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US Diplomat: Unresolved Extortion Probe Could Undermine N. Macedonian Accession Talks

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service. Some information is from Reuters.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer says an unresolved extortion investigation in North Macedonia could undermine prospects for the small Balkan nation’s long-awaited European Union accession talks.

North Macedonia’s former chief Special Prosecutor, Katica Janeva, unexpectedly tendered her resignation last month amid allegations that she masterminded a scheme to extort millions from an indicted businessman in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Janeva’s Special Prosecution Office (SPO), an organized-crime-busting outfit also tasked with addressing high-level corruption, has long been emblematic of the former Yugoslav republic’s transatlantic aspirations. By spearheading investigations of the now-ousted authoritarian regime of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Janeva’s office was largely mandated to restore rule of law.

“These are serious charges and all such serious charges require a serious response,” Palmer told VOA’s Serbian Service. “We support a complete, thorough, transparent investigation of these charges and, if the evidence is there, then appropriate prosecution. This is really an opportunity for the authorities in North Macedonia to demonstrate fealty to adherence to the rule of law.”

FILE – Newly elected President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski, right, walks with outgoing president Gjorge Ivanov, during his inauguration ceremony in Skopje, North Macedonia, May 12, 2019.

The country changed its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia in February, ending a more than two-decade dispute with Greece over its name, and removing an obstacle to EU and NATO membership.

Just last week, EU commissioner Johannes Hahn said Skopje needs to reform the judiciary to ensure it can handle high-level crime and corruption cases before the EU can set a date to start accession talks, but that he was “confident that the decision (on the start of EU accession talks) will be taken in October.”

Palmer said he’s optimistic talks can begin this fall, but that resolving the Janeva investigation will be key to ensuring it happens.

Both of North Macedonia’s major political parties have been squabbling over the drafting of a law to regulate the prosecution, which will determine the fate of the special prosecutor’s office that Janeva used to run.

“We believe that North Macedonia has earned that opportunity [to have EU accession talks begin this year], but … signals that the government sends — and the success of the SPO law — will be important to that.”

FILE – Protesters take part in a demonstration near the Greek Parliament against the agreement with Skopje to rename neighbouring country Macedonia as the Republic of North Macedonia, Jan. 20, 2019 in Athens.

Whether new legislation can be ratified, a precondition for EU accession talks, will determine the pace of North Macedonia’s European accession process, which is why both U.S. and EU officials have repeatedly pressed both parties, the right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE and ruling Social Democratic Union, to come to an agreement.

Meetings between party officials earlier this week produced indications of progress, but working groups are still in negotiations.

“It’s important that these parties come together, negotiate, resolve their differences and reach an agreement on how the SPO can be reformed or modified in a manner that advances the interests of the country,” Palmer told VOA.

“There’s been enough politicking. The time for politicking is over. Now is the time for statesmanship,” he said.

Scientific Studies Say Planting Trees Helps Mitigate Global Warming

Another scientific study has confirmed that trees can have a far-reaching effect in stemming global warming by removing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Tree-planting advocates say this is something they’ve known for decades, and the world is finally getting the message. Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.

Trump, Britain’s Johnson Discussed Trade, Security, 5G -White House

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about trade, next-generation 5G mobile networks and global security, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement on Friday.

Trump told Johnson during a call on Thursday that he looked forward to meeting him at the G7 economic summit in France later this month, the White House said.

The United States is pressuring its allies, including Britain, to avoid using equipment from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd in its 5G mobile networks. Washington says Huawei is a national security risk.

Britain’s National Security Council, chaired by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, had decided in principle to give Huawei limited access to sensitive parts of the 5G network. But the council has yet to make a final decision, and Johnson is more publicly aligned with Trump than May was.

Trump has pushed for a trade deal between the United States and Britain following the latter’s planned exit from the European Union.

Tsunami Warning as Powerful Quake Hits Southwest Indonesia

A powerful earthquake struck off the southern coast of Indonesia’s heavily populated Java island Friday, with the country’s disaster agency warning that it could generate a tsunami.

The 6.8 magnitude quake struck offshore at a depth 42 kilometres (26 miles), some  150 kilometres (90 miles) from Labuan, southwest of the capital Jakarta, according to the United States Geological Survey. 

Indonesia’s disaster agency initially pegged the quake at magnitude 7.4 and a depth of 10 kilometres, warning it could spark a tsunami.

Residents in Jakarta fled their homes as buildings in the megacity swayed from the force of the quake.

“The chandelier in my apartment was shaking and I just ran from the 19th floor,” 50-year-old Elisa told AFP. 

“Everybody else ran too. It was a really strong jolt and I was very scared.”

At least two people were killed and thousands were forced from their homes after a major 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit the remote Maluku islands in eastern Indonesia this month.

Indonesia experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity due to its position on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide.

Last year, a 7.5-magnitude quake and a subsequent tsunami in Palu on Sulawesi island killed more than 2,200 people, with another thousand declared missing.

On December 26, 2004, a devastating 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra and triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 across the Indian Ocean region, including around 170,000 in Indonesia. 

Trump to Impose 10% Tariff on $300 Billion of Chinese Goods

The U.S.-China trade war intensified Thursday after President Donald Trump said he would impose an additional 10 percent tariff on some Chinese products, one day after the two superpowers agreed to continue trade talks next month.

“Trade talks are continuing, and during the talks the U.S. will start, on September 1st, putting a small additional Tariff of 10% on the remaining 300 Billion Dollars of goods and products coming from China into our Country, Trump tweeted. “This does not include the 250 Billion Dollars already Tariffed at 25%.”

Trump also accused China of failing to purchase more U.S. agricultural products and halting the sale of opioid fentanyl to the U.S. “China agreed to … buy agricultural product from the U.S. in large quantities, but did not do so,” he said. “Additionally, my friend President Xi said that he would stop the sale of Fentanyl to the United States — this never happened, and many Americans continue to die.”

While the previous rounds of tariffs have primarily targeted industrial products, the new round of tariffs will target consumer products such as cell phones and apparel.

Trump’s latest salvo came one day after the latest round of trade talks between U.S. and Chinese negotiators ended in Shanghai with an agreement to meet again in September in the U.S.

Poland Waives Tax for Young Employees to Counter Brain Drain

Poland on Thursday scrapped its personal income tax for young employees earning less than $22,000 a year, as part of a drive to reverse a brain drain and demographic decline that’s dimming the prospects of a country that is otherwise experiencing strong economic growth.

A new law by the right-wing government took effect Thursday, slashing the personal income tax from 18 percent to zero for workers under the age of 26 below the income threshold. It is expected to boost the earnings of nearly 2 million Poles at home, and the government hopes it will also persuade young Poles working abroad to return home.  

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently said he hoped it would “prevent a further loss, a bleeding of the population that is especially painful for a nation, a society, when it concerns the young generation.”  

But there were strong doubts if the tax relief would stop the drain of talented and educated young Poles to London, Berlin and other cities that offer higher wages and other opportunities.

”I do not think it would stop me and my peers from leaving,” said Paulina Rokicka, a 19-year-old in Warsaw who works part-time at a TV station. “It seems to me that we will want to leave [anyway] because there are better perspectives abroad than in Poland.”

Introduced ahead of fall parliamentary elections, the exemption is part of a larger package of social benefits that has earned the government strong voter support but raised worries about strains on state finances. They include cash bonuses to families with children and a one-off payment to pensioners.

Morawiecki said that some 1.5 million Poles, a number comparable to the population of Warsaw, have emigrated since the nation of 38 million joined the European Union in 2004. Some other estimates have put that number at 2 million but it is hard to pin down exactly due to the large number of those who go back and forth.

While wages still are far lower than in the West, Poland’s economy is growing at around 4.5% and unemployment had dipped below 6%. In order to fill labor shortages companies have turned to hiring migrants, mostly Ukrainians, some 2 million of whom are estimated to be working in Poland.

The government says it is focusing on innovation where young inventive minds are highly valued.      

Morawiecki recently urged a gathering of young people to “stay here, to take your future in your own hands and be enterprising.”

The government estimates the program will cost the budget some 2 billion zlotys ($519 million) a year.  

Pawel Jurek, the Finance Ministry spokesman, told The Associated Press on Thursday that young Poles will now have more money left in their bank accounts to allow them to start families earlier. But he said the most important aim is to keep professionals in the country.

Maciej Biernacki, another young employee in Warsaw, also voiced doubts that the tax relief would sway many people, calling it only “one small” element that would be considered in people’s life decisions. More important, he said, are issues like business predictability and how the country is run.

”I doubt that this kind of exemption would make anyone stay here in the country if he hesitates about whether to leave or stay,” the 25-year-old public relations manager told the AP.

A recent survey by the National Bank of Poland showed that some 15 percent of Polish emigres would be willing to return home, especially from Britain, where the prospect of a hard Brexit threatens economic pain.

Walloped by Heat Wave, Greenland Sees Massive Ice Melt

The heat wave that smashed high temperature records in five European countries a week ago is now over Greenland, accelerating the melting of the island’s ice sheet and causing massive ice loss in the Arctic.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a semi-autonomous Danish territory between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans that has 82% of its surface covered in ice.

The area of the Greenland ice sheet that is showing indications of melt has been growing daily, and hit a record 56.5% for this year on Wednesday, said Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist with the Danish Meteorological Institute. She says that’s expected to expand and peak on Thursday before cooler temperatures slow the pace of the melt.

More than 10 billion tons (11 billion U.S. tons) of ice was lost to the oceans by surface melt on Wednesday alone, creating a net mass ice loss of some 197 billion tons (217 billion U.S. tons) from Greenland in July, she said.

”It looks like the peak will be today. But the long-term forecast is for continuing warm and sunny weather in Greenland, so that means the amount of the ice loss will continue,” she said Thursday in a telephone interview from Copenhagen.

The scope of Wednesday’s ice melt is a number difficult to grasp. To understand just how much ice is being lost, a mere 1 billion tons — or 1 gigaton — of ice loss is equivalent to about 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, the Danish Meteorological Institute said.  And 100 billion tons (110 billion U.S. tons) corresponds to a 0.28 mm (0.01 inch) rise in global sea levels.

Mottram said since June 1 — roughly the start of the ice-loss season — the Greenland ice sheet has lost 240 gigatons (240 billion metric tons) this year. That compares with 290 gigatons lost overall in the 2012 melt season, which usually goes through the end of August.

A June 2019 study by scientists in the U.S. and Denmark said melting ice in Greenland alone will add between 5 and 33 centimeters (2 to 13 inches) to rising global sea levels by the year 2100. If all the ice in Greenland melted — which would take centuries — the world’s oceans would rise by 7.2 meters (23 feet, 7 inches), the study found.

The current melting has been brought on by the arrival of the same warm air from North Africa and Spain that melted European cities and towns last week, setting national temperature records in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Britain.

In Russia, meanwhile, forest fires caused by hot, dry weather and spread by high winds are raging over nearly 30,000 square kilometers (11,580 sq. miles) of territory in Siberia and the Russian Far East, an area the size of Belgium. The smoke from these fires, some of them in Arctic territory, is so heavy it can easily be seen in satellite photos and is causing air quality problems in Russia’s third-largest city, Novosibirsk. Protesters in Moscow on Thursday were demanding that the government do more to fight the blazes.

Greenland has also been battling a slew of Arctic wildfires, something that Mottram said was uncommon in the past.

In Greenland, the melt area this year is the second-biggest in terms of ice area affected, behind more than 90% in 2012, said Mark Serreze, director of the Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, which monitors ice sheets globally. Records go back to 1981.

A lot of what melts can later refreeze onto the ice sheet, but because of the conditions ahead of this summer’s heat wave, the amount of ice lost for good this year might be the same as in 2012 or more, according to scientists.  They noted a long build up to this summer’s ice melt — including higher overall temperatures for months — and a very dry winter with little snow in many places, which would normally offer some protection to glacier ice.

”This is certainly a weather event superimposed on this overall trend of warmer conditions” that have increasingly melted Greenland ice over the long term, Serreze said.

Compounding the melt, the Greenland ice sheet started out behind this year because of the low ice and snow accumulation, said Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Twila Moon.

With man-made climate change, “there’s a potential for these kind of rates to become more common 50 years from now,” Moon said.

Heat waves have always occurred, but Mike Sparrow, a spokesman for the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, noted that as global temperatures have risen, extreme heat waves are now occurring at least 10 times more frequently than a century ago. This year, the world saw its hottest month of June ever.

”These kind of heat waves are weather events and can occur naturally but studies have shown that both the frequency and intensity of these heat waves have increased due to global warming,” Sparrow said in a telephone interview from Geneva.

He noted that sea ice spread in the Arctic and Antarctic are both currently at record lows.

”When people talk about the average global temperature increasing by a little more than 1 degree [Celsius], that’s not a huge amount to notice if you’re sitting in Hamburg or London, but that’s a global average and it’s much greater in the polar regions,” he said.

Even though temperatures will be going down in Greenland by the end of this week, the ice melt is not likely to stop anytime soon, Mottram said.

”Over the last couple of days, you could see the warm wave passing over Greenland,” she said. “That peak of warm air has passed over the summit of the ice sheet, but the clear skies are almost as important, or maybe even more important, for the total melt of the ice sheet.”

She added that clear skies are likely to continue in Greenland “so we can still get a lot of ice melt even if the temperature is not spectacularly high.”

US Rapper A$AP Rocky to Testify in Assault Trial

U.S. rapper A$AP Rocky is expected to give testimony in a Swedish court Thursday on the second day of his assault trial after he and two of his entourage were accused of punching and kicking a teenager.

The 30-year-old performer, producer and model, whose real name is Rakim Mayers, pleaded not guilty to a charge of assault causing actual bodily harm on the first day of the trial Tuesday. His lawyer told the court he acted in self-defense.

Mayers was detained July 3 in connection with a brawl outside a hamburger restaurant in Stockholm June 30 and later charged with assault.

On Tuesday, prosecutor Daniel Suneson showed video from security cameras and witnesses’ mobile phones and said following an altercation Mayers threw 19-year-old Mustafa Jafari to the ground, after which he and two of his entourage kicked and punched him.

The prosecutor said a bottle was used to hit Jafari, who suffered cuts and bruises.

Jafari told the court he was pushed and grabbed by the neck by Mayers’ bodyguard outside the restaurant and followed the rapper’s group to get back his headphones. He said he was then hit on the head with a bottle and kicked and punched while on the ground.

If convicted, the accused could face up to two years in jail.

FILE – Posters asking for A$AP Rocky to be freed line the wall across from the jail where the American rapper is being held on charges of assault in Stockholm, Sweden, July 25, 2019.

The case has drawn huge media attention, forcing the trial to be moved to a secure courtroom.

Celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Rod Stewart, have leaped to Mayers’ defense and U.S. President Donald Trump asked Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to help free Mayers.

Sweden’s judiciary is independent of the political system, and Lofven has said he will not influence the rapper’s case.

Mayers, best known for his song “Praise the Lord,” was in Stockholm for a concert. He has canceled several shows across Europe because of his detention.

The trial could run into a third day Friday. The verdict is expected at a later date.

US Official: No Change to South Korea-US Military Exercise

The United States does not plan to make changes to a military drill with South Korea, a senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday, despite a series of North Korean missile launches intended to pressure Seoul and Washington to stop joint exercises.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries are planning to stage a joint exercise in August, known as Dong Maeng, which is believed to be a slimmed down version of an annual drill once known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, which included thousands of U.S. troops.

FILE – A South Korean army soldier passes by an advertising board during an anti-terror drill as part of Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, at Sadang Subway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 19, 2015.

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles Wednesday after two similar missile tests last week, raising the stakes for U.S. and South Korean diplomats hoping to restart talks on North Korean denuclearization.

No plans to change

“No adjustment or change in plans that we’re aware of or are planning,” the U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

It is unclear how many U.S. troops will be involved this year, but the official noted that the exercise, as in the past, would have a large computer simulated portion.

“The main thing you want to test, exercise, practice is to make decisions in a combined decision making environment because we have an integrated command structure,” the official said.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met June 30, but Pyongyang has since accused Washington of breaking a promise by planning the military exercises and warned the drills could derail talks.

North Korean State news agency KCNA repeated calls for the United States and South Korea to end their “hostile” joint drills, but did not mention the missile launches.

South Korea denies promise broken

South Korea has said previously that the joint military exercise would go ahead, denying Pyongyang’s charges that holding it would breach an agreement made between Trump and Kim.

“We have to do two things: We have to give the diplomats appropriate space for their diplomacy and help create an environment that is conducive to the talks when they resume … and we have to maintain readiness,” the U.S. official said.

Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will be making his first official visit to Seoul, which the Pentagon said Tuesday was scheduled as part of a tour through Asia in August.

US Senate Confirms Craft as UN Ambassador

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed Kelly Craft, a Republican donor who is currently ambassador to Canada, as ambassador to the United Nations, despite opposition from Democrats who criticized President Donald Trump’s nominee as not having sufficient experience for the post. 

The Senate backed Craft 56 to 34, largely along party lines, moving to end seven months without a permanent U.S. envoy to the world body. 

U.N. ambassador is one of several high-level positions in the Trump administration held for months by temporary appointees as the White House struggles to deal with a chronic high turnover of top administration officials. 

The Senate last week confirmed Army Secretary Mark Esper, a former lobbyist, as secretary of defense, ending a record seven-month period in which the Pentagon lacked a permanent top official. 

This week, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced his resignation. 

Trump nominated Craft, 57, for the U.N. post after a receiving a recommendation from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents her home state of Kentucky. 

She had faced fierce opposition from some Democrats. Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, accused Craft of lacking the “seriousness and professionalism” for the post at the world body. 

Craft, the wife of a billionaire coal industry executive, generated controversy shortly after assuming her post in Ottawa by telling the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that she believed “both sides” of the climate change debate. 

However, she acknowledged during her confirmation hearing that climate change is a global threat and pledged to recuse herself from any U.N. talks on the issue involving coal because of her husband’s position. 

Menendez on Wednesday released a report that said Craft spent the majority of her time as ambassador to Canada outside the country. 

Craft’s backers called her a tough negotiator on a trade deal with Canada and Mexico who had established decent working relationships with both Republicans and Democrats.  

Craft will have the difficult job of defending Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and navigating his criticism of the United Nations while getting global diplomats to back U.S. policies. 

Trump’s first U.N. ambassador, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, announced her resignation in October and left the position at the end of last year.