After fresh mandate, Putin tells West: ‘I don’t want arms race’

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with candidates who participated in the last presidential election, Boris Titov, Maxim Suraikin, Ksenia Sobchak, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Pavel Grudinin, Sergei Baburin and Grigory Yavlinsky, at the Kremlin in Moscow Monday. (Reuters)
Updated 20 March 2018
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After fresh mandate, Putin tells West: ‘I don’t want arms race’

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin struck a softer tone toward the West on Monday after winning his biggest ever election victory, saying he had no desire for an arms race and would do everything he could to resolve differences with other countries.
Putin’s victory, which comes at a time when his relations with the West are on a hostile trajectory, will extend his political dominance of Russia by six years to 2024. That will make him the longest-serving ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and has raised Western fears of spiralling confrontation.
But Putin, 65, used a Kremlin meeting with the candidates he soundly defeated in Sunday’s election to signal his desire to focus on domestic, not international, matters, and to try to raise living standards by investing more in education, infrastructure and health while reducing defense spending.
“Nobody plans to accelerate an arms race,” said Putin.
“We will do everything to resolve all the differences with our partners using political and diplomatic channels.”
His comments, which are likely to be heard with some skepticism in the West following years of confrontation, mark a change in tone after a bellicose election campaign during which Putin unveiled new nuclear weapons he said could strike almost any point in the world.
With nearly 100 percent of the votes counted, the Central Election Commission (CEC), announced that Putin, who has run Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, had won 76.69 percent of the vote.
With more than 56 million votes, it was Putin’s biggest ever win and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader.
But the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a rights watchdog, said restrictions on fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, had restricted the scope for political engagement and crimped competition.
“Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice,” the OSCE said in a statement.
The CEC said earlier on Monday it had not registered any serious complaints of violations.
Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating of around 80 percent, Putin faced no credible threat from a field of seven challengers.
His nearest rival, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, won 11.8 percent while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got 5.6 percent. His most vocal opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was barred from running.
Navalny, who had called on voters to boycott the election, urged his supporters not to lose heart and said his campaign had succeeded in lowering the turnout, accusing authorities of being forced to falsify the numbers.
Near-final figures put turnout at 67.7 percent, just shy of the 70 percent the Kremlin was reported to have been aiming for before the vote.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down suggestions that tensions with the West had boosted turnout, saying the result showed that Russians were united behind Putin’s plans to develop the country.
He said Putin would spend the day fielding calls of congratulation, meeting supporters, and holding talks with the losing candidates.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to offer his congratulations to Putin, but Heiko Maas, Germany’s new foreign minister, questioned whether there had been fair political competition.


Britain’s opposition Labour backs new election over Brexit impasse

Updated 41 min 15 sec ago
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Britain’s opposition Labour backs new election over Brexit impasse

  • Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has so far resisted calls to back a ‘People’s Vote,’ or new referendum on the decision to quit the EU
  • Brexit minister Dominic Raab again ruled out a new election, describing the suggestion as ‘for the birds’
LIVERPOOL: Britain’s opposition Labour Party prefers a new election to a second referendum on Brexit, its leader said on Sunday, heaping pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May whose plans for a deal with the EU have hit an impasse.
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has so far resisted calls to back a “People’s Vote,” or new referendum on the decision to quit the EU.
But the political landscape has changed since May was ambushed by the European Union on Thursday over her plans for Brexit — the biggest shift in British policy for more than four decades.
With talk of a new election swirling after May’s “Chequers” plan was all but shredded at an EU summit in Austria last week and chances of Britain exiting the bloc without a deal rising, Labour is under pressure to start setting the Brexit agenda.
Corbyn, a veteran euroskeptic who in 1975 voted “No” to Britain’s membership of the then-European Community, said that while he would listen to a debate about any possible second vote on Britain’s membership, he preferred a snap election if May failed to get a deal that Labour could support in parliament.
“Our preference would be for a general election and we can then negotiate our future relationship with Europe but let’s see what comes out of conference,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, saying Labour was ready to vote against any deal.
“We would vote it down if it didn’t meet our tests in order to send the government, if it is still in office, straight back to the negotiating table and if there is a general election and we are in office we would go straight to the negotiating table.”
Corbyn’s close ally, Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s biggest trade union Unite, told the BBC any such second referendum “shouldn’t be on: ‘do we want to go back into the European Union?’” as that had been answered in the 2016 referendum.
Britain is to exit the EU in March. After weeks of both sides making positive noises about prospects of clinching a divorce deal and their future trading relationship, the mood turned sour on Thursday in Salzburg, Austria, when the bloc’s leaders, one by one, came out to criticize May’s Chequers plans.
A tacit agreement to try to offer her some support before she heads to what is going to be a difficult annual conference of her governing Conservative Party later this month was broken by some British diplomatic missteps.
May says she will hold her nerve in the talks, pressing the EU to come up with an alternative proposal to her Chequers plan, named after the prime minister’s country residence where a deal was hashed out with her top ministers in July.
But the impasse with the EU has prompted some to predict an early election, with local media reporting that May’s team has begun contingency planning for a snap vote in November to save both Brexit and her job.
Brexit minister Dominic Raab again ruled out a new election, describing the suggestion as “for the birds.” He said Britain would not “flit from plan to plan like some sort of diplomatic butterfly.”
“We are going to be resolute about this,” Raab added.
While saying she will stick to her guns, May might have little chance but to change tack after a party conference where the deep divisions over Europe that have riven her Conservatives for decades will be in plain sight.
A senior pro-EU Conservative lawmaker, Nicky Morgan, said May would have to give ground on trade and customs arrangements to overcome the biggest obstacle to a withdrawal accord — the prevention of a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and Ireland, a member of the EU.
“I am not sure there is life left in Chequers,” Morgan, chair of parliament’s Treasury Select Committee and a former cabinet minister under May’s predecessor, told Sky News.
“We want to see a deal. The question I think that has to be answered now by the government, by the EU leaders, is what room for movement is there, how do we move on from where we ended up last week?”