Turkey Fires Nearly 4,000 from Civil Service, Military, Gendarmerie

Turkey has dismissed nearly 4,000 people from its civil service, military, and gendarmerie, in what appears to be a purge related to last year’s attempted coup.

Turkey announced the move on Saturday, saying in the government’s Official Gazette that those let go include 1,127 employees of the justice ministry, made up of prison guards, academics and religious affairs ministry employees.

It appears to be one of the largest such purges since the coup attempt last July.

Since that time some 120,000 people have been suspended from their jobs in civil service and the private sector, and more than 40,000 people were arrested.

Also Saturday, Turkey announced it has banned television dating programs, and access to the Wikipedia online research tool. Ankara says Wikipedia has suggested Turkey is cooperating with terror groups.

Russians Protest Potential Putin Presidential Bid

The Russian opposition movement founded by exiled Kremlin critic and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky protested President Vladimir Putin in 32 cities Saturday, despite the fact that authorities have banned the movement and declared it illegal, and police have raided its Moscow offices.

The main rally in Moscow had a few hundred protesters gathering in a park before moving to an administrative building nearby, where they submitted a letter urging Putin not to run for a fourth term in 2018.

In St. Petersburg, though, police arrested a few dozen protesters after about 200 of them gathered for an unsanctioned demonstration.

The demonstrations Saturday come on the heels of a large protest in March – the largest unauthorized rally in recent years – that saw more than 1,000 people arrested, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Russian authorities have not simply warned opposition group Open Russia not to conduct any activities, but have blacklisted the group.  

The Russian prosecutor general’s office Wednesday declared Open Russia and two other groups founded by Khodorkovsky to be “undesirable” organizations.  The three organizations are the U.K.-registered Open Russia, the U.S.-based Institute of Modern Russia, and a social movement that also uses the Open Russia name.  

The “undesirable” designation bans them from operating inside Russia, with any violation punishable by fines and jail time.  

Police raided the group’s offices in Moscow Friday, prior to Saturday’s protest.

Maria Galitskaya, a spokeswoman for Open Russia told VOA she thinks the raid was politically motivated.

“One [of the police officers] started breaking open the doors of the rooms and desk drawers, though there was nothing illegitimate in the office,” she said.  “It is difficult to talk about the real reasons of the search but we connect that with tomorrow’s action and think that this is an effort at intimidation.”

 

Pope Francis Delivers Message of Peace During Egypt Visit

Pope Francis concluded a 27 hour visit to Egypt Saturday, after delivering mass to a crowd of 25,000 Catholics and visiting a seminary. Preaching a message of “peace,” the pontiff tried to reach out to both Christians and Muslims, denouncing those who preach violence in the name of God.

Pope Francis said mass in Latin to a vast throng of worshipers gathered at Egypt’s Air Force Stadium Saturday, amid strict security. Egyptian media reported that 25,000 Catholic Christians from six branches of the church attended the mass, amid a festive atmosphere.

A choir of Armenian Catholics took its turn to sing during the Saturday mass, as Pope Francis made an effort to embrace Catholics from the different branches of his own church. Other choirs sang in Arabic and Latin.

Patriarch Ibrahim Ishaq, head of the Catholic branch of the Coptic Church, summed up the papal visit, saying that it was taking place under the banner of “the Pope of peace in the land of peace. Egypt,” he stressed, “is the cradle of religions and will remain a land of peace.”

Pope Francis spent the first day of his visit, Friday, meeting with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, at an interfaith dialogue conference, before visiting the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros, to express his condolences over the Palm Sunday suicide attacks at Coptic churches in Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Tanta.

The pontiff told Muslim and Christian leaders at Friday’s dialogue meeting that “we must learn from the past that violence breeds more violence and evil only begets evil.” Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Tayeb, who presided over the conference with Pope Francis, decried what he called the “unprecedented barbarity of the 21st Century, despite all the talk of human rights.” Both leaders embraced each other warmly after addressing the crowd.

WATCH: Pope Preaches Against Extremism in Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sissi, who also attended the gathering, insisted that “Egypt is at the forefront of those countries fighting terrorism,” and urged the international community to “sanction countries which finance terrorism and help to recruit terrorists.”

Tourism Minister Yehia Rashed told Egyptian media that he thinks that Pope Francis’ visit demonstrates to the world that Egypt is a “safe and hospitable place” to visit.

He says that Egypt is not only the “cradle of civilizations,” but also has a major role in delivering a message of peace to the world.

Pope Francis’ final stop before heading to the airport was a visit to a seminary in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, where he appealed to clergy from different Christian sects to “accept the differences among us,” in the same way that we “admire the different virtues of Saint Peter and of Saint Paul.”

Nationwide Strike Brings Brazil to a Standstill

Public transportation, schools and banks were closed across much of Brazil as unions led nationwide strikes to protest austerity measures.

Millions of people stayed home Friday, either by choice or because they could not get to work. Thousands of others came out onto the streets to protest and block roads.

In one of the largest demonstrations, thousands of people gathered in front of Rio de Janeiro’s state assembly and clashed with police who tried to remove them. Police fired tear gas while protesters threw stones.

Protests also took place in Sao Paulo, with reports of police using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear demonstrators blocking major roads.

The strikes were organized by labor unions that are opposed to proposals by the center-right government of President Michel Temer to change labor laws and the pension system, including raising the retirement age.

The president argues that the changes will help revive the economy and says without them the country’s pension system will go bankrupt. Unions say the changes will take away too many benefits from people.

The proposals are being debated in Congress and are widely expected to be approved.

The CUT union said about 35 million Brazilians did not show up for work Friday, more than a third of the working population. The number could not be independently verified.

The strike is Brazil’s first general strike in more than two decades. The 24-hour strike started early Friday, ahead of a long weekend with Labor Day on Monday.

Brazil’s economy is in a recession, with unemployment of more than 13 percent. 

Macedonian Politicians Turn Parliament Violence in War of Words

Macedonia’s rival parties are trading blame for violence in parliament, while world powers are giving opposing reactions to the events.

The European Union and the United States condemned Thursday’s attack, in which protesters stormed the Macedonian parliament in Skopje, attacking opposition lawmakers after they elected an ethnic Albanian speaker.

Russia blamed the events on the West, saying it had meddled in the Balkan nation’s internal affairs.

Pointing fingers

In Macedonia, the previous night’s violence turned into a war of words between rival politicians on Friday.

Zoran Zaev, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, who were targeted in the attack, accused the attackers of attempted murder.

Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose supporters were among the mob that stormed the parliament, said he deplored the violence, but he accused the opposition of instigating it with an attempted power grab.

Interior Minister Agim Nuhiu announced his resignation Friday over the night’s events. He told reporters that 10 lawmakers and an unspecified number of journalists were among those hurt.

The interior ministry said 102 people were treated at city hospitals.

Speaker election

The violence began Thursday after lawmakers from the Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian parties elected former Defense Minister Talat Xhaferi speaker, even though the country has no functioning government.

Demonstrators stormed the parliament and began throwing chairs and attacking opposition lawmakers.

Demonstrators blocked the door of the chamber, refusing to let lawmakers leave as demonstrators waved flags in lawmakers’ faces and shouted “traitors.” Police outside the building fired stun grenades to break up the crowd.

 

 

Zaev’s Social Democrats and the ethnic Albanians would have enough seats to form a coalition government, but President Gjorge Ivanov has refused to give him a mandate.

The conservatives won December’s parliamentary election, but without enough seats to form a government. Coalition talks with other parties collapsed over ethnic Albanian demands to make Albanian an official language.

International reaction

The United States condemned Thursday’s violence “in the strongest terms.” In a statement posted on its State Department website, the U.S. Embassy in Skopje said the violence “is not consistent with democracy and is not an acceptable way to resolve differences.”

The U.S. called on all parties to “refrain from violent actions which exacerbate the situation.”

The European Union also condemned Thursday’s violence. 

“I condemn the attacks on MPs in Skopje in the strongest terms. Violence has no place in parliament,” enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said. “Democracy must run its course.”

However, Russia blamed the events on the West, saying the Macedonian opposition had “foreign patrons.”

A Foreign Ministry statement said Xhaferi’s election was an “unceremonious manipulation of the will of citizens” and said EU and U.S. representatives were quick to recognize the speaker, indicating the vote was planned in advance.

The United Nations said in a statement by the U.N. secretary-general’s spokesman that it is “following developments unfolding in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia with great concern and call for restraint and calm. Violence directed at democratic institutions and elected representatives of the people is unacceptable.”

Macedonia has a Slavic majority, but about a third of the population is ethnic Albanian. The Balkan country aspires to join the European Union and NATO.

French National Front Has Third Leader in One Week

France’s far-right National Front, the party of presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, has replaced its leader for the second time in three days.

Jean-Francois Jalkh, who was named interim president of the party on Tuesday after Le Pen stepped down, was forced to vacate the office in response to allegations he praised a Holocaust denier. He also expressed doubts about the reality of Nazi gas chambers, which killed millions of Jews during World War II.

Jalkh is being replaced by Steeve Briois. Each has served as one of the party’s five vice presidents.

Another party vice president, Louis Aliot — Marine Le Pen’s partner — told reporters that Briois would take over the interim leadership and “there’ll be no more talk about it.”

It is a blow to the campaign of Le Pen, who had a better-than-expected showing in French elections on Sunday and faces a runoff with centrist rival Emmanuel Macron on May 7.

Le Pen raised controversy earlier in the campaign by saying France was not responsible for the roundup and demise of thousands of Parisian Jews during World War II.

Ironically, she expelled her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party in 2015 because he referred to the Holocaust as a “detail of history.”

Macron is expected to win the May 7 runoff, but experts say an unexpected voter turnout could rock the results to one side or the other.

Medvedev’s Popularity Sinks Amid May Day Politics in Russia

The independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain) reported Friday that the central executive committee of the country’s ruling party, United Russia, had distributed to its regional branches a list of 36 slogans that party activists should use during party activities next week marking the annual May Day holiday.

While, according to Dozhd, the slogans include some praising the country’s president (“Putin is for the People, He is Leading Russia to Success!”) and others condemning corruption (“Praise Honesty, Jail Bribe-takers!”), none of them refers to the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who happens to be United Russia’s formal head.

 

The likely reason for that omission is not hard to figure out: Medvedev has seen his popularity drop sharply since early March, when anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny published a video investigation into the prime minister’s alleged wealth. It offered viewers shots of yachts, villas, and even a winery in a picturesque Italian village, all allegedly belonging to Medvedev.

A survey released Thursday by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent national polling agency, found that Medvedev’s “trust” rating had fallen to a record low since Navalny’s video was posted and viewed more than 20 million times.

Bloomberg News, citing two Medvedev “allies,” reported this week that he “is more worried than ever about his political future.”

The news agency quoted President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as brushing aside the drop in Medvedev’s approval, saying “ratings go up and down, that’s a normal process.”

Still, Peskov declined to say whether the prime minister still “enjoys Putin’s full trust,” Bloomberg reported.

The prime minister has become a lightning rod for Russian anger over official malfeasance. On March 26, an estimated 60,000 people answered Navalny’s call and took to the streets in more than 80 Russian cities to protest corruption. Many protesters mocked Medvedev’s taste for expensive athletic shoes by hanging sneakers on street lamps.

Medvedev finally responded to Navalny’s video in early April. He claimed, among other things, that the allegations of corruption cited in the video were based on “nonsense” about “acquaintances and people that I have never even heard of.” He also obliquely referred to Navalny as “a political opportunist” who is trying to seize power.

Meanwhile, another Levada poll published this week found that 45 percent of respondents would like to see Medvedev dismissed as prime minister, up sharply from the 33 percent who felt that way last November.

Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalya Timakova, a former Kremlin pool reporter, called the Levada poll a “political hit job.”