All posts by MPolitics

US, Poland Sign Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement

The United States and Poland signed a recently negotiated Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) Saturday in Warsaw.Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak inked the agreement after brief remarks by President Andrzej Duda. “The United States values our strong bilateral relationship with Poland. We look forward to Poland’s swift ratification of the EDCA, which will permit us to implement fully the enhanced defense cooperation envisioned by Presidents Trump and Duda,” the State Department said in a statement.The deal supplements an existing NATO Status of Forces Agreement and also allows U.S. forces access to additional military installations in Poland.About 4,500 U.S. troops are currently based in Poland and about 1,000 will be added, as both counties agreed and announced last year. Last July, the Pentagon said that about 12,000 troops would be withdrawn from Germany, from which some 5,600 would be stationed in other countries in Europe, including Poland.The relocation of U.S. troops is in line with President Donald Trump’s demand to reduce American forces in Germany.Also Saturday, Pompeo met with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland’s capital, where he is honoring the centennial of the Battle of Warsaw, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said.Pompeo and Morawiecki discussed a new draft bilateral agreement to cooperate in the development of Poland’s civil nuclear power program, which the two countries initialed this week.Besides defense cooperation, Pompeo and Morawiecki discussed the support for the people of Belarus, measures to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, securing 5G networks, and improving regional energy and infrastructure through the Three Seas Initiative, Ortagus said.Poland is the last leg of Pompeo’s four-nation tour of eastern and central Europe, during which he visited the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Austria, and met with the countries’ leaders.

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Pompeo Keeps Focus on China During Eastern European Tour

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is warning leaders in the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Austria that China’s Communist Party poses an even bigger security threat than the former Soviet Union.  VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more on Pompeo’s trip to Eastern Europe.

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Investigation Confirms Landslide Caused Scotland Train Derailment

British investigators Friday confirmed that a landslide caused the fatal passenger train derailment in northeast Scotland that killed three people and injured six others this week. In a report published on its official website, the British Rail Investigation Branch says the train derailed after it struck a landslide that had covered the tracks in a rural area about 6.4 kilometers southwest of the coastal town of Stonehaven and 160 kilometers northeast of Edinburgh. The investigators say after the derailment, the train kept going in a straight line as the track curved to the right. The lead power car struck a bridge parapet and fell down a wooded embankment with the third passenger car. The report says derailment killed the train’s driver, its conductor and one passenger. One other member of the crew and five passengers were taken to the hospital, but their injuries were not considered serious. Heavy rains in previous days were believed to have caused the landslide. In a statement Friday, Chief Rail Inspector Simon French said that while fatal accidents on the railway remain rare, landslides “and other earthworks failures remain a risk to trains.” He said this is becoming more challenging for the rail industry due to the increasing incidence of extreme weather events.Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, meets first responders in Stonehaven where a passenger train derailed in northeast Scotland, Aug. 14, 2020.Prince Charles is visiting the accident site Friday to thank emergency workers who came to help others in rugged terrain. 

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In Belarus, Journalists Beaten and Detained, Internet Cut

As Belarus cracked down on protesters contesting the reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, dozens of journalists were detained, beaten, and deported, and internet service was blocked as authorities tried to stifle opposition to the Aug. 9 vote.Mass demonstrations took place in the capital, Minsk, and other cities this week with protesters alleging the election was rigged and that opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — and not Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years — won the vote. Belarus freed about 1,000 people overnight on Aug. 13 after public outcry at the harsh tactics.Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania after the election and has called on her supporters to not oppose the police. She ran for president after authorities detained her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular video blogger who was registered as a presidential candidate.  Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya speaks in a video message in an unknown location, in this still image taken from a video released, Aug. 11, 2020.About 80 violations against the media have been documented since the election, according to the People detained during recent rallies of opposition supporters, who accuse Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, show their marks from beatings as they leave the Okrestina prison, in Minsk, Aug. 14, 2020.In another incident, riot police beat Maksim Solopov, a Russian correspondent for Meduza, and arrested him while threatening his colleagues. Solopov’s whereabouts was unknown for two days. He was later handed to the Russian embassy, ​​along with the reporters from Dozhd TV.Security forces also detained and beat journalists from state-owned outlets including the Rossiya Segodnya news agency, Sputnik radio station, and RT TV, as well as the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, demanded the release of the country’s journalists. At least 10 of those detained were deported, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. In the Dozhd TV case, the journalists were barred from returning to Belarus for 10 years. News crews from the BBC and Associated Press were also attacked or detained. Riot police beat a BBC cameraman and damaged his equipment. AP photographer Mstislav Chernov, was briefly detained and beaten on Aug. 10. While foreign media were released, many Belarusian journalists were detained on accusations of petty hooliganism, violating laws on mass media, or violations of the law on organizing mass rallies or events.  Some are still in custody, and it was not always clear where they were being held.Rights expert Bihr said the disappearance of journalists was disturbing.“This has happened to several Russian journalists in recent days, and they have all been released now. However, we have so far failed to discover the whereabouts of certain Belarusian journalists. And this is a distinctive feature of the recent detentions,” he said.People light flares and wave Belarusian flags to support Belarusian opposition in front of Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 14, 2020.International rights groups have criticized the government’s crackdown. “The problem was the complete lack of communication: the mobile internet was completely down, it was impossible to use any instant messengers or get any information from the phone at all while you were in the street,” Tanya Lokshina, director of the Russia program at Human Rights Watch, told VOA. “You could only figure out what was happening and where basically only by the noise. It was also impossible to find Wi-Fi there, because cafes where such a connection could theoretically be available were forcibly closed. I literally had to run in the direction of the noise,” said Lokshina, who was in Minsk. Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the internet block and attacks were an attempt by authorities to prevent independent information from being shared. “We believe that the basic goal of the Belarusian authorities before, during and after the elections is to control the flow of information, to prevent the dissemination of any opinions about the elections or the political situation in Belarus that differ from the narrative approved by Lukashenko,” she told VOA, adding that the brutality of the crackdown on protesters exceeds that of previous elections.“The international community was aware of the nature of Lukashenko’s regime, probably since the time Lukashenko came to power. And he has remained in power for so long, because the pressure on him to guarantee certain civil and human rights throughout Belarus from the international community was decidedly insufficient,” she said.Bihr said instructions appeared to be coming from the top.“Over the past few days and weeks, President Lukashenko has repeatedly warned and threatened independent media. He scolded the Belarusian Foreign Ministry for accrediting Radio Liberty,” Bihr said. “He threatened the journalists of (website) Tut.by and (television channel) Belsat, accusing them of instigating a revolution. In this way, he very openly and clearly empowered the state apparatus to crack down on independent journalists and arrange an information blackout in the country.”This article originated in VOA’s Russia service.

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Uncertainty Hovers Over Belarus as Thousands Hit the Streets Again

Uncertainly hovered over Belarus on Friday as thousands continued to protest against President Alexander Lukashenko, disputing his claims of a landslide victory during Sunday’s elections, marred by voter fraud and a police crackdown against unarmed demonstrators.Indeed, while the past 36 hours witnessed fewer arrests than the days following the vote, there were a flurry of developments suggesting resistance to Lukashenko’s rule was spreading.   Across the country, thousands of Belarusian women and medical workers gathered along roadways holding hands to demand an end to the violence — a tactic that seemed to neutralize police who previously had gone after demonstrators with startling aggression.   Key factories across the country announced they were entering work stoppages until  Lukashenko had resigned — in several cases rejecting entreaties to return to work from plant directors loyal to the government.   Рабочие на БЕЛАЗе кричат «Уходи», «Жыве Беларусь». Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks at a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 14, 2020.”You just want power and your desire will end up with blood,” she said in an interview with VOA partner Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.    On Friday, Lukashenko addressed rumors — never substantiated — he had indeed vacated the presidency.”For starters, I’m still alive and in the country,” said Lukashenko as he began a meeting focused on the work stoppages.   Questionable victory The political standoff stems from an August 9 presidential vote in which Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote — an astounding result given the election was supposed to have been the most serious challenge to his 26-year rule.   His primary challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — a schoolteacher who only entered the race after her husband was barred from the election and arrested — had electrified huge crowds in the run-up to the vote. Joined by the wives of two other banned candidates, they rallied the country around a simple promise: to hold real elections within six months of winning the presidency.   But Tikhanovskaya received less than 10% of the vote — with widespread evidence of vote-rigging triggering protests. After initially insisting she would contest the results to the state election commission, she fled the country Tuesday hinting at threats to her family. Yet she reappeared again in a video released Friday from exile in Lithuania.  “Belarussians no longer want to live with the previous ruler. No one believes in his victory,” said Tikhanovskaya.  “We need to stop the violence on the streets of Belarusian cities. I call on the authorities to stop this and enter into dialogue.”  Since Sunday, authorities report near 7,000 arrests, hundreds of injuries, and two reported deaths resulting from clashes between demonstrators and police.   Activists report some 1,500 people have gone missing.  State torture documented  Late Thursday, hundreds of prisoners, maybe close to 1,000 according to some reports, were released from Minsk’s central Okrestina prison bearing grim accounts of torture at the hands of police.  “They beat them like animals. There was a sea of blood,” said one woman, as she exited the facility in a widely shared video.  Relatives and friends greet people after being released from a detention center where protesters were detained during a mass rally following the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 14, 2020.Many broke into tears upon being reunited with family members waiting outside the prison walls.  Nikita Telizhenko, a journalist for Russia’s znak.com news service, People detained during recent rallies of opposition supporters, who accuse Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, show their marks from beatings as they leave the Okrestina prison, in Minsk, Aug. 14, 2020.The head of Belarus’s Interior Ministry, Yuri Karayev, later apologized to those “accidentally” swept up by the police.”Provocateurs are making it so that the people hate us,” said Karayev.”But the majority of the population doesn’t support the protests,” he added.   International response  Foreign Ministers from the European Union were set to meet Friday to discuss the possibility of sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.   U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested the U.S. may join allies in introducing penalties against the government in Minsk.  People light flares and wave Belarusian flags in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 14, 2020.Meanwhile, Russia reiterated its support for Lukashenko — essentially doubling down on an earlier decision by President Vladimir Putin to join China among major powers congratulating Lukashenko on his reelection to a 6th term in office.Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying it was concerned about “unprecedented pressure” by foreign states to interfere in the internal affairs of Belarus “with the goal of dividing society and destabilizing the situation.” The Kremlin gesture came despite thorny relations between nominal allies over issues such as Lukashenko’s response to the coronavirus, gas prices, and a long-stalled creation of a supra-state union between the two countries.  Most recently, Moscow and Minsk clashed over the arrest of 33 alleged Russian mercenaries that Lukashenko said were intent on disrupting the election.  The Russians remain in prison on criminal charges of coordinating with the opposition to foment mass unrest.  
 

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Belarus Authorities Free Detainees Amid Protesters’ Pressure

Belarusian authorities have released about 1,000 people detained amid demonstrations contesting the results of the presidential election, in an attempt to assuage public anger against a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.
Around midnight, scores of detainees were seen walking out of one of Minsk’s jails. In the early morning, volunteers also saw at least 119 detainees being released in the city of Zhodino just northeast of the Belarusian capital. Ambulances arrived to carry those who apparently were unable to walk on their own.
Many of those who were released talked about brutal beatings and other abuse at the hands of police, and some showed bruises. Some wept as they embraced their relatives.
The releases came hours after Belarus’ top law enforcement official apologized on state television for the indiscriminate use of force by police. “I take responsibility for what they say was violence against those people, who happened to be nearby and failed to back off quickly enough,” Interior Minister Yuri Karayev said late Thursday.
The move comes on the day that European Union foreign ministers are due to meet to discuss possible sanctions against Belarus. Lukashenko’s main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been given refuge in neighboring Lithuania, posted a video statement contesting the results of the vote and demanding that the government start a dialogue with protesters.  
In five days of massive protests, crowds of demonstrators swarmed the streets to contest the vote results and demand an end to the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured.  
The official results said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote and Tsikhanouskaya only 10%. Police have broken up protests with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings.
On Thursday, thousands of workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce the police crackdown and push for a recount of Sunday’s vote.  
Hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity” in several areas of the capital, Minsk. Many were dressed in white and carried flowers and portraits of detained loved ones.  
The human chains grew throughout the day, filling Minsk’s main central squares and avenues and spreading to numerous other cities as motorists honked in support.  
Amid growing public dismay, dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms and insignia in the trash. Several popular anchors at Belarus’ state TV stations have quit.
The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. Tsikhanouskaya abruptly left for Lithuania on Tuesday, calling on her supporters to stop protests in a video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials before her departure. The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.
In a new video statement released Friday, Tsikhanouskaya again challenged Lukashenko’s victory, saying that copies of protocols from precincts where the vote was counted fairly show her winning 60-70% of the vote. She urged the government to end violence and engage in dialogue with protesters.
“The Belarusians will never want to live under the current government,” she said. “The authorities have turned peaceful demonstrations into a blood bath.”  
The massive protests against election results and police brutality have been an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” for his relentless crackdown on dissent. The scope and ferocity of the police clampdown were remarkable even for Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule, triggering widespread anger.
After dismissing protesters as mostly ex-convicts and unemployed, the authoritarian leader kept silent Thursday as the rallies spread quickly and workers at major industrial plants joined them. Some reports said he was preparing an address to the nation.
Clearly worried about the possibility of major strikes, Lukashenko warned that they would deepen the damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic and could lead to Belarus losing its niche in global markets amid intense competition.
“Everyone is fighting for markets, and if we stop we will never be able to resume production,” he said. “You must explain it to the people.”
He didn’t directly address the election and the subsequent protests, but the Belarusian upper house speaker Natalya Kochanova said late Thursday that more than 1,000 detainees had been released earlier in the day following Lukashenko’s order to law enforcement agencies to look more closely into the detentions.
“We don’t need a war, we don’t need a fight,” Kochanova said in televised remarks.
Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna rights center confirmed that about 1,000 people have been released from jails in Minsk and Zhodino.
“The authorities are obviously trying to de-escalate the situation and ease the tensions, fearing that the furious industrial workers will take to the streets all across Belarus,” Stefanovich said.
A protester died Monday in Minsk when, according to the Interior Ministry, an explosive device he tried to throw at police blew up in his hand. Media reports challenged the ministry’s claim, alleging that he was killed by police. The place where he died quickly turned into a pilgrimage site, with hundreds of people, including European ambassadors, laying flowers there.
The authorities said that a detainee died in the southeastern city of Gomel, but the circumstances of his death weren’t immediately clear.
The brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West.  
European Union foreign ministers are set to meet Friday to discuss a response, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the 27-nation bloc would “increase the pressure” on Belarus.  
In an attempt to ease Western criticism, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a phone call with his Swiss counterpart that the country is ready for a “constructive and objective dialogue” with foreign partners on all issues related to the election and subsequent events. 

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Turkey Pays Price as It Seeks to Save Tourism Amid Pandemic

Turkey is seeking to save its vital tourism sector amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the easing of restrictions as part of the government’s return to normalcy is leading to a surge in infections. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul on the government’s difficult balancing act.
Camera: Berke Bas 
 

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Thousands in Belarus Form ‘Lines of Solidarity’ in Protest

Crowds of protesters in Belarus swarmed the streets and thousands of workers rallied outside industrial plants Thursday to denounce a police crackdown on demonstrations over a disputed election that extended the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. Beginning in the morning, hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity” in several areas of the capital, Minsk. Many were dressed in white and carried flowers and portraits of loved ones who have been detained during protests that began shortly after Sunday’s vote, which they said was rigged.  The human chains grew throughout the day, filling the main central squares and avenues as motorists honked in support. In Minsk and many other cities, thousands of factory workers also rallied against the police violence, raising the prospect of strikes in a new challenge to the government. Amid growing public dismay, dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms and insignia in the trash. Several popular anchors at Belarus’ state TV stations have quit. People hold a handmade banner of an old Belarusian national flag as they gather to protest results of the country’s presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 13, 2020.Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured in the clampdown on demonstrators protesting the official results that said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote and his top opposition challenger got only 10%. Police have broken up protests with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings. “Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government. I argued with my husband and voted for Lukashenko. And this is what I got in the end — I can’t find my relatives in prisons,” said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were detained in protests Sunday. She has been unable to get any information on their whereabouts.  One protester died Monday in Minsk after, the Interior Ministry says, an explosive device he tried to throw at police blew up in his hand. Some media reports have challenged that official version. Neither the ministry nor the media outlets have provided evidence.  Thousands of people converged Thursday on the place where he died, many carrying flowers. European ambassadors also laid flowers at the site earlier in the day. The authorities also confirmed that a detainee died in the southeastern city of Gomel, but the circumstances of his death weren’t immediately clear. ‘War against us’Hundreds of medical workers joined the demonstrations Thursday in Minsk and many other cities. “There is a feeling that a war is going on, but it’s a war against us,” said Mikhail Portnov, a 33-year-old general practitioner. “We, doctors, see the price of this war as no one else. We were ready for violence, but the brutality of it has crossed all limits.” The unprecedented public opposition and unrest has been driven by the painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and Lukashenko’s dismissal of the outbreak as a “psychosis.” The vote and the brutality of the subsequent crackdown — remarkable even for Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule — have made the anger boil over. The 65-year-old former state farm director has been in power since 1994 and was nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” by the West for his suppression of dissent. “You can see the election result in the streets,” said 32-year old engineer Andrei Gubarevich, who joined a demonstration in Minsk. “Lukashenko has already lost.” Belarus’ Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe into the organization of mass rioting — an indication authorities may start leveling those charges against some detainees. The charges could carry prison terms of up to 15 years for those found guilty. The ministry said 103 police officers have been injured since Sunday, and 28 of them were hospitalized. In Minsk and the western city of Baranovichi, people ran over traffic police with their vehicles on Wednesday before being detained. Global reactionThe brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West.The European Union foreign ministers are set to meet Friday to discuss a response, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the 27-nation bloc would “increase the pressure” on Belarus. “The brutal actions and the arrest of peaceful protesters and even journalists in Belarus isn’t acceptable in Europe in the 21st century,” he told reporters in Berlin. A member of the Belarus diaspora holds a placard depicting Alexander Lukashenko with blood on his mouth during a rally outside the Belarusian embassy in Kyiv, Aug. 13, 2020.U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the election wasn’t free or fair and urged the government to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters.  “I’m confident that EU and the United States fully share the same concerns about what has taken place and what is taking place in Belarus and I’m very hopeful that we can collectively work in a way that gets a better outcome for the people of Belarus,” Pompeo said Thursday on a visit to Slovenia. Police responsePolice appeared to scale back their response on Wednesday. In many parts of Minsk, the all-female “lines of solidarity” stood unchallenged for some time before police dispersed some of them without violence. Similar peaceful demonstrations were seen across the capital and other cities Thursday, but police refrained from dispersing them immediately. People react during an opposition rally to protest against police violence and to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 13, 2020.Also Thursday, hundreds of workers at plants across the country, including the huge truck factories in Minsk and Zhodino, held rallies to protest the clampdown and demand a recount of the vote. Many shouted “Go away!” to demand Lukashenko’s resignation. During a meeting with workers of a plant in Grodno, near the border with Poland, the local police chief apologized for the violent crackdown, according to tut.by news portal.  The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. The top opposition challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, suddenly emerged Tuesday in neighboring Lithuania and called on her supporters to stop protests in a video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials before she left. The 37-year-old former teacher joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May. Lukashenko has derided the political opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue taking a tough position on protests. But that has not deterred many. “Protests will only grow,” said 25-year-old demonstrator Anna Shestakova in Minsk. “They can cheat some, but they can’t cheat the entire people.” 
 

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British PM Meets Irish and Northern Irish Officials

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Northern Ireland Thursday where he held talks with his Irish counterpart and other Irish officials to promote British unity and a strong rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.Johnson met Irish Prime Minister – also known in Ireland as Taoiseach – Micheal Martin, arriving at Hillsborough Castle and bumping elbows with each other for reporters. It was the first time the two leaders had met in person since Martin was elected to his position as part of a new Irish coalition government in June.A short time later, Johnson also met with Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, and her deputy, Michelle O’Neill.Relations between Johnson and Northern Ireland have been strained after years of sometimes acrimonious negotiations regarding Britain’s departure from the European Union, commonly known as “Brexit.”  Johnson was a strong proponent of the plan, while, in a 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, 56 to 44 percent.Following their talks, Martin told reporters he and Johnson both agreed on the necessity for a free trade agreement with the EU that would be “tariff and quota-free.” The Irish leader said Johnson was “very committed” to reaching a comprehensive agreement with the alliance.Talks between Britain and the EU have stalled but are scheduled to begin again in Brussels next week. 

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