Author Archives: VidWorld


OSCE Chairman Calls for Revitalized Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process

Austria’s top diplomat on Friday called on both sides of the conflict in Azerbaijan’s autonomous breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to renew the political settlement process.

Marking the first anniversary of deadly clashes in the Azeri region, which is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), emphasized his hope for a fresh start in the largely stalled peace negotiations.

“Clashes and serious violations of the cease-fire on the Line of Contact, resulting in casualties, were of particular concern to us throughout the past year,” Kurz said in a public statement. “It is now high time for a focus on pragmatic and practical steps for confidence-building as well as a resumption of substantive negotiations.”

The United States, Russia and France, which co-chair OSCE’s Minsk Group for conflict mediation, used diplomacy to halt the violence between Armenian-backed separatists and Azeri forces, which was the deadliest incident since a 1994 cease-fire established the current territorial division. Although they have been unable to secure a binding peace resolution, former U.S. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh said, the renewed push by the OSCE presents a rare opportunity for U.S. and Russian coordination.

“President [Donald] Trump had made clear during his campaign, and since then, that he would like to find a way to have more positive relations with Russia. This might be one of those areas where that is more easily tackled,” said Cavanaugh, who once co-chaired the Minsk Group as a special negotiator alongside Russian and French diplomats.

Opportunity to surprise

“For two decades we’ve been working together as co-chairs on this, and I can tell you as a former co-chair — and I have talked with my successors — that the cooperation would surprise people,” he said.

Unlike the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh is place where U.S. and Russian interests converge. Considering the constant cease-fire violations since the 2016 clashes left more than 100 people dead, Nagorno-Karabakh, he said, cannot be considered a frozen conflict, but rather “a simmering one, which needs a lot of attention and has a lot of danger.”

The only solution that can prevent further violence is close coordination between U.S. and Russian diplomats, whose nations would both benefit from a sustained peace in the region.

But that can only happen, Cavanaugh said, if both Azeri and Armenian-aligned factions show Washington and Moscow that they are ready to re-engage the peace process.

“The sides need to send clear signals to Moscow, to Washington, to Paris, that they are prepared now really to work on peace again.”

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Armenian service.

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Teachers in Poland Strike to Protest Education Overhaul

Teachers across Poland staged a strike Friday to protest a sweeping overhaul of the education system by the populist government that will see middle schools eliminated this fall. Many fear the change is a pretext for introducing a more nationalistic and old-fashioned curriculum which will leave children less prepared for the modern world.

The education overhaul has become a flashpoint between the ruling Law and Justice party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and liberal opponents who accuse the powerful party chief of moving the country in an authoritarian direction.

The key change involves eliminating middle schools and returning to a pre-1999 system of eight years of primary school followed by either high school or vocational school.

Many parents kept their children home in solidarity with the teachers and to show their disapproval of the changes, which in some cases will force middle school children to return to elementary schools.

Teachers appeared at work but just sat around or chatted. At one Warsaw school visited by The Associated Press only 23 of 580 pupils showed up. They were supervised by a nun and other employees but received no lessons, passing the day playing, drawing or watching cartoons.

The government says the current system isn’t working well and that children will feel more secure remaining longer in primary schools.

Opponents say that everyone is used to the new system now, that it has proven effective and that the changes will produce chaos. They fear the changes are part of an attempt to create a generation of Poles supportive of the ruling party’s conservative worldview.

The striking teachers also demanded pay hikes as compensation for their extra work in making the transition.

The Union of Polish Teachers, which organized the strike, said 37 percent of schools nationwide participated. Union leader Slawomir Broniarz said more wanted to join but teachers faced political pressure from “the authorities, superintendents and pro-government labor unions.”

Poland’s Education Ministry press office denied that allegation, but otherwise pointed to a statement on its website as its official comment. The statement said the changes, recently passed by parliament, are now a “reality”that must be accepted to ensure the well-being of children. The ministry promised that no teachers will lose their jobs.

In central Warsaw, it was clear the strike had the support of some schools which weren’t formally on strike. There were schools working normally with posters plastered on the entrances saying “we support the strike.”

Authorities haven’t revealed all specifics of the curriculum overhaul, but teachers say they have been told that more time will be devoted to history and Polish and less to science, computer science and foreign languages.

Joanna Kowalska, an English teacher at a middle school who lost a day’s wages to take part in the strike, said the changes were made too fast and without input from teachers.

“I think that this is happening too fast,”said Kowalska, 36, who spoke in an empty classroom. “They are not well prepared, and the teachers are not ready.”

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Russian Prosecutors Move to Block Online Calls for Protests

Russian prosecutors moved Friday to block calls on social networks for more street protests in Moscow and other Russian cities following a wave of rallies that have cast a new challenge to the Kremlin.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in Moscow and other cities Sunday to rally against official corruption in the largest outpouring of discontent in years.

The Prosecutor General’s office confirmed Friday it has requested the state communications watchdog to block pages on social networks calling for more protests this Sunday in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who organized Sunday’s unsanctioned protest, is serving a 15-day sentence on charges of resisting police. More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested in Moscow, and many have been sentenced to brief jail terms and fines.

The U.S. and the EU have criticized the crackdown and urged Russia to release all detainees, but President Vladimir Putin has rejected the criticism as meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.

Without naming Navalny, Putin, who faces re-election in March 2018, has denounced those protest organizers who try to use anti-corruption slogans in “narrow selfish political goals.”

Navalny has declared his intention to run for president and vowed to appeal a conviction that bars him from the race, which he denounced as politically driven.

Faced with a tough challenge, the Kremlin is mulling a response.

Putin on Thursday vowed to fight corruption, but also warned that the government wouldn’t allow any breach of law. He drew parallels with the Arab Spring uprisings in Africa and the Middle East and protests in Ukraine that toppled a Russia-friendly president in 2014.

“Everybody should act in political processes within the framework of the law. All those who go outside this law should bear punishment in accordance with Russian legislation,” Putin said.

The protests have shaken Russia’s sleepy political scene and reinvigorated the opposition after years of relentless official crackdown, showing public readiness to brave draconian laws which make repeated participation in unsanctioned protests punishable with prison terms and hefty fines. 

In contrast with the past, when opposition demonstrations were mostly limited to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Sunday’s rallies engulfed dozens of provincial cities and towns. In another new phenomenon, the rallies also saw large attendance by school and university students.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dodged a question about Putin’s reaction to a statement from prominent film director Alexander Sokurov, who urged the Kremlin to listen to the protesters’ demands and refrain from using force to avoid “political catastrophes.”

“They were grabbing teenage students by their legs and carrying them away in a very brutal, violent way,” Sokurov said Tuesday while receiving a movie award. “The government makes a grave mistake when it treats students like that. You shouldn’t start a civil war with schoolchildren and university students, you should listen to them!”

Peskov, speaking Friday in a conference call with reporters, said only that Putin is ready to listen to arguments by Sokurov and other cultural figures, but doesn’t always agree with their views.

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Jailed Turkish Pro-Kurdish Party Leader Begins Hunger Strike

The jailed leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party said Friday he has begun a hunger strike to protest prison conditions.

Selahattin Demirtas said in a statement released by his People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, that he would refuse food to denounce what he described as “unlawful, inhuman and arbitrary practices” in Turkish prisons.

Demirtas said he also wanted to draw attention to hunger strikes by other prisoners in Turkey.

The HDP says more than 100 Kurdish or other prisoners are on hunger strikes in Turkish prisons, some for the past 40 days. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation reported that at least five female prisoners had gone on a hunger strike in a prison in Tarsus, southern Turkey, on Thursday.

The party says authorities have imposed restrictions on prisoners’ rights to legal counsel or visits by family or lawyers since a state of emergency was imposed following a failed coup in July. It alleges “inhuman and punitive practices,” including torture, solitary confinement and unannounced ward searches,have reached “alarming rates.”

Demirtas was arrested in November on terror-related charges along with the HDP’s co-leader, Figen Yuksekdag, and a dozen other party legislators.

The government accuses their party, which is Turkey’s third largest, of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or HDP. The HDP denies the accusation.

It wasn’t clear how long Demirtas’ hunger strike would last. The HDP said that party legislator Abdullah Zeydan, who is incarcerated in Edirne prison, northwestern Turkey together with Demirtas, has also joined the strike.

Hundreds of Kurdish inmates held a hunger strike in 2012 which they ended after a call by jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. Hunger strikers in Turkey traditionally refuse food but take sugared water which prolongs life.

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Bosnian Mufti Vows Continued Fight Against Extremists

The leader of Bosnia’s Muslim community this week vowed to continue fighting radicalization via education and sustained pressure on extremist offshoots within the small Balkan nation.

After a recent meeting with White House and State Department officials, Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic told VOA in an exclusive interview that he felt reassured that the new administration supports Bosnian unity and sovereignty, and the Balkan nation’s efforts against radicalization abroad.

Last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted 68 foreign ministers and other leaders from around the world to discuss a global coalition strategy to defeat Islamic State militants. Bosnia’s foreign minister also attended the meeting.

“We try to show the right path to our Muslims wherever we can, constantly pointing out dangers of extremism of any kind, and how un-Islamic it is,” Kazazovic told VOA. “We also organize gatherings and conferences for our students, with students from Catholic and orthodox schools and universities in Bosnia. And we preach in our mosques what Bosnia has been forever: different cultures and faiths in one place, which makes it very fortunate and rich.”

Radicalization in 1990s

In Bosnia, where Muslims represent the largest faith community, militant Islam was nearly nonexistent until the 1990s Balkans wars, when radicalized Arab Muslim mercenaries intervened to help battle Serb forces. Some foreign extremists who stayed in Bosnia embraced a radical brand of Islam that Kavazovic has adamantly opposed.

Kavazovic has warned Bosnians against succumbing to fanatical rhetoric aimed at recruiting fighters into Syria and Iraq. In 2015, one of his own imams was repeatedly, violently attacked by extremists for refusing to use Bosnia’s Muslim pulpit as a platform for espousing a radical agenda.

According to intelligence agencies, more than 200 radicalized Bosnians have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2012, where they fought with jihadist groups, including Islamic State. Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic told VOA in December that about a third of them have been killed. More than 40 fighters returned to Bosnia, where they were all investigated and processed. Bosnia introduced a law two years ago that imposes strong sanctions against those who fight abroad or recruit others to do so.

In 2016, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security found that munitions from Bosnia were used in the January 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and that some Yugoslav-made weapons were used in the November 13 Paris attacks that same year.

Extremists marginalized

Asked about so-called para-mosques, new places of worship in Bosnia formed by followers of the radical Wahhabi version of Islam, Kavazovic said his organization is continuing efforts to marginalize the groups.

“We wanted to send clear message,” he said of a recent move to exclude them from Bosnia’s official Muslim community.

“The Islamic community cannot have members who are tightly closed, not transparent, [and] who do not respond to the community, so we do not know what they preach [or] what their goal is,” he said. “Of course, human rights and rights to worship must be respected, but we must know if there is a violent side to their preaching, or something that will damage society. Eventually, some of these groups came back to the community, and those who did not, about 20 of them, are monitored by the authorities.”

Kavazovic’s meetings with U.S. officials were arranged by the Bosnian Embassy in Washington.

In St. Louis, which is home to the largest Bosnian diaspora in the United States, imams recently hosted an open house dubbed “Make America Whole Again,” in which Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump were invited to visit a new mosque and learn more about Islamic culture, but few attended.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Bosnian Service.

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Major Serbian Newspapers Feature Same Front Pages of Ruling Party Campaign Poster

Only days before Serbia’s presidential election, seven major newspapers have hit the stands with the same front pages: the ruling candidate’s campaign poster.

The propaganda coup on Thursday by populist Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s campaign team further stoked fears about the overall fairness of the Sunday vote.

The papers splash the red and blue AV logo and carry no headlines or news on the front pages.

Former Serbian President Boris Tadic said “today’s print media have revealed the real state of democracy under Vucic’s rule.”

Tadic said “we are looking at the North Korean scenario for Serbia if he wins the election.”

The mainstream media under Vucic’s control have been demonizing most of the 10 opposition challengers running in the election, without giving them the opportunity to respond.

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Tight Armenian Election to Pave Way for Power Shift

Armenia’s ruling party goes into an election on Sunday neck-and-neck in the polls with a former coalition partner, making it hard to predict the winner

of a vote that will usher in a new parliamentary system of government.

Under constitutional changes critics say were designed to prolong the political life of President Serzh Sarksyan, parliament, not voters, will elect the president for the first time and the office of prime minister will become more powerful, with the presidency becoming a largely ceremonial role.

Sarksyan, the 62-year-old leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), has repeatedly denied that the changes, which were approved by the electorate in a December 2015 referendum, were made for his benefit.

He has been president since 2008, but his current presidential term, his second, expires next year, and critics say the new system gives him some attractive options: to keep wielding executive power by becoming prime minister; to do so by simply remaining leader of the RPA; or to quit but keep

exercising influence via a handpicked successor.

To be assured of having those options, Sarksyan will need his party to win Sunday’s vote, which comes as the ex-Soviet state of 3.2 million is in the grip of an economic slowdown that has sparked rising discontent.

“This election stands as a crossroads for Armenia, as either a decisive turning point or as a possibly divisive tipping point, with the country’s stability and security in the balance,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre in the capital Yerevan.

The outcome is uncertain.

The ruling RPA is neck-and-neck in opinion polls with an opposition alliance led by a wealthy businessman, Gagik Tsarukyan. The alliance has ruled in coalition with the RPA before, but it’s unclear if it will agree to do so again if, as expected, it fails to win enough support to rule alone.

Another smaller party, which currently rules with the RPA, has said it will do a deal however, if it gets into parliament, offering the RPA a potential political lifeline.

Armenia depends heavily for aid and investment on Russia, which has been hard hit in the past three years by an economic downturn. Armenia has felt the impact, with growth falling to 0.2 percent last year from 3 percent in 2015.

Analysts say the election may be better organized than previous polls, which have been marred by irregularities, but that there is still a risk of post-election unrest.

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Turkey Ends ‘Euphrates Shield’ Operation in Syria

Turkey is declaring an end to its 7-month-old operation in northern Syria to clear Islamic State militants and Syrian Kurds from the region along its border.

It is not clear to what extent Turkey’s military operations will change inside northern Syria, where the Syrian government, Islamic State, Kurdish forces and rebel groups are all competing for territory.

“Operation Euphrates Shield has been successful and is finished. Any operation following this one will have a different name,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told NTV television.

The operation began in August with Turkish forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels focused on the Islamic State-held town of Jarablus. The militants controlled a stretch of border territory extending 40 kilometers to the west but have since been pushed out.

Turkey also feared that Syrian Kurds would try to take over that same territory, providing a link to areas under their control in northeastern and northwestern Syria.

The Turkish government considers the Kurdish fighters an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, that has been waging a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

Turkish officials have objected to the idea of the Kurds taking part in a future offensive to knock Islamic State out of their de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. Planning for that fight has highlighted the complicated nature of the conflict in Syria and the many players involved.

The United States, which leads a coalition of militaries conducting airstrikes against Islamic State, supports the Kurdish fighters and sees them as an effective force against the militant group.


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Europe and US Face a Challenge in Balkans from Moscow

While much attention is on Russia’s policy toward the Baltic states, some experts say Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans poses more of a danger to Western interests in that region. They say Moscow’s aim is to counter Western interests by preventing Balkan states from being integrated into the Euro-Atlantic institutions. VOA’s Jane Bojadzievski has more.

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Face of Anti-Kremlin Protests Is Son of Putin Ally

Russian high school student Roman Shingarkin had some explaining to do when he got home after becoming one of the faces of anti-Kremlin protests at the weekend. His father is a former member of parliament who supports President Vladimir Putin.

At the height of a protest in Moscow on Sunday against what organizers said was official corruption, 17-year-old Shingarkin and another young man climbed onto the top of a lamp-post in the city’s Pushkin Square.

Hundreds of protesters in the square cheered and whistled as a police officer, dressed in riot gear, shinned up the lamp-post and remonstrated with the two to come down. They refused, and the police officer retreated, to jubilation from the protesters down below.

As images of the protests, the biggest in Russia for several years, ricocheted around social media, Shingarkin’s sit-in on top of the lamp-post was adopted by Kremlin opponents as a David-and-Goliath style symbol of defiance.

Shingarkin was eventually detained when, after the protest in Pushkin Square had dispersed, police persuaded him to climb down. He was taken to a police station but as a minor, he could not be charged. From the police station, he had to ring his father to ask to be picked up.

His father, Maxim Shingarkin, was from 2011 until 2016 a lawmaker in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. He was a member of the LDPR party, a nationalist group that on nearly all major issues backs Putin.

Putin last year gave the party’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a medal for services to Russia. With Putin standing next to him, Zhirinovsky proclaimed: “God protect the tsar.”

Shingarkin had not told his father he would be going to the protest, but the former lawmaker quickly guessed what had happened.

“When I rang my dad from the police station, he immediately understood why I was there,” Shingarkin, wearing the same blue and black coat he had on during the protest, said in an interview with Reuters TV.

“I went there [to the rally] out of interest to see how strong the opposition is, how many people would take to the streets, and at the same time to get a response from authorities to a clear fact of corruption.”

He decided to climb up the lamp-post because he “could see nothing from the ground.”

Contacted by telephone on Wednesday, Shingarkin senior said he was sympathetic with his son’s motives for attending the protest.

“He has a social position, against corruption, I support it completely,” Maxim Shingarkin said.

But he emphasised that his son’s actions did not mean that he or the family were opponents of Putin.

The Russian leader, Shingarkin senior said, is popular among voters and there is no one to replace him, but he is let down by the officials around him.

Roman Shingarkin said for now he would not attend any more protests unless they were approved by the authorities.

He said he might venture to a non-approved demonstration once he turns 18, because if he gets into trouble then, the police will charge him and not involve his parents.

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