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Dutch farmers swing the prime minister's chair and Russian diplomats plan to swap basketball player for an assassin

5-8-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

Politico: Dutch farmers undermine Rutte's political credibility

It was supposed to be a week of celebration for Mark Rutte, who became the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands' history on Tuesday.

But instead, Rutte finds himself back early from summer recess on Friday for a crunch meeting with farmer group leaders, whose angry protests threaten his decade of dominance of Dutch politics.

The man nicknamed "Teflon Mark" for his ability to ride out trouble unscathed is facing a fierce backlash over a proposed livestock cut, with farmers blocking roads, dumping manure and torching hay bales.  

Photo: ANP

It’s the latest in a string of crises that has haunted his 12-year tenure, the most notable being a scandal over childcare subsidies, which tipped thousands into poverty and triggered the collapse of his third Cabinet in early 2021. Until now, such troubles have so far failed to put much of a dent in Rutte's robust poll numbers, and he bounced back to lead his center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) to victory in a general election weeks later in March 2021.

But things may be changing for the 55-year-old. The farmers’ protests, as well as soaring inflation and general lack of trust, have resulted in a new all-time low in the popularity of Rutte’s VVD. According to recent polling, the VVD would lose 13 of its 34 seats in elections if a vote were held now.

The other parties of the four-party ruling coalition are also bleeding support, with seven out of 10 voters saying they are dissatisfied with the Rutte Cabinet.

“The number of puzzles on my desk now is quite large,” Rutte said at a press conference just before Dutch politics entered its summer recess.

Foremost of those puzzles is the government’s goal of halving nitrogen output by 2030. The target, designed to comply with EU rules on reducing nitrogen pollution, will require cuts of as much as 95 percent in emissions in some provinces, potentially forcing thousands of farmers out of business.

Dutch farmers’ organizations are meeting the prime minister on Friday at an undisclosed location with the government’s appointed mediator, Johan Remkes, for a first round of consultations. Alongside Rutte, three other ministers tasked with the nitrogen and agriculture files will also be present.

The discussions fit the tradition of the Netherlands’ consensus-driven way of doing politics, known as the polder model. But that process might be more difficult in an increasingly polarized society, said Kutsal Yesilkagit, a professor of international governance at Leiden University.

"The government is struggling to deal with the more radical farmers’ groups that are behind many of the protest actions and who have been refusing to talk to the policymakers,” Yesilkagit said.

“This group of angry farmers have become a catalyst of national and international anti-state groups, many of which emerged during the coronavirus crisis,” Yesilkagit said, referring also to recent comments from France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen and former U.S. President Donald Trump, who have framed the Dutch government's plans as "climate tyranny" out to oppress hard-working citizens.

“Politicians, particularly in the center and on the right, don’t want to speak too harshly about the farmers’ actions because they are afraid it will cost them more voters,” said Yesilkagit.

Rutte's declining popularity has also heightened the unease within the VVD over his future. More party insiders are calling for him to step aside in the next general election, due in 2024.

Rutte himself doesn’t think his expiration date is yet in sight.

"I feel that I'm gradually approaching the halfway point," he joked before the summer break. "But in all those years, I've never felt like I’m done. Not for a second. It is the most beautiful job in the world.”

AP: Offended China cuts ties with America

China says it is canceling or suspending dialogue with the U.S. on issues from climate change to military relations and anti-drug efforts in retaliation for a visit this week to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The measures announced Friday are the latest in a promised series of steps intended to punish Washington for allowing the visit to the island it claims as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary.

China said Friday that more than 100 warplanes and 10 warships have taken part in live-fire military drills surrounding Taiwan over the past two days, while announcing unspecified sanctions on Pelosi and her family.

Such sanctions are generally mostly symbolic in nature.

China is at present conducting demonstrative military exercises in six zones off the coast of Taiwan.

Missiles were also fired over Taiwan, defense officials told state media.

China opposes the self-governing island having its own engagements with foreign governments.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Friday that fighters, bombers, destroyers and frigates were all used in what it called “joint blockage operations” taking place in six zones off the coast of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory.

The military’s Eastern Theater Command also fired new versions of missiles it said hit unidentified targets in the Taiwan Strait “with precision.”

The Rocket Force also fired projectiles over Taiwan into the Pacific, military officers told state media, in a major ratcheting up of China’s threats to attack and invade the island.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said that Pelosi had disregarded China’s serious concerns and resolute opposition to her visit. It called Pelosi’s visit provocative and said it undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Five of the missiles fired by China since the military exercises began Thursday landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone off Hateruma, an island far south of Japan’s main islands, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said. He said Japan protested the missile landings to China as “serious threats to Japan’s national security and the safety of the Japanese people.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday that China’s military exercises aimed at Taiwan represent a “grave problem” that threatens regional peace and security.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China’s actions were in line with “international law and international practices,” though she provided no evidence.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday called the drills a “significant escalation” and said he has urged Beijing to back down.

Blinken told reporters that Pelosi’s visit was peaceful and did not represent a change in American policy toward Taiwan, accusing China of using it as a “pretext to increase provocative military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait.”

China’s insistence that Taiwan is its territory and threat to use force to bring it under its control has featured highly in ruling Communist Party propaganda, the education system and the entirely state-controlled media for the more than seven decades since the sides divided amid civil war in 1949.

Island residents overwhelmingly favor maintaining the status quo of de facto independence and reject China’s demands that Taiwan unify with the mainland under Communist control.

BBC: Arms dealer and murderer in exchange for sportswoman with hash oil in backpack

The US has urged Moscow to accept a deal to free basketball player Brittney Griner, who has been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison.

The double Olympic winner was convicted of possessing and smuggling drugs after admitting to possessing cannabis oil.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the US offer was "a serious proposal", but gave no details.

On Friday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow is ready to discuss the topic.

US media reports suggest Washington is offering a prisoner swap involving a Russian arms trafficker.

Viktor Bout - known as the "merchant of death" - is serving a 25 year-prison sentence in the US.

He could be transferred by Washington to the Russian authorities in exchange for Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, the reports say.

Whelan, who has US, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail in Russia after being convicted of spying.

Mr Kirby told reporters that the duo were being wrongfully detained and needed to be let go.

On the subject of the US proposal, Mr Kirby said: "We urge them to accept it. They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it."

But according to Reuters news agency, one stumbling block is that Russia wants to add convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov, who is in prison in Germany, to the proposed swap.

When questioned about this possibility, Mr Kirby dismissed it, saying: "I don't think we go so far as to even call it a counter-offer."

Griner, 31, told the court she had made an "honest mistake" and had not intended to break the law.

Considered one of the best female players in the world, she was detained in February at an airport near Moscow when vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage. She had come to Russia to play club basketball during the US off-season.

Soon afterwards, Russia invaded Ukraine and her case has become subject to high-profile diplomacy between the US and Russia.

Her defence team said they would appeal against the verdict.

US President Joe Biden called her sentencing "unacceptable", adding: "I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates."

Meanwhile Secretary of State Antony Blinken added:

"Russia, and any country engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone travelling, working and living abroad."

A day after Griner's sentencing, Mr Lavrov said that Moscow is ready to discuss the topic of prisoner exchanges with Washington, but within the framework of an existing diplomatic channel agreed upon by Presidents Putin and Biden, Reuters news agency quotes him as saying.

Both Mr Lavrov and Mr Blinken are now in Cambodia for a meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations.

Reuters: NATO coordinates arms production for Ukraine

NATO members are working closely with defence companies to ensure Ukraine gets more supplies of weapons and equipment to be prepared for the long haul in its war with Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

"We are providing a lot of support but we need to do even more and be prepared for the long haul," Stoltenberg told Reuters in an interview.

"Therefore we're also now in close contact and working closely with the defence industry to produce more and to deliver more of different types of ammunition, weapons and capabilities," he said.

In recent months, the United States and other Western countries have begun shipping more advanced conventional weapons systems to Ukraine, including high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) that offer a longer range and more precision.

Stoltenberg said separately in a speech in Norway to local Labour party activists on Thursday that Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a "special military operation", had created the most dangerous moment for Europe since World War Two and that Russia could not be allowed to win.

NATO Secretary-General also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of engaging in "reckless and dangerous" rhetoric regarding the potential use of nuclear arms.

While NATO members are not directly involved in the war, NATO is closely involved in coordinating the Western response to the invasion.

Stoltenberg reiterated his position that the war would likely end only after negotiations.

"We know most wars end at the negotiating table. We also know that the outcome of those negotiations will be totally dependent on the strength on the battlefield," he told Reuters.

"It's not for me to tell Ukraine what those terms exactly should be. It's for me and NATO to support them to strengthen their hands, so we maximize the likelihood of an acceptable solution," reiterating similar comments he made in June.

The war has led previously non-aligned Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership, with the request so far ratified by 23 of the 30 member states, including the United States.

"This is the fastest accession protocol in NATO's modern history. I expect the other seven remaining allies to do the same," Stoltenberg said.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva