All posts by MPolitics

Struggling Bordeaux Wine Producers Offered Aid to Clear Stocks

France will provide subsidies to wine producers in regions like Bordeaux to offload surplus supplies, the agriculture ministry said on Monday, as the renowned industry struggles with declining consumption.

Falling demand for red wine, as French consumers drink less alcohol or turn to other wine categories, has hammered the sector in Bordeaux, even as champagne makers have been toasting record sales.

As a short-term measure, the government will channel up to 160 million euros ($172.03 million) of national and European Union aid this year for distilling surplus stocks into alcohol, the ministry said in a statement after a meeting with industry representatives.

A similar step was taken three years ago to absorb excess supplies caused by the closure of French bars and restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government will also study longer-term measures for the wine industry to adapt to climate change, consumer trends and export demand, the ministry said.

A crisis committee has been set up in Bordeaux by the local prefect (regional administrator) to look into steps including pulling up some vineyards to counter disease, it added.

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Search, Rescue Efforts Underway in Turkey After Deadly Quake

Southern Turkey has been struck by a powerful earthquake along the Syrian border. Authorities have confirmed nearly one thousand dead and hundreds more injured, with a state of emergency declared. Calls are out for international assistance.

A man calls out to someone buried deep in the rubble of a collapsed apartment block in the southern city of Malatya. All over southern Turkey, rescuers are in a desperate race against time to find survivors following one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike the country in decades. Videos on social media show streets of destroyed apartment blocks due to the quake, which had a magnitude of 7.8 according to preliminary readings.

Collapsing buildings hampered rescue efforts as powerful aftershocks shook the region. Professor Orhan Tatar of Turkey’s disaster response agency AFAD warned of the scale of aftershocks.

Tatar said, “There have been more than a hundred aftershocks, three of them are above 6.6, and there has just been another earthquake centered in the town of Elbistan triggered by the initial quake.”

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said more than 1,700 buildings had collapsed by late morning. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said all the country’s resources are being mobilized.

Soylu said all of Turkey’s governors were on duty. He added that gendarmerie, police, the Turkish Armed Forces, disaster and emergency teams, Turkish Red Crescent, and search and rescue teams from all over the country were being dispatched to the region.

The earthquake struck at 4:15 a.m. local time between the cities of Karamanmaras and Gaziantep.

Two state hospitals were among the buildings that collapsed Monday in southern Turkey. The strong quake surpasses the 1999 shock that hit close to Istanbul and killed more than 17,000 people.

Many people in the region were on the streets in sub-zero temperatures.

Severe winter conditions are hampering rescue efforts due to heavy snow in the region. Many roads have been heavily damaged, and at least one runway at an airport was rendered unusable.

The Turkish government declared a state of emergency and called for international assistance.

The United States issued a statement saying “any and all” needed assistance would be provided. Ukraine, India, and Israel are also offering support as Turkey mobilizes for what is expected to be one of the largest emergency operations in the country’s history. Syrian health officials said at least 371 people were killed in the government-held areas, while rescue workers said at least 221 others died in rebel-controlled areas.

Chris Hannas contributed to this report.

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Manchester City Accused of Misleading Premier League over Finances

Manchester City was accused by the Premier League on Monday of providing misleading information about its finances over a nine-year period when the club was attempting to establish itself as a force in English and European soccer following its takeover by Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.

The explosive development came at the end of a four-year investigation by the world’s most popular soccer league in the wake of leaked club emails and documents from City officials that were published by German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2018.

The Premier League released a long statement detailing a list of about 80 alleged breaches of its financial rules by City from 2009-18, the first nine full seasons under Abu Dhabi ownership. In that time, the team won three Premier League titles — in 2012, 2014 and 2018 — in what has become the most successful period in City’s 143-year history.

The league also accused City of 30 more breaches relating to its alleged failure to co-operate with the investigation since December 2018.

The league said it has referred the breaches to an independent commission ahead of a confidential hearing.

In a statement, City said it was “surprised” by the allegations, “particularly given the extensive engagement and vast amount of detailed materials that the EPL (English Premier League) has been provided with.

“The club welcomes the review of this matter by an independent commission to impartially consider the comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position,” City said. “As such we look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all.”

The Premier League has accused City of breaching rules requiring provision “in utmost good faith” of “accurate financial information that gives a true and fair view of the club’s financial position” between 2009-18 and failing to give “full details of manager remuneration in its relevant contracts” from 2009-13. Roberto Mancini was manager during that period.

The third and fourth offenses are a failure to comply with UEFA regulations from 2013-18 and the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules from 2015-18.

For the fifth offense, City is accused of breaching rules requiring clubs to “co-operate with and assist the Premier League with its investigations” from December 2018 to the present day.

City, the defending Premier League champion and a team owning some of the world’s top players like Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, could be at risk of severe punishment. The league’s rule book gives a disciplinary commission powers to impose a range of sanctions plus the wider scope of “such other penalty as it shall think fit.”

A large fine seems inevitable if the charges are proven. Also in play is a point deduction, a title nullified or even being expelled from the league, according to league rules.

City never disputed that the documents leaked by Der Spiegel were authentic, but has argued the evidence was stolen and reported out of context.

While City was under investigation by the Premier League, the club had a two-year ban from European club competitions overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2020 after UEFA ruled City committed “serious breaches” of financial fair play regulations from 2012-16. That case arose on the back of the leaked information, too.

City was not fully cleared of wrongdoing, though the court said some of the allegations were not proven or could not be judged because of a statute of limitations in UEFA rules. There are no such time limits on the finances under investigation by the Premier League.

CAS also fined City 10 million euros (then $11.3 million) for failing to cooperate with investigators. The club’s “blatant disregard” should be “strongly condemned,” the court’s judges said.

City has been transformed into an English soccer power since being bought in September 2008 by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.

Under its Abu Dhabi ownership, City — which previously lived in the shadow of neighbor Manchester United — has won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and six English League Cups.

The team is in second place in the Premier League midway through this season, five points behind Arsenal having played one game more.

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Kosovo PM Calls on West Not to Put Pressure Over Serb Entity

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti called on Western powers not to pressure his tiny Balkan country into accepting a contentious association of five Serb-majority municipalities that is ramping up tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.

Kurti told The Associated Press that the focus instead should be on making Serbia more democratic and getting rid of what he called Belgrade’s hegemonistic ideas.

Kurti said in the interview on Sunday that the Serbian government should acknowledge the independence of all the ex-republics of former Yugoslavia in order to “face the past.” He stressed that Belgrade should lean more toward the European Union and NATO, not Russia.

The prime minister said that if they free themselves from the idea that Kosovo still belongs to Serbia, “they will be much more democratic, European.”

During the past several weeks, U.S. and EU envoys have visited Pristina and Belgrade to encourage them to accept a new proposal for the two countries to normalize relations and boost their EU accession bids.

A EU-mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has been ongoing since 2011, but few of the 33 signed agreements have been implemented.

Kurti said the negotiations so far were “a problem-solving ideology … every solution became ever more complicated, ever less implementable, and the public lost interest.” He considered the new proposal “a good framework and platform for moving forward … which makes us hopeful about the prospects of future talks and an agreement.”

The proposal’s details haven’t yet been made public.

The United States has increased pressure on Pristina to implement a 2013 agreement to establish the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities, which would coordinate work on education, health care, land planning and economic development at the local level. In 2015, Kosovo’s Constitutional Court later declared part of the plan unconstitutional, ruling that it wasn’t inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail the use of executive powers.

Kurti says the establishment of the association isn’t his priority, and last week he set conditions saying it can only be formed as part of an overall agreement on the normalization of relations, which Serbia has rejected in the past. Kosovo authorities fear it would eventually undermine the country’s statehood with the help of Belgrade.

Western powers should learn from the example of Bosnia’s Serb-run ministate Republica Srpska, fearing the creation of a ministate in Kosovo, he said, adding that Belgrade used the creation of the association “as a weapon against our independence.”

“If we introduce in the Western Balkans the idea of ethnically based association of municipalities, that’s a recipe for new conflicts,” Kurti said.

The Western powers should not impose pressure on smaller countries like Kosovo, which are democratic, he said. The problems between Kosovo and Serbia might be small and annoying, but they should pay attention to what has been going on in the region because “any kind of wrong solution in the Balkans can and will be used elsewhere.”

Mutual recognition is the centerpiece of any negotiation process, he insisted, something that Belgrade harshly turns down.

The dispute between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo has remained a source of instability in the Balkans long after the 1998-99 war, which ended with a NATO intervention that forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.

Kosovo in 2008 declared independence from Serbia, which Belgrade has refused to recognize, supported by Russia and China. The U.S. and most EU nations have recognized Kosovo.

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In Pro-Putin Serbia, Liberal-Minded Russians Seek a Home

At a central square in Serbia’s capital of Belgrade, dozens of Russians gathered recently to denounce President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, holding up photos of political prisoners from their homeland.

Across the plaza, a billboard touts the Russian propaganda outlet RT, which has launched an online news portal in the country but is banned elsewhere in Europe. Heroic portraits of a bare-chested Putin adorn souvenir T-shirts and coffee mugs, or are painted on city walls.

These conflicting images reflect the complex and delicate relationship these days between Russia and Serbia.

The Slavic country is Moscow’s closest ally in Europe, with historic, religious and cultural ties that are bolstered by Kremlin political influence campaigns. Russia backs Serbia’s claim over its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 with Western support. And Serbia has refused to impose sanctions on Moscow over the invasion.

At the same time, Serbia wants to join the European Union. Populist President Aleksandar Vucic has denounced the invasion, and about 200,000 Russians have flooded into the country in the past year, with many seeking a new life in a brotherly land free of Kremlin oppression.

“Here in Belgrade, we are not perceived with hostility, and that means a lot,” said Anastasia Demidova, who arrived in the Balkan nation from Moscow three months ago.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of Serbian people here and other foreigners. When they ask me ‘what are you doing here,’ I say: ‘We are against Putin and for a democratic Russia and we are against the war in Ukraine, obviously,’” she told The Associated Press.

Others say they fled to avoid being drafted or because Western sanctions crippled their businesses or took away their jobs.

As a result, Russian can be heard spoken everywhere in Belgrade, a city of about 2 million. Russian-owned restaurants and bars have sprouted. Private Russian enterprises have mushroomed, especially in the IT sector. The influx has sent the price of real estate soaring.

This reminds some here of the wave of Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and many of those who stayed in Serbia left their mark on its culture and art.

These modern Russians, however, are maintaining links to their homeland, including financial ties, said historian Aleksej Timofejev. Unlike their predecessors, he said, they can’t go onward to the West because of the sanctions and still need visas to travel to richer countries in Europe.

“They did not choose this country but came here because it is the only one that would have them,” Timofejev added.

The newcomers say they can still feel Moscow’s heavy-handed influence, especially when it comes to Serbians’ approval for Putin, via media outlets like RT.

Russian activist Petar Nikitin calls it a “coordinated propaganda effort.”

Nikitin first came to Serbia in the early 2000s. Back then, “this admiration for the Russian government was a lot more marginal … and I saw it grow exponentially,” he said.

Russians “who recently arrived, who didn’t know much about Serbia before, yes, many of them told me they were completely shocked to see this idolization specifically of Putin, and this picture of Russia that is completely divorced from reality,” Nikitin said.

Moscow has boosted this sentiment in the pro-Russia media by feeding Serbian anger with the West over Kosovo following the breakup of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has been a source of tension since the war in 1998-99 that ended when a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbia to pull out of the former Serbian province after a bloody crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists and civilians.

Serbia’s rejection of Kosovo’s declaration of independence has Moscow’s support — one of the reasons why Belgrade maintains friendly relations with Putin and has refused to join Western sanctions.

While Vucic has criticized the invasion of Ukraine, he puts a uniquely Balkan spin on it.

“We do support territorial integrity of Ukraine, as we do support territorial integrity of Serbia,” he told the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. “So … they ask me, ‘Is Crimea part of Ukraine or Russia?’ Yes, it’s part of Ukraine. Donbas is part of Ukraine. If you ask us.”

His country “will stick to that, and we will be more loyal to territorial integrity of U.N. member states than many others that changed their stance on territorial integrity of Serbia,” Vucic added, referring to the support for Kosovo’s independence from Washington and other countries.

Western officials have stepped up pressure on Vucic to make a decisive turn away from Moscow if Serbia wants to join the EU. They fear that Russia could stir trouble in the Balkans through its Serbian proxies to avert some of the international attention from Ukraine.

Recently, the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group ran advertisements on RT’s Serbian-language outlet recruiting Serbs to fight in Ukraine. It is illegal for Serbs to take part in conflicts outside the country, although about a dozen joined Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after battles broke out there in 2014.

Owned by Putin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner has taken a prominent and active role in Ukraine and also has sent its mercenaries to several African countries. Last month, U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet held talks with Vucic to voice concerns about Wagner’s activities in Serbia.

Nikitin, the Russian activist who has formed a group called Russian Democratic Community, has teamed up with a Serbian lawyer to file a lawsuit demanding an investigation of the mercenary group. That led to increased threats against more liberal Russians from right-wing Serbian organizations with close links to Wagner and Moscow.

“The threats that I receive directly and to my inbox are quite carefully worded — they are quite obvious,” Nikitin said. “They range from ‘get out of Serbia’ to very obscene insults involving my family. And veiled threats that I am soon going to meet people who are dead.”

Nikitin said his more liberal-minded countrymen in Serbia are eager to show they don’t support Putin’s war or his crackdown on opposition groups at home.

“We want to be very open about who we are and why we hold the views that we hold,” he said.

Artem, a 33-year-old web developer from St. Petersburg, said that he fled to Serbia with his wife and two pets shortly after the war began on February 24. He spoke with the AP on condition that his last name not be used for “safety reasons.”

Speaking at a Belgrade bar that’s an unofficial hub for more liberal Russians — its Wi-Fi password is “Nowar2402” — he said he’s been helping Ukrainian refugees in Serbia through online aid campaigns, providing information on how to start a new life.

Leaving Russia “was some kind of protest because I didn’t agree at all with the war,” Artem said. “War for me is not an answer for any conflict or anything.”

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Deadly Earthquake Hits Southern Turkey

A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake early Monday killed at least 76 people in southern Turkey and dozens more in northern Syria. 

Search and rescue crews worked to find people among buildings toppled by the quake that also injured hundreds more, according to Turkey’s emergency service. Turkey appealed for international help. 

“We hope that we will get through this disaster together as soon as possible and with the least damage,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted. 

Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said there were more than 20 aftershocks.  He said the earthquake affected at least 10 provinces in Turkey and that he and other Cabinet members were going to those areas. 

The epicenter of the earthquake was located near Gaziantep, a key industrial and manufacturing hub close to the Turkey-Syria border. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, people reported feeling the tremors in Lebanon and Cyprus as well. 

In the Turkish city of Mersin, resident Nurhan Kiral told VOA’s Turkish service that the earthquake lasted about a minute. 

“We woke up with the tremor and got out of the bed. Rubble fell from the chimney. Rubble fell from the empty space between the buildings. It was terrifying,” Kiral said. 

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said President Joe Biden directed the U.S. Agency for International Development and other federal partners “to assess U.S. response options to help those most affected.”

“The United States is profoundly concerned by the reports of today’s destructive earthquake in Turkiye and Syria. We stand ready to provide any and all needed assistance,” Sullivan said in a statement. 

Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.    

In 1999, 17,000 people were killed when a 7.4-magnitude earthquake — the worst to hit Turkey in decades — struck near Duzce, in the northwest of the country.    

In October 2022, a magnitude-7.0 quake hit the Aegean Sea, killing 116 people and wounding more than 1,000. All but two of the victims were in Izmir, Turkey.     

Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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Ransomware Attacks in Europe Target Old VMware, Agencies Say

Cybersecurity agencies in Europe are warning of ransomware attacks exploiting a two-year-old computer bug as Italy experienced widespread internet outages. 

The Italian premier’s office said Sunday night the attacks affecting computer systems in the country involved “ransomware already in circulation” in a product made by cloud technology provider VMware. 

A Friday technical bulletin from a French cybersecurity agency said the attack campaigns target VMware ESXi hypervisors, which are used to monitor virtual machines. 

Palo Alto, California-based VMware fixed the bug back in February 2021, but the attacks are targeting older, unpatched versions of the product. 

The company said in a statement Sunday that its customers should take action to apply the patch if they have not already done so. 

“Security hygiene is a key component of preventing ransomware attacks,” it said. 

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said Sunday it is “working with our public and private sector partners to assess the impacts of these reported incidents and providing assistance where needed.” 

The problem attracted particular public attention in Italy on Sunday because it coincided with a nationwide internet outage affecting telecommunications operator Telecom Italia, which interfered with streaming the Spezia v. Napoli soccer match but appeared largely resolved by the time of the later Derby della Madonnina between Inter Milan and AC Milan. It was unclear whether the outages were related to the ransomware attacks. 

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Pope Planning India, Mongolia Trips After Portugal, France

Pope Francis said Sunday he is planning to visit India next year and is studying a possible trip to Mongolia later in 2023 in what would be a first for a pope.

Francis outlined his upcoming travel schedule during his flight back to Rome from South Sudan.

He confirmed that he would be in Lisbon, Portugal for World Youth Day the first week of August and would participate in a Sept. 23 meeting of Mediterranean bishops in Marseille, France.

He said there was “the possibility” that he would fly from Marseille to Mongolia, which would be a first for a pope.

Looking further ahead, Francis said he thought he would visit India in 2024, after plans for a trip in 2017 fell apart.

Francis spoke to reporters after a six-day visit to Congo and South Sudan, where he was joined in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields.

The Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian leaders made a novel joint visit to push South Sudan’s political leaders to make progress on implementing a stalled 2018 peace accord that ended a civil war following the country’s 2011 independence from Sudan.

Welby and Greenshields joined Francis aboard the papal plane back and took part in his airborne news conference, during which they were asked if they would be willing to join Francis on future trips too.

Welby said he would be “delighted to” if it might be helpful, joking that the papal plane was “the best airline I’ve ever flown on.”

Greenshields also was keen but noted his mandate ends in May.

In a nod to the nearly all-male Vatican delegation that accompanies Francis on his foreign trips, Greenshields pointed out that he would be replaced by “a very capable woman” as moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rev. Sally Foster-Fulton, an American. The Church of Scotland has had ordained female ministers since the 1960s.

“She would be delighted to do the same thing,” he said.

The Vatican delegation, made up mostly of cardinals and bishops, traditionally only includes one woman: a protocol expert in the Vatican secretariat of state. On this trip, Francis also invited as his personal guest a Congolese nun.

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Thousands of Danes Protest Canceling of Public Holiday

Thousands of people gathered in Copenhagen on Sunday to protest a bill put forward by the government to scrap a public holiday to help finance increased defense spending.

The demonstration was organized by the country’s biggest labor unions which oppose abolishing the Great Prayer Day, a Christian holiday that falls on the fourth Friday after Easter and dates to 1686.

Unions organizing the protest estimated at least 50,000 people took part, which would make it Denmark’s biggest demonstration in more than a decade. Local police don’t give such crowd estimates.

The holiday abolition was proposed in December to help raise tax revenues for higher defense spending in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine and is part of the newly formed Danish government’s sweeping reform program aimed at overcoming challenges to Denmark’s welfare model.

The government has proposed moving forward by three years to 2030 a goal of meeting a NATO defense spending target of 2% of GDP. It says most of the extra 4.5 billion Danish crowns ($654 million) needed to meet the target could be covered by the higher tax revenues it anticipates from abolishing the holiday.

However, unions, opposition lawmakers and economists have questioned the effect of the proposal. Some economists have said it is unlikely to have long-lasting effects, as workers would find other ways to adjust their working hours.

In the Danish labor market, pay and working hours are primarily regulated by collective agreements between highly organized worker and employer groups without intervention by the state.

However, the government, which holds a slim majority in parliament, says it intends to push the bill through regardless of any opposition.

“Normally these things are discussed with the working people, and now this model is about to be overruled. We are protesting to hopefully make them listen,” said plumber Stig De Blanck, 63, who was demonstrating in front of parliament.

Danes work fewer hours than most countries in Europe, according to OECD data.

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