Belarus leader seeks Russian support amid showdown with EU

Belarus leader seeks Russian support amid showdown with EU
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, on Friday. (AFP)
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Updated 28 May 2021

Belarus leader seeks Russian support amid showdown with EU

Belarus leader seeks Russian support amid showdown with EU
  • EU foreign ministers sketched out tougher sanctions Thursday to target the country’s lucrative potash industry and cash-earning sectors
  • Lukashenko ranted about EU sanctions, describing them as an attempt to reignite opposition protests

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomed his Belarusian counterpart for talks Friday on forging closer ties amid Minsk’s bruising showdown with the European Union.
Talks come after the incident of the diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has found himself increasingly isolated since flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on Sunday citing an alleged bomb threat. No bomb was found, but 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.
EU leaders denounced it as air piracy and responded by barring Belarusian carriers from the bloc’s airspace and airports and advising European airlines to skirt Belarus. EU foreign ministers sketched out tougher sanctions Thursday to target the country’s lucrative potash industry and other cash-earning sectors.
At the start of his talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Putin, Lukashenko ranted about the EU sanctions, describing them as an attempt to reignite the opposition protests that followed his reelection in August that was widely rejected as rigged.
Putin appeared relaxed and invited Lukashenko for a swim, while the Belarusian leader looked tense as he launched a long rant accusing the West of being perfidious and hypocritical.
In an emotional tirade, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader bemoaned the EU sanctions against the Belarusian flag carrier, Belavia, pointing to its role in carrying “thousands and thousands” of travelers from EU nations and the US who were stranded at the start of the pandemic.
The showdown over the Ryanair diversion has pushed Lukashenko, who has relentlessly stifled dissent during his rule of more than a quarter-century, even closer to his main ally and sponsor, Russia.
The two ex-Soviet nations have signed a union agreement that calls for close political, economic and military ties but stops short of a full merger. Russia has buttressed Belarus’ economy with cheap energy supplies and loans, but the ties often have been strained with Lukashenko scolding Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control of prized economic assets and eventually abandon his country’s independence.
In his remarks at the start of Friday’s talks, Putin said the countries were moving to deepen their union “consistently, without rush, acting stage by stage.”
In the past, Lukashenko has tried to play the West against Russia, raising the prospect of a rapprochement with the EU and the US to wring more aid out of Moscow.
Such tactics no longer work after Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown last year. More than 35,000 people were arrested amid the protests and thousands beaten — moves that made him a pariah in the West. The flight’s diversion has now cornered the Belarusian strongman even more.
Many observers warn that the new, tougher EU sanctions would make Lukashenko easy prey for the Kremlin, which may use his isolation to push for closer integration. Some in the West have even alleged Russia was involved in the Ryanair diversion — something Moscow angrily denies — and will seek to exploit the fallout.
“Lukashenko is scared, and the Kremlin may demand payment for its political support by pushing for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of military bases and more,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. “In this situation, it would be much more difficult for him to resist and bargain with Putin.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election who left the country under official pressure, also acknowledged the danger that Russia may try to use his weakness to its advantage. She urged the EU to use whatever influence it has to help prevent any deals with Moscow that would hurt Belarus.
At the same time, Tsikhanouskaya also urged the EU to be “stronger, braver in its resolutions and decisions,” saying Lukashenko acted out of a sense of impunity in diverting the flight.
The European Commission on Friday presented a 3 billion euro ($3.7 billion) aid plan to support “a future democratic Belarus” that could be activated if the country moves toward a “democratic transition.”
But in a further sign of Belarus’ isolation, the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union moved Friday to suspend the Belarusian state broadcaster, BTRC, saying it has been particularly worried by its showing of interviews apparently obtained under duress. BTRC has two weeks to respond before the suspension takes effect. The move would bar Belarus from taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest, among other things.
Moscow has offered Lukashenko quick political support over the diversion, cautioning the EU against hasty action until the episode is properly investigated and arguing that Lukashenko’s actions were in line with international protocols in cases of bomb threats.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the EU’s decision to ask European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace as “utterly irresponsible and threatening passengers’ safety.”
Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s deputy envoy at the United Nations, criticized the West on Friday for what he called a rash response and defended Belarus’ narrative, arguing its flight controllers only “recommended” the plane land in Minsk because of the purported threat, and the pilot could have continued if he wanted.
The International Civil Aviation Organization has said it will investigate the diversion, as many Western countries have asked.
As European airlines began skirting Belarus, Russia has refused some of their requests to change the flight paths of service to Moscow in the past two days but allowed some flights to proceed Friday. The Kremlin said the denial of quick permissions to use the bypass routes was technical, but Lukashenko hailed it as a show of support for Belarus.

Hindu and Muslim women donate kidneys to save each other’s husbands

Hindu and Muslim women donate kidneys to save each other’s husbands
Updated 27 September 2021

Hindu and Muslim women donate kidneys to save each other’s husbands

Hindu and Muslim women donate kidneys to save each other’s husbands
  • Dr. Shahbaz Ahmed’s proposal was for Sushma and Sultana to donate their kidneys to Ashraf and Vikas, but for that to work he needed to address an area of concern first

NEW DELHI: Until nine months ago, Sushma Uniyal and Sultana Ali were perfect strangers, going about their lives in Dehradun, the capital of the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, as homemakers of middle-class Hindu and Muslim families.

The two women had little in common except for one pressing issue – to find an urgent donor for their husbands, Vikas Uniyal, 51, and Ashraf Ali, 52, who had been suffering with kidney failure since 2019.

While the two families had filed separate applications for a donor, none had turned out to be the perfect match. Sushma and Sultana could not donate kidneys to their husbands either due to incompatibility issues.

That was until one extraordinary day in January this year, when they received a call from Vikas and Ashraf’s nephrologist, Dr. Shahbaz Ahmed.

“I was going through their files and realised that Sultana’s blood group, A, matched Vikas’ and Sushma’s matched Ashraf’s, a B. I immediately contacted the families,” Ahmed, a renowned kidney specialist at the Himalayan hospital in Dehradun, told Arab News.

His proposal was for Sushma and Sultana to donate their kidneys to Ashraf and Vikas, but for that to work he needed to address an area of concern first. Would the two families be willing to set aside their interfaith differences for a kidney transplant?

Hindu-majority India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has long had a history of religious tension with Muslims, its biggest minority group constituting more than 200 million of its 1.36 billion population.

Modi has often been accused of presiding over a spike in polarization across the country by introducing laws considered discriminatory for non-Hindus, mainly Muslims, since assuming power in 2014.

The past few years have also seen an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, prompting changes in the Islamic names of cities, with several cases of mob lynching reported.

Ahmed was aware of the interfaith quotient involved with the transplant surgery but decided to ask the question anyway.

“I introduced the families to each other in January, and they agreed to the plan. After conducting several tests, I found that their organs could be swapped ... and would be a good transplant. That’s how it started,” he said.

A few months later, he set a date for the organ swap, but the process got delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had wreaked havoc on the country’s overwhelmed healthcare system due to the lack of medical oxygen and bed space at hospitals.

Finally, on Sept. 4, in an overnight surgery that took 10 hours to complete, the two families forged a bond through the kidney swap which, Ahmed said, was legally possible for others to do too.

Under India’s Transplantation of Human Organs Act 2011, an organ swap is permissible if the immediate relative is medically incompatible with the recipient. The law, in this case, allows people other than a blood relative to donate their organs to a medically compatible recipient.

“It was good that this kind of swapping was possible under the law. Otherwise, it would have been difficult to explain and prove,” said Ahmed, who performs two to three kidney transplants a month. “This is the best therapy for kidney patients.”

With 2 million people on the waiting list for kidney transplants, India is struggling to meet demand and legal donations only fulfil 3 to 5 percent of the total requirement.

A transplant process costs over $8,000 per person and usually takes about 10 to 15 days to complete. It includes matching blood groups and other screening processes between the donor and the recipient, in addition to compatibility tests.

Vikas and Ashraf remained in hospital for three days after the surgery and are recuperating at home, in time for their monthly checkup with Ahmed.

A few weeks after the surgery, the two families continue to stay in touch and “share feelings and thoughts” on how the organ swaps have offered them a lifeline.

“I’m so happy that this surgery has given Vikas a new lease of life. The last three years were so painful, and we worried about our future if something happened to Vikas,” Sushma told Arab News.

Since being diagnosed with kidney failure three years ago, teacher Vikas said he had fought fear, pain, and financial losses to extend his life with regular hemodialysis, a process where an artificial kidney, or a dialyzer, filters the blood from the body.

On the other side of the picturesque and hilly town of Dehradun, Ashraf was also dealing with a similar trauma but said he was a lot more “confident now to start a new life.”

“It was an unbearable pain for my family and me. My health was deteriorating with each dialysis but thanks to god for this opportunity,” Ashraf, who owns a flour mill in Dehradun and had to stop work for dialysis treatment, told Arab News.

While there have been other instances of interfaith transplants in India – a kidney swap took place in the northern city of Chandigarh in May 2019, and another one in Jaipur in 2016 – the Uniyal and Ali families have become the talk of the town since the surgeries, mostly for transcending religious boundaries with their decision.

“At a time when religious polarization has become a norm, such examples give a positive hope for the society,” Anoop Nautiyal, a Dehradun-based social activist and founder of the Social Development for Communities NGO, told Arab News.

Ahmed agreed, saying he felt “happy” that it sent “a good message” to society.

But Sushma believed the Hindu-Muslim divide was “a matter of mindsets.”

“In reality, we are all the same,” she said. “We all need each other to serve society. Humanity is the same. Those who practice and promote religious hatred are not doing service for humanity. We never thought our case would become an example for society, and people will talk about it, but we feel happy that we came together to save the lives of two individuals. We never thought like Muslims and Hindus.”

Merkel’s bloc eyes worst result since 1949 but hopes to lead

Merkel’s bloc eyes worst result since 1949 but hopes to lead
Updated 26 September 2021

Merkel’s bloc eyes worst result since 1949 but hopes to lead

Merkel’s bloc eyes worst result since 1949 but hopes to lead

BERLIN: Armin Laschet, the candidate of outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc, says his party will do “everything we can” to form a new government, despite facing what is expected to be its worst result in post-World War II Germany.
Germany’s center-left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race Sunday with the Union bloc in the country’s general election, according to exit polls. Both appeared to have around 25 percent voter support.
Laschet said Sunday that “we can’t be satisfied with the result” predicted by exit polls. He said “the result puts Germany, the Union, all democratic parties before big challenges.”
Laschet said Germany will likely have its first national government made up of three parties. He said that “we will do everything we can to form a government under the Union’s leadership, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that modernizes our country.”
Laschet was surrounded by his party’s top brass, including Merkel, as he spoke at its headquarters in Berlin.

Iceland elects Europe’s first female-majority parliament

Iceland elects Europe’s first female-majority parliament
Updated 26 September 2021

Iceland elects Europe’s first female-majority parliament

Iceland elects Europe’s first female-majority parliament
  • Among incoming members of parliament is law student Lenya Run Karim, a daughter of Kurdish immigrants
  • After all votes were counted Sunday, female candidates held 33 seats in Iceland’s 63-seat parliament, the Althing

REYKJAVIK, Iceland: Iceland has elected a female-majority parliament, a landmark for gender equality in the North Atlantic island nation, in a vote that saw centrist parties make the biggest gains.
After all votes were counted Sunday, female candidates held 33 seats in Iceland’s 63-seat parliament, the Althing. The three parties in the outgoing coalition government led by Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir won a total of 37 seats in Saturday’s vote, two more than in the last election, and appeared likely to continue in power.
The election makes Iceland the only country in Europe, and one of a handful in the world, with a majority of female lawmakers. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Rwanda leads the world with women making up 61 percent of its Chamber of Deputies, with Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico narrowly over the 50 percent mark. Worldwide, the organization says just over a quarter of legislators are women.
The milestone for women comes despite a poor outcome for parties on the left, where female candidates are more often frontrunners.
Politics professor Silja Bara Omarsdottir said the gender quotas implemented by left-leaning parties for the past decade had managed to create a new norm across Iceland’s political spectrum.
“It is no longer acceptable to ignore gender equality when selecting candidates,” she said.
Opinion polls had suggested a victory for left-leaning parties in the unpredictable election, which saw 10 parties competing for seats. But the center-right Independence Party took the largest share of votes, winning 16 seats, seven of them held by women. The centrist Progressive Party celebrated the biggest gain, winning 13 seats, five more than last time.
Before the election, the two parties formed Iceland’s three-party coalition government, together with Jakobsdottir’s Left Green Party. Her party lost several seats, but kept eight, outscoring poll predictions.
The three ruling parties haven’t announced whether they will work together for another term, but given the strong support from voters it appears likely. It will take days, if not weeks, for a new government to be formed and announced.
Climate change had ranked high on the election agenda in Iceland, a glacier-studded volcanic island nation of about 350,000 people in the North Atlantic. An exceptionally warm summer by Icelandic standards — with 59 days of temperatures above 20 C (68 F) — and shrinking glaciers have helped drive global warming up the political agenda.
But that didn’t appear to have translated into increased support for any of the four left-leaning parties that campaigned to cut carbon emissions by more than Iceland is committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement.
Among incoming members of parliament are the oldest and youngest lawmakers ever to take a seat in Iceland: 72-year-old burger joint owner Tomas Tomasson and 21-year-old law student Lenya Run Karim, a daughter of Kurdish immigrants who is from the anti-establishment Pirate Party.
“I want to improve Iceland’s treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers,” she told The Associated Press, vowing to speak up for young people at parliament. “Our ideas need to be heard more.”

UN and Afghanistan’s Taliban, figuring out how to interact

UN and Afghanistan’s Taliban, figuring out how to interact
Updated 26 September 2021

UN and Afghanistan’s Taliban, figuring out how to interact

UN and Afghanistan’s Taliban, figuring out how to interact
  • The Taliban wrote to the UN requesting to address the UNGA that is underway in New York
  • They argue they have all the requirements needed for recognition of a government

NEW YORK: It’s been little more than a month since Kalashnikov-toting Taliban fighters in their signature heavy beards, hightop sneakers and shalwar kameezes descended on the Afghan capital and cemented their takeover. Now they’re vying for a seat in the club of nations and seeking what no country has given them as they attempt to govern for a second time: international recognition of their rule.
The Taliban wrote to the United Nations requesting to address the UN General Assembly meeting of leaders that is underway in New York. They argue they have all the requirements needed for recognition of a government. The UN has effectively responded to the Taliban’s request by signaling: Not so fast.
Afghanistan, which joined the UN in 1946 as an early member state, is scheduled to speak last at the General Assembly leaders’ session on Monday. With no meeting yet held by the UN committee that decides challenges to credentials, it appears almost certain that Afghanistan’s current ambassador will give the address this year — or that no one will at all.
The UN can withhold or bestow formal acknowledgement on the Taliban, and use this as crucial leverage to exact assurances on human rights, girls’ access to education and political concessions. This is where the power — and relevance, even — of the 76-year-old world body still holds.
Afghanistan is a good, and perhaps extreme, representative case study of precisely why the United Nations was founded in the aftermath of World War II, said Rohinton Medhora, president of the Center for International Governance Innovation in Canada.
“If you’re the UN and you want to represent the family of nations, then you want absolutely everyone of the family there — even you know, the distant cousin that not everyone’s proud of,” he said. “So the UN needs Afghanistan and countries to demonstrate the value of many of its operations.”
In Afghanistan, the United Nations can deploy the weight of its vast aid and development programs to show just how crucial its often underfunded agencies are in providing stability and security. The country is facing multiple humanitarian crises and near-total poverty due to fallout from the political situation.
There are already growing calls for aid to be contingent on ensuring girls’ access to education. Despite promises to be inclusive and open, the Taliban have yet to allow older girls back to school, have curtailed local media freedoms and returned to brutal practices like publicly hanging dead bodies in city squares.
“Taliban does not represent the will of the Afghan people,” Afghanistan’s currently accredited ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Nasir Andisha, told The Associated Press.
If the United Nations recognizes the Taliban’s claim to power, Andisha said, then it sends a corrosive message to others — be it in Yemen or in Myanmar — that they can take up guns, create violence, join with US-designated terrorist groups.
“I think for the world, for the United Nations, it’s time to use this as a leverage,” Andisha said.
The Taliban’s appointed UN representative, Suhail Shaheen, a former negotiator and political spokesman, told The Associated Press that his government should be admitted into the club of nations and that “all borders, territory and major cities of Afghanistan are in our control.”
“We have support of our people and because of their support, we were able to continue a successful struggle for independence of our country which culminated in our independence,” he said. “We have all the requirements needed for recognition of a government. So we hope the UN as an neutral World Body recognize the current government of Afghanistan.”
More than a dozen ministers in the all-Taliban Cabinet are on a UN blacklist, including the group’s foreign minister, whom Andisha and other Afghan diplomats abroad are refusing to speak to.
Andisha was serving in Geneva under the US-backed government of Ashraf Ghani when the president fled Afghanistan Aug. 15 to seek refuge in the United Arab Emirates as the Taliban encircled the capital. Ghani’s government swiftly fell thereafter.
Andisha is still holding meetings with representatives from countries around the world, imploring them to push for the resuscitation of intra-Afghan peace talks. He wants the United Nations to make clear that joining its ranks is not only about “holding a country under the barrels of your guns and having enough population taken hostage.”
Meanwhile, Qatar has urged countries not to boycott the Taliban, and Pakistan called on nations to avoid isolating the Taliban, and to incentivize them to hold to their promises of renouncing terrorism and being inclusive.
The United States, which withdrew all its forces from the country last month in a chaotic airlift that ended America’s “forever war,” says it is critical that the international community remains united in ensuring the Taliban meets a range of commitments before granting legitimacy or support beyond humanitarian aid.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this is the message he delivered to the UN Security Council and others on the sidelines of the General Assembly this week.
The US has “significant leverage when it comes to the Taliban,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Friday. “But we have all the more leverage when we work in coordination and in harmony with our allies and partners around the globe,” he added.
Medhora, of the Center for International Governance Innovation, said the UN has levers it can use through its various agencies, such as UNICEF, which focuses on children, UNHCR, which assists refugees, and the World Food Program, all “where the actual work of the UN gets done.” This is another area where the United States has major sway as the the largest donor to the United Nations, contributing nearly one-fifth of funding for the body’s collective budget in 2019, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
In multiple UN speeches this past week, a number of world leaders mentioned Afghanistan, including US President Joe Biden and Afghanistan’s neighbors, such as Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan.
Enayat Najafizada, who runs an independent think tank in Kabul that monitors security issues in Afghanistan’s provinces, said the UN should also facilitate negotiations between Afghan groups and bring the various countries with a history of meddling in the nation on board for the sake of regional security.
“Without forming an inclusive government, the country will move to a civil war,” said Najafizada, founder of The Institute of War and Peace Studies.
Although what comes next for Afghanistan is far from certain, it is clear the Taliban do not want to be seen as global pariahs, said Kamal Alam, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“They want a seat at the UN They want to go to Davos. They like the private jet lifestyle,” he said, referring to the group’s political elite who reside in exile in Qatar.
“But that’s only the political leaders. The foot soldiers on the ground, there’s no such thing as ‘the new Taliban’,” he said. “There is no new Taliban. Everything they’re doing is a tactic to get recognition as well as not be isolated.”

British police make ‘significant’ arrest over Muslim teacher’s death

British police make ‘significant’ arrest over Muslim teacher’s death
Updated 26 September 2021

British police make ‘significant’ arrest over Muslim teacher’s death

British police make ‘significant’ arrest over Muslim teacher’s death
  • Nessa, 28, was found dead in Kidbrooke, southeast London, on Sept. 17
  • The Metropolitan Police force said a 36-year-old man was arrested overnight in southern England

LONDON: Police in Britain investigating the murder of Sabina Nessa, a teacher who was found dead in a southeast London park last weekend, said they arrested a 36-year-old man on Sunday.
Primary school teacher Nessa, 28, was killed after leaving her home to go to a bar just a five-minute walk away, in the latest case to galvanise public concern about women's safety in the UK.
Detectives from London's Metropolitan Police took the suspect into custody in the early hours of Sunday at an address in East Sussex, a county southeast of the British capital.
Detective Chief Inspector Neil John, from the Met's specialist crime command, called the arrest a "significant development".
The Met initially said the man was 38 years old, but later clarified that he is 36.
Two other men arrested this week on suspicion of murder have been released pending further investigation.
Hundreds of people held a vigil on Friday evening in the southeast London neighbourhood of Kidbrooke, where Nessa lived and her body was discovered last Saturday.
The murder echoes the high-profile killing in March of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, which focused attention on what is being called an epidemic of violence against women.