Archive for March, 2014

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage on why he admires Vladimir Putin

Nigel Farage Visits PragueVladimir Putin is the world leader who is most admired by the head of Britain’s anti-European Union party because of the Russian president’s “brilliant” handling of the Syria crisis, Nigel Farage said in an interview published on Monday.

“The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant. Not that I approve of him politically. How many journalists in jail now?” the head of Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) was quoted as saying.

Putin has kept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, repeatedly blocked U.N. attempts to condemn him and supplied arms for the government side in a civil war in which over 100,000 people have died.

Farage also derided German chancellor Angela Merkel, calling her “miserable” and “cold”.

The most powerful female politician in the world got short shrift from Farage, who said: “She is incredibly cold. I always say – I agree this is a bit rude – but whatever you think of the public image of Merkel, in private she is even more miserable.”

Speaking to Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alistair Campbell for GQ magazine, Farage explained: “I warm to more extrovert people.”

Britain’s top politicians also got a verbal lashing from the 49-year-old former trader. Labour’s leader Ed Miliband was described as “unworldly”; PM David Cameron as a “perfectly nice fellow who stands four square for nothing”; while Nick Clegg was “just wrong”.

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who last week went head-to-head with Farage in a televised policy debate about Europe, heavily criticised Farage’s comments.

“I just think it’s utterly grotesque that Nigel Farage apparently admires… Vladimir Putin, who has been the chief sponsor and protector of one of the most brutal dictators of the face of the planet, President Assad,” Clegg told reporters.

Farage, a former commodities trader who revels in stoking controversy, has lambasted the EU for its handling of the Ukraine crisis, saying the bloc had provoked Russia into intervention in its neighbour and had “blood on its hands”.

Those comments also drew censure from Britain’s political establishment, which accused Farage of being an apologist for Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea Russian-majority region after mass protests toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president.

Western countries say Russia’s annexation of Crime is illegal under international law and have imposed punitive sanctions on Moscow.

 

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Anne Hidalgo claims victory in Paris mayor race

Anne HidalgoAnne Hidalgo, the leftist deputy of the outgoing mayor Betrand Delanoe, has been elected as Paris’ first female mayor in Sunday’s run-off vote, according to exit polls. The left’s grip on Paris was an exception in a night otherwise dominated so far by a series of setbacks in other regions.

“Make Paris an exemplary city where creativity and innovation will serve to live better together,” Hidalgo said after being declared the next mayor of the capital. “Make Paris an ecological city, make renewable energy a reality, let’s remodel the city’s open spaces, push the parametres. Let’s give the world the face of desire, beauty and serenity.”

The socialist candidate beat her conservative UMP rival Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former ecology minister and a protégé of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, with more than 54 per cent of the vote, exit polls indicated.

For much of the campaign season, polls had shown Hidalgo, 54, a clear frontrunner in a pool of varied candidates.

However, in the first round of votes last weekend, Kosciusko-Morizet, of referred to by just her initials NKM, unexpectedly came out with 35.64 percent of the vote compared to Hidalgo’s 34.4 percent.

But with neither candidate garnering more than 50 percent of the vote, today’s historic vote pitted the two women against each other once more.

After 13 years as Delanoe’s deputy, Hidalgo will now sit at the helm of the city’s political scene, often said to be a stepping stone to the French presidency.

Hidalgo will govern more than 2 million residents and manage a budget of some 8 billion euros.

As the daughter of Spanish immigrants, Hidalgo moved to the French city of Lyon at the age of two in 1961 and became a naturalised French citizen at the age of 14.

While her family first settled in public housing, Hidalgo climbed the rungs to become somewhat of a rarity on the French political scene.

In France, only 27 percent of MPs in the National Assembly are women and 22 percent of the representatives in the upper house are female, setting the 2014 elections up to be anomaly with two female top contenders.

The two leading parties, the Socialists and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) have paid fines rather than introduce gender quotas or balance the gender ratio among candidates.

Running on a campaign slogan ‘A Paris, that dares,’ Hidalgo has tabled an array of solutions to fight common urban ills such as socioeconomic disparities, unemployment and rising housing prices.

Hidalgo said she plans to building 10,000 new homes a year, create more green spaces and add 5,000 more day-care spaces to help the thousands of families grappling to find affordable childcare.

She’d also like to improve public transportation options while phasing out diesel vehicles in Paris by 2020 and create a sharing moped scheme to add onto Paris popular bicycle and car sharing programmes.

With a paltry number of women governing cities worldwide, Hidalgo joins the likes of Madrid mayor Ana Botella, Cape Town’s Patricia de Lille and Santiago’s Carolina Toha.

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John Kerry, Russia envoy to talk on Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers ride on military armoured personnel carriers as they take part in a military exercise near KharkivU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov today in a bid to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, as a Kremlin demand for Ukrainian neutrality may quash its European Union ambitions.

Russia wants Ukraine to grant greater powers to its regions, have a non-aligned status outside NATO and make Russian a second official language, Lavrov said in a statement on his ministry’s website yesterday. He’s meeting Kerry this evening in Paris after the Russian and U.S. presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama spoke by phone on March 28.

Putin may be changing tack a week after signing laws to annex Crimea from Ukraine in Europe’s worst political crisis since the Cold War. Fearing that pro-Kremlin troops massing on Ukraine’s borders may invade the ex-Soviet state, the U.S. and EU have threatened to intensify sanctions on Russia’s military, energy and financial industries if Putin doesn’t back down. Russia’s proposal may be a hard sell for Ukraine’s political leaders, who are facing off for a May 25 presidential election.

With emerging-market stocks rallying amid confidence in the global economy, Russia shrugged off concern that an extended confrontation over Ukraine will weigh on the economy. It rose 0.9 percent to 1,344.12 by the close in Moscow on March 28, a 2.8 percent increase in five days. The Ukrainian crisis has pushed the benchmark Micex Index down 11 percent this year.

In Ukraine, the UDAR party threw its support behind billionaire ex-Economy Minister Petro Poroshenko yesterday to represent democratic forces in the election, said party leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world boxing champion. In doing so, Klitschko abandoned a presidential bid and declared his intention to run for Kiev mayor instead.

Poroshenko has the highest rating among potential candidates, ahead of Batkivshchyna Party leader Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who was freed from prison last month. Ukraine’s government is grappling with dwindling reserves, a weakening currency, and an economy threatening to slide into a third recession in six years.

Russia, the U.S. and EU nations are moving toward a joint initiative that may be submitted to Ukraine, Lavrov said yesterday in comments published on his ministry’s website.

Kerry diverted a planned flight home from Saudi Arabia after speaking with Lavrov yesterday. Obama has asked for a written response from Putin to a plan that Kerry presented to Lavrov in The Hague last week, according to a White House statement.

Backed by coverage from Russian state-run news channels that depict Ukraine as spiraling into chaos, Putin’s government argues the annexation of Crimea saved the region from being overrun by fascists who are in control in Kiev and are oppressing the country’s Russian-speaking minority.

Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has vetoed a law that would have eliminated Russian as a second official language, with the government denying that the rights of Russian speakers are under threat.

Obama told Putin that a diplomatic solution “remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” the White House said.

“We have absolutely no intentions or interest in crossing the borders of Ukraine,” Lavrov said. “We only really insist on working collectively and on putting an end to the outrages that western countries are sweeping under the rug.”

Russia’s Baa1 government bond rating may be cut by Moody’s Investors Service, the ratings company said in a statement after the close of U.S. markets March 28. The move was triggered by a weakening of Russia’s economy and uncertainty created by the Ukraine conflict, Moody’s said in a statement.

The talk between Putin and Obama marked their fifth conversation since the Ukrainian crisis deepened with last month’s ouster of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.

For his part, Putin highlighted a “rampage of extremists” intimidating officials and residents “in various regions,” according to a statement from his office. The Russian president’s statement indicated he’s willing to examine “steps the global community can take” to stabilize Ukraine.

The White House didn’t detail what plan Kerry and Lavrov discussed. In previous meetings, Kerry called for talks between Russia and Ukraine’s government with international participation, and sending monitors into Ukraine, including Crimea. Russia would be able to keep its bases on the Black Sea peninsula as long as Ukraine’s sovereignty was respected.

Russia faces “a raft of new measures” that “would seriously hurt the Russian economy” if they push further into Ukraine, U.K. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said today.

“We’re concerned that there might be a further incursion in the territory of a sovereign nation,” Hammond said. “Whether there is or there isn’t, we all ought to be concerned about the use of this very crude and blunt instrument try to influence other nations and their behavior. We thought we’d seen the end of that kind of thing in Europe.”

Russia has insisted on constitutional reform in Ukraine, demanded the rights of the Russian-speaking population be observed and called for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to halt its eastward expansion.

Putin also brought up the issue of Transnistria, according to the Kremlin. Transnistria is a self-proclaimed republic between Moldova and Ukraine with a Russian military presence. Unrecognized by most United Nations member states, it followed Crimea’s annexation by asking to join Russia.

While U.S. intelligence officials continue to monitor what they say is a significant buildup of Russian troops near eastern Ukraine, some expressed concern that Putin’s sudden mention of Transnistria may be a prelude to a different move.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, two officials said visible military movements in the east may be an effort to divert attention from preparations to move into Transnistria through the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa. Russian forces held what was called an anti-terrorism drill in the region this week.

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Obama Offers Assurance to Saudis on Syria Stance

Obama Saudi ArabiaThe United States is considering allowing shipments of portable air defense systems to Syrian rebels, a U.S. official said Friday, as President Barack Obama sought to reassure Saudi Arabia’s king that the U.S. is not taking too soft a stance in Syria and other Mideast conflicts.

The president and King Abdullah met for more than two hours at the aging monarch’s desert oasis outside the capital city of Riyadh. Obama advisers said the two leaders spoke frankly about their differences on key issues, with the president assuring the king that he remains committed to the Gulf region’s security.

Saudi officials have grown particularly concerned about what they see as Obama’s tepid response to the Syrian civil war and have pressed the U.S. to allow them to play a direct role in sending the rebels the air defense systems commonly known as manpads. While administration officials have previously ruled out that option, a senior official said it was being considered, in part because the U.S. has been able to develop deeper relationships with the Syrian opposition over the past year

The official said no final decision had been made and the president might ultimately decide against the proposal. One of Obama’s top concerns continues to be whether the weaponry would fall into the wrong hands, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations by name and commented only on condition of anonymity. The official cast the approach as less of a sudden change in position and more an indication of how the U.S. has viewed the issue for some time.

A second senior official said there had been no change in the U.S. position on manpads, but did not specifically rule out the notion that the option was under consideration.

Manpads are compact missile launchers with the range and explosive power to attack low-flying planes and helicopters. U.S. officials have estimated the Syrian government has thousands.

The decades-long alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of security arrangements in the Middle East. But as U.S. troops have pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the kingdom’s royal family has become increasingly anxious about Obama’s positioning in the region.

Tensions reached a high point last fall after Obama decided against launching a military strike on Syria, choosing instead to back a plan to strip Syrian President Bashar Assad of his chemical weapon stockpiles. U.S. officials say the relationship has improved since then, with both sides making an effort to more closely coordinate their efforts to halt the Syrian conflict.

“We are in a better place today than we were seven months ago,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

Beyond Syria, one of the king’s biggest concerns has been the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Saudis fear Iran’s nuclear program, object to Iran’s backing of the Assad government and see Tehran as having designs on oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Officials said the nuclear negotiations were a primary topic of Friday’s meeting, with Obama assuring the king that the U.S. was not glossing over Tehran’s other provocations in order to get a final deal.

The president arrived in Riyadh Friday evening, then quickly boarded the presidential helicopter for a 30-minute flight to the king’s desert camp. Obama walked through a row of military guards to an ornate room featuring a massive crystal chandelier and took a seat next to the king, who appeared to be breathing with the assistance of an oxygen tank.

Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice joined Obama in the meeting, his third official visit with the king in six years. While Obama and the king were originally expected to hold a dinner following their meeting, officials said those plans had changed.

The Obama administration’s openness to considering supplying manpads to the Syrian rebels did not appear to be directly connected to Friday’s meetings. Officials said specific types of assistance were not discussed with the king. However, the possibility of supplying manpads has been discussed in previous meetings between U.S. and Saudi officials, including talks in Washington earlier this year.

Allowing manpads to be delivered to Syrian rebels would mark a shift in strategy for the U.S., which until this point has limited its lethal assistance to small weapons and ammunition, along with its humanitarian aid. The U.S. has been looking for ways to boost the rebels, who have lost ground in recent months, allowing Assad to regain a tighter grip on the war-weary nation.

As recently as February, the administration insisted Obama remained opposed to any shipments of manpads to the Syrian opposition.

On another topic, despite the close security ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, American officials have raised concerns about the human rights situation in the kingdom, including the treatment of women. However, a senior administration official said human rights did not come up during Friday’s meetings, citing a lack of time and a busy agenda.

Before departing for Washington on Saturday, Obama planned to meet with the Saudi winner of a State Department Women of Courage award, presented for her role in combating domestic violence and winning landmark legislation on protecting women. The winner is Maha Al Muneef, the executive director of the National Family Safety Program, which she founded in 2005 to combat domestic violence and child abuse in Saudi Arabia.

On still another subject, Friday’s talks came after Saudi Arabia’s refusal to grant a visa to the Washington bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post who had sought to cover Obama’s trip. The U.S. government had reached out to Riyadh to intervene but to no avail.

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Turkey moves to block YouTube access after ‘audio leak’

YouTubeTurkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday denounced as “villainous” the leaking of a recording of top security officials discussing possible military action in Syria to the video-sharing site YouTube.

Turkish authorities ordered the shutdown of the site.

Erdogan’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the posting a “declaration of war,” an apparent reference to an escalating power struggle between Erdogan and rivals.

The anonymous posting was an audio file with photographs of the officials involved.

It followed similar releases on social media in recent weeks that Erdogan has cast as a plot by his political enemies, particularly a Turkish Islamic cleric based in the United States, to unseat him ahead of March 30 elections.

The posting took the campaign to a higher level, impinging on a highly sensitive top-level meeting of security officials.

“They even leaked a national security meeting,” Erdogan said at a campaign rally. “This is villainous, this is dishonesty … Who are you serving by doing audio surveillance of such an important meeting?”

The account posted what it presented as a recording of intelligence chief Hakan Fidan discussing possible military operations in Syria with Davutoglu, Deputy Chief of military Staff Yasar Guler and other senior officials.

Speaking to reporters in Kutahya, Davutoglu confirmed the meeting took place and said, “A cyber attack has been carried out against the Turkish Republic, our state and our valued nation. This is a clear declaration of war against the Turkish state and our nation.”

Turkish authorities said they had taken an “administrative measure” to impose a block on YouTube, a week after they blocked access to microblogging site Twitter.

Erdogan has been the target of a stream of anonymous internet postings suggesting his involvement in corruption. He denies the allegations and accuses a former ally, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, of unleashing a campaign to undermine him before Sunday’s elections.

Gulen, who has a large network of followers in the police, denies any involvement in the postings and in police graft investigations impinging on Erdogan and his family. Erdogan denies graft allegations.

The foreign ministry said the recording was of a crisis management meeting to discuss threats stemming from clashes in Syria and that elements of the recording had been manipulated. The leakers would face heavy punishment, it said.

“It is a wretched attack, an act of espionage and a very heavy crime to record and leak to the public a top secret meeting held in a place where the most delicate security issues of the state are discussed,” it said in a statement.

The conversation appeared to centre on a possible operation to secure the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in an area of northern Syria largely controlled by militant Islamists.

Ankara regards the tomb as sovereign Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. About two dozen Turkish special forces soldiers permanently guard it.

Turkey threatened two weeks ago to retaliate for any attack on the tomb following clashes between militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda breakaway group, and rival rebel groups in the area, east of Aleppo near the Turkish border.

“An operation against ISIL has international legitimacy. We will define it as al Qaeda. There are no issues on the al Qaeda framework. When it comes to the Suleyman Shah tomb, it’s about the protection of national soil,” a voice presented as that of foreign ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu says.

When the discussion turns to the need to justify such an operation, the voice purportedly of Fidan says: “Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is, I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.”

The foreign ministry said it was natural for state officials to discuss defending Turkish territory.

“In the meeting it was confirmed that Turkey would take necessary steps decisively to protect the security of our personnel at the Suleyman Shah tomb and Turkey’s will to defend it in the face of an attack was reiterated,” the statement said.

A source in Erdogan’s office said the video sharing service was blocked as a precaution after the voice recordings created a “national security issue” and said it may lift the ban if YouTube agreed to remove the content.

Reacting to the YouTube ban in Turkey, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf in Washington said the United States opposes “any action that encroaches on the right of free speech or free expression.”

Harf said U.S. officials “continue to urge the Turkish government to unblock its citizens’ access now to YouTube, but also still to Twitter.”

Google said it was looking into reports that some users in Turkey were unable to access its video-sharing site YouTube, and said there was no technical problem on its side.

The ban on Twitter had already sparked outrage in Turkey and drawn international condemnation. Shortly after the YouTube move, the hashtag #YoutubeBlockedinTurkey was trending globally, although some users defended the latest government decision given the sensitive nature of the recordings.

 

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IMF to help Ukraine with up to $18 billion bailout

IMF UkraineThe International Monetary Fund said today it had agreed a $14-18 billion bailout for Ukraine, a deal that will unlock further credits to reach a total of $27 billion over the next two years.

The agreement is intended to help Ukraine meet debt payments looming this year after months of anti-government protests which resulted in the overthrow of president Viktor Yanukovich and a standoff with Moscow in which Russia annexed the Crimea region.

“The mission has reached a staff-level agreement with the authorities of Ukraine on an economic reform programme that can be supported by a two-year Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) with the IMF,” the IMF said in a statement.

“The financial support from the broader international community that the programme will unlock amounts to $27 billion over the next two years. Of this, assistance from the IMF will range between $14-18 billion, with the precise amount to be determined once all bilateral and multilateral support is accounted for.”

The agreement is subject to approval by IMF management and the executive board, which will consider it in April.

“Following the intense economic and political turbulence of recent months,

Ukraine has achieved some stability, but faces difficult challenges,” the IMF statement said.

Announcing the agreement in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, IMF mission chief Nikolay Gueorguiev declined to say how big the initial tranche of aid would be. Kiev has said it desperately needs cash to cover expenses and avert a possible debt default.

The country’s finance minister has predicted the economy will contract 3 per cent this year, weakened by years of mismanagement and political turmoil. The bailout from the IMF will help prop up Ukraine’s economy and clear the way for several billion dollars in aid from the United States, European Union, Japan and other nations.

Ukraine’s new leaders yesterday announced a radical 50 per cent increase in the price of domestic gas from May 1st, meeting an unpopular condition for IMF aid that Mr Yanukovich had refused before he was ousted last month.

 

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Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage set for EU debate

Clegg and FarageWednesday night’s highly anticipated debate in Westminster between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage still holds out the prospect of some blood, if you can bear to sit through it.

The problem for the Tory party, however, is that some of the blood spilled might end up being David Cameron’s. And he’s not even taking part. Which is part of the problem.

Indeed, so allegedly disinterested is the prime minister in this knockout fight over Britain’s place in the EU that he appears to have found a subsequent engagement to demand his attention.

When asked if Cameron would be listening, his spokesman told journalists: “I am not sure he will be able to. I don’t think he will get the opportunity.”

He might just as well have declared the prime minister was washing his hair that night.

So Cameron can find time for the Brits, apparently, but the first of the two-part bout between the most robust defender of EU membership (he says) and the man who wants to march the UK out somehow lacks the same draw.

You can’t really blame him. He has, after all, spent years telling his party to stop “banging on about Europe” only to watch them sticking their fingers in their ears, after waving a couple of them at him, and continue banging.

He even may have been quietly relieved that Ed Miliband has finally ended the uncertainty about Labour’s policy on a referendum by announcing official uncertainty. At least they were all agreed that the best plan is to just stop talking about it.

The trouble is, reality keeps crashing into the issue in the unlikely shape of Farage who is threatening to win the EU elections in May, a poll most people don’t usually bother turning out for.

Thanks to Farage, this year could be very different as voters use the election to send their own two-fingered salute to the establishment parties, safe in the knowledge they aren’t electing a government.

It is against that background that Clegg threw down the gauntlet to Farage, largely hoping that he could use the clash to boost his standing as the only man 100% committed to keeping Britain in the EU and exposing the real face of the Ukip leader.

And he could do well. But, then again, so could the charismatic Farage. Both sides have something to gain if they behave themselves. Clegg will have to drop his Mr Righteous mask, while Farage will have to ensure his own Mr Angry face doesn’t break through his jolly exterior.

But, while they will spend plenty of time attacking each other, the figure of David Cameron clutching his referendum pledge will hover over the entire proceedings.

Clegg will claim the referendum would be a disaster which could threaten to destroy the country and that Cameron is held hostage by his Eurosceptics.

Farage will claim he doesn’t believe Cameron will ever hold a referendum anyway and he will have gained some new status by being taken seriously enough to warrant such a debate.

Meanwhile, there will be the inevitable question of why Cameron hasn’t deemed it important enough to even listen to, let alone take part in.

 

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