Items filtered by date: Tuesday, 09 May 2017

French Voters Defy Putin’s Meddling, but You’d Hardly Know It in Russia

MOSCOW — The official tone from the Kremlin on Monday, the day after the pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron was elected France’s president, was that Russia can work with anybody. But the snow falling on Moscow was perhaps more reflective of the damp chill in the Kremlin’s relations with Europe after yet another fruitless attempt to influence an election abroad.

For the last three years, since Europe slapped sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin has sought to undermine and weaken the Western, trans-Atlantic alliance arrayed against it. Elections in particular have been viewed as a prime moment to try to exploit Western weakness — and openness — to help bring to power leaders more sympathetic to Russia.

France was the latest potential prize. Moscow backed one losing candidate after another, including an unusual, high-profile endorsement of the pro-Russia, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom French voters rejected soundly on Sunday.

On Monday the Kremlin tried to put the best possible outlook on the election of her opponent. President Vladimir V. Putin sent Mr. Macron a congratulatory message, expressing the desire to “overcome mutual distrust” and wishing him “good health, well-being and success.”

Never mind that before the vote Russian-state run media profiled Mr. Macron as probably gay, in thrall to Jewish bankers and among the enthusiastic “demons of globalization.”

 

Still, the nationalist, anti-globalization camp did not lose all hope. “In France the battle is lost, the war is not,” wrote Alexander Dugin, a central philosopher of the nationalist right who also lectures periodically in France. “Transnational (and transgender) elites defeated the people.”

Outside the ranks of Kremlin acolytes, however, political analysts aimed their criticism directly at Mr. Putin’s foreign policy, saying it was time to recognize that Russian attempts to influence elections abroad, including in the United States, were a disaster and damaging Russian interests.

“One more defeat for the Kremlin,” wrote Konstantin von Eggert, a program host and political analyst on the independent Dozhd television channel.

Last fall, the Kremlin thought it had found a natural ally in François Fillon, a conservative former prime minister chosen as the center-right candidate in the primaries. Long warm toward Russia and Mr. Putin personally, he called for ending the sanctions.

When a scandal sank his chances, the Kremlin turned to Ms. Le Pen. She has made no secret of her love for Russia, endorsing its annexation of Crimea. Her National Front had also received an $11 million loan from the now-defunct First Czech-Russian Bank in Moscow.

In March, while professing neutrality in the French race, Mr. Putin hosted her in the Kremlin, an unusual move for Moscow in the midst of an election campaign and effectively a Kremlin endorsement.

Then came accusations from the Macron campaign that Russia had hacked its computers. On the eve of the vote, a huge trove of stolen campaign emails was posted anonymously on the internet. French law prohibited any discussion of them in the final two days of the election, but Russia remains a prime suspect.

The leak did not seem to have much effect, landing with something of a thump in France. Even the main hashtag being #MacronLeaks, in English rather than in French, smacked of foreign meddling.

Mr. Putin, with his message of traditional family values and national pride, does have some support in Europe, particularly among far-right and populist movements, like the National Front as well as the Five Star Movement in Italy.

“In French terms, the alt-right and the far right overestimated the effect you can achieve through social media,” said Ben Nimmo, who studies disinformation and other online efforts for the Atlantic Council. “I don’t for a moment think that the game is over and I don’t think for a moment that the Russian disinformation campaign has admitted defeat.”

After the result emerged, much Russian coverage focused on the fact that one-third of the votes went to Ms. Le Pen, and suggested that the election was somehow tainted by many people casting either blank ballots or not voting.

Rossiya-24, the main Russian satellite news channel, kept repeating that Ms. Le Pen had achieved a “phenomenal result.” (Her party’s showing was its best ever but still well below the threshold that even her own advisers said they would regard as a success.)

Sputnik, a Russian government press agency, posted a story on its French service emphasizing that Ms. Le Pen would most likely emerge victorious in two voting districts. (The fact that Mr. Macron would take the other 99 came in the fourth paragraph.)

“The victorious defeat of Marine Le Pen,” read one headline on the French service of RT, the international TV service for the Kremlin.

Some mocked the French for their choice.

While much of Europe remembers the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany on May 8, Russians commemorate it on May 9, and generally believe that they receive insufficient credit.

“The French deserve the ‘elastic’ Macron; they must go through globalist hell,” wrote Daria Aslamova, a columnist in Komsomolskaya Pravda, a popular, pro-Kremlin tabloid. “They do not deserve democracy paid for by the lives of millions of Soviet soldiers.”

Given the Macron-bashing on Facebook, one music promoter in Siberia joked that Russia had finally found a substitute punching bag for President Barack Obama. “Judging by Facebook — all Soviet people have with relief and joy received the election of Comrade Macron to the vacant post of our Russian Obama,” he wrote.

Elsewhere in the Russian media there was some straightforward analysis of Mr. Macron’s prospects, including his desire to strengthen the European Union and to institute broad economic change.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were those who argued that Mr. Putin had not only failed to help elect a candidate sympathetic to Russia but, as in the United States and elsewhere, was effectively turning both politicians and the public against Russia.

“Macron was the most anti-Kremlin candidate,” Mr. von Eggert said in an interview.

Mr. Macron, like Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, essentially addresses Moscow as a problem rather than a partner, the analyst said, and Moscow’s recent foreign policy initiatives, from campaign meddling to sending its military into Syria, have brought little of positive substance for Russia.

“When you are talking about pro-Kremlin policy change, we have not seen much,” Mr. von Eggert said.

The Macron campaign was so incensed by the tenor of reporting by the Russian outlets Sputnik and RT that it banned them from some campaign events, provoking protests from Moscow.

Mr. Macron, in his debate with Ms. Le Pen right before the vote, vowed to take a harder line with Mr. Putin. While acknowledging that Russia had to be at the table to help solve problems like the wars in Ukraine and Syria, he underscored that its values were different.

“In no case will I submit to Mr. Putin’s diktats,” Mr. Macron said. “He will be a working partner on a number of regional issues, someone I will talk with, but with the awareness that on a lot of issues we don’t have the same values or the same priorities.”

After the French election, the next major vote in Europe will be elections in Germany in September. The Germans, too, have expressed concern about Russian hacking and possible influence among more than 3.5 million German-Russians repatriated from the Soviet Union, many of whom still watch Russian television.

Over all, experts said, Russia has been able to obtain a toehold in the influence game because it is addressing angry populations alienated by current governments.

“If our societies continue to stumble because we have a large segment of disaffected voters, Russia might be able to undermine the system that we built,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In many respects the best way to deal with Russia is getting our own house in order.”

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Firing James Comey is Donald Trump's most unpredictable and dangerous move yet

(CNN)James Comey found out he had been fired as FBI director just like the rest of us: By watching it on television.

The move, announced late Tuesday via a letter sent from President Donald Trump to Comey, marked the most unpredictable moment of a presidency that through its first 100-plus day has been the least orthodox in memory. It also ramped up criticism of Trump's judgments -- Comey was tasked with leading the investigation into Russia's meddling into the 2016 campaign and what, if any, collusion had occurred between Trump campaign operatives and Russian intelligence officials -- and left official Washington reeling over a move considered unthinkable as recently as this week.
The explanation for the move, which emerged into the stunned silence it caused, made little logical sense. A report from deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein highlighted Comey's handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server as the main reason for his dismissal. Rosenstein accused Comey of an attempt to "usurp" the power of the attorney general by announcing publicly that he didn't believe any charges should be brought against Clinton in a July 5, 2016 press conference.
"Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation," Rosenstein added. "The way the director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong. As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them."
That echoes criticism launched by Democrats loyal to Clinton, who insisted that Comey's decision to offer his own unvarnished view of Clinton's conduct vis-a-vis her private email server -- he said she had been "extremely careless" -- went well beyond his proscribed duties.
The problem with laying the Comey firing at the feet of the July 2016 press conference is that it is now May 9, 2017. 
Why, if Trump was so unhappy over Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation, would he say the following of the FBI director in October following the decision to re-open the Clinton case: "It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they're trying to protect her from criminal prosecution?"
If Trump had such an issue with how Comey had handled the Clinton investigation, why would he not have jettisoned Comey shortly after taking office on January 20? 
Why, if Trump was so dissatisfied with Comey, would he single the FBI director out for praise in a gathering of law enforcement officials at the White House on January 22?
Why, if Trump was so unhappy with Comey, would he not have fired him before Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from all Justice Department investigations involving the attempted Russia hack because he failed to disclose two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak? (Sessions' recusal effectively made Comey the point person on that investigation.)
The letter Trump sent to Comey -- or, more accurately, released to the media -- answers none of those questions while raising even more. The second paragraph, in particular, is eye popping.
"While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau," Trump wrote to Comey.
The not-so-subtle message from Trump: I want everyone to know you told me -- three times! -- that I am not the target of this Russia investigation. You told me that three times. Remember the three times you told me I wasn't under investigation for this Russia stuff? Also, you're fired.
What Trump is doing here is not simply unpredictable. It is potentially very dangerous.
Removing the person charged with overseeing an investigation into a foreign country attempting to influence US elections by hurting one candidate (Clinton) and helping another (Trump) sends a chilling message up and down the federal bureaucracy -- not to mention the populace.
Even if Trump's decision to get rid of Comey had absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing Russia investigation, it looks very, very bad. It looks -- to anyone paying attention -- like Trump got rid of someone who he didn't think would come to a conclusion he liked regarding Russia. Or that, more generally, that no one -- not even an FBI director in the middle of his 10-year term -- is safe from Trump's whims.
Trump could solve -- or at least mitigate -- this perception by allowing (or even calling for) the appointment of an independent counsel to take over the Russian investigation. But Trump and his White House allies have been extremely resistant to even acknowledging that the Russia investigation is merited; Trump called the Russia story a "total hoax" in a tweet earlier Tuesday. Given that, it's hard to imagine him suddenly calling for the appointment of a neutral third party to get to the bottom of exactly how effective Russia was in its attempts to meddle with our elections.
Trump promised that he would shake up Washington when he was elected the 45th president of the United States. He has made good on that promise nearly every day since taking office on January 20. But this move -- the stunning dismissal of the FBI director in the midst of a probe involving Trump's campaign and Russia -- feels like a shifting of gears even for Trump, a ramping-up of an offensive to remove dissenting voices from the federal bureaucracy.
What the country desperately needs right now is some explanation from President Trump. If past is prologue, we won't get one.
 
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JK Rowling 'overwhelmed' by book prize win

JK Rowling says she's 'thrilled' to have picked up the outstanding contribution prize at the British Book Awards.

"Twenty years ago I would hardly have believed I'd have a book published, let alone an accolade as wonderful as this," she said.

The Harry Potter and the Cursed Child script, which she created with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, was 2016's biggest seller.

Every year Rowling has released a new Potter tale, the book market has grown.

In 2007, final Potter book The Deathly Hallows took the sector to an all-time high of £1.79bn.

Rowling paid tribute to the book industry behind the awards: "Tonight is really all about you, the booksellers, without whom of course there would be no bestsellers.

"I want to thank you all for supporting my books throughout the years - this award is really for you! Thank you!"

But Harry Potter and the Cursed Child failed to win best children's book of the year.

It was beaten by mythical teen novel The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

Word-of-mouth hit The Essex Serpent was the overall winner at the trade awards, also known as the Nibbies, taking the coveted book of the year title.

Sarah Perry's gothic novel went on to become a Waterstones Book of the Year and sold over 200,000 copies - 40 times more than the initial sales target.

"I am absolutely delighted the extraordinary work of my team at (publisher) Serpent's Tail has been honoured in this way. It's a prize for everybody. The team understood everything I wanted to achieve - and they achieved it for me," Perry said.

Astronaut Tim Peake triumphed with a win in the non-fiction: lifestyle category for his collection of images of planet Earth taken from the International Space Station in Hello, is this Planet Earth?

 BBC News

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EU backs PHL’s anti-drug program

MANILA –The European Union (EU) is gearing up for rollout of a project designed to ensure that former drug addicts do not return to their old habit, as more countries continue to offer support for Duterte administration’s aggressive war against illegal drugs.

EU Ambassador to the Philippines Franz Jessen told reporters the project involves constructing half-way houses in barangays across Luzon.

“We call it half-way houses where you have people who are out of drugs but you want to make sure they are out of drugs so you work with their families, you work with the neighborhood.(This is) trying to make them understand that being drug-free is important.Imperative to that discussion is the provision of job opportunities, do what they used to do,” he said.

If such system becomes effective, Jessen said they would roll-out the project in other areas outsideLuzon.

Jessen further said the EU is working with the Department of Health (DOH) and the World Health Organization(WHO) for the implementation of such project, as they incorporate the best experiences and introduce them in the Philippines.

“It is also strictly voluntary, if people (who are already out of drugs) are ready to do this, then we are ready to help,” he added.

More drug treatment and rehabilitation centers are expected to be completed before the year ends, which were funded through donations from local private sector firms and foreign agencies, including Chinese non-governmental organization Friends of thePhilippines, Ministry of China and Japan International Cooperation Agency.(PNA)

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PH top geologist urges gov't to focus on 'rare' elements

MANILA –One of the top geologist in the country and amining expert has urged the government to focus on "rare" elementsthat can possibly be found in the country's ores in order to give additionalvalue to mineral exports.

According to Dr. Carlo Arcilla,a professor at the University of the Philippines’ National Institute ofGeological Sciences, such rare elements like "scandium" can be usedin manufacturing advanced batteries and as an alloy to aluminum in order to enablethe latter to be welded with other metals and be utilized in producing planeparts.

"The price of scandium canreach USD170 per gram. China is the biggest producer of scandium and we shouldknow how many percent of that we are bringing in to them without our knowledge.If you mix scandium with aluminium, it will become heat resistant yet stilllightweight," said Arcilla in an interview over the weekend.

It can be noted that majority ofthe country’s nickel shipments is brought to China and scandium can be found innickel ores.

"If you wash the ores usingacid, nickel will be melted but scandium will be dissolved. So, what we will dois to discover how we can separate scandium from nickel since the rare earthelement is not pannable," he said.

For this year, Arcilla said hewould partner with a Japanese scientist and will explore nickel mining areas inthe country to collect samples and quantify the level of scandium concentratesas well as to discover other potential elements, an effort wherein the Departmentof Science and Technology (DOST) has allotted a Php 10 million funding.

He, however, said that theystill had not identified yet the locations for the exploration but willinitially collect samples in Palawan, Surigao and Zambales, and later onfinding a way to effectively extract scandium from nickel ores.

The geologist also claimed thatthere were already talks between DOST and the Chamber of Mines of thePhilippines (COMP) on researches where they could jointly fund to furtherimprove the country's mining industry.

"We have a very good chanceof becoming big (supplier) on scandium. We also really need to develop nickelfor us to have local steel as all of its raw materials are beingimported," he said. (PNA)

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