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Kremlin Weaponizes Russian History To Justify War in Ukraine

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 04:00
TALLINN, Estonia — Earlier this month, when Tucker Carlson asked Vladimir Putin about his reasons for invading Ukraine two years ago, Putin gave him a lecture on Russian history. The 71-year-old Russian leader spent more than 20 minutes showering a baffled Carlson with dates and names going back to the ninth century. Putin even gave him a folder containing what he said were copies of historical documents proving his points: that Ukrainians and Russians historically have always been one people, and that Ukraine's sovereignty is merely an illegitimate holdover from the Soviet era. Carlson said he was "shocked" at being on the receiving end of the history lesson. But for those familiar with Putin's government, it was not surprising in the least: In Russia, history has long been a propaganda tool used to advance the Kremlin's political goals. And the last two years have been entirely in keeping with that ethos. In an effort to rally people around their world view, Russian authorities have tried to magnify the country's past victories while glossing over the more sordid chapters of its history. They have rewritten textbooks, funded sprawling historical exhibitions and suppressed — sometimes harshly — voices that contradict their narrative. Russian officials have also regularly bristled at Ukraine and other European countries for pulling down Soviet monuments, widely seen there as an unwanted legacy of past oppression, and even put scores of European officials on a wanted list over that in a move that made headlines this month. "In the hands of the authorities," says Oleg Orlov, co-founder of Memorial, Russia's oldest and most prominent rights group, "history has become a hammer — or even an axe." The glorifying From the early years of his quarter-century rule, Putin has repeatedly contended that studying their history should make Russians proud. Even controversial figures, such as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, contributed to Russia's greatness, Putin argues. (Russian media have counted over 100 monuments to Stalin in Russia, most of which were installed during Putin's rule.) The Russian president has said that there should be one "fundamental state narrative" instead of different textbooks that contradict each other. And he has called for a "universal" history textbook that would convey that narrative. But that idea, criticized heavily by historians, didn't gain much traction for quite a while — until Russia invaded Ukraine. Last year, the government rolled out a series of four new "universal" history textbooks for 10th- and 11th-graders. One featured a chapter on Moscow's "special military operation" in Ukraine, blamed the West for the Cold War and described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Some historians derided it as blatant propaganda. "The Soviet Union, and later Russia, is (depicted in the textbook as) always a besieged fortress, which constantly lives surrounded by enemies. These hostile circles are trying to weaken Russia in every conceivable way and seize its resources," says historian Nikita Sokolov. The Kremlin-friendly vision of Russian history is also dominating a chain of sprawling, state-funded "history parks" – venues that host history-themed exhibitions in 24 cities across the country. Those venues were opened after a series of historical exhibitions in the early 2010s drew hundreds of thousands of Russians and received praise from Putin. Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), a Russian Orthodox bishop reported to be Putin's personal confessor, was the driving force behind them. Packed with animations, touch-screen displays and other flashy elements, those widely popular expositions were criticized by historians for inaccurate claims and deliberate glorification of Russian rulers and their conquests. One exhibition described Ivan the Terrible, a 16th-century Russian czar known for his violent purges of Russian nobility, as a victim of "an information war." Another was widely advertised with a quote falsely attributed to Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the German Empire in the 19th century, that was removed swiftly after sparking outcry: "It is impossible to defeat the Russians. We have seen this ourselves over hundreds of years. But Russians can be instilled with false values, and then they will defeat themselves." Central to this narrative of an invincible Russia is the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Marked on May 9 — Germany officially capitulated after midnight Moscow time on May 9, 1945 — the Soviet victory has become integral to Russian identity. The Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people in the war, pushing German forces from Stalingrad, deep inside Russia, all the way to Berlin. The suffering and valor that went into the German defeat have been touchstones ever since, and under Putin Victory Day has become the country's primary secular holiday. For the authorities, "Russia's history is a road from one victory to the next," sums up Orlov, whose group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. "And more beautiful victories lie ahead. And (the Kremlin says that) we must be proud of our history; history is a means of instilling patriotism. Of course in their view, patriotism is appreciation of the leadership – be it the leadership of the czarist Russia, the leadership of the Soviet Russia or the current leadership." The silencing As celebrations of Victory Day over the years grew more imperious, Putin's government grew less tolerant of any questioning or criticism of the Soviet Union's actions in that war — or generally. In 2014, Russian cable networks dropped Dozhd, the county's sole independent TV channel, after it hosted a history program on the 1941-44 Siege of Leningrad and asked viewers to vote on whether Soviet authorities should have surrendered Leningrad to save lives. Famine in the city, now called St. Petersburg, killed more than 500,000 people during the siege. The question caused an uproar, with officials accusing the channel of crossing moral and ethical lines.  That same year, the Russian government adopted a law that made "rehabilitating Nazism" – or "spreading knowingly false information about the actions of the USSR during World War II" – a criminal offense. The first conviction on those charges was reported in 2016. A man was fined 200,000 rubles (about $3,000 at the time) for a social media post saying that "the Communists and Germany attacked Poland together, unleashing World War II." In the years that followed, the number of convictions on the charge only grew. Research and public debate about mass repressions by Stalin also have faced significant resistance in recent years. Historians and rights advocates cite the inevitable parallels to the current crackdown against dissent that has already landed hundreds of people behind bars. Two historians involved in researching Stalin's mass executions in northwestern Russia were jailed in recent years – prosecutions on unrelated charges many link to their work. Memorial, Russia's oldest and most prominent human rights group that drew international acclaim for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union, has been shut down. It continues to work, but its activities in Russia have been significantly curtailed. And a queue of people waiting for their turn to read out the names of victims of Soviet repressions no longer snakes through central Moscow streets in late October. The tradition to read them aloud once a year in front of a monument to victims of Soviet repressions — called "Returning the Names" — was started in 2007 and once attracted thousands of people. In 2020, Moscow authorities stopped authorizing it, citing COVID-19. The authorities are threatened by efforts to preserve historical memory, and it has gotten worse since the war in Ukraine began, says Natalya Baryshnikova, producer of last year's "Returning the Names," which in 2023 went ahead in dozens of cities abroad and online. "We see this very clearly" since the Ukraine war began, says Baryshnikova. "Any grassroots civil movement or statement about the memory of Soviet terror is inconvenient." The justifying According to prominent history teacher Tamara Eidelman, the historical narrative the Kremlin is trying to impose on society contains several main elements: the primacy of the state, the affairs of which are always more important than individual lives; the cult of self-sacrifice and readiness to give up one's life for a greater cause; and the cult of war. "Of course, (the latter) is never explicitly spelled out," Eidelman says. Instead, the narrative is: "`We have always strived for peace … We have always been attacked and merely fought back.'" That laid the perfect ideological groundwork for the invasion of Ukraine, she says, and points out how the "Never again!" sentiment about World War II for some in Russia in recent years became "We can do it again" — a popular slogan after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as the Kremlin adopted increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward the West. Indeed, in the years before the Ukraine war, Putin cited history increasingly often. In 2020, during a reform that reset the limits on his presidential terms, a reference to history was even added to the country's constitution — a new clause that stipulated Russia is "united by a thousand-year history" and "enforces protection of the historical truth." In 2020-21, Putin published two lengthy articles on history — one criticizing the West for actions leading up to World War II, another arguing that Ukrainians and Russians have always been one people. In an address to the nation days before sending troops into Ukraine, he once again invoked history, claiming Ukraine as a state was created artificially by Soviet leaders. History "has been used to legitimize the regime essentially since the beginning of Putin's rule," Ivan Kurilla, a historian at Wellesley College, said in a recent article. And with the war in Ukraine, it "finally took a central place in the state ideology next to geopolitical talk about sovereignty, the 'decline of the West' and the protection of traditional values."

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 04:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 03:00
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Iran Labor Protest Uptick Coincides With Annual Minimum Wage Deliberations

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 02:00
WASHINGTON — Iran is seeing an uptick in labor protests coinciding with annual deliberations on raising the minimum wage to keep up with increases in living costs, yet the actions have elicited no violent government crackdown such as the one that crushed a women’s rights movement one year ago. One of the Islamic republic’s most sustained labor protests of recent weeks involves striking workers of the Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. A Telegram channel affiliated with the workers posted photos and videos appearing to show dozens of them gathering outside their steel plant from Tuesday to Thursday to denounce what they see as broken management promises to improve their working conditions and the suspensions of several of their colleagues.    In one video appearing to show a protest march Tuesday, men wearing INSIG uniforms chanted: "neither threats nor prison are effective anymore." VOA could not verify the images independently because it is barred from operating inside Iran. Other online reports and images reviewed by VOA Persian indicated that telecom company retirees gathered in at least 10 provinces Monday to complain about the denial of pension rights. They also chanted slogans and held signs against corruption and oppression in the financial system. Iran typically sees groups of workers and retirees staging public rallies to press their demands in the final month of the Persian year that ends March 19. That is when the Islamic republic’s Supreme Labor Council makes its final decision on the minimum wage for the new Persian year. The council includes representatives of the Iranian labor ministry, employers and workers chosen by the government-affiliated Islamic Labor Council. The current minimum wage for most workers in Iran is about $160 a month. Years of rapidly rising consumer prices and a weak economy hobbled by Western sanctions and government corruption and mismanagement have pushed many Iranians into poverty. The IMF has estimated Iran’s inflation rate at 47% and GDP growth at 3% for 2023. The latest small-scale protests by Iranian workers and retirees frustrated by those poor economic conditions have not triggered a violent government crackdown. Iran’s Islamist rulers killed hundreds of demonstrators and arrested thousands of others in suppressing a monthslong nationwide women’s rights protest movement that began in September 2022. American University sociology professor and Iran observer Jessica Emami discussed the factors underlying the labor protests in this week’s edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Iran podcast. The following transcript of Emami’s Feb. 14 interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. VOA: What kinds of labor protests have you been tracking in Iran? Jessica Emami, American University: Most of the time, you see people gathering with signs in front of government buildings. To the degree that they can do that without getting badly arrested, they will do that. The problem is, especially with schoolteachers, that they get arrested so frequently. It has almost become like a ‘bail-industrial complex’ in which people get arrested and then get out on bail. Once you are out on bail, it is like being on parole. There have been teachers in schools working with those little electronic bands around their ankles. So, it is very difficult for them. [Labor protests] culminate usually in May because of May Day. The Iranian government always keeps an eye out for that and becomes more strict as May Day approaches. VOA: Iranian state media have been covering some of these labor protests. Why do Iranian authorities seem to tolerate this activity on some level? Emami: The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was pushed forward to some degree by workers’ groups. And what really brought down the former government of the shah was work stoppages. The reason [Iran’s Islamist rulers] tolerate the protests is because this government was born out of strikes, and the Iranian people really believe in workers’ rights. So, the government has to come across as saying, ‘Okay, we believe in workers' rights.’ But Iran’s leaders are so terrified that the strikes will become political and more about bringing down the regime, that that is when they start mass arresting and beating up people in jail and things like that. VOA: Since the outbreak of Iran’s Woman Life Freedom protest movement, there does not appear to have been any direct connection between workers who gather to complain about wages and benefits and the many Iranians protesting for more women's rights. Why is that? Emami: I believe that the Woman Life Freedom movement was born out of Generation Z. And Gen Z is really the up-and-coming generation that terrifies the regime. They want secularism, they want gender equality. They want things that they were not born with, but they know that Iran had those things before. And they actually are the ones to watch. They have an unemployment rate of about 25%, even though many are super educated. And as we have seen, the way they fight back is by going to the streets in groups. They do not do workers-style protests. My impression is that a lot of the workers’ protests come out of a culture of the 1979 revolution. They really just want to have their workers’ rights restored. They want to make a living, but they are not trying to topple the government. I think where the government’s fear comes, as it should, is from Gen Z and anyone under age 40. The regime really has its eye on those people. VOA: Do you see any prospect of the older generation of workers joining forces with the younger Gen Z activists who are more about regime change? Emami: I think that will only happen if we come to a tipping point where it is inevitable, and then there is going to be an avalanche. But until then, people who have spent their whole life working and just want to make their life livable — I do not see them joining in until there is a tipping point. It does not mean that a tipping point is not close by. I think it is. But for now, those two movements seem to have a little bit of separation in between them. You can see it when you look at, for example, the retirees. They are silver-haired, and they are very organized. But they are not chanting ‘death to the dictator’ like the Gen Z people are. They are not setting tires on fire. There is going to be a cleavage between those two groups until there is a momentum and a tipping point.  

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 02:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 01:00
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Questions Abound on Whether Kyiv Can Sustain Fight Against Russia

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 00:54
KYIV, Ukraine — The future looks bleak for war-weary Ukraine: It is beset by shortages in soldiers and ammunition, as well as doubts about the supply of Western aid. Ukrainian forces also face a Russian enemy that has recently seized the initiative on the battlefield. Two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion captured nearly a quarter of the country, the stakes could not be higher for Kyiv. After a string of victories in the first year of the war, fortunes have turned for the Ukrainian military, which is dug in, outgunned and outnumbered against a more powerful opponent. As the war enters its third year, here is a look at the situation on the ground, the challenges ahead and some of the potential consequences if Ukraine does not acquire the people, ammunition and assistance it needs to sustain the fight. What is the state of play? Triumphs have turned to attrition for Ukraine along the snaking front line in the country's east. With Russia gaining advantages, shortages mounting and a major military shake-up still fresh, questions abound about whether Kyiv can keep going. "As things stand, neither side has won. Neither side has lost. Neither side is anywhere near giving up. And both sides have pretty much exhausted the manpower and equipment that they started the war with," said Gen. Richard Barrons, a British military officer who is co-chair of a defense consultancy. Ukraine suffered setbacks after the much-anticipated summer counteroffensive failed to produce any breakthroughs. The armed forces switched to a defensive posture in the fall to repel new advances from Moscow. On February 17, Russian forces took control of the embattled city of Avdiivka, where Kyiv’s troops were under constant fire with Russians approaching from three directions. Ukrainian commanders had complained for weeks of personnel and ammunition shortages. It was the biggest battlefield victory for Russia since the fight for Bakhmut, and it confirmed that Moscow’s offensive was gaining steam. Away from the battlefield, Ukraine has proven successful in the Black Sea, where it has used long-range weapons to strike military installations in Crimea and maritime drones to sink Russian warships. Ukraine has disabled a third of the Black Sea Fleet, according to the Atlantic Council. Ukraine is looking to acquire more long-range missiles to strike deep into Russian-occupied territory, a move that some European countries fear may spark escalation from Moscow. How many people have been killed? Both Russia and Ukraine have sought to keep casualty figures under wraps. Few details about Ukrainian military deaths have emerged since the full-scale invasion began in 2022. But it's clear that tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed. In 2023, the first independent statistical analysis of Russia’s war dead concluded that nearly 50,000 Russian men had died in the war. Two independent Russian media outlets, Mediazona and Meduza, worked with a data scientist from Germany’s Tubingen University to analyze Russian government data. What happens if Ukraine can’t find more troops? Without more soldiers, Ukraine’s defensive lines will be overstretched and more vulnerable to Russian attack, especially if Moscow launches intense multi-pronged assaults along the 1,000-kilometer front line. The Ukrainian military has an average personnel shortage of 25% across brigades, according to lawmakers. Military commanders are unable to give their soldiers enough rest, and Russia has recently increased the tempo of attacks. As a result, soldiers are tired — and more easily injured — exacerbating the effects of the shortage. Ukraine’s military command has said 450,000 to 500,000 additional recruits are needed for the next phase of the war. Even if Ukraine succeeds in mobilizing that number, which is unlikely, it still would not be able to match the manpower of Russia, which has more than three times Ukraine's population. Lawmakers have spent months mulling over a controversial proposal to increase the conscription pool, as many Ukrainian men continue to evade the war in Ukrainian cities. Commanders say they don’t have enough men to dig trenches or carry out offensive operations. Shortages have also required them to switch tactics and focus on preserving the lives of the soldiers they do have, sometimes at the expense of holding territory. What about weapons and ammunition? If they continue, ammunition shortages will jeopardize Ukraine’s ability to hold territory and keep soldiers alive. Military leaders appear to be rationing shells, sending trickles of ammunition to firing positions to preserve stockpiles, while promises for more ammunition from Western allies have gone unfulfilled. The European Union failed on its promise to deliver 1 million rounds by the start of the year, delivering only a few hundred thousand. At the same time, Russia is mobilizing its defense industry and may soon be able to fire 5,000 artillery rounds a day, Barrons said. Ukraine is building up its domestic arms production but will not be able to match Moscow in scale in the short-term. Military commanders have complained for months of ammunition shortages for infantry fighting vehicles, machine guns, artillery and multiple rocket launch systems. Those shortages grew particularly acute by the end of 2023, with some artillery commanders saying they can meet only 10% of ammunition needs. Commanders say long-range artillery in particular serves two important purposes: First, it acts as a protective umbrella to cover infantry, allowing them to hold territory and prepare for offensive operations. Second, by striking Russian troops and heavy weaponry from a distance, artillery prevents planned assaults by seriously degrading Moscow’s capabilities. Without it, Ukraine will increasingly come under the pressure of Russia’s relentless artillery barrages. Commanders say their soldiers have no choice but to dig in deeper to hold their lines. Is Western support waning, and what if it does? Ukraine is reliant on Western allies and international organizations not just for military aid but also for financial support and humanitarian help. Without Western assistance, Ukraine will not have the weapons, ammunition and training it needs to sustain the war effort, nor will it be able to keep its battered economy afloat or reach Ukrainians trapped in the crossfire of battles. Between divisions about the future of aid within the EU and $60 billion in military aid languishing in the United States Congress, Western countries have not been as forthcoming with money this year. Kyiv breathed a sigh of relief in February when the EU approved extending a 50 billion-euro ($54 billion) aid package for Ukraine after resistance from Hungary. That money is meant to support the economy and rebuild the country, not to fight Russia. But it’s the U.S. funding that many Ukrainian leaders are waiting for. The funds will enable Ukraine to purchase weapons and equipment from American firms, access more military training and intelligence sharing, and bolster air and sea defenses. The money will also provide direct budget support for Kyiv. Ukrainian leaders also need Western help to cover the salaries of public servants and medical workers. On the humanitarian side, the United Nations and its partner agencies said if an appeal for $3.1 billion in new funding for the year is not fulfilled, the U.N. won't be able to meet the basic needs of 8.5 million Ukrainians living on the front line. 

Jamala: Songs of Freedom

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 00:00
VOA’s new documentary, Jamala: Songs of Freedom follows singer-songwriter Jamala as she flees Ukraine with her family in the early hours of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and becomes an activist, raising money and awareness for her homeland. Jamala gained international fame in 2016 as the winner of the Eurovision contest where she performed her politically charged song ”1944” about Russia’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia that year, which included her great-grandmother’s family. While in exile, Jamala has performed at renowned venues, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the National Opera house in Kyiv, and the 2023 Eurovision contest held in Liverpool, England. Her latest album, QIRIM, which means Crimea, is a tribute to her Crimean Tatar roots.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 24, 2024 - 00:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 23:00
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Angry French Farmers With Tractors Hold Another Paris Protest

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 22:20
PARIS — Angry farmers were back in Paris on their tractors in a new protest Friday demanding more government support and simpler regulations, on the eve of a major agricultural fair in the French capital. Dozens of tractors drove peacefully into Paris carrying flags from Rural Coordination, the farmers' union that staged the protest. The protesters then posed with their tractors on a bridge over the Seine River with the Eiffel Tower in the background, before heading towards the Vauban plaza in central Paris, where they all gathered for the demonstration. The latest protest comes three weeks after farmers lifted roadblocks around Paris and elsewhere in the country after the government offered over 400 million euros ($433 million) to address their grievances over low earnings, heavy regulation and what they describe as unfair competition from abroad. "Save our agriculture," the Rural Coordination said on X, formerly Twitter. One tractor was carrying a poster reading: "Death is in the field." The convoy temporarily slowed traffic on the A4 highway, east of the capital, and on the Paris ring-road earlier on Friday morning. French farmers' actions are part of a broader protest movement in Europe against EU agriculture policies, bureaucracy and overall business conditions. Farmers complain that the 27-nation bloc's environmental policies, such as the Green Deal, which calls for limits on the use of chemicals and on greenhouse gas emissions, limit their business and make their products more expensive than non-EU imports. Other protests are being staged across France as farmers seek to put pressure on the government to implement its promises. Government officials have held a series of meetings with farmers unions in recent weeks to discuss a new bill meant to defend France's "agricultural sovereignty," and which will be debated in parliament this spring. The government's plan also includes hundreds of millions of euros in aid, tax breaks and a promise not to ban pesticides in France that are allowed elsewhere in Europe. French farmers say such bans put them at an unfair disadvantage. Cyril Hoffman, a cereal producer in the Burgundy region and a member of the Rural Coordination, said farmers now want the government to "take action." He said his union is advocating for exempting the farming industry from free trade agreements. "They can make free trade agreements but agriculture should not be part of them, so we can remain sovereign regarding our food," Hoffman said. "Only in France do we let our farming disappear." French President Emmanuel Macron planned to visit the Paris Agricultural Fair on Saturday, though his office appeared to have removed from his agenda a previously scheduled "big debate" with farmers and members of environmental groups at the event. The president will meet with farmers' unions before the fair's opening, his office said late Friday. Yet France's major farmer's union, the FNSEA, said Friday its board decided not to participate in the debate because "conditions for a peaceful dialogue are not met." The FNSEA staged another protest in Paris, near the site of the fair, on Friday afternoon. The Paris Agricultural Fair is one of the world's largest farm fairs, drawing crowds every year.

White House, Tribes Hail 'Historic' Deal to Restore Pacific NW Salmon Runs

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 22:15
washington — The Biden administration, leaders of four Columbia River Basin tribes and the governors of Oregon and Washington celebrated on Friday as they signed papers formally launching a $1 billion plan to help recover depleted salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest.  The plan, announced in December, stopped short of calling for the removal of four controversial dams on the Snake River, as some environmental groups and tribal leaders have urged. But officials said it would boost clean energy production and help offset hydropower, transportation and other benefits provided by the dams should Congress ever agree to breach them.  The plan brokered by the Biden administration pauses long-running litigation over federal dam operations and represents the most significant step yet toward eventually taking down the four Snake River dams. The plan will strengthen tribal clean energy projects and provide other benefits for tribes and other communities that depend on the Columbia Basin for agriculture, energy, recreation and transportation, the White House said.  "Since time immemorial, the strength of the Yakama Nation and its people have come from the Columbia River, and from the fish, game, roots and berries it nourishes,'' Yakama Nation Chairman Gerald Lewis said at a White House ceremony.  "The Yakama Nation will always fight to protect and restore the salmon because, without the salmon, we cannot maintain the health of our people or our way of life,'' Lewis said, adding that Columbia Basin salmon are dying from the impacts of human development.  "Our fishers have empty nets and their homes have empty tables because historically the federal government has not done enough to mitigate these impacts,'' he said. "We need a lot more clean energy, but we need to do development in a way that is socially just.''  Lewis was among four tribal leaders who spoke at the hourlong ceremony at the White House complex, along with Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek and an array of federal officials.  The agreement, formally known as the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative, "deserves to be celebrated,'' said Jonathan W. Smith, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.  The settlement "takes the interests of all the stakeholders in the Columbia Basin into account,'' he said. "It lays out a pathway to restore salmon and steelhead to healthy and abundant levels and moves forward with the necessary green energy transition in a socially just and equitable way."  Corinne Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation called the signing ceremony a historic moment, not just for the tribes, but also for the U.S. government "and all Americans in the Pacific Northwest. My heart is big today."  The Columbia River Basin, an area roughly the size of Texas, was once the world's greatest salmon-producing river system, with at least 16 stocks of salmon and steelhead. Today, four are extinct and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act.  Dams are a main culprit behind the salmon's decline, and federal fisheries scientists have concluded that breaching the dams in eastern Washington on the Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia, would be the best hope for recovering them, providing the fish with access to hundreds of miles of pristine habitat and spawning grounds in Idaho.  Conservation groups sued the federal government more than two decades ago in an effort to save the fish. They have argued that the continued operation of the dams violates the Endangered Species Act as well as treaties dating to the mid-19th century ensuring the tribes' right to harvest fish.  Friday's celebration did not include congressional Republicans who oppose dam breaching and have vowed to block it.  Dams along the Columbia-Snake River system provide more than one-third of all hydropower capacity in the United States, said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In Washington state, hydropower accounts for 70% of electricity consumed.  The Snake River dams "helped transform Eastern Washington into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world,'' including 40% of America's wheat, Rodgers said in a statement.  She denounced "secret negotiations" led by White House senior adviser and climate envoy John Podesta, saying he and other officials "worked behind closed doors with a select group of radical environmentalists to develop a secret package of actions and commitments'' that advance "efforts to remove the four Lower Snake River dams.''  Podesta and other speakers at the White House ceremony looked past those concerns, with few even mentioning the dams.  "President Biden understands that the Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest, for its culture, for its economy and for its people,'' said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  "The historic agreement is charting a new and exciting path to restore the river, provide for clean energy and live up to our responsibilities and obligations to tribal nations,'' Mallory said. "I'm confident we will secure the vision ... of securing a restored Columbia River Basin, one that is teeming with wild fish, prosperous to tribal nations, [with] affordable clean energy, a strong agricultural economy and an upgraded transportation and recreation system.''

At Least 15 Die in Residential Fire in Eastern China's Nanjing

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 22:07
BEIJING — At least 15 people have been killed and 44 injured in a fire at a residential building in eastern China's Nanjing, local authorities said Saturday. The fire broke out early Friday morning, officials said at a press conference, with a preliminary investigation suggesting the blaze started on the building's first floor, where electric bikes had been placed. The building is located in the Yuhuatai district of Nanjing, a city of more than 8 million that lies about 260 kilometers northwest of Shanghai. By 6 a.m. local time the fire had been extinguished, and a search and rescue operation ended about 2 p.m. Friday, authorities said. Footage circulating on Chinese social networks showed a skyscraper on fire in the middle of the night, with black smoke pouring from it. Other images show gigantic flames consuming several floors of the building, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles visible nearby in the dark. Additional footage, apparently taken later, shows white smoke pouring out of several points in the building. The 44 injured people were sent to hospitals for treatment, officials added. One was in critical condition while another was seriously injured, they said. At a news conference, city mayor Chen Zhichang offered his condolences and apologies to the victims' families. The country has seen a spate of deadly fires in recent months, often caused by official negligence — prompting calls from President Xi Jinping last month for "deep reflection" and greater efforts to "curb the frequent occurrence of safety accidents." Fires and other deadly accidents are common in China due to lax safety standards and poor enforcement. In January, dozens died after a fire broke out at a store in the central city of Xinyu, with state news agency Xinhua reporting the blaze had been caused by the "illegal" use of fire by workers in the store's basement. That fire came just days after a late-evening blaze at a school in central China's Henan province killed 13 schoolchildren as they slept in a dormitory. A teacher at the school told state-run Hebei Daily that all the victims were from the same third-grade class of 9- and 10-year-olds. Domestic media reports suggested the fire was caused by an electric heating device. And in November, 26 people were killed and dozens sent to hospitals after a fire at a coal company office in northern China's Shanxi province. The month before, an explosion at a barbecue restaurant in the northwest of the country left 31 dead and prompted official pledges of a nationwide campaign to promote workplace safety. In April, a hospital fire in Beijing killed 29 people and forced desperate survivors to jump out of windows to escape. 

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 22:00
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Some Question Malawi President's Claim That Cyberattack Caused Passport Problems 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 21:49
blantyre, malawi — Malawi's government is not issuing passports, President Lazarus Chakwera said, claiming it is because of a cyberattack. But some observers question whether such an attack occurred. Chakwera told parliament on Wednesday that a cyberattack had compromised the country’s security and that measures were in place to identify and apprehend the attackers. He said the attackers were demanding millions in ransom but his administration will not pay it. He said the hackers have prevented the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services system from printing passports for the past three weeks. However, the immigration department stopped printing passports weeks ago, after it announced in January it was grappling with technical glitches. The situation has left hundreds of passport applicants stranded. Rights groups have vowed to hold mass demonstrations if the glitch isn’t resolved within days. Then on Wednesday, Chakwera told parliament the suspension was caused by what he called digital mercenaries who had hacked the system responsible for printing passports. “This is a serious national security breach," he said, "and although Malawi is not the first in the modern world to be the target of and suffer this kind of cyberattack, we have taken very decisive steps to regain control of the situation.” Chakwera, who has been president since June 2020, said on Wednesday that he has given the immigration department three weeks to provide a temporary solution and resume the printing of passports. At the same event, he said he had told the hackers never to expect ransom from the Malawi government. “As long as I am the president, the government will never pay the ransom money you have demanded after hacking the system," he said, "because we are not in the business of appeasing criminals with public money, nor are we in the business of negotiating with those who attack our country.” Contract termination Malawi has faced passport issuance challenges since 2021, when the government terminated its contract with Techno Brain, which had been the supplier of Malawi’s passports since 2019. In 2023, the government, unable to find a replacement, re-engaged the company on a temporary basis. Still, the immigration department had to scale down production many times because of a shortage of materials or failure to pay outstanding bills. Sylvester Namiwa is the executive director of the Center for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives, whose organization is vowing to hold protests if the situation isn’t resolved within days. He told VOA that he doubted the veracity of Chakwera’s statement on the hacking of the system. The president "should have revealed the identities of the hackers" and could have said more about how communications with the alleged hackers are occurring — "for example, if they are using computers, if they are using phones," Namiwa said. "Today’s technology is easy to trace.” Namiwa pointed to reports circulating on social media and a local radio station suggesting that the contractor, Techno Brain, had deliberately shut down the system after noticing improper activity by suspected government agents. According to local media reports, Techno Brain is demanding millions of dollars in compensation from the Malawi government before it unblocks the system. When approached for comment, Tiwonge Chipeta, general manager for Techno Brain in Malawi, would not deny or confirm the company’s alleged involvement in the shutdown, saying she could not speak with reporters about the matter. However, some IT experts working with government agencies, who refused to give their names for fear of reprisals, told VOA that no hackers had demanded any ransom from the government. Security expert Sheriff Kaisi told VOA that if the passport system had indeed been hacked, Malawi’s government needed to ensure its software has since been made hacker-proof. “There could be some lapses here and there, but every system by nature would have other software to encounter that," Kaisi said. "And of course the system used by the government needs to be sophisticated.” Malawi Information Minister Moses Nkukuyu told a local radio station Thursday that the information Chakwera presented in parliament came from experts working at the immigration department. Immigration department spokesperson Wellington Chiponde did not respond to calls and texts from VOA.

Anthropologist Challenges Return of Native American Remains 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 21:19
washington — The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federally funded institutions to catalog, report and return Native American ancestral remains and funerary objects. With exemptions for cases in which institutions can prove legal ownership, the 33-year-old law known as NAGPRA was updated in January with requirements that researchers obtain tribal or lineal descendants' consent before exhibiting or conducting research on human remains and related cultural items. While many Indigenous leaders are encouraged by stronger provisions in the law, anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss says the whole thing should be scrapped because repatriating human remains hinders scientific research. "A research collection's ability to inform us never, never dies, because you have new hypotheses that can be used to test, and you also have to retest old hypotheses when new methods develop," the San Jose State University professor told VOA. What the law says Weiss argues that NAGPRA undermines the separation of church and state because it gives traditional Native American religious leaders a say over whether and to whom human remains will be returned. "NAGPRA was passed with the requirement that two of its [seven] committee members must be traditional Indian religious leaders," she said. "Further, it allows only one type of religious evidence to be used in repatriation — and that's Native American creationism." Weiss says the law has led to institutional guidelines for the handling of remains based on what she calls tribal "mythology," including a provision at her university that blocked people who are menstruating from handling skeletal remains. "And the more you allow the acceptance of this kind of superstitious pseudoreligion to creep in, the more widespread it becomes," she said In November 2021, San Jose State's Anthropology Department issued guidelines on the handling of Native American ancestral remains that read, "Menstruating personnel will not be permitted to handle ancestors." The university rescinded that in April 2022. History of grave robbing Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, is an Indigenous geographer at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He said Weiss is misguided. "On its face, she makes what looks to be [a] convincing and appealing argument that scientists are working for the betterment of humankind and that Indigenous opposition is based in which she terms 'pseudoscience' and stifling the process," he said. "What she doesn't really engage with is a very long history of grave robbing of Indigenous burial sites in the name of science." Smiles gave the example of mid-19th-century "craniologist" Samuel Morton who amassed and measured hundreds of human skulls to support his belief in five races, each created separately, whose cranial size determined their place in the racial hierarchy. "In their mental character, the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge," he wrote in his 1839 book, Crania Americana. Smiles said, "There's been a really long history of people treating Indigenous remains as just simply objects of curiosity, as things that are made to be studied, rather than belonging to human beings once upon a time." NAGPRA previously allowed institutions to retain artifacts they deemed "culturally unidentifiable." That provision has now been removed, and tribal historians and religious leaders will now have a voice in determining where those items should go. Attorney Shannon O'Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, heads the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit that helps tribes navigate NAGPRA processes. "The law is very clear that institutions do not own Native bodies or cultural items unless they can prove a right of possession," she said. "If some tribes ask for certain accommodations and protocols, that's because they're the true owners." O'Loughlin stressed that NAGPRA does not prohibit research or display of Native remains. "It simply requires consent. The whole point of the law is to bring tribes to the table where they've never been allowed before and to educate museums about items in their collections and why they are significant."

US Army in Europe Dips Into Own Funds to Cover Ukraine Training 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 21:14
pentagon — The U.S. military has been forced to dip into its own funding to cover American training of Ukrainian forces, a strategy that could leave the Army short on finances in Europe as the Russian war on Ukraine enters its third year. "U.S. Army Europe and Africa (USAREUR-AF) is currently paying to fund Ukraine training ourselves," Col. Martin O’Donnell, the public affairs director for the Army’s forces across those two continents, told VOA. Without a 2024 budget approved by Congress, and without Congress passing supplemental funding for Ukraine, USAREUR-AF currently has roughly $3 billion to pay for $5 billion of operations costs, according to two U.S. Army officials. "If nothing changes, and we do not receive additional money, we will run out of funding for everything — support to Ukraine, operations and exercises in Europe and Africa — at the start of summer," O’Donnell said. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been debating new funding for Ukraine for months. The Pentagon sent the last round of aid that could be pulled from its military stockpiles in late December. Last week, the Senate approved a $95 billion foreign aid bill that included $60 billion in support for Ukraine. However, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has so far declined to bring the bill up for a vote. Congressional "inaction" is forcing the Army and others to make "tough decisions" that could "impact the entire force," Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh told VOA. "We are definitely vulnerable," she said in an interview Friday. "We're unable to modernize. We're unable to change programs. It's like fighting with one arm tied behind our back. It puts us at a complete disadvantage." Singh called the training of Ukrainian forces "an essential mission." "We can't just turn our backs on those Ukrainian soldiers that are coming, whether it's in Europe or to the United States to train, to go back out there and fight this war," she said. The Biden administration believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goals do not end with taking Ukraine. Should Putin attack a NATO ally, the U.S. would be bound by treaties to defend that nation, bringing the U.S. into war with Russia. In the administration’s view, supporting Ukraine not only comes to the aid of a democratic partner that was illegally invaded, but also keeps the U.S. out of a future war. According to an Army official, the U.S. just completed training a Ukrainian battalion in Germany and is currently training approximately 150 Ukrainians at Grafenwoehr Training Area. "We remain postured to support Ukraine’s needs," Col. O’Donnell told VOA. Arizona National Guardsmen are also training a small number of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, while a small number of other Ukrainian pilots and aircraft maintainers attend English-language training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Dan Hokanson told reporters earlier this month that the Guard can continue the training to completion — likely later this year. "Then if we decide to increase that, obviously, we'll need the resources to train additional pilots and ground support personnel," he said. Saturday marks two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine says it has retaken control over more than 50% of the territory once controlled by Russia. Russia still controls about 18% of Ukrainian territory. Earlier this week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CNN that Ukraine wouldn’t have lost the city of Avdiivka, where Kyiv’s forces recently withdrew, if Ukraine "had received all the artillery ammunition that we needed to defend it." Singh on Friday agreed with Kuleba’s assessment, saying there was a "direct link" between "congressional inaction" and Ukraine’s withdrawal from Avdiivka.  

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 21:00
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Ukrainians Weary Yet Determined on Two-Year Anniversary of Russian Invasion

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 20:22
Ukrainians mark a somber two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion with grief and determination as the U.S. imposes hundreds of sanctions on Russia following the death of outspoken Putin critic Alexey Navalny. As Ukrainians endure two years of war and growing uncertainty, a look at the emotional toll on families and how people are finding innovative ways to cope. And why one expert says redefining the paradigm of a two-state solution may be a better way to achieve lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians

National Rifle Association, LaPierre Found Liable in Lawsuit Over Misspending 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 23, 2024 - 20:18
new york — Wayne LaPierre misspent millions of dollars of the National Rifle Association’s money during his decades leading the powerful gun lobby, using the funds to pay for an extravagant lifestyle that included exotic getaways and trips on private planes and superyachts, a New York jury determined Friday. The jury ordered LaPierre, 74, to repay the group he led for three decades $4,351,231. It also ordered the NRA's retired finance chief, Wilson Phillips, to pay back the group $2 million. Jurors also found that the NRA omitted or misrepresented information in its tax filings and violated New York law by failing to adopt a whistleblower policy. LaPierre sat stone-faced in the front row of the courtroom as the verdict was read aloud. 'Same rules' for all The verdict is a win for New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat who campaigned on investigating the NRA’s not-for-profit status. “In New York, you cannot get away with corruption and greed, no matter how powerful or influential you think you may be,” James said in a post on the social media platform X. “Everyone, even the NRA and Wayne LaPierre, must play by the same rules.” The loss in court was the latest blow to the group, which in recent years has been beset by financial troubles and a dwindling membership. LaPierre, its longtime face, announced his resignation on the eve of the trial. NRA general counsel John Frazer was also a defendant in the case. Although the jury found that he violated his duties, it didn't order him to repay any money. The penalties paid by LaPierre — the jury actually found him liable for $5.4 million but determined he’d already paid back a little over $1 million — and Phillips will go back to the NRA, which was portrayed in the case both as a defendant that lacked internal controls to prevent misspending and as a victim of that same misconduct. James also wants the three men to be banned from serving in leadership positions at any charitable organizations that conduct business in New York. A judge will decide that question during the next phase of the state Supreme Court trial. Another former NRA executive turned whistleblower, Joshua Powell, settled with the state last month, agreeing to testify at the trial, pay the NRA $100,000 and forgo further involvement with nonprofits. James sued the NRA and its executives in 2020 under her authority to investigate not-for-profits registered in the state. She originally sought to have the entire organization dissolved, but Justice Joel M. Cohen ruled in 2022 that the allegations did not warrant a “corporate death penalty.” The trial, which began last month, cast a spotlight on the leadership, organizational culture and finances of the lobbying group, which was founded more than 150 years ago in New York City to promote rifle skills and grew into a political juggernaut that influenced federal law and presidential elections. Face of the organization Before he stepped down, LaPierre had led the NRA’s day-to-day operations since 1991, acting as its face and becoming one of the country’s most influential figures in shaping gun policy. During the trial, state lawyers argued that he dodged financial disclosure requirements while treating the NRA as his personal piggy bank, liberally dipping into its coffers for African safaris and other questionable expenditures. His lawyer cast the trial as a political witch hunt by James. LaPierre billed the NRA more than $11 million for private jet flights and spent more than $500,000 on eight trips to the Bahamas over a three-year span, state lawyers said. He also authorized $135 million in NRA contracts for a vendor whose owners showered him with free trips to the Bahamas, Greece, Dubai and India, as well as access to a 108-foot (33-meter) yacht. LaPierre contended he hadn’t realized the travel tickets, hotel stays, meals, yacht access and other luxury perks counted as gifts, and that the private jet flights were necessary for his safety. But he conceded that he had wrongly expensed private flights for his family and accepted vacations from vendors doing business with the NRA without disclosing them. Among those who testified at the trial was Oliver North, a onetime NRA president and former National Security Council military aide best known for his central role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. North, who resigned from the NRA in 2019, said he was pushed out after raising allegations of financial irregularities. After reporting a $36 million deficit in 2018 fueled largely by misspending, the NRA cut back on long-standing programs that had been core to its mission, including training and education, recreational shooting and law enforcement initiatives. In 2021, it filed for bankruptcy and sought to incorporate in Texas instead of New York, but a judge rejected the move, saying it was an attempt to duck James’ lawsuit. Despite its recent woes, the NRA remains a political force. Republican presidential hopefuls flocked to its annual convention last year and former President Donald Trump spoke at an NRA event earlier this month — his eighth speech to the association, it said.

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