Author: Worldcrew

Chinese Cardinal Skeptical About Reputed Vatican-Beijing Agreement

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the most senior Roman Catholic figure in China, says he is deeply skeptical about a reputedly imminent agreement between Chinese leaders in Beijing and Pope Francis in the Vatican.

Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, told VOA he is most concerned about the possibility that a rapprochement between China and the Vatican will give China’s government a role in the nomination of Catholic bishops there.

A deal between the church and the communist government would be seen by many as a diplomatic coup for Pope Francis, after more than six decades of difficult relations with China. But it is feared such an agreement could carry with it a resolution in China’s favor of the highly controversial issue of selecting bishops.

Pope choice of bishops is key

Reports of an agreement between the church and the Chinese leadership have been building for months, but details of what that agreement might consist of are still unverified.

Zen, who retired in 2009, freely admits he is an outspoken opponent of China’s communist-dominated system of government. 

“In the present situation,” he told VOA, “I cannot see how there might be a good deal” to be struck between the Vatican and Beijing.

In earlier interviews, the 85-year-old senior cleric has spoken more pungently, telling Britain’s Guardian newspaper, for example, that giving Beijing’s secular authorities a role in choosing Catholic bishops would be a “surrender” by the Vatican, and that “the people sooner or later will see the bishops are puppets of the government and not really the shepherds of the flock.”

Zen, interviewed by telephone from Hong Kong, told VOA the only acceptable way to include Chinese authorities in the choosing of new bishops is “if nomination starts and ends with the pope.”

If Beijing accepts the primacy of the Vatican in ecclesiastical matters, Zen said, “there’s hope to have a good agreement. But if it begins with the government, it is not acceptable.”

Troubled church-state history

China expelled Catholic missionaries after the Communist Party took power in 1949 and broke relations with the Vatican in 1957. Since then, the government has allowed Catholics to practice only in churches overseen by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, an official organization staffed in part by communist officials.

“Patriotic Catholics” do not recognize the pope’s authority in the appointment of bishops or other church matters, despite Catholic doctrine that requires bishops to be named and appointed by the Vatican. Bishops in China are, in effect, appointed by the government.

That dilemma prompted many Chinese Catholics loyal to the pope to go underground years ago.

The Catholic News Agency reported that an agreement with China is a major effort of the current pope, and the highly charged issue of which entity will have greater say in appointing bishops is central to talks that have been under way for months. Those talks hit a bump in December, however, when a bishop supported by the Beijing government but not approved by the Vatican ordained a new group of senior Chinese clerics.

The current leader of the Hong Kong diocese, Cardinal John Tong, wrote in his diocesan newspaper three weeks ago that if Beijing and the Holy See agree that both sides have a role in appointing bishops, Chinese Catholics will have “essential freedom” but lack “entire freedom.”

‘Genuine or fake freedom’?

Zen likened this stance to elections in Hong Kong, where voters want universal suffrage and the right to directly nominate candidates for the former British territory’s chief executive. China insisted that candidates would not be chosen by a popular vote, but rather picked by a pro-Beijing committee. 

“It is the question of genuine or fake freedom, not the question of full or partial freedom,” Zen told VOA.

Zen said he believes Catholics who remain loyal to the pope and who have long worshiped underground are concerned that the Vatican may abandon them. 

“If there’s a bad agreement, the underground believers, and even some priests and believers belonging to the official church in China would feel that they have been betrayed … because they have suffered for so long just for being loyal to the Roman Church and the Holy See.”

To Zen, the key issue in China-Vatican relations centers on whether Beijing is willing to relinquish control of religious affairs.

“The government is going to control the church, which is a big problem,” he said. “The government has no plan, or will, to give up control over the church. They have been doing so for so many years, so how can they let it go? There’s absolutely no reason, right?

“The most important thing for the Communist Party is to control,” he said. “You can only do what the party allows you to do.”

Pence: My Email Practices Didn’t Compare With Clinton’s

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Friday that there was “no comparison whatsoever” between his use of a private email account as governor of Indiana — his job before he became Donald Trump’s running mate — and the email troubles of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Pence told reporters in Wisconsin that Clinton’s problems included “having a private server, misusing classified information, destroying email when they were requested by the Congress.”

The Indianapolis Star first reported Pence’s use of a private email service — his personal account with AOL, the corporation formerly known as America Online. The newspaper said Pence used his private emails to discuss sensitive matters, including homeland security issues.

It also reported that the account was linked to a phishing scheme last spring, when Pence’s contacts received bogus emails claiming he was stranded in the Philippines and needed money.

Practice was legal, aides say

The vice president’s aides rejected any comparison of his email problems to Clinton’s, because, they said, it is legal for public officials in Indiana to use personal email accounts. They added that, unlike Clinton, Pence did not handle any classified information as governor.

The vice president’s office said he transferred all of his outside emails to the state of Indiana at the end of his term.

“I’m very confident we are in full compliance with all of Indiana’s laws. And in my service as vice president I will continue that practice,” Pence said.

Clinton’s use of a private email server was a major point of criticism against her during her run for the White House last year.

The State Department has said Clinton’s use of a private server broke department rules. FBI Director James Comey said Clinton was careless with classified information, but that no criminal charges would be brought against her.

Georgia Suspends Ownership Change for Broadcaster After European Court Ruling

Georgia, responding to an intervention from a European court, on Friday suspended a ruling from a domestic court that had placed the country’s biggest independent TV station under the control of a close ally of the government.

The country’s supreme court on Thursday ordered broadcaster Rustavi 2 returned to its former co-owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi, in a move critics at home and abroad called an attempt to muzzle the media.

Rustavi 2’s attorneys challenged the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights, which on Friday ordered its temporary suspension.

“We will follow this procedure,” Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told reporters, adding that the Strasbourg-based court had also instructed the government to abstain “from interfering with the broadcaster’s editorial policy in any manner.”

Government officials have accused the popular TV station of bias, while critics fear Khalvashi — a close supporter of the ruling Georgian Dream party — will silence the only strong media voice critical of the government.

President weighs in

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is at odds with the ruling party, on Friday added his voice to earlier U.S. and OSCE criticism of the ownership change.

“The international community perceives the process … not as a court case, but as a political process, which impacts media freedom and the pluralistic environment in Georgia,” he said in a televised statement.

Tsulukiani said the European court’s interim measure was in force until March 8, when it would examine the case further.

The TV station has been fighting court battles in Georgia since August 2015, when a lower court found in favor of Khalvashi, who says he was forced to give up his controlling stake under the former government of Mikheil Saakashvili.

The Supreme Court judgment confirmed that ruling Thursday.

Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili’s party in an election in 2012 and strengthened its hold on power in another ballot in October 2016.

EU’s Mogherini Booed in Serbian Parliament Ahead of Balkan Summit

Nationalist Serbian lawmakers booed the European Union’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini on Friday as she addressed their parliament during tour aimed at addressing concerns about rising tensions in the Balkans.

Mogherini’s trip to all six Western Balkans states, still scarred by wars fought in 1990s along political, ethnic and religious lines, is meant to lay the groundwork for an EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday and a summit on Thursday.

Several EU leaders have expressed alarm at a variety of problems there and some blame Russia for seeking to destabilize the region, EU officials say.

At Mogherini’s speech to the Serbian parliament, members of the Serbian Radical party chanted: “Serbia! Russia! We don’t need the [European] Union!”

Four deputies from the nationalist Dveri party held banners reading: “Serbia does not trust Brussels.”

Playing down the heckles during a speech that focused on the EU accession talks which Serbia hopes to complete by 2019, Mogherini later told reporters: “It is not nice to be rude to a lady!”

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s pro-EU coalition has a comfortable majority in parliament but the popularity of pro-Russian nationalists is on the rise. In 2016, the Radicals returned to the Serbian assembly after several years.

Next Week’s Summit

At their summit next week, EU leaders are expected to reaffirm their commitment “to support stability and to deepen political and economic ties with and within the region,” according to an early draft of their joint statement.

That is despite weariness in EU states including France and the Netherlands where eurosceptic parties pose a challenge to the status quo in their own elections in coming weeks.

The EU has made Serbia’s accession conditional on normalizing its ties with Kosovo but tensions have been on the rise this year. Serbia’s ally Moscow refuses to recognize the 2008 independence of Kosovo, which has an association agreement with the EU.

Their neighbor Macedonia – which aspires to join both EU and NATO – has not been able to form a government since elections in December as the president has refused to give a mandate to a coalition that includes ethnic Albanians.

A genocide lawsuit that Bosnia lodged against Serbia at the International Court of Justice angered Bosnian Serbs as well as officials in neighboring Serbia.

In Montenegro, both pro-Western and anti-Western opposition parties are boycotting the parliament following a recent vote in which they say people were intimidated to back the government.

Russian Influence?

Russia opposes the accession of Balkan states into the EU has accused Europe and NATO of meddling in Macedonia’s political crisis.

The EU believes Moscow is encouraging Bosnia’s Serbs to seek independence and may have encouraged a move to unseat Montenegro’s leader as he seeks to join NATO.

A border dispute between ex-Yugoslav EU members Croatia and Slovenia, adds to the mix of instability, EU officials say.

US Considers Separating Women, Children at Mexico Border

Women and children crossing together illegally into the United States could be separated by U.S. authorities under a proposal being considered by the Department of Homeland Security, according to three government officials.

Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children, said the officials, who had been briefed on the proposal.

The policy shift would allow the government to keep parents in custody while they contest deportation or wait for asylum hearings. Children would be put into protective custody with the Department of Health and Human Services, in the “least restrictive setting” until they can be taken into the care of a U.S. relative or state-sponsored guardian.

‘Catch and release’

Currently, families contesting deportation or applying for asylum are generally released from detention quickly and allowed to remain in the United States until their cases are resolved. A federal appeals court ruling bars prolonged child detention.

President Donald Trump has called for ending “catch and release,” in which migrants who cross illegally are freed to live in the United States while awaiting legal proceedings.

Two of the officials were briefed on the proposal at a February 2 town hall for asylum officers by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum chief John Lafferty. A third DHS official said the department was actively considering separating women from their children but had not made a decision.

DHS, HHS and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

About 54,000 children and their guardians were apprehended between October 1, 2016, and January 31, 2017, more than double the number caught over the same time period a year earlier.

Republicans in Congress have argued that women are willing to risk the dangerous journey with their children because they are assured they will be quickly released from detention and given court dates set years into the future.

Immigrant rights advocates have argued that Central America’s violent and impoverished conditions force mothers to immigrate to the United States and that they should be given asylum status.

Legal challenges

Implementing the new policy proposal “could create lifelong psychological trauma, especially for children that have just completed a perilous journey from Central America,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director at the National Immigration Law Center.

Hincapie said the U.S. government was likely to face legal challenges based on immigration and family law if it decided to implement the policy.

The policy would allow DHS to detain parents while complying with a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order from July 2016 that immigrant children should be released from detention as quickly as possible. That order said their parents were not required to be freed.

To comply with that order, the Obama administration implemented a policy of holding women and children at family detention centers for no more than 21 days before releasing them.

Strain on resources

Holding mothers in prolonged detention could also strain government resources, said Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit.

“You are talking about a pretty rapid increase in the detention population if you are going to do this,” Capps said. “The question is really how much detention can they afford.”

DHS Secretary John Kelly last week ordered immigration agents to deport or criminally prosecute parents who facilitate the illegal smuggling of their children.

Many parents who arrive on the U.S.-Mexico border with their children have paid smugglers to guide them across the dangerous terrain.

Hundreds of Babies’ Remains Found at Former Irish Catholic-run Home for Unmarried Mothers

Irish government investigators said Friday that up to 800 remains of babies have been discovered in a mass grave at a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers.

The discovery confirmed a local historian’s claim that the children may be in an unmarked grave at the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in the western Irish town of Tuam.

Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes Commission said excavations revealed an underground structure that contained “significant quantities of human remains.”

The commission said DNA analysis confirmed the ages of the children ranged from 35 weeks to three years. Records show the babies died between 1925 and 1961, the last year the home was open.

Burying the remains of babies in unmarked graves was a relatively common practice at Catholic-run homes in Ireland when there were high mortality rates in the early 20th century.

The government launched an investigation in 2014 after local historian Catherine Corless found death certificates for nearly 800 children who resided at the facility, but a burial record for only one baby.

“Everything pointed to this area being a mass grave,” Corless said. She recalled how boys playing in the area had reported seeing a pile of bones hidden in an underground chamber in the mid-1970s.

The Catholic church operated many of Ireland’s social services in the 20th century. Some housed tens of thousands of unmarried pregnant women, including rape victims.

Unmarried women and their babies were then viewed as a stain on Ireland’s reputation as a fervently-Catholic country.

The fathers of some of the babies were powerful figures, such as priests, the wealthy, and married men.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, said the news was “sad and disturbing.” She added that an investigation would continue and a decision would be made to determine what should happen with the remains.

Tillerson in Background as State Department Issues Human-Rights Report

The U.S. State Department is defending the low-profile release of its annual human rights report Friday, amid criticism of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s break with tradition by failing to publicly present the report.


A senior Trump administration official briefed reporters on the 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and rejected criticism from some human-rights groups and lawmakers that the briefing was not announced a day in advance, was not on camera and did not feature Tillerson.


“The report speaks for itself. We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here,” the senior official said Friday. “Secretary Tillerson spoke quite clearly in his confirmation hearing about his views of the impact of human rights on, and the importance to, U.S. interests.”


The official noted Tillerson’s remarks during the hearing were “very clear about our commitment to human rights and the guiding principle that our values are our interests in the conduct of our foreign policy.”


When questioned by reporters, the senior administration official did not explain why Tillerson did not unveil the report, but did say that the State Department wanted to get it out without delay.


Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First both issued statements sharply criticizing the low-key rollout of the report, which reflects thousands of hours of painstaking work. The annual effort is read carefully by both governments and human-rights defenders around the world. 


However, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, wrote in a tweet that while Tillerson may not have wanted to face reporters’ questions, he still laid out his department’s basic commitment to human rights in the report’s preface: “Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights. The production of these reports underscores our commitment to freedom, democracy, and the human rights guaranteed to all individuals around the world.”


Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch noted in a statement that Tillerson’s absence “reinforces the message to governments, rights activists and at-risk minorities that the State Department might also be silent on repression, abuse, and exploitation.”


Late Thursday, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted out his disappointment in the way the report was released.


“For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by Secretary of State. I hope they reconsider,” the Republican senator wrote.


In an overview, the 2016 report did not specifically highlight any countries. As is customary, it does not rank or compare countries’ human-rights records. 


The senior administration official who briefed reporters said the report shows the global human-rights situation is mixed, with progress in some areas and worse abuses in others. The official highlighted torture, extra-judicial killings and gender discrimination as particular human-rights problems.


The report offers country-by-country analysis of 199 countries, and it paints a devastating picture of conditions in Syria:


“The government arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured and detained persons on a wide scale. Government and pro-government forces conducted attacks on civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools and settlements for internally displaced persons [IDPs] and refugee camps; these attacks included bombardment with improvised explosive devices, commonly referred to as ‘barrel bombs.'”


The State Department noted that the United Nations reported increased use of incendiary weapons in Syria during 2016, including napalm, white phosphorus and chlorine gas, and added, “The government continued the use of torture and rape, including of children.”


The U.S. report also detailed a grim situation in Venezuela, including the “systematic, politicized use of the judiciary to undermine legislative branch action and intimidate and selectively prosecute critics; indiscriminate police action against civilians leading to widespread arbitrary detentions, unlawful deprivation of life, and torture; and government curtailment of freedom of expression and of the press.”


With the new administration’s views on Russia in the spotlight, the report says Russia has “a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin.”


It also outlined the suppression of dissent in Russia, restriction of access to free and fair elections and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, members of the LGBT community and migrant workers.

Congress’ Pentagon Budget for Year: $578 Billion 

Lawmakers Thursday unveiled a $578 billion spending bill to keep the U.S. armed forces operating through September as President Donald Trump has vowed to add billions more for what he’s described as a depleted American military.

The legislation, crafted by House and Senate negotiators from both parties, tracks the funding levels for Pentagon procurement, operation and maintenance, and research and development programs authorized by the annual defense policy bill that former President Barack Obama signed into law in December.

The full House is scheduled to meet next week to consider the defense spending bill for the 2017 fiscal year. Once the bill clears the House, the legislation moves to the Senate for a vote.

“We’ve tried to make the best decisions possible, within funding limitations, to support national security priorities like modernization of aging equipment and a pay increase for all military personnel,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the Appropriations Committee chairman.

Trump likely to add $30 billion

Trump is expected to deliver to Congress in the next few weeks a supplement to the 2017 spending bill that would boost the total by as much as $30 billion. For the 2018 budget year, which begins October 1, Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase in the Pentagon’s budget.

The Pentagon and other federal agencies are currently running under a stopgap spending bill that expires April 28. Congress approved the temporary measure to avoid a government shutdown late last year.

The 2017 defense spending bill includes $516 billion for basic military requirements, which covers everything from the purchase of bombs and bullets to troop training. Nearly $62 billion is included in the bill to pay for ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

The defense authorization bill signed by Obama totaled $611 billion, while the appropriations package is roughly $33 billion less because the defense spending bill doesn’t include money for military construction and nuclear weapons research. Those programs are included in separate appropriations legislation.

Commanders urge long-term budgeting

Senior U.S. military commanders have pleaded with lawmakers to avoid the frequent use of stopgap spending bills, which are known in Washington-speak as continuing resolutions. Under these short-term agreements, the Pentagon’s budget is set at the previous year’s level and the military services are barred from starting new programs.

The spending bill also provides $980 million to train and equip foreign forces to combat the Islamic State extremist group.

Another $150 million is allotted in the bill to supply Ukraine with lethal and nonlethal aid to counter Russian aggression. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its incursions into eastern Ukraine have drawn widespread condemnation in Europe and the United States along with a raft of economic penalties.

Elvis Presley’s Graceland Opens New $45 Million Complex

Nearly four decades after Elvis sang his last tune, his legacy got a $45 million boost with the Thursday opening of a major new attraction at his Graceland estate — an entertainment complex that Priscilla Presley says gives “the full gamut” of the King of rock ‘n’ roll.

About 200 people streamed into “Elvis Presley’s Memphis” after the late singer’s wife cut a ribbon and allowed fans to see the $45 million complex for the first time.

Resembling an outdoor mall, the 200,000-square-foot campus sits across the street from Graceland, Presley’s longtime home-turned-museum. The complex features a comprehensive Presley exhibit with clothing he wore on stage and guitars he played; a showcase of the cars he owned and used; a soundstage; a theater; two restaurants and retail stores.

“You’re getting the full gamut of who Elvis Presley was,” Priscilla Presley said during an interview after the grand opening. “You’re getting to see and participate a bit in his life and what he enjoyed and what he loved to collect.” 

It’s part of a $140 million expansion, which also includes a $90 million, 450-room hotel that opened last year. The complex replaces the aging buildings that have housed Presley-related exhibits for years. An old, gray, strip-mall style visitor center will be torn down to make room for a greenspace along Elvis Presley Boulevard, the street that runs in front of the house.

Graceland has been updating its tourist experience. Visitors now use iPads for self-guided tours of the house. The new Guest House at Graceland, with modern amenities like glass-encased showers with wall-mounted body sprays and in-room Keurig coffeemakers, has replaced the crumbling Heartbreak Hotel, which is scheduled for demolition.

“We want to keep updating. … If you don’t keep up with what’s going on in the times, you get left out,” Priscilla Presley said. She was joined at the ribbon-cutting by Elvis Presley Enterprises CEO Jack Soden and Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of Graceland Holdings.

The opening comes just before the 40th anniversary of Presley’s death on Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42.

Adults pay $57.50 for a standard tour of the house and access to the complex. Visitors can also choose to tour just the house for a lower price. Discounts are offered for seniors and children. A self-guided tour of two airplanes owned by Presley is $5 more. 

From the ticketing area, people line up to wait for buses that take visitors to the museum, or they can move through the entertainment complex’s large, high-ceilinged buildings.

Gladys’ Diner — named after the singer’s mother — has the feel of a 1950’s eatery, complete with pictures of Presley, aqua-colored chairs and stations where patrons can order hot dogs, burgers and ice cream.

There’s also Presley’s favorite: Gladys’ World Famous Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich, fried in bacon grease. Another PB&B sandwich is cooked in butter.

Across a wide walkway lies the automobile museum, filled with some of Presley’s favorite toys. Among them is a pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood — a custom painted model that he gave to his mother — and a sleek, black 1973 Stutz Blackhawk that he drove the day he died.

The walkway leads to the 20,000-square foot museum called “Elvis: The Entertainer,” which features white and purple jumpsuits he wore during concerts and gold-colored guitars he played on stage.

 Several retail stores line the complex. A second restaurant, a barbecue joint called Vernon’s Smokehouse — named after Presley’s father — will also open. So will an exhibition focused on Sam Phillips, the Sun Records producer and rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who recorded Presley for the first time.

The complex is still being finished. Priscilla Presley said there’s a warehouse full of artifacts, ready for display.

During the interview with The Associated Press, Priscilla Presley declined to comment about a court battle in Los Angeles between Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter she had with Elvis, and Lisa Marie’s estranged husband.

Among the fans eager to get a glimpse at the new exhibits Thursday was Carol Carey, a retiree who made the short trip across the state line from Southaven, Mississippi, with her son.

Wearing a pink shirt with the words “Wild About Graceland” on it, Carey beamed a wide smile as she talked about the complex.

“We couldn’t wait to see it,” she said. “We’ve been here every other day, checking it out. Getting used to saying goodbye to the old, and seeing friends who are all taking pictures of everything.”

New US Interior Secretary Lifts Lead Ammunition Ban in Nod to Hunters

New U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday issued an order  overturning an Obama administration ban on the controversial use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle used on federal lands and waters, in a nod to hunters and fishermen on his first day on the job.

Zinke, who was a first-term Montana Congressman and a former Navy SEAL, arrived for his first day at work at the Interior Department in Washington on a horse named Tonto escorted by mounted U.S. Park Police officers.

Zinke, an avid angler and hunter, lifted the lead ammunition ban in one of two secretarial orders, which he said were meant to “expand access to public lands and increase hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities nationwide.”

Interior Department employs over 70,000

President Barack Obama’s Fish and Wildlife Service had issued the lead ban on Jan. 19, one day before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, to protect birds and fish from lead poisoning. The move was met with sharp criticism from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which called it Obama’s “final assault on gun owners’ and sportsmen’s rights.”

The Interior Department, which is in charge of conserving fish, wildlife and their habitat, manages one-fifth of the land in the United States. It employs more than 70,000 people across the United States.

Secretarial orders signed

Zinke also signed an order on Thursday that would direct federal agencies to identify areas where recreation and fishing can be expanded and sought recommendations for expanding access to public lands and improving fishing and wildlife habitat.

“This package of secretarial orders will expand access for outdoor enthusiasts and also make sure the community’s voice is heard,” he said.

The NRA, as well as hunting and fishing groups including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Ducks  Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership attended  the signing of the orders.

Zinke said that fishing, hunting, and other outdoor recreation activities  “generate thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity.”

France’s Next President? Former Investment Banker Soars Amid Rivals’ Woes

France’s next president may be a 39-year-old maverick former economy minister, affiliated with no mainstream political party and with no experience running for office.  Until now.

On Thursday, and with less than two months to go before the first round of voting, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron finally unveiled his full political platform, outlining proposals ranging from downsizing France’s parliament and slashing government bureaucracy, to embracing closer European Union cooperation, fighting nepotism and rewarding businesses that hire from low-income neighborhoods.

The former investment banker also positioned himself as a champion of the middle and working classes, as he described growing up in a midsize French town and being educated in”the schools of the Republic.”

Once dismissed as a passing fad with no tangible proposals, Macron is now in second place behind far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen ahead of the first round of voting April 23, but according to many surveys, he could win the May 7 runoff.

Macron’s ‘young but he really listens’

New polls out this week confirm the trend, with the latest by Elabe finding Macron behind far-right front runner Le Pen 24 percent to 27 percent in the first round, with former conservative prime minister Francois Fillon trailing in third place, with 19 percent. It found Macron beating Le Pen in the second-round with 62 percent of the vote.

Wading into a farm fair outside Paris earlier this week, a must-attend event for all presidential wannabes, Macron got a taste of deep voter discontent, as he wiped off the goo from an egg pelted at his head during the visit.

But he gets the vote of 71-year-old Joseph Rolland, whose son is a cattle farmer near Nantes, in western France.

“He’s young but he really listens,” Rolland said.  “People say he has no political experience, but he’ll surround himself with competent people. We need change.”

Hiring scandal hurts Fillon

Fillon, once-considered a shoe-in to become France’s next president, is struggling for survival amid a parliamentary jobs hiring scandal involving his family.

With Fillon’s support base vanishing, some conservatives are calling for another ex-prime minister, Alain Juppe, to step up and take his place. A Harris Interactive poll finds three-quarters of French want Fillon to abandon a race that 80 percent believe he will lose.

Le Pen’s immunity lifted

Le Pen and her party also face a corruption investigation regarding questionable hiring practices, in this case involving European Parliament funds. She refuses to pay a $300,000 parliament fine or to appear before magistrates before the elections, citing her immunity as an European Union lawmaker.

Thursday, the parliament voted to lift Le Pen’s immunity on a separate matter involving tweeting graphic images of Islamic State militant group killings in 2015.

“Emmanuel Macron wants to situate himself in the intersection of the right and left,” French analyst Bruno Cautres told Le Midi Libre newspaper in an overall assessment of his platform. “His program offers economic measures of the center right … and also social dimensions and investments in the future, like training and the environmental transition.”

Favors European Union

Macron also calls for closer ties to the European Union and for shoring up the eurozone, in sharp contrast with Le Pen, who wants to hold a Frexit referendum on leaving the bloc if it doesn’t renegotiate French membership.

“For the European Union, the best candidate is Macron,” said analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. “But can he be elected? There are a lot of question marks. He’s got no political machine. He’s a young man. He’s inexperienced, he’s never been elected.”

Macron, who speaks fluent English, also drew sharp differences with the U.S. administration on free trade and climate change.

But he also outlined areas of cooperation with the U.S., including intelligence sharing on Iraq and Syria and said he would pursue a strategic relationship with Washington as president.


Make France business friendly

Macron has long rebelled being pigeon-holed, joining the leftist government of President Francois Hollande as economy minister.  His legislation to make France more business friendly, voted in as the Macron law,’ and new labor reform proposals were watered down amid protests and strikes.

Last April, he launched his “En Marche!” or “Forward!” movement, which he describes as neither right nor left.  A few months later, he resigned to prepare for his presidential candidacy, a move critics called a betrayal to Hollande, his former mentor.  The deeply unpopular Hollande ultimately chose not to run for re-election.

Macron is the son of a doctor, who studied philosophy before graduating from the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, he is married to his high school French teacher, who is 20 years his senior.


Kremlin Seeks to Expand Influence in Increasingly Unstable Balkans

Serbia’s outgoing prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, reassured European Union officials visiting Belgrade on Wednesday that his country remains committed to joining the European bloc — but he cautioned that Serbs also want to pursue traditional ties with “friends from the East.”

And in recent months, those friends in the Kremlin have been busy, say Western officials and analysts.

From offering help with disaster relief to supplying sophisticated weaponry, including warplanes, the Kremlin is seeking to expand its influence in the Balkans, a region Moscow has viewed historically as in its sphere of influence, they warn.

Moscow’s diplomatic offensive apparently is paying off. A recent Gallup poll suggests a majority of Serbs views Russia as a more dependable ally than NATO, an organization Belgrade officially wants to join.


“Serbia is on its European path, because we think that we belong to this type of society; we would like to join the countries who believe in democracy, entrepreneurship, human rights,” Vucic told the European officials.

He warned, though, that ordinary Serbs “often see the EU as a machine for pressure over Kosovo,” a reference to the as-yet-unresolved status of the onetime Serbian province, which declared formal independence in 2008.

Serbia has withheld recognition of Kosovo — as has Russia.

Many Serbs frowned on former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and cheered President Donald Trump’s election, a reflection of their residual anger over NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1995 and 1999 during the Balkans War ordered by her husband, then-President Bill Clinton. They had hoped the new U.S. president would change course on U.S.-Balkans policy and favor Belgrade in the unresolved dispute over Kosovo’s status. 

American officials, though, have dashed Serbian hopes with recent statements indicating Washington’s support for Kosovo will remain unwavering during the Trump presidency.

Those statements included a call by the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, for the breakaway province to become a full member of the U.N.

“In Kosovo, while more must be done to strengthen governance and the rule of law, the United States believes that the international community must recognize Kosovo’s great strides since independence,” Haley said February 21 at the U.N. Security Council.

Heightened tensions

Kosovo’s status is just one issue dividing the Balkans. Others include whether to tilt geopolitically to the East or West, and border disputes. Ethnic tensions are on the rise in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Bosnia remains split among Serbs, Bosnians and Croats, and the wounds of the vicious three-year-long war of the 1990s have not yet begun to heal.

All the issues are adding to tensions in the Balkans just as the region turns into a political battleground between a revanchist Russia and an uncertain West, say pro-West Balkan politicians.

Last week, neighboring Montenegro’s former prime minister accused Russia of “destructive” politics in the Balkans. His comments came in the wake of startling allegations by Montenegro officials that the Kremlin was behind an attempt in October to overthrow the country’s pro-Western government.

Milo Djukanovic, who resigned after the alleged pro-Russian plot, told Socialist Democratic Party members that Montenegro is now in the firing line of a newly assertive Russia eager to expand its influence in the Balkans. Pro-Russian opposition parties were ready to use “bloodshed and a coup” to install a pro-Kremlin government, he said.

The Kremlin has denied the allegations of Russian involvement in an election day plot that allegedly included plans to kill Djukanovic and take over the country’s parliament. Prosecutors have accused some 20 people — including two Russians — of involvement.

Russian officials have recently said Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro should be seen as in Moscow’s sphere of interest and are opposed to any of them joining NATO. As with other parts of Europe, the Kremlin has been supporting openly anti-EU nationalist parties in the Balkans.

Russian ‘autocracy’

In Serbia, analysts say a clear illustration of the Kremlin’s efforts to expand its clout can be seen in the growing role Russian media are playing in the country.

In May, a report by the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a pro-Western Belgrade-based policy research organization, found that 109 registered non-governmental organizations, associations and media outlets can be linked to pro-Russian lobbying efforts.

The increase in Russian media activity, according to the research group, started in 2008 in Serb areas of northern Kosovo, and increased dramatically in 2012, coinciding with pro-Serb demonstrations and the start of negotiations on the normalization of relations between Serb and Kosovo authorities under the auspices of the EU.

Pro-Russian advocacy “increased drastically in 2015 when it became clear that Serbia would begin formal negotiations with the EU, and when the intention of stronger cooperation with NATO within the Individual Partnership Action Plan [IPAP] was disclosed,” according to the authors of the study, Eyes Wide Shut.

“The replacement of democracy with autocracy, under the current Russian model, is the main goal of Russian soft power in Serbia and in the region. Other goals are the reduction of support for European integration and the discrediting of the very concept of [EU] enlargement,” the research group’s authors assert.

There also has been a noticeable increase in the influx of content sponsored by state-run Russia media outlets, such as Russia Today and Sputnik, offered for free to cash-strapped Serbian media outlets.

With elections due this year in Serbia, and the first indictments expected from an international court established in The Hague for trials of alleged historical war crimes committed during the 1990s by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, tensions are likely only to increase in the Balkans.

Serbia Calls Presidential Election for April 2

Serbia will hold a presidential election on April 2 that is seen as a litmus test

of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s popularity, the parliamentary speaker said on Thursday.

The vote will pit Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is the largest in the ruling coalition, against the candidates of a fragmented opposition.

It will be a test of his economic reforms, which have been backed by the International Monetary Fund, as well as of efforts to bring the Balkan country of 7.3 million people closer to the European Union.

“I would like to use this opportunity to call all citizens to come out and vote and decide who will be the new president of Serbia,” speaker Maja Gojkovic said after announcing the date.

Vucic said last month he would resign several days ahead of the presidential vote. It is unclear who would be new prime minister once Vucic steps down.

The coalition, which has a comfortable majority in the 250-seat parliament, will be able to secure parliamentary approval for its candidate without calling a new election.

While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, if Vucic wins and effectively controls the parliamentary majority as party leader, he could wield huge sway over the government and a new prime minister who needs to implement restructuring reforms that could lead to job losses.

Faced with the need to cut borrowing costs and keep the deficit low, the country must sell, or make more efficient, big public companies, such as utility firms, and sell state-owned loss-making companies such as the RTB Bor copper mine.

Vucic urged Serbs to vote for a president from the same party as the government for the good of the country.

“If you have two captains each taking his side, that airplane is going straight down to abyss, and that would be a catastrophe for Serbia,” Vucic told daily Kurir on Thursday.

The SNS board decided on last month to nominate Vucic instead of incumbent Tomislav Nikolic, a former party leader who wants closer ties with Serbia’s powerful ally Russia.

The departure of Nikolic could mean quicker moves towards EU accession and a further improvement of Serbia’s ties with NATO, despite its military neutrality.

Morale Slump, Trump Concerns Push Talent Away From US Spy Agency

The National Security Agency risks a brain drain of hackers and cyberspies because of a tumultuous reorganization and worries about the acrimonious relationship between the intelligence community and President Donald Trump, according to current and former NSA officials and cybersecurity industry sources.

Six cybersecurity executives told Reuters they had witnessed a marked increase in the number of U.S. intelligence officers and government contractors seeking employment in the private sector since Trump took office on January 20.

One of the executives, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said he was stunned by the caliber of the would-be recruits. They are coming from a variety of government intelligence and law enforcement agencies, multiple executives said, and their interest stems in part from concerns about the direction of U.S intelligence agencies under Trump.

Retaining and recruiting talented technical personnel has become a top national security priority in recent years as Russia, China, Iran and other nation states and criminal groups have sharpened their cyberoffensive abilities. The NSA and other intelligence agencies have long struggled to deter some of their best employees from leaving for higher-paying jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Two-year reorganization plan

The problem is especially acute at the NSA, current and former officials said, because of a reorganization known as NSA21 that began last year and aims to merge the agency’s electronic eavesdropping and domestic cybersecurity operations.

The two-year overhaul includes expanding parts of the NSA that deal with business management and human resources and putting them on par with research and engineering. The aim is to “ensure that we’re using all of our resources to maximum effect to accomplish our mission,” NSA Director Mike Rogers said.

The changes include new management structures that have left some career employees uncertain about their missions and prospects. Former employees say the reorganization has failed to address widespread concerns that the agency is falling behind in exploiting private-sector technological breakthroughs.

A former top NSA official said he had been told by three current officials that budget problems meant there was too little money for promotions. That is especially important for younger employees, who sometimes need two jobs to make ends meet in the expensive Washington, D.C., area, the official said.

“Morale is as low as I’ve ever seen it,” said another former senior NSA official, who maintains close contact with current employees.

Asked about the risk of losing talent from the NSA and other agencies, White House spokesman Michael Anton said Trump had sought to reassure the intelligence community by visiting the CIA headquarters on his first full day in office. He also pointed to the military spending increase in Trump’s budget proposal released Monday.

Trump’s attacks

But it will most likely take more than a visit to the CIA to patch up relations with the intelligence community, the current and former officials said.

Trump has attacked findings from intelligence agencies that Russia hacked emails belonging to Democratic Party operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign to help him win, though he did eventually accept the findings.

In January, Trump accused intelligence agencies of leaking false information and said it was reminiscent of tactics used in Nazi Germany.

The breadth of any exodus from the NSA and other intelligence agencies is difficult to quantify.

The NSA has “seen a steady rise” in the attrition rate among its roughly 36,000 employees since 2009, and it now sits at a “little less than 6 percent,” according to an NSA spokesman.

The NSA’s Rogers said last year that the attrition rate was 3.3 percent in 2015, suggesting a sharp jump in departures since then.

Several senior NSA officials who have left or plan to leave, including Deputy Director Richard Ledgett and the head of cyberdefense, Curtis Dukes, have said their departures were unrelated to Trump or the reorganization.

Some turnover is normal with any new administration, government and industry officials noted, and a stronger economy has also improved pay and prospects in the private sector.

“During this time the economy has been recovering from the recession, unemployment rates have been falling and the demand for highly skilled technical talent has been increasing,” an NSA spokesman said when asked to comment on the reports of employee departures.

In a statement, Kathy Hutson, the NSA’s chief of human resources, said the agency continues “to attract amazing talent necessary to conduct the security mission the nation needs.”

Rogers’ style

Some NSA veterans attribute the morale issues and staff departures to the leadership style of Rogers, who took over the spy agency in 2014 with the task of dousing an international furor caused by leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden.

Concern about Rogers reached an apex last October, when former Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recommended to then-President Barack Obama that Rogers be removed.

The NSA did not respond to a request for comment on the recommendation last fall that Rogers be replaced.

Rogers is now expected to retain his job at NSA for at least another year, according to former officials.

Rogers acknowledged concerns about potential morale problems last month, telling a congressional committee that Trump’s broadsides against the intelligence community could create “a situation where our workforce decides to walk.”

Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community has exacerbated the stress caused by the reorganization at the NSA, said Susan Hennessey, a former NSA lawyer now with the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research group.

The “tone coming from the White House makes an already difficult situation worse, by eroding the sense of common purpose and service,” she said.

A wave of departures of career personnel, Hennessey added, “would represent an incalculable loss to national security.”

Document: Trump Administration Has Found Only $20M in Existing Funds for Wall

President Donald Trump’s promise to use existing funds to begin immediate construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border has hit a financial roadblock, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The rapid start of construction, promised throughout Trump’s campaign and in an executive order issued in January on border security, was to be financed, according to the White House, with “existing funds and resources” of the Department of Homeland Security.

But so far, the DHS has identified only $20 million that can be re-directed to the multibillion-dollar project, according to a document prepared by the agency and distributed to congressional budget staff last week.

The document said the funds would be enough to cover a handful of contracts for wall prototypes, but not enough to begin construction of an actual barrier. This means that for the wall to move forward, the White House will need to convince Congress to appropriate funds.

An internal report, previously reported by Reuters, estimated that fully walling off or fencing the entire southern border would cost $21.6 billion — $9.3 million per mile of fence and $17.8 million per mile of wall.

DHS officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has said he will ask Congress to pay for what existing funds cannot cover and that Mexico will be pressured to pay back U.S. taxpayers at a later date.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will include funding for a border wall in the budget for next fiscal year. He has estimated the cost to be between $12 billion and $15 billion.

Many Republican lawmakers have said they would vote against a plan that does not offset the cost of the wall with spending cuts.

In the document it submitted to Congress, the DHS said it would reallocate $5 million from a fence project in Naco, Arizona, that came in under budget and $15 million from a project to install cameras on top of trucks at the border.

The surveillance project was awarded to Virginia-based Tactical Micro, but was held up due to protests from other contractors, according to the DHS document. Tactical Micro could not be reached for comment.

The DHS only searched for extra funds within its $376 million budget for border security fencing, infrastructure and technology, so it would not have to ask for congressional approval to repurpose funding, according to the document.

Contractors cannot begin bidding to develop prototypes until March 6, but more than 265 businesses already have listed themselves as “interested parties” on a government website.

Those interested range from small businesses to large government contractors such as Raytheon.

US House, Senate Letters Back Asia Military Funding Proposal

A bipartisan group of U.S. members of Congress has backed a proposal for $7.5 billion of new military funding for U.S. forces and their allies in the Asia-Pacific region, where tensions have risen over China’s territorial ambitions and military buildup.

Five members of the U.S. House of Representatives and eight senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties wrote to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to support the Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative (ASPI) proposed in January by John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee.

Copies of the letters were seen by Reuters. Their signatories include members of the armed services committees in both houses of Congress.

McCain’s proposal calls for $1.5 billion annually for five years to 2022 to boost U.S. munitions stocks in the region, build new military infrastructure, such as runways, and help allies and partners increase their capabilities.

The House letter urged Mattis to incorporate McCain’s proposal in the fiscal 2018-22 defense budgets.

“The Asia-Pacific region holds many interests for U.S. foreign policy that will require our government to continue to prioritize our time, energy and resources there,” it said.

The letter called former President Barack Obama’s policy of giving precedence to the Asia-Pacific region “sound” and said it was “critical” that this be continued under President Donald Trump.

It expressed concern about “the eroding military and economic balance that is the result of the People’s Republic of China’s two-decade military modernization, combined with the effect of years of sequestration on the U.S. military and our foreign policy apparatus.”

The Senate letter also expressed concern about increasing Russian activity in the region and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

“ASPI will show both allies and adversaries that the U.S. remains committed to ensuring peace and security in a region that contains the world’s three largest economies, four most populous countries, six of the world’s largest armies, and five of the seven U.S. mutual defense agreements,” it said.

Trump has vowed to take a tougher line with China and to build up the U.S. military, although it is unclear whether he will succeed in lifting caps on defense spending that have been part of “sequestration” legislation.

China is due to announce its defense budget for this year this weekend, and its navy is likely to secure significant new funding as Beijing seeks to check U.S. dominance of the high seas and step up its projection of global power.

As French Voter Anger Mounts, Scandal-tainted Candidate Keeps Running

A leading presidential candidate vowed Wednesday to press on with his campaign, despite a formal inquiry into a fake jobs scandal tainting his family and amid growing protests against political corruption in France.

Reversing an earlier promise that he would end his campaign if placed under formal investigation, conservative ex-prime minister Francois Fillon said at a press conference he would not give up despite a summons to appear before a judge March 15. He lambasted the judiciary and the media, likening the allegations against him to a political assassination.


“I won’t give up, I won’t surrender, I won’t pull out,” Fillon said, adding he counted on French voters to decide his fate rather than a biased legal procedure.”

Once considered a near shoo-in for president, the 62-year-old Fillon is now seeing his support vanish, a process that gathered tempo Wednesday as a key member of his campaign team stepped down and the center-right Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) party allied with his campaign announced it was suspending its participation.


Shortly after Fillon’s remarks, Bruno Le Maire quit his campaign team as foreign affairs adviser, citing Fillon’s failure to keep his promise and withdraw should a formal investigation be opened.

Fillon was also booed during an afternoon visit to an agricultural fair outside Paris that is considered a must-attend event for presidential candidates.

Fillon “is losing his nerves” and “his sense of reality,” independent candidate Emmanuel Macron told French TV. Macron is running neck-and-neck with Fillon in second place, and his presidential bid will likely be boosted by his rival’s struggles.

Fillon’s announcement caps a campaign rocked by stunning upsets, with establishment favorites ousted from the race and the far-right eyeing its first real chance to capture the presidency during the April-May voting.

Fillon not alone

A French judge is investigating allegations that Fillon’s wife and two children were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for work they did not do. He is hardly the only politician mired in scandal. Far-right frontrunner Marine Le Pen and her National Front party also face allegations of misusing European Union funds to pay member of her staff for non-existent party jobs.

But the allegations targeting Fillon are particularly rankling, given his “Mr. Clean” image and his calls for public sacrifice and spending cuts – even as his family allegedly enriched itself on taxpayers’ money.

By contrast, French do not view Le Pen and her party as having personally enriching themselves from the allegedly fictitious jobs – and analysts suggest Le Pen’s anti-EU credentials may be burnished by the perceptions she has cheated the bloc.

Le Pen has also refused to be questioned by police, citing her immunity as a member of the EU parliament — although she lost that immunity this week over another matter.


Scandals have long entwined French political life, touching a slew of politicians, including former presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy was ordered to stand trial last month on charges of illegally financing his failed 2012 re-election bid. Chirac was given a suspended sentence six years ago after being convicted of graft when he was mayor of Paris.

But voter tolerance appears to be fading. Thousands joined recent anti-corruption protests across the country, including a small march to the National Assembly in Paris Wednesday afternoon. Those numbers pale compared with those of recent anti-corruption protests in Romania.

‘At all levels’

“The problem with corruption is [it’s] at all levels and concerns many more politicians than people think,” Greens Party lawmaker Isabelle Attard told local newspaper 20 Minutes of French corruption.  

Those sentiments are echoed by some French voters.

“He talks about equality for everyone, but according to the allegations he’s hired his wife and children for jobs they’re not necessarily qualified to do,” says 18-year-old student Solene Papegauy of Fillon. “That kind of injustice disgusts me.”

But 62-year-old Christian Humeau said he could tolerate a bit of graft.

“I’d rather have a politician who’s intelligent and good for the country, even if he robs a bit, than a stupid saint,” Humeau said, adding he would probably vote for Fillon.

But Fillon’s criticism of the judiciary drew a swift rebuttal by leftist President Francois Hollande, who is not running for re-election.

“I solemnly stand against all questioning of magistrates as they investigate and study cases in the respect of the rule of law,” Hollande said in a statement in which he described Fillon’s remarks as “extremely serious.”

Beyond questioning the impartiality of the judiciary, Fillon has also attacked the media, accusing it of having lynched and assassinated him politically.

The fake jobs allegations were first reported by satirical French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine. The scandal quickly earned the nickname “Penelopegate” in reference to Fillon’s wife, Penelope, who allegedly earned nearly $1 million as a parliamentary assistant and for editorial work that she may not have done.

Since then, new reports revealed his son and daughter also earned parliamentary salaries for questionable jobs.

Refugees Face Violence Along Hungarian Border

It was his eighth failed attempt at getting into the European Union and Tahir claims that, just like half of his previous efforts, it ended in violence.

Tahir, who requested his entire name not be disclosed to protect his identity, is from Pakistan. He is among an estimated few hundred migrants and refugees camped out in scattered locations on the Serbian border with Hungary.

Unwilling to play the waiting game at the 17 official camps scattered across Serbia, he and others are trying to make their way across the heavily guarded fence.

“We were walking in Hungary for 12 hours, near to a motorway,” he told VOA from his current home, the crumbing remains of what was once a brick factory on the Serbian side of the border.

“But they must have traced us and when they caught us, they gave us a harsh punishment — they beat us,” he said.”

Tahir’s account is impossible to verify, but as Hungary takes ever more strident measures to keep refugees from crossing illegally, concerns are mounting that violent and degrading treatment is increasingly being meted out to those who take their chances.

Beaten with batons

A volunteer organization named Fresh Response, which provides water, clothing and other necessities to refugees living along the Serbian border, has been collecting testimony from refugees and migrants, who say they experienced mistreatment before being returned to Serbia.

“What we know from reading the testimonies is that phases of abuse include pepper spray into the eyes, dogs being released on people — they’re muzzled, so using their claws — and people being beaten with batons,” Dan Song, of Fresh Response, said.

“In other testimonies people claim they have been forced to remove their clothes and lay down in the snow for 20 or 30 minutes,” Song added.

He said the alleged violence was not new. After a drop during autumn, incidents of alleged abuse were seen rising again, he added.

Song estimated that refugees and migrants now caught illegally trying to cross the border faced a 50 percent chance of experiencing similar treatment if caught on the Hungarian side of the border.

Other groups have documented such incidents, too.

A report titled Pushed Back at the Door, released last month by nongovernmental organizations from five eastern European EU member states, looked at the methods used to repel migrants and refugees.

The report claimed legalization last year in Hungary legitimizing “push-backs,” which allow refugees caught within 8 kilometers of the border to be returned to the country they had just left, contravened EU obligations to those seeking protection.

Furthermore, it called the “widespread nature of reports on violence” inflicted on refugees trying to get into Hungry, as well as Bulgaria, a “serious concern.”

Slim chances

Meanwhile, the chances of crossing legally continue to decrease.

There are about 7,500 refugees and migrants in Serbia, and roughly 6,000 places in the country’s official camps.

Nearly everyone wants to move on to either Croatia or Hungary; as European nations, the refugees and migrants see them as a gateway to the rest of the EU.

Yet with the Hungarian border recently reducing the number of refugees and migrants allowed through daily down to 10, many are eschewing a formal process that by some estimates now may take years rather than months — and not even allow them to cross once they have waited.

“There is a lack of trust towards going into camps,” said Andrea Contenta of Medicins San Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders], before adding that many also feared being expelled from Serbia once they had entered camps.

“The whole system is jammed,” Contenta said.

Facing that reality, many take their chances with smugglers or by going it alone into Hungary, where the reception seems ever more hostile.​

Protecting the borders

“If we want Europe to stay the way as we know it, we must protect its outer borders, including the sea borders — with military forces, if needed,” Laszlo Toroczkai, the mayor of Assothalom, a Hungarian village near the border with Serbia that has reportedly sought to ban public practice of the Muslim faith, as well as “homosexual propaganda.”

Hungary completed the erection of a barbed-wire fence separating it from Serbia in September 2015, and, since then, has ramped up efforts to keep refugees and migrants out, including the ongoing effort to recruit 3,000 so-called “border hunters.”

Toroczkai is head of his own, strongly anti-refugee government. He set up the village’s five-person patrol team in early 2014, which works alongside national and international authorities patrolling the border.

But when it comes to charges of disproportionate use of force — something he says he only “hears about from journalists” — Toroczkai is adamant.

Emphasizing that people are crossing illegally, he says force is only used as a response to provocation.

“If one behaves violently and doesn’t obey the police order, doesn’t stop when he’s instructed to, and assaults the police officers, in the U.S. he would probably be shot,” Toroczkai said. “Here in Hungary the worst thing that can happen to him is getting sprayed with tear gas or having dogs set on them.”


A former computer sciences student, Tahir claims he did nothing to provoke a beating.

As a relief from the harshness of his surroundings, Tahir scrolls through pictures of his home — Swat, the mountainous Pakistani district once controlled by the Taliban.

After three months living near the border, though, there are only so many times he is willing to endure these conditions, and risk more violence.

“This is not a life I have here. I feel like no one can help us,” Tahir said. “I feel hopeless.”

Czech Firms Plot Successions as Post-Communist Founders Retire

Vladimir Jehlicka and his business partners spent 25 years building up their Czech machinery firm before deciding to call it a day.

However, they faced a problem that is growing as the first generation of post-communist entrepreneurs nears retirement.

Their children weren’t interested in running the shop but equally Jehlicka and his three partners didn’t want to sell their life’s work simply to the highest bidder: securing a future for the firm was as important as the sale price.

In the end they found a suitable buyer for STS Olbramovice, which employs 90 people making cattle feeders and other farm machinery. The sale went through in January, part of a business that is long-established in western Europe but new and rapidly expanding in former communist countries such as the Czech Republic: managing ownership succession at family firms.

“We decided to sell after a long hesitation,” 63-year-old Jehlicka said. “Our children’s focus is very varied, there was no interest to take over running the firm.”

“Our main criterion for picking a future owner was a pledge to maintain production and jobs,” he told Reuters.

Four decades of communism largely eliminated legal private enterprise in the country and its neighbors such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. But after 1989, managers or employees often clubbed together to buy frequently decrepit state enterprises, while other entrepreneurs started businesses from scratch.

A quarter century later, many of these owners now need to hand over what have become valuable firms. Some find successors in the family; most look for other options including management buy-ins or a sale, creating an opportunity for investors.

Sales of family firms are in vogue. Consultants KPMG said they accounted for 30-40 percent of the Czech transactions it took part in over the last two years in the 20 million-60 million euro range.

The country’s small bourse and cheap acquisition financing mean direct sales are preferred to stock market floats.

The trend is likely to accelerate in Slovakia as well.

“This is a transition from the first founder generation to the second. In several firms it is already happening, in most it will happen in the upcoming period,” said Mario Fondati, a Bratislava-based partner at Amrop consultancy.

A good match

Jehlicka’s firm, based in the village of Olbramovice about 50 km (30 miles) south of Prague, has annual sales of 5 million euros ($5.3 million) and EBITDA operating profits nearing half a million euros. In SkyLimit Industry it believes it has found a buyer that is a good match.

SkyLimit is a new Czech investment fund that targets machinery-making firms facing generational change, with up to 500 million crowns ($20 million) in annual sales. It took on another fund, RSJ Investments SICAV, as a junior partner in buying STS Olbramovice.

SkyLimit says it wants to keep its holdings for the long term, acting more like a strategic investor, and help company managements in making major decisions.

STS was its first transaction — it says only that the price was in the single millions of euros — and plans about two to three purchases a year to build a group of manufacturing firms.

The fund’s board member Michal Bakajsa told Reuters that smaller industrial companies in the sector can be found at lower multiples of their operating earnings than bigger firms. It aims to assure sellers of their businesses’ future and make sure there are managers who will stay on under the new ownership.

“Many companies reject classic financial investors, they fear what would happen with them. Many are in smaller towns, the people know each other, the owners employ people for many years, they are often friends,” Bakajsa said. “We look at companies that have in some way an independently functioning management, where the company does not stand and fall with the owner.”

Petr Kriz, head of mergers and acquisitions at consultancy EY in Prague, said there were 310 M&A transactions in the Czech market last year, up from 185 in 2015. A few dozen were related to succession, with the market in general lifted by a surplus of liquid capital.

A survey by the Czech Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises among 400 family-type companies last year showed 60 percent would consider a sale if an attractive offer comes.

A fund run by Genesis Capital bought 75 percent last year in Quinta-Analytica, a firm supplying analysis and clinical studies for drug makers. Genesis bought the stake from three out of five owners who wanted to exit after 20 years in the business.

“[Generation shift] is an important and large share of deal origination for us,” said Genesis Capital’s managing partner Jan Tauber. “What we can offer is creating structures allowing owners to depart gradually.”

Last year Genesis sold AZ Klima, an air conditioning and cooling systems supplier, along with the firm’s founder Jiri Cizek who still held a 30 percent stake. AZ Klima’s purchase by Czech energy firm CEZ completed a five-year ownership transition: from Cizek and his partner, who together built up the firm in the early 1990s, through the financial investor Genesis to the strategic buyer CEZ.

Money-printing contest

Some entrepreneurs are reluctant to invest their wealth outside the companies they founded at a time when the loose monetary policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve, European Central Bank and Czech National Bank make good returns hard to achieve.

Zbynek Frolik, 63, founded Linet in 1990 and now employs 900 people making hospital beds for customers in over 100 countries.

He has handed over daily business to an executive director and is considering what to do next, but is not selling his 33 percent stake for now.

One reason is that the best way he knows to manage his money is to invest it back into his own business. In his experience, putting it elsewhere doesn’t work.

“You’d have to be solving the problem of what to do with money at a time when the Czech National Bank, the ECB and the Fed are all printing money like it was a contest, and everyone is looking where to invest,” he said.

Still others are looking at a philanthropic exit, such as Dalibor Dedek, 59, who founded the Jablotron group in 1990. He sold a 40 percent stake in the firm, which employs 600 making house alarms and other electronics, to its executive manager Miroslav Jarolim last year. Dedek plans to hand the rest to a charitable body and not his children.

“I want my share to be put into some foundation or an institution that will not die with me,” he told Reuters. “I did not build the firm for the family. I do not want to punish my children by forcing them to deal with money problems.”

Airports, Legal Volunteers Prepare for New Trump Travel Ban

Airport officials and civil rights lawyers around the country are getting ready for President Donald Trump’s new travel ban — mindful of the chaos that accompanied his initial executive order but hopeful the forthcoming version will be rolled out in a more orderly way.

The new order was expected as soon as Wednesday. A draft suggested it would target people from the same seven predominantly Muslim countries but would exempt travelers who already have visas to come to the U.S.

Since last month’s ban, which courts have put on hold, a section of the international arrivals area at Dulles International Airport outside the nation’s capital has been transformed into a virtual law firm, with legal volunteers ready to greet travelers from affected countries and ask if they saw anyone being detained.

Similar efforts are underway at other airports, including Seattle-Tacoma International, where officials have drawn up plans for crowd control after thousands crammed the baggage claim area to protest the original ban.

“The plan is to be as ready as possible,” said Lindsay Nash, an immigration law professor at New York University’s Cardozo School of Law who has been helping prepare emergency petitions on behalf of those who might be detained.

Trump’s initial action, issued Jan. 27, temporarily barred citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya from coming to the U.S. and halted acceptance of all refugees. The president said his administration would review vetting procedures amid concerns about terrorism in those seven nations.

Protesters flooded U.S. airports that weekend, seeking to free travelers detained by customs officials amid confusion about who could enter the country, including U.S. permanent residents known as green-card holders.

Attorneys also challenged the order in court, including officials from Washington state. That lawsuit, which Minnesota joined, resulted in a federal judge temporarily blocking the government from enforcing the travel ban, a decision unanimously upheld by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Many civil rights lawyers and activists have said they don’t believe a new order would cure all the constitutional problems of the original, including the claim that it was motivated by anti-Muslim discrimination.

Trump has said he singled out the seven countries because they had already been deemed a security concern by the Obama administration. And in a speech Friday to the Conservative Political Action Committee Friday, he said, “We are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.”

Last week, analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm found insufficient evidence that citizens of the seven Muslim-majority countries pose a terror threat to the United States.

“It’s not enough to just tweak an order and not change the nature of why it was issued in the first place,” said Rula Aoun, director of the Arab American Civil Rights League in Dearborn, Michigan, which sued over the initial ban and is prepared to do the same with the rewrite if necessary.

In New York, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt said the organization was ready to go to court if the administration tries to immediately enforce its new order.

“The primary focus is being able to respond immediately to any request by the government to lift any of the injunctions, before the courts have had a chance to examine the new order,” he said.

Activists and airport officials alike said they hoped it would be phased in to give travelers fair warning, which might preclude any detentions from arriving flights.

“We are prepared and willing,” said Rebecca Sharpless, who runs the immigration clinic at the University of Miami School of Law. “But it’s unlikely to cause the same kind of chaos of last time.”

At Dulles, Sea-Tac, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other airports, legal volunteers have greeted arriving travelers in shifts every day since the initial ban, wearing name tags or posting signs in different languages to identify themselves.

The legal-services nonprofit OneJustice was ready to send email alerts to 3,000 volunteers in California if needed, deploying them to San Francisco and Los Angeles airports for people affected by any new order, chief executive Julia Wilson said.

In Chicago, travelers have been signing up for an assistance program started by the local Council on American-Islamic Relations office to ensure swift legal help if they’re detained.

Groups urged those arriving at 17 other airports, including Miami, Atlanta and San Diego, to register with Airport Lawyer , a secure website and free mobile app that alerts volunteer lawyers to ensure travelers make it through customs without trouble.

Asti Gallina, a third-year student at the University of Washington Law School, volunteered at Sea-Tac for the first time Tuesday. It was quiet, she said.

“An essential part of the American narrative is the ability to come to America,” Gallina said. “Any infringement of that is something that needs to be resisted.”

US Senate Adopts Resolution on Crisis in Venezuela

The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved a resolution expressing “profound concern” about the crisis in Venezuela and calling for the immediate release of political prisoners.


The resolution adopted Tuesday also calls for the South American country to respect the democratic process and urges the Organization of American States to adopt additional measures to deal with the crisis in Venezuela, which is suffering through recession, skyrocketing inflation and shortages of food and medicine.


U.S. President Donald Trump and opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have called for the release of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and others prisoners.


OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro announced earlier this month he would update a report that was used to accuse Venezuela of violating the OAS’s Democratic Charter last year.

Austria Readies Harder Line Against Rejected Asylum Seekers

Austria’s centrist coalition government on Tuesday agreed on a draft law that would allow authorities to stop providing accommodation and food to rejected asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country.

The bill, which parliament must still approve, is part of a wider reform of laws dealing with foreigners in Austria, which includes fines or prison sentences for migrants who lie about their identity.

The Austrian government is preparing a package of policies aimed at countering the rise of the far-right Freedom Party, whose candidate came close to winning the presidential election in December.

Migrants who are denied asylum and refuse to leave will have to face the consequences, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said.

“The first thing is basically that they don’t get anything from the Austrian state if they don’t have the right to stay here. Is that so hard to understand?” Sobotka told reporters.

He said the draft law was designed to encourage rejected asylum seekers to leave voluntarily.

Migration crisis

Austria took in roughly 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015, more than 1 percent of its population, as it was swept up in Europe’s migration crisis when hundreds of thousands of people crossed its borders, most on their way to Germany.

It has since tightened immigration restrictions and helped shut down the route through the Balkans by which almost all those people — many of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere — arrived. Asylum applications fell by more than half last year.

Asylum seekers in Austria get so-called basic services, including free accommodation, food, access to medical treatment and 40 euros ($42.41) of pocket money a month.

Sobotka said that of about 4,000 people who receive basic services but should have left the country, 2,000 could be affected if the law is passed, because they are healthy enough to travel to their home countries.

The Austrian office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the bill was “highly questionable” and urged lawmakers to think hard about agreeing to it.

The bill would make asylum applicants who lie about their identities face fines of up to 5,000 euros or three weeks in jail.

Rejected asylum seekers in 2016 were most often from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, Interior Ministry data showed.

Democrats Turn to Immigrant to Counter Trump

Democrats are turning to an immigrant brought into the U.S. illegally as a child to give a Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s address to Congress.

Astrid Silva, 28, said millions of people living in the United States are worried, whether it’s about being deported, losing their health insurance coverage or being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. She made the comments in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday at the Capitol.

Silva, who will deliver the response in Spanish, said she wants them to know there are people who care about them. And she wants the president to understand his policy choices will affect millions of families around the nation.

“It’s very important for President Trump to understand that even though he spent so much time campaigning about deporting us, now that he is president, he does have to make these choices,” said Silva, a resident of Las Vegas. “He needs to see us as humans. That’s what we are. We’re families trying to find a better life.”

Democrats also tapped former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear to give the party response. As governor he aggressively expanded access to health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans are vowing to repeal.

Silva is part of a group of 750,000 immigrants who were brought into the U.S. without authorization as children but later received deportation relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program authorized by former President Barack Obama in 2012. She became pen pals with former Sen. Harry Reid. Obama ended up highlighting her story during an address to the nation about a similar deportation relief program for the parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents.

Silva, who was 4 when she was brought to the U.S., said her parents and millions of other families now feel the consequences of Trump’s election every day.

“My parents are thinking twice about going to the grocery store,” she said. “Their friends are calling them and asking them what they do if ICE comes to their door — things that for many years were in the back of our minds but it wasn’t necessarily an everyday occurrence.”

Democratic lawmakers have invited several immigrants to be their guests at the address. In contrast, three people with loved ones killed by someone in the United States illegally will sit near first lady Melania Trump.

Despite White House promises that the speech will be an optimistic vision for the country that crosses traditional lines of party and race, Democrats expect to hear little that they will like.

But Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley of New York said he doesn’t expect any outbursts from Democratic lawmakers in attendance. “As much as we have nothing in common with the president, we do respect the office of the presidency. Keeping that in mind, we will be polite but we will show very little if any enthusiasm at all for what I anticipate his speech will be about.”

Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California said she’ll skip the speech. She said she would have considered attending if the president had apologized for certain actions, citing the mocking of a disabled reporter as an example.

“I don’t feel good about it, so I won’t be here,” Waters said.

Others are taking different paths to show their displeasure. Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York announced he would not try to shake hands with the president as he customarily does. Many lawmakers arrive hours early to position themselves for an aisle seat so they can greet the president.

Dozens of female lawmakers were wearing white on Tuesday in honor of women’s suffrage. “Know that we stand committed and ready to fight on behalf of all women and girls,” said Democratic Congresswoman Julia Brownley of California.

More Austerity Looms as Greece, Lenders Resume Bailout Talks

Greece and its lenders resumed a long-stalled review of its bailout Tuesday, with the government in Athens braced to commit to yet more austerity in exchange for the funds the country needs to remain solvent.

The review has dragged on for months, partly because of a rift between the European Union and the International Monetary Fund over Greece’s fiscal goals and prospects next year — when the current rescue program expires — and beyond.

To help break the impasse, the leftist-led government last week agreed to pre-legislate economic reforms, including cuts in income tax breaks and pensions, to come into effect from the start of 2019, the year the next parliamentary elections are due.

The lenders are asking Greece to make extra savings worth 2 percent of gross domestic product in order to meet a target of a 3.5 percent primary surplus — which excludes debt servicing costs — that they have set for 2018 and the post-bailout period.

“The lenders’ representatives will ask for measures of 1 percent from lowering the tax-free threshold and another 1 percent from pension cuts,” an official with knowledge of the negotiations in Athens told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The government estimates the 2016 primary surplus will exceed 2 percent of GDP, well above the lenders’ 0.5 percent target, after the economy unexpectedly returned to growth last year.

“Without publicly saying it, Athens wants the total [additional] measures to be worth around 1.5 percent of GDP, after the better-than-expected surplus and better economic performance,” a second source close to the talks said.

“The institutions could discuss a gradual implementation of the pension cuts,” the second official said.

More debt relief, belt tightening

The IMF, still undecided on whether to participate in what is Greece’s third rescue package, says Athens cannot meet its targets unless it is granted further debt relief and adopts extra belt-tightening measures.

Greece’s European lenders, notably Germany, oppose debt relief.

The uncertainty has fueled fears of a new financial crisis among investors already nervous about how a populist revival in the eurozone will affect close-fought election races in the Netherlands, France and Germany between now and the autumn.

Greece does not need more loans until the third quarter, but if bailout funds are not paid in time it will face an elevated risk of defaulting on debt repayments worth about 7.5 billion euros ($7.95 billion) in July.

US Bill Would Honor Murdered Russian Dissident at Moscow’s Embassy

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has introduced legislation to rename the area in front of the Russian embassy in Washington “Boris Nemtsov Plaza,” after the Russian opposition leader who was murdered in Moscow two years ago.

Rubio’s proposed bill would rename a broad stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, the main entrance to the large embassy complex in northwest Washington, to “help raise awareness among the American people about the ongoing abuses” in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

“The creation of ‘Boris Nemtsov Plaza’ would permanently remind Putin’s regime and the Russian people that these dissidents’ voices live on, and that defenders of liberty will not be silenced,” Rubio said in a statement.

“Whether it is looking at a street sign or [at] thousands of pieces of correspondence addressed ‘1 Boris Nemtsov Plaza,’ it will be abundantly clear to the Kremlin that the intimidation and murder of opposition figures does not go unnoticed,” Rubio added. “In honor of Nemtsov’s memory and all Russians fighting for their democratic rights, I will continue working to ensure that those responsible for his murder are held accountable.”

Rubio, a Republican who made an unsuccessful bid for his party’s presidential nomination, issued his statement Monday.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, another prominent figure in the Russian opposition movement, also played a role in Rubio’s initiative. In 2015, Kara-Murza was hospitalized after becoming critically ill, and he and others believe his illness was the result of poisoning. He was hospitalized again with the same symptoms this month, but has regained his health.

Kara-Murza thanked Rubio via Facebook this week for the initiative to rename the avenue in front of the embassy — and the Russian compound’s official address — in Nemtsov’s honor.

“This initiative has a precedent: In 1984, it was precisely such a Senate resolution that renamed the square in front of the then-USSR Embassy in Washington Andrei Sakharov Plaza,” Kara-Murza wrote.

Sakharov, perhaps the best-known dissident in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and ’80s, was condemned to internal exile in Gorky, then a closed city, in December 1979; that triggered an international outburst that culminated in the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 by the United States and dozens of other nations, a low point in the Cold War between Russia and the West.

“Needless to say, the Soviet Foreign Ministry was furious” when the street outside its embassy was renamed in 1984. However, he noted, “the authorities of the new [post-Soviet] Russia put up a bust of Sakharov in the Embassy building.” The former Soviet embassy, on 16th Street in northwest Washington, a 10-minute walk from the White House, became the Russian ambassador’s when the much larger embassy complex was erected in its present commanding location, near a high point overlooking most of the U.S. capital.

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft visited the spot on Moscow’s Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge where Nemtsov was shot to death on Feb. 27, 2015, and laid a wreath in memory of the slain opposition leader. 

“We call once more on the Russian government to ensure that those responsible for Boris Nemtsov’s killing are brought to justice,” Tefft said in a statement. 

Gatherings in memory of Nemtsov were held Sunday in several U.S. cities, including Washington, New York and San Francisco.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Russian Service.

Trump’s Trade Czar Ross Easily Wins US Senate Confirmation

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross easily won confirmation as U.S. commerce secretary on Monday, clearing President Donald Trump’s top trade official to start work on renegotiating trade relationships with China and Mexico.

The U.S. Senate voted 72-27 to confirm the 79-year-old corporate turnaround expert’s nomination, with strong support from Democrats.

Ross is set to become an influential voice in Trump’s economic team after helping shape the president’s opposition to multilateral free trade deals such as the now-scrapped Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Ross drew votes from 19 Democrats and one independent, partly because of an endorsement from the United Steelworkers union for his efforts in restructuring bankrupt steel companies in the early 2000s, which saved numerous plants and thousands of jobs.

Ross was criticized by some Democrats as another billionaire in a Trump Cabinet that says it is focused on the working class, and for being a “vulture” investor who has eliminated some jobs.

Reuters reported last month that Ross’s companies had shipped some 2,700 jobs overseas since 2004.

The investor will oversee a sprawling agency with nearly 44,000 employees responsible for combating the dumping of imports below cost into U.S. markets, collecting census and critical economic data, weather forecasting, fisheries management, promoting the United States to foreign investors and regulating the export of sensitive technologies.

While commerce secretaries rarely take the spotlight in Washington, Ross is expected to play an outsize role in pursuing Trump’s campaign pledge to slash U.S. trade deficits and bring manufacturing jobs back to America.

Trump has designated Ross to lead the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, a job that in past administrations would have been left to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Ross will join other major players on the economic team, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council.

Some experts said Ross could serve as a counterweight to advisers such as Peter Navarro, the University of California-Irvine economics professor who heads Trump’s newly created White House National Trade Council. Navarro has advocated a controversial 45 percent across-the-board tariff on imports from China that Trump threatened during his campaign.

“I expect that Ross will quickly become the administration’s chief trade spokesman, and that Navarro’s influence will be felt indirectly, rather than through public statements or testimony,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow and trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

At his confirmation hearing, Ross downplayed chances of a trade war with China, while calling it the “most protectionist” large economy. He vowed to level the playing field for U.S. companies competing with Chinese imports and those trying to do business in China’s highly restricted economy.

Ross, estimated by Forbes to be worth $2.9 billion, built his fortune in the late 1990s and early 2000s by investing in distressed companies in steel, coal, textiles and auto parts, restructuring them and often benefiting from tariff protections put in place by the Commerce Department.