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A Belarusian model who claimed to have evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has apologized to a Russian tycoon as she also proclaimed her innocence of prostitution-related charges against her.

Anastasia Vashukevich, who is also known as Nastya Rybka, told reporters in the Nagatinsky district court in Moscow on January 19 that she was “not guilty of what I am accused of” and pledged not to “compromise” Russian billionaire businessman Oleg Deripaska.

She previously said she had audio of the tycoon talking about Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. election.

The Moscow court ruled that her detention would be extended by three days, until January 22, as the charges of involvement in prostitution against her and her mentor, Aleksandr Kirillov, are investigated.

“Guys, please pass my apologies to Oleg Deripaska and [Russian politician and former Deputy Prime Minister] Sergei Prikhodko,” she told reporters in the courtroom. “I am very sorry that everything happened that way. I am sincerely ashamed of what happened. I do not want to aggravate [the situation] so I personally apologize to Oleg [Deripaska]. All this was in order to attract his personal attention, nobody else’s, only his.”

Vashukevich was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on January 17 after being deported from Thailand, where she had spent about nine months in prison on prostitution charges.

Also detained in Moscow was Kirillov, a self-styled Russian sex guru also known as Alex Lesley, and two others, named by Interfax as Andrei Zhezhka and Maria Zharkova.

Vashukevich gained worldwide attention in February 2018, when Russian anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny published an expose appearing to show then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister Prikhodko off the coast of Norway on a yacht belonging to Deripaska.

Navalny’s report, which drew on photographs and video that Vashukevich published on Instagram in 2016, appeared to show Prikhodko being offered lavish treatment on Deripaska’s yacht. The two also appear to discuss U.S. politics.

Vashukevich, who was pictured on the yacht with the two men, says she had an affair with Deripaska.

Vashukevich and Kirillov made international headlines again when they asked for asylum in the United States while detained in Thailand.

Vashukevich claimed that she could reveal details about Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election with hours of audiotapes as evidence.

Deripaska, one of several Russian tycoons hit by U.S. sanctions, was once an associate of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was convicted last year in the United States of tax and bank fraud.

Vashukevich has more than 120,000 followers on Instagram and has authored a book about seducing oligarchs.

But she and Kirillov face other legal problems in Russia as Deripaska won an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the two in July over the video that showed Deripaska vacationing with Prikhodko.

Deripaska is among the Russian tycoons and officials who have been sanctioned in recent years by the United States in connection with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. His business empire includes aluminum, energy, and construction assets.

With reporting by AP, Interfax, and TASS

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A court in Russia has denied bail to an American man being held on spying charges.

Paul Whelan, a dual U.S.-British citizen and former U.S. Marine, was arrested December 28 for what the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said was “carrying out an act of espionage,” without specifying exactly what he was accused of doing.

His family has said he is innocent.

The 48-year-old appeared in the Moscow court Tuesday seeking to be released from custody while his case goes forward, but the judge did not approve the request.

There is speculation the Russians might try to use Whelan as leverage for the release of Russia’s Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty to infiltrating America’s conservative political movement as a Kremlin-directed agent. Butina was convicted of acting as a foreign agent in the United States.

The Kremlin has dismissed the idea of Whelan being held for a possible prisoner swap.

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On a wintry day more than half a century ago, France and West Germany signed a treaty aimed at turning the page on centuries of conflict that included two devastating world wars. 

With a deepening Cold War as a backdrop, European unity was limited to a six-member common market, one that initially rejected Britain’s application. Few would have predicted the treaty in January 1963 would help cement a French-German powerhouse driving what eventually became the 28-member European Union.

Exactly 56 years later, a new pact French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are to sign Tuesday carries its own set of challenges. Both leaders are weakened at home, and the EU is struggling with Brexit turmoil, rising nationalism, and divisions over basic issues like migration, the economy and defense.

Some analysts have dismissed the new “Aachen treaty” as lacking substance, while far-right French nationalists have floated false warnings that Paris plans to cede part of its territory and U.N. seat to Berlin. More broadly, the pact raises a broader question: How much does French-German cooperation count in today’s fissured Europe?

“It used to be the case that when France and Germany agreed on something, it more or less eventually became an EU decision,” said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Now, that is not enough anymore.”

The new agreement aims to deepen French-German cooperation in education, the environment, security and economic policy, among other areas.

The German town of Aachen, known in French as Aix-la-Chapelle, is highly symbolic. It was once the capital of medieval Frankish emperor Charlemagne. A year before World War II’s end, it became the first German town captured by allies following a devastating battle.

Treaty falls short

But critics say the new treaty falls far short of lofty ambitions for a more powerful and unified Europe, goals Macron outlined in a 2017 speech, months after taking office. “A new pact, little ambition,” France’s Le Monde newspaper wrote, previewing the deal.

“It’s a basis on which we can work from, but it reflects the limits of both governments,” Joachim Bitterlich, former adviser to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, in remarks carried by France’s Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, in which he outlined shortcomings in areas like migration and energy cooperation.

Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky outlined several obstacles he believes hamper the agreement, such as divergent German-French interests in areas like defense and economic cooperation.

“Symbolic expressions of solidarity are important in these times of disunity and fracturing,” he wrote in a Bloomberg column. “But in real life, working together is tough, even for partners with the best of intentions.”

​Low point for Europe

Macron and Merkel meet at a low point in their tenures as leaders. The German chancellor is eyeing the exit, having ceded control of her Christian Democratic Union party to an ally, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Macron has seen his popularity sink to record lows, amid ongoing “yellow vest” protests against his reforms and the rising cost of living.

While the European Union has displayed unity in Brexit negotiations with Britain, the bloc is divided in many others ways, even as nationalist parties are expected to solidify their growing clout in European Parliament elections this May.

“Britain is leaving. Italy is run by populists. Spain has a minority government. Poland and Hungary are run by illiberal parties,” The Economist magazine wrote, summing up some of the roadblocks, “and no government wants to give institutions in Brussels more power to take the lead.”

In France, the yellow vest protesters have spread rumors originating from the hard-right that Macron aims to cede the Alsace-Lorraine region to Germany, while far-right leader Marine Le Pen suggested the Aachen pact envisions sharing France’s permanent U.N. Security Council seat with Berlin — claims the French presidency dismisses as “obviously false.” The treaty stipulates, in fact, that both countries will prioritize seeking a permanent Security Council seat for Germany.

No alternatives

Yet few EU analysts see an alternative to France and Germany as the ultimate glue binding the bloc, and some believe even symbolic affirmations of unity matter.

“After Brexit, after the migration crisis, after everything we’ve had, let’s simply make the political statement that we 27 EU member states would like to continue and improve European Union cooperation,” said Frantisek Ruzicka, Slovakia’s state secretary for European Affairs, during a recent visit to Paris. Without strong French-German cooperation, he added, “European cooperation will not exist.”

The Aachen treaty “is there to remind both countries and the rest of Europe that even when they don’t see eye to eye, even when it’s difficult, this relationship is important,” said Lafont Rapnouil of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Both countries believe it’s important, and that’s where everything starts.”

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France’s data watchdog fined Google nearly $57 million on Monday, saying the tech giant failed to provide users with transparent information on its data consumer policies and how their personal information was used to display advertising targeting them.

The French agency CNIL said U.S.-based Google made it too difficult for internet users to understand and manage their personal preferences online.

“The information provided is not sufficiently clear,” the regulatory agency said, “for the user to understand the legal basis for targeted advertising is consent, and not Google’s legitimate business interests.”

It was the first ruling using the European Union’s strict new General Data Protection Regulation since it was implemented last year, a sweeping set of rules that has set a global standard forcing large American technology firms to examine their practices or risk huge fines.

Google said it was studying the ruling to determine its next steps.

“People expect high standards of transparency and control from us,” Google said. “We’re deeply committed to meeting those expectations and the consent requirements” of the new regulations.

 

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Sweden’s foreign minister said Monday she hopes talks between American, South Korean and North Korean diplomats her country is hosting “will serve as a good preparation for an upcoming summit” between U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told Swedish news agency TT that experts in nuclear disarmament, economic development and regional security attended the diplomats’ meeting in Sweden.

 

The first meeting ever to bring the leaders of North Korea and the United States face-to-face took place in June when Kim and Trump met in Singapore.

 

Trump said Saturday he is aiming to have a second summit in late February with the goal of producing a deal attractive enough to persuade Kim to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

 

Lee Do-hoon of South Korea and Steve Biegun, U.S. special envoy for North Korea negotiations, planned to attend “small format” talks with North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said Sunday

 

The Swedish government and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent think-thank focused on research on conflicts, armaments and arms control, were co-hosting the talks.

 

Wallstrom didn’t disclose the venue or schedule for the talks. Swedish media said they were thought to be underway at Hackholmssund, a conference center northwest of Stockholm on Lake Malaren.

 

Sweden has had diplomatic relations with North Korea since 1973 and is one of only a few Western countries with an embassy there. It provides consular services for the United States.

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Germany has banned Iran’s Mahan Air from landing in the country with immediate effect, citing security concerns and the airline’s involvement in Syria, officials said Monday.

Mahan Air is on a U.S. sanctions list and Washington has long urged allies to ban the airline from their territory.

The decision to ban it came after consultations with European allies and the U.S., Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters.

“It cannot be ruled out that this airline carries out transports to Germany that affect our security concerns,” he said.

“This is especially true against the backdrop of terrorist activities, intelligence on terrorist activities from the Iranian side and Iranian entities in Europe in the past.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the German decision.

“The airline transports weapons and fighters across the Middle East, supporting the Iranian regime’s destructive ambitions around the region,” he said in a tweet. “We encourage all our allies to follow suit.”

The airline had several weekly flights between Tehran and German cities.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger said the decision was taken to safeguard Germany’s “foreign and security policy interests,” citing increasing evidence of Iranian intelligence activity in Europe.

In addition, he said the airline has ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and provides military transport flights to Syria. Iran has supported Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

The move comes at a time of particularly sensitive relations with Iran. Germany plays a large role in trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull out last year.

It was the latest of several issues, however, that have caused friction.

Among other things, German prosecutors said last week they had detained a 50-year-old German-Afghan dual citizen who had worked as a translator for the army on suspicion he had been spying for Iran.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations on the weekend, saying that “enemies” were aiming to “sour relations” between Iran and Europe.

And last year, Germany’s central bank changed its conditions allowing it to block transfers unless it receives assurances a transaction doesn’t violate financial sanctions or money-laundering rules – prompting Iran to rescind a request to repatriate 300 million euros ($341 million) from a Hamburg-based bank.

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani says Trump’s discussions with Russian officials over construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow went on throughout the time he was campaigning for the White House in 2016, months longer than previously acknowledged.

“It’s our understanding that they went on throughout 2016,” Giuliani told NBC’s Meet the Press. Giuliani said there “weren’t a lot of them, but there were conversations.  Can’t be sure of the exact date.”

“Probably could be up to as far as October, November — our answers cover until the election,” Giuliani said, referring to written questions Trump has answered from special counsel Robert Mueller, who for 20 months has been investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia and whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.

“So anytime during that period they could’ve talked about it,” Giuliani said. “But the president’s recollection of it is that the thing had petered out (subsided) quite a bit,” and the construction project never materialized.  During the early stages of the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump often said he had no business ties to Russia.

Giuliani, a former New York mayor, said that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, “would have a much better recollection of [the Moscow negotiations] than the president. It was much more important to him. That was his sole mission. The president was running for president of the United States.  So you have to expect there’s not going to be a great deal of concentration on a project that never went anywhere.”

‘Big news’

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the lead Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee that has been investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia, said on the NBC show the length of Trump’s efforts to build a Moscow skyscraper, extending into the November 2016 national election, was “news to me, and that is big news.  Why, two years after the fact, are we just learning this fact now when there’s been this much inquiry?”

Warner added, “I would think most voters — Democrat, Republican, independent, you name it — that knowing the Republican nominee was actively trying to do business in Moscow, that the Republican nominee at least at one point had offered, if he built this building, Vladimir Putin, a free-penthouse apartment, and if those negotiations were ongoing up until the election, I think that’s a relevant fact for voters to know.  And I think it’s remarkable we are two years after the fact and just discovering it today.”

Cohen has pleaded guilty to, among other offenses, lying to Congress about the extent of Trump’s involvement with the Moscow project, telling a congressional panel that Trump’s efforts ended in January 2016, just as the Republican presidential nominating contests were starting three years ago.  He has said he lied to comport with Trump’s own public comments to voters, but more recently has said he recalls the Moscow discussions extending to June 2016, a shorter time frame than Giuliani acknowledged Sunday.

The online news site BuzzFeed said last week that Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Moscow timeline, but Mueller’s office late Friday said the report was “not accurate.”  BuzzFeed said it continues to stand by the story.

In a separate interview on CNN, Giuliani said he had “no knowledge” of whether Trump talked to Cohen before his congressional testimony.

Mueller is believed to be writing a report on his findings from his lengthy investigation.  He and other federal prosecutors have secured convictions or guilty pleas from several key figures in Trump’s orbit, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, campaign aide Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos and Cohen.

 

 

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Protests turned violent Sunday between Greek demonstrators and police as tens of thousands of people converged on Athens to oppose a name-change deal with Macedonia.

Greece has long protested the name Macedonia, adopted by its northern neighbor after it split from Yugoslavia.

Greeks say Macedonia’s new name — the Republic of North Macedonia — represents an attempt to appropriate Greek identity and cultural heritage, because Macedonia is also the name of Greece’s northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.

The protests Sunday started out peacefully but later in the day demonstrators threw rocks, firebombs and other items at police, who responded with numerous volleys of tear gas. At least 25 officers and dozens of people were injured in the clashes, officials said. Police said at least seven people had been arrested, according to the Associated Press.

The Greek parliament is expected to vote on the deal later this week, in which Macedonia will change its name and Greece will drop its objections to the Balkan country joining NATO and the European Union.

 

A nationwide poll in Greece this week found that 70 percent of respondents oppose the deal, AP reported.

The agreement has caused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to lose his four-year coalition in parliament after his nationalist allies defected to protest the deal. Following the upheaval, Tsipras narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament on Wednesday.

 

Tsipras has called for a televised debate on the planned name deal with Macedonia before parliament votes on the agreement.

 

The Greek prime minister and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, brokered the compromise in June to end a 27-year name dispute between the two neighbors.

 

Last week, Macedonia’s parliament approved a constitutional revision to change the country’s name. The agreement has also caused protests in Macedonia, with critics there saying the government gave up too much in the deal.

 

Tsipras has argued the Macedonia deal will bolster stability in Europe’s Balkan region. EU countries have also strongly backed the deal.

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