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Crimea Marks 5 Years of Russian Annexation as Western Sanctions Bite

Residents and officials in Crimea have been staging events this week to mark the fifth anniversary of Russia’s forceful annexation of the region from Ukraine.

The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow following the invasion. Analysts say the economic impact is denting approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of heavily armed fighters, dubbed “little green men” for their anonymous uniforms, stormed Ukrainian military installations and government buildings in February 2014. The fighters were clearly backed by Russia, but Moscow denied involvement.

On March 16, 2014, the new de facto authorities staged a referendum in which they claimed more than 95 percent of voters chose to return Crimea to Russian control. Putin hailed the annexation.

“After a hard, long, tiring trip, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home port, to their native shore, homeward, to Russia,” Putin said in a ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square five years ago to mark the annexation, just weeks after the country hosted athletes from around the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

 

WATCH: Crimea Marks Anniversary of Russian Annexation

Putin returned to Crimea this week and praised the progress made.

New power stations have been built. A new bridge links Crimea to the Russian mainland, its limited height restricts shipping into Ukrainian ports. A rail service is to begin this year.

Crimea residents appear supportive.

“Well, it’s all good. Giant construction sites everywhere, you can see that,” one resident told VOA this month.

​Political cost

In the aftermath of the Crimean invasion, Putin’s approval ratings soared. They are now falling fast.

The U.S., Europe and several allies imposed economic sanctions in Moscow. Russian political analyst Maria Lipman said the economic noose has tightened.

“The Crimea syndrome, or Crimea consensus, is wearing out quite visibly,” Lipman said. “The announcement of the pension reform, and the raise of the retirement age, was a trigger when people began to realize — not that they hadn’t realized before — but they really began to feel that things were not right.”

Ukraine is about to hold presidential elections. The leading candidates have pledged to continue Kyiv’s path toward European Union and NATO membership. 

So, could Putin attempt further military action? Unlikely, said Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

“Russian politics is much exhausted with Ukraine. I definitely exclude any kind of military intervention, the closure of the Azov Sea, or military provocations in Donbas,” he said.

The U.S. and the European Union said this week that Crimea will always be considered part of Ukraine.

Critics say the West’s failure to confront Russia more robustly in 2014 led to Moscow’s intervention in other conflicts, including in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and in Syria.


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Crimea Marks Anniversary Of Russian Annexation, As Western Sanctions Tighten Grip

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Russia’s forceful annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow following the invasion – and analysts say the economic impact is denting approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Henry Ridgwell reports.


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Finland Is World’s Happiest Country

Finland ranked as the world’s happiest country for the second consecutive year, in a new United Nations report. The other Nordic countries, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand and Austria also made the top 10 in the happiness survey of 156 countries. South Sudan sank to the bottom, and other war-torn countries also ranked low. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.


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Ukraine’s Night Train to the Front Lines

Ukraine is gearing up for presidential elections at the end of this month, a vote that holds huge implications for a country still at war with Russian-backed separatists. There are other issues on the agenda too – not least getting around this vast country. The dilapidated infrastructure means long night trains are the only practical transport. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell jumped on board to chat with some of the passengers heading east.


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Radovan Karadzic Faces Final Verdict in War Crimes Case

United Nations appeals judges on Wednesday hand down a final verdict in the case of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a key figure in the Balkan wars who is serving a 40-year prison sentence for genocide.

The ruling will likely bring to a close one of the highest profile trials stemming from the series of wars in the 1990s that saw the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia and death of at least 100,000 Bosnians.

Karadzic, 73, was convicted in 2016 for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces. He was also found guilty of leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove Croats and Muslims out of Serb-claimed areas of Bosnia.

On appeal, prosecutors are seeking a life sentence and a second genocide conviction for his alleged role in that policy of targeting non-Serbs across several Bosnian towns in the early years of the war. Karadzic meanwhile is appealing against his conviction and wants a retrial.

The ruling, which is final and cannot be challenged on appeal, will have huge resonance in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia, where ethnic communities remain divided and Karadzic is still seen as a hero by many Bosnian Serbs.

The judgment will be read out at 14:00 local time (13:00 GMT) in The Hague at a U.N. court handling cases left over when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia closed its doors in 2017.

A delegation of the association of Mothers of Srebrenica will be in the Netherlands for the judgment.

In hiding for nearly a decade, Karadzic was arrested and handed over to the court in July 2008.


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NATO to Receive First Northrop Surveillance Drone, Years Late

NATO is to receive the first of five Northrop Grumman high-altitude drones in the third quarter after years of delays, giving the alliance its own spy drones for the first time, the German government told lawmakers.

Thomas Silberhorn, state secretary in the German Defense Ministry, said the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone would be delivered to an air base in Sigonella, Italy, followed by four additional systems, including drones and ground stations built by Airbus, later in the year.

NATO plans to use the aircraft, a derivative of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone, to carry out missions ranging from protection of ground troops to border control and counter-terrorism. The drones will be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a time in all weather, providing near real-time surveillance data.

Northrop first won the contract for the AGS system from NATO in May, 2012, with delivery of the first aircraft slated for 52 months later. However, technical issues and flight test delays have delayed the program, Silberhorn said.

Andrej Hunko, a member of the radical Left opposition party, called for Germany to scrap its participation in the program, warning of spiraling costs and the risk that it could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“The drones are closely linked to a new form of warfare,” he said. “They stand for an arms race that will see existing surveillance and spy systems replaced with new platforms.”

Silberhorn, in a previously unreported response to a parliamentary query from Hunko, said NATO had capped the cost of the program at 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) in 2007.

Germany, which is funding about a third of system, scrapped plans to buy its own Global Hawk drones amid spiraling costs and certification problems, and is now negotiating with Northrop to buy several of its newer model Triton surveillance drones.

Fifteen NATO countries, led by the United States, will pay for the AGS system, but all 29 alliance nations are due to participate in its long-term support.

Germany has sent 76 soldiers to Sigonella to operate the surveillance system and analyze its findings, Silberhorn said.

He said a total of 132 German soldiers would eventually be assigned to AGS, of whom 122 would be stationed in Sigonella.

NATO officials had no immediate comment on the program’s status or whether Northrop faced penalties for the delayed delivery.

No comment was available from Northrop.


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Spain Reopens Investigation of 2004 Train Bombings 

Spain this month marked the 15th anniversary of the 2004 train bombings that killed 193 people with calls to reopen investigations into the deadliest terrorist attack in the kingdom’s history, amid allegations the government covered up links between jihadist bombers and the Basque separatist group, ETA.

Spain’s highest jurisdictional court, the Audencia Nacional, announced last week it is instructing the attorney general to review classified information on the bombings and consider new evidence. Officials with the attorney general’s office have said they are forming a task force with about 200 law enforcement officers to handle the extensive analysis and security work that may be required if the the politically-charged case is reopened.

At remembrance services in Madrid, conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado called on the government to “declassifiy any information that helps get to the truth, which,” he warned,  “someone may try to conceal or use in some way.”

Jose Luis Avalos, a spokesman for the Socialist government, accused Casado of playing politics with the suffering of victims and said the conservative Popular Party had “built a great lie” around  the terrorist attacks that took place when it was in power.

At the time of the bombings, Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar initially blamed ETA.  Evidence later surfaced pointing to Islamic terrorists as the ones who put a total of ten explosive devices on commuter trains and at rail stations in various parts of Madrid, all going off within minutes of each other.  

Bombings just before elections

The attacks took place just three days before scheduled general elections which the socialists won handily by campaigning on the Aznar government’s  failure to identify the perpetrators of one of the worst terror attacks to ever hit Europe.

Al-Qaida claimed the coordinated bombings were punishment for Spain’s alliance with the United States and Britain for the invasion of Iraq in the second Gulf War. Immediately upon replacing Aznar, Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero withdrew the 5,000 troops that Spain had contributed to the U.S.-led multi-national force in Iraq. 

An investigation conducted under the socialist government assigned full blame for the bombings to a group of about 20 mostly Moroccan-born suspects who had records as petty criminals and drug dealers and who authorities said had been recruited by al-Qaida in Spain.

Some analysts have since cast doubts on the investigation, which critics say fell short of explaining how the attacks were organized and ignored evidence pointing to possible involvement by the Basque separatist group. 

“Zapatero did not allow the security services and the attorney general to weave the threads leading  to ETA  because it wouldn’t fit his needle hole,”  charged investigative journalist Luis del Pino, who has written a book and made a documentary on the bombings.

Link to ETA

The head of the Islamic cell charged with conducting the train bombings, Jamal Ahmidan, operated for years as an underworld drug dealer and gunman in the Basque city San Sebastian, an ETA stronghold.

Suarez Trashorras, the supplier of stolen dynamite used in the attacks, told police that Ahmidan had said he knew two members of ETA who had been arrested while moving tons of explosives days before he picked up the dynamite, according to the newspaper El Mundo.  

Ahmidan died along with the six other suspected train bombers when an explosion demolished their hideout during a siege by police. 

But a forensic analysis that raised suspicions of possible ETA links was omitted from an official report on the bombings submitted to a Spanish judge  leading the investigations in 2005 according to police officials. The same sources have told  journalists that traces of boric acid found at an apartment rented by one of the bombers had been only been detected previously at an ETA safe house.

Missing information

The analysts said that it was a rare method used to preserve or conceal explosives from detection. 

“This brings us  to the possibility that the author (or) authors of these acts are related among each other and/or may have had the same type of formation  and/or could be the same authors,” according to the forensic report prepared by the police scientific unit that later turned up among documents requested by former interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.

Former National Police Director General Agustin Diaz de Mera has said that police officials who elaborated the official report left out the information due to “political pressures.”


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Spanish Far-right Vox Enlists Ex-generals to Run for Parliament 

Spanish far-right party Vox has signed up three former generals to run for parliament in next month’s general election, two of whom expressed support for the legacy of former right-wing dictator Francisco Franco by signing a petition last year. 

 

The inclusion of openly pro-Franco candidates with senior military backgrounds underscores the ground that Vox has broken in a country that had largely shied away from far-right, militaristic politics since Franco’s rule ended with his death in 1975. 

 

Former Gens. Agustin Rosety and Alberto Asarta will run as parliamentary candidates for the provinces of Cadiz and Castellon, Vox said. Another former general, Manuel Mestre, is running in Alicante, according to the party. Vox had already enlisted another general to run for mayor in Palma de Mallorca. 

 

Rosety and Asarta signed a manifesto last year in support of Franco’s legacy, including the military uprising that ignited the 1936-39 Spanish civil war and resulted in his rule until 1975. 

 

Asarta signed the manifesto last year, according to a copy of it, while Rosety has signed it subsequently, said local media.  

The manifesto, which was has been signed by about 600 former members of the armed forces, was issued as a response to the Socialist government’s plans to remove Franco’s remains from a state mausoleum outside Madrid, according to the promoters. The mausoleum has long been seen by critics as a monument to fascism. 

 

Latest opinion polls show support for Vox, which opposes gender equality laws and immigration and has a strong stance against independence for Spain’s regions, as high as 12.1 percent. That could translate into 38 seats in the national parliament at the April 28 election. 

 

Vox grabbed attention last year when it became the first far-right party in Spain in more than four decades to score an electoral victory, winning seats in a local election in Andalusia. 

 

The Franco mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen has long been a source of controversy. The Socialist government said last Friday that the dictator’s body would be removed on June 10 and reburied in the family tomb at a state cemetery outside Madrid.


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Government Critic Wins Slot in Slovak Runoff

Vocal government critic Zuzana Caputova clinched pole position in round one of Slovakia’s weekend presidential election, according to near-complete results of the first ballot since an investigative journalist’s slaying dealt a blow to the political establishment.

The environmental lawyer secured 40.55 percent of the ballot with 99.88 percent of votes counted, while runner-up European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, the ruling Smer-SD party’s candidate, garnered 18.66 percent, the Slovak Statistics Office said early Sunday.

Caputova is on course to become Slovakia’s first female president, as a new opinion poll by the Focus pollster said she would win the runoff vote against career diplomat Sefcovic, 52, by a landslide on March 30.

The 45-year-old liberal thanked her supporters in the race for the largely ceremonial post, saying “thank you” in Slovak as well as in the languages of the country’s largest minority groups.

Focus on public trust

Running on a slogan of “Stand up to evil,” Caputova had appealed to voters tired of the country’s main political players and vowed to restore public trust in the state.

She was among tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after last year’s killing of journalist Jan Kuciak, which shocked the nation and raised fears about media freedom and political corruption.

They were the largest anti-government protests since communist times in the central European country of 5.4 million people, which spent decades behind the Iron Curtain before joining the European Union, the eurozone and NATO.

“It turns out that we want our country to be decent and fair. Zuzana Caputova is exactly the person who can pull Slovakia out of the crisis,” outgoing President Andrej Kiska said in a Facebook video message after the results rolled in. 

The president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is commander in chief of the armed forces and can also veto laws passed by parliament.

Turnout was just under 50 percent.

The voting did not go completely without a hitch, as a man ran out with the ballot box at the polling station in the eastern village of Medzany and threw it to the ground, scattering its contents on the street. 

Caputova, a deputy head of the non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, cast her ballot in her southern city of Pezinok.

“Slovakia is at a crossroads in terms of regaining the public’s trust,” she said, flanked by her daughters and partner.

Symbol of change

Journalist Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down in February 2018 just as he was about to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.

The double murder and Kuciak’s last explosive report, published posthumously, plunged the country into crisis.

Then-Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign but remains the leader of the populist-left Smer-SD and is a close ally of current Premier Peter Pellegrini.

Four people were charged with the killings. 

On Thursday, prosecutors said they had also charged multimillionaire businessman Marian Kocner with ordering the killing of Kuciak, who had been investigating his business activities at the time.

Kocner is believed to have ties to Smer-SD.

“With this announcement, the authorities may have wanted to show just how effectively the state functions so it could help Sefcovic gain some points,” Bratislava-based analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP. 

“On the other hand, this could also be a vindication for Caputova, as she is the symbol of change.”

‘Courageous’

On the streets of Bratislava, several voters said they were impressed by Caputova’s fresh approach. 

Project manager Nora Bajnokova, 33, said she backed Caputova because “she is a woman, a mother, a lawyer and not involved in active politics,” while voter Ivan Jankovic, 31, called her “courageous and open-minded.”

But for security guard Oto, 41, who did not give his last name, only Sefcovic was “serious” enough to be presidential material.

“Sefcovic is an experienced multilingual diplomat who can immediately represent Slovakia abroad,” said another voter, Milan Perunko, 54.

A sports enthusiast and European Commission vice president since 2014, Sefcovic campaigned on the slogan “Always for Slovakia.” 

Official results will be announced at noon on Sunday. 


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Report: May Partner Insists on Role in Post-Brexit Trade Talks

The Northern Irish party that props up British Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government is demanding a seat at post-Brexit trade talks as its price for supporting her twice-defeated divorce deal, The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported.

The Democratic Unionist Party also wants a guarantee that Northern Ireland will be treated no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, the newspaper said.

“We are determined that Brexit should happen in accordance with the referendum result, but the only way it can happen which is acceptable to us is if the United Kingdom is treated as one,” DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds told The Sunday Telegraph. “The government is now focused on this key issue, but political statements or pledges are not enough.” 

Earlier, May warned lawmakers that unless they approved her twice-defeated Brexit divorce deal, Britain’s exit from the European Union could face a long delay and could involve taking part in European Parliament elections. 

After 2½ years of tortuous divorce negotiations with the EU, the final outcome is still uncertain with options including a long delay, exiting with May’s deal, a disorderly exit without a deal, or even another referendum. 

An ultimatum

May has issued Brexit supporters a clear ultimatum: Ratify her deal by a European Council summit March 21 or face a delay to Brexit way beyond June 30 that would open up the possibility that the entire divorce could be ultimately thwarted. 

Negotiation of a new deal “would mean a much longer extension — almost certainly requiring the United Kingdom to participate in the European Parliament elections in May,” she told The Sunday Telegraph.

“The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about. There could be no more potent symbol of Parliament’s collective political failure.”

EU leaders will consider pressing Britain to delay Brexit by at least a year to find a way out of the domestic maelstrom, though there is shock and growing impatience at the political chaos in London. 

Her deal, an attempt to keep close relations with the EU while leaving the bloc’s formal structures, was defeated by 230 votes in parliament on Jan. 15 and by 149 votes on March 12. 

But May continues to fight to build support for her plan, which is expected to put before lawmakers for a third time next week, possibly on Tuesday.

To get it through Parliament, the prime minister must win over dozens of Brexit-supporting rebels in her own Conservative Party — and the Democratic Unionist Party. 

The DUP has voted against May’s plan because of concerns about the Northern Ireland backstop, which is an insurance policy aimed at maintaining an open border between the British province of Northern 

Ireland and EU member Ireland.


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Thousands of Catalan Separatist Supporters Protest in Madrid

Thousands of supporters of Catalan independence marched through central Madrid on Saturday to protest the trial of 12 separatist leaders who face years in prison for their role in organizing a failed independence bid from Spain in 2017.

Demonstrators, many who made the journey from the northwestern Catalonia region for the protest, waved Catalan flags and carried signs reading “Self-determination is not a crime.”

Protest organizers put the turnout at 120,000 while police gave a figure of 18,000. 

Tensions between Madrid and Barcelona have thawed since the political crisis triggered by Catalonia’s independence declaration in late 2017, but the trial of 12 separatist leaders for their role in the secession bid and events leading up to it has been one of several sticking points to derail negotiations. 

The 12 are on trial in Madrid on charges ranging from rebellion to misuse of funds, which they deny. 

The Catalan crisis is set to play a major role in April 28 elections, with three right-leaning parties — the conservative People’s Party (PP), the center-right Ciudadanos and the relatively new far-right Vox party — calling for Spain to take a tougher position with separatists. 

Polls show the support of Catalan parties may prove decisive if Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is to form a government after the vote. Most polls indicate Sanchez’s Socialists winning the most seats but falling short of a parliamentary majority. 

Sanchez came to power by winning a confidence motion last year with the support of Catalan separatist parties but was unable to secure their backing for his budget, effectively dooming the project and leading him to call an early election. 


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Report: North Korea Dissidents Behind Embassy Raid in Spain

A dissident organization committed to overthrowing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was behind a raid on the North Korean embassy in Spain last month, The Washington Post reported Friday, quoting people familiar with the planning and execution of the mission.

The newspaper, which did not further identify its sources, identified the group as Cheollima Civil Defense, which also goes by the name Free Joseon. It said the group came to prominence in 2017 after evacuating a nephew of Kim from Macau when potential threats to his life surfaced.

The Post’s sources said the group did not act in coordination with any governments and U.S. intelligence agencies would have been especially reluctant to be involved given the sensitive timing of the mission ahead of a second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi from Feb. 27-28.

According to Spanish media accounts, broadly confirmed by a Spanish Foreign Ministry source, a group of unidentified men entered North Korea’s embassy in Madrid on Feb. 22, bound and gagged staff, and drove off four hours later with computers.

There has been no claim of responsibility.

The dissident group identified by The Washington Post could not be reached for comment and its purported website has made no mention of any involvement in the raid.

On Feb. 25 the website posted a statement saying the group had “received a request for help from comrades in a certain Western country” and that “it was a highly dangerous situation but (we) responded.” The group said an important announcement would be coming that week, but no details of any operation have been released.

The Madrid embassy is where North Korea’s chief working-level negotiator in talks with the United States, Kim Hyok Chol, was ambassador until 2017.

Intelligence experts said computers and phones reportedly seized in the raid would be eagerly sought by foreign intelligence agencies given the information they might contain on Kim Hyok Chol and others.

Asked about The Washington Post report, the U.S. State Department referred queries to the Spanish authorities. The CIA declined to comment.


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