 10 letter suggested that Czech companies operating in mainland China, such as the Volkswagen subsidiary Skoda Auto and lender Home Credit Group, would suffer if then- Senate speaker Jaroslav Kubera visited the island.
    Kubera died before he could make the trip. His successor, Milos Vystrcil, is likely to push for China to replace the ambassador, and Babis would support such a demand, Czech Television reported.
    “This man is quite distinctive, and what he has written, that is absolutely unacceptable, we must reject that,” Czech Television quoted Babis as saying.
    Four top Czech officials, including President Milos Zeman, who has pushed for closer ties with China in recent years, will meet on Wednesday for a regular debate on foreign policy, where they are expected to address the matter.
    Diplomatic ties between the two countries cooled last year when city authorities in Prague showed support for Tibet and demanded changes to an intercity partnership agreement with Beijing over a reference to China’s policy on Taiwan.
    China quit the agreement and Prague instead entered a partnership with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.    China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has pushed for a “one country, two systems” model, which Taiwan rejects. Babis’s government has repeatedly said it adheres to the one-China policy.
    In a statement on Tuesday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said that despite China’s threats it would continue to deepen exchanges and cooperation with the Czech Republic.
    An earlier dent in bilateral relations came in December 2018 when the Czech cyber-security watchdog warned about the risks of using network technology provided by Chinese telecoms equipment makers Huawei and ZTE.
(Reporting by Robert Muller; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Larry King and Clarence Fernandez)

3/10/2020 Putin approves changes allowing him to stay in power until 2036 by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth
Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the lower house of parliament
to consider constitutional changes in Moscow, Russia March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday opened the door to constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power until 2036, but said he favored term limits once the country became politically “mature.”
    Putin, who in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, is required by the constitution to step down in 2024 when his second sequential and fourth presidential term ends.
    But addressing the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, he gave his qualified blessing to a proposed change to the constitution that would formally reset his presidential term tally to zero.
    “The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the constitutional court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the constitution,” Putin said.
    He said U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt serving four terms because of the upheaval his country was going through at the time was an example of why presidential term limits were sometimes superfluous.
    “In conditions when a country is experiencing such shocks and difficulties, of course … stability is perhaps more important and must be a priority,” he said, adding that Russia was still recovering from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
    If, as Putin’s critics suspect, the constitutional court gives its blessing to the amendment and it is backed in a nationwide vote in April, Putin could serve another two back-to-back six year terms.
    Were he to do that, and his health and electoral fortunes allowed, he could stay in office until 2036 at which point he would be 83.
    Kremlin critic and opposition politician Alexei Navalny said he believed Putin was now set to become president for life, while Navalny’s ally, Ivan Zhdanov, decried the move as tantamount to a constitutional coup.
‘ROOM TO MANEUVER’
    Putin, 67, now had more room to maneuver politically, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
    His stance handed him the option to run again in 2024 should he choose to do so and removed political challenges raised by what had been seen as his last term in the Kremlin, she added.
    “The successor issue disappears.    The issue of Putin as a lame duck disappears,” said Stanovaya.
    Opposition activists said they planned to protest against what some called a rewriting of the constitution in the interests of the ruling elite.    One group said it had applied for permission to stage a demonstration on March 21.
    Moscow’s government said in a statement late on Tuesday that it would stop all public gatherings in the city of more than 5,000 people until April 10 due to coronavirus-related risks.
    A former KGB officer, Putin, who is serving his fourth presidential term and has also served as prime minister, has dominated the Russian political landscape for two decades.
    Putin has not spelled out what his plans for the future are, but he has said he does not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.
    Putin appeared before parliament on Tuesday after Valentina Tereshkova, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party and the first woman in space, told parliament she was proposing to amend the constitution in a way that would reset his presidential term count to zero.
    Explaining the surprise move, Tereshkova said voters had told lawmakers in recent meetings that they wanted Putin to “stay nearby,” whatever constitutional changes occurred.
    “What if suddenly something goes wrong?” asked Tereshkova.    “He (Putin) will be able to support, help and have our backs.”
    Her proposal came as parliament was examining and preparing to vote on Putin’s constitutional shake-up in the second of three readings, something it later did, approving it and Tereshkova’s amendment.
(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Maria Kiselyova, Polina Devitt, Darya Korsunskaya, Anton Zverev and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

3/10/2020 Trump has told Russia he cannot visit for Victory Day in May, says Kremlin
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during the daily Coronavirus-related briefing at
the White House in Washington, U.S. March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
    MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Tuesday that the United States had told Moscow that U.S. President Donald Trump would not travel to Russia to mark Victory Day on May 9.
    Putin presides over an annual parade on May 9 to commemorate the Soviet Union’s World War Two victory over Nazi Germany and uses the occasion to show off the country’s military hardware.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Moscow did not yet know who would represent the United States at the commemorative event.
    Trump had wrestled with the decision on whether to go, U.S. officials said.    He had wanted to go but faced pressure from advisers not to embark on such a journey.
    The first two years of Trump’s presidency were consumed with an investigation into whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russia in 2016.
    Trump survived the Russia probe, only to be impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives for seeking to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic rival Joe Biden.    The Republican-led Senate acquitted him of the allegations in February.
While Trump has maintained sanctions on Russia, he has faced criticism from Democrats over what they consider a softer attitude toward Putin, who the president says he wants to get along with.
    Former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview broadcast on Sunday that Trump has a reason for not criticizing Putin.
    “President Trump understands that President Putin does not like to be insulted.    Putin takes it very personally.    He harbors a grudge.    He doesn’t forget.    And he will find some way of getting some degree of revenge,” she said.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Maria Kiselyova and Andrea Ricci)

3/10/2020 Dutch prosecutors say Russia tried to thwart investigation of MH17 downing by Stephanie van den Berg and Bart H. Meijer
Judges attend the criminal trial against four suspects in the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines
flight MH17, in Badhoevedorp, Netherlands March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw
    AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch prosecutors accused Russia on Tuesday of trying to sabotage the investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine in 2014, saying this cast “a dark shadow” over the impending trial of four suspects in the crash.
    Pre-trial hearings began in Amsterdam on Monday.    Prosecutors say the defendants – three Russians and a Ukrainian – helped arrange the Russian missile system used to shoot down MH17, a civilian aircraft.
    All 298 people on board were killed.    Most of the passengers were Dutch nationals.
    “The sum of all the facts casts a dark shadow over this investigation because there is strong indicative evidence that Russian government is keen to thwart the investigation,” prosecutor Thijs Berger told the hearing, part of which focused on testimony by witnesses who have not yet been named.
    “Several witnesses in this investigation have said that they fear for their lives if their identities would come to light.”
    Lawyers for one defendant protested at the prosecutor’s remarks about Russia, and argued that witness intimidation should not be addressed in open hearings.
    MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it was shot down by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Moscow rebels amid fighting in eastern Ukraine.
    A team of international investigators in May 2018 concluded the missile launcher which shot down the aircraft belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
    Russia denies any involvement.
    The defendants – Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – held senior posts in pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014, according to prosecutors.
    The four face preliminary charges of the murder of 298 people and of causing the aircraft to crash.    The suspects are believed to be in Russia and are not expected to attend.
    On Monday, judges decided the trial would continue with the suspects absent.
    Only Pulatov has appointed defense lawyers.    Defence lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate told the court on Tuesday that her client “has nothing whatsoever to do” with the plane’s downing.
    She said Pulatov has not decided whether he might give the court a statement.
    Countries participating in the investigation – Ukraine, the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and Belgium – agreed in 2017 to hold trials in the Netherlands under Dutch law after attempts to set up a U.N.-backed tribunal foundered over Russian opposition.
    The Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Russia responsible for the crash.
    A second defense lawyer, Boudewijn van Eijck, criticized the prosecutor’s statements about Russia as “sailing a little too close to the wind.”    He said that possible defense witnesses could be influenced by such comments about intimidation.
    “We regret that this has been discussed publicly,” he said.
    Van Eijck also questioned prosecution accusations that Russia had mounted a disinformation campaign about the crash and tried to undermine the investigation.
    “The Russian Federation has cooperated in the release of judicial documents,” Van Eijck said.    “Everything that was asked of the Russian Federation…was delivered.”
    Prosecutors said one witness had already been given protection.    He was described as M58, a Russian national who had volunteered to join Ukrainian rebels.
    Prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi said M58’s statement was that he had been near the site of the missile launcher at the time the fatal missile was launched, assigned to help guard it.    She said the witness gave evidence that Russian military personnel and separatists at the scene were “initially pleased” as they were told shot they had down a military transport plane.
    “However, when the first people returned from the crash site they said it was a civilian aircraft,” Woei-a-Tsoi said, discussing M58’s videotaped testimony.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Angus MacSwan)

3/10/2020 Slovenia to close border with Italy over coronavirus: PM
FILE PHOTO: Slovenia's Prime Minister Marjan Sarec arrives for the European Union
leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
    LJUBLJANA (Reuters) – Slovenia plans to close its border with Italy for non-commercial traffic to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Prime Minister Marjan Sarec said in a tweet on Tuesday.
    He did not say when the decision would take effect but the government said the border would be closed when necessary “technical and administrative conditions” were in place.
    “We will not close the border for cargo traffic as that would cause additional economic damage,” the government said in a tweet said, adding that 34 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Slovenia so far.
    Earlier on Tuesday the foreign ministry advised all Slovenian citizens who are in Italy to return home.    Italy is suffering Europe’s worst outbreak of coronavirus, with at least 10,149 cases and 631 dead, and is in a nationwide lockdown.
    Slovenian authorities have also prohibited all indoor events with over 100 people and decided to hold all major sports events without spectators until further notice.
(Reporting by Marja Novak; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/11/2020 Russian parliament backs changes allowing Putin to run again for president
FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the lower house of parliament
to consider constitutional changes in Moscow, Russia March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian lower house of parliament on Wednesday gave its definitive and overwhelming approval to constitutional changes that allow Vladimir Putin to run for president again in 2024, something the current constitution forbids.
    The 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted in favor of the changes in a third and final reading by 383 votes. Nobody voted against, but 43 lawmakers abstained. Twenty-four lawmakers were absent.
    Putin, 67, who has dominated the Russian political landscape for two decades as either president or prime minister, opened the door to the constitutional changes a day earlier, making an impromptu appearance in parliament.
    Putin in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, but is currently required by the constitution to step down in 2024 when his second sequential and fourth presidential term ends.
    But addressing the State Duma on Tuesday, he gave his qualified blessing to a proposed change to the constitution that would formally reset his presidential term tally to zero.
    If, as Putin’s critics suspect, the constitutional court gives its blessing to the amendment and it is backed in a nationwide vote in April, Putin could serve another two back-to-back six year terms.
    Were he to do that, and his health and electoral fortunes allowed, he could stay in office until 2036 at which point he would be 83.
    Kremlin critic and opposition politician Alexei Navalny has said he believes Putin will now try to become president for life.
    Putin has not spelled out what his plans for the future are after 2024, but has said he does not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.
    The changes backed by the State Duma on Wednesday will now be reviewed by other parts of the Russian legislative branch, including by Russia’s upper house of parliament later on Wednesday. No opposition is expected.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Andrey Kuzmin, Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/11/2020 Russia tries U.S. student for police assault as father questions evidence by Tom Balmforth
U.S. ex-Marine Trevor Reed, who was detained in 2019 and accused of assaulting police officers, stands inside
a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia put a U.S. student on trial on Wednesday for allegedly drunkenly assaulting two police officers as his father said state investigators had failed to secure basic evidence that could potentially prove his son’s innocence.
    Trevor Reed, 28, a student at the University of North Texas and a former U.S. Marine, was taken into custody in Moscow last August for allegedly endangering the lives of two police officers who had detained him.
    Reed, who could face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty, is accused of grabbing an officer who was behind the wheel, causing the vehicle to swerve dangerously, and of elbowing a second officer.
    Reed appeared downcast at the hearing and made a heart sign with his hands to his parents and sister who were watching proceedings.    He told the court he was currently not ready to either plead guilty or innocent to the charges.
    The police officers testified at the trial, saying Reed’s actions had caused the car to swerve dangerously and that they had been scared for their lives.
    Reed has no recollection of what happened after he drank vodka at an Aug. 15 party, which he attended with his Russian girlfriend, Alina Tsybulnik.    He grew agitated after attending the party, prompting a colleague of his girlfriend to call the police, Tsybulnik said.
    She said she had followed the car after his detention and saw no sign of it swerving dangerously.    Reed’s father, Joey, said traffic footage obtained by the defense showed the car did not swerve.
    He said the defense had immediately asked investigators to obtain surveillance footage from inside the police vehicle as well as outside and inside the police station, but that investigators had failed to do so before it was later wiped.
    “The defense attorneys believe that if we had those videos, we wouldn’t be talking to the media today.    This (case) would not even be in court,” he said.
    “There are a lot of irregularities (in the case)… Any of those things could have been answered if we had the video,” he said.
    Tsybulnik said Reed had sustained bruising to his nose and two parts of his legs the night of his arrest, but was told by prosecutors when he complained that the injuries had nothing to do with law enforcement authorities.     Reed traveled to Moscow last May to spend the summer with his girlfriend and learn Russian.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by William Maclean)

3/11/2020 Sixteen more years? Russian parliament backs move to keep Putin in power by Andrew Osborn and Polina Ivanova
Screens display the vote results during a session of Russia's lower house of parliament, which give an approval
to constitutional changes in a final reading in Moscow, Russia March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Constitutional changes allowing Vladimir Putin to run for president again in 2024 sailed through both houses of Russia’s parliament on Wednesday, raising the prospect he could clock up over three decades in the Kremlin.
    Putin, 67, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for two decades as either president or prime minister, made a dramatic appearance in the lower chamber a day earlier to argue that term limits were less important in times of crisis.
    A former KGB officer, Putin is currently required by the constitution to step down in 2024 when his second sequential and fourth presidential term ends.    But the amendment which he backed would formally reset his own presidential term tally to zero.    Successors would face a two-term limit however.
    The 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on Wednesday backed the term reset for Putin, along with other amendments to the constitution, by 383 votes, in a final reading. Nobody voted against.
    Hours later, the 170-seat Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, gave its approval by 160 votes to one.
    “Vladimir Vladimirovich must have the right to run in new competitive nationwide elections,” said Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house, calling the amendment timely.
    “Whether he exercises this right in 2024 or not is of course up to him, but he must have the right… We must recognize what was done by Vladimir Vladimirovoch Putin for the country’s development in the last 20 years.    He has raised the country from its knees.”
    If, as Putin critics expect, regional parliaments and the constitutional court now give their blessing and the overall changes are backed in a nationwide vote in April, Putin would have the legal option to run again for president in 2024.
    Were he to do that, and his health and electoral fortunes allowed, he could potentially stay in office for another two back-to-back six-year terms until 2036 at which point he would be 83 and have spent 36 years at the top of Russian politics.
    Such a scenario would see him wield power longer than Soviet leader Josef Stalin, but still leave him well short of Tsar Peter the Great, who reigned for 43 years.
PRESIDENT FOR LIFE?
    Opposition activists have said they plan to organize protests as early as Friday.    Their plans are complicated however by an order from Moscow’s government which has banned public gatherings of more than 5,000 people until April 10 due to coronavirus-related risks.
    Putin remains popular with many Russians, who see him as a welcome source of stability, even as others complain that he has been in power for too long.
    Two people staged lone pickets outside the State Duma on Wednesday.    One of them Gleb Tumanov, 31, said he was a member of the Yabloko party, and held a banner calling the move “an usurpation of power.”
    “I’m here because of Vladimir Putin’s desire to stay for a fifth term or even maybe a sixth,” said Tumanov.
    “It just feels sad. And reminiscent of the Soviet Union.    I didn’t spend very much time living in the Soviet Union obviously but neither do I have any desire to do so.”
    Kremlin critic and opposition politician Alexei Navalny has said he believed Putin was trying to become president for life.
    Putin has not spelled out his plans after 2024, but has said he does not favor the Soviet-era practice of leaders remaining in place until they die.
    Putin in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, which the Kremlin billed as a redistribution of power from the presidency to parliament.
    But Putin’s critics say the reform was merely a smoke screen to give the country’s ruling elite a way to keep Putin in power after 2024.
    Opposition politician and former lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov said on Wednesday he thought the changes had dealt a mortal blow to the country’s constitution.
    “Russia has lost its constitution, which didn’t work anyway,” Gudkov wrote on social media.    “The fig leaf has fallen off the regime and we can see who turned out to be beneath it.”
(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Alexander Marrow, Anton Zverev and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Jon Boyle)

3/11/2020 Poland shuts all schools, museums, cinemas for two weeks due to coronavirus
A medical official wearing protective gear stands outside an emergency tent, which was installed for patients infected by the
suspected coronavirus infection (COVID-19) near a hospital in Czestochowa, Poland March 11, 2020. Grzegorz Skowronek/Agencja Gazeta via
REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. POLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN POLAND.
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland is closing all schools, universities, cinemas, theaters and museums for two weeks from Thursday to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, government representatives said on Wednesday.
    Speaking at a joint conference following a special meeting on coronavirus, the ministers said that pre-schools and schools would stop teaching on Thursday, but limited care would still be provided this week to the youngest children.
    Universities, museums, theaters and cinemas will also close on Thursday for two weeks, the officials said.
    Poland has confirmed 26 cases of coronavirus, but looking at how fast the virus spreads in some other European countries, the government decided to take the preventive action, they also said.
    “We are in a very difficult situation, but we see on the example of Italy that this position may be much more difficult,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the news conference.
    “There is no epidemiological threat in schools, we are just trying to prevent (the virus from spreading),” Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski told the same conference.
    He said that children should stay at home and refrain from using public transport.
    On Tuesday Poland’s development minister said 2020 economic growth could be 0.5 to 1.3 percentage points lower than previously expected.
    The state budget assumes gross domestic product growth at 3.7% this year.
    “There is no danger that the general government deficit will exceed 3% of GDP this year,” a Finance Ministry spokesman said.
(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko and Marcin Goclowski; Writing by Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Peter Graff)

3/11/2020 Russian parliament passes amendment to allow Putin to run for reelection in 2024 by OAN Newsroom
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a session prior to voting for constitutional amendments at the State Duma, the Lower
House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
    The Russian parliament has given its final seal of approval for a measure to change the constitution regarding presidential term limits.    On Wednesday, the State Duma voted to amend the current rules, which have prohibited presidents from holding office for three consecutive terms.
    The amendment was passed 383 to zero.
    Parliament members claimed the move was intended to protect the nation.
    “The approved amendments to the constitution reflect the path which Russia has walked after the 1990s.    Today, we can protect our sovereignty, the territorial integrity of our country at the legal level.    Today, we protect traditional values, the national idea which emerged in Russia, the patriotism, respect for family values, support of children, the welfare state.” – Andrei Isaev, Russian MP
    The new legislation would allow current President Vladimir Putin to run for president again when his term ends in 2024.    Putin has run the Russian government for two decades now, either as president or prime minister.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a session prior to voting for constitutional amendments at the State Duma,
the Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

3/12/2020 U.S. blacklists second unit of Russia’s Rosneft over Venezuela oil by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk
FILE PHOTO: The Rosneft logo is pictured on a safety helmet in
Vung Tau, Vietnam April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on another subsidiary of Rosneft, ramping up pressure on the Russian state oil giant that the Trump administration has said provides a financial lifeline to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
    The U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted TNK Trading International, a Swiss-based unit of Rosneft.    Washington last month slapped sanctions on Rosneft Trading SA, another subsidiary of Rosneft, over accusations it had actively evaded U.S. sanctions and propped up the Venezuelan oil sector.
    “TNK Trading International S.A. is another Rosneft subsidiary brokering the sale and transport of Venezuelan crude oil,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.    “The Trump administration remains committed to targeting those who support the corrupt regime’s exploitation of Venezuela’s oil assets.”
    Rosneft called last month’s sanctions on Rosneft Trading an “outrage” and said U.S. authorities, in conversations with the company, had repeatedly recognized that it was not breaching any restrictions.
    “The persecution of oil export vessels by the United States is brutal.    They pursue the vessels, they threaten the countries that buy from us,” Maduro said in a press conference that coincided with the Treasury announcement. Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    The United States in January 2019 recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the OPEC nation’s legitimate interim president and has ratcheted up sanctions and diplomatic pressure in the aftermath of Maduro’s 2018 re-election, which was widely described as fraudulent.
    The Latin American country’s oil exports have dropped by one-third since then, but more than a year on, Maduro remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.
    Frustrated by the socialist leader’s grip on power, despite recognition of Guaido by dozens of countries, the Trump administration has increased pressure on Venezuela’s oil industry in recent weeks.
ROSNEFT LIFELINE
    Moscow has acted as a lender of last resort for Venezuela, with the government and Rosneft providing at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006, and has also provided diplomatic support.
    Rosneft, among the world’s largest oil and gas producers, has emerged over the past year as the key recipient of Venezuelan oil, which it receives as repayment of billions of dollars lent to the Venezuelan government and PDVSA.
    Through units including Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading it took more than a third of Venezuela’s oil exports last year, according to PDVSA’s documents and Refinitiv Eikon vessel tracking data, for reselling to final customers, mainly in Asia.    That way it became the largest intermediary of Venezuelan oil amid U.S. sanctions.
    So far in March, Rosneft’s units have not taken any cargo of Venezuelan oil at PDVSA’s ports, according to PDVSA’s documents and Refinitiv Eikon vessel tracking data.    The last cargo chartered by Rosneft set sail from Venezuela in late February.    Two other large vessels scheduled to take Venezuelan oil for Rosneft remain anchored off Venezuelan waters, according to the data.
    PDVSA did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
    The Treasury Department also said it had issued a general license giving companies until May 20 to wind down transactions with Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick, Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; editing by David Gregorio, Cynthia Osterman and Tom Brown)

3/12/2020 Russian lawmakers told to rally behind Putin’s move to extend rule by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at Vnukovo II government airport
outside Moscow, Russia March 1, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s parliamentary head told lawmakers on Thursday to rally behind Vladimir Putin against what he said was a foreign campaign to discredit constitutional reforms that could allow the president to stay in power until 2036.
    Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since the turn of the century, would be cleared to run for president in 2024 under the proposed changes, overturning a constitutional ban which prevents him from doing so.
    The changes must still be reviewed by the constitutional court and put to a public vote before they become law.
    The 67-year-old president’s critics say he is brazenly engineering a way to stay as president for life, an allegation rejected by the Kremlin.
    Some Russian opponents of the change have mocked Valentina Tereshkova, the lawmaker who proposed it, on social media.
    Vyacheslav Volodin, the lower house’s speaker, told parliament that Tereshkova was being subjected to a campaign from abroad that was tantamount to an attack on Russia.
    “We must … be decent, be patriots, be aware that the attacks against Tereshkova are attacks on our country,” Volodin told parliament.
    “Today with all the challenges and threats in the world, it’s not oil and gas that give us our edge.    As you can see, oil and gas prices can fall.    It’s Putin who gives us our edge and we must protect him,” Volodin added.
    Tereshkova’s amendment is now part of an array of constitutional reforms announced by Putin in January that were approved by the lower and upper houses of parliament and regional parliaments this week.
    Putin is required to vacate the Kremlin when his second sequential presidential term and fourth overall, ends in 2024.    The amendment would reset this tally, allowing him to run two more times.
    Open Russia, a group financed by former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said seven activists had been detained in St Petersburg while protesting against the constitutional changes outside the local legislative assembly.
    Andrey Pivovarov, an opposition activist, said that the state communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, had also blocked an opposition website campaigning against the constitutional amendments under the slogan “Nyet!
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin had not yet said whether he would run again in 2024 and would decide closer to the time.
    Putin’s decision to acquiesce with the amendment was motivated by a turbulence in global affairs, including the outbreak of coronavirus, regional conflicts and the unpredictable and unacceptable behavior of some other countries, Peskov said.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alexander Smith)

3/12/2020 Putin and Erdogan agree that tensions in Syria’s Idlib are much lower after deal: Kremlin
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during
a news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia March 5, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, the Kremlin said in a statement, saying both men agreed with satisfaction that tensions in Syria’s Idlib were now significantly lower.
    Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, last week agreed on a ceasefire to halt an escalation of violence in Idlib that displaced nearly a million people and brought the two countries close to direct confrontation.
    Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday that Turkish and Russian officials had largely agreed details of the ceasefire deal.
(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh and Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/12/2020 Finland prepares for third of country becoming ill
Prime Minister Sanna Marin holds a news conference about the coronavirus
situation in Helsinki, Finland March 12, 2020. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva via REUTERS
    HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland is recommending cancelling public meetings of more than 500 people until the end of May due to the coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday, as the government prepares for the possibility of a third of Finns becoming ill.
    Under Finnish legislation, Marin said the government was not able to ban all public meetings unless emergency powers were activated, meaning local authorities are in change of enforcing the recommendation.
    The announcement came after country confirmed cases had jumped by 50 in a day to a total of 109, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare said, and after the Foreign Ministry recommended citizens avoid traveling anywhere in the world now.
    Marin said the government had called a meeting with all parliamentary groups to discuss the circumstances of activating emergency legislation, in case it becomes necessary to impose further restrictions such as regional shutdowns, closing schools and universities or banning air and ferry traffic.
    “During the first wave some 35% of Finns could fall ill and that is what we are prepared for,” Minister of Social Affairs and Health Aino-Kaisa Pekonen said.
    The government also recommended any people returning from epidemic areas to stay home for 14 days to avoid spreading the infection in workplaces.
    The government said Finland would grant 5 million euros ($5.6 million) to international organizations developing a vaccine for the virus.
    Earlier on Thursday, healthcare authorities said a heart surgeon who had returned from a trip to Austria had been tested to have coronavirus, having exposed 28 staff members, including another 15 doctors or roughly half of the Finnish capital’s heart surgeons to the virus and sending them to home quarantine as a precaution.
    In addition to healthcare staff, four patients and two of their relatives had been exposed.
    The government’s recommendation to cancel public events was immediately followed by cancellations by organizers of sports events, including the Finnish Basketball Association cancelling all games at all levels until further notice.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alison Williams)

3/13/2020 Every Russian regional parliament backs changes allowing Putin to extend rule – RIA
FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the lower house of parliament to consider
constitutional changes in Moscow, Russia March 10, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – All of Russia’s 85 regional parliaments have voted in favor of constitutional amendments that would allow Vladimir Putin to run again for president again in 2024, the RIA news agency cited senior Russian lawmaker Andrei Klishas as saying on Friday.
    Putin in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, which the Kremlin billed as a redistribution of power from the presidency to parliament.
    But Putin, 67, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for two decades as either president or prime minister, made a dramatic appearance in parliament this week to back a new amendment that would allow him to ignore a current constitutional ban on him running again in 2024.
    His intervention raised the prospect of him remaining in power until 2036, though the Kremlin points out that Putin has not yet said whether he will run again in 2024.
    Both houses of the national parliament have since backed the new amendment and a majority of regional parliaments endorsed it on Thursday, sufficient for it to move to the next stage of the approval process.
    But Klishas was cited on Friday as saying that every single one of Russia’s 85 regional parliaments had now said yes.
    “The Federation Council (the upper house of parliament) has received the results of voting in all 85 regional parliaments,” said Klishas.    “They are all positive,” RIA cited him as saying.
    The list of 85 regions he referenced includes two which are part of Russian-controlled Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
    Russia’s constitutional court must now examine the constitutional changes, which are due to be put to a nationwide vote in April.
    Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, told lawmakers on Thursday to rally behind Vladimir Putin against what he said was a foreign campaign to discredit the constitutional reforms.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/13/2020 Kremlin, worried by coronavirus, tells journalists who cover Putin to stay away if they feel unwell
FILE PHOTO: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attends the annual end-of-year news conference of Russian
President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Friday told journalists who cover President Vladimir Putin to stay away from official events if they felt unwell as a precautionary measure to protect Kremlin staff from the coronavirus.
    Moscow says it has officially recorded 34 cases of coronavirus. It says nobody has died from the virus in Russia.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Putin’s own medical care arrangements were of an extraordinary high level and that he was working at full capacity.
    Peskov, when asked, declined to say whether Putin had taken a coronavirus test.
    A Russian lawmaker ignored Russia’s coronavirus self-isolation rules earlier this week to attend a parliamentary session where Putin gave a speech.
    Peskov said he was confident however that Putin had not had any contact with the lawmaker.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Alexander Marrow, Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/13/2020 Poland’s president calls off Russia trip due to coronavirus by Joanna Plucinska
FILE PHOTO: Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks during a news conference with French President
Emmanuel Macron (not pictured), after their meeting, in Warsaw, Poland February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s President Andrzej Duda will not travel to Russia next month due to the coronavirus, missing ceremonies marking the 10-year anniversary of a plane crash which killed Poland’s president, central bank chief and military commanders.
    The plane crash in thick fog over a small airport in Russia stunned Poland, exacerbating political divisions and reviving historic suspicions about Russia, its former Cold War master.
    The death of Lech Kaczynski, the country’s then president and twin brother of the current head of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party Jaroslaw, sparked various theories over what caused the crash.
    An inquiry by the previous government returned a verdict of pilot error, but PiS has argued the crash could have been caused by an explosion on board.    Some in Poland believe they were murdered.
    “The president will not fly to Smolensk…as he had hoped,” a government official with knowledge of the decision told Reuters.
    “All options are still on the table with regards to the prime minister,” he added, emphasizing how important the anniversary was to the party.
    Ties between Moscow and Warsaw have plumbed new lows after a series of comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin last December about Poland bearing some responsibility for the outbreak of World War Two.
    But Russian authorities said earlier this year they would cooperate with Poland to allow anniversary ceremonies in Smolensk to proceed.
    Poland has since taken drastic measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, closing schools, museums, theaters and cinemas while also declaring a state of epidemic threat.
    Officials close to the prime minister said they hope the spread of the coronavirus may subside in the next month ahead of the anniversary, allowing more senior Polish officials to travel, but realistically this may not be the case.
    Poland has confirmed 58 cases of the coronavirus and one death, while Russia has 28 cases.
    Alternate ceremonies and arrangements are being considered, such as sending diplomatic staff to the event in Russia while holding the main ceremony in Krakow on April 18, the anniversary of former president Lech Kaczynski’s funeral, an official said.
    No formal decision has yet been made about the events surrounding the anniversary, the prime minister’s spokesman Piotr Muller told Reuters.
    A plan is likely to be announced either by the end of this week or early next week after further discussions on the matter, he added.
    The president’s spokesman declined to comment.
    “It’s up to them (the Polish authorities) to decide if they intend to organise memorial ceremonies in Smolensk and to inform the media about it,” the Embassy of Russia in Poland told Reuters in an email response.
    Russia has canceled its annual economic forum in St. Petersburg, initially scheduled for June, over the virus.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow and Andrew Osborn in MOSCOW, Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Michael Perry)

3/13/2020 Russian foreign ministry confirms ceasefire in Idlib being observed by both Russia, Turkey by OAN Newsroom
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the members of his ruling party in
Parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
    According to Russia’s foreign ministry, both Russia and Turkey are respecting the permanent ceasefire in Northwestern Syria.
    During a weekly briefing in Moscow on Thursday, a ministry spokesperson said both countries are acting in accordance with the plan, which was recently signed by President Vladimir Putin and President Tayyip Erdogan.    The leaders met earlier this week to discuss ways to deescalate violence in Idlib.
    “It was decided to create a security corridor along the M4 highway and organize joint Russian-Turkish patrolling in that area,” stated Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson.    “Work is already underway to resume transport links on {that} highway, and contacts are currently continuing through the Russian and Turkish defense ministries to ensure the implementation of the agreements reached.”
    Meanwhile, Israel has continued to launch “unilateral airstrikes” on Syrian territory.    Russian officials have argued these actions not only undermine regional security, but also contribute to the tension it’s actively trying to diffuse.

3/13/2020 Austria sets border checks with Switzerland, bans more flights over coronavirus by Kirsti Knolle
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer and Health Minister
Rudolf Anschober address the media in Vienna, Austria March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria will introduce border checks with Switzerland and Liechtenstein and ban flight connections with France, Spain and Switzerland to slow the spread of coronavirus, the government said on Friday.
    The coronavirus reached Austria from neighboring Italy, which has suffered Europe’s deadliest outbreak, but it has yet to take hold as firmly.    Austria reported its first death on Thursday and has 504 cases so far, in contrast to the more than 17,000 cases and more than 1,200 deaths in Italy to its south.
    “We are now increasingly beginning to control the borders to Switzerland and Liechtenstein in the same way as we do with Italy,” Interior Minister Karl Nehammer told a news conference, referring to Austria’s two western neighbors.    “From Monday, there will be flight bans for France, Spain and Switzerland.”
    The Alpine country on Wednesday shut its border to people coming from Italy, except for goods vehicles and some other categories such as people transiting Austria without stopping.
    The regional government of Vorarlberg, which shares the border with Switzerland, said mobile checks are to start at midnight.    Train connections between Austria and Switzerland have already been suspended, said provincial councillor Johannes Rauch.
    No restrictions have been imposed along Austria’s northern border with Germany.    Travel over landlocked Austria’s frontiers is generally unrestricted in normal times under the European Union’s Schengen scheme.
    Austria already has flight bans in place for Italy, China, Iran and South Korea – all with some of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
    It will “lock down” two popular ski regions in the mountainous province of Tyrol, which have seen a spike in coronavirus cases – the Paznauntal and St. Anton am Arlberg – for two weeks.    Ski resorts in the provinces of Salzburg, Styria, Upper Austria and Carinthia will close the season early on Sunday.
    Commercial activity apart from pharmacies, food shops and other stores selling essential goods will be suspended starting on Monday.    Bars and restaurants will be open only until 3 p.m. and companies are requested to allow staff to work from home if possible, also from next week.
    Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called on people not to panic.    “All that a state needs to remain functional is of course maintained.”
    The government has agreed guarantees of 150 million euros to help the tourism industry and is ready to do more, economics minister Margarete Schramboeck told newspapers Die Presse and Kurier.    She promised liquidity support for small and medium-sized enterprises and large companies and financial aid for short-time work agreements.
    Austria has already banned indoor events and gatherings of more than 100 people, forcing museums and theaters to shut.    Austrian schools are due to close from Monday.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Thomas Escritt, Mark Heinrich and Daniel Wallis)

3/13/2020 Ukraine to block entry to residents registered in separatist-held areas to stop coronavirus spread
An officer of the Department of the state guard checks the temperature of a woman as she enters the presidential office building,
as a preventive measure against coronavirus (COVID-19) in Kiev, Ukraine March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s government at a televised meeting on Friday decided to ban citizens registered in separatist-held territory in the eastern Donbass region from entering government-controlled areas.
    The authorities in Kiev are also gearing up to close border checkpoints with countries bordering the European Union in the west, but have not yet specified how many would be closed or when the closures would happen.
    The decisions need the final approval from the national security and defense council, which is chaired by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and will meet later on Friday.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle)

3/14/2020 Poland cannot rule out delaying presidential election: minister
Polish officials take the body temperature of passengers, who arrived by train from Ukraine, as a preventive measure
against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a railway station in Przemysl, Poland March 10, 2020.
Picture taken March 10, 2020. Patryk Ogorzalek/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland cannot rule out postponing a presidential election set for May because of the coronavirus pandemic, although no such decisions have been taken up to date, Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Pawel Szefernaker said on Saturday.
    “The election is in two months.    We will see.    The coming days will be key and as this disease develops in Poland we will be observing this and taking further decisions.    There is not such a decision today, but it does not mean that it is ruled out,” Szefernaker told private radio RMF FM.
    Poland has reported 84 cases of coronavirus, including two deaths.
    The government announced on Friday it would close borders to foreigners and the central bank governor called for a rate cut to fight the impact of the illness on the economy.
    “Today no-one is thinking about the election, everyone is thinking how to stop this epidemic,” Szefernaker added.
(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko; Editing by Frances Kerry)

3/14/2020 Czech government closes most shops, restaurants to fight coronavirus
Passengers wearing protective masks wait for a train at Prague's main railway station, as the Czech government bans most travel in and
out of the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Czech Republic, March 13, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech government said it was shutting most shops and restaurants on Saturday for 10 days as part of measures to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
    The measure, announced overnight, followed other restrictions imposed in past days, including closing schools and banning public events such as sports games or concerts.
    From Monday, foreign travel will be banned and foreigners will be barred from entering the country.
    Exceptions to the order on closing shops included food stores, pharmacies, banks, post offices, gas stations and takeaway food establishments.
    “We wanted to avoid people going to shopping centers today,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis told a news conference on Saturday, broadcast on television.
    Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said the government’s aim was to spread out the rise of infections over time to reduce the strain on the health system.
    “We need people to go to work but stay home afterwards,” Hamacek said.    “Those (countries) who have managed to do something about the situation say … limit interaction among people.”
    The government has been under fire on social media for taking a heavy-handed approach while not testing people more widely.    Health workers have reported shortages of protective gear such as facemasks and respirators at hospitals, senior care centers and pharmacies.
    The Czech Republic, a central European country of 10.7 million people, had 150 cases as of Saturday morning, with no deaths.    It had tested 3,094 people as of Friday evening, with 741 tests taken on Friday, the Health Ministry said.
    The government has said it aimed to ramp up testing by involving more laboratories and ordering 100,000 rapid-result test kits for delivery next week.    Babis said 51,000 respirators were distributed to health facilities on Friday.
(Reporting by Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Perry and Edmund Blair)

3/14/2020 Putin asks court if he can amend constitution to run again for president
FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the lower house of parliament to consider
constitutional changes in Moscow, Russia March 10, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has formally asked the country’s constitutional court if it is legal for him to change the constitution, the Kremlin said on Saturday, a move that could allow him to remain in power until 2036.
    Putin in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, which the Kremlin billed as a redistribution of power from the presidency to parliament.
    But Putin, 67, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for two decades as either president or prime minister, made a dramatic appearance in parliament on Tuesday to back a new amendment that would allow him to ignore a current constitutional ban on him running again in 2024.
    His intervention raised the prospect of him serving another two six-year consecutive terms after 2024, though the Kremlin points out that Putin has not yet said whether he will run again in 2024.
    The Kremlin said in a statement on Saturday that Putin had signed off on the constitutional changes after they were approved by both house of the country’s parliament and by regional parliaments.
    The constitutional court must now rule whether the changes are legal ahead of a planned nationwide vote on the shake-up due on April 22.
    OVD-Info, a monitoring group, said that police had detained around 50 people in Moscow on Saturday protesting against Putin’s plan to change the constitution.
    Footage showed riot police bundling protesters into buses near the headquarters of the FSB security service in central Moscow.    They had been lining up to take turns to hold single-person protest pickets.
(Reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/14/2020 Norway to close ports, airports from Monday to stop coronavirus: PM
FILE PHOTO: Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg speaks during a joint news conference with German Chancellor
Angela Merkel at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi/File Photo
    OSLO (Reuters) – Norway is to shut its ports and airports from Monday in an attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus, although exemptions will be made for Norwegians returning from abroad as well as for goods, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said on Saturday.
    The government is ready to do all that is needed to secure the economy, which has been hit by business shutdowns due to the virus outbreak, and will seek to import medical equipment from China, Solberg told a news conference.
    “We’ve decided to shut our airports, close our ports and implement extensive controls along our border,” Solberg said.
    Planes carrying Norwegian citizens will still be able to land in Norway, and the government is negotiating with Norwegian Air and SAS to bring nationals home, she said.
    The transport of goods to and from Norway will also continue, she later added.
    The Nordic country will implement extensive controls of its land entry points, but will not shut its 1,630-kilometre (1,000-mile) border with neighboring Sweden, she said.
    Norway recorded its second and third deaths linked to coronavirus on Saturday, Norwegian news agency NTB said.    The official number of infected persons has risen to around 950.
(Reporting by Victoria Klesty and Terje Solsvik Writing by Nerijus Adomaitis; Editing by Mike Harrison and James Drummond)

3/14/2020 Czech government closes most shops, restaurants to fight coronavirus by Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka
Passengers wearing protective masks wait for a train at Prague's main railway station, as the Czech government bans most travel in and
out of the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Czech Republic, March 13, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech government shut most shops and restaurants for 10 days on Saturday to widen its response to the spread of coronavirus.
    The surprise move, which the public learned about on Saturday morning, is in addition to other restrictions imposed in recent days, including closing schools and banning public events such as sports games or concerts.
    Foreign travel will be banned and foreigners will be barred from entering the country from Monday.    People working in border areas will be allowed to cross borders while the state wants to keep imports and exports moving.
    The Czech Republic, which has a population of 10.7 million people, reported 27 news cases on Saturday, pushing the number of confirmed infections to 177, with no deaths, the Health Ministry said.    Daily tests have risen into the hundreds in the past week.
    The new order excludes food stores, pharmacies, banks, post offices, gas stations and takeaway food premises.
    “We wanted to avoid people going to shopping centres today,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in a televised news conference.
    Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said the aim was to spread the rise of infections over time to reduce the strain on the health system.
    “We need people to go to work but stay home afterwards,” Hamacek said.    “Those (countries) who have managed to do something about the situation say … limit interaction among people.”
    Facing an economic hit from the measures, many restaurants in the capital Prague and other cities adjusted to the ban by switching to takeaway services, handing orders out of windows or doors or using delivery services.
    While countries in central Europe like the Czech Republic have reported fewer cases than their western neighbours, the region’s governments have taken swift steps to contain the spread with controls on borders and closures of shops and schools.
    The Czech government, though, has been under fire on social media for taking a heavy-handed approach while not testing people more widely.    Health workers have reported shortages of protective equipment such as face masks and respirators at hospitals, senior care centres and pharmacies.
    Health Minister Adam Vojtech told Czech Radio that healthcare was lacking up to 1 million respirators and said 1.7 million were on order.    Babis said earlier 51,000 respirators were distributed to health facilities on Friday.
    The government has said it aimed to ramp up testing by involving more laboratories and ordering 100,000 rapid-result test kits for delivery next week.
(Reporting by Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Perry, Edmund Blair and Mike Harrison)

3/14/2020 Romanian lawmakers endorse PM Orban in vote of confidence by Radu-Sorin Marinas
FILE PHOTO: Romania's Prime Minister Ludovic Orban listens during a panel discussion at the
annual Munich Security Conference in Germany February 16, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
    BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania’s centrist Prime Minister Ludovic Orban won a parliamentary vote of confidence by a large margin as expected on Saturday, with all parties seeking to end a political stalemate and focus on reining in the spread of coronavirus.     On Saturday, President Klaus Iohannis declared a state of emergency from Monday, opening the door to more government aid to combat the disease.
    “This state of emergency will enable allotting new important resources to fight the crisis,” Iohannis said.    “The government will allot more funds for …. healthcare, medicine, equipment,” he said, adding that the move also cut through red tape for government purchases.
    Lawmakers toppled Orban’s minority Liberal government early last month but he has continued running the country on an interim basis with limited powers.    Iohannis asked the interim premier to form a government on Friday.
    Orban and his cabinet ministers quarantined themselves for two weeks on Friday, after coming into contact with a coronavirus-infected lawmaker.    The country has recorded 102 cases of the illness so far, but no deaths.
    “It’s been 286 votes for the government out of 309 cast ballots and 23 MPs voted against it,” a senior ruling party deputy told Reuters of Saturday’s vote.
    Since the vote against Orban’s government in February, rival parties have been jockeying for position before municipal and parliament elections in June and November, respectively.
    But the onset of the coronavirus meant Orban’s nomination passed easily through parliament – restoring full powers to his government to fight the outbreak.
    “Our party has taken full responsibility at these difficult times, and now, with a full power government, I’m confident we will manage to rein in coronavirus more resolutely,” Orban said in an online speech.
    On Saturday, Romania increased restrictions on the public, banning cultural, scientific, religious activities involving more than 50 people in a closed space, down from 100 at present.
(Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Edmund Blair and Frances Kerry)

3/14/2020 Russia closes land border with Poland and Norway to foreigners over coronavirus fears
A man wearing a protective mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus (COVID-19) walks past
a law enforcement officer in central Moscow, Russia March 14, 2020. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian government said on Saturday it was closing the country’s land border with Poland and Norway to foreigners from midnight as a precautionary measure to try to stop the spread of coronavirus.
    It said the closure would apply to all foreigners passing through those border points for tourism, study, work or private visits.    Citizens of neighboring Belarus and official delegations would be exempt, it said in a statement.
    Russian authorities, who have already taken a slew of measures to cancel flights and trains, impose quarantine rules, and partially close Russia’s long land border with China, said on Saturday they had registered 14 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours.    The country previously had 45 cases.
    Nobody in Russia has yet died of the virus, they say.    Some doctors have called the statistics into question however given what they say is the patchy nature of testing.
    Russia’s Finance Ministry said earlier on Saturday that coronavirus was having a bigger effect on the economy than a slump in global oil prices because it complicated transportation, tourism and trade.
    It said Russia’s budget deficit could now reach 0.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 on current oil prices.
    The city of Moscow said earlier on Saturday it was making school attendance optional starting on Monday in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. (Reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/15/2020 Putin signs constitution change, could stay in power until 2036
    MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law Saturday on constitutional changes that could keep him in power for another 16 years, a step that must still be approved in a nationwide vote. The measure sailed through the Russian parliament last week with only one opposing vote.    It must be approved by the country’s Constitutional Court and in a referendum set for April 22.    The law resets Putin term count, allowing him to run twice more after his six-year term expires in 2024.    The changes also outlaw same-sex marriage.

3/15/2020 Bulgaria to pay medics on coronavirus frontline extra
FILE PHOTO: Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov leaves the second day of the European Union leaders summit, held to
discuss the EU's long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria will raise the salaries of all medics involved in treating coronavirus patients by 1,000 levs ($566) per month and offer liquidity support for businesses hit by measures to contain the fast-spreading infection, officials said on Sunday.
    The Balkan country’s confirmed cases more than doubled to 51 over the weekend. Two people have died from the infection.    The country has declared a state of emergency until April 13, closing schools and banning mass gatherings.
    Bulgaria’s hospitals, suffering from a chronic shortage of nurses – many of whom have left the European Union’s poorest member state to seek better pay in the west – have already started to hire volunteers to help treat patients.
    In a rare demonstration of unity, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and President Rumen Radev stood together appealing to Bulgarians not to yield to panic, but to grasp the gravity of the situation, observe social distancing and show unity and solidarity.
    “Everyone that is on the frontline and deals with the coronavirus will get an additional 1,000 levs monthly,” Borissov said, adding that Bulgarian industry is producing protective masks and outfits for the medics.
    The government will extend 20 million levs to provide for the increased pay for medics and another 20 million to help municipalities boost food deliveries across the country to disabled people and those put under quarantine.
    It will also provide liquidity support through state-run Bulgarian Development Bank to businesses hit by the stringent measures Sofia has imposed to contain the infection, Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov said.
    However, he discarded proposals to delay due taxes or credit payments to banks.
    In a step to prevent long dole queues, Goranov proposed that businesses planning to lay off workers due to closures of shops, bars and clubs keep them for now, with the state covering 60% of their pay for one month.
    Bulgaria is also reviewing its large-scale investment priorities and may delay some army modernization projects, Goranov said without elaborating.    Bulgaria has opened a 1.46 billion lev tender to buy 150 armed vehicles.
    The foreign ministry on Sunday urged Bulgarians both in the country and abroad to abstain from international travel.
    Dozens of Bulgarians are currently stranded at the border between Croatia and Serbia after Belgrade closed its land frontiers for all passengers coming from France, Germany, Austria or Spain, including for transit travel.
    Bulgaria will ban flights from Italy and Spain after March 17.
($1 = 1.7672 leva)
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Jan Harvey)

3/16/2020 Pressure mounts in Finland to close schools
FILE PHOTO: A person walks by an empty toilet paper shelves at a supermarket as consumers worry about product shortages due to
the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Helsinki, Finland March 13, 2020 Lehtikuva/Heikki Saukkomaa via REUTERS
    HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland’s largest opposition party on Monday stepped up criticism of the government as most schools and daycares remained open despite the coronavirus outbreak.
    “There are only four countries in the EU which have not closed schools.    Responsibility should not be shifted on municipalities or local authorities.    They wait for a decision from the government,” Jussi Halla-aho, chairman of the nationalist Finns Party, wrote on Twitter ahead of a government meeting on Monday.
    For the time being, Finland has adopted an approach similar to that of the UK in trying to tackle the virus, allowing shops, restaurants and public services to operate normally, while many other European countries have imposed stringent lockdowns to try to slow the spread of the disease.
    “At the moment, there is no evidence that shutting down schools and daycares would significantly slow down the spreading of the epidemic,” Helsinki mayor Jan Vapaavuori said on Sunday, reiterating that those services would continue as usually in the Finnish capital for now.
    On Sunday, there were no deaths and 241 confirmed coronavirus cases in Finland, but the tally had become less relevant as the country had begun heavily restricting its coronavirus testing to most vulnerable groups and healthcare personnel only since Friday.
    Finland’s government was expected to meet at 1000 GMT to discuss the situation.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Giles Elgood)

3/16/2020 Sweden launches coronavirus crisis package worth more than $30 billion
FILE PHOTO: Employees walk at Arlanda International Airport following the coronavirus concern and cancelled
flights in Stockholm, Sweden, March 12, 2020. TT News Agency/ Fredrik Sandberg via REUTERS
    STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The Swedish government on Monday presented a package of measures worth more than 300 billion Swedish crowns ($30.94 billion) to support the economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
    The package included measures such as the central government assuming the full cost for sick leave from companies through the months of April and May, as well as the brunt of the cost for temporary redundancies due to the crisis.
    On Sunday, airline SAS, which is partially state-owned, announced it would temporarily lay off up to 90% of its staff.
    The biggest cost will come from allowing companies to put off paying tax and VAT for up to a year – retroactive to the start of 2020 – which Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson said by itself could cost up to 300 billion crowns in the short term.
    “This is a completely unique situation for the Swedish economy,” Andersson told a news conference.
    “We want this decision to mean that as many companies as possible get through this crisis so that we can protect Swedish companies and Swedish jobs.”
    Andersson said that Sweden was in a strong position to bear the financial costs of the outbreak with strong government finances and government debt at its lowest since the late 1970s.
    Sweden has already announced extra cash for local authorities to help fight the coronavirus outbreak while the central bank has provided up to 500 billion Swedish crowns in loans to companies through the banking system.
(Reporting by Niklas Pollard and Simon Johnson; editing by Johannes Hellstrom)

3/16/2020 Bulgarians applaud front-line medics from balconies to show support
FILE PHOTO: A medical team in full protective outfits are on the way to a possible coronavirus
infection in Sofia, Bulgaria March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Dimitar Kyosemarliev/File Photo
    SOFIA (Reuters) – Thousands of Bulgarians came out onto their balconies on Sunday night to applaud doctors and nurses at the front line of the coronavirus crisis in a sign of unity and support.
    Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announced on Sunday that all medics involved in treating coronavirus patients will receive a bonus of 1,000 levs ($566) per month.
    Bulgaria’s confirmed cases more than doubled to 52 over the past few days with a nine-year-old child from Britain becoming the latest confirmed coronavirus infection on Monday.    Two people have died from the infection.
    The country has declared a state of emergency until April 13, closing schools and banning mass gatherings.
    Thousands of people in the capital Sofia and dozens of other cities stood at their balconies shining lights from their mobile phones in a display of support for the medics following an appeal on social media.
    “We all started clapping at 9 o’clock,” Irena Yankova from the northern town of Pleven told Bulgarian national radio.    “Our neighbors did the same.    And the neighbors, living in the next block to us, also started clapping.    The feeling is indescribable!
    Two men from Pleven were among Bulgaria’s first four cases of the coronavirus.
    “We support the medics at the front line and all people who are close to the infected people,” Yankova said.
    Officials said the health system was holding up as Bulgarian industry is producing protective masks and outfits for medics.
    Bulgaria’s hospitals, suffering from a chronic shortage of nurses – many of whom have left the European Union’s poorest member state to seek better pay in the west – have already started to hire volunteers to help treat patients.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Peter Graff)

3/16/2020 Amsterdam’s ‘Red Light’ district shuts, long lines for marijuana
Several popular sex clubs in Amsterdam's "Red Light" district closes their doors in response to a rapidly
expanding coronavirus outbreak, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
    AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Sex clubs in Amsterdam’s “Red Light” district were told to close down and long lines formed at marijuana coffee shops on Sunday, as the Netherlands imposed tight restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
    The government ordered all restaurants, cafes and schools shut down until April 6.
    The measure included the famous Dutch bars selling hashish and cannabis and strip clubs, Health Minister Arie Slob said.    They were told to stop serving customers at 1800 (1700 GMT) on Sunday.
    The neighborhood draws millions of visitors to erotic dance shows, adult clubs and brothels, where prostitutes pose in lingerie behind red-lit windows.
    The Casa Rosso, Peepshow, Banana Bar and Erotic Museum were among adult entertainment venues along the capital’s old canals that said they would shut.
    “In the interest of the health of staff and guests, the management no longer considers it responsible to stay open,” said a statement by de Otten Groep, a company that runs a number of the clubs, Amsterdam’s Het Parool newspaper reported.
    The number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the Netherlands rose by 176 to 1,135 on Sunday, with 20 deaths, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) said.
    The Dutch flower industry also warned on Sunday that it was facing huge losses due to canceled orders during one of the busiest times of the year.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean)

3/16/2020 Dutch PM Rutte appeals to nation to come together as coronavirus spreads
FILE PHOTO: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks during a news conference after the second day of the European Union leaders
summit, held to discuss the EU's long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman
    AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A large portion of the Dutch population will contract coronavirus in the coming months, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte cautioned on Monday, appealing to the country to pull together in the face of difficult times to come.
    The Dutch government will do all it can to protect the vulnerable and support the economy, but it is imperative that people help each other, Rutte said in a rare live television address from his office in The Hague.
    “The reality is a great number of the Dutch population will get sick, that is what experts tell us,” he said.    “It will be a difficult time, but together we will pull through.”
    Rutte’s appeal came as the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) earlier on Monday said the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the Netherlands had risen by 278 to 1,413 and the death toll by four to 24.
    The Netherlands imposed a wide array of restrictive measures on Sunday to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, including the closure of shops, schools, sport facilities and restaurants until April 6.
    “In all this uncertainty, one thing is perfectly clear: the task we face is immense, and we have to do this with 17 million people,” he said.    “Try to look after each other.”
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Jan Harvey)

3/16/2020 Serbia postpones April 26 elections as part of response to coronavirus outbreak
A man walks past Serbian army soldiers in front of the infection clinic as the number of coronavirus (COVID-19)
cases grow around the world in Belgrade, Serbia, March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic
    BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia’s state Election Commission postponed on Monday the April 26 general elections because of the coronavirus outbreak and until a state of emergency is lifted.
    “All the deadlines regarding the election process will be set after the end of the state of emergency,” the commission said in a statement.
    Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who is also the head of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), on Sunday declared the state of emergency in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.
    The Balkan country closed kindergartens, schools and universities until the end of the semester, deployed military to guard hospitals and police to monitor hundreds of people in isolation.
    It also ordered elderly over the age of 65, most vulnerable to coronavirus infection, to stay indoors.    Serbia has already closed borders to foreign nationals.
    Health authorities have so far reported 57 cases of infection and tested 316 people.    There have been no fatalities so far.
    The vote is seen as important for Vucic and the SNS to cement its grip on power.    Most opposition parties have decided to boycott the elections, accusing Vucic and his allies of autocracy, stifling media freedom, attacks on opposition activists, corruption and ties to organized crime.
    Vucic and his coalition, who had an overwhelming majority in the outgoing 250-seat parliament, deny the accusations.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Sandra Maler and Grant McCool)

3/16/2020 Russian court backs move to let Putin stay in power despite outcry from some by Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with VTB bank Chief Executive Andrey Kostin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia
March 16, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Constitutional Court on Monday ruled it was legal to change the country’s constitution in a way that could allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036, less than a week after Putin publicly backed the idea.
    The court ruling came hours after thousands of Russians signed a petition urging judges to protect them from what they said was an illegal coup that would allow Putin, who has dominated the Russian political landscape for the last two decades, to subvert the constitution.
    Putin, 67, unveiled an overhaul of the constitution in January which the Kremlin cast as a redistribution of power from the presidency to parliament.
    He made a dramatic appearance in parliament on Tuesday to endorse a new amendment that would allow him to ignore a constitutional ban requiring him to stand down in 2024.
    The move, which must still be put to a nationwide vote due next month, raises the prospect of Putin serving another two six-year terms after 2024, though the Kremlin points out that Putin has not yet said whether he will run again
.
    The Constitutional Court’s blessing was delivered in a 52-page ruling posted on its website on Monday.
‘ANTI-CONSTITUTIONAL COUP’
    The Kremlin said in a statement on Saturday that Putin had signed off on the constitutional changes after both houses of parliament and regional parliaments backed them with lightning speed last week.
    Earlier on Monday, more than 18,000 Russians signed a petition denouncing the reform as “politically and ethically unacceptable.”
    “We believe the threat of a deep constitutional crisis and an unlawful anti-constitutional coup … is hanging over our country,” the petition, signed by prominent scientists, journalists and writers said.
    The petition does not have any legal force, but its blunt language shows how strongly some Russians oppose the idea of Putin having the option to run again in 2024.
    Putin remains popular with other Russians however who see him as a welcome source of stability after what some recall as the anarchic 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union.
    The Kremlin told reporters it was aware of the petition, but that it had also received numerous messages of support for the change and that it was up to Russians at a nationwide vote to decide whether to back it or not.
(additional reporting by Alexander Marrow and Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)
[I WOULD SAY THE KING OF THE NORTH IS OBVIOUS HERE AS HE TRIES TO INSURE HE WILL BE IN POWER FOR MANY MORE YEARS.].

3/16/2020 Ukraine plans more lockdowns, IMF talks, food export curbs over coronavirus by Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams
Emergency service members wearing protective suits spray disinfectant at the market in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine
March 14, 2020. Picture taken March 14, 2020. State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS
    KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced nationwide shutdowns on Monday to contain the coronavirus spread, called for government restrictions on food exports and for aid talks with overseas donors to support the economy.
    In a special video address, he urged restaurants, shopping malls, cafes and gyms to close from March 17, a shutdown of domestic flights and rail and bus services between cities, and a state of emergency to be declared in two regions.
    The finance ministry should hold negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for financial support, the president said, and banks should prepare loan holidays to support small and medium-sized businesses.
    Ukraine has so far recorded five cases of the coronavirus, including one death.    It has already shut schools and banned the entry of foreign nationals into Ukraine.    It will ban passenger flights and trains to and from the country from Tuesday.
    Zelenskiy said food exports should be restricted according to a list drawn up by the government of Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain exporters.    It was not immediately clear what items would be on the list.
    He said parliament should stay open to pass key reforms, including legislation on the sale of farmland, and to appoint new ministers and a new prosecutor-general following a sweeping government reshuffle earlier in March.
HARSH SOLUTIONS
    “China’s experience shows that unpopular and harsh solutions overcome the virus and save lives,” Zelenskiy said.
    He urged citizens to stay at home except to buy food and medicine, and not to gather in groups of more than 10.
    The global coronavirus emergency has weighed on the hryvnia, which slipped to 26 to the dollar last week for the first time since July 2019, prompting the central bank to sell nearly $1 billion in one week to prevent excessive currency fluctuations.
    Ukraine secured provisional approval in December for a new $5.5 billion loan program from the IMF, but the money has still not been disbursed and is contingent on the government passing reforms, including land reform, and tackling corruption.
    “Rapid reforms are an ambulance for the economy,” Zelenskiy said.    “Without them – an economic coma.”
    Zelenskiy also asked medical facilities to suspend non-urgent operations to prepare for treating coronavirus patients.    The government will hold an emergency meeting later on Monday.
    Ukraine has banned the export of face masks, which the head of the customs service Maxim Nefedov said on Monday had become a more popular item to smuggle across the border than cigarettes.
    Authorities prevented 130,000 such masks from being sold abroad this weekend alone, Nefedov said.    A car with 50,000 masks was detained at a customs checkpoint in Yahodyn in western Ukraine at the border with Poland, prosecutors said on Monday.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Matthias Williams and Pavel Polityuk; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones)

3/16/2020 Hungary to shut borders, preparing fiscal, monetary response to coronavirus
The Matthias Church is seen during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
in Budapest, Hungary, March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary will close its borders, postpone cultural and sports events and take fiscal and monetary steps to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Monday.
    Orban told parliament that Hungarians returning home would be allowed to cross the frontier but the borders would be closed to foreign travelers.
    He said all shops would be shut except food stores, pharmacies and drug stores, asked people over the age of 70 to stay at home and said all events would canceled except for family gatherings.    Restaurants would have to close at 3 p.m.
    “Life in the coming months will not be what it used to be,” Orban said, warning of a long battle ahead and raising the prospect of mass unemployment as the virus hits the economy.
    “The entire economy will be in trouble, but not (all sectors) at the same time,” Orban said.
    He said the government was working on a quick response to help tourism, restaurants and services, which were first in the firing line when the crisis hit.
    Hungary will need monetary and fiscal tools to tackle the expected grave economic impact, Orban said.
    “I have contacted the governor of the National Bank of Hungary because, similarly to other European countries, apart from fiscal tools we will also need monetary tools to tackle the crisis,” he told parliament.
    The central bank offered 308 million euros worth of liquidity to commercial banks at a weekly tender on Monday, much more than last week’s amount.
(Reporting by Budapest bureau; Writing by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Toby Chopra)

3/16/2020 Slovak president Caputova to appoint new government on March 21
FILE PHOTO: Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova is pictured after casting her vote during the
country's parliamentary election, in Pezinok, Slovakia February 29, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Slovak President Zuzana Caputova will appoint a new center-right government led by Prime Minister Igor Matovic on March 21, she said on Monday.
    Matovic, 46, whose opposition OLANO party won a Feb. 29 election, has put together a coalition with three other parties that will command a majority in the Slovak parliament.
    OLANO’s main election pledge was to reduce graft and sever ties between the outgoing government and business, but Matovic said the coronavirus epidemic demanded a smooth handover and cooperation with the outgoing administration.
    “Slovakia is at a turning point.    Now our only interest is to cope with the coronavirus crisis,” Matovic told reporters after meeting the president.
    He said the new government would not make immediate personnel changes at ministries.
    The administration will comprise the politically diverse OLANO and three smaller parties – Sme Rodina (We are Family), a socially conservative and eurosceptic party; SaS (Freedom and Solidarity), an economically liberal party; and Za Ludi (For the People), a mildly conservative party led by former president Andrej Kiska.
    The new government will take over from the center-left Smer party which has ruled for 12 of the past 14 years.
    Matovic said on Friday that OLANO would hold the euro zone country’s finance ministry while SAS leader Richard Sulik would become economy minister.
    OLANO is a politically amorphous, pro-EU and pro-NATO movement that drew attention to what it called the “mafia” connections of the outgoing government.    It surged in polls just before the election to win a quarter of the vote.
    Fighting the coronavirus, Slovakia has banned international passenger travel, closed schools and most shops.    It has reported 63 cases of the coronavirus and no deaths.
(Reporting by Tomas Mrva; Editing by Alex Richardson and Ed Osmond)

3/17/2020 Kazakhstan reports spike in coronavirus cases
A man wearing a protective face mask gets his temperature checked before entering a shopping mall, following an
outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Almaty, Kazakhstan March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev
    NUR-SULTAN (Reuters) – Kazakhstan’s healthcare ministry reported 14 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, raising the total count to 27 in the Central Asian nation.
    According to minister Yelzhan Birtanov, the 14 new patients were diagnosed in the capital, Nur-Sultan.
(Reporting by Tamara Vaal; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

3/17/2020 Russia’s Putin orders April vote on constitutional changes despite coronavirus
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with head of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova
in Moscow, Russia March 17, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a nationwide vote on constitutional amendments, which would allow him to run again for president, on April 22, the Kremlin said on Tuesday, despite the spread of the coronavirus.
    The amendments, if passed, would allow Putin to run again despite the current constitutional ban.    There had been speculation the vote would be postponed due to the coronavirus.
    “And yet, bearing in mind the difficult epidemiological situation in the world… which is not as acute as in other countries, but nevertheless affects our country, we will hold this vote only if this situation allows such event to be carried out,” Putin told Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, at a meeting.
    As of now, Putin is required by the constitution to step down in 2024 when his second sequential and fourth presidential term ends.    The proposed constitutional changes would open the door for him to remain in power until 2036.     Russia has reported 114 cases of coronavirus, but no deaths, and has introduced a raft of economic and social measures to limit its spread.
    “You and I see that in those countries where the situation is much more complicated than ours, nevertheless political events of this kind are not abandoned,” Putin told Pamfilova.
    Russia will postpone the vote if the situation requires, he added.
(Reporting by Polina Devitt and Anton Kolodyazhnyy; editing by Chris Reese and Nick Macfie)

3/17/2020 Kosovo to declare state of emergency to counter coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Medical workers carry a patient who is suspected of having coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) in a hospital in Pristina, Kosovo, March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Laura Hasani
    PRISTINA (Reuters) – Kosovo President Hashim Thaci on Tuesday asked the country’s parliament to declare a state of emergency to halt the spread of coronavirus.
    Parliament must vote on the request within 48 hours.
    “As a president I never thought that it would come to this moment,” Thaci said at a press conference after meeting with the country’s security council.
    The new measures include putting soldiers in the streets, Thaci added.
    Kosovo has registered 19 people with the virus since last Friday when the first case was reported.
    It has already closed all schools, borders, flights, bars and restaurants.    Only supermarkets and pharmacies remain open.
    Most of the people with coronavirus came from Italy or are related to someone who returned from Italy.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

3/17/2020 Serbia imposes night curfew, orders elderly indoors by Aleksandar Vasovic
A medical worker in protective suit disinfects an ambulance vehicle in front of the infection clinic, as the number of
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases grow around the world, in Belgrade, Serbia, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
    BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia will ban people older than 70 from leaving their homes at any time and impose a night curfew on almost everyone else in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus, President Aleksandar Vucic said, adding the measures take effect on Wednesday.
    Health authorities in the Balkan country have so far reported 72 cases of infection and tested 374 people.    There have been no fatalities.
    In a live TV address to the nation, a somber looking Vucic said on Tuesday that the “poor discipline” of pensioners, many of whom scrambled to collect pensions and run errands after a state of emergency was declared on Sunday, prompted authorities to impose tough restrictions.
    “From 10 AM tomorrow (Wednesday) in all urban areas it is absolutely forbidden to go out on the street to all persons over 65 and over 70 in rural areas … due to sowing season,” he said.    “An all-out curfew is in place for everyone, except those working night shifts from 8 PM until 5 AM.”
    Vucic said local authorities and younger people will bring food and supplies to pensioners and that the government will allocate special shops where elderly will be allowed to purchase in the early morning hours.
    Serbia has already imposed an array of restrictions, including the closure of kindergartens, schools and universities until the end of the semester, and a ban on entry to foreigners.    It also plans to shut down all bus and train passenger traffic in two to three days, Vucic said.
    Under the new set of restrictions, the Serbian military will take over all border crossings and maintain guard at over a dozen state-operated camps for illegal migrants from Asia and the Middle East.
    Vucic, who earlier in the day met Chen Bo, the Chinese ambassador to Belgrade, also said Serbia had sought aid from China, which is already a major investor in the Balkan country.    During his address he repeatedly called Chinese leader Xi Jinping his “brother.”
    “To avoid the worst case scenario … we need you (China) to send us whatever you can … we need your expertise as well,” Vucic told Chen Bo, Chinese ambassador to Serbia.
    Speaking in fluent Serbian, Chen Bo said that “by the end of the week our experts will arrive.”
    China views Serbia and other Balkan countries as part of its ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative to open trade links to Europe.    It has already sent a batch of test kits for coronavirus and other equipment to Belgrade.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by William Maclean)
[If China was not warning those who was in the path of the Belt and Road Initiiative for the coronavirus that would make me a little wary of what else they may not tell you could be coming in what they ship to you.].

3/17/2020 Finland lowers bank buffers in coronavirus response, prepares to close borders by Anne Kauranen and Tarmo Virki
Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo, Prime Minister
Sanna Marin and Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka attend the news conference on
coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Helsinki, Finland March 17, 2020. Lehtikuva/Mikko Stig via REUTERS
    HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland decided late on Tuesday to lower buffer requirements of its banks, attempting to boost the slowing economy, as the country prepared to close its borders as part of the response to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
    Finland will start restricting traffic over its borders on Thursday, Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo said.
    “Goods and cargo transports will continue across all borders. Indispensable work-related traveling will still be possible and continues within EU borders,” Ohisalo told a news conference.
    Permanent residents would be allowed to return and foreign travelers permitted to leave Finland, Ohisalo said.
    Traveling abroad should be avoided and the restrictions were valid until April 13, the government said, with passenger railway traffic between Finland and neighboring Russia ending on Wednesday.
    Ferry firms Viking Line and Tallink, which link Finland to Sweden and Estonia, both said they would stop operating Helsinki-Stockholm ferries and cut back on the Helsinki-Tallinn route, which was used last year by 8.8 million people.
    Finland’s health authority had confirmed 319 coronavirus cases but no deaths by Tuesday, but it said the total number was not reflective of actual cases as testing has been limited to certain groups only since last week.
    The financial supervisory authority (FSA) said its decision to lower buffer demands would increase banks lending capacity by 52 billion euros ($57.2 billion).
    The FSA said it would closely monitor that banks are targeting relief measures to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis and not on bonuses or dividends.
    “In the current very exceptional circumstances, it is justified to reduce the buffers in order not to weaken the ability of credit institutions to lend, especially to the corporate sector,” FSA said.
    Earlier on Tuesday economic research institute ETLA said Finland’s gross domestic product will fall between 1% and 5% this year because of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, with the most negative scenario as the most likely outcome.
($1 = 0.9087 euros)
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen and Tarmo Virki; Editing by Jon Boyle and Grant McCool)

3/18/2020 Coronavirus-hit cruise ship docks in Cuba for passengers to evacuate by Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta
The British cruise ship MS Braemar that has been turned away from different ports in the Caribbean after
several passengers were confirmed to have the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen on the Cuban coast,
after Cuba has offered to receive the ship, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer
    HAVANA (Reuters) – A British cruise ship that has been stranded for more than a week in the Caribbean after several cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed onboard is set to dock in Cuba on Wednesday to allow weary passengers to disembark and fly home.
    Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab expressed gratitude on Tuesday in parliament to Communist-run Cuba for offering a safe haven to the Braemar, which has more than 1,000 mainly British passengers and crew aboard after several Caribbean ports refused to let it dock.
    The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has plunged the cruise industry into chaos as the global tightening of entry requirements has left many ships stranded or quarantined. Cruise lines have suspended future trips in recent days.
    “Prevention and contention of new coronavirus require the efforts of entire international community,” said Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez.    “Let’s reinforce health care, solidarity and international cooperation.”
    Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, which operates the Braemar, said it would dock at the Mariel port, just west of Havana, early on Wednesday.
    Passengers would return to Britain from the capital’s international airport in the evening on four charter flights, it said, including a separate one for passengers who had received a positive diagnosis for coronavirus or displayed any flu-like symptoms.
    Any not considered well enough to fly would be offered support and medical treatment in Cuba.
    There are 28 passengers in isolation on the Braemar who have shown influenza-like symptoms, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines said.    This includes two people who tested positive for the new coronavirus at its last port of call, Willemstad, Curaçao, on March 10.
    Since then the ship was refused docking in Barbados and the Bahamas, which are both part of the British commonwealth – an irony not lost on some passengers.
    “We should all remember what #Cuba has done for us, stepping in when none of the British Commonwealth countries and protectorates in the region offered any help,” tweeted one passenger aboard the Braemar, Steve Dale.
    The coronavirus has been slower to reach and spread in the Caribbean than much of the rest of the globe.
    The Cuban government has so far confirmed seven cases in Cuba, after reporting its first ones last week.
    Authorities are screening travelers at airports and have stepped up the production of face masks while banning large cultural events.     Family physicians are paying more home visits to monitor local communities.
    Yet the government has not canceled flights from countries hardest hit by the pandemic, restricted internal movement or banned social gatherings, in contrast to other countries in the region, eliciting concern among some Cubans, as has the arrival of the Braemar.
    “There were only a few cases … but now we are filling up on more,” said Pablo Cruz Estrada, 28, while polishing up a 1948 Dodge at a car wash in Havana, known for its vintage U.S. cars.    “Who would come up with such an idea?
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

3/18/2020 Poland to receive protective gear, tests from China to fight coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Workers are seen on a production line manufacturing masks at
a factory in Shanghai, China, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland will receive more than 10,000 test kits and tens of thousands of other protective items such as masks, goggles and shoe covers from China to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak, Poland’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement late on Wednesday.
    “Even though the fight with coronavirus is ongoing in China, they decided to show solidarity with Poland and help our country by providing tests to uncover COVID-19, as well as protective medical gear,” the statement said.
    China will send 20,000 masks, 5,000 protective suits, 5,000 medical goggles, 10,000 single-use medical gloves and 10,000 shoe covers to Poland, the statement says.
    China has already promised to export medical gear, such as masks and respirators, to countries like Italy and South Korea.
    A number of European countries, such as Germany and France, said they would limit exports of certain medical products such as masks to avoid shortages at home as the coronavirus outbreak worsened this month.
    China has reported nearly 81,000 infections and 3,237 deaths in the mainland from the coronavirus epidemic, which emerged late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Alex Richardson)

3/19/2020 Serbia closes all border crossings, airport to curb coronavirus
Passengers wait to check in to one of the last flights as Serbia halts all commercial flights from Belgrade's Nikola Tesla
airport to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Belgrade, Serbia, March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
    BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia on Thursday closed its airport and said it will shut all road and rail borders other than to freight traffic, as well as halt all internal passenger transport in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.
    Passenger flights were banned from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport, operated by France’s Vinci, for the first time since 1999 when flights were halted during the NATO bombing of the country and the war in Kosovo.
    The airport remains open only for humanitarian flights and planes with special permits.    Serbia had already barred flights to and from the airport in the southern city of Nis.
    At a news conference later in the day, President Aleksandar Vucic said that as of 8 AM on Friday, Serbia’s border crossings will be closed for all passenger road and rail transport.
    “Nothing but trucks will be allowed to enter,” he said.    “From noon tomorrow we will also halt commercial passenger transport inside the country.”
    The European Union membership candidate country has already introduced a night curfew, ordered the elderly to stay indoors and in line with a state of emergency imposed on Sunday, deployed military at the borders.
    Serbia currently has 103 confirmed coronavirus cases, up from 97 from earlier in the day, out of 506 people tested. There have been no fatalities so far.
    Vucic said he feared the contagion would now spread.    “The clinic for infectious diseases is almost full,” he added.
    Serbia started the hectic purchase of respirators and other medical equipment from abroad to bolster its hospitals, and sought medical help from China, which will send its experts to the Balkan country by the end of the week.
    Over the past four days, almost 72,000 Serbians working in the West, many in Austria and Italy which are hard-hit by the coronavirus infection, flocked home.
    Vucic, who repeatedly warned them not to come back to Serbia, sharply criticized those who avoid self-isolation of up to three weeks, warning they may face criminal charges and hefty fines.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Alex Richardson, Kirsten Donovan)

3/19/2020 Slovaks get facemasks, coronavirus tests from China to replenish supplies
FILE PHOTO: Slovakia's Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini visited textile factory Zornica Banko Fashion, which
changed its production lines from shirts to produce protective face masks, to contain the spread of the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Banovce nad Bebravou, Slovakia on March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa
    BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – A Slovak government plane with a million surgical facemasks and 100,000 rapid-result tests for the new coronavirus arrived in Bratislava on Thursday to alleviate the shortage faced by local authorities, social and health workers.
    Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million, has reported 124 cases of the virus and has taken tough measures including border closures to slow down the spread of the disease.
    The plane was inspected by Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and Interior Minister Denisa Sakova upon landing in a sign of the importance the government assigned to the shipment.
    “The crew spent 42 hours on the plane, have brought a shipment we all waited for, and now 1 million facemasks and 100,000 tests for rapid coronavirus detection are being unloaded,” Pellegrini told reporters in a briefing shown on TA3 television.
    The country has recorded no deaths from the disease caused by the virus so far.
    The government has said it expected more supplies from Turkey to arrive on Friday.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

3/19/2020 First coronavirus death reported in Russia, which plans to quarantine all new arrivals by Gleb Stolyarov and Tom Balmforth
FILE PHOTO: A medical specialist wearing protective gear walks near an ambulance outside a hospital for patients infected
with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow city authorities on Thursday reported Russia’s first coronavirus-related death, a 79-year-old woman in Moscow with underlying health issues, as President Vladimir Putin said authorities fighting the virus should be ready for anything.
    Russia has temporarily barred entry to foreigners and imposed restrictions on flights and public gatherings.    It has reported 199 coronavirus cases so far, a figure that has risen sharply in recent days.
    The number of cases is less than in many other European countries, but some doctors have questioned how far the official data reflects reality, given what they say is the patchy nature of testing.
    The government has said its statistics are accurate, that its handling of the virus has been transparent and that the situation is under control.    Officials say most infected people have entered Russia from coronavirus hotspots abroad.
    The city of Moscow’s coronavirus crisis center said in a statement on Thursday that an elderly woman had died from pneumonia in the capital after being diagnosed with the illness.
    In a subsequent statement, however, it said she had died because of a detached blood clot.    The federal government’s crisis center did not include her death in its own daily bulletin about the number of cases.
    The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper and other Russian media identified the woman as a professor at Moscow’s Gubkin State University of Oil and Gas.
    The Moscow authorities’ initial official statement said she had begun receiving treatment last week in a private clinic in the capital before being moved to a hospital specializing in infectious diseases.
    Ratcheting up its preventive measures on Thursday, authorities said that everyone who arrives in Russia must now self-isolate for two weeks.
    Police in Moscow say they have used facial recognition technology to catch more than 200 people who violated the terms of their self-isolation or quarantine.
    Putin told an official in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, that he approved of what was being done in that region to combat the virus.
    “We must be prepared for any development of events, so you are doing everything right,” he said.
(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Frances Kerry)

3/20/2020 Bulgaria military allowed to use force amid coronavirus curbs
Veselin Mareshki, leader of Bulgarian party Volya (Will), and a deputy from his party wear protective suits during
debates in the parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria, March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Dimitar Kyosemarliev TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
    SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria’s parliament voted after a heated debate on Friday to allow the military to help curb the movement of people amid the coronavirus outbreak, with a mandate to use force if necessary.
    The armed forces will be mobilized to assist civilian authorities, with authorization to stop vehicles and people until the police arrive.
    The decision was not taken lightly.
    “A virus cannot be beaten with a machine gun,” said Krum Zarkov from the opposition Socialist party, one of the 55 deputies who voted against the deployment of the army.
    Zarkov called the measure unjustified, but it passed with 89 votes for, 55 against and two abstentions.
    As of Friday, Bulgaria had 129 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and three deaths.    It has introduced a state of emergency, closed schools, restaurants and bars and banned all foreign and domestic holiday trips until April 13.
    The parliament vote comes at a time when authorities are struggling to enforce the strict curbs on movement.
    Special measures have already been imposed on Roma neighborhoods in several towns in southern Bulgaria.    Thousands of Bulgarian Roma are said to have returned recently from Western Europe where, some fear, they may have contracted the coronavirus.
    In Nova Zagora, Kazanluk and Sliven, where more than 50,000 Roma live, municipal authorities have introduced checkpoints to prevent people leaving Roma neighborhoods in large groups.
    “They may feel discriminated against, but there is nothing like that, and the measure is not for that purpose,” Nova Zagora Mayor Nikolai Grozev told media.
    With an estimated population of 10-12 million, approximately six million of whom live in the European Union, Roma people are the biggest ethnic minority in Europe and rights groups say they are often the victims of prejudice and social exclusion.
    Also on Friday, Bulgaria banned access to city parks and restricted non-essential travel between cities and towns as of Saturday.
    Access to food shops and pharmacies for two hours in the morning will be banned for people under 60 to allow the elderly and most vulnerable to buy medicines, Health Minister Kiril Ananiev said.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Frances Kerry and Nick Macfie)

3/20/2020 Coronavirus forces Putin critics to scale back protests before big vote by Polina Ivanova and Andrew Osborn
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbay Jeenbekov
at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Opponents of Vladimir Putin’s plans to amend the constitution so that he can run for president again in 2024 said on Friday they had been forced to scale back protests this weekend due to coronavirus, but would press ahead with some demonstrations.
    Putin’s changes, which have already been approved by both houses of parliament, would overturn a current constitutional ban on him running for president again in 2024, allowing him to potentially stay in power until 2036.
    The changes are due to be put to a nationwide vote on April 22.    That vote is for now still going ahead despite the suspension due to coronavirus of most other public events and restrictions on mass gatherings.
    The decision to postpone protests shows how coronavirus is compounding an already difficult situation for the anti-Kremlin opposition, which is divided over how to respond to Putin’s constitutional shake-up.
    Critics had planned to take to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg on Sunday to express their disgust over what some critics have called a constitutional coup, but said on Friday that those protests would be postponed due to coronavirus.
    Protests in nine other towns and cities would take place on Sunday however, organizers said in a statement, but would be subject to government rules limiting the size of public gatherings due to coronavirus risks.
    Russia has so far recorded 199 coronavirus cases and one person diagnosed with the virus has died.
    Prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who last summer helped bring up to 60,000 people to the streets of central Moscow, on Thursday said coronavirus was hobbling the opposition’s attempts to mount a proper protest movement against the changes.     Navalny, who argued it would be irresponsible to organize mass demonstrations because of coronavirus risks, called for a boycott of the vote on Putin’s changes.
    “The only tactic can be not recognizing the vote and its outcome,” said Navalny, predicting it would be falsified and that taking part was a waste of people’s time.
    Other opposition figures, who want people to take part but vote no, have called for the vote to be postponed.
    “The coronavirus epidemic has become such a big threat that even (Kremlin) loyalists are sounding the alarm,” Andrei Pivovarov, a co-ordinator of the ‘vote no’ campaign, wrote.
    “…Organizing a nationwide vote on constitutional amendments is like holding a party during a plague.”
    Putin though, when earlier this month explaining his decision to back changing the constitution in a way that favored himself, cited coronavirus as one of the reasons why he needed to be allowed to have the option of extending his rule.
    “I strongly believe that a strong presidential vertical for our country, for Russia, is absolutely necessary,” said Putin. (Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by William Maclean)

3/20/2020 Kremlin says Putin does not need a coronavirus test as he has no symptoms
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with public members
in Sevastopol, Crimea March 18, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been tested for the new coronavirus and does not need to undergo such a test because he is healthy and has no symptoms, the Kremlin said on Friday.
    Russia has reported 199 coronavirus cases so far, fewer than in many other European countries.    But the figure has risen sharply in recent days and one person diagnosed with the virus has died.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that everyone involved in events with Putin, 67, is tested in advance for the virus and that people in Crimea who received state awards from him this week were screened.
    “We think these are justified measures so the president can confidently continue working,” he said.
    “Thank God, he always feels brilliant,” Peskov said when asked if Putin had undergone a test.
    Peskov said earlier this week that he’d been tested for coronavirus himself along with all high-ranking Kremlin officials.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Maria Kiselyova and Andrew Osborn; editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/20/2020 Belgium to unlock 1 billion euros for hospitals by Marine Strauss
A nurse pushes an artificial respiration device at the Saint-Jean hospital while Belgian government imposed a coronavirus lockdown
in an attempt to slow down the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Brussels, Belgium March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgium’s newly formed federal government will provide 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) urgently to help hospitals face the coronavirus crisis as the situation in the coming days become “extremely intense” for healthcare services, it said on Friday.
    Priority is being given to healthcare measures but Belgium will have to go through an economic crisis, Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmes told a news conference.
    Emergency moves to support the economy during the crisis would cost the federal government up to 10 billion euros, David Clarinval, federal minister for budget said.    Fiscal measures could cost 4.5 billion euros, along with additional ones to support the unemployed and self-employed.
    Belgium recorded 16 new coronavirus deaths on Thursday, taking the death toll to 37, the biggest daily rise since the beginning of the epidemic, a spokesman for the health ministry said on Friday.    The number of infected stood at 2,257.
    Remote working has become mandatory for all companies and social distancing measures must be implemented or companies will have to shut and could be fined.
    The health ministry spokesman said the coming days would be “extremely intense” because the number of patients in hospitals will continue to increase but hospitals were ready to cope, with a total capacity of 1,900 beds, at least at the beginning.
    Belgium imposed lockdown measures on Wednesday to contain the spread of coronavirus.
(Reporting by Marine Strauss; Editing by Toby Chopra and David Clarke)

3/21/2020 ‘Keep calm and carry on’: Cuba warns virus panic bad for immune system by Sarah Marsh
People line up to buy food, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak,
in Havana, Cuba, March 19, 2020. Picture taken March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
    HAVANA (Reuters) – In the face of global panic over the coronavirus pandemic, Cuba’s Communist government has urged calm, saying stress weakens the immune system, and has taken more time than its Caribbean neighbors to introduce drastic measures as it touts the strength of its health system.
    The government has suspended large cultural and sporting events, and on Friday said it would start barring entry to tourists.    But so far it has steered clear of ordering workers and students to remain at home.
    Cuba is renowned for its preparedness in advance of natural disasters such as epidemics and for its medical prowess.    It sends its doctors to health crises around the world, including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2016.
    With the world’s highest ratios of physicians to population, according to the World Bank, Cuba has tens of thousands of doctors as well as medicine students going door-to-door to monitor local communities.
    “Closing the centers for work and teaching create a situation of tension and stress that is known to diminish the body’s immune system,” the Health Ministry’s epidemiology chief, Francisco Durán García, said on state-run TV this week.
    President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in a televised roundtable on Friday, said: “There must be neither panic nor overconfidence.”
    Cuban officials have said the island’s hot climate could slow propagation of the virus – although the theory remains unproven – and a state-run tourism agency even promoted the island as a safe destination at the start of the crisis.
    Cuba has also boasted that it produces a drug that helped curb the coronavirus outbreak in China, although some experts doubted whether it was effective as a mass treatment.
    Cuba has the “manpower, the drugs, and a proven and effective approach to face health challenges,” the Foreign Ministry’s general director for U.S. affairs, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, tweeted.
    Many Cubans trust authorities’ assurances that they have the situation under control, in a country where the state has a monopoly of mass media.    But some are concerned about the decision to keep schools and workplaces open.
    Others criticized the government for not barring entry to tourists earlier.    Increased internet access on the island has generated more concern as citizens have been able to evaluate other countries’ approaches.
    Cuba also has the oldest population in Latin America, and the elderly tend to be more vulnerable because they have weaker immune systems.
    On Wednesday, authorities reported the first death from the coronavirus in Cuba, a 61-year-old Italian tourist.    The number of cases has steadily risen over the past week to 21 confirmed and 716 hospitalized on suspicion of having the virus.
    “It will be difficult because we live from tourism, but health comes first,” said Luis Rodriguez, 48, who drives a “coco taxi” – a three-wheeled scooter under an egg-shaped booth – in Havana.
NO CURFEW, CLOSURES YET
    While life in Havana has continued much as normal, some private business owners have chosen to suspend operations.
    “We are closing next week because we cannot be a place for the virus to propagate,” said Nelson Rodriguez Tamayo, owner of a buzzing cafe in the colonial Old Havana.    “We are thinking about doing delivery.”
    Others are keeping their children at home.
    Diaz-Canel called on Cubans on Friday to start practicing social distancing, to avoid crowds and trips on public transport at peak hours, and cancel social outings.
    “Something very difficult due to Cubans’ nature, but very necessary, is the elimination of effusive greetings,” he said.    “No kisses or hugs and greetings at a prudent distance until the epidemic passes by.”
    The president said Cuba could take “more severe” measures in coming days or even hours, depending on the spread of the virus.    He also urged Cubans to practice better hygiene.
    But many Cubans worry about the lack of protective equipment and hygiene products in a country under U.S. sanctions, which faces shortages of many basic goods.
    Adequate hand-washing is also problematic for many who face sporadic outages of running water, and Cuba is recommending that citizens make their own face masks.
    Shortages mean Cubans have to typically spend hours in queues when they go shopping, complicating social distancing.
    “There is no way to shop online here, so if I don’t queue up how do I get by?” asked Eddy Zamora, 36, queuing outside a supermarket.    “And I don’t have the money to stock up.”
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by David Gregorio and Leslie Adler)

3/21/2020 ‘Let’s go to battle’: New Slovak government takes office amid coronavirus fight by tomas mrva
Igor Matovic, leader of The Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO), arrives to attend a televised
debate after the country's parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia March 1, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    BRATISLAVA, March 21 (Reuters) – Slovak President Zuzana Caputova appointed a center-right coalition government on Saturday headed by Igor Matovic, leader of the Ordinary People (OLANO) party, after a February election which swept anti-corruption parties to power.
    Matovic and his team were sworn in at a ceremony with participants wearing protective masks as a precaution against coronavirus. Slovakia has reported 137 cases of the virus this month with no deaths.
    The government handover comes as the coronavirus outbreak puts Europe on lockdown, pressuring Matovic’s four-party coalition to quickly agree a cabinet.
    “Nobody knows what form this (coronavirus) crisis will take, how long it will last and what consequences it will have,” Matovic said.
    “We have a remedy for the coronavirus – It’s solidarity, responsibility and the determination of all people who care about Slovakia,” he said.    “Let’s go to battle.”
    Matovic, 46, takes over amid a public health crisis that led his predecessor Peter Pellegrini to ban international passenger travel, close schools and shutter most shops.    The country is the world’s biggest per capita car producer but its four auto plants have all moved to suspend production due to the virus.
    The new government replaces the center-left Smer party that has ruled since 2012, a period of solid growth, though its popularity slipped after the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée which led to massive street protests.
    OLANO, known for anti-graft publicity stunts, won a quarter of the votes in the Feb. 29 election.
    It will rule with three other parties: Sme Rodina (We are Family), a socially conservative and eurosceptic party; SaS (Freedom and Solidarity), an economically liberal party; and Za Ludi (For the People), a center-right party led by former president Andrej Kiska.
    Free-marketeer Richard Sulik, the head of SaS who will be deputy prime minister, and OLANO’s Eduard Heger, a former manager of several private companies tapped to be finance minister, will lead economic policy.
    The government will face a confidence vote within 30 days but the coalition holds 95 out of 150 seats in parliament, securing its place.    Its majority will allow it to make changes to the constitution and Matovic has said this could enable it to apply stronger criteria in appointing judges.
    The investigation into Kuciak’s killing unearthed communications between a businessman who is on trial for ordering the hit and politicians and judicial officials.    The defendant has denied the charges.
(Reporting by Tomas Mrva and Jason Hovet; Editing by Alexander Smith and David Holmes)

3/22/2020 Russian army to send coronavirus help to Italy after Putin phone call
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte
attend a joint news conference in Rome, Italy July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian military will start sending medical help to Italy from Sunday to help it to battle the new coronavirus after receiving an order from President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.
    Putin spoke to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Saturday, the Kremlin said, adding that the Russian leader had offered his support and help in the form of mobile disinfection vehicles and specialists to aid the worst hit Italian regions.
    Italy recorded a jump in deaths from the coronavirus of almost 800 on Saturday, taking the toll in the world’s hardest-hit country to almost 5,000.
    The Russian Defense Ministry said that military transport planes would deliver eight mobile brigades of military medics, special disinfection vehicles and other medical equipment to Italy from Sunday.
    Russia will also send about 100 military specialists in virology and epidemics, the Interfax news agency cited the defense ministry as saying.
    Russia itself has reported 306 cases of the virus, most of them in Moscow, and one coronavirus-related death.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christopher Cushing and David Goodman)

3/22/2020 Cuban doctors head to Italy battle coronavirus by Nelson Acosta
Cuban doctors hold an image of late Cuban President Fidel Castro during a farewell ceremony before departing to Italy to assist, amid
concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Havana, Cuba, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
    HAVANA (Reuters) – Communist-run Cuba said it dispatched a brigade of doctors and nurses to Italy for the first time this weekend to help in the fight against the novel coronavirus at the request of the worst-affected region Lombardy.
    The Caribbean island has sent its “armies of white robes” to disaster sites around the world largely in poor countries since its 1959 revolution.    Its doctors were in the front lines in the fight against cholera in Haiti and against ebola in West Africa in the 2010s.
    Yet with the 52-strong brigade, this is the first time Cuba has sent an emergency contingent to Italy, one of the world’s richest countries, demonstrating the reach of its medical diplomacy.
    This is the sixth medical brigade Cuba has sent in recent days to combat the spread of the new disease abroad.    It has sent contingents to socialist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada.
    “We are all afraid but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfill, so we take out fear and put it to one side,” Leonardo Fernandez, 68, an intensive care specialist, told Reuters late on Saturday shortly before his brigade’s departure.
    “He who says he is not afraid is a superhero, but we are not superheros, we are revolutionary doctors.”
    Fernandez said this would be his eighth international mission, including one in Liberia during the fight against ebola.
    Italy is the country that has been worst affected by the highly contagious virus that originated in China, with the northern region of Lombardy bearing the brunt of the contagion.
    Its death toll rose on Saturday by 546 to 3,095, according to its head of welfare, Giulio Gallera, who requested the Cuban doctors.
    "We are going to fulfill an honorable task, based on the principle of solidarity,” said Graciliano Díaz, 64.
    Cuba built a healthcare system that was the envy of the developing world with economic aid from former ally Soviet Union, though some of those advances have been lost since the communist bloc collapsed.
    Many Cuban hospitals have fallen into disrepair and Cubans say they have difficulty finding medicine, a situation the government says is largely due to decades-old U.S. sanctions although analysts blame also the inefficient state-run economy.
    Still, Cuba has one of the highest ratios worldwide of physicians per capita even when excluding those doctors abroad, and its medical brigades for disaster relief continue to earn Havana goodwill worldwide.
    “In a time of crisis, the Cuban government, the Cuban people … have risen to the occasion, they have heard our appeal and they have responded,” Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton said on Saturday upon greeting 140 Cuban medical professionals at Kingston international airport.
    Britain also thanked Cuba last week for allowing a British cruise ship that had been turned away by several Caribbean ports to dock on the island and for enabling the evacuation of the more than 600 passengers onboard.
    Meanwhile Cuba, which is known for its disaster preparedness, is stepping up measures at home too to stem the coronavirus contagion.     Twenty-five cases have been confirmed so far.
    President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced late on Friday the country would be closing its borders to foreign non-residents from Tuesday in a major blow to one of the motors of its cash-strapped economy, tourism.
    Thousands of doctors and medicine students are also going door-to-door monitoring their local communities.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

3/22/2020 Russia: Gulf nations, not us, to blame for oil prices fall -TASS
FILE PHOTO: Kremlin aide Andrei Belousov attends a session of the St. Petersburg
International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia never sought a sharp oil price fall or an end to cooperation with Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and the Gulf nations are to blame for the crisis on the global oil markets, a senior Russian official said.
    In early March, Russia and OPEC failed to agree how their deal to cut oil production should work: OPEC wanted to deepen the cuts while Moscow proposed extending existing curbs.    The disagreement came at a time when global demand was slumping because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
    Oil prices fell from nearly $50 per barrel on March 6 when the deal collapsed to below $27 on Friday, as Saudi Arabia, the top OPEC player, and Russia, the world’s second biggest oil exporter after Riyadh, prepare to open the taps from April 1.
    “Russian position was never about triggering an oil prices fall.    This is purely our Arab partners initiative,” Andrei Belousov, Russian first deputy prime minister, was quoted as saying by TASS late on Saturday.
    “Even oil companies who are obviously interested to maintain their markets, did not have a stance that the deal (OPEC+) should be dissolved.”
    Belousov reiterated that Russia was proposing to extend the existing curbs by at least one more quarter and potentially until the end of 2020.    “But (our) Arab partners took a different stance,” TASS quoted him as saying.
    Igor Sechin, head of Russia’s top oil producer Rosneft , has always opposed the three-year-long deal, saying it allows non-members such as the United States to increase their market share at expense of whose cutting supply.
    “Is there a point to cut further if other producers will increase?,” Sechin was quoted as saying on Friday in his first public comments since the deal fell apart.
    Sechin said he believed that global oil prices could return to $60 per barrel by end-2020 if shale oil is forced out of the market.    Belousov believes that oil prices will balance at around $35-40 per barrel.
(Reporting by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Frances Kerry)
[We all should remember the last time that Oil was at $20 a barrel was when Ronald Reagan caused that to happen which led to Russia who could not make enough money off of their oil forcing them to have food shortages for Russians, and that event in time led to Gorbachev tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1980's, so maybe this event will cause some miraculous event also.]

3/22/2020 Swedish PM tells Swedes to take responsibility in national address on coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven speaks during a news conference after the second day of the European Union leaders summit,
held to discuss the EU's long-term budget for 2021-2027, in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo
    STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in a rare live television address to the nation on Sunday evening called on all Swedes to play their part in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
    Sweden on Sunday had 1,906 confirmed cases of the respiratory disease – or 17 per 100,000 citizens – and 21 deaths.
    “We all now have great individual responsibility,” Lofven said.    “There will be a few decisive moments in life when you must make sacrifices, not only for your own sake but also to take responsibility for those around you, for your fellow humans and for our country.    That moment is now. That day has come.”
    The number of patients in intensive care has risen steeply in Stockholm over the past days and healthcare officials have voiced concerns over staff shortages and said there was a risk of an imminent shortage of some protective gear for staff.
    “Everyone must do their part and it goes also for you who are above 70 or part of another risk group.    I understand it’s frustrating to have to confine your life, your social interactions,” said Lofven, a Social Democrat.
    “But it is right now necessary – for your own health of course but also to protect others and allow for the health services to cope with the situation.”
    Sweden has closed high schools and universities and banned public gatherings of more than 500 people, and authorities recommended that people above 70 limit their contact with others.
    “I want you to be prepared that more invasive decisions may come, at times with short notice and at times measures that disrupt everyday life even more,” Lofven said.
    Across the world, more than 305,000 are confirmed infected by the virus and more than 13,000 have died.
(Reporting by Anna Ringstrom; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Cooney)

3/23/2020 Hungarians queue for guns for fear of disorder as coronavirus spreads by Marton Dunai and Bernadett Szabo
A Hungarian vendor shows an Ekol Firat Magnum gas pistol at a gun shop where people queued up to buy weapons
for protection during the coronavirus pandemic, in Budapest, March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Peter Rostas doesn’t want to have any reason to use the gun he was buying, but the young Hungarian father of one was taking no chances with a coronavirus epidemic he fears may bring out the worst in some people.
    “It’s a precautionary measure,” Rostas, 33, said as he queued outside a small Budapest shop selling non-military grade weapons that require no license.    “I’d rather be laughing later than find myself in a conflict with nothing but a broomstick.”
    Hungarians have sought in increasing number to arm themselves for protection in recent weeks, fearing a possible unraveling of law and order if severe shortages set in as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.
    Gun controls are tight in eastern Europe as across the rest of the continent, but demand for small arms amid growing anxiety over coronavirus has risen elsewhere in the region.    The Czech arms manufacturers association said shop owners had reported rising demand and a double-digit rise in sales.
    About 300,000 people hold licenses for guns in each of the Czech Republic and Hungary, both with about 10 million inhabitants. Licenses are not mandatory for some light arms.
    “We are selling five times as much as in a normal March,” said Gabor Vass, who runs three gun shops in the Hungarian capital including the one where Rostas bought his gas pistol.
    “We could sell 15 times more if we had any more rubber bullet weapons, but we ran out.”
    The shop, little bigger than a phone booth and tucked inside a suburban shopping center on the edge of Budapest, was hardly designed for an onrush of customers.    But last week brought a heavy stream, people from all walks of life.
    Hungary has registered 167 cases of coronavirus, with seven deaths, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Monday the true number was probably much higher.
REASSURING” TO HAVE GUN AT HOME
    Rostas fears violence could arise from shortages of essential goods, something the Hungarian government has insisted will not happen. But the stocky auto trader is skeptical.
    “If people brawl over toilet paper now, what will they do later? Once shops run out of stock, people will take what they need.    Police can hardly deal with every petty theft,” he said.
    “I’m not planning to kill anyone, but it is reassuring to have a weapon at home.”
    Vass, the gun shop owner, said even small weapons not requiring a license were very dangerous in the wrong hands, given that even non-combat gas pistols can be lethal at close range, and the interest does not stop there.
    “People have gone nuts,” he said.    “They gobble up anything they don’t need a license for.    Gas pistols, rubber bullet guns, and even things like crossbows, which can harm you seriously.”
    Hungarian police and the government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
    Gun and ammunition sales have also jumped across the United States amid fears of social breakdown as the pandemic worsens.
(This story refiles to clarify sourcing in paragraph 14)
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/23/2020 Georgia bans passenger traffic on domestic railway over coronavirus
Officials wearing protective gear take the body temperature at a check point, after Georgian authorities tightened up measures to
prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Marneuli near Tbilisi, Georgia March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
    TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgia banned passenger traffic on its domestic railway on Monday to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
    Government spokesman Irakli Chikovani said the ban would be in force until a state of emergency ends on April 21.
    The country of 3.7 million in the South Caucasus has reported 61 cases of the coronavirus as of Monday, with no deaths.     Eight patients have recovered from the virus.
    Georgia has also locked down the two southern regions of Marneuli and Bolnisi bordering Azerbaijan after a woman was diagnosed with the COVID-19 respiratory illness that can be caused by the coronavirus attended a wake.
    Georgia declared a one-month state of emergency on Saturday, banning gatherings of more than 10 people.
    The former Soviet republic has also closed its borders, imposed a ban on all foreign citizens entering the country and halted air traffic with other countries.
    It has also shut all educational institutions, closed all shops except grocery stores, pharmacies and petrol stations, and closed winter resorts, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and gyms.
    Neighbouring Armenia expanded a list of countries on Monday whose citizens are barred from entering the country.    Armenia has reported 194 cases of coronavirus, the highest number in the South Caucasus region.    Two patients recovered.
    Azerbaijan, another South Caucasus country of around 10 million, on Monday imposed restrictions on entry and exit from the capital Baku, the city of Sumgait and the region of Absheron Peninsula except for ambulances and freight trucks, the government said.
    The government had also banned all passenger traffic across the country, gatherings of more than 10 people with a distance of 2 metres from each other.
    City residents are recommended to use buses or taxis instead of metro, while those, who are over 65 years, are banned from leaving houses.    The government will provide them with a social assistance.
    Azerbaijan has reported 72 cases of coronavirus as of Monday, with one death.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan and Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Lisa Shumaker)

3/23/2020 Bulgarian parliament amends state of emergency law after president’s veto
FILE PHOTO: A police officer checks a car drriver at one of the exits of Sofia, following
restrictions on non-essential travel between cities and towns, in attempt to prevent the spread
of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Bulgaria, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Dimitar Kyosemarliev/File Photo
    SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria’s parliament agreed on Monday to cancel some parts of a law that establishes a state of emergency to limit the spread of the coronavirus after the president wielded his veto citing concerns about its impact on the economy and on free speech.
    As of Monday, Bulgaria had 190 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and three deaths.    Like most other European nations, it has shut schools, restaurants and other public venues and imposed a temporary ban on foreign and domestic holiday trips.
    President Rumen Radev on Sunday blocked some of the new measures, saying they would create more problems than solutions, and asked parliament to think again.
    One of the amendments to the penal code would have imposed a fine of up to 10,000 levs ($5,520) and carried a jail term of up to three years for spreading “false information” about an epidemic.    Radev said this could erode the right to free speech.
    Lawmakers also agreed to remove from the legislation a clause aimed at preventing profiteering by requiring retailers to sell goods at the same prices as before the state of emergency was declared.
    Radev had expressed concern that this threatened to block business activity and hinder expected falls in the price of fuel and electricity.
    Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s center-right GERB party and its coalition partners have a majority in the parliament, but 118 lawmakers backed Radev’s veto, while 14 were opposed and 56 abstained in the 240-member chamber.
    It is only the second time that Radev, a former air force commander who was elected head of state more than three years ago, has successfully forced legislation to be amended.
    The president has limited powers in Bulgaria and can only veto legislation once.
    Radev later praised the parliament’s decision, and he urged the government to focus on the social and economic situation in the country.
    “I continue to insist that effectively coping with the coronavirus crisis requires, in addition to urgent health measures, social and economic measures to support the most affected,” Radev said.
    “We must overcome the growing social tensions with concrete and clear measures that will give Bulgarian citizens peace and confidence in their own country.    It is important for Bulgaria to maintain its human and economic potential.”
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Gareth Jones)

3/24/2020 Former Finnish president Ahtisaari has coronavirus, presidency says
FILE PHOTO: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari poses with his medal and diploma during the Nobel Peace Prize
award ceremony in Oslo December 10, 2008. Ahtisaari urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday to delve into solving the
Middle East conflict in his first year in office, calling it a knot that could be untied. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins (NORWAY)/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Finland’s former president Martti Ahtisaari, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008, has tested positive for the coronavirus, the president’s office said on Tuesday.
    “The infection was confirmed on Monday, March 23. President Ahtisaari is doing well, considering the situation,” the office said in a statement.
    The 82-year-old, who headed Finland from 1994 to 2000, got the Nobel Peace Prize for his longstanding contribution to peace mediation.
    Finland has confirmed 700 coronavirus cases and one death from the virus.
(Reporting by Tarmo Virki; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

3/24/2020 Austria to use more rapid corona tests for broad scale testing
FILE PHOTO: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz addresses the media, during the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) outbreak, in Vienna, Austria, March 18, 2020. Georg Hochmuth/Pool via REUTERS
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria will start using more rapid tests to be able to test hundreds of thousands of people as quickly as possible, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Tuesday.
    So far, the Alpine country with a population of 8.8 million has tested around 24,000 people with nearly 4,500 cases confirmed [That is 19% of those tested that should scare everyone].br>     The government is still collecting data regarding the effectiveness of its measures to curb the spread of the virus and will give an update on that on Friday, Kurz said.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; editing by Scot W. Stevenson)

3/24/2020 Kyrgyzstan locks down major cities, imposes curfew
FILE PHOTO: A medical official wearing protective gear takes the body temperature of a driver
and a passenger, as an additional measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19),
at a check point outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov/File Photo
    BISHKEK (Reuters) – Kyrgyzstan declared a state of emergency on Tuesday in its three biggest cities, including the capital Bishkek, locking them down and imposing a curfew after the number of coronavirus cases in the Central Asian nation more than doubled.
    In addition to the cities of Bishkek, Osh and Jalal-Abad, local emergencies were also declared in three provincial districts, the government said.
    Residents of the affected areas were instructed to only leave their homes for urgent necessities.
    In Bishkek in particular, the measures will include a 2000-0700 curfew, city commandant and deputy interior minister Alik Orozaliyev told an online briefing.
    The Central Asian nation bordering China said on Tuesday it has confirmed 42 cases of coronavirus infection, up from just 16 a day earlier.
    Also on Tuesday, the Kyrgyz government ordered all of its employees to start working from home.
(Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Louise Heavens and Jan Harvey)

3/24/2020 Russia in digital payments push as it limits banknote circulation by Alexander Marrow
FILE PHOTO: A man counts 5,000 rouble banknotes while he uses a Sberbank ATM in
Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has urged consumers and businesses to use digital payments rather than cash in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and told banks to limit rouble notes in circulation.
    Consumer safety watchdog Rospotrebnadzor this month encouraged Russians to move to cashless payments, citing World Health Organization guidelines stating that a virus can linger on a banknote for three to four days.
    The central bank already keeps banknotes for up to 14 days before distributing them and is now asking other banks to do the same, said Vladimir Demidenko, deputy head of its cash circulation department.
    Retail banks have also been asked to limit the refilling of ATMs that recycle notes and to disinfect terminals regularly.    The limits will not apply to ATMS that do not recycle notes and are restocked by the banks.
    About 75% of all cash machines in Russia do not recycle notes and offer either withdrawal services or accept cash deposits, according to the central bank.
    The central bank also asked bank staff to use protective masks and disposable gloves when accepting cash from customers.
    Digital payments are commonplace in large Russian cities, but much of the population still relies on cash.
    Deloitte labeled Russia a “digital champion” in a 2018 report on digital banking maturity in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
    Russia has reported 438 cases of the coronavirus and two deaths.
    Other measures taken to limit the spread include the closure of schools and public institutions and a ban on foreign nationals entering the country.
(Additional reporting by Elena Fabrichnaya and Andrey Ostroukh; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by David Goodman)

3/24/2020 Moscow’s coronavirus outbreak much worse than it looks, Putin ally says by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth
Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing protective gear walks at a hospital for patients infected with coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia March 24, 2020. Sputnik/Alexey Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The mayor of Moscow told President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the number of coronavirus cases in the Russian capital far exceeded the official figures, as Putin donned a protective suit and respirator to visit a hospital.
    The comments by Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Putin, were authorities’ strongest indcation yet that they do not have a full grasp of how widely the virus has spread throughout Russia’s vast expanse.
    Russia has so far reported 495 cases of the virus and one death, far fewer than major western European countries.
    Putin has previously said the situation is under control, but some doctors have questioned how far official data reflect reality, and the government on Tuesday closed nightclubs, cinemas and children’s entertainment centres to slow the spread of the virus.
    “A serious situation is unfolding,” Sobyanin told Putin at a meeting, saying the real number of cases was unclear but that they were increasing quickly.
    Testing for the virus was scarce, he said, and many Muscovites returning from abroad were self-isolating at home or in holiday cottages in the countryside, and not being tested.
    “In reality, there are significantly more sick people,” Sobyanin said.
    The government also said it would organise a return of its citizens from countries hit by the coronavirus if they wanted to come.
    Meanwhile Putin donned a bright yellow full-body hazmat suit and respirator as he visited a hospital on the outskirts of Moscow that is treating coronavirus patients, and praised the doctors for their work.
    Separately, two senior lawmakers including Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, proposed legislation to make flouting anti-virus quarantine measures punishable with jail time.
    The bill would provide for up to seven years’ jail for actions that led to the death of two or more people, or up to three years for causing mass infection, the RIA news agency reported.
(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

3/24/2020 Swiss coronavirus cases rise to nearly 9,000, with 90 deaths by John Miller and Silke Koltrowitz
A health worker wearing a protection suit tells a woman that she can enter a container of Medbase medical center, used for
tests on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on a square in Winterthur, Switzerland March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
    ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland has nearly 9,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and 90 deaths from the disease, the Federal Office of Public Health said on Tuesday, adding it was premature to say the number of new cases was flattening out.
    The new cases, which come on the eve of a government meeting over details of a blockbuster financial aid plan, rose by fewer than 1,000 since Monday, the data indicated, slightly less steeply than in recent days even as the country expands the number of tests it conducts daily.
    “We will definitely need a few more days to be able to really speak of a consolidation of the numbers or the trend,” said Patrick Mathys, head of the health ministry’s crisis management division.    “There is hope.    I think that’s also what we cling to with numbers like that.”
    Switzerland has stepped up its testing to around 8,000 people per day, the ministry said, with so far around 80,000 people tested in the Alpine republic since the crisis began.
    Health officials said this uptick was providing them with a more complete picture of who is infected and from where.
    “In contrast to other countries, this is quite a lot. From that point of view, I think we roughly know what is happening in Switzerland,” Mathys told a news conference in Bern.    “No country knows exactly how many infected people are in its territory.”
    Cautious optimism aside, the pandemic has sent the Swiss economy reeling.
    The KOF Institute at ETH University cut its outlook, while Credit Suisse economists now saw the economy contracting by 0.5% in 2020, a fall softened only by the government’s economic aid proposals worth around 42 billion Swiss francs ($43 billion).
    Cabinet ministers are due to address on Wednesday details of the plan to prop up a shaky economy where workers are being put on short working hours in record numbers as business were forcibly closed and employees told to stay home to help limit the spread.
    “We’re in completely new territory here,” Boris Zuercher, head of the economy ministry’s labour directorate, told reporters.    “We have a single experience, that from the financial markets crisis in 2009. And with the coronavirus, we are confronted by something with much, much bigger dimensions with regard to the new requests for short-term work compensation.”
    Former Swiss central banker Jean-Pierre Danthine estimated in newspaper Le Temps the epidemic could cost the Swiss economy 40-50 billion Swiss francs for two months.
(Additional reporting by John Revill and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Michael Shields)

3/24/2020 Putin to take part in extraordinary G20 summit to discuss coronavirus: Kremlin
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbay
Jeenbekov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin will take part in a summit of Group of 20 economies to discuss the coronavirus crisis by video link on Thursday, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
    G20 finance ministers and central bankers agreed during a separate video conference on Monday to develop an “action plan” to respond to the outbreak.
(Reporting by Polina Devitt; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alison Williams)

3/25/2020 Coronavirus cases in Russia reach 658, record daily rise: government
FILE PHOTO: A woman looks out of a window while having a meal inside a hospital for patients infected with coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – The number of coronavirus cases in Russia has surged to 658, with new daily cases at a record 163, the government’s official coronavirus website showed on Wednesday.
    An earlier report on one of Russia’s coronavirus monitoring websites had said the number of total cases was 516.
(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Writing by Alexander Marrow, Editing by Maria Kiselyova)

3/25/2020 Belgian shelter helps homeless cope with coronavirus lockdown by Jeremy, Audouard and Kate Abnett
Members of the Belgian Red Cross look for homeless people at Brussels Central Station during the coronavirus lockdown imposed by the
Belgian government in an attempt to slow down the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Brussels, Belgium March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A Red Cross-run homeless shelter in an abandoned office block in Brussels is helping the city’s homeless observe Belgium’s lockdown to fight the coronavirus, although some on the streets are wary of confinement.
    As governments around the world order citizens to stay at home and avoid social interactions, the homeless have found themselves in a particularly vulnerable spot.
    For the 4,000 people sleeping rough in Brussels, sanitary conditions have worsened as the coronavirus crisis has seen many public toilets closed, while self-isolation is near-impossible for those who develop symptoms.
    The temporary homeless shelter is usually only open for the winter months.    While some others have closed due to the pandemic it remains open and has around 250 people staying to comply with Belgium’s coronavirus-induced lockdown.
    Those who enter can stay all day, receive meals and do their laundry.    A confinement zone has also been set up to offer a place for up to 15 people to stay should they develop symptoms, and the shelter has a small supply of medical equipment such as masks. From April 1. it will house only homeless people with the virus.
    Belgium has reported 4,937 coronavirus cases, with 178 deaths.
    Some of those sleeping rough however don’t want to go into shelters.
    “I feel more comfortable outside than confined,” said Greg, a 42-year-old man who has been homeless for seven months.
(Writing by Kate Abnett, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

3/25/2020 Putin offers week-long holiday for Russians in social package to combat coronavirus by Alexander Marrow
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in
a televised speech in Moscow, Russia March 25, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday proposed various unconventional emergency social measures to support families and businesses amid the global coronavirus outbreak, such as a week-long holiday for workers and higher taxes on dividends.
    During a televised address to the nation, Putin sought to reassure Russian citizens and markets that the government would use all of its available force to stave off economic collapse.
    Russia has reported 658 cases of coronavirus, with Wednesday seeing its sharpest increase in new cases, and says nobody has died.    But the economy has been hit by prolonged uncertainty over coronavirus and tumbling oil prices, which has seen the rouble fall to four-year lows.
    Putin’s announcement that next week, beginning on March 30, would be an extended holiday for workers, with the exception of key business like pharmacies, banks and supermarkets, was an unconventional step.    Some other countries have preferred locking down cities, with people only allowed out for food and medicine.
    “Russia’s economy, like that of other countries, is under strong negative pressure because of the consequences of the epidemic,” Putin said.
    “It is now crucial to prevent the threat of the disease spreading rapidly.    Therefore I declare next week a non-working week with pay.”
    Alongside this measure, Putin said unemployment benefits should be lifted to mirror the minimum wage, at 12,130 rubles ($153) a month, specifically mentioning the need to support young people, a group of voters he has traditionally found harder to win over at elections.
    He suggested increasing child benefits by an extra 5,000 rubles a month for all children under the age of three and also proposed a six-month moratorium on tax payments for small and medium-sized businesses.
    To combat capital outflows, Putin said all interest and dividend payments that leave Russia should be subject to 15% tax, up from the current level of 2%.
    “If foreign partners do not accept our suggestion, then Russia will unilaterally withdraw from these agreements,” he said.
    Furthermore, Putin said Russia would tax interest payments on deposits of more than 1 million rubles, a measure he said should help allocate additional funds to fight the economic impact of coronavirus.
    Putin did not mention how much his new measures would cost the budget, which is expected to see a 3 trillion rouble shortfall this year from the weak commodity prices only.
    Russia has already tapped its rainy day fund, the National Wealth Fund (NWF), for emergency support of the rouble and some other sectors.    As of March 1, the NWF held 8.2 trillion rubles, or 7.3% of the gross domestic product.
(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, Elena Fabrichnaya and Polina Ivanova, Editing by Katya Golubkova and Angus MacSwan)

3/25/2020 Putin, citing coronavirus, postpones vote on changes to extend his rule by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth
A TV set broadcasting Russian President Vladimir Putin's address to the nation on measures to combat the spread of coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) is seen through the window of a cafe in Omsk, Russia March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday postponed a nationwide vote on constitutional changes that would allow him to extend his rule, saying the health and safety of citizens was his top priority as the global coronavirus pandemic worsens.
    The changes, already approved by parliament and Russia’s Constitutional Court, would reset Putin’s presidential term tally to zero, allowing him to serve two more back-to-back six year terms until 2036.
    His postponement followed calls from critics to delay the vote, which had been planned for April 22.    One opposition activist, Andrei Pivovarov, likened the idea to proceed amid coronavirus to “holding a party during the plague.”
    “We see how severely the coronavirus epidemic is developing in the world.    In many countries the number of cases is continuing to grow, the whole world economy is under threat,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation.
    “The absolute priority for us is the health, life and safety of people.    Therefore I believe that the vote should be postponed until a later date.”
    Putin, who has dominated the Russian political landscape as president or prime minister for two decades, spoke on the day that Russia recorded its biggest one day rise in cases, though at 658, the official tally remains much lower than in many European countries.
    The mayor of Moscow told Putin on Tuesday however that the real scale of the problem in the Russian capital far exceeded official figures, and Reuters reported earlier this month that a reported sharp increase in pneumonia cases in Moscow was fuelling fears about the accuracy of official data.
NON-WORKING WEEK
    Putin, in the same address, unveiled new measures designed to slow the spread of the virus and to help the economy, which has already been hit by prolonged uncertainty over coronavirus and tumbling oil prices, sending the rouble to four-year lows.
    He declared next week would be a non-working week for many Russians and urged people to stay at home.    He also spoke of the need to give tax breaks to small and medium-sized businesses and to allow consumers to delay paying back loans.
    Billboards urging Russians to take part in the nationwide vote on constitutional changes have already gone up in many Russian towns and cities.
    If Putin, as critics expect, opts to run again for president in 2024, the new rules would allow the 67-year-old former KGB officer to stay in power until 2036, though the Kremlin points out that he has not spoken of his own plans after 2024.
    Putin did not propose a new date for the vote, saying only that he and others would listen to medical advice and evaluate the situation to decide when the time for a new vote was right.
    Putin’s critics have likened the proposed changes to a constitutional coup that they say is illegal and would allow him to remain in power long after he should have stepped down.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow, Olesya Astakhova, Darya Korsunskaya, Lena Fabrichnaya, and Polina Ivanova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

3/26/2020 Hungary expects coronavirus epidemic to peak in June-July: PM Orban’s chief of staff
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a business conference
in Budapest, Hungary, March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s government expects the coronavirus epidemic to peak in June-July, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff said on Thursday, adding this projection was surrounded by great uncertainty.
    According to official government data, Hungary has 261 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 10 people have died.
    Steven Dick, deputy head of Mission at the British Embassy in Budapest, has died after contracting coronavirus, the Foreign Office announced on Wednesday.    The 37-year-old diplomat died in Hungary on Tuesday. nL8N2BI82F
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Alison Williams)

3/26/2020 Russia to ground international flights from Friday due to coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Medical officials with protective gear walk inside a plane while taking the body temperature of passengers as a preventive measure
against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow, Russia March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will suspend all regular and charter flights to and from the country from Friday due to the coronavirus crisis and close all shops in Moscow apart from food stores and pharmacies from this weekend, the government and city authorities said.
    Authorities announced the measures after Russia reported its biggest one day rise in coronavirus cases on Thursday, bringing the official tally to 840. Russia has reported two coronavirus deaths, and another woman, who was diagnosed with the virus has died.
    The figures remain much lower than in many European countries for now, but the mayor of Moscow told President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the real scale of the problem in the Russian capital far exceeded official figures.
    Putin addressed the nation on Wednesday in a televised speech in which he unveiled new measures designed to slow the transmission of coronavirus, declaring next week a non-working week for many Russians and urging people to stay at home.
    On Thursday, Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, said all shops and shopping malls except those that sell food and pharmacies would be closed from March 28 to April 5. Restaurants, cafes and bars would also be closed, Sobyanin said in a statement.
    The same measure will be implemented in the Moscow Region, which surrounds the capital, a local government decree said.
    Under the airline restrictions, Russian flights will still be allowed to fly to other countries to bring Russian citizens back or if they are authorised by special government decisions, the government said on its website.
(Reporting by Dasha Korsunskaya and Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Writing by Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/26/2020 Moscow to close all stores except grocery, pharmacies for a week
Medical staff members wearing protective suits work at the special unit of the Sklifosovsky Research Institute
of Emergency Medicine for the patients who are suspected to have contracted COVID-19, caused by
the coronavirus, in Moscow, Russia March 25, 2020. Alexander Avilov/Moscow News Agency/Handout via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow will close all shops except for pharmacies and grocery stores, the city’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on Thursday.
    This measure, which also includes the closure of restaurants, cafes and bars, will last from March 28 until April 5, Sobyanin said in a statement.
(Reporting Maria Kiselyova; writing by Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Editing by Jon Boyle)

3/26/2020 Kosovo dismisses government in ‘no-confidence’ vote, following dispute over coronavirus response by OAN Newsroom
File – Albin Kurti speaks to supporters after preliminary results of the parliamentary
election in Pristina, Kosovo, October 7, 2019. (REUTERS Photo/Florion Goga)
    Lawmakers in the Republic of Kosovo recently dismissed the government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, which has triggered a political crisis.    Kurti was voted out of his position Wednesday after the majority of lawmakers voted against him in a motion of “no confidence.”
    The dismissal of the official follows several disputes with the republic’s former interior minister over Kosovo’s response to the coronavirus as well as territorial tariffs.
    “The issue here is not about removal of the tariff, it is about giving up on reciprocity measures against Serbia,” stated Kurti.    “This is where our agreement with the Democratic League of Kosovo has been breached, because it was requested that the tariff be removed without reciprocity and this is a mistake.”
    It remains unclear how Kosovo’s government plans to proceed as it is currently unable to hold snap elections due to the pandemic.

3/27/2020 Russia shuts state hotels, resorts as coronavirus cases rise past 1,000
People queue before undergoing medical tests for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a laboratory
in Moscow, Russia March 26, 2020. Alexander Avilov/Moscow News Agency/Handout via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia ordered its vast network of state-run hotels, resorts and recreational facilities to shut down from March 28 until June 1, as its number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose past 1,000.
    The official tally of confirmed cases jumped by a record daily amount for the third day in a row on Friday, bringing Russia’s total to 1,036 a day after it moved to suspend all international flights.    Four people have died.
    Russia’s mass domestic tourism and recreation sector is still dominated by the state, a legacy from Soviet times. Millions of Russians still holiday each year at vast state-run hotels, resorts, health spas and children’s camps.
    President Vladimir Putin has declared next week a non-working week, and Moscow, the country’s worst-affected area, will this weekend close all cafes, restaurants and shops apart from those selling food and medicine, until April 5.
    The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia remains much lower than in many European countries, but the mayor of Moscow told Putin on Tuesday that the real scale of the problem in the capital far exceeded official figures.
    An opinion poll by the Moscow-based Levada Centre showed the majority of Russians, some 59 percent, do not believe the official figures.     Twenty-four percent said they “absolutely” did not believe them and 35 percent said they only partially believed them, the poll showed.
    Putin said on Thursday he hoped Russia would defeat coronavirus in 2-3 months if it imposed tough measures quickly.
    On Friday, Putin signed legislation allowing the government to intervene to regulate some retail and wholesale medicine prices.
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Peter Graff)

3/27/2020 Hungary PM imposes lockdown, sees coronavirus peak by July by Marton Dunai
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a
business conference in Budapest, Hungary, March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary is imposing a two-week lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, which is expected to peak in the country in June or July, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday.
    Citizens will be allowed to go to work, shop and take limited exercise outside during the lockdown, which starts on Saturday, but should keep distance from each other, Orban said on public radio, adding that restrictions would be enforced by police.
    The government, which along with the central bank has already taken steps to shore up growth, will present a post-outbreak action plan for the economy in the first or second week of April, he said, without giving details.
    Hungary has recorded around 300 coronavirus cases and 10 deaths.    Orban has said the actual number of cases is probably much higher.
    “Restrictions put in place so far have been efficient,” Orban said.    “Hungarians reduced the magnitude of social contact (but) … the decline has stopped, so we had to impose the movement restrictions.”
    In the lockdown decree published on Friday, citizens are also permitted to go on errands for the vulnerable, while those over 65 can only shop between 9:00 a.m. and noon and restaurants can only open for takeaway and home deliveries.
    Orban’s government has pushed for an open-ended extension of a state of emergency that would give it the right to bypass parliament.     Legislators are due to vote on the measure next week.
    He has progressively tightened his hold on power during his decade in office and critics say he is moving the country toward an autocracy, an accusation he rejects.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; editing by John Stonestreet)

3/27/2020 Russian PM urges all citizens to stay at home, calls for tougher measures: Interfax
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin chairs a meeting on the development of the electronics industry and additional
measures to support the industry in Moscow, Russia March 25, 2020. Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Friday urged its citizens to refrain from traveling, with the exception of essential trips, asking people to stay at home in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, the Interfax news agency cited Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin as saying.
    The number of cases in Russia surpassed 1,000 on Friday, a third daily record rise in a row, and Mishustin said tough measures were needed, adding that the more stringent changes in Moscow should be extended to other regions of the country.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Alison Williams)

3/27/2020 Kazakhstan to shut down most businesses in major cities for a week
FILE PHOTO: Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant on the street to prevent the spread of
coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in central Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov
    NUR-SULTAN (Reuters) – Kazakhstan on Friday ordered most companies in its capital Nur-Sultan and biggest city Almaty to suspend work between March 30 and April 5, the government said, as part of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
    Only state bodies, healthcare organisations, media, food retailers, pharmacies and other essential service providers will be allowed to continue work, it said in a statement.
    The Central Asian nation has confirmed 124 coronavirus cases, most of them in the two largest cities, and reported its first death this week.
    On Thursday, the government barred residents of Nur-Sultan and Almaty from leaving their homes, except for work or to buy groceries and medicines.
(Reporting by Tamara Vaal; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Catherine Evans)

3/27/2020 Exclusive: Russia calls for new enlarged OPEC deal to tackle oil demand collapse by Maria Tsvetkova, Gleb Stolyarov and Katya Golubkova
FILE PHOTO: The logo of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Vienna, Austria December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – A new OPEC+ deal to balance oil markets might be possible if other countries join in, Kirill Dmitriev, head of     Russia’s sovereign wealth fund said, adding that countries should also cooperate to cushion the economic fallout from coronavirus.
    A pact between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producers, including Russia (known as OPEC+), to curb oil production to support prices fell apart earlier this month, sending global oil prices into a tailspin.
    “Joint actions by countries are needed to restore the(global) economy… They (joint actions) are also possible in OPEC+ deal’s framework,” Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), told Reuters in a phone interview.
    Dmitriev and the Energy Minister Alexander Novak were Russia’s top negotiators in the production cut deal with OPEC.    The existing deal expires on March 31.
    “We are in contact with Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries.    Based on these contacts we see that if the number of OPEC+ members will increase and other countries will join there is a possibility of a joint agreement to balance oil markets.”
    Dmitriev declined to say who the new deal’s members should or could be.    U.S. President Donald Trump said last week he would get involved in the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia at the appropriate time.
    Dmitriev also said that a global economic crisis was inevitable as global debt to the world’s gross domestic product had risen to 323% as of now from 230% at a time of the previous economic crisis of 2008.    The virus just triggered it, he said.
    “Efforts to restore relations between Russia and the United States are now as important as ever, we will take all the efforts our side and hope the United States will also understand that this is necessary,” he said.
    The fund – the Russian Direct Investment Fund – and its partners have produced 500,000 coronavirus test kits so far, but are planning to increase production to 2.5 million kits a week.
    President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped Russia would defeat coronavirus in 2-3 months, as the total number of infected Russians, including some close to the country’s elite, topped 1,000, with four virus-related deaths.
    Dmitriev said he believed that Russia should follow examples of South Korea and Hong Kong – which have shown how testing can limit the coronavirus spread.
    For now, the fund and its partners are focusing on producing tests for companies which need them to test workers at towns where their big plants are located, so-called single-industry or “monotowns.”
    Dmitriev said that within a month, test kits for fast and mass public use would be ready, so people could order them at home via taxi and delivery service apps at tech companies Yandex and Mail.Ru .    Only a third of all tests will be exported.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Gleb Stolyarov and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Jane Merriman)
[Saudi Arabia and Russia's oil issue has backfired on them as gas prices and oil per barrel has decreased to $20+ a barrel and due to the coronavirus has most of the populaces in every country are not driving around using gasoline because everyone is staying home if possible to avoid contamination, and this could bankrupt Iran who cannot contain their virus deaths.].

3/27/2020 Thousands of Ukrainians wait at Polish border to get home
People queue to cross to Ukraine following planned border closing during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
at the border crossing in Dorohusk, Poland, March 27, 2020. Jakub Orzechowski/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Thousands of Ukrainians queued in long lines on Friday at the last three border crossings with Poland that remain open to get to their homeland before Ukraine closes its borders due to the coronavirus pandemic.
    Footage from private broadcaster TVN 24 showed crowds of people, many wearing face masks, waiting outside the railway station in the city of Przemysl to cross the border.
    “All this doesn’t meet the Sanepid (Sanitary Epidemiological Service) or Health Ministry recommendations.    The expanded restrictions ban gatherings of more than two people, allow only essential travel, and look what you see behind,” the mayor of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, said.
    Serhyi Tymchuk, a 32-year-old electrician, queued for hours at the border crossing in Korczowa before giving up and returning to his workplace in Leszno, central Poland.
    “Frankly speaking, I was shocked by what I saw at the border. … I have not seen such a horror,” he said.    “If people had followed the distance rule and stood 1.5 metres away from each other, the line would have reached Krakow.”
THOUSANDS PER DAY
    Around 3,500 people were lined up at the Korczowa crossing in southeastern Poland, 74 km (46 miles) west of the Ukrainian city of Lviv, to cross the border to Ukraine.
    “We are observing an exodus of Ukrainian citizens in recent days with 3,500 to 5,000 people leaving Poland via the Korczowa crossing a day,” said Major Elzbieta Pikor, a regional spokeswoman for the Polish border guard.
    Between 1 million and 2 million Ukrainians are estimated to live or work in Poland.    Many Ukrainian workers, who plug labour gaps in industries like construction and farming, enter Poland on temporary visas for a few months at a time and then return home.
    Poland last week closed its borders to foreigners in an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.    And with Ukraine to close its borders, too, on Friday night, many Ukrainians are trying to get home out of fear the border barriers will be closed for good.
    The last charter flights carrying Ukrainians returning from abroad are landing on Friday.    But authorities in Kiev have said that all citizens coming back from Poland who manage to get to the border will be allowed to cross it entering into Ukraine also after Friday.
(Reporting by Marcin Goclowski and Alan Charlish in Warsaw, Sergy Karazy and Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Olga Vyshnevska and Anna Dabrowska in Gdansk; Editing by Will Dunham and Leslie Adler)

3/27/2020 Russia calls U.S. sanctions on Venezuela a ‘tool of genocide’ amid epidemic
FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference
at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Friday U.S. “narco-terrorism” charges against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro were absurd, adding that sanctions on Caracas could become “a tool of genocide” amid the coronavirus outbreak.
    The U.S. government on Thursday indicted Maduro and more than a dozen other top Venezuelan officials on charges of “narco-terrorism,” the latest escalation of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign aimed at ousting the socialist leader.
    Russia, Maduro’s longtime political and financial backer, considers those accusations “absurd” and “wild” at a time when countries across the world join efforts to fight coronavirus, the Interfax news agency cited Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, as saying.
    “We can not stress enough our call for an immediate lifting of unilateral unlawful sanctions that are turning in the current epidemic into an instrument of genocide,” Zakharova was quoted as saying.
    Zakharova said Russia had supplied coronavirus test kits to Venezuela, which has reported 107 confirmed cases of the disease and that Moscow would continue helping Caracas to stop coronavirus spreading.
    President Donald Trump denied that the charges were an attempt to take advantage of Venezuela at a vulnerable time when it is expected to be hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Luc Cohen and Diane Craft)

3/27/2020 Belgium extends coronavirus lockdown period until April 19 by Philip Blenkinsop
A patient suffering from coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms arrives at a hospital
in Brussels, Belgium March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgium has extended a lockdown aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak by two weeks until April 19 and will crack down harder on those who flout social distancing rules, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes announced on Friday.
    She added the lockdown could be extended again for a further two weeks to May 3.    The new shutdown will include the two-week Easter holiday period for schools.
    “The scientists tell us that certain figures show a slowing of the exponential growth of the epidemic.    It’s good news,” she told a news conference.
    “But it is far too early to say with certainty that the epidemic is under control.    Our measures are just starting and if we relax them now the consequences could be dramatic,” she continued.
    The country of 11.5 million people has been steadily tightening a shutdown since March 13, when schools, restaurants and sporting venues were ordered to close for three weeks.    Last week, Belgians were limited to visiting shops selling food, pharmacies, a doctor, a post office or a bank.
    They are also allowed to exercise outside, such as going on a walk, run or cycle ride.
    Wilmes stressed this was not the moment to head to the countryside or the coast for the day or to sit in a park for hours.    People could leave their homes for exercise, but only for as long as the exercise lasted.
    “Those that do not respect these rules will face a penalty,” she said, adding a system of on-the-spot fines was also being set up.    “I know this only concerns a minority of people.    It is essential that everyone goes along with this very seriously.”
    Wilmes also said that people should only go to work if remote working was not possible.
    Belgium has 7,284 confirmed cases of coronavirus.    Some 3,042 people have been hospitalized and 289 have died.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Alex Richardson, Kirsten Donovan)

3/27/2020 Poll finds Russians split over allowing Putin to extend rule
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a video link, held by leaders from the Group of 20 to discuss the coronavirus
pandemic and its economic impacts, at his residence outside Moscow, Russia March 26, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is sharply divided over a constitutional change that would allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036, an opinion poll published on Friday has found.
    The poll by the Levada Centre found 6% of 1,624 people of different ages polled across Russia from March 19-25 said they were unable to answer the questions posed, while 47% opposed the measure and 48% supported it.
    Putin, 67, who has dominated the Russian political landscape as president or prime minister for two decades, maintains a high approval rating, although his trust rating has been sliding and hit a six-year low in February.
    The Moscow-based Levada Centre said 30% were categorically against the reform, with 17% inclined to oppose it, compared with 23% staunchly in favor and 25% inclined to support it.
    The proposed change, part of a package of reforms that has already been approved by parliament and Russia’s Constitutional Court, would reset Putin’s presidential term tally to zero, allowing him to serve two more back-to-back six year terms.
    Billboards urging Russians to take part in the nationwide vote have already gone up in many Russian towns and cities, but the nationwide vote scheduled for April 22 has been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis and no new date has been set.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Alexander Smith)

3/27/2020 Finland blocks roads to Helsinki to curb coronavirus spread
Police prepare to start the traffic control post near the boundary between Uusimaa region and Kanta-Hame region to prevent
the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hyvinkaa, Finland March 27, 2020. Lehtikuva/Heikki Saukkomaa via REUTERS
    HELSINKI (Reuters) – Police and the Finnish army set up roadblocks on all routes that connect Helsinki with the rest of the country, while Finland’s parliament approved the plan at the last moment to enforce the capital region’s coronavirus blockade by midnight on Friday.
    Finland’s government decided on Wednesday to issue a three-week blockade of the region around Helsinki, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Finland, to prevent people from travelling and spreading the virus elsewhere in the country.    But the decision needed parliament’s approval, which it granted unanimously late on Friday.
    Traffic began to jam towards evening on the motorways leading out from the capital region, Uusimaa, as police began blocking lanes with bollards and fences at roughly 30 makeshift checkpoints, local media reported.
    Meanwhile in Helsinki, legislators at the parliament debated the law throughout the evening as it got delayed due to constitutional technicalities earlier on Friday.
    Travelling to and from the Uusimaa region will be prohibited until April 19, with certain exceptions such as goods deliveries and indispensable work-related commuting.
    By Friday, authorities had counted seven deaths and 1,025 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Finland, most of them in the capital region.
    Last week, Finland restricted traffic across its borders, banned public meetings of more than 10 people, closed schools for most pupils and urged people to stay at home as much as possible.
    Earlier on Friday, the government decided to introduce stricter controls and 14-day quarantine rules for residents who return from abroad.
    Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Finland will also temporarily suspend its operations in Iraq, where some 80 Finnish soldiers have participated in international counter terrorism efforts by training Kurdish peshmerga troops, the Finnish army said.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Alex Richardson and Daniel Wallis)

3/28/2020 Poland to allow postal votes for elderly, those in quarantine by Alan Charlish
Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attends a parliament sitting following the
outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at parlaiment in Warsaw, Poland, March 27, 2020. Poland's parliament passed a law early on
Saturday allowing postal voting for senior citizens and those in quarantine or self-isolating as the government looks to press
ahead with May presidential elections which opposition parties want postponed. Slawomir Kamisnki/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS
    WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s parliament passed a law early on Saturday allowing postal voting for senior citizens and those in quarantine or self-isolating as the government looks to press ahead with May presidential elections which opposition parties want postponed.
    Poland is due to hold the first round of its presidential election on May 10, with incumbent Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, expected to win.
    Opposition parties have called for the vote to be postponed due to the coronavirus.
    “PiS at all costs is preparing for the election on May 10. It’s 2 a.m. …they want to change the electoral code,” Borys Budka, leader of the largest opposition party Civic Platform (PO) tweeted.
    PiS lawmakers said the change to the electoral code, an unexpected last-minute addition to a package of measures designed to shield the economy from the effects of the coronavirus, would help the election go ahead safely.
    “After several weeks of attacks that the election will endanger senior citizens and that those in quarantine will not be able to vote… of course, the opposition is vehemently attacking the amendment,” tweeted PiS lawmaker Marcin Horala.
ELECTRONIC VOTE
    Lawmakers voted online for the first time ever to pass the “anti-crisis shield” package after watching speakers in a largely empty chamber by video-link.
    Members of different parties were put into separate rooms in the parliament complex to vote on the package, which is worth over 200 billion zlotys ($49 billion), while others voted from home.
    Opposition lawmakers complained of problems logging in to the online voting system.
    “Our anti-crisis shield is a good instrument for this stage of coronavirus development… We must act quickly, we must act as soon as possible, we want to make these instruments work in the coming days,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday.
    The package comprises a mix of spending and liquidity measures designed to protect workers and companies from the effects of a crisis that economists fear could cost tens of millions of jobs around the globe.
    Poland has already introduced sweeping measures to limit the spread of the virus, closing schools, banning outside gatherings of more than two people, excluding families, and imposing a lockdown to prevent people leaving home except for essential purposes.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish, additional reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz and Agnieszka Barteczko; editing by Jason Neely)

3/28/2020 Rosneft sells Venezuela operations to Russian state firm by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Olesya Astakhova
FILE PHOTO: The Rosneft logo is pictured on a safety helmet in Vung Tau, Vietnam April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, said on Saturday it had terminated operations in Venezuela and sold the assets linked to its operations there to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government.
    It was not immediately clear if the move, announced at a time when oil prices are languishing at around $25 per barrel, would change much in practice or whether it was a legal move to protect Rosneft from U.S. sanctions.
    The United States earlier this year imposed sanctions on two Rosneft subsidiaries – Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading International, a Swiss-based unit of the company.
    The aim was to ramp up pressure on the Russian state oil giant, which U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said provided a financial lifeline to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom Washington has called on to step down.
    The change of ownership announced on Saturday means any future U.S. sanctions on Russian-controlled oil operations in Venezuela would target the Russian government directly.
    Kremlin-controlled Rosneft has a number of international shareholders, including oil major BP, which owns 19.75% in the company.    By withdrawing from Venezuela and passing its assets to an entity owned by Moscow, Rosneft, headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, transfers the risks related its Venezuelan operations to the Russian government.
    The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontiyev told Reuters the decision to terminate operations in Venezuela was meant to protect the company’s shareholders.
    “We defended the interests of our shareholders and did it in an effective way,” said Leontiyev.    “And to whom the risks go is not an issue for us.    The main thing is that the risks are leaving us.”
    Rosneft would not disclose the name of the company to which it had sold its Venezuelan operations.    A spokesman for the Russian government confirmed it had purchased Rosneft’s operations in Venezuela, but declined to say what company was involved in the deal.
    Rosneft said the Venezuelan assets sold include those in the joint ventures of Petromonagas, Petroperija, Boqueron, Petromiranda and Petrovictoria, as well as in oilfield services companies, commercial and trading operations, it said.
    Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and the country’s oil ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
    Russia’s ambassador to Venezuela, Sergei Melik-Bagdasarov, wrote on Twitter that the deal would allow the two countries to continue working together.
    “Don’t worry!    This is about the transfer of Rosneft’s assets in Venezuela to Russia’s government directly.    We will remain together going forward,” he wrote in a Tweet that was retweeted by Maduro.
    Rosneft said it would be receiving a settlement payment worth a 9.6% share of Rosneft’s equity capital that would be held by a subsidiary.
    Washington has long sought to isolate the socialist Venezuelan government as it seeks to pressure Maduro from power.
(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Darya Korsunskaya in Moscow, Luc Cohen in Caracas and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Giles Elgood)

3/28/2020 French chess team quarantined in Russia plan next move
Chess players from France look at the board during a game at a hospital in Murmansk, Russia March 28, 2020.
The tournament they were taking part in was quickly derailed when an Irish player was diagnosed with
the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), forcing other participants into quarantine. REUTERS/Stringer
    MURMANSK, Russia (Reuters) – When a group of French chess players traveled to the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk for a tournament this month, they didn’t expect to end up in quarantine and face delays in getting home.
    Hailing from the Ile-de-France region, the 14-strong group, which includes eight minors, arrived in Murmansk, 1,480 kilometers (920 miles) north of Moscow, on March 12 to play opponents from Russia, Ireland and the Netherlands.
    But the tournament was derailed when an Irish player was diagnosed with the coronavirus, forcing other participants into quarantine.
    Jurriaan Kien, an official accompanying the French players, told Reuters from quarantine in a Murmansk hospital on Saturday that the group are due to return to France on Monday despite Russia having grounded all international flights.
    He said that he had received assurances from the airline that their flight from Moscow had so far not been canceled.
    “We have a Plan B because we are chess players and always anticipate the next move,” Kien said.    “If for some reason we arrive in Moscow and we can’t leave, we will be hosted at the French embassy’s residence in Moscow.    They have already prepared 14 beds.”
    The group has kept a regular schedule while in quarantine, where they have all been tested three times for the virus and were found to be healthy. Each day they follow their school curriculum, practice English, hold a French dictation and play chess.
    Russia, which has recorded 1,264 cases of coronavirus, has halted all international flights and on Saturday said it would be closing all border checkpoints from Monday. [L8N2BL0EA]
    Chess grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, currently ranked eighth in the world, returned to France this week from a tournament in Yekaterinburg, a city 1,400 kilometers (885 miles) east of Moscow, just as all international flights were being suspended.
    Vachier-Lagrave was tied for the lead in the Candidates Tournament, which brought together contenders vying for the chance to challenge defending world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway for the world title, when it was abruptly suspended on Thursday because foreign participants were at risk of remaining stranded in Russia. [L8N2BJ88J]
    “We made the effort to come play because this is a very important tournament, but we knew there was a chance it would not be completed,” Vachier-Lagrave told Reuters from his home in Paris.    “You just have to remain calm and wait for the world to do better.    Then when everything is resolved, we can play chess again.”
(Reporting by Reuters TV and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Mike Harrison)

3/29/2020 Moscow says coronavirus outbreak enters new phase as residents go out to brave risk
FILE PHOTO: Women with protective masks, widely used as a preventive measure against coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walk
across Red Square near the St. Basil's Cathedral in central Moscow, Russia March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on Sunday that the coronavirus outbreak had entered a new phase as the total number of cases in the Russian capital exceeded 1,000 with many Muscovites going out despite a plea to stay home.
    Authorities in Moscow, Russia’s worst-affected area, shut shops and entertainment venues from Saturday and urged Muscovites to stay at home during the non-working week announced by President Vladimir Putin.
    But at least 52,000 people took walks in the city parks on Saturday, and many elderly people made long trips on the city’s vast public transportation network, Sobyanin said on his website.
    “The situation with the spread of coronavirus has entered a new phase.    More than 1,000 cases of the disease have already been recorded in Moscow.    Nobody is insured,” Sobyanin wrote.
    “An example of miserable Italian and Spanish cities, even New York, where tens and hundreds of people die every day, is in front of everyone’s eyes.”
    The official tally of confirmed cases in Russia rose by 270 in 24 hours, bringing the total to 1,534.    Nine people have died of the coronavirus, seven of which in Moscow.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Gleb Stolyarov, editing by Louise Heavens)

3/29/2020 Swiss govt says 257 dead from coronavirus, 14,336 tested positive
A sign reading "Stay at home. Please. All." is put up as part of protection measures against the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) on the trendy Idaplatz square in Zurich, Switzerland March 28, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
    VIENNA (Reuters) – The Swiss death toll from coronavirus has reached 257, the country’s public health agency said on Sunday, up from 235 people the previous day.
    The number of confirmed cases also increased to 14,336 from 13,213 on Saturday, it said.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle, editing by Louise Heavens)

3/29/2020 Polish presidential challenger urges boycott of May vote, halts campaign by Alan Charlish and Anna Koper
FILE PHOTO: Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw, Poland February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo
    WARSAW (Reuters) – The main Polish opposition candidate running for president called on Sunday for a boycott of the country’s May election due to the coronavirus and completely suspended her campaign, adding to doubts about whether the vote will go ahead as planned.
    The ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party has so far defied calls to postpone the May 10 election, infuriating the opposition by introducing postal voting rules less than six months before the vote in a move branded unconstitutional by critics.
    “Let’s boycott these elections. Poles stay home, your life is the most important thing,” Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the presidential candidate of the center right Civic Platform (PO) party, told reporters, calling on other candidates to suspend their campaigns.
    Her appeal followed protests from numerous mayors, who have said it will be impossible to hold the vote safely in May.
    On Sunday, the mayor of the southern town of Bedzin, Lukasz Komoniewski, wrote on Facebook that he would not sign documents to allow elections to take place there.
    Incumbent President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, is well ahead in the polls and his election is crucial to the government’s hopes of implementing its socially conservative agenda as the president holds the power to veto laws.
    Critics say PiS is keen to hold the elections in May to capitalize on Duda’s current strong position and avoid a later election where the fallout from the pandemic could dent his popularity.
    Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, the agrarian Polish Peasants’ Party’s (PSL) presidential candidate, was quoted by state-run news agency PAP as saying he was focusing on amendments to the government’s package of anti-crisis economic measures.
    The campaign manager of left-wing candidate Robert Biedron likened Kidawa-Blonska’s move to “political retirement,” PAP reported.
    On Saturday, Duda said he hoped the election would go ahead as planned but the situation was unpredictable.
    “If it did happen that the epidemic was raging … then in that situation the election date could turn out to be unsustainable, but I am counting on it that we will be able to calmly hold these elections,” he told state-run news channel TVP Info.
    Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski said on Thursday that an assessment should be made in two weeks.
    Nearly three-quarters of Poles believe the election should be postponed, according to an opinion poll on Wednesday.
    France and Bavaria in Germany held local elections on March 15. Jaroslaw Flis, a sociologist with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, estimates that the Bavarian elections resulted in around 2,000 extra coronavirus cases.
    France postponed the second round of its local elections.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Anna Koper; editing by Nick Macfie, Jane Merriman and Giles Elgood)

3/30/2020 Austria to ban tourist stays at hotels to stem coronavirus spread
FILE PHOTO: A man walks past an almost empty train station, during the coronavirus
disease (COVID-10) outbreak, in Vienna, Austria March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is banning the use of hotels for tourism as part of wide-ranging efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus with Easter holidays approaching, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said on Monday.
    “A third point are hotels, with regard to the Easter holidays … We want to stop the touristic use of hotels for this phase,” Anschober told a government news conference.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Catherine Evans)

3/30/2020 Swiss coronavirus death toll nears 300, positive tests approach 15,500
FILE PHOTO: Civil defence workers wearing protection masks check the papers of a driver of a car before he
can enter a drive-in test center for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Luzern, Switzerland March 27, 2020.
The sign reads: "Only on advance notification.    Close windows." REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
    ZURICH (Reuters) – The Swiss death toll from coronavirus has reached 295 people, the country’s public health bureau said on Monday, rising from 257 people on Sunday.
    The number of confirmed cases increased to 15,475 from 14,336 on Sunday, it said.    The government is due to give an update later on Monday on the epidemic situation.
(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Michael Shields)

3/30/2020 Austria to make basic face masks compulsory in supermarkets
Loaves of French baguettes are displayed in a shopwindow while a person wears a protective mask inside a bakery, as the
spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Vienna, Austria, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
    VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria will require the public to wear basic face masks in supermarkets, where they will be handed out probably from Wednesday in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday.
    “As of the moment these masks are handed out in front of supermarkets it will be compulsory to wear them in supermarkets,” Kurz said, adding that the aim in the medium term was for people to wear them in public more generally as well.    The so-called MNS masks are below medical grade, he said.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Catherine Evans)

3/30/2020 Russia weighs nationwide coronavirus lockdown after Moscow acts by Maxim Rodionov and Tom Balmforth
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin chairs a meeting, dedicated to the measures to stop the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19),
in Moscow, Russia March 27, 2020. Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin asked regional governors to consider introducing a partial lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus after Russia on Monday recorded its biggest one-day rise in cases for the sixth day in a row.
    Russia’s official nationwide tally of coronavirus cases rose by 302 on Monday, taking the total to 1,836. Nine people across Russia have died, the authorities say.
    Authorities in Moscow have ordered residents to stay at home from Monday, their toughest move yet to slow the spread of the virus after the number of official cases in the Russian capital passed the 1,000 mark.
    Mishustin said he thought the measures now needed to be rolled out nationwide.
    “I ask the leaders of (Russia’s regions) to pay attention to (Moscow’s) experience and to work out the possibility of introducing such measures in their regions,” he said.
    Some regions, like Russia’s Arctic region of Murmansk, which shares a border with Finland and Norway, have already acted, while most others in the world’s largest country by territory have yet to do so.
    Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, said 20% of residents were ignoring his order to self-isolate, but that he hoped an IT system would be operational by the end of the week that would allow authorities to control the movement of people.
    Muscovites are only allowed to go out to buy food or medicines at their nearest shop, get urgent medical treatment, walk the dog, or take out the bins, under the new rules.
    “This may now seem to some of you like some kind of game, a kind of Hollywood thriller.    This is no game…,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council, said in a video address.
    “Unfortunately, what is happening now is a real threat to all of us and to all of human civilization,” said Medvedev, who was prime minister until earlier this year.
    Russia has so far got off more lightly than many European countries, but some doctors have voiced scepticism about the accuracy of its figures given what they say has been the patchy nature and quality of testing, allegations that the authorities deny.
    According to a survey by the Levada Center, only 16% of Russians fully trust official information about the coronavirus, while 24% said they did not trust it at all.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/30/2020 Georgia PM declares curfew starting Tuesday to halt coronavirus spread
FILE PHOTO: Georgian servicemen wearing protective masks walk at a check point, after authorities tightened up measures to prevent
the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Marneuli near Tbilisi, Georgia March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze/File Photo
    TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgia will impose an overnight curfew, close its public transport, including metro system, and ban gatherings of more than three people from Tuesday to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said on Monday.
    Travel between cities and smaller towns by public transport will be banned and gatherings of more than three people will be allowed only in groceries and pharmacies, but with social distancing rules in place.
    All citizens should carry their IDs when going out, people aged over 70 are only allowed to leave home to go to the nearest grocery or pharmacy, but residents can use taxis and private cars for moving around.
    Gakharia added that special checkpoints would be set up in the capital Tbilisi and six other big cities across the country to screen people and enforce the rules.
    The South Caucasus country of 3.7 million had reported 100 cases of coronavirus as of Monday with no deaths and 18 patients recovered.    It had already declared a state of emergency for a month from March 21.
    The International Monetary Fund on Monday said it was working closely with Georgian authorities to provide additional financing for their efforts to limit the shock of the pandemic to the economy.    It said IMF financing should also catalyze support from other donors.
    Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said that around 800 penitentiary system inspectors, including guards, would stay in prisons and be housed in special facilities to try to avoid bringing the virus into jails.
    Georgia had already closed its borders, banned foreign citizens from entering, stopped passenger traffic on its railway and completely halted air traffic with other countries.
    It has also closed all shops except for groceries, pharmacies and petrol stations and shut winter resorts, restaurants, cafes, casinos, nightclubs and gyms.
    In neighbouring Azerbaijan the number of people infected with coronavirus rose to 273 as of Monday, four of whom died and 26 recovered.
    Armenia reported 482 cases of coronavirus, the highest number in the South Caucasus region.    Two more patients died over the weekend, bringing the death toll to three.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze. Additional reporting by Nailia Bagirova in Baku and Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan; Editing by Catherine Evans, Keith Weir and Jonathan Oatis)

3/30/2020 Russian regions join coronavirus lockdown as toll rises by Maxim Rodionov and Tom Balmforth
A woman wearing a protective mask rides in a metro train, after the city authorities announced a partial lockdown ordering residents
to stay at home to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Moscow, Russia March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – More than a dozen Russian regions including the city of St Petersburg introduced a partial lockdown on Monday after Russia recorded its biggest one-day rise in coronavirus cases for the sixth day in a row.
    Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had told Russia’s more than 80 regions to consider ordering people to stay at home after the official tally of coronavirus cases rose by 302 to 1,836.    Nine people have died, authorities say.
    Moscow’s authorities have already ordered residents to stay at home, and Mishustin said he thought the measures now needed to be rolled out nationwide.
    “I ask the leaders of (Russia’s regions) to pay attention to (Moscow’s) experience and to work out the possibility of introducing such measures in their regions,” he said.
    President Vladimir Putin said decisive measures had helped Russia win time in its battle to contain the virus and to prevent an explosive infection rate, but that it was vital authorities used that time effectively.
    “This work must be done in reality, I would like to underline this – in reality and not just on paper or for reports. No exceptions whatsoever,” Putin told regional heads in comments broadcast on state television.
    At least 14 regions, including Kaliningrad, Tatarstan and the Arctic region of Murmansk, which shares a border with Finland and Norway, heeded the call.    Others have implemented different measures.
    The southern, mainly Muslim region of Chechnya has imposed an entry ban, while several towns run by state nuclear corporation Rosatom that are closed to foreigners have imposed further entry restrictions.
    Murmansk region has restricted entry to the towns of Kirovsk and Apatity where fertiliser producer Phosagro has plants and to other, small industrial settlements.    The northern region of Karelia has prohibited the elderly from using public transport.
    Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin ally, said 20% of residents were ignoring his order to self-isolate, but that he hoped an IT system would be operational by the end of the week that would allow authorities to control the movement of people.
    Under the new rules, Muscovites are allowed to go out only to buy food or medicines at their nearest shop, get urgent medical treatment, walk the dog, or take out the bins.
    “This may now seem to some of you like some kind of game, a kind of Hollywood thriller.    This is no game…,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council, said in a video address.
    “Unfortunately, what is happening now is a real threat to all of us and to all of human civilisation,” said Medvedev, a former president who was prime minister until earlier this year.
    Some doctors have voiced scepticism about the accuracy of Russia’s coronavirus figures given what they say has been the patchy nature and quality of testing, allegations that the authorities deny.
(Additional reporting by Anastasiya Lyrchikova and Polina Ivanova, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Ken Ferris)

3/30/2020 Denmark eyes gradual reopening after Easter if coronavirus numbers stabilize
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen speaks during a news conference on COVID-19 coronavirus disease
at her office in Copenhagen, Denmark, March 30, 2020. Ritzau Scanpix/Martin Sylvest via REUTERS
    COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Denmark may gradually lift a lockdown after Easter if the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths remain stable, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Monday.
    The Nordic country, which has reported 77 coronavirus-related deaths, last week extended until after Easter a two-week lockdown to limit physical contact between its citizens that began on March 11.
    “Over the past week the number of hospital admissions has risen slightly slower than the week before and without the explosion in the numbers that we have seen in other countries,” Frederiksen told a news conference.
    Last week, the number of hospitalizations for coronavirus in Denmark roughly doubled from 254 to 533, whereas admissions in the week before that more than tripled from the previous week, according to data from the Danish Health Authority.
    The number of daily deaths slowed to five on Sunday from eight and 11 on Saturday and Friday respectively.    Denmark has reported a total of 2,577 coronavirus infections.
    “If we over the next two weeks across Easter keep standing together by staying apart, and if the numbers remain stable for the next two weeks, then the government will begin a gradual, quiet and controlled opening of our society again, at the other side of Easter,” Frederiksen said.
    Denmark has imposed less strict limits on daily life than in Italy or France where people are only free to leave their homes to buy groceries, go to work if essential or seek medical care.
    But the Danish approach has been considerably tougher than that of neighboring fellow European Union country Sweden, which remains largely open for business.
    Danish authorities have restricted public assembly to 10 or fewer people, ordered the closure of schools, universities, day cares, restaurants, cafes, libraries, gyms and hair salons, and shut all borders to most foreigners.
    A reopening would probably include people attending schools and work in shifts to avoid rush-hour traffic and too many people gathering in public at the same time, Frederiksen said.
    “We do see signs that we have succeeded in delaying the transmission of corona in Denmark.    The transmission is spreading slower than feared,” she said.
    Frederiksen said she hoped to be able to present a plan for the first phase of a reopening by the end of this week after consultation with the other parties in government.
    More than 738,400 people have been infected by the coronavirus worldwide and 35,006 have died, according to a Reuters tally.    The countries that have suffered the most deadly outbreaks are both in Europe – Italy and Spain.
(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Andreas Mortensen and Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)

3/30/2020 Finland extends coronavirus restrictions by one month: PM
File Photo: Prime Minister Sanna Marin attends a news conference on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Helsinki, Finland March 17, 2020. Lehtikuva/Mikko Stig via REUTERS
    HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland will extend its earlier measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak by one month until May 13 from April 13, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Monday.
    In the past weeks, Finland has closed roads from Helsinki to the rest of the country, restricted traffic across its borders, banned public meetings of more than 10 people, closed schools for most pupils and urged people to stay at home as much as possible.[L8N2BK8NG]
    By Monday, Finnish authorities had confirmed 1,313 COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths in the Nordic country.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Chris Reese)

3/30/2020 Czech Cabinet maintaining ban on restaurants, movement for longer
Women wearing face masks walk on the Vltava river bank as the spread of the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) continues in Prague, Czech Republic, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech government is extending measures to curb the coronavirus outbreak by keeping most shops and restaurants closed and limiting people’s movements until April 11, its press office said on Monday.
    The bans, which had been set to end April 1, still allow grocery stores, pharmacies, drugstores, gas stations and others to operate, and allow travel to work or to visit family.
    The Czech Republic has also shut borders and ordered people moving around outside to wear masks as it seeks to limit the spread of the virus.
    The country has reported 2,896 cases of coronavirus since the first infections were announced on March 1.    Seventeen people have died in connection with the virus.
(Reporting by Robert Muller, Editing by Michael Kahn and Jonathan Oatis)

3/30/2020 Hungary’s PM wins emergency powers to fight coronavirus by Marton Dunai and Krisztina Than
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a business
conference in Budapest, Hungary, March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo
    BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s parliament granted nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree on Monday to fight the coronavirus, ignoring calls by opponents and rights groups to put a timeframe on the extra powers.
    President Janos Ader, an Orban ally, signed the legislation extending a state of emergency after it was approved by parliament, dominated by Orban’s Fidesz party. Ader said it was in line with international treaties and Hungary’s constitution.
    The law has triggered criticism from opposition parties, rights groups and the Council of Europe, Europe’s main rights forum, because it does not set a specific limit on the time the additional powers will be in force.
    It also imposes jail terms of up to five years on those hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information that could upset people or hinder the fight against the virus.
    Rights groups said this might be used to muzzle journalists as remaining independent media are forced to cut staff and budgets while media loyal to the government continue to receive taxpayers’ money.
    Since he took power in 2010, Orban has built media he can control, using legal levers, ownership changes and advertising money for more loyal media coverage.    The economic impact of the coronavirus could accelerate the shake-up of the media, journalists say.
    The government has rejected the criticism, saying the law empowers it to adopt only measures needed to fight the virus, and that parliament can revoke the special powers.
    “This is an authorization limited both in time and scope … as it is solely related to the coronavirus, and you are crying a dictatorship,” state secretary Bence Retvari told opposition parties before the vote.
    Justice Minister Judit Varga said it was “very damaging fake news” that the law is intended to neutralize the national assembly.
    Orban, who has gradually increased his power in a decade in office, has often been in conflict with the European Union and rights organizations over his perceived erosion of democratic checks and balances and the rule of law.
    Opposition lawmakers said they back the government’s overall fight against the coronavirus but wanted a time limit placed on the government’s special powers, which parliament can extend if necessary.    Parliament rejected all opposition amendments.
    President Ader said the government’s special authorization would end once the epidemic is over and was limited to dealing with the epidemic and its fallout.
    “The controlling role of Parliament and the government’s duty to report will remain in place during the epidemic,” Ader said.    Hungary has reported 447 coronavirus cases and 15 deaths.
INDEPENDENT MEDIA AT RISK
    Some media companies, facing severe short-term liquidity problems, have already scrapped plans for 2020.
    Central Media, one of Hungary’s largest media groups, has put journalists on reduced hours and cut salaries by up to a quarter, several sources told Reuters.
    Pesti Hirlap, a tabloid, has told staff it will cut jobs and switched to online-only mode.    Executives at HVG, a weekly that also runs a popular web site, warned staff of budget cuts, according to several sources.
    “Press freedom could fall victim to the coronavirus,” Miklos Hargitai, chair of the Hungarian Journalists Association (MUOSZ), told Reuters.
    State media have an annual budget of around 90 billion forints ($280 million).    The public media budget is not affected by the crisis this year, a government spokesman said.
    Loyal outlets receive state advertisements regardless of their audience size, data shows.
    “The coronavirus epidemic will have a devastating effect on Hungarian independent media,” said Agnes Urban, director of the Mertek Media Monitor think tank.    “This can become critical for independent outlets within 2-3 months as most lack a rich owner.”
(Additional reporting by Anita Komuves; Editing by Alison Williams and Timothy Heritage)

3/31/2020 Czech Republic’s coronavirus infections top 3,000
A woman wearing a face mask sits on a swing as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
continues in Prague, Czech Republic, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/David W Cerny
    PRAGUE (Reuters) – The tally of coronavirus infections in the Czech Republic has exceeded 3,000, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, after recording 184 new cases the previous day.
    The country, which has carried out more than 43,000 tests and is ramping up daily testing, has reported the largest number of cases among central European states, but far fewer than bigger western neighbors, such as Germany.
    The ministry reported a total of 3,001 cases by the end of Monday, with 23 deaths, while 25 people have recovered.
(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

3/31/2020 Putin sending medical supplies to help U.S. fight coronavirus: IFX
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony, which awards constructors of the Crimean
Bridge over the Kerch Strait, in Sevastopol, Crimea March 18, 2020. Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is sending the United States medical equipment to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, the Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday, citing the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
    President Vladimir Putin made the proposal in a phone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday, when they discussed the coronavirus and oil markets, directing their energy ministers to speak.
    “Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Interfax quoted Peskov as saying.    A Russian plane with medical and protective equipment may leave for the United States on Tuesday, he added.
    Confirmed U.S. cases have surged to nearly 180,000 with 16,000 new positive tests reported on Tuesday.    For a second day in a row, the United States recorded more than 500 new deaths as the total climbed to nearly 3,600, according to a Reuters tally of officially reported data.
    The state of relations between Moscow and Washington has been complicated in recent years due to U.S. sanctions on some of Russian companies in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, among other strains.
    In the process of agreeing on the details for the medical supply on Tuesday, “it seems that some on the American side at least did not contribute to the prompt resolution of technical issues in accordance with the agreements of the two presidents,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
    “It is important to note that when offering assistance to the U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” he added.
    He also said that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way now as “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception …, there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance.”
    Washington has said that Trump and Putin agreed in the call it was important to stabilize the global energy markets.    This helped to steady oil prices on Tuesday, which are still near 18-year lows as the coronavirus hits global demand.
(Reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alison Williams)

3/31/2020 Russian doctor who met Putin last week diagnosed with coronavirus
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with the hospital's chief physician
Denis Protsenko during a visit to the hospital for patients, infected with coronavirus disease (COVID-19),
on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia March 24, 2020. Sputnik/Alexey Druzhinin/Kremlin/File Photo via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – A doctor who gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a tour of Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital last week said on Tuesday he had himself been diagnosed with the virus.
    Putin visited the Kommunarka hospital last Tuesday where he chatted to the doctor, Denis Protsenko.    Neither man was wearing protective equipment during their conversation, TV footage from the visit showed.
    Protsenko, writing on Facebook said: “Yes, I have tested positive for coronavirus, but I feel pretty good.    I’ve isolated myself in my office.    I think the immunity I’ve developed this month is doing its job.”
    The Kremlin said that Putin was being regularly tested for coronavirus and that “everything is okay,” the RIA news agency reported.
    It has previously said that Putin is being protected from viruses and other illnesses “around the clock
    Putin donned a hazmat suit and a respirator during his visit to the hospital last week when dropping in on patients. But he did not have his protective gear on during a meeting with Protsenko, with whom he was photographed shaking hands.
    The Kremlin reported a coronavirus case in Putin’s administration on Friday, but said the person in question had not come into contact with the president and that all measures were being taken to prevent the virus from spreading further.
    Russian lawmakers on Tuesday granted the government powers to declare a national emergency over the coronavirus, and approved penalties for violations of lockdown rules including, in extreme cases, jail terms of up to seven years.
(Reporting by Polina Devitt, Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

3/31/2020 Grounded cabin crew get hospital training as Sweden battles coronavirus
Rasmus Saveman, furloughed SAS steward, attends a three-day healthcare crash course at Sophiahemmet
University in Stockholm, Sweden March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Philip O'Connor NO RESALES NO ARCHIVES
    STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Furloughed crew from crisis-hit Scandinavian airline SAS are taking a three-day course in basic hospital duties to help plug gaps in a Swedish healthcare system strained by thousands of coronavirus cases.
    The airline, part owned by the governments of Sweden and Denmark, temporarily laid off 10,000 staff – 90% of its workforce – this month to cut costs and ride out a plunge in air travel due the pandemic and related border closures.
    With Stockholm’s healthcare system in need of reinforcement as cases rise, Sophiahemmet University Hospital is teaching former cabin crew skills such as sterilizing equipment, making hospital beds and providing information to patients and their relatives.
    The first students are due to complete the course on Thursday and the response has been overwhelming.
    “We now have a long, long list of healthcare providers that are just waiting for them,” said Johanna Adami, principal at the University.    Airlines in Australia, and the U.S. have also enquired about using the training methods for their staff.
    She said municipalities, hospitals and nursing homes have all been queuing up to employ the re-trained staff, who will number around 300 in the coming weeks.    Adami said airline staff were particularly suited to helping in the healthcare sector.
    “They have basic healthcare education from their work.    They are also very experienced to be flexible and think about security and also to handle complicated situations,” she said.
    Sweden has around 4,500 confirmed cases of the virus and 180 deaths, with the capital especially hard hit.
    Healthcare officials in Stockholm have scrambled to set up a temporary hospital in a convention center and warned of a lack off staff and safety equipment to meet the crisis.
    Malin Ohman, 25, a airline stewardess from northern Sweden was in the first class of students.
    “In the a blink of an eye I decided – ‘yes of course, why wouldn’t I’,” she said of her decision to retrain.    “I felt that we could just contribute with something,” she added.
    The course is free of charge and the companies involved with the training are not seeking to make a profit.    Funding, about 7 million Swedish crowns ($698,000) is provided by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg foundation.
(Reporting by Johan Ahlander and Philip O´Connor; editing by Niklas Pollard and Alexandra Hudson)

3/31/2020 Dutch PM Rutte says schools, restaurants to stay shut till April 28
FILE PHOTO: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks during his news conference with newly appointed
Health Minister Hugo De Jonge, who is taking over the function from Bruno Bruins since he resigned during the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the Hague, Netherlands March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Eva Plevier
    AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Tuesday all schools, restaurants, and gyms would remain closed until at least April 28, and he urged the nation to continue to respect all measures introduced to help counter the coronavirus outbreak.
    Rutte’s government on March 15 had ordered schools closed until April 6.    A ban on public gatherings was strengthened last week and extended until June.
    “Even after April 28 it will be a while before we get back to normal, don’t make plans for the May holidays,” Rutte told a news conference in The Hague, at which he also urged people to adhere to social distancing rules.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Gareth Jones)

3/31/2020 EU warns Hungary not to flout democracy with coronavirus laws
FILE PHOTO: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presents the EU executive's economic response
to the coronavirus epidemic, in Brussels, Belgium March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union warned Hungary on Tuesday that emergency measures adopted by its nationalist government to fight the coronavirus crisis must not undercut democracy.
    Hungary’s parliament on Monday granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban an open-ended right to rule by decree and introduced jail sentences for anyone hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information about the pandemic.
    “It is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values … democracy cannot work without free and independent media,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
    “Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate.    They must not last indefinitely … governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny,” she said in a statement.
    The Commission, the EU’s executive body, said it would analyse Hungary’s law and monitor its implementation.    Hungary has already raised the Commission’s hackles by expanding state control over the media, academics and rights groups.
    Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the law was “congruent with the (EU) treaties and Hungarian constitution, and targeted exclusively at fighting the coronavirus."
    “It upholds EU values, rule of law, press freedom,” he tweeted in response to the Commission’s comments.
    In Hungary’s euroskeptic ally Poland, the government has already restricted movement and economic activity through executive decrees.
    It could have declared a legal “state of natural disaster” but this might have called into question a presidential election being held on May 10, in which the incumbent, allied to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, leads in the opinion polls.
    Both Poland and Hungary – formerly communist countries on the EU’s eastern flank – are involved in running battles with Brussels, which accuses them of undermining the EU’s basic democratic principles.
    Liberal EU lawmakers from the Renew Europe faction allied to French President Emmanuel Macron derided the bloc’s failure to safeguard checks-and-balances in Hungary after years of tussles that have mostly failed to make Orban to change tack.
    “The current coronavirus crisis should not be used as a smokescreen for abusing power,” said Dacian Ciolos, a Romanian member of the European Parliament and the head of Renew faction.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Jason Neely, Kevin Liffey and David Clarke)

3/31/2020 Dutch 101-year-old coronavirus patient recovers
Dutch health workers admit a patient at a hospital, as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
continues, in Uden, Netherlands, March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo
    THE HAGUE (Reuters) – A 101-year-old woman who contracted coronavirus in the Netherlands has recovered, offering what her hospital said was “a spark of hope.”
    The woman, whose name was not released, was admitted to the IJsselland Hospital near Rotterdam a week and a half ago with breathing difficulties and tested positive for coronavirus.
    She was kept in isolation but has now recovered enough to leave hospital.    The centenarian, who lives independently, will rest in a nursing home before returning to her home, the hospital said on its website.
    “She is a tough lady, and it’s great to see her following the medical advice, like sneezing in her elbow and even telling me to keep proper distance,” pulmonologist Sunil Ramlal said.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Giles Elgood)

    This page created on 1/1/2020, and updated each month by 1/31/2020, 2/29/2020, 3/31,2020.

Please close this window when done, or select the previous tab or back button to return to previous page.
Or return to the Table of Contents - Chapter Eight or
Or return to the Astronomical Events To Appear Between 2014 Through 2017 A.D.
Or return to the Beast That Came Out Of The Sea or
2011-2022 ????? Unknown future of the Sixth group of Twelve years
Or continue to King Of The North in 2020 April-June