Zelensky eyes ‘history being made’ at Swiss-hosted Ukraine peace conference, but Russia’s absent

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Swiss Federal President Viola Amherd shake hands during the Summit on peace in Ukraine, in Stansstad near Lucerne, Switzerland on Jun. 15, 2024. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 June 2024
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Zelensky eyes ‘history being made’ at Swiss-hosted Ukraine peace conference, but Russia’s absent

  • Zelensky said: “I believe that we will witness history being made here at the summit”
  • Swiss officials hosting the conference say more than 50 heads of state and government will join the gathering

OBBÜRGEN, Switzerland: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday predicted “history being made” at the Swiss-hosted conference which aims to plot out the first steps toward peace in Ukraine even though experts and critics say little substance or few big breakthroughs are expected because Russia is not attending.
The presidents of Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Somalia joined dozens of Western heads of state and government and other leaders and high-level envoys at the meeting, in hopes that Russia — which is waging war on Ukraine — could join in one day.
In a brief statement to reporters alongside Swiss President Viola Amherd, Zelensky already sought to cast the gathering as a success, saying: “We have succeeded in bringing back to the world the idea that joint efforts can stop war and establish a just peace.”
“I believe that we will witness history being made here at the summit,” he said.
Swiss officials hosting the conference say more than 50 heads of state and government will join the gathering at the Bürgenstock resort overlooking Lake Lucerne. Some 100 delegations including European bodies and the United Nations will be on hand.
Who will show up – and who will not – has become one of the key stakes of a meeting that critics say will be useless without the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and is pushing ahead with the war.
As US Vice President Kamala Harris arrived at the venue, shuttle buses rumbled up a mountain road that snaked up to the site — at times with traffic jams — with police along the route checking journalists’ IDs and helicopters ferrying in VIPs buzzed overhead.
Meanwhile, Türkiye and Saudi Arabia have dispatched their foreign ministers while key developing countries like Brazil, an observer at the event, India and South Africa will be represented at lower levels.
China, which backs Russia, is joining scores of countries that are sitting out the conference, many of whom have more pressing issues than the bloodiest conflict in far-away Europe since World War II. Beijing says any peace process needs to have the participation of both Russia and Ukraine, and has floated its own ideas for peace.
Last month, China and Brazil agreed to six “common understandings” on a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis, asking other countries to endorse them and play a role in promoting peace talks.
The six points include an agreement to “support an international peace conference held at a proper time that is recognized by both Russia and Ukraine, with equal participation of all parties as well as fair discussion of all peace plans.”
Zelensky has recently led a diplomatic push to draw in participants to the Swiss summit.
Russian troops who now control nearly a quarter of Ukrainian land in the east and south have made some territorial gains in recent months. When talk of a Swiss-hosted peace initiative began last summer, Ukrainian forces had recently regained large swaths of territory, notably near the cities of southern Kherson and northern Kharkiv.
Against the battlefield backdrop and diplomatic strategizing, summit organizers have presented three agenda items: nuclear safety, such as at the Russia-controlled Zaporizhzhia power plant; humanitarian assistance and exchange of prisoners of war; and global food security — which has been disrupted at times due to impeded shipments through the Black Sea.
That to-do list, encapsulating some of the least controversial issues, is well short of proposals and hopes laid out by Zelensky in a 10-point peace formula in late 2022.
The plan includes ambitious calls, including the withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied Ukrainian territory, the cessation of hostilities and restoring Ukraine’s state borders with Russia, including Crimea.
Putin’s government, meanwhile, wants any peace deal to be built around a draft agreement negotiated in the early phases of the war that included provisions for Ukraine’s neutral status and limits on its armed forces, while delaying talks about Russia-occupied areas. Ukraine’s push over the years to join the NATO military alliance has rankled Moscow.
Ukraine is unable to negotiate from a position of strength, analysts say.
“The situation on the battlefield has changed dramatically,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, saying that although Russia “can’t achieve its maximalist objectives quickly through military means, but it’s gaining momentum and pushing Ukraine really hard.”
“So, a lot of countries that are coming to the summit would question whether the Zelensky peace formula still has legs,” he told reporters in a call Wednesday.
With much of the world’s focus recently on the war in Gaza and national elections in 2024, Ukraine’s backers want to return focus to Russia’s breach of international law and a restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
On Friday, Putin called the conference “just another ploy to divert everyone’s attention.”
The International Crisis Group, an advisory firm that works to end conflict, wrote this week that “absent a major surprise on the Bürgenstock,” the event is “unlikely to deliver much of consequence.”
“Nonetheless, the Swiss summit is a chance for Ukraine and its allies to underline what the UN General Assembly recognized in 2022 and repeated in its February 2023 resolution on a just peace in Ukraine: Russia’s all-out aggression is a blatant violation of international law,” it said.
Experts say they’ll be looking at the wording of any outcome document, and plans for the way forward. Swiss officials, aware of Russia’s reticence about the conference, have repeatedly said they hope Russia can join the process one day, as do Ukrainian officials.
“Most likely, the three items under review will be endorsed by the participants. But then the big question is ‘OK, what comes next?’” Gabuev said. “And I don’t think we have a very clear answer to that question yet.”
As leaders headed to the conference venue, the war raged on.
Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov of Russia’s southern Belgorod region, writing on social media, blamed Ukraine for shelling Friday that struck a five-story apartment building in the town of Shebekino, killing five people. There was no immediate comment from Kyiv.
In Ukraine, shelling killed at least three civilians and wounded 15 others on Friday and overnight, regional officials said. Gov. Oleh Syniehubov of the Kharkiv region, which has been the focus of a recent Russian offensive.


Harris compares Trump to ‘predators’ and ‘cheaters’

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at her campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Del., Monday, July 22, 2024. (AP)
Updated 6 sec ago
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Harris compares Trump to ‘predators’ and ‘cheaters’

  • "Cheaters who broke the rules for their own gain. So hear me when I say I know Donald Trump’s type”

WASHINGTON: Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday compared her election rival Donald Trump to “predators” and “cheaters,” as she attacked the first former US leader to be convicted of a crime.
Speaking of her past as a prosecutor in California, Harris told her campaign staff: “In those roles I took on perpetrators of all kinds. Predators who abused women. Fraudsters who ripped off consumers. Cheaters who broke the rules for their own gain. So hear me when I say I know Donald Trump’s type.”
 

 


Harris to meet Netanyahu during Washington visit: VP aide

Updated 2 min 17 sec ago
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Harris to meet Netanyahu during Washington visit: VP aide

WASHINGTON: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with US Vice President Kamala Harris this week during his visit to Washington, an aide to Harris told AFP on Monday.

The White House meeting will be separate from President Joe Biden’s planned sit-down with Netanyahu, the aide said, and comes after Harris looks set to replace Biden atop the Democratic ticket following his shock end to his reelection bid.


Ukraine reaches preliminary deal with bondholder group on $20-billion debt restructure

Updated 23 July 2024
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Ukraine reaches preliminary deal with bondholder group on $20-billion debt restructure

  • Ukraine’s finances are precarious as its 28-month war with Russia drags on. Russia’s 2022 invasion decimated its economy, leaving it heavily reliant on money – and military aid – from international partners

LONDON: Ukraine said on Monday it had reached an agreement in principle with a group of creditors to restructure $20 billion of international bonds, bringing the war-torn country closer to an unprecedented debt rework.
Ukraine’s announcement comes just over a week before a two-year debt suspension agreement struck in 2022 is due to run out and marks the first time a country has embarked on a debt restructuring during a full-scale war.
“After months of engagement and hard work with our private bondholders, the IMF and our bilateral partners, we have reached an agreement in principle with the Ad Hoc Creditor Committee on the comprehensive restructuring of our public external debt,” Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko said in a statement.
This was an important step to ensure Ukraine maintained the budget stability and cash resources needed to continue financing its defense, he added.
Ukraine’s finances are precarious as its 28-month war with Russia drags on. Russia’s 2022 invasion decimated its economy, leaving it heavily reliant on money – and military aid – from international partners.
The US presidential election in November and the risk of wavering commitment to maintain support for Ukraine under a potential Donald Trump presidency increased pressure for a debt restructuring, sources close to the talks and analysts said.
The proposal would see a 37 percent nominal haircut on Ukraine’s outstanding international bonds, saving Kyiv $11.4 billion in payments over the next three years — the duration of the country’s program with the International Monetary Fund set to expire in 2027, according to government statements.
The government said the IMF had confirmed that the deal was compatible with the parameters of its $122 billion support package, and that the country’s official lenders, the Group of Creditors of Ukraine (GCU), had also signed off on it.
A spokesperson for the Paris Club of creditor nations, which usually handles communications for the GCU, confirmed the group was comfortable with the proposal.
The IMF welcomed the agreement and confirmed it is consistent with the current program, adding that it will be “essential to bring Ukraine’s debt burdens to sustainable levels, thereby ensuring room for critical spending and supporting growth.”
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in a message on the Telegram app that the deal would free up resources for urgent needs, including defense, social protection and recovery.
A source at the Germany finance ministry welcomed the draft agreement and said it was a key step to preserve the Ukraine government’s ability to act and plan ahead.
The Ad Hoc Creditor Committee, which holds 22 percent of the country’s sovereign bonds, called the agreement “swift and constructive.”
“We are pleased to be able to provide significant debt relief to Ukraine, assist its efforts to regain its access to international capital markets, and support the future reconstruction,” it said in a statement.
RACING TO THE FINISH
Under the proposal, some of the new bonds issued would start paying a 1.75 percent coupon from next year, with payments stepping up to as much as 7.75 percent from 2034 onwards. Bondholders are also in line to receive a consent fee.
Interest payments had been a sticky issue in the talks. Bondholders sought financial inducement to agree to a rework, while Ukraine’s international partners such as Group of Seven nations and the IMF objected to large amounts of money being funnelled to private lenders and away from strained government finances.
Payments to bondholders under the deal would amount to less than $200 million through to end-2025.
While the bonds have a face value of $19.7 billion, Ukraine owes around $23 billion with past due interest.
The international bonds soared more than 5 cents after the announcement, with most maturities trading around the 35 cents mark and at their strongest in about two years.
Ukraine’s $2.6 billion GDP warrants — fixed-income instruments with payouts linked to the strength of economic growth — were not part of the restructuring, though the government said it would “ensure the fair and equitable treatment of holders of the Warrants.”
Bondholders will vote on the proposal in coming weeks. If enough sign off, the government will issue new bonds.
A first payment in the wake of the two year moratorium is due on Aug. 1, but Ukraine last week passed a law allowing it to miss payments — and enter debt default, even temporarily — while the agreement is finalized.
The debt deal would be Ukraine’s second in a decade triggered by its neighbor: Ukraine restructured in 2015 following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
“Once completed, this restructuring will also pave the way for Ukraine’s market re-entry as soon as possible when the security situation stabilizes to fund our country’s swift recovery and reconstruction,” Marchenko said in the statement.


If not Kamala Harris, who else could be the Democratic nominee for November’s election?

Updated 16 min 33 sec ago
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If not Kamala Harris, who else could be the Democratic nominee for November’s election?

  • Arab American analysts assess the Democrats seeking to be the candidate who will challenge Donald Trump
  • Arab Americans alienated by Biden’s Gaza stance could prove decisive in key battleground states

NEW YORK CITY/CHICAGO: President Joe Biden’s decision to end his reelection campaign and drop out of the US presidential race has created sufficient momentum for Vice President Kamala Harris to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, according to three Arab American analysts.

Biden, who endorsed Harris in his withdrawal announcement on Sunday, was trailing former President Donald Trump in opinion polls amid a growing Arab American #AbandonBiden movement, and wider demands he drop out of the 2024 race following his disastrous debate performance on June 27 in Atlanta.

Biden was trailing former President Donald Trump in opinion polls. (AFP)

What was to be a coronation for the 81-year-old Biden at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on Aug. 19 has now become an open contest in which nearly 4,700 party delegates will vote by state for the nominee of their choice to challenge Trump, the Republican Party nominee.

Rana Abtar, a talk show host in Washington D.C. for Asharq News, expects Harris to become the Democratic nominee, although several other candidates might also be considered. However, she believes the Democrats “must show unity” if they are to win the November election.

“Today, what we are noticing is that Democrats are starting to support Harris, one by one,” she told Arab News. “There were some delegates in a couple of states who have already voted to support Kamala Harris. That means that their votes will reflect in the Democratic National Convention.

Many still view Harris as a part of the Biden administration’s policies that fueled the #AbandonBiden movement, said Rana Abtar. (AFP)

“The rest of the Democrats who have not supported Harris yet are expected to fall in line soon. At some point we will see all the Democrats, or most of the Democrats, line up behind Harris. It is very important for the Democrats to present a show of unity after the dilemma that their party was facing following President Biden’s announcement that he will not seek a second term.”

Biden’s withdrawal from the race frees up his convention delegates from the nation’s 50 states and provinces to support any candidate during the convention. Many alternative names are being floated, including centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former First Lady Michelle Obama, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro.

Noting that Harris is popular among African American voters, a traditional core pillar of the Democratic Party support, Abtar said many still view her as a part of the Biden administration’s policies that fueled the #AbandonBiden movement, in which Arabs and Muslims voted in key swing state primaries for “uncommitted” or “no vote” options rather than for the president.

Donald Trump chose JD Vance has his running mate last week. (AFP)

“Harris is not that popular in the polls,” Abtar said. “A lot of Democrats are worried that her chances against Trump are the same as the chances of President Biden against Trump. Of course, in the coming days we will see Harris getting out there, talking to the voters, because in the past, in her role as vice president, she did not speak directly to the American people on many occasions.

“Biden gave her the immigration matter, which by itself put her in a very awkward position, especially given that the Republicans’ main attack against Democrats concerns immigration and border security.

“But I do believe that the most important element here is not Harris. It will be who she will pick as her running mate because voters need excitement. Democratic voters need excitement to get out and vote.”

“Harris is not that popular in the polls,” Rana Abtar said. (AFP)

Abtar said third-party candidates, such as independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein, are often viewed as “election spoilers” — people who might drain votes from Harris or even from Trump.

“Kennedy’s numbers are considered pretty high for an independent candidate and his voters might make a difference in the election season by taking away votes from … Trump or Harris … if she gets the official nomination,” Abtar said.

Any of the individuals currently being suggested as replacements for Biden could become nominees for vice president, including Pritzker, a billionaire with presidential ambitions of his own.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who some thought could be a contender, backed Harris on Monday. (AFP)

Amal Mudallali, a former ambassador to the UN and CEO of Bridges International Group, thinks Harris has a “problem of perception.”

She told Arab News: “The perception is that she was not a strong vice president, that she will not be a strong candidate and that she will not be able to defeat Trump.”

Although Democrats seemed to be moving fast to rally behind Harris, including former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement on Monday, Mudallali remains cautious.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama name has also been floated in Democratic circles. (AFP)

“It’s all up in the air because there are still very powerful Democrats calling for an open convention and to have an open field for everybody to throw their hats into the ring, and to see if they can get the strongest candidate for the Democratic Party to be able to defeat Trump,” she said.

The impact of the independent candidates in the election cannot be written off either, she added.

“In very close elections, independent candidates can do a lot of harm. Because this election is a very close race — you are talking about a couple of thousands of, or a thousand, votes — that could make or break an election campaign,” Mudallali said.

“Let’s say if Kennedy was able to get a lot of votes from the Democrats, this could hurt Democrats more and that will be a big problem for them.

“But so far we don’t know who the Democratic Party candidate will be. If the individual is a very strong candidate, the party might be able to unite the anti-Trump constituency, which will overwhelmingly vote for the candidate on the Democratic side. In that case, the independents will not make a difference.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could be her running mate on the first “all woman ticket.” (AFP)

Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, believes Harris is “all but certain” to replace Biden as the nominee, and suggested that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could be her running mate on the first “all woman ticket.”

He told Arab News: “The speculation is heavily focused on who will be her vice-presidential running mate, including possibly an all-women ticket should she choose Whitmer. That’s unprecedented and carries risks. But Whitmer could help deliver the key swing state of Michigan, and an all-woman team could re-energize the currently largely demoralized Democratic base.”

“A lot of Democrats are worried that her chances against Trump are the same as the chances of President Biden against Trump,” said Rana Abtar. (AFP)

He added: “Harris’s likability ratings with the American public have never been high. But at this point, the decision by the Democratic Party and President Biden to put her name forward is largely based on funding and finances. She is the only one who will be able to qualify for all the money, the hundreds of millions of dollars, that have been raised so far. Therefore, her choice for a running mate will also be key in terms of bringing around that Democratic base and for the general likability of that Democratic ticket.”

Maksad believes Biden’s withdrawal from the presidential race, and speculation about Whitmer’s addition to the ticket, might hold sway over the strong Arab and Muslim vote in Michigan, many of whom voted against the Biden-Harris team in the Feb. 27 Democrat Party primary contest.

Democrats seemed to be moving fast to rally behind Harris. (AFP)

“Arab Americans are not monolithic,” he said. “They are a diverse group with differing priorities spread out across four battleground states. Michigan gets a lot of attention, but also Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“In Michigan, where there are 100,000 of them, they have strong feelings about the war in Gaza and President Biden not doing enough to stop the war. Having Biden step aside opens up the potential for the Democratic Party to make inroads among Arab Americans in Michigan again. And should the vice president (choice) in fact be the governor of Michigan, that will then give Democrats even more opportunities to make inroads and win Michigan over again, as a key battleground state.”

 


UK Conservative Party to announce new leader Nov 2, Times report says

Former British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech at Number 10 Downing Street, following the results of the elections.
Updated 22 July 2024
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UK Conservative Party to announce new leader Nov 2, Times report says

  • The Times said up to eight candidates were expected to put their name forward
  • Contest would last almost four months, culminating in a ballot of rank and file members to select one of the final two candidates, Times political editor said

LONDON: Britain’s Conservative Party will name its new leader on Nov. 2, the Times reported on Monday, following the party’s worst ever election performance earlier this month that prompted former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to say he would stand down.
The contest would last almost four months, culminating in a ballot of rank and file members to select one of the final two candidates, Times Political Editor Steven Swinford said in a post on X.
Sunak’s election campaign ended in failure on July 4, when the center-left Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, won a landslide election victory that ended 14 years of Conservative-led government.
Sunak said in his final speech outside the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office that he would quit as leader of the party once the formal arrangements for his successor were in place.
The Times report came ahead of the formal announcement of those arrangements later this week. The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment on the report.
The Times said up to eight candidates were expected to put their name forward.
Conservative Party leadership contests usually involve a series of ballots among its elected lawmakers to whittle down the number of candidates, before the whole party gets to choose between the final two.