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Serbia Protests After Croatian Foreign Minister Calls Vucic ‘Russian Stooge’ 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 12:06
BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia on Sunday sent a protest note after Croatia’s foreign minister described Serbia’s populist President Aleksandar Vucic as a Russian “satellite” in the Balkans. It was the latest spat between the two neighbors that have been at odds for most of the time since the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman told N1 television Saturday that Vucic must decide which side he is on, Russia or the European Union, “because it is impossible and uncomfortable sitting on two chairs at the same time.” “He shouldn’t have a big dilemma,” Grlic Radman said, adding that Vucic can remain Moscow’s ally but “malign” Russian influence that could undermine the stability of the Western Balkans will not be allowed. Vucic and other Serbian officials reacted with anger. “The Croatian minister not only brutally interferes in the internal affairs of Serbia, but as usual he lies and insults the Serbian people and threatens its citizens,” Vucic said on Instagram. “Grlic Radman is right about one thing, maybe I am someone’s satellite ... but I have never been anyone’s servant, which cannot be said for Grlic Radman." In its protest note, the Serbian Foreign Ministry said that it expects that in the future Croatian officials "will refrain from statements that represent interference in the internal affairs of Serbia and will lead a policy of reconciliation and good-neighborly relations between the two states.” Vucic's government has maintained close ties with Moscow despite its aggression against Ukraine, and the Serbian autocratic leader has often boasted about his close personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite Serbia’s formal bid to join the European Union. Serbia has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia, a traditional Slavic ally, while allowing Moscow propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik to spread their narrative throughout the Balkans. EU officials have repeatedly said that Serbia must align its policies with the bloc if it really wants to join and warned of the increasing Russian influence in the war-torn region. Croatia, which is an EU and NATO member, and Serbia have been involved in a series of spats between their officials in recent years. The two countries have lately also been involved in a mini arms race that analysts believe could further escalate the tensions in the region.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 12:00
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Israel Threatens Eurovision Pull-Out if Entry Vetoed 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 11:48
Jerusalem — Israel on Sunday warned that it may withdraw from this year's Eurovision Song Contest if organizers reject the lyrics from its entry as too political.    Eden Golan and her song "October Rain" were chosen to compete in the annual competition, which is being held in May in Malmo, Sweden.    Media reports have suggested that the song, which is mostly in English with some Hebrew words, references the victims of Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel.    That could mean the ballad and its 20-year-old Russian-Israeli singer fall foul of Eurovision rules, which ban political statements.    "They were all good children, every one of them", says a line from Golan's song, according to the website of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (Kan) which published them in full.    "There is no air left to breathe, There is no place for me," the song ends.    The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said only that it was "currently in the process of scrutinizing the lyrics" and a final decision had yet to be taken.    "If a song is deemed unacceptable for any reason, broadcasters are then given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, as per the rules of the Contest," it added.    Kan said it was "in dialogue" with the EBU about the country's Eurovision offering before the March 11 entry deadline.    But it stated that the broadcaster has "no intention to replace the song."    "Meaning, if it is not approved by the European Broadcasting Union, Israel will not be able to participate in the competition," it added in a statement on Thursday.    Israel's Noa Kirel placed third in last year's competition in Liverpool, England, behind Finland's Kaarija and Sweden's Loreen.    Loreen's victory takes the competition back to Sweden, 50 years after ABBA's victory with "Waterloo."    Israel became the first non-European country to enter Eurovision in 1973 and has since won the competition four times, most notably with transgender singer Dana International in 1998.    But its participation and hosting of the event have regularly run into controversy.    In 2019, Icelandic band Hatari, who previously challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a Nordic folk wrestling match, made pro-Palestinian statements during the vote count in Tel Aviv.    Organizers also gave pop queen Madonna a ticking off after her dancers flouted political neutrality rules by wearing Israeli and Palestinian flags on their costumes.    This year's competition comes against the backdrop of the war, sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.    Militants also took about 250 hostages, with 130 still held in Gaza although 31 are believed to be dead, Israeli officials said.    Israel's military response has killed at least 29,692 people in Gaza, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.    The EBU this week rejected calls for Israel to be barred from competing altogether because of the war in the Gaza Strip and the civilian casualties.    But the potential for a ban on its entry has caused outrage, with Israel's culture and sports minister, Miki Zohar, calling the prospect "scandalous."    Golan's song was "moving", he wrote on social media, and "expresses the feelings of the people and the country these days, and is not political."    "I call on the European Broadcasting Union to continue to act professionally and neutrally, and not to let politics affect art," he added.    Even President Isaac Herzog waded in, saying he was "trying to help" as much as he could because of the high-profile nature of the show.    "It's important that Israel appears," he was quoted as saying by news outlet Ynet.

9 Killed in South Africa Crash After Attending ANC Election Rally

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 11:23
Cape Town — Nine people were killed in a road crash in South Africa on Sunday after attending an election rally by President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ruling African National Congress party. The ANC supporters were traveling on a bus back to their home province of Mpumalanga the morning after Saturday's rally in the eastern city of Durban, the ANC said in a statement. The bus left the road and overturned, police said. Emergency services said 17 people were hurt in the crash near the small town of Paulpietersburg, around 360 kilometers (223 miles) north of Durban. The ANC said that some of the injured were in critical condition. Provincial ANC officials were traveling to the crash scene and to the hospitals where the injured had been taken, the party said. The ANC officially launched its election manifesto at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday in front of tens of thousands of supporters. The May 29 national election could be the biggest threat yet to the ANC's 30 years in government in South Africa, with opinion polls predicting the party could lose its majority for the first time since it came to power in 1994 following the end of apartheid. 

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 11:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 10:00
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Polish Farmers Block Key Road Into Germany 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 09:05
Warsaw, Poland — Polish farmers on Sunday blocked a major highway into Germany in the latest such protest against EU regulations and taxes. Farmers across Europe have been protesting for weeks over what they say are excessively restrictive environmental rules, competition from cheap imports from outside the European Union and low incomes. On Sunday, farmers from Poland blocked the A2 motorway near Slubice, in the east on the border with Germany. "The blockade began at 1:00 pm (1200 GMT). Both sides of the A2 motorway have been stopped," Ewa Murmylo, a spokeswoman for local police, told AFP. Initially the farmers had been planning a 25-day blockade but reduced it following talks with local representatives, businesses and transporters. They have decided "to unblock the road probably tomorrow," Monday, said Dariusz Wrobel, one of the Polish farmer organizers. "This will depend on things that we can't predict," he told AFP. "We need to start taking ourselves seriously". On Monday, EU agriculture ministers are due to meet in Brussels. They are to discuss new European Commission proposals aiming to change regulations at the heart of the discontent, for example reducing the number of checks on produce. Polish farmers say they are targeting the European Union's so-called Green Deal on energy, transportation and taxation, which is an element of the 27-nation's bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They say they have been especially hit by increased taxes and other rules. The farmers have also blocked crossing points at Poland's border with non-EU member Ukraine border to denounce what they say is unfair competition from their war-torn neighbor's cheaper produce. On Friday, Polish officials snubbed a delegation led by Ukraine's prime minister seeking to resolve tensions caused by weeks-long Polish farmer protests at the shared border. Polish authorities said they had never agreed to a border meeting over the demonstrations, which Ukraine says threaten its exports and are holding up deliveries of crucial weapons for its war against Russia, now entering its third year.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 09:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 08:00
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Cambodia Ex-PM Hun Sen Returns to Frontline Politics for Senate Seat

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 07:28
Phnom Penh, Cambodia — Cambodia's ruling party claimed a landslide victory in Senate elections on Sunday, setting the stage for ex-PM Hun Sen to officially return to politics after he stepped down last year. After nearly four decades of hardline rule, Hun Sen handed power to his eldest son Hun Manet after national polls last July held without any significant opposition. Hun Sen at the time made it clear that despite his resignation, he still intended to wield influence. After polls closed Sunday afternoon, the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) claimed they had swept the Senate, the country's upper house. Spokesman Sok Eysan said early results showed the "CPP won at least 50" of the 58 seats, and added, "obviously, he [Hun Sen] has won a seat." He confirmed the party would nominate the ex-PM as the president of the Senate — allowing him to act as head of state when the king is overseas — when it is expected to convene in April. The National Electoral Committee is expected to take several weeks to publish official results. Earlier, the 71-year-old lawmaker and chief of the ruling party had cast his ballot near his home in Takhmao city. Four political parties, including Hun Sen's ruling CPP, the royalist Funcinpec Party and two small opposition parties participated in the polls. Of the 62-seat Senate, 58 seats are voted on by 125 MPs and more than 11,000 local administrators. King Norodom Sihamoni appoints two senators, while the National Assembly appoints two others. Most eligible voters are members of the CPP -- who made a clean sweep of the Senate last election -- making Hun Sen's victory all but certain. "This is a sign of the Hun family's further consolidation of power," said Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia", of the move to make Hun Sen Senate president. "It is better to ensure that the position [does] not fall into a potential rival's hands." Becoming president of the Senate would protect his son and prevent the family's control being undermined, Strangio added. Voters in the capital Phnom Penh seemed keen to see Hun Sen back in a position of authority. "He has a lot of experience, so if he leads the Senate, our country will be prosperous," commune chief Oeu Siphon told AFP. The election follows lawmakers approving Hun Sen's youngest son Hun Many as a deputy prime minister. The government now includes a number of Hun Sen's relatives, with several children of his allies also holding top jobs. After coming to power in 1985, Hun Sen helped modernise a country devastated by civil war and genocide. But critics say his rule has also been marked by environmental destruction, entrenched graft and the elimination of nearly all political rivals.  

Tax-Free Status of Movie, Music and Games Traded Online Is on Table as WTO Nations Meet in Abu Dhabi

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 07:25
Geneva — Since late last century and the early days of the web, providers of digital media like Netflix and Spotify have had a free pass when it comes to international taxes on films, video games and music that are shipped across borders through the internet. But now, a global consensus on the issue may be starting to crack. As the World Trade Organization opens its latest biannual meeting of government ministers Monday, its longtime moratorium on duties on e-commerce products — which has been renewed almost automatically since 1998 — is coming under pressure as never before. This week in Abu Dhabi, the WTO’s 164 member countries will take up a number of key issues: Subsidies that encourage overfishing. Reforms to make agricultural markets fairer and more eco-friendly. And efforts to revive the Geneva-based trade body’s system of resolving disputes among countries. All of those are tall orders, but the moratorium on e-commerce duties is perhaps the matter most in play. It centers on “electronic transmissions” — music, movies, video games and the like — more than on physical goods. But the rulebook isn't clear on the entire array of products affected. “This is so important to millions of businesses, especially small- and medium-sized businesses,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “Some members believe that this should be extended and made permanent. Others believe ... there are reasons why it should not."  “That’s why there’s been a debate and hopefully — because it touches on lives of many people — we hope that ministers would be able to make the appropriate decision,” she told reporters recently. Under WTO's rules, major decisions require consensus. The e-commerce moratorium can't just sail through automatically. Countries must actively vote in favor for the extension to take effect. Four proposals are on the table: Two would extend the suspension of duties. Two — separately presented by South Africa and India, two countries that have been pushing their interests hard at the WTO — would not. Proponents say the moratorium benefits consumers by helping keep costs down and promotes the wider rollout of digital services in countries both rich and poor. Critics say it deprives debt-burdened governments in developing countries of tax revenue, though there’s debate over just how much state coffers would stand to gain. The WTO itself says that on average, the potential loss would be less than one-third of 1% of total government revenue. The stakes are high. A WTO report published in December said the value of “digitally delivered services” exports grew by more than 8% from 2005 to 2022 — higher than goods exports (5.6%) and other-services exports (4.2%). Growth has been uneven, though. Most developing countries don’t have digital networks as extensive as those in the rich world. Those countries see less need to extend the moratorium — and might reap needed tax revenue if it ends. South Africa's proposal, which seeks to end the moratorium, calls for the creation of a fund to receive voluntary contributions to bridge the “digital divide.” It also wants to require “leading platforms” to boost the promotion of “historically disadvantaged” small- and medium-sized enterprises. Industry, at least in the United States, is pushing hard to extend the moratorium. In a Feb. 13 letter to Biden administration officials, nearly two dozen industry groups, including the Motion Picture Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Entertainment Software Association — a video-game industry group — urged the United States to give its “full support” to a renewal. “Accepting anything short of a multilateral extension of the moratorium that applies to all WTO members would open the door to the introduction of new customs duties and related cross-border restrictions that would hurt U.S. workers in industries across the entire economy,” the letter said. A collapse would deal a “major blow to the credibility and durability" of the WTO and would mark the first time that its members "changed the rules to make it substantially harder to conduct trade,” wrote the groups, which said their members include companies that combined employ over 100 million workers. 

Consumers Pushing Back Against Price Increases — And Winning

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 07:09
Washington — Inflation has changed the way many Americans shop. Now, those changes in consumer habits are helping bring down inflation. Fed up with prices that remain about 19%, on average, above where they were before the pandemic, consumers are fighting back. In grocery stores, they're shifting away from name brands to store-brand items, switching to discount stores or simply buying fewer items like snacks or gourmet foods. More Americans are buying used cars, too, rather than new, forcing some dealers to provide discounts on new cars again. But the growing consumer pushback to what critics condemn as price-gouging has been most evident with food as well as with consumer goods like paper towels and napkins. In recent months, consumer resistance has led large food companies to respond by sharply slowing their price increases from the peaks of the past three years. This doesn't mean grocery prices will fall back to their levels of a few years ago, though with some items, including eggs, apples and milk, prices are below their peaks. But the milder increases in food prices should help further cool overall inflation, which is down sharply from a peak of 9.1% in 2022 to 3.1%. Public frustration with prices has become a central issue in President Joe Biden’s bid for re-election. Polls show that despite the dramatic decline in inflation, many consumers are unhappy that prices remain so much higher than they were before inflation began accelerating in 2021. Biden has echoed the criticism of many left-leaning economists that corporations jacked up their prices more than was needed to cover their own higher costs, allowing themselves to boost their profits. The White House has also attacked “shrinkflation,” whereby a company, rather than raising the price of a product, instead shrinks the amount inside the package. In a video released on Super Bowl Sunday, Biden denounced shrinkflation as a “rip-off.” Consumer pushback against high prices suggests to many economists that inflation should further ease. That would make this bout of inflation markedly different from the debilitating price spikes of the 1970s and early 1980s, which took longer to defeat. When high inflation persists, consumers often develop an inflationary psychology: Ever-rising prices lead them to accelerate their purchases before costs rise further, a trend that can itself perpetuate inflation. “That was the fear — that everybody would tolerate higher prices,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at EY, a consulting firm, who notes that it hasn't happened. “I don't think we've moved into a high inflation regime.” Instead, this time many consumers have reacted like Stuart Dryden, a commercial underwriter at a bank who lives in Arlington, Virginia. On a recent trip to his regular grocery store, Dryden, 37, pointed out big price disparities between Kraft Heinz-branded products and their store-label competitors, which he now favors. Dryden, for example, loves cream cheese and bagels. A 12-ounce tub of Kraft's Philadelphia cream cheese costs $6.69. The store brand, he noted, is just $3.19. A 24-pack of Kraft single cheese slices is $7.69; the store label, $2.99. And a 32-ounce Heinz ketchup bottle is $6.29, while the alternative is just $1.69. Similar gaps existed with mac-and-cheese and shredded cheese products. “Just those five products together already cost nearly $30,” Dryden said. The alternatives were less than half that, he calculated, at about $13. “I’ve been trying private-label options, and the quality is the same and it’s almost a no-brainer to switch from the products I used to buy a ton of to just the private label," Dryden said. Alex Abraham, a spokesman for Kraft Heinz, said that its costs rose 3% in the final three months of last year but that the company raised its own prices only 1%. “We are doing everything possible to find efficiencies in our factories and other parts of our business to offset and mitigate further price increases,” Abraham said. Last week, Kraft Heinz said sales fell in the final three months of last year as more consumers traded down to cheaper brands. Dryden has taken other steps to save money: A year ago, he moved into a new apartment after his previous landlord jacked up his rent by about 50%. His former apartment had been next to a relatively pricey grocery store, Whole Foods. Now, he shops at a nearby Amazon Fresh and has started visiting the discount grocer Aldi every couple of weeks. Samuel Rines, an investment strategist at Corbu, says that PepsiCo, Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and many other consumer food and packaged goods companies exploited the rise in input costs stemming from supply-chain disruptions and Russia's invasion of Ukraine to dramatically raise their prices — and increase their profits — in 2021 and 2022. A contributing factor was that millions of Americans enjoyed solid wage gains and received stimulus checks and other government aid, making it easier for them to pay the higher prices. Still, some decried the phenomenon as “greedflation." And in a March 2023 research paper, the economist Isabella Weber at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, referred to it as “seller's inflation.” Yet beginning late last year, many of the same companies discovered that the strategy was no longer working. Most consumers have now long since spent the savings they built up during the pandemic. Lower-income consumers, in particular, are running up credit card debt and falling behind on their payments. Americans overall are spending more cautiously. Daco notes that overall sales during the holiday shopping season were up just 4% — and most of it reflected higher prices rather than consumers actually buying more things. As an example, Rines points to Unilever, which makes, among other items, Hellman's mayonnaise, Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Dove soaps. Unilever jacked up its prices 13.3% on average across its brands in 2022. Its sales volume fell 3.6% that year. In response, it raised prices just 2.8% last year; sales rose 1.8%. “We're beginning to see the consumer no longer willing to take the higher pricing,” Rines said. “So companies were beginning to get a little bit more skeptical of their ability to just have price be the driver of their revenues. They had to have those volumes come back, and the consumer wasn’t reacting in a way that they were pleased with.” Unilever itself recently attributed poor sales performance in Europe to “share losses to private labels.” Other businesses have noticed, too. After their sales fell in the final three months of last year, PepsiCo executives signaled that this year they would rein in price increases and focus more on boosting sales. “In 2024, we see ... normalization of the cost, normalization of inflation,” CEO Ramon Laguarta said. “So we see everything trending back to our long-term” pricing trends. Jeffrey Harmening, CEO of General Mills, which makes Cheerios, Chex Cereal, Progresso soups and dozens of other brands, has acknowledged that his customers are increasingly seeking bargains. And McDonald's executives have said that consumers with incomes below $45,000 are visiting less and spending less when they do visit and say the company plans to highlight its lower-priced items. “Consumers are more wary — and weary — of pricing, and we’re going to continue to be consumer-led in our pricing decisions,” Ian Borden, the company's chief financial officer, told investors. Officials at the Federal Reserve, the nation's primary inflation-fighting institution, have cited consumers' growing reluctance to pay high prices as a key reason why they expect inflation to fall steadily back to their 2% annual target. “Firms are telling us that price sensitivity is very much higher now,” Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and a member of the Fed's interest-rate setting committee, said last week. “Consumers don't want to purchase unless they're seeing a 10% discount. ... This is a serious improvement in the role that consumers play in bridling inflation.” Surveys by the Fed's regional banks have found that companies across all industries expect to impose smaller price increases this year. The New York Fed says companies in its region plan to raise prices an average of about 3% this year, down from about 5% in 2023 and as much as 7% to 9% in 2022. Such trends suggest that companies were well on their way to slowing their price hikes before Biden's most recent attacks on price gouging. Claudia Sahm, founder of SAHM Consulting and a former Fed economist, said, “consumers are more powerful than President Biden.”

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Belarusians Vote in Tightly Controlled Election; Opposition Calls for Boycott

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 04:14
TALLINN, Estonia — Polls opened Sunday in Belarus' tightly controlled parliamentary and local elections that are set to cement the steely rule of the country's authoritarian leader, despite calls for a boycott from the opposition, which dismissed the balloting as a "senseless farce." President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly 30 years, accuses the West of trying to use the vote to undermine his government and "destabilize" the nation of 9.5 million people. Most candidates belong to the four officially registered parties: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice. Those parties all support Lukashenko's policies. About a dozen other parties were denied registration last year. Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, urged voters to boycott the elections. "There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part," Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. "We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice." Sunday's balloting is the first election in Belarus since the contentious 2020 vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office and triggered an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations. Protests swept the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested. Thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed. Lukashenko has relied on subsidies and political support from his main ally, Russia, to survive the protests. He allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine in February 2022. The election takes place amid a relentless crackdown on dissent. Over 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and renowned human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. The opposition says the early balloting that began Tuesday offers fertile ground for the vote to be manipulated, with ballot boxes unprotected for five days. Election officials said Sunday that over 40% of the country's voters cast ballots during the five days of early voting. Turnout stood at 43.64% by 9 a.m. on Sunday, an hour after polls formally opened, according to the Belarusian Central Election Commission. The Viasna Human Rights Center said students, soldiers, teachers and other civil servants were forced to participate in early voting. "Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need — from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early," said Viasna representative Pavel Sapelka. "Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote." Speaking during Tuesday's meeting with top Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko alleged without offering evidence that Western countries were pondering plans to stage a coup in the country or to try to seize power by force. He ordered police to beef up armed patrols across Belarus, declaring that "it's the most important element of ensuring law and order." After the vote, Belarus is set to form a new state body — the 1,200-seat All-Belarus Popular Assembly that will include top officials, local legislators, union members, pro-government activists and others. It will have broad powers, including the authority to consider constitutional amendments and to appoint election officials and judges. Lukashenko was believed a few years ago to be considering whether to lead the new body after stepping down, but his calculus has apparently changed, and now few observers expect him to step down after his current term ends next year. For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths at polling stations, and voters were banned from taking pictures of their ballots. During the 2020 election, activists encouraged voters to photograph their ballots in a bid to prevent authorities from manipulating the vote in Lukashenko's favor. Belarusian state TV aired footage of Interior Ministry drills in which police detained a purported offender who was photographing his ballot and others who created an artificial queue outside a polling station. Belarus for the first time also refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, a top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, and its monitors have been the only international observers at Belarusian elections for decades. Since 1995, not a single election in Belarus has been recognized as free and fair by the OSCE. The OSCE said the decision not to allow the agency's monitors deprived the country of a "comprehensive assessment by an international body." "The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate as those who voice dissent or stand up for the human rights of others are subject to investigation, persecution and frequently prosecution," it said in a statement. Observers noted that authorities have not even tried to pretend that the vote is democratic. The election offers the government an opportunity to run a "systems test after massive protests and a serious shock of the last presidential election and see whether it works," said Artyom Shraibman, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. "The parliament will be sterile after the opposition and all alternative voices were barred from campaigning. It's important for authorities to erase any memory of the protests."

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 04:00
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Why Aid Groups Are Warning of New Humanitarian Crisis in Eastern DR Congo

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 25, 2024 - 03:31
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Aid organizations fear a new humanitarian crisis in the restive eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the armed rebel group M23 is in the midst of a new advance that threatens to cut off a major city and leave millions of people struggling for food and medical help. Eastern Congo has been beset by conflict for years, with M23 among more than 100 armed groups vying for a foothold in the mineral-rich area near the border with Rwanda. Some have been accused of carrying out mass killings. There's been an upsurge in fighting in recent weeks between M23 rebels and Congo army forces, and it comes as the United Nations plans to withdraw peacekeepers from the region by the end of the year. Tensions are also rising between Congo and Rwanda, with them blaming each other for supporting various armed groups. Congo accuses Rwanda of backing M23. This weekend, the U.S. State Department condemned what it called the "worsening violence." A group of aid agencies has estimated that 1 million people have already been displaced by fighting in the last three months. Who are M23? The March 23 Movement, or M23, is a rebel military group mainly made up of ethnic Tutsis that broke away from the Congolese army just over a decade ago. They staged a large offensive in 2012 and took over the provincial capital of Goma near the border with Rwanda, the same city they are threatening again. The conflict has regional complications, with neighboring Rwanda also accused by the U.S. and U.N. experts of giving military aid to M23. Rwanda denies that but effectively admitted on Monday that it has troops and missile systems in eastern Congo. Rwanda said that is to safeguard its own security because of what it claims is a buildup of Congo army forces near the border. Rwanda has rejected calls from the U.S. to withdraw. There are also ties to the Rwandan genocide of 30 years ago, with M23 and Rwanda saying separately that they are fighting a threat from a Congolese rebel group that is connected to the Congo army and partly made up of ethnic Hutus who were perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Congo-Rwanda tensions Relations between Congo and its eastern neighbor have been fraught for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees had fled to Congo, then Zaire, in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Among them were soldiers and militiamen responsible for the slaughter of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Two years after the genocide, Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern Congo to try and root out what remained of those genocide perpetrators, which led to the toppling of then Congo President Mobutu Sese Seko. Tensions between Congo and Rwanda escalated in 2021 with the resurgence of M23 attacks on Congolese soldiers after nearly a decade of relative inactivity due to a 2013 peace deal. The presence of so many armed groups is believed to be connected to illegal mining, with eastern Congo rich in gold and other minerals. What's happened in recent weeks? M23 launched new attacks late last year and has ramped them up in recent weeks. The group is now threatening to take the key town of Sake, about 27 kilometersmwest of Goma. That could cause food and aid supplies to be cut off from Goma, which had a population of around 600,000 a few years ago, but now holds more than 2 million people, according to aid agencies, as people flee violence in surrounding towns and villages. The advance of rebels on Sake "poses an imminent threat to the entire aid system" in eastern Congo, the Norwegian Refugee Council said. It said 135,000 people were displaced in just five days in early February. The violence has also sparked protests from the capital, Kinshasa, to Goma, with angry demonstrators saying the international community is not doing enough to push back against M23 and not taking a hard enough stance against Rwanda. What's at stake? The new fighting could lead to an escalation of regional tensions and involve more countries. As the U.N. winds down its 25-year peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo, a multi-national force under the southern African regional bloc is set to step in. That force will include soldiers from regional power South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania. They will help the Congo army forces, but it might put them in direct conflict with Rwanda. There's also the humanitarian cost. The International NGO Forum in Congo, a group of non-governmental organizations working in the region, said the escalation in fighting has involved artillery attacks on civilian settlements, causing a heavy toll and forcing many health and aid workers to withdraw. Eastern Congo already had one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with nearly 6 million people previously displaced because of conflict, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. There are concerns a new disaster could largely go unnoticed because of the attention on the war in Gaza and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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