Reports of Putin Fathering Twins Test Free Speech in Russia

Normally the delivery of twins is a cause for celebration — and when the head of government is one of the parents and the other is an aspiring politician it opens up the possibility for cute photo-opportunities. Not so in Russia under the command of Vladimir Putin, it would seem, where the private life of Russia’s leader is apparently off-limits, say analysts.

Rumors have been swirling for days in Moscow that the Russian leader’s reputed 36-year-old girlfriend, former Olympic gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva and now a media executive, gave birth to twin boys earlier this month in the Russian capital.

Nicknamed “the secret first lady,” Kabaeva, three decades younger than Putin, was rumored in 2008 to have given birth to a daughter at a private Swiss clinic recommended by Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi.

Then, as now, the Kremlin has moved to scotch reports of the births. Putin, who guards his private life fiercely — possibly a habit from his days as a KGB agent — has long denied he is in a relationship with Kabaeva.

Asked once daringly about a possible romance, Putin responded: “I’ve always had a negative feeling about people poking their snotty noses and erotic fantasies into other people’s lives.”

In 2013, Putin announced the end of his 30-year marriage to wife Lyudmila Shkrebneva, with whom he has two grown-up daughters. He appeared in public for the announcement with his estranged wife, a former Aeroflot flight attendant and languages teacher, during the interval of a performance by the Kremlin Ballet. During their marriage, Shkrebneva, who since her divorce with Putin has remarried, kept a low public profile and her appearances were kept to a minimum.

The Kremlin moved swiftly last week to stop news stories of the delivery of twins, say media insiders — a further example of their strict management of top newspapers and news-sites, especially when it comes to coverage of Putin. In 2016, three editors at Russia’s RBC media group, were fired over an article on the sources of Putin’s wealth in what media watchdogs feared would mark the demise of investigative reporting in Russia.

The website of newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which is owned by one of the Russian leader’s oligarch friends, Arkady Rotenberg, reported the alleged Kabaeva births. But the report was quickly removed. Russian officials decline to comment.

But reports here and there on Kabaeva, an Uzbek by birth, have continued amid accusations by Putin loyalists that they are being encouraged by Ukrainian enemies of the Russian leader. One site, dni.ru, announced in a headline: “Alina Kabaeva gave birth to twins and disappeared.” A showbiz website, Dom2Life, which is owned by another oligarch close to Putin, Alexander Karmanov, first reported the births on May 12, Kabaeva’s 36th birthday.

And according to Russian investigative journalist, Sergei Kanev, Kabaeva gave birth to twin boys by Caesarean at the Kulakov maternity clinic, where the VIP floor had been cleared in advance. He told Britain’s Daily Mail a doctor from Italy helped with the C-section delivery.

Kabaeva became a model on leaving competitive sport and was a Russian lawmaker until 2014. She now heads the National Media Group.

The mystery surrounding Kabaeva coincides with a further crackdown on the media in Russia amid rising complaints about shrinking press freedom and the Kremlin’s increasing determination to manage coverage.

Earlier this month, nearly a dozen journalists quit their posts at Kommersant, a liberal business-focused newspaper, and at one time a trailblazer for press freedom, in protest at the firing of two star reporters, Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov. They co-wrote an article that ran afoul of the Kremlin, they say.

The newspaper is owned by billionaire Alisher Usmanov, another oligarch with close ties to Putin. One of the sacked reporters, Maxim Ivanov said on his Facebook page: “I’m no longer employed at the Kommersant publishing house. To avoid waxing lyrical: formally, my resignation from Kommersant is a mutual agreement between parties, but the decision to terminate my employment was made by the publishing house’s stakeholder.”

In March, another Kommersant journalist, Maria Karpenko, was fired over her reports on political developments in St. Petersburg.

The unfolding events at Kommersant have prompted the condemnation of the media watchdog and NGO Reporters Without Borders, which said in a statement  May 20 that it is “dismayed” but the firings, dubbing them a “terrible blow to what is left of journalistic independence” in Russia.

According to The Bell, an independent news outlet, Kommersant had been accorded by the Kremlin some independence, unlike many rival outlets, “but is subject to censorship on political topics. The mass resignation of journalists will now call this arrangement into question.”

It added that “it is not entirely clear why the article [by Ivanov and Safronov] upset the authorities so much.” The story reported that Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, would resign soon and be replaced by Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Russian journalists fear the curtailing of editorial independence will only get stricter. In March, Putin signed new laws against the spreading “fake news” and showing “blatant disrespect” to the state with fines or jail sentences for offenders. Observers warned that the laws’ vague language could be abused to stifle free speech.

 

75 Years After D-Day, Normandy’s US Cemetery a Vivid Reminder of Sacrifices

On June 6th, heads of state including President Trump will gather at a beach in northern France to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. In this military operation, thousands of American and other allied soldiers lost their lives in the first phase of a final push to liberate France and the continent from Nazi occupation. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial represents a unique place to pay tribute to the fallen warriors. Nicolas Pinault report.

Serbian Troops on Full Alert After Kosovo Police Arrests

Serbia put its troops on full alert Tuesday after heavily armed Kosovo police entered Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, firing tear gas and arresting about two dozen people.

It was the latest flare-up in long-simmering tensions between Serbia and its former province, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 after a bloody 1998-99 war that ended only with NATO intervention. Ninety percent of population in northern Kosovo are Serbs who don’t want to be part of independent Kosovo. Action by Kosovo special police there is rare and always triggers Serb anger.

 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Kosovo police arrested 23 people, including Serbs, Bosnians and a Russian, after “bursting” into several northern villages and the town Mitrovica with armored vehicles. Vucic said he had seen video of the police firing “live ammunition” over the heads of unarmed Serbs, and said the operation was designed to intimidate minority Serbs in Kosovo, whose population is mostly ethnic Albanians.

 

Vucic said he has ordered soldiers near the border to be on “combat alert” to protect Serbs if tensions escalate.

 

“Serbia will try to preserve peace and stability, but will be fully ready to protect our people at the shortest notice,” Vucic told parliament.

 

He later said that the Kosovo policemen were withdrawing.

 

The U.N. mission in Kosovo said those detained included two of its staff members, one of them Russian. It said both employees were hospitalized for injuries, and called for all parties to help restore calm and security.

 

Russia, a Serbian ally, called Kosovo’s actions a “provocation” and demanded the immediate release of the Russian U.N. employee.

 

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said earlier that the Russian “was camouflaged under a diplomatic veil to hamper the police operation.”

 

Serbian state TV reported movements of Serb troops stationed near the border. Any Serbian armed incursion into Kosovo would mean a direct clash with NATO-led peacekeepers there.

 

Kosovo’s prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, confirmed on Twitter that police had carried out “an anti-smuggling and organized crime operation.” Thaci called on the ethnic Serb minority to remain calm and support the police.

 

“Those involved in illegal activities will go behind bars,” he wrote on his Facebook page, insisting that the police operation was not targeting people from specific ethnicities.

 

The spokesman for the NATO peacekeeping mission, Col. Vincenzo Grasso, said the force is monitoring the situation and coordinating with authorities.

 

“Because of the political sensitivity of the moment, Commander KFOR invites all the parties to deal with the disputes peacefully and responsibly, without any use of force or violence. People should stay calm, they have nothing to fear,” the mission said in a statement.

 

Serbia, and its allies Russia and China, do not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. The United States and more than 100 other countries do. The lingering dispute has stalled both countries’ efforts to become members of the European Union.

 

The two sides had been participating in an EU-facilitated dialogue, but Serbia walked away in November after Kosovo slapped a 100% tax on Bosnian and Serbian imports, saying it will be lifted only when the two countries recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.

 

 

US Boycotts Venezuela’s Presidency of UN Conference on Disarmament

The United States walked out of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament to protest Venezuela assuming the one-month rotating presidency of the body. The U.S. ambassador said his delegation will boycott the conference for the duration of the period.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood says he will stay away from the deliberations of the U.N. body for as long as Venezuela holds the presidency.   

Wood said he does not want to lend credibility and legitimacy to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, which he calls morally bankrupt, economically incompetent, profoundly corrupt, and inhumane.

Wood told VOA the Maduro government was planning to use the presidency for propaganda purposes over the next four weeks. He said Venezuela will try to paint its presidency of the conference as being as normal as that of any other presidency. He added the U.S. cannot tolerate that.

“We do not think being in the room is a good way to make clear how illegitimate we see that regime,” Wood said. “ … We think we are sending a very powerful message, not just to CD representatives in the room, but also to the Venezuelan people that we are standing with them and we are not going to give any credibility or legitimacy to this regime as it occupies the CD presidency.”  

Wood said the U.S. has received support for its stance from the so-called Lima Group of countries from Latin America. He said the group has decided it too would boycott the entirety of Venezuela’s presidency.  He said some other countries have decided to downgrade their representation.

Venezuelan Ambassador Jorge Valero earlier said it was an honor for his country to hold the rotating presidency of the Conference on Disarmament. He said Venezuela would conduct its presidency in accordance with the rules of procedure and make every effort to ensure a constructive and inclusive approach in the forum.

A number of countries welcomed Valero when he assumed the presidency and banged the gavel to call the meeting to order.

Pakistan, North Korea, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Russia were among those which lent their support to Venezuela and expressed confidence in its ability to preside over a successful session. Many objected to what they termed the unnecessary and artificial politicization of the conference by some member states.

 

 

Brazilian Officials Say 42 Inmates Found Dead at 3 Prisons

Forty-two inmates were killed at three different prisons in the capital of Brazil’s northern Amazonas state Monday, authorities reported, a day after 15 died during fighting among prisoners at a fourth prison in the same city.

The Amazonas state prison agency said all 42 prisoners found dead in Manaus on Monday showed signs of asphyxia.

The killings across the city’s prisons recalled early 2017 when more than 120 inmates died at the hands of other prisoners during riots over several weeks at prisons in northern states. Many of those victims had their heads cut off or their hearts and intestines ripped out.

On Sunday, 15 inmates were killed during a riot at Manaus’ Anisio Jobim Prison Complex, where 56 prisoners died in the violence two years earlier.

Local authorities said prisoners began fighting among themselves before noon Sunday, and security reinforcements were rushed in and managed to regain control within 45 minutes.

Little information was released about Monday’s killings.

Brazil’s justice and public security ministry said it was sending a federal task force to help local officials handle the situation.

“I just spoke with (Justice) Minister Sergio Moro, who is already sending a prison intervention team to the State of Amazonas, so that he can help us in this moment of crisis and a problem that is national: the problem of prisons,” Amazonas state Gov. Wilson Lima said.

Brazil’s prison gangs are powerful and their reach extends outside the country’s penitentiaries.

Moro had to send a federal task force to help tame violence in Ceara state in January that local officials said was ordered by crime gang leaders angered by plans to impose tighter controls in the state’s prisons. 

 

 

D-Day’s 75th Anniversary Renews Interest in Some Classrooms 

Kasey Turcol has just 75 minutes to explain to her high school students the importance of D-Day — and if this wasn’t the 75th anniversary of the turning point in World War II, she wouldn’t devote that much time to it.

D-Day is not part of the required curriculum in North Carolina — or in many other states.

Turcol reminds her students at Crossroads FLEX High School in Cary that D-Day was an Allied victory that saved Europe from Nazi tyranny and that the young men who fought and died were barely older than they are. She sprinkles her lesson with details about the number of men, ships and planes involved in the landing at Normandy while adding a few lesser-known facts about a Spanish spy and a deadly military practice conducted six months earlier in England.

Losing resonance

In the U.S. and other countries affected by the events on June 6, 1944, historians and educators worry that the World War II milestone is losing its resonance with today’s students.

In France, which was liberated from German occupation, D-Day isn’t a stand-alone topic in schools. German schools concentrate on the Holocaust and the Nazi dictatorship. And despite having been part of the Allied powers, in Russia, the schools avoid D-Day because they believe it was the victories on the Eastern Front that won the war.

“History has taken a back seat” in the U.S. because of the focus on science and math classes, said Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day in College Park, Md. 

In the U.S., teaching about World War II varies from state to state. It’s often up to the teachers to decide how much time they want to give to individual battles like D-Day.

California framework

California’s History-Social Science Framework, adopted in 2016, includes for sophomores an expansive unit on World War II that covers how the conflict was “a total war,” the goals of the Allied and Axis powers and how the fighting was fought on different fronts. The unit also includes a section on the Holocaust. 

In New York, school officials are using the D-Day anniversary to review the curriculum and “make recommendations on how the current average time of 90 minutes of World War II study in a school year can be strengthened, expanded and mandated.” 

There are special programs available to immerse select students in the history of D-Day. 

For eight years, National History Day sent 15 pairs of students and teachers to Normandy to immerse them in the history of D-Day. The high school sophomores and juniors would research individual soldiers close to them — relatives or people from their hometowns — who died. On the last day, the group visited a cemetery where each student read a eulogy for his or her individual soldier. 

Teachers also have outside resources. The National World War II Museum offers an electronic field trip through D-Day and provides suggested lessons plans.

In North Carolina, history is taught through “conceptual design” with connections to themes such as geography, economics and politics, said Meghan Grant, coordinating teacher for secondary social studies in Wake County schools.  

The lessons are based on a method of teaching social studies that was developed in 2013 and used by about half the states, said Larry Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. Paska said it may focus on asking students a question like, “What makes an event a turning point in the war?” Students then will use difference sources of evidence to back up their answers.

‘This is the moment’

As part of her D-Day lesson, Turcol tells her class of juniors and seniors that the Germans thought an attack from the Allied forces wouldn’t be possible.  

“It’s too stormy. It’s too risky,” she said. “And what do we do? Yeah, we find a glimmer of hope. On June 5th, the skies kind of clear. The moon kind of shines. And we’re like, ‘This is the moment. This is what is happening.’ ”

She tells students that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower kept D-Day plans on the “down low.”  

Turcol plays a few minutes of a documentary about D-Day to “show you the true humanity of the war,” she says.  

“You saw the German praying … asking for his mother, father, asking for this to be over. Not everybody is on the same message in Germany,” she says. “Everybody here is a father, a mother, a brother, a cousin, a friend. So every life matters.”

Students in Europe also receive dramatically different lessons on D-Day depending on where they live.

Because of Germany’s history, any hint of militarism remains a taboo. While battles like D-Day, Stalingrad and the Operation Barbarossa invasion of Russia might be mentioned briefly in schools, they tend to be lumped together in broad overviews of the war. Individual teachers do have leeway, however, to pursue topics that capture the attention of students. 

The curriculum is similar from state to state. In Berlin high schools, for example, curriculum guidelines include the history of the war under the overall focus on “the collapse of the first German democracy; Nazi tyranny,” which includes classes on Nazi ideology, resistance movements, the Holocaust and World War II.

Similarly, Bavaria’s ninth-grade curriculum focuses primarily on explaining how the Nazis came to power and their anti-Semitic ideology and genocidal policies, with the war taught briefly as part of their “expansion and conquest policies.”  In the 11th grade, the focus is even more directly on the Holocaust, and the curriculum guidelines note specific dates to be learned, including the anti-Jewish “Kristallnacht” pogrom in 1938.

The Russian narrative on D-Day has remained almost unchanged since the days of the Soviet Union. Historians and schoolbooks describe the invasion as a long-awaited move, happening after the course of WWII had already been shaped by Soviet victories in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk and other battles on the Eastern Front.

Even in the country where D-Day occurred, the assault doesn’t have a central place in the teaching of World War II. The history of 20th century conflict is taught in France as a theme and no longer as a chronological list of major battles.

A week of lessons ‘not possible’

“We no longer teach as we did before, what we called ‘the history of battles,’ ” says Christine Guimonnet, who teaches history at a high school west of Paris and is secretary-general of the APHG, a French association of history and geography teachers. “Everyone will, of course, speak about June 6 because it was a major moment in the war, but we’re not going to spend a whole week on it. That’s not possible.” 

As long as they are still teaching the broader themes, French teachers may home in on specific events, like D-Day, to organize study projects and, if they have the budget, trips to Normandy beaches, museums or screenings of The Longest Day, a 1962 film about the events of D-Day. 

As cultural director at Normandy’s Caen Memorial, Isabelle Bournier deals daily with school groups that tour the museum. French children often aren’t familiar with the details of D-Day, partially because fewer families have relatives who lived through the war and can pass on their stories, she said.

Students from Normandy are different from the broader French student population, she said.

“All families are more or less impregnated by this history. It is part of us,” Bournier said. 

Ukrainian President’s Party to ‘Interview’ Candidates for July Elections

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s newly formed political party has appointed campaign adviser Dmytro Razumkov as its head and will interview prospective candidates to fill its party list ahead of snap parliamentary elections in July, party representatives have said.

The announcement was made by Razumkov, who spoke Monday at a press conference along with Oleksandr Korniyenko, head of the Servant of the People party’s election headquarters, and Mykhaylo Fedorov, the party’s chief of digital strategies.

Razumkov, the director of a political consulting company, got his start in politics as a member of the former Party of Regions of Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow-friendly president who was pushed from power by the Maidan protest movement in 2014 and fled to Russia.

He said that at a recent party congress he was elected in place of Ivan Bakanov, a campaign adviser and lawyer for Zelenskiy’s Kvartal 95 entertainment company whom the new president appointed to be first deputy head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) on May 22.

A comic actor with no previous political experience, Zelenskiy beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a large margin in an April 21 presidential runoff. A day after his May 20 inauguration, he signed a decree to dissolve parliament and scheduled new elections for July 21.

The early vote is a chance for Zelenskiy to increase his clout early in a five-year term by getting supporters into the single-chamber legislature in the country of 44 million, which faces constant pressure from Russia as well as economic challenges and problems with corruption.

In line with previous practices by Zelenskiy, who has crowdsourced policies and potential cabinet members, Korniyenko said that Servant of the People will select candidates for the elections from applications submitted to a party website. Successful applicants must then pass a compliance test to ensure their views align with the president’s and undergo interviews with the party’s leaders, he said.

Korniyenko at first said that no current lawmaker would be allowed on the party’s candidate list but then backtracked, saying that some may be considered if they had produced what the party deemed to be “quality work” during their time as lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada or Supreme Council.

A poll conducted this month by the Rating Sociological Group found that 43.8 percent of Ukrainian voters supported the Servant of the People party, while 10.5 percent supported the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life and 8.8 percent backed the Western-oriented Petro Poroshenko Bloc of the former president, which was recently renamed European Solidarity.

The 450-seat Rada is elected through a mix of party-list voting and voting in direct races between candidates in geographical electoral districts. To win seats in the party-list voting, a party must receive at least 5 percent of the votes cast nationwide.

Also at the press conference, Fedorov displayed the Servant party’s new logo: a silhouette of Zelenskiy riding a bicycle and wielding the presidential mace, or “bulava.” The image is strikingly similar to that of the accidental-president character Zelenskiy played on his hit TV show, also called Servant of The People.

 

Peru Earthquake Death Toll Rises to 2

The death toll from the powerful earthquake that hit a remote part of the Amazon jungle in Peru and Ecuador has risen to two.

More than 30 people have also been injured in Sunday’s magnitude-8.0 earthquake that was centered about 92 kilometers from the town of Yurimaguas, in northern Peru.

Peruvian Civil Defense Coordinator Ricardo Seijas told Channel N television, one of the victims was “a 15-year-old who was hit on the head” by falling rubble at his home.  The other was a 48-year-old man killed by falling debris while he slept at his house in Cajamarca in northern Peru. The quake struck at 0741 UTC.

The quake was the most powerful to hit the earthquake-prone country in 12 years.

Media reports said 15 people had been hurt in Ecuador, where power-cuts were reported in parts of its Amazon basin region. The tremor was also felt in parts of Colombia and Venezuela.

Earthquakes are frequent in Peru, which is part of the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” the world’s most active area of seismic activity.

Ukraine’s New President Visits Eastern War Zone

Donning a bulletproof helmet and vest over business attire, Volodymyr Zelenskiy made his first visit Monday as president and commander-in-chief to the front line of the war in eastern Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists.

During the visit, which was not announced ahead of time, Zelenskiy met with Ukrainian troops in the war-torn towns of Stanytsia Luhanska and Shchastya in the Luhansk region, according to the presidential press service.

The press service said Zelenskiy, who elected in April, made the trip to get acquainted with Ukrainian military positions.

Zelenskiy also spoke with soldiers about living conditions, food quality, equipment, housing, social benefits and staffing of units, the press service added.

“The conditions for the military that defends Ukraine must be good,” Zelenskiy was quoted as saying.

Official photographs showed Zelenskiy looking over a military map with soldiers, treading through a field with them, and peering through a lookout toward enemy positions from inside a bunker.

His predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, preferred to wear military camouflage fatigues on his frequent visits to the front line.

Zelenskiy, who was inaugurated  May 20 after a landslide victory over Poroshenko, has said that bringing the war to an end is among his top priorities and that he is prepared to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to do so.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Putin, who did not congratulate Zelenskiy on his election victory, will do so after the Ukrainian leader resolves “the internal conflict in southeastern Ukraine” and realizes his “first successes in normalizing Russian-Ukrainian relations.”

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied fueling the war, which entered its sixth year last month, despite overwhelming evidence showing that it has covertly supported separatist forces in eastern Ukraine with funds, military equipment and fighters. The conflict has killed 13,000 people and shows no sign of ending.

 

 

Fiat Chrysler Proposes Merger With Renault

Fiat Chrysler proposed a merger Monday with Renault, a union that would create the world’s third biggest automaker.

The merger, if it happens, would vault the new company, with annual sales of 8.7 million vehicles, into a position ahead of General Motors and behind only Volkswagen and Toyota, both of which sell about 10.6 million.

The merger could give the combined companies a better chance in the battle among auto manufacturers to build new electric and autonomous vehicles.

Investors in both companies showed their initial approval of the announcement, with Renault’s shares jumping 15 percent in afternoon trading in Paris and Fiat Chrysler stock up more than 10 percent in Milan. The proposal calls for shareholders to split ownership of the new company.

Fiat Chrysler said the deal would save the combined companies $5.6 billion annually with shared payments for research, purchasing and other expenses. The deal does not call for closure of any manufacturing plants but the companies did not say whether any employees would lose their jobs.

The deal would give Fiat access to Renault’s electric car technologies, allowing it to meet the strict carbon dioxide emission standards the European Commission is enacting.

For its part, Renault might be able to gain ground in the U.S. market because of Fiat’s extensive operations in North America.

The French government owns 15 percent of Renault and said it supports the merger, while adding that “the terms of this merger must be supportive of Renault’s economic development, and obviously of Renault’s employees.”