Part 1

ROMEItalian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte won the backing of the upper house of parliament on Tuesday, leaving him clinging to power but with a weakened, minority government. 

Conte won a majority in a vote of confidence in the Senate, but fell short of an absolute majority.  

After weeks of infighting, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi triggered the vote, pulling his centrist Italia Viva party out of the governing coalition and plunging Italy into political chaos. Renzi blamed differences over the country’s post-coronavirus economic recovery plan.

Conte, who is not a member of a political party but leads a coalition of the anti-establishment 5Star Movement and the leftist Democratic Party, won the Senate vote by 156 to 140, after appealing to senators to ensure stability as the country struggles through an economic and health crisis. He needed 161 votes for an absolute majority. Most senators in Renzi’s Italia Viva abstained, which was critical for Conte’s survival.

Part 2

Earlier Tuesday, Conte made an emotive appeal to senators, pleading for support and saying a political crisis at this time was “incomprehensible” to ordinary Italians. “This country deserves a cohesive government to work for its people and favor an economic recovery. There is a lot of urgent work to do … to make the country safe and bring it out of pandemic.” 

He called for lawmakers from “pro-European, liberal, socialist forces” to work together against nationalist parties, offering to bring in a proportional representation system that would help small centrist parties and hinted at a Cabinet reshuffle. 

The vote removes the immediate threat to his position but he will likely need to enlarge his majority by persuading senators from Italia Viva and independents to join the ruling coalition. Conte was supported by senators without political alignment as well as two senators from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and one from Italia Viva.

Political analyst Wolfango Piccoli of Teneo said Conte was now leading “an extremely precarious governing arrangement that would risk collapse at any divisive vote in the coming months.

“Policymaking is set to become even more complicated as the government will often find itself at the mercy of the opposition’s benevolence,” Piccoli said.

Daniele Albertazzi, a researcher in European politics at the University of Birmingham, said the government had been left “very weak.”

“Conte may have to go back and talk to Renzi,” he said.


Part 1

Navalny escalates battle with Putin as EU officials demand his release

Russian opposition figure publishes an exposé of lavish palace, calling it ‘biggest bribe in history.’

Alexei Navalny isn’t waiting for the West to come to his rescue.

As top EU officials noisily demanded his release but took no concrete action, Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was immediately arrested upon his return to Moscow after recovering in Germany from an assassination attempt, escalated his battle with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

With Navalny jailed for at least 30 days in the notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison, he and his anti-corruption foundation released a searing exposé about a lavish palace on the Black Sea that they allege was built for Putin by his cronies using the proceeds of decades of corruption, in what they labeled “the biggest bribe in history.”

Part 2

The stunning multimedia display simultaneously mocked Putin as a madman obsessed with wealth, disclosed the architectural plans of the heavily-guarded compound, and even revealed minute details about the ostentatious furnishings, including the cost of tables and sofas. Throughout the report, which was written in Navalny’s voice, there were dashes of his trademark acerbic humor.

Vladimir Vladimirovich turned out to be a great lover of sofas,” the report stated. “According to our calculations, there are 47 of these pieces of furniture in his palace. I wonder if he sits on every one or only on the most expensive ones?”

Navalny’s brazen willingness to continue taking the fight directly to Putin emphasized his bravery (critics would say stupidity) in returning to Russia, where agents of the federal security service allegedly tried to kill him in August.

But it also illustrated the limited ability of Western powers to aid his crusade for democracy: German doctors could help save Navalny’s life after he was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent, but the EU and the U.S. have been unable to pressure the Kremlin into ending its repression of political dissent.

During a debate in the European Parliament plenary on Tuesday, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, led the West’s condemnation cavalry. He denounced Navalny’s arrest as “unacceptable,” demanded his release, expressed relief that he survived the poisoning attack, and noted that in response, the EU in September imposed sanctions on six individuals and a state research institute.

“Any further decision on sanctions is for the Council to take,” Borrell said, a rather equivocal statement given he will lead a discussion of Navalny’s situation in the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday. EU ambassadors are due to discuss the case on Wednesday, but are also not expected to take any immediate concrete steps.

Part 3

During the debate, some MEPs called for sanctioning Russian officials who participated in Navalny’s arrest or in the poisoning attack. Several were identified in an investigation by the Bellingcat news site, in which Navalny himself collaborated. Posing as a high-ranking security official, Navalny telephoned one of his alleged attackers, and elicited incriminating statements, in what amounted to a humiliating blow to the Federal Security Service, the FSB.

In testimony to the European Parliament in November, Navalny had urged the EU not to focus on mid-ranking officers of the special services, but rather on the super-wealthy oligarchs close to Putin, many of whom maintain assets in Europe. And on Tuesday one of Navalny’s close associates, Vladimir Ashurkov, published a list of eight names that he said Navalny hoped the West would penalize first. The list included Alisher Usmanov and Roman Abramovich, billionaires who own stakes in U.K. football clubs; as well as Denis Bortnikov, the son of the FSB director, Alexander Bortnikov; and Igor Shuvalov, a Putin ally who is chairman of Vnesheconombank.

In an interview with POLITICO, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition activist who suffered two near-fatal poisoning attacks, urged the EU to impose sanctions on those eight individuals. “Is there anything the West can do, yes there is,” Kara-Murza said. “There have been all these sanctions in recent years, but they were never targeted directly at the most important people.”

In November, Navalny and Kara-Murza told the Parliament that oligarchs close to Putin were getting rich in Russia, and then safeguarding their wealth in the West, buying real estate, yachts and other luxury items. “For years and years, the West turned a blind eye to this,” Kara-Murza said. “It’s high time to put a stop to this. This goes both for the incoming Biden administration and for the European Union.”

Navalny rose to prominence as an anti-corruption crusader, but his battle with Putin has been personal at least since 2014 when Navalny and his brother, Oleg, were convicted on trumped-up fraud charges. Navalny was freed on a suspended sentence, but his brother was sentenced to three and half years in prison, a decision that left the usually unflappable opposition leader in tears, shouting at the judge, “Aren’t you ashamed?”

Russian authorities said Navalny was arrested on Sunday for violating terms of that suspended sentence in 2014.

Part 4

Kara-Murza said that despite the personal danger, Navalny had no choice but to return to Russia and continue their fight to turn it into “a normal European country.”

“He made the only possible call,” Kara-Murza said. “We know how Putin’s regime deals with opponents. We know what the stakes are.”

The Kremlin similarly seemed to have little choice but to arrest Navalny after taking numerous steps that seemed intended to dissuade him from returning home, including a raid of his offices in November, and warnings that he would be detained.

“The immediate offense that Alexei committed was not registering for his parole,” Kara-Murza said. “The reason he didn’t register is he was recovering from a state sponsored attack. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Adding to the absurdity, Putin, who avoids ever uttering Navalny’s name, had taken credit during his annual news conference for allowing Navalny to leave Russia for treatment. Referring to him as the “Berlin clinic patient,” Putin also denigrated Navalny for never holding a position of responsibility, an ironic criticism given the Kremlin has gone to great lengths at various times to disqualify Navalny from running for public office.

Navalny and his supporters are now focused on the September elections for the Russian Duma, in which they are hoping to carry out a concerted strategy, which they have branded “smart voting,” in which opposition groups agree to support any one candidate that isn’t allied with Putin.

In a statement issued from prison on Tuesday, Navalny compared his cell to his hospital room in Germany, noting that they were very similar but his bed in jail doesn’t have a remote control to adjust the supports for his legs and back. His humor appeared to be intact.

“Here they aren’t sticking needles with tubes in my body and aren’t connecting wires to me (at least not yet),” Navalny said. “And they also speak my native language. A big plus.”

​​Turkey-Iraq, as well as Turkey-Erbil cooperation, will bring important developments in the coming period in fighting terrorism, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar says following his visit to the neighbouring country.

Turkey is closely following developments in Iraq’s Sinjar district, the Turkish defence minister has said, stressing that Ankara is ready to support clearing the region of terrorists.

«Turkey is ready to provide support for eliminating terrorists in Iraq’s Sinjar region if needed,» Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday following his official visit to Iraq.

He noted that Turkey-Iraq, as well as Turkey-Erbil, cooperation will bring important developments in the coming period in fighting terrorism.

«We can say that we are determined to end the terrorists as a result of our cooperation with both the regional administration and Baghdad,» he added.

Sinjar deal

Iraqi security forces started to implement a deployment plan on December 1 in the centre of the Sinjar district of Iraq’s Nineveh province to enhance stability and security in the area and enable displaced locals to return home.

The Sinjar deal, inked under the auspices of the UN on the status of the region, seeks to clear the region of the PKK terrorists.

The PKK terror group managed to establish a foothold in Sinjar in 2014 under the pretext of protecting the Ezidi community from Daesh terrorists.

In its more than 30-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK, listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU, has been responsible for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people.

​​Part 1

Tunisia seeks to stem wave of night-time street riots

Defying movement restrictions aimed at reining in spiralling novel coronavirus infections, students and activists have flocked to a key boulevard in Tunis, shouting slogans against poverty, corruption and police repression.

Tunisia has seen angry daytime protests against the government, following four nights of confrontations between police and disaffected youths that has led to hundreds of arrests.

Defying movement restrictions on Tuesday, aimed at reining in spiralling novel coronavirus infections, students and activists flocked to a key boulevard in Tunis, shouting slogans against poverty, corruption and police repression.

«There’s despair everywhere. The virus comes on top of poverty and unemployment. Ten years (since the revolution), our demands still haven’t been met,» said Donia Mejri, a 21-year-old student.

Protests in Tunis and the coastal city of Sfax, organised via social media, came after nights of rioting with young people lobbing rocks at police in exchange for teargas, and more than 600 people arrested by Monday.

«The crisis is real and the anger is legitimate and so are the protests, but the violence is unacceptable and we will confront it with the force of law,» Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said in a televised speech on Tuesday night, after protests appeared to have died down.

Much of the unrest has hit working class neighbourhoods, where anger is boiling over soaring unemployment and a political class accused of having failed to deliver good governance a decade on from the 2011 revolution.

President Kais Saied urged young Tunisians to refrain from further violence even as social media posts called for new rallies.

«Do not attack or insult anyone and do not damage private property or state institutions,» he said on Monday, warning that «chaos» does not allow progress.

‘We want our rights’

But Ghazi Tayari, a civil society activist in Sfax, said the daytime protesters had «no desire to destroy or steal».

«We want our rights, and we won’t stop until this government falls,» he said.

Tunisia’s tourism-reliant economy shrank by nine percent last year, consumer prices have spiralled and one third of young people are unemployed.

Tunisia often sees protests in January, a month of several key anniversaries including former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s fall from power on January 14, 2011.

Large gatherings are banned due to the coronavirus pandemic and police have been deployed, with an overnight curfew extended from 8:00 pm to 4:00 pm.

​​Part 2

‘Denial of the anger’

Tunisia’s divided political leadership has stayed largely silent on the protests by youths dismissed by many commentators as «delinquents».

Messages posted online on Tuesday called for protests to keep going, and activists warned demonstrations were likely to continue until major action was taken to address the root cause of anger.

«There is a denial and an underestimation of the anger among young people,» said Olfa Lamloum, who heads the International Alert peace-building campaign group.

Tunisia’s 11 successive governments since the ousting of Ben Ali «have not had a strategy to answer the central question of employment», she said.

Lamloum, who works in some of the most deprived areas of the country, warned that «as long as there is a purely security response, with mass arrests, and no social or political response, tensions will remain high».

The social unrest comes at a time of economic crisis, worsened by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, that has deepened poverty.

Widespread popular discontent is now driving many to leave.

Tunisians made up the largest number of irregular migrants, more than 12,000, who arrived in Italy last year on boats crossing the Mediterranean.

Clashes in towns

In the latest unrest, hundreds of youths in the capital battled police in several districts, including the vast Ettadhamen suburb.

In Sfax, the second largest city, protesters blockaded roads with burning tyres, an AFP correspondent reported.

Clashes were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Le Kef, Bizerte, Kasserine, Sousse and Monastir.

The powerful Tunisian trade union confederation UGTT has called for an end to the violence, while noting that the constitution guarantees the right to demonstrate.