In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election

In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election
A small group of demonstrators hold posters reading "Degtyaryov, go to the bathhouse!!!" and "I'm, we are Sergei Furgal" in Khabarovsk, Russia, in the country's Far East, on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 18 September 2021

In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election

In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election
  • The race for governor is being closely watched to gauge how much anger remains in the region

KHABAROVSK, Russia: The handful of demonstrators gathering each evening in Khabarovsk are a shadow of the masses who took part in an unusually sustained wave of protests last year in the Russian Far Eastern city, but they are a chronic reminder of the political tensions that persist.
The demonstrators have been demanding the release of the region’s popular former governor, Sergei Furgal, who was arrested last year on charges of being involved in killings.
Now, his Kremlin-appointed replacement, Mikhail Degtyaryov, is on the ballot for governor in the three days of regional voting that concludes Sunday. The regional election is taking place at the same time that Russians are voting for members of the State Duma, the national parliament.
The race for governor is being closely watched to gauge how much anger remains in the region, located seven time zones and 6,100 kilometers (3,800 miles) east of Moscow.
“The region really worries the Kremlin because they don’t want a repeat of those incidents (last years’ protests) of course. Khabarovsk is now under close supervision,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
Three other people are on the ballot for governor, but supporters of Furgal and others in the city of about 600,000 complain they are insignificant candidates who were allowed to run to give the appearance of a democratic and competitive race.
“Whoever posed even the smallest threat was barred from running, and they left only spoiler candidates,” said 64-year-old protester Zigmund Khudyakov.
Notably, United Russia — the country’s dominant political party and loyal backer of President Vladimir Putin — is not fielding a candidate for governor in Khabarovsk. Nor is Russia’s second-largest party, the Communists.
Degtyaryov, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, is widely believed to be backed by the Kremlin with both advice and money.
The man who wanted to run on the Communist ticket was kept off the ballot because he was unable to get enough signatures from officials. That aspiring candidate, Pyotr Perevezentsev, told The Associated Press that municipal authorities in some districts had been told by their superiors whose nominating petitions to sign.
“People representing the presidential administration curated these elections,” he said.
Separately, Furgal’s son Anton says he was kept off the ballot for the national parliament. “There is an opinion that if my last name had been Ivanov, for example, I would likely be allowed to run,” he said.
Degtyaryov rejects such claims.
“As head of the Khabarovsk regional government, I am obligated to ensure transparent, legal, free and fair elections, and we are following all of these provisions,” he said on a recent televised question-and-answer session with residents.
The weeks of protests that arose after Sergei Furgal’s arrest in July 2020 appeared to catch authorities by surprise. Unlike in Moscow, where police usually move quickly to disperse unsanctioned rallies, authorities didn’t interfere with the unauthorized demonstrations in Khabarovsk, apparently expecting them to fizzle out.
A Liberal Democratic Party member, Furgal won the 2018 regional gubernatorial election even though he had refrained from campaigning and publicly supported his Kremlin-backed rival.
His victory was a humiliating setback for United Russia, which also lost its control over the regional legislature.
While in office, Furgal earned a reputation as a “people’s governor,” cutting his own salary, ordering the sale of an expensive yacht bought by the previous administration, and offering new benefits to residents.
His arrest, which was shown on Russian TV stations, came after the Investigative Committee, the nation’s top criminal investigation agency, said he was accused of involvement in the murders of several businessmen in the region and nearby territories in 2004 and 2005. During interrogation in Moscow, Furgal denied the charges, according to the Tass news agency.
Ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran politician with a reputation for outspoken comments and also a member of the Liberal Democrats, once called Furgal “the best governor the region ever had.”
Furgal’s arrest brought hundreds, and then thousands, of people into the streets of Khabarovsk in a regular Saturday protest. A year later, the rallies — albeit much smaller — continue.
Local activists say that’s because of sustained pressure from authorities interested in ensuring Degtyaryov wins the election.
Under new rules enforced by police who monitor and film the protests, the rallies are restricted to 10 people at most. Officers disperse anything larger.
The protesters say they are pressured at work and at university, with some adding that they lost their jobs after being seen at the demonstrations.
Many wear T-shirts with the face of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, while others carry signs depicting Furgal or denouncing the new governor.
“We constantly live in fear because any day we can be arrested,” said Denis Pedish, a 47-year-old education worker who says he now comes to protests with a packed bag of essentials in case he is detained.
“It’s difficult. But people have hope and faith and are actively fighting the lawlessness of the authorities and the lawlessness of the elections, which are a laughingstock for the world to see,” Pedish said.


Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
Updated 16 sec ago

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
CANBERRA: Fiji reopened its border to international travelers for the first time in nearly two years on Wednesday, as the Pacific Island country seeks to revive its dominant tourism industry.
Fiji shut its border to all foreign nationals in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a desperate bid to stop its limited medical facilities being overrun.
With about 90 percent of all Fijian adults now fully vaccinated, the Pacific Island reopened its border to tourists from a small number of countries — much to the relief of tourism operators.
“To see the Fiji Airways plane full up and for us to welcome those tourists today was so amazing. It was a great, great feeling and I’m glad to have been there personally,” James Sowane, director of the Fiji tourism company, Tewaka, told Reuters.
Tourists arriving will have to stay three nights in an approved resort and undergo rapid testing. They can move around designated areas, including bars and restaurants within the hotels, while they can embark on some day trips and activities.
Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people.
Tourism accounts for 40 percent of Fiji’s economy and the border closure saw an estimated 10 percent of the population unemployed.
Still the reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the Omicron variant.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama hailed the return of tourists, who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and tested for infection.
“Today, we are proud and most importantly prepared to welcome the first tourists to fly to Fiji in almost two years. Our message to every fully vaccinated, COVID-tested traveler who arrives to our shores is simple: Welcome Home,” Bainimarama said in a post on Facebook.

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
Updated 01 December 2021

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
  • Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions

DOHA: The Taliban renewed its call for the United States to release billions of dollars in frozen funds after two days of talks in Doha as aid-dependent Afghanistan grapples with an economic crisis.
The Afghans also called for an end to blacklists and sanctions in meetings led by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.
It was the second round of talks between the two sides in Qatar since the US ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan and the hard-line Islamists rapidly returned to power.
“The two delegations discussed political, economic, human, health, education and security issues as well as providing necessary banking and cash facilities,” tweeted Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi.
“The Afghan delegation assured the US side of security and urged that Afghanistan’s frozen money should be released unconditionally, blacklists and sanctions must end and human issues be separated from political ones.”
Washington seized nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also suspended activities in Afghanistan, withholding aid as well as $340 million in new reserves issued by the IMF in August.
The Afghan economy has effectively collapsed, with civil servants unpaid for months and the treasury unable to pay for imports. The United Nations has warned that around 22 million people, more than half the population, will face an “acute” food shortage in the winter months.
Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions. The US side stood firm on the measures and said it was taking steps to get support to ordinary Afghans.
“The United States remains committed to ensuring that US sanctions do not limit the ability of Afghan civilians to receive humanitarian support from the US government and international community while denying assets to sanctioned entities and individuals,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“The Department of the Treasury has issued general licenses to support the continued flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support basic human needs.”
The US also urged the Taliban to provide access to education for women and girls across the country and “expressed deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses.”
It reminded the Taliban of its commitment not to allow terrorist organizations to operate on its soil and to guarantee safe passage for US citizens from Afghanistan.
The Americans also called for the release of US citizen Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in February last year.
The Taliban called the talks “positive” and said Muttaqi also met with the Japanese and German ambassadors to Afghanistan in Doha.
bur/th/kir


Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 30 min 6 sec ago

Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect for at least a month

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Japan has expanded its travel ban on foreigners coming into the country, preventing entry to those with resident status from 10 southern African nations.

Two Japanese airlines ANA and JAL also said they were suspending new reservations for international flights to Japan until the end of December and NHK public television said the government was seeking a halt to all such reservations.

Japan took some of the strictest steps globally on Monday by closing its borders to non-Japanese for about a month in light of the emergence of omicron. A day later, Japan’s first omicron case – in a Namibian diplomat – was discovered.

Japanese media also reported on Wednesday that a second case of the omicron virus had been confirmed in a traveller. NHK said it was a foreign man and FNN television said it was a traveller from Peru.

The border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect from midnight on Wednesday for at least a month. It applies to foreign residents from South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Brazil and Nigeria also joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”

Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.

France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.

It has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from southern African countries which have been hit hard by the omicron variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”

In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.

Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.

Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”

Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.

“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”

While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.

The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.

NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.

Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.

Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.

England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.


Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO

Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO
Updated 01 December 2021

Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO

Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO
  • NATO should prepare economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it “decides to chose the worst-case scenario” and boost the military and defense cooperation with Ukraine

RIGA: Ukraine urged NATO on Wednesday to boost military cooperation with Kyiv and prepare a package of measures, including sanctions, to deter Russia from attacking the country.
“We will call on the allies to join Ukraine in putting together a deterrence package,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters on arrival for talks with his NATO counterparts in Riga.
As part of this package, NATO should prepare economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it “decides to chose the worst-case scenario” and boost the military and defense cooperation with Ukraine, he said.


Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa

Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa
Updated 01 December 2021

Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa

Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa
  • Retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed cases among travelers to Nigeria

ABUJA: Nigeria confirmed its first cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant among two travelers who arrived from South Africa last week, the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) said on Wednesday.
The NCDC said retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed cases among travelers to Nigeria had also identified the variant among a sample collected in October.