Moscow, Sept 9 (AP/UNB) — Opponents of a Russian government move to increase the age for collecting state retirement pensions held protests throughout the country on Sunday and scores of arrests were reported.
The protests were called by Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who is President Vladimir Putin's most prominent foe. Navalny is serving a 30-day jail sentence connected with an unsanctioned protest in January unrelated to the pension proposal, which was introduced in June.
Opposition to the proposal spans the political spectrum. Protests organized by the Communist Party were held across Russia earlier this month.
The plan calls for the pension age to be raised five years — to 65 for men and 60 for women.
Olga Sokolova, a 52-year-old factory worker, said she was "dumbfounded" when the proposal came, because she had hoped to retire from her physically taxing job at 55, the current pension age for women.
"I can't keep being afraid anymore," she said of her decision to risk detention by showing up at a protest in Moscow's Pushkin Square that attracted several hundred people. Protesters in Moscow chanted "Russia without Putin" and held signs including "Putin, when will you go on pension?
Demonstrations also were held in cities in Siberia and the Far East as well as St. Petersburg. Photos on social media indicated most of them were attended by 100 or more protesters, but the crowd in St. Petersburg appeared to exceed 1,000. An Associated Press journalist counted at least 30 people detained at the St. Petersburg protest, which was adjacent to the Finlad Station rail terminal.
News reports and tallies from the OVD-Info organization that monitors political repressions showed at least 40 arrests connected with the protests elsewhere, including 12 each in the cities of Khabarovsk and Tomsk.
A lawyer for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Fund was arrested in Moscow before the rally.
Raising the pension is opposed both by older people, who fear they won't live long enough to collect significant benefits, and by younger Russians worried that keeping people in the workforce longer will limit their own employment opportunities.
"The reform is a robbery of my parents and grandparents. We're stealing our future, too. Right now the only thing we can do is protest," 24-year-old Igor Panov said at the Moscow demonstration.
Putin's trust rating in public opinion polls dropped notably after the proposal was put forward and last month offered some concessions, including dropping the age for women from 63 to 60.
But Putin and government officials say the age hike is necessary because rising life expectancy in Russia could exhaust pension resources if the eligibility age remains the same.
Istanbul, Sept 9 (AP/UNB) — Turkey's arrests of an American pastor and other Western citizens have thrust its troubled judicial system to the forefront of ties with allies, reinforcing suspicions that the Turkish government is using detainees as diplomatic leverage.
Turkey scoffs at the idea that it treats detained foreigners as foreign policy pawns, and points the finger at the U.S. for cases against Turks in American courts. Turkey's top appeals court judge weighed in this week, saying only "independent" courts can free pastor Andrew Brunson.
The reality is more complex in a nation where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his grip on the state, including a judiciary purged of thousands of judges and prosecutors after an attempted coup in 2016. Constitutional changes have since expanded Erdogan's control of judicial appointments, undermining Turkey's avowals that it wants to mold impartial courts.
There is no evidence that jailed foreigners in Turkey were arrested to be used as "hostages," and Erdogan could genuinely believe they were acting on behalf of foreign governments against Turkey, said Nicholas Danforth, an analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
"In taking and holding prisoners to combat the West's presumed hostility, Ankara ends up creating the kind of hostility it imagines," Danforth wrote in a blog post last week.
Recent Turkish court rulings seemed to align with diplomatic outreach to Europe. Two Greek soldiers held for months were freed; Taner Kilic, an Amnesty International representative, was released; and a judge lifted a travel ban on a German of Turkish descent accused of terror offenses.
Conversely, the courts ruled against freeing Brunson, who is accused of links to Kurdish rebels and the 2016 coup plotters, after U.S. economic penalties deepened the Turkish currency's slide.
A coincidence? Some analysts don't think so.
"As the crisis with the U.S. heated up and as the economic crisis heated up, Erdogan saw a need to speed up the process of normalization with Europe," said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history in Canton, New York.
Eissenstat, also a fellow at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, speculated that President Donald Trump's focus on freeing Brunson had backfired, encouraging Turkish officials to think: "'This guy's really valuable and we can get a lot for him.'"
For Turkey, "a lot" would be the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and denies Turkish allegations that he engineered the coup attempt, which killed nearly 300 people.
Turkey has also criticized the case against Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an official at Turkey's state-controlled Halkbank who was jailed in the U.S. for helping Iran avoid American sanctions.
Last year, Erdogan floated a possible trade in which the U.S. sends Gulen to Turkey in exchange for the release of Brunson, now under house arrest in the city of Izmir. However, comments on Monday by Ismail Rustu Cirit, the Turkish judge, reflected an official view that Turkey's sovereignty in the matter is paramount.
"The only and absolute power that can rule on the arrest of a foreign citizen in Izmir and decisions about his trial are the independent and impartial courts," Cirit said.
The European Union has urged Turkey to guarantee the impartiality of its courts, a key requirement in an EU candidacy bid that stalled years ago.
Judicial reforms more than a decade ago, in the early years of Erdogan's rule, reduced the power of the military and moved Turkey closer to European standards. But backsliding followed, amid increasing accusations that the ruling party was using the courts to muzzle opponents.
In another twist, internal conflict erupted at the end of 2013 when prosecutors launched an investigation of alleged corruption at the top of the government, a move described by Erdogan's camp as a power grab by Gulen supporters.
Detainees remain an irritant between Germany and Turkey, which freed Die Welt journalist Deniz Yucel and activist Peter Steudtner. But Turkey still holds a number of Germans for what Berlin considers political reasons.
Turkey, meanwhile, has bemoaned a Greek court's decision to grant asylum to some servicemen who fled to Greece a day after Turkey's coup attempt. In a reverse scenario, Turkey would never "shelter" coup plotters acting against Greece, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
Turkey doesn't have "very much" to show for what may be opportunistic attempts to use detainees as leverage with other countries, according to Eissenstat.
He said there could be a parallel with similar cases in Iran or the former Soviet Union, in which "local officials would sometimes make decisions and then the central government would decide, 'OK, how does this fit into a larger policy?'"
Stockholm, Sep 9 (AP/UNB) — Polls have opened in Sweden's general election in what is expected to be one of the most unpredictable and thrilling races in the Scandinavian country for decades amid heated debate on immigration.
Sunday's election will be Sweden's first since the government in 2015 allowed 163,000 migrants into the country of 10 million. While far less than what Germany took in that year, it was the most per capita of any European nation. It's highly unlikely that any single party will get a majority, or 175 seats.
The latest opinion poll suggests that Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's ruling Social Democrats will substantially lose seats but still emerge a winner with an estimated 24.9 percent of the votes.
The polls showed far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats would get 19.1 percent of the votes.
Thessaloniki, Sep 9 (AP/UNB) — Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras painted an optimistic vision Saturday night of a Greece that has emerged from eight years of financial austerity imposed by creditors and is on the road to economic recovery.
Laying out his economic program for the coming year in a speech at Greece's largest trade fair, Tsipras said he will seek to keep lowering the unemployment rate that peaked at nearly 28 percent in 2013, raise wages and cut some taxes.
And in an unusual gesture for a leftist politician who has spent far more time protesting outside the U.S. Embassy than in meeting with U.S. officials, Tsipras emphasized Greece's close relations with America, calling it "a country with which we are tied in a strong strategic partnership and in common struggles for shared values."
For the first time, a guest, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, addressed the trade fair's Saturday evening gathering, which normally hears only Greece's prime minister set out his economic policy goals.
Ross also noted the closeness of U.S.-Greek ties, and he praised Greece for meeting its defense spending commitments in the trans-Atlantic alliance. "We would like to see other NATO countries fulfill their engagements in the same way," he said.
Outlining his achievements, Tsipras said that 300,000 new jobs have been added in the three years since he took power at the depth of Greece's economic crisis and that the long-declining economy is expected to grow 2.5 percent in 2018.
He said he wants the jobless rate to drop from the current 19 percent to 10 percent over the next five years and Greek debt to reach investment grade within two years. He promised to lower the corporate tax rate, expand welfare spending, provide tax breaks to lure back university-educated young people who migrated, raise the minimum wage and restore collective bargaining on wages. He also promised retroactive pay raises to the police, military and judiciary.
Addressing the contentious issue of further pension cuts committed to by his government under pressure from creditors, Tsipras said he thinks the government's budget surplus targets can be achieved without more cuts in pensions but added that he will discuss this with the EU later in the year.
Greece last month ended its third international financial bailout and now must return to markets that have been rattled by financial concerns and a jump in borrowing rates in nearby Italy.
Earlier Saturday, Ross inaugurated the annual trade fair, with Tsipras at his side. The United States is the featured country at this year's event, hosting exhibits from major corporations including tech giants Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, Google and IBM.
Greek-U.S. bilateral trade totals more than $2 billion annually. Ross said U.S. corporations want to boost commerce with Greece, a long-standing NATO ally that is also in talks to intensify military cooperation with the U.S.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, visited Greece earlier in the week and said he discussed the possibility of expanded base access for the U.S. military in Greece as well as training cooperation.
The cooperation reflects a shift in regional alignments, with Greece's neighbor Turkey seeking closer ties to Russia amid strains in its relationship with the United States.
An estimated 6,000 nationalists protesting Greece's agreement with neighboring Macedonia that ended a 27-year dispute on the latter's name clashed with police along Thessaloniki's waterfront deep into the night. Police also clashed briefly with about 3,000 extreme leftists at a separate demonstration.
Paris, Sep 9 (AP/UNB) — More than 18,000 people marched Saturday in Paris as part of an international mobilization to show popular support for urgent measures to combat climate change in advance of a San Francisco summit.
Crowds overflowed a plaza in front of City Hall before marching east to the Place de la Republique, carrying an urgent message that it's up to the public to put global warming at the top of the political agenda.
"Planet in Danger," read some banners.
Activists around the world encouraged "Rise for Climate" protests before the summit taking place Sept.12-Sept. 14. California's governor proposed the event after President Donald Trump vowed to pull the U.S. out of a landmark 2015 climate accord.
The international agreement was negotiated in France, and the French capital's march was more successful than ones held Saturday in other French cities or elsewhere in Europe.
Environmental groups said the organized hundreds of events around the globe Saturday to highlight the issue.
Thousands of people took to the streets of San Francisco, marching about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the city's piers to City Hall. Demonstrators banged drums, sang and hoisted signs that said "Rise for climate justice" and "Not a penny more for dirty energy." They called for politicians to spearhead a transition to 100 percent renewable energy.
Police estimated that 18,500 took part in the Paris march, while organizers put the number at some 50,000.
Several hundred people gathered in France's southern port city of Marseille. Several dozen called for an end to the use of fossil fuels outside London's Tate Modern art gallery. Only about two dozen showed up in Barcelona, Spain.
The front-page of France's daily Liberation newspaper featured a call from 700 French scientists for the government to "move from incantations to acts to move toward a carbon-free society."
The language was a reference to French President Emmanuel Macron's use of the phrase "Make our planet great again," a takeoff on Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.
The signing scientists also called for "strong and clear political choices" and said "solutions are available."
The march in Paris, organized with the theme "Change the system, but don't change the climate," was both festive and serious.
One protester, Manuel Bibes, denounced the plastic that inundates daily life. Another, Rodgrigo de la Vega criticized the practice of driving down the road to buy bread.
"There is no Planet B," a sign read.