Russia’s Foreign Minister Slams ‘Aggressive’ US Policies

Russia’s foreign policy chief on Friday blamed what he described as “aggressive” U.S. policies for growing global tensions, noting Washington’s reluctance to extend a key nuclear arms pact.Sergey Lavrov, who serves as acting foreign minister in the wake of Wednesday’s resignation of the Russian Cabinet, said this week’s meeting of top U.S. and Russian diplomats on strategic stability didn’t achieve any immediate results, adding that “dialogue is continuing.”Russia-U.S. relations have been at post-Cold War lows since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.Speaking at an annual news conference, Lavrov said that the U.S. has stonewalled Russia’s push for extending the New Start nuclear arms treaty that expires in 2021. The agreement is the last U.S.-Russian arms control deal still in place, and Moscow has argued that its demise will remove the final barrier stemming an arms race.”We will act strongly to avoid depriving the world of agreements that control and limit nuclear weapons,” said Lavrov, who has was appointed foreign minister in 2004.”We stand for the extension of the New Start treaty without any preconditions,” he said. “I hope that the Americans hear us, but we haven’t received any coherent signals from them.”ChinaU.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has pushed for China to join nuclear arms cuts, but Lavrov described the idea as unrealistic. He pointed at Beijing’s refusal to discuss reductions in its nuclear arsenal, which is much smaller than those of the U.S. or Russia.Lavrov emphasized that the U.S. push for Russia to encourage China to change its mind doesn’t make sense. “We respect the Chinese position and we won’t persuade China to change it,” he said.EuropeTurning to other issues, Lavrov criticized Britain, France and Germany for caving in to pressure from the U.S. over a nuclear deal with Iran.Earlier this week, the three countries reluctantly triggered the accord’s dispute mechanism to force Iran into discussions over its violations, starting the clock on a process that could result in the “snapback” of U.N. and EU sanctions on Iran.The three nations are being pressed on one side by Trump to abandon the agreement like he did unilaterally in 2018, and on the other side by Iran to provide enough economic incentives for it to continue honoring the deal.Lavrov noted that the European Union boasted about creating a mechanism for trade with Iran bypassing U.S. sanctions, but never put it into action.He described the move by Britain, France and Germany as a “dangerous turn,” arguing that the three nations used the moment of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran to “blame Iran for all what happened.”Middle EastFollowing the U.S. drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran announced what it said was its fifth and final step in dropping its commitments under the 2015 deal. Iran said it would no longer abide by any limitations to its enrichment activities.Turning to Libya, Lavrov said he expects the warring parties in the North African nation to observe a lasting cease-fire after their talks in the Russian capital earlier this week.He explained that the talks in Moscow between Libya’s rival leaders focused on a document spelling out conditions of a cease-fire that could serve as a basis for Sunday’s Libya talks hosted by Germany.Lavrov said he plans to attend the talks in Berlin, which will be attended by both Fayez Sarraj, the head of Libya’s U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli, and his rival, Gen. Khalifa Hifter,Sarraj and Hifter attended Monday’s talks in Moscow, but didn’t meet directly.”Their relations are tense, and they don’t want to be in one room together, let alone talk to each other,” Lavrov said.He added even though Hifter refused to sign the cease-fire document that was signed by Sarraj, the most important outcome of the talks was that the truce was still holding.

Germany: Ugly Anti-Semitic Remnant at Center of Court Battle

High on the wall of a German church where Martin Luther once preached, an ugly remnant of centuries of anti-Semitism is now at the center of a court battle.
    
The so-called “Judensau,” or “Jew pig,” sculpture on the Town Church in Wittenberg dates back to around 1300. It is perhaps the best-known of more than 20 such relics from the Middle Ages, in various forms and varying states of repair, that still adorn churches across Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
    
Located about 4 meters (13 feet) above the ground on a corner of the church, it depicts people identifiable by their headwear as Jews suckling on the teats of a sow, while a rabbi lifts the animal’s tail. In 1570, after the Protestant Reformation, an inscription referring to an anti-Jewish tract by Luther was added.
    
Judaism considers pigs impure, and no one disputes that the sculpture is deliberately offensive. But there is strong disagreement about what consequences that should have and what to do with the relief.
    
A court in the eastern city of Naumburg will consider on Tuesday a Jewish man’s bid to make the parish take it down.
    
It’s the second round in the legal dispute, which comes at a time of mounting concern about anti-Semitism in modern Germany. In May, a court ruled against plaintiff Michael Duellmann, who wants the relief put in the nearby Luther House museum.
    
Judges in Dessau rejected arguments that he has a right to have the sculpture removed because it formally constitutes slander and the parish is legally responsible for that. Duellmann appealed.
    
The relief “is a terrible falsification of Judaism, a defamation of and insult to the Jewish people,” Duellmann says, arguing that it has “a terrible effect up to this day.”
    
Duellmann, a former student of Protestant theology who converted to Judaism in the 1970s, became involved in the issue in 2017, the year Germany marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. He says he joined vigils in Wittenberg against the sculpture and was asked if he would be prepared to sue when it became clear that the church wasn’t prepared to take it down.’Culture of remembrance’
    
Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of another church in Wittenberg in defiance of Roman Catholic authorities in 1517, starting the German Reformation. He also is known for anti-Jewish invective, from which Germany’s Lutheran church has distanced itself.
    
Luther preached at the Town Church, now a regular stop for tourists visiting Wittenberg.
 
When the church was renovated in the early 1980s, the parish decided to leave the sandstone sculpture in place, and it was also restored. In 1988, a memorial was built on the ground underneath it, referring to the persecution of Jews and the killing of 6 million in the Nazi Holocaust.
    
In addition, a cedar tree was planted nearby to signify peace, and a sign gives information on the sculpture in German and English.
    
Pastor Johannes Block says the church is “in the same boat” as the plaintiff and also considers the sculpture unacceptably insulting. The parish, he says, “also is not happy about this difficult inheritance.”
    
However, he argues that the sculpture “no longer speaks for itself as a solitary piece,” but is embedded in a “culture of remembrance” thanks to the memorial. “We don’t want to hide or abolish history, but take the path of reconciliation with and through history,” he says.
   
 “The majority of the Town Church parish doesn’t want this to become a museum piece, but to warn and ask people to remember history on the building, with the original,” Block says.
    
Duellmann isn’t impressed. “The ‘Jew pig’ is not weakened” by the memorial, he says. “It continues to have a terrible anti-Semitic effect in the church and in society.”World Heritage siteThere are mixed opinions in the church, too. Last year, the regional Lutheran bishop, Friedrich Kramer, said he favors taking down the sculpture from the church wall and exhibiting it in public at the site with an explanation. He doesn’t favor putting it in a museum. He praised the 1988 memorial but said it has weaknesses, including a failure to address Luther’s anti-Semitism.
    
If judges do order the sculpture removed, that may not be the end of the story. Block says the church would ask authorities to assess whether it is possible to remove it from a building that is under a preservation order, and more talks with the court would probably follow.
    
The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a status that it gained in 1996.
    
Plaintiff Duellmann has little sympathy with the church’s preservation order dilemma. He contends that authorities deliberately failed to mention the offending sculpture at the time of the application in order not to endanger it.
    
Whatever the outcome, Block says he regrets that the case went to court.
   
 ‘We are not advocates and initiators” of the sculpture, he says. “We are heirs and are trying to deal very conscientiously with this inheritance.”

Ukrainian Prime Minister Offers Resignation

Ukraine’s prime minister offered his resignation on Friday after an audio recording was leaked in which he was heard making disparaging comments about president’s understanding of the economy.Oleksiy Honcharuk said in a Facebook post that he took the job of prime minister to fulfill the program of the president, calling him  “a model of openness and decency.”Referring to the leaked audio, Honcharuk said “in order to remove any doubts about our respect and trust in the president, I wrote a letter of resignation and submitted it to the president who can submit it to parliament.”President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will review the resignation letter and the decision will be announced separately his office said in a statement, according to Ukrainian news agency, UNIAN.

Ukraine Asks FBI to Help Probe Suspected Russian Hack of Burisma

Ukraine has asked the FBI in the United States for help  investigating a suspected cyberattack by Russian military hackers on Burisma, an energy company caught up in the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump.The Ukrainian interior ministry on Thursday also announced an investigation into the possible illegal surveillance of Marie Yovanovitch, formerly the American ambassador to Kiev, following the release of text messages this week by the U.S. Congress as part of the impeachment case.The FBI said it had visited the home and business of Robert Hyde, a Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut who sent the text messages to Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, that suggested Hyde had Yovanovitch under surveillance. The FBI declined to give further details.Hyde was not immediately available for comment but on Twitter he has said he has never been to Kiev and that he made up the story about keeping watch on Yovanovitch to fool Parnas.The FBI declined to comment on Ukraine’s request for help after California-based cybersecurity company Area 1 Security on Monday identified the hacking of Burisma Holdings and linked it to Russia’s Main Directorate of Military Intelligence, or GRU.Burisma was at the center of attempts by Trump in July to persuade Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential contender, and his son, Hunter, who used to have a seat on the Ukrainian company’s board.There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, who reject Trump’s allegations of corruption.Trump’s efforts have led to him being impeached on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The president, who denies wrongdoing, faces a trial in the U.S. Senate next week.The same hacking group, known as “Fancy Bear” or “APT28″ by cybersecurity researchers, breached the Democratic National Committee in 2016 in what U.S. investigators described as part of an operation to disrupt that year’s election.Russia’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment about Area 1 Security’s assertions.”It is noted that the hacking attack was probably committed by the Russian special services,” Ukrainian interior ministry official Artem Minyailo said at a briefing.Minyailo said Ukraine had asked the FBI and Area 1 Security for assistance regarding information that hackers stole personal employee data and emails from executives at Burisma and other companies. These other companies included the media production company of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he said.”The national police has initiated the creation of a joint  international investigation team, to which FBI representatives have already been invited by the ministry,” Minyailo said.Yovanovitch surveillance probeIt was not clear what data the hackers wanted to steal, Area 1 said. Breaching Burisma could yield communications from, to or about Hunter Biden, who served as a director between 2014 and 2019.A source close to Burisma told Reuters earlier this week the company’s website had been subject to multiple break-in attempts over the past six months but did not provide further details.Ukrainian officials said they were also probing allegations that Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, was subject to illegal surveillance before Trump fired her in May.U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN on Thursday he had sent a letter to the State Department seeking an immediate briefing.A former senior security official with the U.S. State Department told Reuters he did not regard the Hyde text messages as constituting an actual threat to Yovanovitch.“I would have trouble going to a U.S. Attorney and saying, ‘I want an arrest warrant for this person or I want to open an investigation,’” said the former senior security official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.“I might send somebody to talk with them and say, you know, ‘You have any intent to harm her?’ and if he says no and there’s no other evidence to the contrary … that’s probably as far as I would go.”

Key to Russia’s Political Shakeup? Putin is Here to Stay

President Vladimir Putin moved to consolidate plans for constitutional reform and name a new government Thursday — one day after the 20-year Russian leader altered the political landscape by hinting at plans to retain influence when his current and final presidential term ends in 2024.Yet, for Russians, the most immediate shift involved an unexpected new prime minister. Mikhail Mishustin, the little known chief of Russia’s Tax Service until being promoted by Putin late Wednesday, was approved by the Duma to head the government in a unanimous vote.He replaces longtime Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev, who submitted his entire Cabinet’s resignation in a surprise move Wednesday.Speaking before the lawmakers, Mishustin insisted his mission was to enact economic reforms laid out by Putin in an address to Russia’s Federal Assembly that largely highlighted Russians’ growing dissatisfaction — over low wages, poor health care services, and lack of opportunity among other issues.  “I want to … maintain dialogue with the people,” Mishustin said in a speech to lawmakers outlining the need to better enact Putin’s reforms. “It’s important that we hear what happened, and what didn’t.”  It was the first time most Russians had ever heard his voice.Constitutional changes  There was little question of who — and what — was driving the political shakeup in Moscow.In concluding his speech Wednesday, Putin proposed a series of major constitutional amendments that would move power away from the presidency to the parliament.Among the most consequential: Russia’s Duma would have a say over the Cabinet appointments,  including prime minister and other key posts.  Another would give the country’s Security Council — currently an advisory body to Putin — new constitutional powers.  The amendments were widely seen as Putin creating options for a new role to exert power after his current term ends in 2024.  “It’s a constitutional coup,” said analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov, in an interview with VOA. “The constitution will now be sewn to fit Putin individually and with one purpose: so that Putin can further rule Russia,” he added.True or not, the Russian leader immediately appointed a 75-member delegation of Kremlin-loyal writers, actors, religious leaders and sports stars to oversee the proposed constitutional changes, painting the move as part of efforts to move government “closer to the people.”Meanwhile, the head of the Russian Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, said her commission was ready to carry out a vote on the constitutional reforms.In a separate move that raised eyebrows given the uncertainty in Moscow, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strong-arm leader of Russia’s southern Chechen Republic and Putin ally, announced he would be handing over power to a deputy for a few days because he would be undergoing a procedure that would leave him “temporarily incapacitated.”A placeholder or future Kremlin leader?Kremlin watchers also debated Putin’s choice for new prime minister. Was Mikhail Mishustin an improvised choice or part of some larger Kremlin plan?“It seems highly likely that Mishustin is just a technocratic placeholder,” wrote Tatiana Stanovoya, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, in a post on Facebook. “Mishustin’s relative obscurity shouldn’t fool anyone,” wrote her colleague Alexander Baunov in a thread on Twitter that pointed to Putin’s own unexpected rise in government under then-President Boris Yeltsin in 1999.Mishustin’s relative obscurity shouldn’t fool anyone: Putin was also a little-known official until Yeltsin promoted him to 3 senior posts, one after the other, to everyone’s great surprise.— Alexander Baunov (@baunov) January 16, 2020“Putin was also a little-known official until Yeltsin promoted him to three senior posts, one after the other, to everyone’s great surprise,” he wrote.The rift reflected a central point of discussion: When it came to the prime minister — and Putin’s latest moves — everyone had an opinion.Indeed, the past 24 hours have sent Kremlinology — the Soviet-era science of reading Russia’s political tea leaves — into overdrive, with publications and blogs offering up theories over what would come next.“Putin will take over as head of the United Russia fraction in the parliament,” assured the daily Kommersant, a newspaper known for insight into Kremlin machinations.“Medvedev fired himself. It wasn’t planned,” claimed Biznes Online, while interviewing a political spin doctor.The daily Vedemosti offered a different scoop: Prime Minister Mishustin had penned several pop songs, including a hit called “A Real Woman.”More importantly, would Putin become a newly empowered prime minister?  Head of the new Security Council? Perhaps something else?  There was only one point of consensus. Vladimir Putin —  in one form or another — was here to stay. 

Senate Passes North American Trade Pact

On the day his Senate impeachment trial formally began, U.S. President Donald Trump scored a bipartisan victory Thursday as the Senate passed a North American trade pact, known as USMCA. The international accord replaces the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and governs trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari looks at what this pact is expected to deliver both for the U.S. economy and for the president’s re-election campaign.

New Caravan of Honduran Migrants Crosses into Guatemala 

A caravan of about 2,000 Honduran migrants crossed into Guatemala on Thursday, hoping to make it into the United States, but it is unclear how far they can get. The caravan left San Pedro Sula on Wednesday, with most of the migrants allowed to enter Guatemala after submitting their documents to Honduran police at the border. Guatemala’s newly inaugurated President Alejandro Giammattei says Mexico has told him it will not let the migrants enter. Migrants walk along a highway in hopes of reaching the United States, near Agua Caliente, Guatemala, Jan. 16, 2020, on the border with Honduras. Hundreds of Honduran migrants started walking and hitching rides the day before at San Pedro Sula.Guatemala signed an agreement with the United States last year requiring migrants looking to come to the United States to apply for asylum in the U.S. while staying in Guatemala. The dangerous trip to Guatemala and the possibility of a long wait there for entry into the U.S. are not deterring the migrants, who say they are escaping poverty, gangs, violence and hopelessness in Honduras. “We have children and we don’t want our children to live through what we lived through,” one migrant said Thursday. A woman summed up her reasons for fleeing Honduras when she said, “In our country, you can kill yourself working and you can’t buy anything. You can’t achieve anything, The salaries are very low. It’s barely enough to eat.” Thousands of Central Americans headed to the U.S. border with Mexico in 2018, prompting U.S. President Donald Trump to threaten sanctions against Latin American governments that did not try to stop the caravans. 

Pompeo Silent on Reports of Surveillance of Former US Ambassador to Ukraine

Ukrainian authorities say they have opened an investigation into whether Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, was illegally spied on before U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly recalled her from her post last year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department have not replied to repeated requests for comment on the alleged surveillance and potential physical threats to the 33-year career diplomat. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department.

Greece Warns it Will Block an EU Peace Deal for Libya 

Greece will block any European Union peace deal for Libya, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Thursday, unless a maritime deal between Turkey and Libya is scrapped.”Greece at the level of a summit meeting will never accept any political solution on Libya that does not include as a precondition the annulment of this agreement,” Mitsotakis told Greek television on Thursday. “To put it simply, we will use our veto.”Greece says the deal setting border and energy exploration areas in the Mediterranean between Libya and Turkey is “unacceptable and illegal” because Greek claims in the Mediterranean are ignored.Mitsotakis is also upset Greece is excluded from a peace summit on Libya to be held Sunday in Berlin. He says it is wrong not to invite Greece and plans to complain about it to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.FILE PHOTO: Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, May 29, 2018.Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador from Athens because of the deal signed with Turkey. It has also taken steps to boost ties with General Khalifa Haftar, head of a rival Libyan government whose forces have been fighting with those of the U.N.-backed administration in Tripoli.Haftar is in Athens where he plans to meet with Mitsotakis on Friday.Before flying to Greece, Haftar met in Benghazi with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who tweeted that Haftar is willing to come to the Berlin conference and is committed to the cease-fire that took effect in Libya this week.In Washington, a senior State Department official said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would also attend the Berlin conference on Libya. The official said Pompeo would push for three things — the cease-fire, a withdrawal of all foreign forces from Libya and a return to the political process.