Topless Female Protesters Approach Trump Motorcade in Paris

French police arrested two topless female protesters Sunday on the Champs-Elysees where France was holding a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

One of the women was apprehended within just a few meters of the motorcade of U.S. President Donald Trump as it approached the site. She had the words “Fake Peacemaker” written across her chest.

Femen, the radical feminist activist group, based in Paris, appeared to take responsibility for the demonstration.

Femen leader Inna Shevchenko wrote on Twitter: “FEMEN activists ‘welcomed’ the cortege of @realDonaldTrump twice on his way to Arc de Triumph.”

The incident is likely to raise questions about security lapses at the event.

Most of the world leaders attending the Armistice Day ceremony in Paris were transported to the site in buses.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin chose not to ride on the buses. The White House says Trump’s arrival was dictated by “security protocols.”

 

Queen Elizabeth Launches British Commemorations 100 Years After WW1

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and senior members of the royal family attended a Festival of Remembrance on Saturday to commemorate all those who lost their lives in conflict, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One.

The 92-year-old Queen joined her son and heir to the throne Charles, grandsons William and Harry and their wives Kate and Meghan at the Royal Albert Hall in central London at an event organized to pay tribute to all those who have died.

The royal family and Prime Minister Theresa May were due to watch leading actors, authors, singers and military bands lead the tributes at an event organized by the armed forces charity the Royal British Legion.

Events to mark the end of the Great War have been taking place around the world, with leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and May in France earlier on Saturday.

On Sunday morning the Queen, the royal family and senior members of the political and military establishment will be joined at the Cenotaph in Whitehall by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to mark the centenary of the end of the war.

The government said Steinmeier would become the first German leader to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph ceremony before attending a service at Westminster Abbey, in what it said marked a historic act of reconciliation. 

EU’s Tusk Likens Polish Government to Contemporary ‘Bolsheviks’

European Council head Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, on Saturday denounced the euroskeptic populists governing Poland as “contemporary Bolsheviks” who threaten the nation’s independence, but can be defeated.

Tusk, seen as a likely contender in Poland’s 2020 presidential election, spoke in the city of Lodz on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the country regaining its statehood at the end of World War I after 123 years of foreign rule.

He honored the statesman who restored Polish independence and as chief of state went on to defeat the Bolsheviks’ Red Army in 1920, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. He also paid homage to Lech Walesa, the Solidarity trade union founder who challenged Poland’s Soviet-backed communist rule during the 1980s and went on to become president from 1990 to 1995.

“Jozef Pilsudski was facing a more difficult situation than we have today when he was conquering the Bolsheviks and in fact, defending the Western community against political barbarians,” Tusk said during an independent anniversary forum gathering intellectuals and politicians.

“Walesa had a more difficult situation when he was conquering the Bolsheviks in a symbolic way, when he was bringing out the European, the freedom, the national values in us. But he managed,” he continued.

“Why shouldn’t you be able to defeat the contemporary Bolsheviks?” Tusk said to great applause.

He appealed for Poles to defend their rights, freedom and to “defend Poland’s independence.”

He criticized the government led by the conservative Law and Justice party, which has repeatedly clashed with European Union leaders, as a threat to Poland.

“Whoever today in Poland takes steps against our strong position in a united Europe is really taking steps against Poland’s independence,” Tusk said.

Deputy Senate Speaker Adam Bielan, a member of the ruling team, responded later by saying that Tusk was trying to divide Poles and provoke conflict on the eve of a big national holiday.

Tusk’s appointment to the EU job in 2014 partly was in recognition of his liberal government’s pro-EU policies. He warned Saturday that the government now influenced by Law and Justice head Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Tusk’s political foe, is moving in the opposite direction.

In hopes of preventing anything from marring the centennial commemorations, Polish government officials negotiated a deal to hold a joint march in Warsaw on Sunday with nationalist groups that had planned their own event.

Past independence day marches held by far-right nationalists featured racist slogans, white supremacist symbols and aggressive behavior. 

From the CAR to Eritrea, Russia’s African Ambitions Unfold

The Central African Republic might seem like an unusual venue for Russia’s evolving strategy in Africa. The CAR doesn’t boast Ethiopia’s booming economy or Angola’s deep oil reserves. It lacks a developed mining industry like Zambia or a strategic location like Djibouti.

But the landlocked country of fewer than 5 million people, most of whom survive on subsistence farming, has something else of interest to Moscow: conflict.

Since 2013, the CAR has grappled with a protracted civil war. Mass displacements, political instability, and competing factions of rebels and militia groups have weakened the government and eroded peoples’ trust in its institutions.

In the ensuing volatility, Russia has found opportunities to project power far beyond its borders and rekindle strategic partnerships in Africa that have been dormant since the end of the Cold War.

‘Armed adventurism’

Russia has stepped up its presence in the CAR during the past few years. But its strategies there, which rely on the use of private contractors and mercenary groups, have been employed since the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and, later, in Ukraine and Syria.

“We should think about mercenaries as an instrument which allows plausible deniability but also hard-power projection, which has multiple uses in contested areas,” said Kiril Avramov, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Intelligence Studies Project.

Avramov told VOA’s Russian service that Moscow officially bans mercenaries and security companies, but ex-military or intelligence officers often organize them, providing close ties to the Kremlin. Their work, which Avramov called “armed adventurism,” has helped Russia rebound from isolation and advance its political objectives.

One company, Wagner Group, has come under increasing scrutiny. This summer, three journalists investigating Wagner’s operations in the CAR were ambushed and killed. Footage captured by the journalists suggests Wagner.

‘Club of illiberals’

For Russia, private military contractors complement a broader strategy focused on strengthening state sovereignty, Avramov said. “The current Kremlin is trying to export counterrevolution,” he added. Rather than destabilize regimes, Russia looks for countries already besieged, from the CAR to Syria.

These governments welcome help, Avramov said, and that provides Russia with multiple opportunities, from weapons deals to training programs.

In the CAR, Moscow has gone a step further, cementing deals for political consultations, joint foreign operations and security details for the president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In the future, mineral mining might present opportunities to “entrepreneurs and their little private armies,” Avramov said, even if the sector is currently underdeveloped.

But the country may be getting more than it bargains for. “You’re going to get what I call the ‘club of illiberals.’ You buy insurance, and then you receive a package,” Avramov said.

That package includes mercenary groups, such as Wagner, which often have ties to both oligarchs and political elites. “You somehow start losing a grasp (on) where the private ends and the state begins,” Avramov said.

Countries also can end up pawns in Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. In the CAR, Russia is “playing in the backyard of France and trying to sow division with the neighbors,” Avramov said.

And while Russia may not want the countries with which it aligns to plummet into chaos, quick resolutions to the battles it inserts itself into aren’t desirable, either. Drawn-out conflict means more time to sell arms, secure energy contracts and counterbalance China.

Despite outpacing Russia in political alliances and economic deals, Beijing faces real competition from Moscow, Avramov said. Compared to China, “(Russia) is punching above its weight, and it’s doing it in a very spectacular manner,” he added.

Logistics facility

Two thousand kilometers from the CAR, Moscow sees opportunities in another country dealing with the fallout of war. Eritrea, in East Africa, emerged this summer from decades of active conflict with Ethiopia, followed by 20 years of isolation.

In August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed plans to build a logistics center at the Port of Assab, in southern Eritrea, during a meeting with a high-level Eritrean delegation, according to RIA, a Russian state-owned news agency.

​Avramov said it makes sense for Russia to pursue the base, along with similar partnerships.

“We will see those activities on the rise,” he said, citing Russia’s desire for recognition as a world superpower and its need for diplomatic relationships.

Countries steeped in conflict give Moscow a chance to develop a longterm presence, Avramov added, despite limited resources. They also give the Kremlin a chance to send a message, both to China and the West.

“It’s a way of saying, ‘If you’re criticized for your human rights record, if you’re criticized for any of the things the West clings on, here is always another option,’” Avramov said.

This story originated in VOA’s Africa Division. Sandzhar Khamidov contributed reporting from the Russia service.

US, EU Denounce Dissolution of Sri Lanka Parliament

Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, worsening an already major political crisis, has drawn criticism from Western powers, including the United States and the European Union.

Sirisena dissolved parliament on Friday night, only five days before it was due to reconvene. A new cabinet he installed was in danger of losing a vote of no confidence. He also called a general election for Jan. 5.

The president triggered a power struggle when he sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe late last month and appointed the island’s former leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a pro-China strongman defeated by Sirisena in an election in 2015, in his place.

Sirisena’s rivals are set to challenge his decision, which they describe as illegal and unconstitutional, in the Supreme Court on Monday.

The U.S. Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said in a tweet that the United States was “deeply concerned by news the Sri Lanka Parliament will be dissolved, further deepening the political crisis”. It said democracy needed to be respected to ensure stability and prosperity.

A spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that the move “risks undermining public confidence in the country’s democratic institutions and processes and further deepens the political and economic crisis in the country.”

Last week, the EU’s ambassador warned it could consider stripping Sri Lanka of its duty-free access if it backs off commitments on rights. The EU is worried the return of Rajapaksa could derail halting progress made toward national reconciliation following a war with ethnic minority Tamil separatists that killed tens of thousands, many during the final stages under his watch as president.

Mark Field, the British minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, tweeted his concern about the dissolution of parliament days before it was due to be reconvened.

“As a friend of Sri Lanka, the UK calls on all parties to uphold the constitution and respect democratic institutions and processes,” Field said.

Canada’s Foreign Policy twitter feed said that it was “deeply concerned” about the decision and referred to the risks to reconciliation work after the nation’s civil war.

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne expressed both concern and disappointment in a statement, saying the move “undermines Sri Lanka’s long democratic tradition and poses a risk to its stability and prosperity.”

Sirisena has said he fired Wickremesinghe because the prime minister was trying to implement “a new, extreme liberal political concept by giving more priority for foreign policies and neglecting the local people’s sentiment.”

Parliament test

Mangala Samaraweera, an ally of Wickremesinghe, said their party expects the court to rule that the dissolution of parliament was illegal and that eventually a vote in parliament will be held to test whether there is a majority.

“We will show that we have the parliament majority and we will show that the dictator president has dissolved a government which had a majority in the parliament,” he told reporters.

They were supported by the Tamil National Alliance, the main party representing ethnic Tamil groups in parliament, who said it too will petition the Supreme Court against the dissolution of the house.

“This is a clear violation of the constitution. The president can’t do this,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, a spokesman for the alliance.

India and the West have raised concerns over Rajapaksa’s close ties with China. Beijing loaned Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects when Rajapaksa was president between 2005-2015, putting the country deep into debt.

Wickremesinghe has refused to vacate the official prime minister’s residence saying he was the prime minister and had a parliamentary majority.

Before he signed the papers dissolving parliament and calling the election, Sirisena appointed allies of his and of Rajapaksa to cabinet positions.

One of them said Sirisena was right to order an election to end the political crisis. Dinesh Gunawardena, a newly appointed urban development minister, said the president had handed the country back to the people.

“It is the people’s right to vote. We have gone before the people. No force can interfere. The people’s mandate is supreme,” he said.

Independent legal experts have told Reuters that parliament could be dissolved only in early 2020, which would be four-and-half-years from the first sitting of the current parliament. The only other legal way would be through a referendum, or with the consent of two thirds of lawmakers.

Given those views, it was not immediately clear how Sirisena is on legal safe ground by dissolving parliament, though his legal experts have said there are provisions for him to do so. 

Report: Russian Charged by US Seen at Libya Military Meeting

A Russian newspaper says video released by the self-styled Libyan National Army shows a businessman allegedly linked to a private contractor that sent mercenaries to Syria at a meeting with the head of the Libyan army and top Russian military officials.

 

Novaya Gazeta reported Friday that a man seen wearing civilian dress at the meeting was Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Moscow meeting included Libyan National Army head Khalifa Hifter, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces.

 

Prigozhin is allegedly tied to a military contractor believed to have sent thousands of mercenaries to Syria, augmenting regular Russian troops deployed there. He also has been indicted by the United States over the alleged Russian “troll farm” accused of using social media to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

 

Stephen Hawking’s Wheelchair Sells for Nearly $400,000

A wheelchair used by the late British physicist Stephen Hawking has sold at auction for almost $400,000, with the money going to charity.

The motorized wheelchair, which was used by Hawking after he was paralyzed with motor neuron disease, had been expected to sell for around $20,000 in the online auction organized by Christie’s.

A copy of Hawking’s doctoral thesis, called “Properties of expanding universes” from 1965 sold for $767,000, much more than the estimate of $200,000.

Proceeds from the auction will go to two charities, the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at age 22 and given just a few years to live. However, he lived to the age of 76, dying in March.

Hawking explored the origins of the universe, expanding scientific thinking about black holes and became a well-known figure in pop culture.

A script from one of his appearances on the television series “The Simpsons” was one of the 22 items in the auction, selling for more than $8,000.

Hawking’s daughter, Lucy, said the sale gave “admirers of his work the chance to acquire a memento of our father’s extraordinary life in the shape of a small selection of evocative and fascinating items.”

Other items sold at the auction included an early edition of Hawking’s best-selling book, “A Brief History of Time,” marked with a thumbprint, a collection of his medals and awards, and essays.

In total, the auction raised $1.8 million for charity. Hawking’s family is donating other items from Hawking’s archive to the British government in lieu of paying inheritance tax.

Russian Billionaire Gets More Time to Cut Aluminum Company Holdings

The U.S. Treasury Department has again extended a deadline for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska to reduce his holdings in the aluminum company Rusal before sanctions take effect. 

The Treasury Department said Friday that licenses allowing Rusal to continue doing business would be extended from Dec. 12 to Jan. 7. 

The department said in April that it would impose sanctions on Deripaska and several companies in which he is a large shareholder, citing “malign activities” by Russia. 

However, the agency has pushed back the sanction deadline multiple times since then as it works with the companies, who are looking to find new shareholders. 

Rusal and its parent En+ Group have been taking steps to change their management to people not linked with Deripaska to ease the sanctions. Both companies recently appointed new chief executive officers. 

Concerns about the impact of sanctions on Rusal have roiled aluminum markets. 

Rusal is the world’s largest aluminum producer outside China’s Hongqiao and is a large supplier to the aerospace and automotive industries. 

Trump Touches Down in Paris, Hits Back at His Host

The moment Air Force One touched down Friday at Orly airport, U.S. President Donald Trump blasted a caustic message for his host, terming French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for a European military “very insulting.”

In the touchdown tweet, Trump suggested Europe first pay “its fair share” of NATO before contemplating a Europe-wide force.

As he stepped off his plane, accompanied by the first lady, Melania Trump, a group of White House reporters shouted questions at him about the Twitter message. Trump stared at the journalists but did not respond before entering the presidential limousine.

The fresh dispute between the two leaders, who have had a hot and cold relationship, threatens to cast a pall on Sunday’s ceremony here marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, in which 40 million people died.

The United States and France were allies in both world wars and partners in the post-World War II security structure for Western Europe: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is composed of separate forces of varying strengths and capabilities of the member nations.

Trump, however, since taking office nearly two years ago, has repeatedly questioned the mutual defense pact and harshly criticized European countries for failing to meet pledges of contributions of 2 percent of their gross domestic product to the alliance. He has also emphasized that the United States needs to take care of itself first before the needs of other nations, rejecting the concept of globalism.

Macron, during a visit to the World War I Western Front at Verdun, told Europe 1 radio that in face of a revived threat from Moscow, Europe needed to “defend itself better alone.” Europeans, he said, cannot protect themselves without a “true European army.”

Macron, in the interview, also blasted Trump’s recent announcement that Washington would withdraw from the 1987 INF Treaty limiting nuclear weapons that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to.

The “main victim” of the withdrawal, Macron argued, is “Europe and its security.”

European force

The French president added that Europe also has to protect itself “with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.”

Nine defense ministers from European countries are discussing how such a new international force would operate.

European leaders have been rattled since a NATO summit earlier in the year, when they perceived Trump’s demands for billions of additional dollars in military spending from them as a threat that the United States would pull out of the nearly 70-year-old alliance.

But the idea of a European army has limited support in Berlin and London. Political and military analysts question whether European countries have the will, money or materiel to replace the raw power of the United States.

The issue comes into sharp focus as France commemorates the fallen of a century ago in the war that ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

As a prelude to Sunday’s ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, which will be attended by dozens of world leaders, Trump and Macron are to meet on Saturday at Elysee Palace to discuss European and Mideast security.

Trump on Saturday also will make pilgrimages to two American cemeteries.