MANILA: Russia has ruled out the possibility of a military alliance with the Philippines despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to end a major defense pact with the US.
Instead, Russian Ambassador to Manila Igor Khovaev said on Monday that Moscow’s aim was to build a “robust, equal partnership” with Manila.
“The goal of our common work here is not trying to contain someone or to create some sort of alliance,” he told senior Philippine defense officials and diplomats at a reception for Russian Armed Forces Day.
Early in February, the Duterte administration announced it would end a visiting forces agreement signed with Washington in 1998 that sets the terms for joint exercises with US troops in the Philippines.
According to Khovaev, Russia has no interest in further military alliances because “they provide security for a selected few member states at the expense of others.”
“The Russian Federation proceeds from the premise that security has to be indivisible. This is why we are not in the habit of entering into alliances,” he said.
“Equal partnerships” are necessary for stability and prosperity in the region, he added.
Asked if this ruled out a Russia-Philippines alliance similar to that between Manila and Washington, Khovaev said: “Yes. Our aim is to build a strong, robust partnership, not a military alliance. We have no military alliance in the Asia-Pacific region,” he told Arab News.
He also reiterated the importance of military cooperation between Russia and the Philippines, which was highlighted by President Vladimir Putin and Duterte during their meetings in Moscow in May 2017 and in Sochi in October 2019.
The two nations have organized joint military exercises, and the exchange of visits by Russian and Philippine navy ships in Manila and Vladivostok.
“But to tell you the truth, the full potential of our cooperation has yet to be explored,” Khovaev said. “It is indispensable because we have common threats and challenges, including terrorism, international drug trafficking, piracy and other kinds of transnational crime that we need to overcome together.”
Russia orders troops back to base after buildup near Ukraine
The buildup has heightened tensions with NATO members, who have earlier pressed Russia to release hunger-striking opposition figure Alexei Navalny,
Russia reportedly has more than 40,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border and over 40,000 in Crimea
Updated 10 min 15 sec ago
MOSCOW / KYIV: Russia announced on Thursday it was ordering troops back to base from the area near the border with Ukraine, apparently calling an end to a buildup of tens of thousands of soldiers that had alarmed the West.
The currencies of both Russia and Ukraine rose sharply after the announcement, signalling relief among investors just hours after Russia also ended war games in Crimea, the peninsula it occupied and annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
A confirmed pullout of the troops brought in on top of the permanent contingent will likely be welcomed by Western countries that had been expressing alarm at the prospect of further Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian government in the region since 2014.
The Ukrainian president’s spokeswoman said this month that Russia had more than 40,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border and over 40,000 in Crimea. Around 50,000 of them were new deployments, she said. Moscow has not provided any troop numbers.
In a tweet, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine “welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas (eastern Ukraine),” adding “Grateful to international partners for their support.”
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba had told Reuters Kyiv did not know whether Moscow intended to launch an attack or not, and said the West must make clear it would stand with Ukraine if Russia did so.
“So it can go in either direction now,” Kuleba said. “And this is why the reaction of the West, the consolidated reaction of the West, is so important now, to prevent Putin ... from making that decision.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington was aware of Russia’s announcement and was watching the situation on the border closely. “We’ve heard words. I think what we’ll be looking for is action,” Price said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he had ordered troops involved in exercises to return to their bases by May 1, as they had completed what he called an “inspection” in the border area.
“I believe the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defense for the country,” Shoigu said.
Military hardware was to be left at a training ground near the city of Voronezh, about six hours’ drive from Ukraine, so that it could be used again later this year in another big scheduled exercise.
Hours earlier, Shoigu had attended maneuvers in Crimea, which Moscow said involved 10,000 troops and more than 40 warships. Russia also announced it had arrested a Ukrainian man in Crimea as a spy.
The troop buildup near Ukraine was one of several issues that have raised tensions between Russia and the West.
Last week, the United States tightened sanctions on Russia over accusations that it had hacked computers and meddled in US elections, and the Czech Republic accused Moscow of a role in deadly explosions at an arms dump in 2014.
Both countries expelled Russian diplomats, prompting angry denials and tit-for-tat expulsions by Moscow.
Western countries have also urged Russia to free jailed hunger-striking opposition figure Alexei Navalny, with Washington warning of “consequences” should he die in prison. Russia says the West should not interfere.
In a major speech on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin sounded a defiant note, warning Western countries not to cross unspecified “red lines.” But Putin is also participating this week in a climate summit organized by US President Joe Biden.
In Moscow, the Kremlin said Putin was aware of an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to meet to discuss the crisis.
“If the president considers it necessary, he will reply himself. I have nothing to say on that now,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
India hospital fire kills 13 Covid patients: official
Updated 17 min 18 sec ago
MUMBAI: Thirteen Covid-19 patients died when a fire broke out in a hospital on the outskirts of Mumbai before dawn on Friday, a local official told AFP.
“There were 17 patients inside when a fire broke out in the ICU of Vijay Vallabh Hospital, out of which 13 died and four have been shifted to other facilities,” fire department official Morrison Khavari said.
Czechs order Russia to pull out most embassy staff in biggest post-Communist era dispute
Row over 2014 deadly blast at Czech ammunitions depot
Russian suspects also accused of 2018 poisoning
Updated 23 April 2021
MOSCOW/PRAGUE: The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered Russia to remove most of its remaining diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades.
The spy row flared on Saturday when Prague expelled 18 Russian staff, whom it identified as intelligence officers.
It said two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were also behind an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that killed two people.
Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech staff in retaliation.
Thursday’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, requires Russia to have the same number of envoys as the Czech Republic has in Moscow. That means Russia will have to withdraw 63 diplomats and other staff from Prague, although Prague gave it until the end of May to do so.
Together with the initial step, this will greatly reduce what has been by far the biggest foreign mission to Prague and much larger than the Czech representation in Moscow.
“We will put a ceiling on the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy in Prague at the current level of our embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said.
“I do not want to needlessly escalate...but the Czech Republic is a self-confident country and will act as such. This is not aimed against Russians or the Russian nation, but a reaction to activities of Russian secret services on our territory.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry in reaction demanded a reduction in the embassy’s staffing level, alluding to disparity in numbers of local employees.
“The (Czech) ambassador was told that we reserve the right to take other steps in the event the hysterical anti-Russian campaign spirals further,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.
At a time of acute tension in Russia’s relations with the West, the dispute has prompted NATO and the European Union to throw their support behind the Czech Republic, which is a member of both blocs.
“Allies express deep concern over the destabilising actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” NATO’s 30 allies said in a statement.
Slovakia expelled three Russian envoys on Thursday in solidarity with the Czech Republic. The Russian response to that step was not immediately clear.
In the last week, Moscow has also kicked out diplomats from Bulgaria, Poland and the United States in retaliation for expulsions of its own staff.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took a negative view of Prague’s “hysteria.”
President Vladimir Putin warned foreign powers in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines,” saying Moscow would make them regret it.
The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralyzed the functioning of their Moscow embassy.
The Russian embassy’s size in Prague is an overhang from the pre-1989 communist era, and had been about double the US Embassy until this week.
Kulhanek said on Czech Television that Russia told the Czech envoy on Thursday there now would be “strict parity.”
He said that meant each country would have 7 diplomats and 25 others at respective embassies, which is the current level of Czech staff in Moscow.
He said the Czech side was considering how to proceed further after the Russian demand to cut the number of local employees.
The ministry said on Wednesday Russia had 27 diplomats and 67 other staff in Prague after the previous expulsions.
The Czech counterintelligence service has repeatedly said that the mission served as a base for intelligence work and its size made it difficult to reduce these activities.
The two suspects named by Prague in connection with the 2014 ammunition depot explosion, known under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are reportedly part of the elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
Britain charged them in absentia with attempted murder after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.
The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died. The Kremlin denied involvement in the incident.
General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help
Head of U.S. Central Command said as U.S. pulls out all forces “my concern is the Afghans' ability to hold ground”
U.S. officials have made it clear that military commanders didn’t recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered
Updated 22 April 2021
WASHINGTON: Afghanistan’s military “will certainly collapse” without some continued American support once all US troops are withdrawn, the top US general for the Middle East told Congress Thursday.
Gen. Frank McKenzie also said he was very concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to protect the US Embassy in Kabul.
McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said that as the US pulls out all forces, “my concern is the Afghans’ ability to hold ground” and whether they will able to continue to maintain and fly their aircraft without US aid and financial support.
He said it will be paramount to protect the US Embassy and “it is a matter of great concern to me whether or not the future government of Afghanistan will be able to do that once we leave.”
McKenzie has spent the week detailing to lawmakers the steep challenges facing the US military as it moves to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, as ordered by President Joe Biden last week. Walking a careful line, the general has painted a dire picture of the road ahead, while also avoiding any pushback on Biden’s decision.
US officials have made it clear that military commanders did not recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered.
Military leaders have consistently argued for a drawdown based on security conditions in the country, saying that pulling troops out by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens US leverage in the peace talks with the group.
Still, McKenzie said the Biden administration’s “deliberate and methodical” withdrawal discussion “was heartening,” implicitly drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump’s penchant for making abrupt troop withdrawal decisions and announcing them by tweet.
In public and private sessions with lawmakers, McKenzie has been pressed about how the US will maintain pressure on the Taliban and prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Afghanistan again once the United States and its coalition partners leave.
The US has more than 2,500 troops in the country; the NATO coalition has said it will follow the same timetable for withdrawing the more than 7,000 allied forces.
He told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday that once troops leave the country, it will take “considerably longer” than four hours to move armed drones or other aircraft in and out of Afghanistan to provide overhead surveillance or counterterrorism strikes. He said it will require far more aircraft than he is using now.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking at NATO earlier this month, said the US will continue to support the Afghans after the withdrawal. He said “we will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces.”
Austin and others have said the US will maintain the ability to counter terrorists in Afghanistan, but there are few details, and officials say they have not yet gotten any diplomatic agreements for basing with any of the surrounding nations.
McKenzie has declined to provide details during the public sessions.
He said there are no decisions yet on what size of diplomatic contingent will be left at the US Embassy in the Afghan capital, and whether it will include a security cooperation office. Those decisions, he said, could reflect how the US ensures the defense of the embassy. Marines often provide security at other embassies around the world.
Senators voiced divided views on the withdrawal, with comments crossing party lines. Several lawmakers questioned whether the US will be able to prevent the Taliban from allowing a resurgence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan who are seeking to attack America. Others asked if the US will be able to adequately account for how the Afghan government spends any American money.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. said there are concerns that a US withdrawal will create a vacuum in the country that China, Russian or Iran will fill. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., argued that the US presence in Afghanistan over the past 10 years has not led to much improvement. She said the government is still corrupt and the Taliban control a larger portion of the country than it did before.
The Pentagon has said it’s not clear yet whether any US contractors will remain in the country. The Defense Department says the number of contractors in Afghanistan started to decline over the past year or so. According to the latest numbers, there are close to 17,000 Defense Department-funded contractors in Afghanistan and less than one-third of those were Americans.
The total included more than 2,800 armed and unarmed private security contractors, of which more than 1,500 are armed. Of those 1,500, about 600 are Americans.
A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net
Zakat schemes help ease suffering in Muslim-majority countries as the COVID-19 crisis deepens economic hardship
Donor agencies, including UNHCR, are tapping into Islamic charitable giving to help fund their response in conflict zones
Updated 23 April 2021
BERNE, Switzerland: Charitable giving is part and parcel of the holy month of Ramadan for any Muslim who can afford it. Zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is levied on the property of those who meet minimum wealth standards (nisab).
In most Muslim-majority countries, zakat is voluntary, but in six (Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan Libya and Yemen) it is collected by the state.
When the state is well organized and zakat is applied systematically, it has the potential to become a fiscal policy instrument at the macroeconomic level, enhancing institutional capability in the social and welfare sectors. At the microeconomic level, its allocation to the needy serves income (re)distribution, reducing overall indebtedness alongside it.
However, in many countries the state lacks the institutional capability to perform this function, and in others zakat duties are performed on a voluntary basis.
Dr. Sami Al-Suwailem, chief economist of the Islamic Development Bank’s (IsDB) Islamic Research and Training Institute, says where the prevalent zakat channels are well organized and enjoy public trust, they can work well to alleviate poverty. Where this is not the case, informal philanthropic schemes automatically take precedence.
An IsDB study on charitable Islamic finance in North Africa found that “worsening social inequality and the governments’ need for additional financial resources in the region have created great opportunities for the zakah and waqf institutions” — a trend which is supported by civil society advocacy.
Well-developed laws pertaining to zakah and charitable giving are furthermore seen as an enabling factor for the sector and its ecosystem. These observations are general in nature and apply well beyond North Africa, going hand in hand with the greater need for charitable donations as poverty levels increase.
Some observers fear that zakat schemes can be opaque, lacking transparency. Al-Suwailem puts great store in blockchain and fintech applications to bring more transparency to the sector, enable more straightforward administration of charitable donations, and render the money transfer to recipients more efficient. These technologies are also helpful in raising additional finance.
The average wealth or income level in a country matters a great deal, because it will determine how much charitable giving comes from within and what comes from abroad. In a country such as Bangladesh, it would be impossible to raise sufficient funds, because the socioeconomic segment that meets nisab standards is too small to meet the huge requirements for social spending. This is where internationally active charities come in.
Multilateral organizations such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP and IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) have recently started to tap into the generosity of Islamic charitable giving in an organized fashion. Indeed, these organizations play a vital role in many countries where the state has ceased to function due to conflict.
In those countries, charitable giving is one of the very few ways of distributing food, health care, shelter and income to the destitute.
The UNHCR has been able to instrumentalize zakat giving for its purposes. The numbers of zakat beneficiaries rose from 34,440 in the period 2016-2018 to 1.03 million in 2020, which represents a multiple of nearly 30 times within just four years.
The purpose of zakat is to support the truly needy. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequalities between rich and poor within countries and also between countries. Nowhere is that more evident than in the poorest segments of the population and in the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries, which lack institutional capabilities, be it in the health care, finance or any other sector.
In its report “COVID-19 and Islamic Finance” the IsDB has recommended that zakat, waqf and other methods of Islamic social finance should be coordinated with the fiscal efforts of governments to provide a social safety net. They had the potential to play an increasing role when governments started to unwind their COVID-19-related spending programs.
ZAKAT: THE NUMBERS
* 25% OIC member states’ share of the global population.
* 54% Share of displaced people hosted by OIC member states.
These countries are where institutions that are able to deliver zakat to the end user, be it in-country or at the international level, become very important. In order to understand the needs, we should look at the suffering and how populations in Muslim-majority countries are affected.
Refugees and displaced people rank very high on that agenda. They make up roughly 1 percent of the world’s population. According to the UNHCR, OIC member states are host to 43 million, or 54 percent, of the world’s displaced people. This stands against their share in the global population of 25 percent.
The league table for “people of concern” (refugees and internally displaced people) is led by Syria, followed by Turkey and Yemen. Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia are in places 5, 6 and 7 while Iraq and Bangladesh rank number 9 and 10.
We can see similar trends looking at food security: Zero Hunger is after all the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) number 2. Yemen tops that list with 15.9 million people facing food insecurity or outright hunger. All in all, five of the top 10 countries are OIC member states.
The UNHCR report highlighted the adverse effect of COVID-19 on food security in countries affected by the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people. In Syria the number of people struggling for survival increased by 1.4 million, bringing the total to 9.3 million.
In Pakistan, those suffering from food insecurity rose by 2.45 million people to 42.5 million. In Yemen, 9.6 million people potentially face starvation and 11.2 percent of all children in Bangladesh are severely malnourished. These numbers are shocking.
The countries listed above have neither the institutional capability nor sufficient ability to generate tax revenues or charitable donations in-country. They will rely on multilateral aid from organizations such as UN agencies and multilateral development institutions to finance part of the social expenditure required. However, given the enormous hardship and need, charitable donations become pivotal to lessen the suffering.
The uses and sources of zakat funds at the UNHCR are telling: Yemen receives 55 percent of the organization’s zakat money, followed by Bangladesh and Lebanon — all countries where there is a huge need for funds from whatever source.
The UNHCR receives 97 percent of its zakat funds from the MENA region and 3 percent from elsewhere. This makes sense given the religious composition in the Middle East, which is predominantly Muslim, as well as its culture. MENA countries also have the ecosystems of charities that raise funds via zakat and other avenues of social Islamic finance.
Eighty seven percent of funds are received from institutional partners and philanthropists, and 13 percent are raised through digital channels. We can expect digital giving to become more prominent in the future.
The above information leaves us with four key takeaways:
* The needs for charitable funds are high in many Muslim-majority countries, particularly among less developed ones, for example, Bangladesh, and regions in conflict such as Yemen or Syria.
* The global refugee crisis is a case in point as OIC countries are disproportionately affected.
* Charitable Islamic finance is an important sector providing funds to development and potentially the redistribution of income on a regional basis.
* With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening inequalities both between countries and within them, the need for charitable funding has increased, necessitating the cooperation between state, multilateral and charitable actors.
Several donor agencies, including the UNHCR, have started to tap into the zakat system to widen their access to funding, which is a growing trend.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the pressing need to fund the poorest in the weakest countries. Indeed, the needs are so great, we should all give generously.
* Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources