The decision by India and the European Union to restart stalled talks on a free trade pact comes amid growing unease on both sides about China’s rise, according to analysts.
The decision was announced following a summit of EU leaders in Portugal last week, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined via video conference.
The meeting was held days after the EU suspended efforts to ratify an ambitious investment agreement with China following tensions that have grown between the 27-member bloc and Beijing about its treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province.
Although reviving trade negotiations that were abandoned by India and Europe in 2013 will not be easy, the move is being seen as part of efforts by both sides to build closer ties in what analysts call a new “geopolitical and geo-economic environment.”
“The kind of questions that have been raised recently about China have propelled Europe and India to look at each other with a different set of priorities,” according to Harsh Pant, head of Strategic Studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London.
“Also post the pandemic, many countries are looking closely at the issue of overreliance on China in trade and Europe, in particular, has been over dependent on China. And from India’s perspective, the West is going to be a very important partner as it re-evaluates every aspect of its foreign policy from the standpoint of the China equation,” says Pant.
India has been moving to build deeper partnerships with countries like the United States, Japan and Australia following an eight-month military standoff with China along their disputed Himalayan borders. Although the standoff eased in March, tensions are still running high over several undemarcated stretches where both countries have deployed tens of thousands of troops.
Both India and the European Union struck an optimistic note after the summit. Indian foreign ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said there was a strong economic rationale for relaunching trade talks as the European Union was India’s largest trading partner in 2019-20 with bilateral trade of about $ 90 billion. President of the European Council Charles Michel called it a “new important chapter” in ties.
“We agreed to resume negotiations for a balanced, ambitious, comprehensive and mutually beneficial trade agreement which would respond to the current challenges,” according to a joint statement by both sides.
A study by the European Parliament last year before Britain’s departure from the bloc had estimated the potential benefits of a trade deal with India for the EU at around 10 billion dollars. India is also due to start trade negotiations with Britain later this year.
The bid to deepen ties with Europe goes beyond trade – a “connectivity partnership” launched by the two sides that aims at building joint infrastructure projects in third countries including Africa, Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific is also seen as a pushback against China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
However, hammering out a trade deal will be challenging with some analysts warning that India has turned even more protectionist in recent years.
India and the EU had halted seven years of negotiations in 2013 after hitting a roadblock over key differences – Europe wanted India to lower levies on its major exports, such as wines, spirits and auto components, while New Delhi wanted greater access for Indian professionals to work in Europe.
“India is in a worse situation than in 2013 when trade talks were abandoned. Last year the government’s signal to industry was that they will be protected if they ramp up domestic production,” points out Biswajit Dhar, a professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and an expert on international trade relations. “Now the question is whether they can accommodate Europe’s demands to open up the market. It’s going to be a tall ask – for example the Indian automobile industry which is one of the country’s important industries will resist any suggestion of tariff cuts.”
But navigating the trade deal with Europe will be a key test for New Delhi as it seeks alternatives to China. In 2019 it abandoned a China-led regional trade pact – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, after it failed to address Delhi’s concerns over market access.
“For India it is a moment to underscore its credentials as a credible economic player because there are lots of questions about India’s ability to finalize trade deals,” points out Pant. “It has to show that it can walk the talk and can move forward on trade and economic matters with countries with which it has a strategic convergence.”
After dark months struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, Europe is finally hitting its stride, with vaccinations and economies picking up, countries emerging from lockdowns, and even opening their borders to foreign tourists.For Maison Nomade, the recent journey under France’s lockdown has been tough.Now, this vegetarian restaurant in northern Paris is finally reopening. Staff members idled by the pandemic are scrambling to get things ready.Staff at Maison Nomade restaurant prepare for its reopening next Wednesday. The EU has notched up the region’s growth predictions for this year. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)“It’s been pretty hard to be closed for that long, but we’re very excited, a little bit stressed, and we’re really looking forward to opening the restaurant again,” said Allison Lamotte, the restaurant’s co-owner.”And we hope this time it will last forever, and we won’t have to close again, because it’s been hard.”That’s a sentiment shared by many other French businesses, as coronavirus restrictions start easing. Next Wednesday, outdoor terraces of restaurants and bars are reopening for the first time in months — although at half capacity — along with museums and shops.Other European countries are reopening even faster … sparking celebrations in Spain … and preparations in Greece to welcome vaccinated international tourists starting Saturday.Parisians walk past the Louvre Museum which will soon be open to visitors. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)That’s a big change from earlier this year. As the United States and Britain saw COVID-19 cases fall as they ramped up their vaccination campaigns, European Union numbers kept growing.Vaccine delivery delays left EU governments struggling to put shots into citizens’ arms, sometimes fighting over supplies. The 19-member eurozone slipped into a double-dip recession.With the vaccine bottleneck easing, Brussels predicts it will meet its goal of inoculating 70% of European adults this summer. EU economic growth forecasts also are also rosier — at 4.2% this year, up from previous estimates.Overall, says Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Europe policy institute, things are looking better.“The economy is opening up — this has been partly a consequence of the acceleration of the vaccine drive, but also because some Mediterranean states in particular have been pushing very hard to get tourism back on track,” Balfour said.The EU hopes to facilitate travel within the bloc through special COVID-19 certificates for citizens who are vaccinated, recovered from the virus or test negative for it.Christophe Decloux, Managing Director of the Paris Region Tourism Board, is confident Americans and other tourists will be back. But it might take time. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)France’s international borders are set to reopen June 9. But reclaiming its spot as the world’s leading tourist destination may take time. Christophe Decloux, managing director of the Paris Region Tourism Board, says the Paris area alone lost 33 million visitors last year—more than two-thirds of its usual numbers.“Tourists will come back — I don’t know how many and how much time — but at the end, the Eiffel Tower always attracts,” Decloux said. “But at the end, the big issue is the business travelers. And why should they choose Paris rather than London, Berlin or Milan or whatever—that’s the issue.”The message to travelers, he says: France is a safe destination. People here are hoping that stays true.Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson voiced anxiety Thursday about a rise in the U.K. of the coronavirus variant first identified in India, after a closely monitored study of infections in England found it becoming more prevalent — just as the next big easing of lockdown restrictions is to begin. “It is a variant of concern. We are anxious about it,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do. There is a range of things we could do. We are ruling nothing out.” Johnson’s comments have stoked speculation that the government will ramp up vaccinations alongside testing in areas that are seeing a rising incidence of the virus. FILE – A handout photograph released by the U.K. Parliament shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking about the COVID-19 pandemic at the House of Commons, in central London, May 12, 2021.Already, the local authority in the northwest England town of Blackburn is setting up additional coronavirus vaccine clinics following a spike in infections. For now, the jabs will be offered to those eligible under the rules governing the rollout, which is largely based on age — the rollout was extended Thursday, with vaccines now available to those ages 38 and older. Worries over the Indian variant were central in the latest assessment of the pandemic in England from Imperial College London. Though it said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August following a strict lockdown and a successful rollout of vaccines, it warned that the Indian variant should be closely monitored. The so-called REACT study said the Indian variant was found in 7.7% of the 127,000 cases tested between April 15 and May 3. Professor Steven Riley from Imperial College said it’s unclear whether the Indian variant is more transmissible but warned “this is a risk.” Though the British government and scientists have said new infections may start to go up in coming weeks, it’s unclear whether that will lead to a big increase in hospitalizations and deaths given that most of those people deemed vulnerable have been vaccinated. Over the past few weeks, as India has suffered a catastrophic resurgence of the virus, concerns have grown around the world about potential new variants bypassing the protections offered by vaccines. Across the U.K., lockdown restrictions are being lifted. The next easing in England is set to take place Monday when two households will be able to mix indoors and pubs and restaurants will be able to serve customers inside, among other changes. The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have also laid out similar plans for the coming weeks. The government hopes to lift most of the remaining restrictions on social contact in June. “At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally, and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get,” Johnson said. The government’s scientific advisory committee, known as SAGE, will be making recommendations about the pandemic’s path. Currently there are few signs the previous easing has led to an increase in new infections, which are averaging around 2,300 a day across the U.K., compared with nearly 70,000 recorded in January at the peak of the second wave. The fall in infections has led to a sharp decline in daily coronavirus-related deaths, with 11 reported Thursday. Still, the U.K. has recorded Europe’s highest virus-related death toll, at more than 127,600. The successful rollout of vaccines has also helped to keep a lid on infections alongside the lockdown. Around 54% of the British population has had at least one dose of vaccine, with about a quarter having received two doses.
After dark months struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, Europe is finally hitting its stride with vaccinations and economies picking up and countries emerging from lockdowns and reopening their borders to foreign tourists. But as Lisa Bryant reports from Paris, there is still a lot of uncertainty.
Hungary has announced plans to open a branch of a Chinese University in Budapest. Critics fear the development — the first of its kind in Europe — will be used by Beijing to spread Chinese Communist Party propaganda and could pose a threat to national security. The so-called “Student City” will be built on the site of a former wholesale market outside the nation’s capital, with its centerpiece a branch of the prestigious Shanghai-based Fudan University. Hungary said it will raise the standard of higher education, offer courses to 6,000 students from Hungary, China and further afield, while bringing Chinese investment and research to the country. FILE – A view of the site where the construction of a top Chinese university, the Fudan’s campus, is planned, in the 9th district of Budapest, Hungary, Apr. 23, 2021.For China, it’s a significant milestone, said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “Until relatively recently, China was importing foreign universities onto Chinese soil, having branches in China. Now, they are exporting a Chinese university branch on European soil, a member of the European Union. This is, I think, tremendously important from their perspective in how it shows that China has risen,” Tsang told VOA. Two years ago, Hungary’s famous Central European University, which is backed by Hungarian-born, U.S.-based financier George Soros, was effectively forced out of the country through changes to education law and has since relocated to Vienna.FILE – A man sits front of the building of the Central European University, a school founded by U.S. financier George Soros, in Budapest, Hungary, Apr. 9, 2018.Hungary’s government accuses Soros of political interference in the country, which he denies. Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, a member of the opposition Dialogue for Hungary Party, said Hungarians are being betrayed. “Let’s put the two [universities] next to each other,” he said. “There was something which has offered an open education, did not cost a penny for Hungarian taxpayers, was a well-established university in Hungary and was exiled. And now, the government brings in another one which represents the ideology of the [Chinese] Communist Party and costs the Hungarian taxpayers billions,” he told The Associated Press. Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 11 MB480p | 16 MB540p | 21 MB720p | 48 MBOriginal | 780 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioLeaked government documents published by the Hungarian investigative journalism organization Direkt36 estimate the cost at $1.8 billion, which is more than Hungary spent on its entire higher education system in 2019. The documents suggest most of the funding will come from a Chinese bank loan, and construction will be carried out using mostly Chinese materials and labor. Fudan ranks among the top 100 universities in the world. Its expansion into Europe is part of Beijing’s efforts to control the narrative on China, Tsang said. “When we are dealing with the humanities and social sciences side of the curriculum, it is clear that the Communist Party will keep control of it. It was only in the last two years that Fudan University changed clearly its instructions on its relationship with the [Chinese] party state, now clearly declaring that its first mission is not to uphold academic integrity but to follow the leadership of the party,” Tsang said. Hungary’s government has pursued a strategy it calls “Eastern Opening,” seeking increased cooperation and trade with countries such as China and Russia. It has taken a $2 billion loan from China’s Exim Bank to build a railway line between Budapest and Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, as part of China’s global Belt and Road initiative. Hungary is also the only country in the European Union to have approved the Chinese-made “Sinopharm” COVID-19 vaccine. Karacsony is among many who fear the Fudan University development could pose a threat to national security through Chinese espionage. “While the Hungarian government visibly enjoys the benefits of European Union membership — since, for example, it will receive an astronomical amount of EU support in the coming months — it is meanwhile a kind of advanced bastion of eastern great powers,” he said. In an email to VOA, a Hungarian government spokesperson said, “According to the prestigious QS World University Ranking, Fudan is the 34th best university in the world. … The Ministry of Innovation and Technology of Hungary and the Chinese Ministry of Education concluded an interministerial agreement finalized in February this year to support Fudan University in establishing a world-class, research-oriented, multidisciplinary university in Budapest. “From George Soros to President Obama, a lot of people have given lectures at Fudan University, and it is one of the best universities in the world that will not be engaged in ideological education but will provide economic courses,” the spokesperson said. The EU has yet to officially respond to the university plans. Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Hungary Monday for what he called an “absolutely incomprehensible” decision to block an EU statement criticizing Beijing for the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. “I think everybody can work out for themselves what the reasons are, because there are good relations between China and Hungary,” Maas told reporters, following a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council. In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest expressed concerns over the plans to open a branch of Fudan University in Hungary, “given Beijing’s proven track record of using academic institutions to advance a malign influence agenda and stifle intellectual freedom.” The Fudan University branch is expected to be completed by 2024.
The Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea on May 29 has been moved from Istanbul to Porto to allow English fans to travel under COVID-19 restrictions, European soccer’s governing body UEFA said on Thursday.
The final was scheduled for Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium, but Turkey was last week put on Britain’s travel ‘red list’, meaning that no English fans would be able to attend the game. It will now be held in FC Porto’s Estadio do Dragao.
UEFA said that each club would receive 6,000 tickets which are expected to go on sale from today. The final capacity for the match has yet to be confirmed.
There had been discussions over moving the final to London’s Wembley Stadium but UEFA said that despite “exhaustive efforts on the part of the (English) Football Association and the authorities, it was not possible to achieve the necessary exemptions from UK quarantine arrangements.”
“I think we can all agree that we hope never to experience a year like the one we have just endured,” said UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.
“Fans have had to suffer more than twelve months without the ability to see their teams live and reaching a Champions League final is the pinnacle of club football.
“To deprive those supporters of the chance to see the match in person was not an option and I am delighted that this compromise has been found,” he added.
Portugal was placed on the UK government’s “green list” from May 17, which means fans of the English clubs will be free to travel to the game.
The country is in the last phase of easing a lockdown and expects to lift travel restrictions from May 17.
Turkish Football Federation officials told Reuters on Wednesday they expected to host the 2023 Champions League which would be part of the Republic’s centenary celebrations
Spain has promised to donate 7.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Latin American and Caribbean countries this summer as its vaccine diplomacy contrasts with the more cautious approach taken by the United States. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pledged to ship between 5% and 10% of the country’s total vaccine supply in an effort to combat a third wave of the pandemic that is raging in a number of Latin American nations. Spain’s leftist government is confident that 70% of its population of 47 million will be inoculated by the end of August. Sanchez said this week the country was “100 days away from herd immunity,” and will send surplus vaccines to donate to Latin America. The vaccines that Madrid will send are AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen. FILE – People receive a dose of the AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Barcelona, Spain, Apr. 26, 2021.In Spain, more than 29% of the population has had at least one dose while 13.3% has had both as the vaccine program picks up pace. Going further Sanchez supported U.S. President Joe Biden’s initiative to drop patent rights to COVID-19 vaccines to reduce costs for poorer countries but wants to go further. “Spain is proposing a comprehensive initiative to facilitate the transmission of the necessary technology and expertise, lift all barriers to ramping up production and accelerate vaccine production,” Sanchez wrote in Britain’s Financial Times Wednesday. In contrast, and as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris prepares to travel to Mexico and Guatemala next month, the United States has faced calls to do more to help Latin American nations with scant vaccine resources. U.S, Democrats have called on the Biden administration to make Latin America a priority. US response The U.S. State Department said the government was working on plans to share vaccines when they became available, but that the priority is vaccinating American citizens. “Right now, this administration is focused first and forecast foremost? on ensuring that Americans have access to the safe and effective vaccine. At the same time, we understand that for Americans to be truly safe from this virus both now and over the long term we need to demonstrate leadership, because as long as the virus is in the wild, it will continue to mutate, it will continue to pose a threat to Americans back here at home,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last month.The scarcity of vaccines has prompted wealthier Latin Americans to travel to the U.S. to be inoculated, something which the U.S. government has discouraged. Shortages of vaccines or materials to make them are crippling for many Latin American states. Brazil, which recorded 425,000 deaths from COVID-19, will run out of the raw materials to produce the Chinese Sinovac vaccine by Friday, after a shipment was held up in China, authorities in Sao Paulo state said. Alicia Martinez holds her vaccination card while resting after her second shot of China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in the outdoor patio of a home for the elderly in Santiago, Chile, March 5, 2021.In Chile, where the vaccine program is one of the fastest in the world, this progress has been muted by a sharp rise in coronavirus cases last month, reaching 9,000 in one day. It forced the government to bring in a quarantine for 80% of the population. Pleas President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic called on Biden to release U.S. stocks of the AstraZeneca vaccine.“President @JoeBiden, less-developed countries and traditional allies of the USA, like Dominican Republic, have approved the AstraZeneca vaccine and we need it urgently,” he tweeted.Euclides Acevedo, the foreign minister of Paraguay, pleaded with Washington to come to its help as COVID-19 cases mounted. “What use is fraternity if now they don’t give us a response?” he said. FILE – Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya speaks during a media briefing at San Carlos Palace in Bogota, Colombia, Feb. 26, 2021.Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya criticized the U.S. for delaying a response on sharing vaccines. “Europe has recently exported 200 million doses of vaccines to the world. Countries like the United States have still not exported any. This has to change,” she told eldiario.es, a Spanish online newspaper this week. The U.S. government refutes this claim, saying it has so far shared 4 million vaccines with Canada and Mexico. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last week that Washington planned to send another 60 million doses from its supply over the next two months. He did not specify the countries. The U.S. has contributed $2 billion to the COVAX, an initiative involving the World Health Organization and others to facilitate the sharing of vaccines by richer countries with poorer nations. COVAX has sent a total of 6.5 million doses with Latin America. Blinken has pledged another $2 billion to the program.However, the U.S. offer to share vaccines and the supplies from the COVAX initiative is small compared to the vast Latin American and Caribbean regions, whose populations total 650 million. Politics Spain wants to take a leading role among European powers when it comes to vaccine diplomacy, while Biden is under domestic political pressure to prioritize U.S. citizens — at the moment at least. “Sanchez’s gesture is a change for Spain to show solidarity with Latin America and to show that Europe cares about the problems of vaccine supply which countries there are facing,” Carlos Malamud, a senior investigator at the Real Elcano Institute, a Madrid research organization, told VOA. “However, Biden may be under more domestic pressure to change the America First policy of the Trump era but not to open its hand straight away,” Malamud said. It comes as Chinese vaccines dominate Latin American efforts to combat the pandemic, with Beijing sending more than half of the 143.5 million doses of the vaccine which have been sent to the continent’s 10 largest countries. FILE – Trucks carrying Chinese Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccines against the COVID-19 disease leave the San Oscar Romero International Airport in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, on March 28, 2021.China’s Sinovac has delivered 78.5 million finished doses or ingredients to make the vaccine, while AstraZeneca and Pfizer are the two main Western suppliers who have sent 59 million doses. Ana Ayuso, a Latin America analyst at the CIDOB think tank in Barcelona, believes the U.S. may have to use vaccine diplomacy to stem the tide of migrants who are crossing the border to be inoculated. “At present the U.S. may not be shipping many vaccines to Latin America but this may change as a way to stop people crossing into the U.S. to get the jab,” she told VOA.
Twenty-three people remain hospitalized Wednesday in the Russian city of Kazan following a school shooting that killed nine people, seven of whom were children. The attack occurred Tuesday morning when a gunman opened fire on a school there.”We have lost seven children … four boys and three girls,” Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of the Republic of Tatarstan, told state TV, according to Reuters.Authorities have said all 23 wounded remain in stable condition and at least eight — three adults and five children — will be transferred to Moscow for further treatment.Men carry a coffin with the body of Elvira Ignatieva, a teacher who was killed in a shooting at a school on Tuesday, in Kazan, Russia, May 12, 2021.Russian officials have promised to pay 1 million rubles to each of the families of those killed and said the payments will be wired by the end of day Wednesday.Wednesday was declared a day of mourning in Tatarstan, the region where Kazan is the capital.The attacker has been identified as a 19-year-old and has been arrested. No details were given by authorities regarding a motive.Russian media has said the gunman was a former student at the school, who called himself “a god” on his Telegram messaging account and promised to “kill a large amount of biomass” on the morning of the shooting. Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein said on Telegram that the suspect received a permit for a shotgun less than two weeks ago, and the school he targeted had no security besides a panic button.Attacks on schools are rare in Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the head of the country’s National Guard to revise regulations on the types of weapons available for civilian use.
A joyful Pope Francis greeted a group of about 300 faithful in a Vatican courtyard Wednesday as he resumed his in-person weekly general audience with members of the public for the first time in six months. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the pope’s public audiences last year as the pandemic swept through Italy. He instead taped his weekly message in a Vatican library. He attempted to resume them again in September, only to be forced back into the library when infection rates rose in November. Pope Francis holds the weekly general audience while coronavirus disease restrictions are eased at the Vatican, May 12, 2021.The crowd of about 300 cheered as the pope stepped out of a car that drove him into San Damaso Courtyard at the Vatican. He removed his mask and smiled and waved at the social-distanced group, all of whom had their temperatures checked as they entered the area. As he made his way to the front of the courtyard, the pope greeted a baby, signed a book and put on a red knit Filipino hat given to him by an audience member. In his opening remarks, the pope told the audience how happy he was to be back, face to face, with them. “I will tell you something — it is not nice to speak in front of nothing, to a camera. It is not nice,” he said. Later in the day, he held a private audience with German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass. The 84-year-old pope has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as have all residents of the Vatican.
Russia is expanding its navy base at the Syrian port of Tartus and planning to construct a floating dock to boost the port’s ship repair facilities, according to Russian military officials.The move comes only weeks after the Russian military extended one of the runways at its Hmeimim airbase, adding to its military foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. The floating dock is scheduled to be completed next year, says Russia’s TASS news agency, quoting military officials.Upgrading the repair facilities at the Tartus base will allow the Russian navy to avoid dispatching ships to naval installations in the Black Sea for maintenance, according to Western military officials. The Russian naval facility in Tartus is leased from the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, and four years ago the Russian military classified it as a Material-Technical Support Point and not formally as a base.That changed in 2017 following a deal struck by Syria with Moscow, which has been waging a military campaign in Syria in support of Assad, allowing him to reclaim control from rebels over much of the country. The deal allows Russia use of the naval facility free of charge for 49 years and gives the Kremlin sovereign jurisdiction over the base. The agreement also allows Russia to keep a dozen warships — including nuclear-powered vessels — at Tartus, the only navy facility the Kremlin possesses outside the former Soviet Union. FILE – Syrian President Bashar Assad inspects the Russian Hmeimim air base in the province of Latakia, Syria, June 27, 2017. (Official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency)Tartus and the Hmeimim air base, in the nearby province of Latakia, have been the main hubs for Russia’s pro-Assad military intervention. A Russian military spokesman told reporters Wednesday during a Moscow news briefing that Russian warplanes flying out of the Hmeimim base assisted Syrian government forces to kill 338 “terrorists” since April 23.“Units of Syria’s pro-government troops, with the support of the Aerospace Forces of Russia, continue their search and reconnaissance missions in the Syrian desert. Since April 23, a total of 228 members of terrorist groups have been killed and 44 captured, 20 vehicles have been seized and six destroyed, 38 facilities and 45 hideouts have been demolished,” the spokesperson said.Since 2015, Russia has pursued an increasingly forward-leaning role in the Middle East “with the shift to military intervention in the Syrian Civil War marking a notable turning point,” according to Diana Galeeva, an academic at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College.Russia has justified its presence in Syria by saying it is fighting Islamic State and other extremist groups, Galeeva says in a paper published by the Middle East Institute, a U.S.-based research group. But geopolitically, “Syria has been crucial to the return of Russia’s great power status, at least on the basis of military power influence” in the region, including in the eastern Mediterranean.U.S. Middle East policyThe Biden administration has indicated it is ready to re-engage in the Middle East, repair multilateral coalitions and reassert its leadership role in the region. In February the U.S. carried out an airstrike targeting Iran-backed militias in Syria, the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration.The Pentagon said the strike was ordered in response to attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq and was a “proportionate military response” taken after consulting Western coalition partners.But Biden officials have been in no rush to offer a clear definition of America’s role in Syria’s ongoing conflict that involves a half-dozen state and non-state militaries — including U.S. troops aligned with Syria’s Kurds.FILE – Children greet a U.S. soldier atop a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) as U.S. troops patrol in the Syrian town of al-Jawadiyah in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey, Dec. 17, 2020. Officials tell VOA they are shaping policy to try to balance U.S. President Joe Biden’s determination to end American participation in “forever wars,” while ensuring the United States doesn’t weaken its leadership in the region and inadvertently boost the regional influence of Russia and other rivals, including Iran.An early Syria test for the Biden administration is likely in July over the delivery of United Nations aid to millions of Syrians sheltering in the northwest province of Idlib, which is not controlled by the Syrian government, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.Russia has threatened to block international aid flowing into Idlib via the border crossing between Syria and Turkey at Bab al-Hawa, saying all aid should be distributed from areas controlled by the Assad government. The U.N. also has been using the border crossing to launch a coronavirus vaccination campaign in northern Syria.Last week, the White House called on “the Assad regime and its backers to stop its violent war against its own people, enact a nationwide cease-fire, enable the unobstructed delivery of humanitarian assistance to all Syrians in need, and to negotiate a political settlement in Syria.” Biden also extended for another year sanctions imposed on the Assad government for rights violations and the use of chemical weapons.
Paris begins reopening next week, bringing relief to residents missing its long-shuttered shops, museums, theaters and cafes that make France’s iconic capital so special. Not to mention something more basic—easily accessible toilets. Cecile Briand ducks into a small cement building, tucked inside a northern Paris square. The toilet she’s inspecting is a bit dirty, but no nasty surprises—nothing a little tissue can’t fix. Number one advice walking this city: always bring toilet paper. Briand is a writer and artist. Also possibly this capital’s best resource on restrooms. Her guidebook Ou Faire Pipi a Paris? — or Where to Pee in Paris — is now in its second edition. She earned her expertise firsthand— spending hours on the streets researching a separate Lonely Planet guide on Paris walks. Discovering its hidden and not-so-hidden toilets, she says, is another way of discovering the city.Briand checks out a restroom in a small square and pronounces it “correct.” (VOA/Lisa Bryant)Some of Briand’s top picks include the 5th-floor restrooms at the Galeries Lafayette department store —over a terrace with a stunning view of the capital. There’s also the red-carpeted Drouot auction house, and Josephine Baker swimming pool on the Seine River. Lockdown has shuttered these and many other places — like this public library we pass by. For the desperate — and less choosy — there are always the city’s 435 sanisettes, elegant-looking steel structures that—despite their automatic cleaning— aren’t always so elegant inside. Peeing in Paris has been problematic long before coronavirus. The city hall has long been at war against what it calls ‘wild pipi’ — mostly by men — in public spaces. Residents and tourists mocked the environmentally friendly urinals it set up a few years ago— and this public service announcement featuring actors singing through toilet seats. Meanwhile, critics recently launched an online campaign hash tagged #saccageaparis, or “trashed Paris,” blaming the municipal government, fairly or unfairly, for unkempt streets. Pere Lachaise cemetery, the next stop on Briand’s tour, offers a respite from the controversy. It’s here Frederic Chopin, Honore de Balzac, Jim Morrison and many other famous people are buried. Equally important is its restroom in a little chalet. Visitors Elena and Rosa Marie, from the northern city of Reims, are hunting for the entrance.One of the restrooms at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. (VOA/Lisa Bryant)Elena says it’s very complicated spending time outside in big cities these days. Either you hold off peeing, or you stay at home. The lockdown has brought Briand’s guide more media attention. She’s now waiting to assess its impact on the city’s toilet landscape — before working on the third edition of Where to to Pee in Paris.