Turkey Getting F-35 Jets, Despite Congressional Objections

Despite opposition in Congress, Turkey will receive its first F-35 Joint Strike fighter jet this week, Pentagon and aviation industry officials tell VOA.

Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35, will hold a ceremony Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, for Turkey’s new jets, according to a company spokesperson.

Both House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contain restrictions on Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.

U.S. lawmakers are concerned about Ankara’s imprisonment of an American pastor and its plans to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system, which they say would “degrade the general security” of the NATO alliance and be incompatible with systems used by Turkey’s NATO allies.

The NDAA, and any language therein, would not become law until the House and Senate pass a final, joint version of the bill.

“As always, Lockheed Martin will comply with any official guidance from the United States government,” the company said.

After the rollout ceremony on Thursday, Turkey’s two jets will travel to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona at a later date so that Turkish pilots can learn how to use them, Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, told VOA.

“Turkish F-35 pilots and maintainers have arrived at Luke Air Force Base, and will begin flight academics soon,” Andrews added.

A defense official noted the U.S. government could likely still be in custody of the aircraft when the newest NDAA is passed.

“After aircraft production of F-35 jets are complete, the U.S. government maintains custody of the aircraft until custody is transferred to the partner. This normally occurs after the lengthy process of foreign partner training is complete in about one to two years,” the official told VOA.

Turkey is a NATO ally and has been an international participant with the U.S.-made F-35 program since 2002.

British PM May Denounces Child Migrants in Cages as ‘Deeply Disturbing’

British Prime Minister Theresa May told members of parliament Wednesday the United States’ practice of housing children in cages is extremely troubling and inappropriate.

“The pictures of children being held in what appear to be cages are deeply disturbing. This is wrong. This is not something that we agree with,” May said.

May also said she would raise the issue with U.S. President Donald Trump when she meets with him in Britain next month.

The Trump administration has been the target of a growing chorus of criticism as images of migrant children in cages inside U.S. Border Patrol processing stations were distributed by the news media and on social media channels.

More than 2,300 children have been taken away from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border since the White House announced its “zero-tolerance” policy early last month.

U.S. law requires child migrants traveling alone to be sent to facilities run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within three days of being detained. The agency is then required to place the children in shelters or foster homes until they are reunited with a relative or a sponsor pending immigration court hearings.

Last month, however, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the government would criminally prosecute everyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, a decision that has led to the breakup of migrant families, with hundreds of children being placed under the government’s care.

Trump told Republican lawmakers Tuesday he supported their attempts to draft immigration legislation that would end the practice of separating children from families.

The House of Representatives is set to vote Thursday on competing Republican bills overhauling U.S. immigration laws and boosting border security.

EU Countries to Address Migration Crisis in Brussels

Eight European Union countries will meet in Brussels Sunday to discuss Europe’s largest migration crisis since World War II, a development that could affect the increasingly heated political disagreements among EU nations over the controversial issue.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called the meeting, which is expected to be attended by Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Malta and Spain.

The leaders will explore how to stop migrants from relocating to different EU countries after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean countries they initially entered.

The meeting will precede an EU summit later this month at which leaders will attempt to finalize a joint migration policy three years after more than 1 million people entered Europe, primarily those fleeing violence in the Middle East and Asia.

The issue has threatened German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic coalition and triggered a firestorm over a boatload of migrants who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea but were subsequently turned away by Italy’s new right-wing government.

On Monday, Germany’s conservative Christian Social Union gave Merkel two weeks to secure a European agreement. CSU leader and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wants Germany to turn away migrants who have already registered in other EU countries. Merkel, however, opposes any unilateral moves that would undermine her 2015 open-door policy and her authority.

Russian Fans Celebrate Once-maligned Team as Heroes

What a transformation. Russia’s World Cup soccer team, metamorphosed from national laughingstock to heroes of the motherland in less than a week.

 

And no one is more stunned than their own fans.

 

Chants of “Ro-see-ya! Ro-see-ya!” reverberated through the St. Petersburg Stadium and along the nearby wind-whipped shores of the Baltic on Tuesday after Russia beat Egypt 3-1.

“Incredible!” said science student Daniil Stefaychuk. He went into Tuesday’s match dreaming of a tie, and left with his voice sore from screaming with excitement.

Thousands celebrated through the night in central Moscow, dancing, chanting and blowing car horns while lines of police kept watch. Roads were blocked by cars full of flag-waving Russia fans. Mexican, Polish and Brazilian fans also joined in the festivities.

 

Even in a World Cup full of surprises, Russia’s team stands out. The lowest ranked team heading into the World Cup , Russia is now all but guaranteed to advance to the second round.

 

That’s a first for post-Soviet Russia, and a big boost both to fans and to President Vladimir Putin, who wants the tournament to improve his country’s image.

 

Russia’s 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia in the World Cup opener last week might have been a fluke. But Tuesday’s win against the stronger Egyptian team showed the Russian players “the experience, the skills, the energy” to go much farther, said St. Petersburg company manager Alexei Ivanov.

 

He claims fans deserve some of the credit: “When you’re among your own, you’re more confident.”

 

Yet he was among those with little hope for the team going into the World Cup.

“It seemed like they absolutely didn’t know how to play,” he said. His laugh echoed with relief.

 

With a satiric song and goofy video games, Russians openly joked about their team and its coach ahead of the tournament.

 

The teasing got so bad that a conservative lawmaker is drafting a bill to ban mockery of the team, arguing that they’re “fighting for the honor of our country.”

 

Fans seem to think that’s going too far. “Constructive criticism helps,” said sports instructor Andrei Ushakov.

 

A week ago, there was an undercurrent of self-deprecation and defensiveness in the Russian fan mood. By Tuesday night, that had vanished, replaced by an assertive swagger.

 

Crowds draped in white-blue-red Russian flags sang folk songs and whooped wildly in the marbled corridors of the St. Petersburg subway.

So what’s next for the team? “Victory, only victory,” Ushakov said.

 

Karen Arutunian, who is about to turn 8 years old, isn’t so optimistic.

 

Arutunian successfully predicted Tuesday’s result, unlike anyone else in his family. He thinks Russia’s next match, against Uruguay next week, will end in a tie.

 

“We won’t win. But it doesn’t matter. We’re making it out of the first round,” he said. “It’s the best feeling.”

Scan on Exit: Can Blockchain Save Moldova’s Children from Traffickers?

Laura was barely 18 when a palm reader told her she could make $180 a month working in beetroot farms in Russia — an attractive sum for a girl struggling to make a living in the town of Drochia, in Moldova’s impoverished north.

That she had no passport, the fortune teller said, was not a problem. Her future employers would help her cross the border.

“They gave me a [fake] birth certificate stating I was 14,” Laura, who declined to give her real name, told Reuters in an interview.

That was enough to get her through border controls as she traveled by bus with a smuggler posing as one of her parents.

It was the beginning of a long tale of exploitation for Laura — one of many such stories in Moldova in eastern Europe, which aims to become the first country in the world to pilot blockchain to tackle decades of widespread human trafficking.

Trafficking generates illegal profits of $150 billion a year globally, with about 40 million people estimated to be trapped as modern-day slaves — mostly women and girls — in forced labor and forced marriages, according to leading anti-slavery groups.

The digital tool behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin is increasingly being tested for social causes, from Coca-Cola creating a workers’ registry to fight forced labor to tracking supply chains, such as cobalt which is often mined by children.

Moldova has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Europe as widespread poverty and unemployment drive many young people, mostly women, to look for work overseas, according to the United Nations migration agency (IOM).

Due to the hidden nature of trafficking and the stigma attached, it is unknown how many people in the former Soviet country have been trafficked abroad but IOM has helped some 3,400 victims — 10 percent of whom were children — since 2001.

In Russia, Laura was forced to toil long hours, beaten and never paid. After ending up in hospital, she was rescued by a doctor, only to be trafficked again a few years later when an abusive partner sold her into prostitution.

She now lives with her daughter in a rehabilitation center in the northern village of Palaria with help from the charity CCF Moldova.

“I had a lot of suffering,” the 36-year-old said. “I am very afraid of being sold again, afraid about my child.”

​Scans and bribes

Moldova plans to launch a pilot of its digital identity project this year, working with the Brooklyn-based software company ConsenSys, which won a U.N. competition in March to design an identity system to combat child trafficking.

Undocumented children are easy prey for traffickers using fake documents to transport them across borders to work in brothels or to sell their organs, experts say.

More than 40,000 Moldovan children have been left behind by parents who have migrated abroad for work, often with little supervision, according to IOM.

“A lot of children are staying just with their grandfathers or grandmas, spending [more] time in the streets,” said Lilian Levandovschi, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking police unit.

Moldova, with a population of 3.5 million, is among the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly disposable income of 2,250 Moldovan Leu ($135), government data shows.

ConsenSys aims to create a secure, digital identity on a blockchain — or decentralized digital ledger shared by a network of computers — for Moldovan children, linking their personal identities with other family members.

Moldova has strengthened its anti-trafficking laws since Laura’s ordeal and children now need to carry a passport and be accompanied by a parent, or an adult carrying a letter of permission signed by a guardian, to exit the country.

With the blockchain system, children attempting to cross the border would be asked to scan their eyes or fingerprints.

A phone alert would notify their legal guardians, requiring at least two to approve the crossing, said Robert Greenfield who is managing the ConsenSys project.

Any attempt to take a child abroad without their guardians’ permission would be permanently recorded on the database, which would detect patterns of behavior to help catch traffickers and could be used as evidence in court.

“Nobody can bribe someone to delete that information,” said Mariana Dahan, co-founder of World Identity Network (WIN), an initiative promoting digital identities and a partner in the blockchain competition.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking are significant problems in Moldova, according to the U.S. State Department, which last year downgraded it to Tier 2 in a watchlist of those not doing enough to fight modern day slavery.

Moldova is eager to prove that it is taking action, as a further demotion could block access to U.S. aid and loans.

​Tricked

Many details have yet to be agreed before the blockchain project starts, including funding, populations targeted, the type of biometrical data collected, and where it will be stored.

But the scheme is facing resistance from some anti-trafficking groups who say it will not help the majority of victims — children trafficked within Moldova’s borders and adults who are tricked when they travel abroad seeking work.

“As long as we don’t have job opportunities … trafficking will still remain a problem for Moldova,” said IOM’s Irina Arap.

Minors made up less than 20 percent of 249 domestic and international trafficking victims identified in 2017, said Ecaterina Berejan, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking agency.

“For Moldova, this is not a very big problem,” she said, referring to cross-border child trafficking, adding that child victims may travel with valid documents as their families are in cahoots with traffickers in some cases.

But supporters of the blockchain initiative say low official trafficking figures do not account for undetected cases, and they have a duty to attempt to stay ahead of the criminals.

“Many times, authorities are late in using latest technologies,” said Mihail Beregoi, state secretary for Moldova’s internal affairs ministry. “Usually organized crime uses them first and more successfully. … Any effort [to] secure at least one child is already worth trying.”

IMF Chief: Ukraine Anti-corruption Court Law Needs Amending 

Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, welcomed on Tuesday the adoption by Ukraine’s parliament of a law to create an anti-corruption court, but said lawmakers needed to amend it to guarantee the court’s effectiveness.

Creating an independent and trustworthy court dedicated to handling corruption cases is one of the key conditions for Ukraine to receive further funding under its $17.5 billion aid-for-reforms program from the IMF.

Earlier in June, parliament passed the law after months of delay, but the draft contained an amendment that activists said would undermine the reform by allowing appeals on existing cases to be handled by the current courts system.

In the Fund’s first direct comments on the law, Lagarde said she had spoken with President Petro Poroshenko and said she was encouraged by the adoption of the legislation.

“We agreed that it is now important for parliament to quickly approve … the necessary amendments to restore the requirement that the HACC (anti-corruption court) will adjudicate all cases under its jurisdiction,” she said in a statement.

The law is meant to ring-fence court decisions from political pressure or bribery in Ukraine, where entrenched corruption remains a deterrent to foreign investors and knocks two percentage points off Ukraine’s economic growth each year, according to the IMF.

Establishing the court, adjusting gas prices and honouring budget commitments are key conditions to unlock the next loan tranche under the IMF program, which expires next year.

Lagarde said she and Poroshenko had “also agreed to work closely together, including with the government, toward the timely implementation of this and other actions, notably related to gas prices and the budget.”

Merkel to Trump: Falling German Crime Stats ‘Speak for Themselves’

Chancellor Angela Merkel coolly rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion that migrants were behind a surge in crime in Germany, pointing to statistics that showed crime was in fact down.

“My answer is that the interior minister presented the crime statistics a short while ago and they speak for themselves,” Merkel told a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron when asked about a recent flurry of tweets from Trump.

“We are seeing a slight positive development. We must always do more to fight criminiality. But they were very encouraging numbers,” she added.

Statistics published last month showed that overall crime fell 9.6 percent in Germany in 2017.

A government-sponsored study published in January showed that violent crime had risen about 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, attributing more than 90 percent of the rise to young male asylum seekers.

Merkel has faced opposition at home for a decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants, mostly Middle Eastern asylum seekers who crossed by sea from Turkey to Greece and overland through the Balkans. That route has since been closed under a 2016 deal Turkey-EU deal.

In a tweet on Monday, Trump said that the people of Germany were turning against their leadership because of loose migration policies.

“Crime is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture,” Trump said.

He followed that up with a tweet on Tuesday that said: “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus [officials do not want to report these crimes] since migrants were accepted. Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!”

His tweets come amid a storm of criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for his administration’s policy of detaining immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was “not the American president’s role to speculate —  as he did yesterday — that the German people would march towards the chancellery to remove Mrs. Merkel.”

“Mr. Trump may govern the USA, he doesn’t govern Europe,” Juncker added.

EU Tries to Ease German, Italian Concerns Over Migration

European Union leaders will try to reassure Germany and Italy over migration at a summit next week as a stand-off in Berlin threatens Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.

The EU could take steps to stop asylum seekers moving on from the country in which they are registered and start deciding asylum requests at centers to be established beyond EU borders in the future, according to a draft summit statement.

The proposed steps come ahead of the June 28-29 summit in Brussels at which EU leaders will attempt to agree on a joint migration policy three years after more than 1 million people arrived in Europe, causing a crisis for the union.

Their joint draft statement is not public and its wording might change. But it showed the bloc is trying to accommodate a new, anti-establishment government in Italy, as well as Berlin where Merkel’s coalition partner issued an ultimatum for an EU-wide deal on migration.

If the summit fails to reach a satisfactory outcome, Berlin would issue a unilateral ban on refugees already registered in other EU states from entering the country, said the junior governing Christian Social Union that has the interior ministry.

German police data suggest any such ban would only affect several hundred people a month and hence have no big impact on the overall number of refugees in Germany.

The EU border agency Frontex said more than 90 percent of current arrivals in Italy, Greece and Spain register for asylum there. Many still often go north, including to Germany. This “secondary movement” violates EU law but has been widespread.

“Member States should take all necessary internal legislative … to counter such movements,” the text said in an indirect response to German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

Merkel opposes the proposal that comes from a party facing a tough vote in its home base in Bavaria in October against a resurgent far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has advocated harsh anti-immigration line.

The AfD on Tuesday accused the CSU of copying its ideas on how to deal with the migrant crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel called in a joint statement on Tuesday for a European solution on migration and said secondary movement must be tackled.

Immigration low, tensions high

The EU is bitterly divided over migration. It has struggled to reform its internal asylum rules, which broke down in 2015, and has instead tried to tighten its borders and prevent new arrivals. To that end, it has given aid and money to countries including Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Niger.

Next week, EU leaders will also agree to look into opening “disembarkation platforms” in regions such as north Africa to decide asylum requests before people get to Europe.

European capitals from Rome to Budapest advocate such centres but concerns that processing people outside EU borders could violate the law have long blocked any such initiative.

“Such platforms should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys,” the draft statement said.

Italy closed its ports to rescue ships and said it prefers Frontex to work in Africa to prevent people from coming rather than patrol the Mediterranean and rescue those in distressed boats.

Tripoli already runs migrant camps in Libya where the EU pays the U.N. migration and refugee agencies to help resettle people to Europe legally or deport them to other African countries.

But reform of EU internal asylum rules is stuck. Southern and wealthy central states demand that all EU members host some new arrivals but eastern states refuse leading to a stalemate.

In evidence of that division, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Tuesday the CSU demand for internal border checks is unacceptable.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said it would be “very difficult to reach a solution” on hosting asylum seekers next week. There is, however, agreement on strengthening external borders and bringing together the border protection databases.

“So much progress has been made, we can’t let all slip away now. So we need to give key countries something to keep them on board,” one EU official said of the proposed text.

Russia’s Record-Breaking $15 Billion World Cup Price Tag: What Does It Buy?

The World Cup in Russia is the most expensive ever – with the official price tag around $15 billion. The result: several huge new stadiums, railroads and upgraded airports, plus the chance to reboot Russia’s global image. So, will the tournament represent a good value for Russians? As Henry Ridgwell reports from Moscow, the government appears to have used the World Cup to bury some bad economic news.

Russia’s Record-Breaking $15 Billion World Cup Price Tag: What Does It Buy?

The FIFA World Cup in Russia is the most expensive ever, with an official price tag of $15 billion. Close to $3 billion has been spent on 12 new or upgraded stadiums, and at least another $8 billion on infrastructure, including new roads, railroads and airports.

Is that a good return for the Russian taxpayer?

Professor Leonid Grigoryev, an economist at the Analytical Center for the Government of the Russian Federation, offers an unusual analogy.

“The discussion of the efficiency of the championship in Russia, like in Brazil, is the discussion of the economic efficiency of a wedding dress. On one hand, it’s necessary. It makes everybody happy,” Grigoryev told VOA in an interview. “The exact economic efficiency definitely cannot be defined in American quarterly financial reports. It’s a long-term story. We still hope to become not only a hockey country, but a football country.”

Brazil hosted the last World Cup at an estimated cost of $11 billion. Four years later, some of their traveling fans feel short-changed.

“Comparing Brazil with Russia, the infrastructure here is much better than ours,” Marcio Pessoa told VOA, as he enjoyed the festival atmosphere in Moscow’s Red Square.

Russia’s $15 billion investment is aimed at giving Russia an image makeover in the eyes of the world, even as it faces sanctions over its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

“[President Vladimir] Putin, with all this strength, pretends that all that is not important for him — ‘Despite sanctions, we conduct such a gorgeous World Cup. Despite sanctions we go ahead with the war in Syria. And the world has no right to lecture us.’ And the people enjoy that — until the very moment that they start feeling that for all this pleasure, they are paying out of their own pockets. It is right now that they start feeling that,” political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said.

The first to feel the pinch are likely to be the middle-aged looking forward to retirement. On opening day of the World Cup last week, the government announced a gradual rise in the pension age, from 60 to 65 for men, and a much bigger jump for women, from 55 to 63.

Moscow resident Eva, 62, told VOA that most Russians are taking it in their stride.

“It wasn’t really unexpected. Probably, they thought that the championship, the euphoria, will somehow smoothen out the effect. There was a joke going around. ‘Yesterday, I had four years until pension age. Today, I have nine years. And they still keep telling us that you can’t get your youth back!’” she said.

Russia said the World Cup is partly a gift for its youth: Unforgettable memories and glittering new facilities. The tournament finishes in a month. Its legacy will be measured in the coming years.