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Five Czech parties sign deal to form government, oust Babis

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November 8, 2021

By Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech Republic’s prospective new centre-right prime minister promised rapid change on Monday, after reaching an agreement among a coalition of five parties to form a government and oust Prime Minister Andrej Babis following an election last month.

The parties – ranging from the mildly eurosceptic Civic Democrats to the progressive Pirate Party – pledged to cut budget deficits, which have spiralled since last year amid the pandemic and hikes in pensions and wages.

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“We need to solve the problems which trouble the people as fast as possible, and to lead the country out of the several crises it has been in – health, economic, and a crisis of values,” prospective premier Petr Fiala said at the signing ceremony.

Grouped in two coalitions – Together and Pirates-Mayors – the parties won 108 seats in the 200-member lower house of parliament in the Oct. 8-9 election.

During campaigning they said they were united by a desire to oust Babis, accusing him of conflicts of interest as the wealthy founder of the Agrofert chemicals, food and media empire. Babis has regularly denied any wrongdoing and put his firms in trust funds in 2017 before he became prime minister.

Fiala, 57, is a historian and political scientist who took over the Civic Democrats seven years ago at the start of a long stint in opposition. He has ironed out differences in the new coalition with a consensual, soft-spoken style.

Apart from a fiscal deficit expected to exceed 7% of GDP this year, the new government will face surging energy prices, a new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of EU climate policies on one of the bloc’s most industrialised countries.

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The Czechs will hold the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2022, and the coalition said it would aim to phase out domestic coal before the current cutoff in 2038.

In foreign policy, it pledged to build on the country’s pro-western roots in the EU and NATO and revive focus on human rights-based policies championed by the late President Vaclav Havel. It would raise defence spending to the NATO target of 2% of GDP by 2025, and exclude Russia and China from a tender to build a new nuclear power plant, on security grounds.

Questions may arise around relations within the Visegrad Group with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. The Pirates who will have the foreign ministry have been critical of Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orban, while Fiala’s Civic Democrats have taken a conciliatory tone.

Fiala can be appointed by President Milos Zeman after the outgoing government resigns following the opening session of parliament, which starts on Monday and is expected to last several days. Appointing the cabinet could take several more weeks as Zeman has been hospitalised since Oct. 10, suffering from what one doctor last week said was liver disease.

(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka;Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Heavens)

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Russian court remands mine director, inspectors in custody after deadly accident

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November 27, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A court in Siberia on Saturday remanded five people in custody for two months to face charges related to a mining accident that killed more than 50 people this week.

Three managers of the Listvyazhnaya mine, including its director, were ordered to remain in custody until late January for flouting industrial safety standards, a spokesperson for the regional prosecutor’s office said.

The court also ordered two safety inspectors, who had issued a certificate for the mine this month but had not actually checked the facility, to remain in custody until late January.

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The accident, which regional authorities say was likely caused by a methane explosion, claimed the lives of 51 people, including five rescuers who were sent to bring out dozens of men stuck deep underground.

The health ministry said on Saturday that 60 people were being treated in hospital for injuries sustained at the mine, TASS news agency reported.

The accident at the mine, located some 3,500 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow in the Kemerovo region, was Russia’s worst since 2010 when explosions killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same region.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Christina Fincher)

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Russia spy chief says Ukraine invasion plan ‘malicious’ U.S. propaganda

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November 27, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine and suggestions to the contrary are malicious U.S. propaganda, Moscow’s foreign intelligence chief said on Saturday.

U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials have raised the alarm in recent weeks over what they say are unusual Russian troop movements near the border with Ukraine, suggesting that Moscow may be poised to launch an attack.

Russia has repeatedly said it is free to move its troops on its own territory and that such movements should not be a cause for concern.

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“I need to reassure everyone. Nothing like this is going to happen,” Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, said in an interview broadcast on state television, referring to comments on Russia’s alleged invasion plans.

“Everything that is happening around this topic right now is of course malicious propaganda by the U.S. State Department.”

Naryshkin spoke a day after the State Department’s top U.S. diplomat for European affairs said all options were on the table in how to respond to Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine’s border and that NATO would decide on the next move after consultations next week.

While U.S. officials have voiced concerns about a possible Russian attack on Ukraine, Moscow has accused Washington, Kyiv and NATO of provocative and irresponsible behaviour near its borders.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Spanish police march in Madrid to protest against ‘Gag Law’ reform

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November 27, 2021

By Miguel Gutierrez and Marco Trujillo

MADRID (Reuters) – Thousands of Spanish police officers marched through Madrid on Saturday to protest against a proposed reform of a security law which they say will hamper their ability to do their work.

Politicians from Spain’s three main conservative parties joined police officers in the protest against proposed changes to the 2015 Citizens Security Law, which critics say violates the right to protest and limits free expression.

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Dubbed the “Gag Law” by those who oppose it, the legislation allows authorities to fine media organisations for distributing unauthorised images of police, strictly limits demonstrations and imposes heavy fines for offenders.

Spain’s leftist government has proposed reforms including no longer classifying the taking of photographs or making of recordings of police at demonstrations as a serious offence.

Under the changes, police will also have to use less harmful materials at protests after a number of people were seriously injured by rubber bullets fired by officers.

The time that suspects who are arrested at protests can be held in custody will be cut from six hours to two and fines will be proportional to how much offenders earn.

“They should either leave the current law as it is or make it better for the police and for the citizens,” Civil Guard officer Vanessa Gonzalez told Reuters.

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Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, of the far-right Vox party, said: “There is strong opposition against (the reform) of this law. It is against our police and we will not let it happen.”

However, Isa Serra, spokeswoman for the far-left Unidas Podemos party, said at a rally in Cantabria in northern Spain that the law had done a “lot of damage to Spanish democracy”.

Organisers said 150,000 people took part in the Madrid demonstration but the government put the figure at 20,000.

(Reporting by Graham Keeley, Miguel Gutierrez and Marco Trujillo; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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