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This story originated in VOA’s Macedonian Service. 

WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers may vote to approve North Macedonia as the 30th member of NATO as early as next month, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator James Risch.

“The process is that we need to have a hearing on it in the Foreign Relations Committee, and I have tentatively scheduled that for approximately two weeks from now,” the junior Idaho Republican senator told VOA’s Macedonian Service. “Then, as far as when it will be finalized, it goes to the Senate floor, and we would very much like to have that done in June, and we are cautiously optimistic that we can get that done in June.”

North Macedonia’s long-standing bid to join the military alliance was blocked for more than a decade because of a name dispute with neighboring Greece, which has a province called Macedonia.

North Macedonia, formerly known as Macedonia, changed its name under the Prespa Agreement in June 2018 with Greece, opening the path to NATO and EU membership.

North Macedonia’s accession protocol was signed by all member states in Brussels on Feb. 6. The accession process continues in the capital of each allied nation, where individual protocols are ratified according to national procedures.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has praised the country as a “steadfast security partner,” submitted its NATO accession protocol to the Senate for ratification on April 30.

North Macedonia’s full accession to the alliance would represent a blow to Russia, which opposes NATO expansion and, therefore, the country’s accession.

Asked if North Macedonia’s NATO membership can reduce Russian influence or political meddling within North Macedonia, he said “that’s going to be up to the North Macedonian people themselves.”

“But they’ve already spoken on that,” Risch said. “I think the election itself, regarding accession, was a good, clear indication that they don’t want that Russian influence, that they don’t want that Russian propaganda. So, this taking of what would really be a final step into NATO is a final rejection of Russia and what it stands for and the kind of malign influence they bring.”

Last August, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy, sponsored a bipartisan resolution to put the tiny Balkan country on the path to NATO and European Union membership.

Risch also said he anticipates near-unanimous support for North Macedonia’s accession protocol when the bill arrives on the Senate floor.


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Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation Friday, plunging the country deeper into chaos as it tries to negotiate its exit from the European Union. As Henry Ridgwell reports, the race to become her successor will begin June 7, and the scene is set for more political drama and uncertainty.

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The Italian parliament’s anti-mafia committee on Thursday declared five candidates for the European elections “unpresentable,” including billionaire and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The five include three candidates from Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party and one from the far-right Casa Pound, and all are currently under investigation or being tried for alleged crimes, according to the committee’s president Nicola Morra.

The committee’s declaration will not stop the candidates from running in the European Parliament elections, which in Italy are to be held on Sunday.

Media magnate Berlusconi has faced a string of charges over the so-called Rubygate scandal linked to his dinner parties and then 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer Karima El-Mahroug, also known as “Ruby the heart-stealer.”

The 82-year old is currently on trial accused of paying a witness to give false testimony about the notoriously hedonistic soirees.

Berlusconi is also being investigated or prosecuted for alleged witness tampering in Milan, Sienna, Rome and Turin, each time accused of paying people to keep quiet about his so-called “bunga-bunga” parties.

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U.S. prosecutors Thursday announced new criminal charges under the Espionage Act against jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over his alleged role in what they termed “one of the largest compromises of classified information” in U.S. history.

The charges are not related to WikiLeaks’ alleged role in disseminating stolen Democratic emails during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

An 18-count superseding indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia accuses Assange of working with former Army specialist Chelsea Manning to obtain and publish on WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of highly sensitive U.S. government reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Guantanamo Bay prison.

The documents, many of them classified as secret, contained the names of journalists, dissidents and other human sources that provided information to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as to U.S. diplomats around the world.

Warned in 2010

Assange, prosecutors allege, knew that disseminating the names endangered the human sources and that he continued to do so even after a warning by the State Department in late 2010.

Assange was charged last year with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in connection with working with Manning. The indictment was unsealed in April after Assange was expelled from Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he’d taken refuge in 2012, and arrested by British police.

He remains in jail on charges of violating his bail conditions and faces possible extradition to the U.S. and Sweden.

The new charges against Assange include conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information as well as obtaining and disclosing national defense information. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum of five years in prison. Each new count carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Assange has long maintained that he’s being targeted for his work as a journalist.

“This is madness,” WikiLeaks tweeted after the charges were announced. “It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment.”

Press and government transparency advocates have come to Assange’s defense, arguing that prosecuting Assange could endanger others who publish classified information.

But U.S. law enforcement officials were quick to emphasize that they don’t see Assange’s work as journalism.

“The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers told reporters. “It has not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. Julian Assange is no journalist.”

​‘Complicity in illegal acts’

U.S. Attorney Zach Terwilliger stressed that Assange is only charged for his “complicity in illegal acts” and for “publishing a narrow set of classified documents” that contained names of confidential human sources.

“Assange is not charged simply because he is a publisher,” Terwilliger told reporters.

Assange, a 47-year-old Australian computer programmer and activist, founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as “an intelligence agency of the people.”

To obtain secret documents to publish, he “repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal and provide it to WikiLeaks to disclose,” prosecutors wrote in the indictment.

Manning, an intelligence specialist based in Iraq, responded to Assange’s call by stealing and providing to him databases containing about 90,000 Afghanistan war reports, 400,000 reports about the Iraq war, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables, according to the indictment.

Manning served seven years in a military prison for her role in the WikiLeaks disclosures before then-President Barack Obama commuted the remainder of her 35-year sentence shortly before he left office in January 2017.

She spent 62 days in federal jail earlier this year on civil contempt charges after she refused to answer questions to the federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. Last week, a federal judge ordered her back to jail.

The charges against Assange predate by several years allegations that the anti-secrecy website published tens of thousands of Democratic documents stolen by Russian agents during the 2016 election.

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Iran told a German envoy seeking to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal that its patience was over and urged the treaty’s remaining signatories to fulfill their commitments after the United States pulled out, the Fars news agency reported on Thursday.

Jens Ploetner, a political director in the German Foreign Ministry, met Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. A German diplomatic source told Reuters that talks with other Iranian officials were also planned.

The semi-official Fars news agency said Araghchi had relayed Iran’s impatience during the talks.

Britain, France and Germany, which signed the 2015 deal along with the United States, China and Russia, are determined to show they can compensate for last year’s U.S. withdrawal from

the deal, protect trade and still dissuade Tehran from quitting an accord designed to prevent it developing a nuclear bomb. 

But Iran’s decision earlier this month to backtrack from some commitments in response to U.S. measures to cripple its economy threatens to unravel the deal, under which Tehran agreed

to curbs on its uranium enrichment program in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions.

“At the center of the political director’s visit is the preservation of the Vienna nuclear accord (JCPOA),” the German diplomatic source told Reuters. “After Iran’s announcement to partly suspend its commitments under the JCPOA, there is a window of opportunity for diplomacy to persuade Iran to continue to fully comply with the JCPOA.”

U.S., Iran tensions

Tensions have soared between Iran and the United States since Washington sent more military forces to the Middle East, including an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles, in a show of force against what U.S. officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests in the region.

On Wednesday, U.S. officials said the Defense Department was considering a U.S. military request to send about 5,000 additional troops to the Middle East.

Despite such pressure, Keyvan Khosravi, a spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, reiterated on Thursday that there would be no negotiations with Washington.

He said officials from several countries had visited Iran recently, “mostly representing the United States,” but that Tehran’s message to them was firm. 

“Without exception, the message of the power and resistance of the Iranian nation was conveyed to them,” he said. 

‘Clash of wills’

Fars earlier quoted a senior commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guards as saying the U.S.-Iranian standoff was a “clash of wills” and any enemy “adventurism” would meet a

crushing response.

The German diplomatic source added: “The situation in the Persian Gulf and the region, and the situation around the Vienna nuclear accord is extremely serious. There is a real risk of escalation. … In this situation, dialogue is very important.”

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Prominent Brexit supporter Andrea Leadsom resigned from Prime Minister Theresa May’s government on Wednesday, piling pressure on the British leader after a new Brexit gambit backfired and fueled calls for her to quit.

So far May has resisted, vowing to press on despite opposition from lawmakers and other ministers to her bid to get her Brexit deal through parliament by softening her stance on a second referendum and customs arrangements.

But Leadsom’s resignation further deepens the Brexit crisis, sapping an already weak leader of her authority. Almost three years since Britain voted to leave the European Union, it is not clear when, how or even if Brexit will happen.

Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, said she could not announce the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which will implement Britain’s departure, in parliament on Thursday as she did not believe in it.

“I no longer believe that our approach will deliver on the referendum result,” Leadsom, once a challenger to May to become prime minister, said in a resignation letter. “It is therefore with great regret and with a heavy heart that I resign from the government.”

A Downing Street spokesman praised Leadsom and expressed disappointment at her decision, but added: “The prime minister remains focused on delivering the Brexit people voted for.”

May might still try to press on with her new Brexit plan, which includes a vote on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum — once her legislation passes the first stage — as well as closer trading arrangements with the EU.

But it has been met with a swift backlash, with several lawmakers who have supported her in previous Brexit votes saying they could not back the new plan, particularly over her U-turn regarding a possible second referendum.

“I have always maintained that a second referendum would be dangerously divisive, and I do not support the government willingly facilitating such a concession,” Leadsom said.

“No one has wanted you to succeed more than I have,” Leadsom wrote to May. “But I do now urge you to make the right decisions in the interests of the country, this government and our party.”

Labour lawmaker Ian Lavery, chair of the opposition party, said the resignation underlined that “the prime minister’s authority is shot and her time is up.”

“For the sake of the country, Theresa May needs to go, and we need an immediate general election,” he said.

Time to go

Labour’s call echoed those of many of May’s own Conservatives, who say that a fourth attempt to get her deal approved by parliament should be shelved and she should leave office to offer a new leader a chance to reset the dial.

“There is one last chance to get it right and leave in an orderly fashion. But it is now time for Prime Minister Theresa May to go — and without delay,” said Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chairman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

“She must announce her resignation after Thursday’s European (Parliament) elections,” he wrote in the Financial Times.

But while so much about Brexit is up in the air, what is clear is that May plans to stay for now, or at least for the next few days.

The chairman of the powerful Conservative 1922 Committee, which can make or break prime ministers, told lawmakers that she planned to campaign in the European poll on Thursday before meeting with the group on Friday to discuss her leadership.

May has so far fended off bids to oust her by promising to set out a departure timetable once parliament has had a chance to vote again on Brexit, but a new discussion on a possible date could now take place on Friday.

Earlier on Wednesday, May stood firm during more than two hours of questions in parliament, urging lawmakers to back the bill and then have a chance to make changes to it, so they can have more control over the final shape of Brexit.

Asked by euroskeptic lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg whether she really believed in the new deal she had proposed or whether she was simply going through the motions, May said, “I don’t think I would have been standing here at the despatch box and be in receipt of some of the comments I have been in receipt of from colleagues on my own side and across the house if I didn’t believe in what I was doing.”

Britain’s marathon crisis over Brexit has stunned allies and foes alike. With the deadlock in London, the world’s fifth-largest economy faces an array of options including an exit with a deal to smooth the transition, a no-deal exit, an election, a second referendum, or even revocation of the Article 50 notice to leave the EU.

The pound was on track for its longest-ever losing streak against the euro as some traders said they saw the rising chance of a no-deal Brexit. Those fears pushed investors into the relative safety of government bonds — particularly those that offer protection against a spike in inflation.

“The proposed second reading of the WAB is clearly doomed to failure so there really is no point wasting any more time on the prime minister’s forlorn hope of salvation,” Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative lawmaker, told Reuters. “She’s got to go.”

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The next NATO summit will be held in London in December, marking the alliance’s 70th anniversary, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday. 


“The next summit of Allied leaders will take place on 3-4 December 2019 in London. … I look forward to a successful summit,” he said. 


Stoltenberg said the had discussed preparations for the summit of heads of state and government with British Prime Minister Theresa May during a visit to London last week. 


The December summit will be a chance to “address current and emerging security challenges and how NATO continues to invest and adapt to ensure it will remain a pillar of stability in the years ahead,” Stoltenberg said in a statement. 


He added that London was a fitting venue to mark 70 years of transatlantic military cooperation because it was home to the alliance’s first headquarters after the United Kingdom become one of NATO’s 12 founding members in 1949. 


Nowadays there are 29 member states and the headquarters is in Brussels. 


“London was the home of our first headquarters, so it is a fitting venue for NATO heads of state and government to plan the Alliance’s future,” said Stoltenberg. 


Delicate time 


The 70th anniversary comes at a delicate time for NATO. 


Tensions with Russia are at a high not seen since the Cold War. There are also concerns about U.S. President Donald Trump’s commitment to the alliance and his willingness to honor its mutual defense pact.  

Trump has been unstinting in his criticism of NATO’s European members, accusing them of freeloading on the protection offered by the U.S. military while not spending enough on their own armed forces. 


Before taking office, Trump called NATO “obsolete.”


NATO summits normally conclude with a formal, binding statement of aims and actions agreed by all allies — such as the 2014 agreement to try to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. 


It is yet to be confirmed whether a statement will be issued at December’s meeting. 

Brexit and NATO


Britain is due to leave the European Union in October, and the December summit will be seen as a signal of solidarity between NATO and the U.K., which is the continent’s leading military power, along with France. 


“Brexit will change the United Kingdom’s relationship to the European Union but it will not change the United Kingdom’s relationship to NATO,” Stoltenberg said in February. 


On Wednesday, he was back in London for talks with British Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt. On Thursday, he will participate in a conference on cybersecurity in the British capital. 

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The Swiss government on Wednesday proposed new laws aimed at preventing extremist violence and forcing people including children deemed a threat to be registered with authorities, with house arrest a last resort in some cases.

The measures, due now to be considered by Switzerland’s parliament, are part of an evolving national action plan against violent extremism introduced in 2017.

Though Switzerland has, so far, been spared deadly Islamist militant attacks that hit Germany, France and Belgium in recent years, it is wary and has been tracking hundreds of suspected extremist threats under a national jihad monitoring program.

Federal Police Director Nicoletta della Valle told a news conference in Bern she expects “a few dozen people” could be affected by the expanded measures, should they be enacted.

Such individuals, according to the legislation, could be made to report their whereabouts to police stations. Their passports could be confiscated, to prevent travel abroad, and they could be slapped with no-contact orders.

People slated for deportation who are deemed threats would be incarcerated, while Swiss police would get new powers to covertly track suspected threats via electronic media.

“House arrest is seen as a last resort and would require permission from the Swiss Federal Police as well as approval from the courts,” a cabinet statement said.

Such measures could last six months and be renewed. Children as young as 12 could be required to register with authorities, placed under surveillance or have passports confiscated. Those as young as 15 could get house arrest, according to the legislation.

The 28-page legislative proposal stops short of allowing so-called “secure housing” for suspected extremists — something Swiss law enforcement agencies had wanted — “because it was determined to have violated the European Convention on Human Rights,” the cabinet said.

Switzerland has prosecuted several extremism-related cases in recent years, including three Iraq men jailed in 2016 for between 42 and 56 months for belonging to or supporting a terrorist organization.

In July, a trial is slated for a 48-year-old Kosovo native accused of breaking Swiss laws forbidding Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Of 92 Swiss “jihad travelers” identified as having journeyed to the Middle East to participate in violent conflicts since 2001, 31 are dead. Another 16 have returned to Switzerland, the government has said.

“All this shows that while Switzerland is a safe country, there’s still a threat,” Interior Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said with respect to why the new measures are needed.

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