Zimbabwe Hopes to Boost Agriculture Sector With Help From Belarus

Zimbabwe is attempting to boost its agricultural sector with support from controversial partner Belarus, which is under sanctions for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited Zimbabwe this week on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare, Zimbabwe. Camera: Blessing Chigwenhembe.

Zimbabwe Hopes to Update Agriculture Sector with Help from Belarus

Zimbabwe is attempting to update its agricultural sector with support from controversial partner Belarus, which is under sanctions for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited Zimbabwe this week on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare, Zimbabwe. Camera: Blessing Chigwenhembe

Ukraine Raids Tycoon’s Home, Tax Office in Wartime Clampdown

Ukrainian authorities raided an influential billionaire’s home on Wednesday in what an ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touted as a sweeping wartime clampdown on corruption that would change the country.

Separate raids were carried out at the Tax Office and on the home of an influential former interior minister, two days before Kyiv hosts a summit with the European Union at which it wants to show it is cracking down after years of chronic corruption.

Ukraine sees Friday’s summit as key to its hopes of one day joining the bloc, a goal that has grown more urgent following Russia’s invasion and has embarked on a political shake-up in which more than a dozen officials quit or were sacked last week.

Security officials searched the home of businessman Ihor Kolomoiskiy, one of Ukraine’s richest men and a one-time Zelenskyy ally, in what several media outlets said was an investigation into possible financial crimes.

Kolomoiskiy could not immediately be reached for comment. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) later said it had uncovered a scheme to embezzle more than $1 billion at oil producer Ukrnafta and oil refining company Ukrtatnafta, companies that Kolomoiskiy used to partly own.

Photographs circulating on social media appeared to show Kolomoiskiy, dressed in a sweatsuit, looking on in the presence of at least one SBU officer inside a large wooden home. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the images.

In a statement that did not name Kolomoiskiy, the SBU published the same photographs, but with the person’s face blurred out.

David Arakhamia, a senior member of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, confirmed the search of Kolomoiskiy’s home as well as the separate raids conducted at the Tax Office and at the home of Arsen Avakov, a former interior minister.

Arakhamia said the entire management of the Customs Service was set to be dismissed and that high-ranking defense ministry officials had been served with notices informing them they were suspects in a case. He gave no details.

“The country will change during the war. If someone is not ready for change, then the state itself will come and help them change,” Arakhamia wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Corruption

In a statement, the Prosecutor General’s Office later said, “Corruption in a time of war is looting” and that four senior current and former officials had been served “notices of suspicion,” along with the senior management of Ukrtatnafta.

The head of the State Bureau of Investigation said the law enforcement action was “only the beginning.”

Ukraine’s long-running battle against corruption has taken on vital significance, as Russia’s invasion has made Kyiv heavily reliant on Western support and it needs to carry out reforms to join the 27-nation EU.

Domestic politics has largely been frozen as politicians focus on fighting Russia, but Zelenskyy presided over the first major political shakeup of the war last week after an outcry over a corruption scandal involving an army food contract.

Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that more personnel decisions were in the pipeline and promised reforms that would change Ukraine’s “social, legal and political reality.”

He was elected president in 2019 on an anti-corruption ticket and launched a crackdown on wealthy businessmen known as “oligarchs” in late 2021. The oligarchs took control of swathes of industry during the post-Soviet privatizations of the 1990s and continue to wield influence.

The Ukrainska Pravda media outlet said the search on Kolomoiskiy’s property related to an investigation into the alleged embezzlement of oil products and evasion of customs duties.

Separately, Avakov said his home was searched as part of an investigation into a helicopter crash on Jan. 18 that killed 14 people including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi.

He said investigators were looking into the purchase six years ago of a model of Airbus helicopter that was involved in the crash, but that “nothing relevant to the interest of the investigation was found.”

Belgian Arms Trader, Defense Minister Tangle Over Tanks for Ukraine

Freddy Versluys does not like to be called an arms dealer. But he does have a big warehouse full of second-hand tanks for sale. 

Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles in the chilly warehouse in eastern Belgium, Versluys stressed he is the CEO of two defense companies with a broad range of activities, such as making sensors for spacecraft. 

But buying and selling weapons is part of his business, too. And it’s the tanks that have brought him into the spotlight over the past few days, as he has engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the possibility of sending them to Ukraine. 

While other Western nations have pledged in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, Belgium has not joined that group, for one reason above all: It doesn’t have any tanks left. It sold the last of them – a batch of 50 – to Versluys’s company more than five years ago. 

Asked why he bought the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, said that was his company’s business model – it bought unwanted military equipment in the hope that someone else would want it in future. 

“There are still countries in the world who have these Leopard 1 tanks. So there’s always a possibility either to sell spare parts or to sell additional tanks,” he said. 

“Of course, it’s a gamble,” he added. “Maybe tomorrow we will have to scrap them [or] 10 years later they can still be there.” 

Dedonder has said the government has explored the idea of buying back tanks to send to Ukraine. But she has blasted the prices quoted as unreasonable and extremely high. Tanks sold for 10-15,000 euros each are being offered for sale at 500,000 euros, despite not being operational, she has said. 

The spat highlights a predicament faced by Western governments as they scramble to find more weapons for Ukraine after almost a year of intense warfare; arms they discarded as obsolete are now in high demand, and many are now in the hands of private companies. 

Dedonder hasn’t named Versluys’s company, OIP Land Systems, in her accusations. But Versluys is sure he is her target. Dedonder declined a request for an interview. 

Versluys has taken the unusual step of going public to dispute the minister’s assertions, offering a rare insight into the workings of a business that often prefers to keep a low profile. 

Versluys said his firm bought the 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and only 33 were useable. That would mean a unit price of 40,000 euros for 50 tanks, or some 60,600 euros for 33. 

He said his selling price could range anywhere from several hundred thousand to close to a million euros but that would include work to refit the tanks, which he insisted could be highly expensive. 

Replacing the system that controls the gunfire could cost 350,000 euros per tank, replacing asbestos in the engine could cost 75,000 euros, he said. Each tank had to be assessed individually. 

“We still have to look at what is their actual status and what we have to spend on them to make them suitable,” he said. 

As part of his public offensive, Versluys has given journalists tours of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial town of Tournai. It resembles a military hypermarket, filled with lines of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty green and black camouflage and scores of other military vehicles, along with shelves stacked with spare parts and piles of webbing. 

In his sales pitch, Versluys also emphasizes that refitted Leopard 1 tanks could be battlefield-ready in months, much more quickly than new models ordered today, which will take years to produce. 

The Leopard 1 is the predecessor of the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and other countries agreed last month to send to Ukraine. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different type of main gun. The models in Versluys’s warehouse were last upgraded in the 1990s. 

Yohann Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said Leopard 1 tanks would not be as valuable on the battlefield as their successors. 

But, he said, they could still be of some use in taking on older Russian tanks and in supporting infantry units, particularly if they were refitted to a high standard. 

If Belgium does not buy back the tanks, another country could purchase them for Kyiv. Versluys said he had held discussions with several European governments about that option. 

However, any export of Leopard 1s would require the approval from the Belgian region of Wallonia, where the company is based, and from Berlin, as the tanks were made by German firm KMW. 

Versluys, who worked as an engineer in the Belgian military before going into business, is a smooth salesman.

While he does not like the “arms dealer” label, he said the weapons business is better than its reputation: “Contrary to what people say, it’s quite a civilized market.” 

Tom Brady Retires, Insisting This Time It’s For Good

Tom Brady, who won a record seven Super Bowls for New England and Tampa, has announced his retirement from the U.S. National Football League.

Brady — the most successful quarterback in NFL history, and one of the greatest athletes in team sports — posted the announcement on social media Wednesday morning, a brief video lasting just under one minute.

“Good morning guys. I’ll get to the point right away,” Brady says as the message begins. “I’m retiring. For good.”

He briefly retired after the 2021 season, but wound up coming back for one more year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He retires at age 45, the owner of numerous passing records in an unprecedented 23-year career.

A year ago when he retired, it was in the form of a long Instagram post. But about six weeks later, he decided to come back for one more run. The Buccaneers — with whom he won a Super Bowl two seasons ago — made the playoffs again this season, losing in their playoff opener. And at the time, it begged the question about whether Brady would play again.

Only a couple weeks later, he has given the answer.

“I know the process was a pretty big deal last time, so when I woke up this morning, I figured I’d just press record and let you guys know first,” Brady says in the video. “I won’t be long-winded. You only get one super emotional retirement essay and I used mine up last year.

“I really thank you guys so much, to every single one of you for supporting me. My family, my friends, teammates, my competitors. I could go on forever. There’s too many. Thank you guys for allowing me to live my absolute dream. I wouldn’t change a thing. Love you all.”

Brady is the NFL’s career leader in yards passing (89,214) and touchdowns (649). He’s the only player to win more than five Super Bowls and has been MVP of the game five times.

Brady has won three NFL MVP awards, been a first-team All-Pro three times and selected to the Pro Bowl 15 times.

Brady and supermodel Gisele Bündchen finalized their divorce this past fall, during the Bucs’ season. It ended a 13-year marriage between two superstars who respectively reached the pinnacles of football and fashion.

It was announced last year that when Brady retires from playing, he would join Fox Sports as a television analyst in a 10-year, $375 million deal.

Russian Journalist Sentenced for Speaking Out on Ukraine 

A court in Moscow on Wednesday sentenced a Russian journalist in absentia to eight years in prison on charges of disparaging the military, the latest move in the authorities’ relentless crackdown on dissent.

Alexander Nevzorov, a television journalist and former lawmaker, was convicted on charges of spreading false information about the military under a law that was adopted soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine. The law effectively exposes anyone critical of the Russian military action in Ukraine to fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years.

Nevzorov was accused of posting “false information” on social media about the Russian shelling of a maternity hospital in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol. Moscow has fiercely denied its involvement.

Nevzorov, who moved abroad after the start of the Ukrainian conflict, didn’t have an immediate comment on the verdict.

Prominent opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to 8½ years in prison under the same law. Another leading opposition figure, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has been in custody facing the same charges.

Russia Says Longer-Range Western Weapons Would Escalate Ukraine Conflict

Russia said Wednesday that supplies of long-range weapons to Ukraine would not deter Russian forces, but would increase tensions and escalate the conflict.

The comments from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov came amid reports the United States is preparing a new round of aid that would include longer-range rockets to help Ukrainian forces fight off a Russian invasion.

Reuters reported that according to two U.S. officials briefed on the matter, a weapon called the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb with a range of 150 kilometers was part of the package expected to be announced as soon as this week.

Also expected to be included were Javelin anti-tank weapons, counter-drone and counter-artillery systems, armored vehicles, communications equipment, and enough medical equipment to support three field hospitals.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted Wednesday that each stage of war requires certain weapons. He said there is already a coalition of partners helping Ukraine obtain and train to use tanks, and that there are “talks on longer-range missiles and attack aircraft supply.”

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleskii Reznikov said Wednesday, a day after meeting with French officials, that he was grateful to France for providing howitzers, air defense missiles and armored vehicles, as well as fuel, equipment and training for Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukraine won a boost last week when the United States and Germany both promised to send tanks to Ukraine, after Germany hesitated for weeks over sending its advanced Leopard 2 tanks.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba estimated Tuesday that a dozen countries have now promised more than 100 tanks, which he described as the “first wave of contributions.”

Ukrainian officials have called on their Western allies to send fighter jets in order to better respond to the Russian attack, but so far, those calls have been met with wariness.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Day of Disruption in UK as up to Half a Million Join Walkout

Thousands of schools in the U.K. are closing some or all of their classrooms, train services will be paralyzed and delays are expected at airports Wednesday in what’s shaping up to be the biggest day of industrial action Britain has seen in more than a decade, as unions step up pressure on the government to demand better pay amid a cost-of-living crisis.  

The Trades Union Congress, a federation of unions, estimated that up to half a million workers, including teachers, university staff, civil servants, border officials and train and bus drivers, will walk out of their jobs across the country. 

More action, including by nurses and ambulance workers, is planned for the coming days and weeks. 

Britons have endured months of disruptions to their daily lives as a bitter dispute over pay and work conditions drags on between unions and the government. But Wednesday’s strikes mark an escalation of disruptive action across multiple key industries. 

The last time the country saw mass walkouts on this scale was in 2011, when well over 1 million public sector workers staged a one-day strike in a dispute over pensions. 

Union bosses say that despite some pay rises, such as a 5% offer the government proposed to teachers, wages in the public sector have failed to keep pace with soaring inflation, effectively meaning workers have been taking a pay cut.  

The Trades Union Congress said Wednesday the average public sector worker is $250 a month worse off compared with 2010, once inflation has been taken into account. 

Inflation in the U.K. stands at 10.5%, the highest in 40 years, driven by skyrocketing food and energy costs. While some expect price rises to slow down this year, Britain’s economic outlook remains grim. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund said that Britain will be the only major economy to contract this year, performing worse even than sanction-hit Russia. 

The National Education Union said some 23,000 schools will be affected Wednesday, with an estimated 85% fully or partially closed. Others also on strike range from museum workers and London bus drivers to coastguards and border officials manning passport control booths at airports.  

“It’s everybody out … of course there’s going to be some disruption and some queues,” Phil Douglas, director-general of Border Force, told reporters.  

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train driver’s union ASLEF, said the government must now listen  

“Everybody knows somebody working somewhere that’s out on strike, about to go on strike or being balloted for strike action,” he said. “Quite simply, the government has now got to listen – the people in this country are speaking, and they’re speaking volumes that they want a cost-of-living increase.” 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office acknowledged that Wednesday’s wave of walkouts will cause “significant disruption” to people and maintained that “negotiations rather than picket lines are the right approach.” But union leaders say the government has refused to negotiate and offer enough to halt the strikes.  

Unions have also been angered by the government’s plans to introduce a new law aiming to curb strike disruptions by enforcing minimum service levels in key sectors, including health and transport.  

Lawmakers on Monday backed the bill, which has been criticized by the unions as an attack on the right to strike.  

On Wednesday thousands of people are expected to take part in protests against the bill in London and other cities. 

Report: Advanced Economies Complicit in Transnational Corruption

Anti-corruption efforts in seemingly “clean” advanced economies have stalled even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought to the fore that nation’s role in fostering kleptocracy in recent decades, Transparency International said in a report on Tuesday.

While painting a grim picture of the global fight against corruption, the Berlin-based watchdog put the spotlight on countries that have historically scored high, meaning favorably, on its annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

Those countries remain among the “cleanest” in the world. But from Germany to France to Switzerland, most saw their CPI scores drop or stagnate last year.

Five traditionally top-scoring countries — Australia, Austria, Canada, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom — saw a significant decline in their assessments, Transparency International said.

The U.S. scored 69, a “negligible” increase of 2 points, but a Transparency International expert called the rating “troubling.”

Even Denmark, ranked No. 1, was relegated to the “little or no enforcement” category in the fight against foreign bribery.

Cross-border corruption takes many forms, from countries allowing corrupt foreign actors to launder stolen funds through their economies to governments failing to punish companies that bribe foreign officials.

In recent years, investigators have uncovered myriad instances of corrupt money finding its way into Western economies, from nearly $2 billion worth of U.K. property owned by Russians accused of financial crime or with links to the Kremlin, to tens of billions of dollars laundered into Canada each year. 

Transparency International said that while its Corruption Perceptions Index does not capture transnational graft, that form of corruption remains the advanced economies’ “biggest weaknesses.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “made it painfully apparent how inaction on transnational corruption can have catastrophic consequences,” the report says. “Not only have advanced economies helped to perpetuate corruption elsewhere, but they have also enabled kleptocracies to consolidate, threatening global peace and security.”

Gary Kalman, executive director of Transparency International U.S., said the U.S., thanks to the sheer size of its economy and financial secrecy rules, remains a “major facilitator of corruption internationally.”

“If you take a bribe for a thousand dollars, you put that in your pocket. If you’re trying to steal millions or billions, you need to find, as they say, ‘a more sophisticated investment strategy,’ and hiding it in an economy that’s over 20 trillion dollars makes it a little bit easier to hide,” Kalman said.

Transparency International is not the first organization to call out Western nations for aiding kleptocracy.

Last year, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the United States was arguably “the best place to hide and launder ill-gotten gains.”

“And that’s because of the way we allow people to establish shell companies,” Yellen said. 

Transparency International said there are signs that the U.S. and other nations are taking the problem seriously but more needs to be done.

In 2021, the U.S. Congress enacted the Corporate Transparency Act, which aims to end the use of anonymously owned companies for money laundering.

Facilitating the transnational corruption, Kalman said, are financial service providers who are not currently subject to anti-money laundering reporting obligations.

“These are the lawyers, the accountants, the money managers, the corporate formation agents, those that create trusts for wealthy people, investment advisers who are currently not covered by any anti-money laundering responsibilities,” Kalman said.

To close the loophole, he said Congress should pass the Enablers Act, which was approved by the House of Representatives last year but fell short in the Senate.

A Justice Department task force created to seize Russian assets following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is increasingly targeting enablers and facilitators of sanctions evasions.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced criminal charges against two businessmen, one of them Russian and the other British, for facilitating the ownership and operation of a luxury yacht owned by a sanctioned Russian oligarch.

The $90 million, 255-foot yacht, owned by Viktor Vekselberg, was previously seized by Spanish authorities at the request of the U.S.

The U.S. is also a member of the multinational Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs (REPO) Task Force, which has seized billions of dollars in Russian assets.

“While some governments appear to have finally woken up to the problem that they had helped create, ending top-scoring countries’ complicity in cross-border corruption —originating from Russia and beyond — requires a long-term, concerted effort,” Transparency International said.

Hungary Most Corrupt EU Member in 2022: Watchdog

Hungary slid to bottom place among EU nations in a corruption index, with graft watchdog Transparency International on Tuesday alleging misuse by “political elites” of state and bloc funds.   

Hungary has been embroiled in a long-running spat with Brussels over corruption and rule of law concerns that have led to the freezing of billions of euros of bloc funding.    

In a bid to unlock the funds, Budapest committed to a range of legal and anti-corruption reforms, including the set-up of a watchdog that includes a Transparency International staff member.   

Hungary replaced Bulgaria as the last among EU and Western European countries in the group’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” report for 2022 launched on Tuesday.   

The report noted “a decade of democratic backsliding and systemic deterioration of the rule of law at the hands of the ruling party.”  

“Evidence is mounting against political elites on their misuse of both state and EU funds,” it said.   

Budapest hit back at Transparency, pointing to a corruption scandal in Brussels that emerged last month with one of the assembly’s vice presidents charged in connection with allegations of bribery.   

“It is interesting that Transparency International did not investigate either the Brussels bureaucracy or the European Parliament,” a government statement said.    

The statement accused the watchdog of “belonging to the Soros network” referring to the 92-year-old Hungarian-born U.S. financier George Soros who Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban accuses of meddling in Hungarian and global politics.   

The annual Transparency report ranks 180 countries around the world and territories on a corruption scale since 1995 based on surveys with experts and businesspeople. 

Protesters Say Russian Ship Bound for Antarctica Unwelcome at South African Port  

Climate activists in South Africa are protesting a refueling stop by a Russian ship that they say is ignoring a ban on exploring oil and gas in Antarctica.

Protest organizers Greenpeace Africa and Extinction Rebellion say the seismic tests the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky has been conducting in Antarctica for the past 25 years are harmful to marine life like dolphins and whales.

They also say that fossil fuels should stay in the ground if the world is to prevent catastrophic global warming.

The ship’s operator, Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition, a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned mineral explorer RosGeo, insists it is not exploring for oil and gas in Antarctica but simply conducting research.

South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan isn’t convinced and says it’s vital everyone sees the importance of fighting global warming.

“It’s incredibly Important from a climate change perspective because the oceans there absorb a lot of the Co2 from the atmosphere but it’s also part of regulating the world’s climate and, also the currents and the weather system. But it’s also very much affected by climate change because the ice is melting,” he said.

Cormac says it’s problematic that there isn’t a government for Antarctica but instead an agreement signed in the 1950s, called the Antarctic Treaty System, where 29 countries have decision-making powers.

“Decisions are made by consensus and over the last years, when they tried to declare more marine protected areas, countries like Russia and China block them so it’s not really going anywhere,” he said.

He says terms of the treaty are only binding on the people who’ve signed up to them. And he says policing compliance is almost impossible because there’s no international police force dedicated to this task.

“If there is a big enough dispute, it could be referred to the International Court of Justice. But you know in a situation like this, often countries won’t take on another country like Russia because they think Russia may retaliate in other ways,” he said.

Cullinan is working on a Declaration for the Rights of Antarctica which environmentalists hope will be launched towards the end of this year or early in 2024. He says among other things, they hope it will make it possible for lawyers to represent Antarctica in courts of law.

“Certainly, if you think how important human rights are in the world. Even though you know governments violate rights all the time, just the fact that we’ve got agreed standards of behavior.”

He says a similar rights-of-nature declaration is being worked out for the Amazon rain forest which spreads across several countries.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, Greenpeace Africa volunteer Elaine Mills says her organization is working on a letter of demand to send to the government.

“The one is that Alexander Karpinsky and other vessels like it are not allowed into South Africa. The second is that the Alexander Karpinsky and vessels like it have to prove that they are engaged in genuine scientific research before they are allowed entry into our ports. The third one is that we want the parties to adopt a treaty that no hydrocarbon extraction will ever be allowed within the Antarctic region,” said Mills.

Contacted by VOA, the South African Ministry and Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment did not provide comment.

South Africa announced Tuesday that it will host representatives of its partners in the BRICS bloc, namely Russia, China, India and Brazil, in Limpopo province on Wednesday and Thursday.

Naval exercises with Russia and China are also planned in February, a few days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nordic Unions to Quit Global Journalists’ Body IFJ, Citing ‘Corruptive Activity’

Finnish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic unions will quit a global media federation on Tuesday in protest at “corruptive activity,” including allowing Russian state media journalists in Ukraine to stay as members, the Finnish union said.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents 600,000 journalists in 146 countries, denounced the accusations as “false, defamatory and damaging.”

The Nordic members accused the IFJ of longstanding undemocratic practices, unethical finances and of allowing the Russian state media representatives to continue as members.

“We call this corruptive activity,” Hanne Aho, the chair of the Union of Journalists in Finland, told Reuters, adding the four Nordic unions would resign from the IFJ on Tuesday.

The leader of the Norwegian Union of Journalists, Dag Idar Tryggestad, said the unions had fought for years to put in place democratic rules on IFJ elections as well as transparency around decisions and spending.

“..we believe this (resignation) is the only thing that can save IFJ. Changes must be forced,” he said.

Both Aho and Tryggestad said the Nordic unions’ latest disappointment resulted from the IFJ not taking action against the Russian Union of Journalists for setting up regional journalists’ associations in Ukrainian territories invaded by Russia.

“They have been able to do so in all tranquility without the international federation expelling the Russian union,” Aho said.

The IFJ said its executive committee had triggered a formal process for suspending and expelling the Russian Union of Journalists. It said expenditure was formally audited every year, adding that it had sought to answer all questions posed by the Nordic unions.

“We entirely reject what are false, defamatory and damaging allegations,” IFJ Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Dear told Reuters in an emailed response.

The Nordic unions also complained about what they said was the IFJ’s non-transparent use of finances, including its decision to hold its world congress last year in Oman, which has limited press freedom, Aho said.

The congress in Oman was organized at the end of May, at a time when journalists were widely accusing FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, of corruption and criticizing it for taking the World Cup to Qatar despite its poor track record on human rights.

“Trappings at the congress were extremely flamboyant so we began to wonder where the money had come from to pay for them,” Aho said, asking if it was appropriate for journalist unions to accept such lavish sponsoring.

Aho said the Union of Journalists in Finland had requested and received IFJ’s budget for the congress, which showed that up to 745,000 euros ($811,000) of the total of 778,000 euros ($844,675) came from Omani ministries and private companies as well as the Oman Journalists’ Association, while IFJ itself paid only 33,000 euros ($35,818) of the expenses.

The IFJ said the amounts included subsidies negotiated by the Oman Journalists’ Association.

“This has been normal procedure used in the hosting of successive IFJ congresses over decades,” it wrote in a statement shared with Reuters.

The IFJ, on its website, says it promotes collective action to defend human rights, democracy and media pluralism.

“IFJ policy is decided democratically at a Congress which meets every three years and work is carried out by the Secretariat under the direction of an elected executive committee,” it says.

 

France Hit by New Wave of Strikes Against Macron’s Pension Reform

Striking workers disrupted French refinery deliveries, public transport and schools on Tuesday in a second day of nationwide protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make people work longer before retirement. 

Huge crowds marched through cities across France to denounce a reform that raises the retirement age by two years to 64 and poses a test of Macron’s ability to push through change now that he has lost his working majority in parliament. 

On the rail networks, only one in three high-speed TGV trains were operating and even fewer local and regional trains. Services on the Paris metro were thrown into disarray. 

Marching behind banners reading “No to the reform” or “We won’t give up,” many said they would take to the streets as often as needed for the government to back down. 

“We won’t drive until we’re 64!” bus driver Isabelle Texier said at a protest in Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast. 

“For the president, it’s easy. He sits in a chair … he can work until he’s 70, even,” she said. “We can’t ask roof layers to work until 64, it’s not possible.”  

After January 19, when more than a million people took to the streets on the first nationwide strike day, unions said initial data from protests across the country showed a bigger turnout. 

“It’s better than on the 19th. … It’s a real message sent to the government, saying we don’t want the 64 years,” Laurent Berger, who leads CFDT, France’s largest union, said ahead of the Paris march. 

Opinion polls show a substantial majority of the French oppose the reform, but Macron intends to stand his ground. The reform is “vital” to ensuring the viability of the pension system, he said on Monday.  

Some felt resigned amid bargaining between Macron’s ruling alliance and conservative opponents who are more open to pension reform than the left.  

“There’s no point in going on strike. This bill will be adopted in any case,” said 34-year-old Matthieu Jacquot, who works in the luxury sector. 

For unions, who were likely to announce more industrial actions later in the day, the challenge will be maintaining walkouts at a time when high inflation is eroding salaries. 

Though protest numbers appeared to be up, some initial data showed strike participation down on Tuesday from January 19. 

A union source said some 36.5% of SNCF rail operator workers were on strike by midday — down nearly 10% from January 19 — even if disruption to train traffic was largely similar. 

Utility group EDF EDF.PA said 40.3% of workers were on strike, down from 44.5%.  

Unions and companies at times disagreed on whether this strike was more or less successful than the previous one. For TotalEnergies TTEF.PA, less workers at its refineries had downed tools, but the CGT said there were more. 

At a local level, some announced “Robin Hood” operations unauthorized by the government. In the southwestern Lot-et-Garonne area, the local CGT trade union branch cut power to several speed cameras and disabled smart power meters.  

“When there is such a massive opposition, it would be dangerous for the government not to listen,” said Mylene Jacquot, secretary general of CFDT’s civil servants branch.  

The pension system reform would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.18 billion) in annual pension contributions, according to Labour Ministry estimates. Unions say there are other ways to raise revenue, such as taxing the super rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.  

“This reform is unfair and brutal,” said Luc Farre, the secretary general of the civil servants’ UNSA union. French power supply was down by about 5% or 3.3 gigawatts (GW) as workers at nuclear reactors and thermal plants joined the strike, EDF data showed. 

TotalEnergies said deliveries of petroleum products from its French sites had been halted, but customers’ needs were met. 

The government made some concessions while drafting the legislation. Macron had originally wanted the retirement age to be set at 65, while the government is also promising a minimum pension of 1,200 euros a month. 

New Round of Strikes as French Workers Protest Pension Reforms

Tuesday brought a new round of strikes in France as citizens protest proposed pension reforms. 

Worker strikes severely limited Paris metro and other rail services, while Air France canceled some of its short and medium flights. 

Half of the primary school teachers planned to strike, their union said, while power supplies were down with workers in the electrical sector also going on strike. 

Tuesday’s round of protests follows an initial round on January 19 in which more than a million people participated. 

President Emmanuel Macron’s government is proposing raising the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 years of age. 

Macron said Monday the change is necessary to keep the pension system working. 

Unions have said the government could instead tax the super rich. 

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

Australia and France to Supply Artillery Shells to Ukraine  

France and Australia have agreed to join forces to produce thousands of artillery shells to help Ukraine push Russian forces out of its country. Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong are in Europe for talks with key allies.

French and Australian officials say several thousand 155 millimeter artillery shells will be manufactured jointly by French arms supplier Nexter, while Australia will supply the gunpowder. The first supplies are expected to be delivered to Ukraine by the end of April.

The announcement was made Monday at a joint news conference in Paris by French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu and his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles.

Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor to Ukraine’s war effort.

It has supplied missiles and Bushmaster armored personnel carriers. A group of up to 70 Australian defense force personnel has also been stationed in Britain to help train Ukrainian troops.

Australia also has sweeping sanctions on Russia — the most severe Canberra has ever imposed on a foreign government.

Marles told reporters Paris and Canberra are standing in solidarity with Ukraine.

“We wanted to act together as a statement about how importantly Australia and France regard the support of Ukraine in the current conflict,” he said. “Both of us have supported Ukraine separately in other ways, but we wanted to make it really clear that Australia and France do stand together in support of Ukraine in the face of this Russian aggression.”

Also attending the media briefing in Paris were French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong.

While support for Ukraine’s effort to repel the Russian invasion have dominated bilateral talks, Paris and Canberra have also sought to ease diplomatic tensions.

Ties between the countries took a serious hit in 2021 when Canberra abandoned a French submarine contract in favor of American nuclear submarines, as well as joining the trilateral security alliance with the United States and Britain known as AUKUS.

Marles and Wong are also due to hold talks this week with British government ministers.

‘Laverne & Shirley’ Actor Cindy Williams Dies at 75

Cindy Williams, who played Shirley opposite Penny Marshall’s Laverne on the popular sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” has died, her family said Monday.

Williams died Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 75 after a brief illness, her children, Zak and Emily Hudson, said in a statement released through family spokeswoman Liza Cranis.

“The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed,” the statement said.

“Knowing and loving her has been our joy and privilege. She was one of a kind, beautiful, generous and possessed a brilliant sense of humor and a glittering spirit that everyone loved.”

Williams also starred in director George Lucas’ 1973 film “American Graffiti” and director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” from 1974.

But she was by far best known for “Laverne & Shirley,” the “Happy Days” spinoff that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983 that in its prime was among the most popular shows on TV.

Williams played the straitlaced Shirley to Marshall’s more libertine Laverne on the show about a pair of roommates who worked at a Milwaukee bottling factory in the 1950s and ’60s.

Marshall, whose brother, Garry Marshall, co-created the series, died in 2018.

“Laverne & Shirley” was known almost as much for its opening theme as the show itself. Williams’ and Marshall’s chant of “schlemiel, schlimazel” as they skipped together became a cultural phenomenon and oft-invoked piece of nostalgia.

New Czech President Vows to Boost Ties with Taiwan

Czech President-elect Petr Pavel vowed Monday to boost his country’s ties with Taiwan after holding a phone call with the island’s president and foreign minister. 

President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Pavel on his win in Saturday’s presidential run-off over the populist billionaire Andrej Babis. 

“I thanked her for her congratulations, and I assured her that Taiwan and the Czech Republic share the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights,” Pavel said on Twitter. 

“We agreed on strengthening our partnership,” added the former general, who served as head of NATO’s military committee in 2015-2018. 

He said he “expressed hope to have the opportunity to meet President Tsai in person in the future.” 

The call is likely to anger China, which is trying to keep Taipei isolated on the world stage and prevents any sign of international legitimacy for the island. 

Beijing claims self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as part of its territory to be seized one day, by force if necessary. 

The Taiwanese presidential office said the call, which Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also joined, lasted almost 15 minutes. 

“The president… acknowledged that President-elect Pavel carries on the spirit of former Czech President (Vaclav) Havel who respected democracy, freedom and human rights, under which the republic was founded, and is like-minded with Taiwan,” Tsai’s office said in a statement. 

Havel was the Czech Republic’s first president in 1993-2003. 

Before Havel became head of state, the anti-communist dissident playwright had in 1989 led the so-called Velvet Revolution, which toppled communism in former Czechoslovakia. 

As the Czech Republic’s fourth president, Pavel will replace pro-Chinese and pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman, whose final term expires in March.  

Zeman is currently visiting Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, which has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine. 

In a sign that his foreign policy would vastly differ from Zeman’s, Pavel spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the phone Sunday.