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  • Washington comments on execution of Shiite Sheikh in Saudi Arabia
    03.01.2016 | 16:40 UNIAN

    The U.S. State Department has issued a statement regarding the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, in Saudi Arabia.

    "We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced," the statement said.

    It added that the U.S. has issues with the legal process in Saudi Arabia and that the government there needs to respect human rights and conduct transparent judicial proceedings.

    As UNIAN reported earlier, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was set on fire in Tehran by an angry mob following the execution on January 1 by the Saudi authorities of Nimr al Nimr, the vocal critic of a Saudi ruling dynasty.

    Most of the 47 killed in the kingdom's biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago. Four, including Nimr, were Shi'ites accused of involvement in shooting policemen, according to Reuters.

    The move further soured relations between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and its Shi'ite regional rival, Iran, which had hailed Nimr as the champion of a marginalised Shi'ite minority.

    EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Nimr's execution risked "dangerous consequences" by further inflaming sectarian tensions in the region, and a German Foreign Ministry official said it "strengthens our existing concerns about increasing tensions and deepening rifts in the region".
    Washington comments on execution of Shiite Sheikh in Saudi Arabia : UNIAN news

    ---- source : REUTERS

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    • Cultural diplomacy in a festive mood: celebrations Ukrainian style
      EUROMAIDAN PRESS 2016/01/03

      New Year and Christmas holidays are not only a time to celebrate, but also a chance to popularize Ukrainian culture all over the world. In the recent days, a number of Christmas festivals and markets where Ukrainian culture was brightly represented were taking place in different countries.

      For Ukrainians who live abroad, the time of Christmas festivals gives a chance to feel a bit like back at home; for locals it gives an opportunity to learn about Ukrainian traditions of celebration, national music and cuisine. Such events help to build a positive image of Ukraine in other countries.

      This year Ukraine was widely represented at Christmas markets all over the world, and Ukrainian diasporas organized a number of festivals. The desire to help their motherland united Ukrainian activists all over the world. This is not surprising, because the situation in Ukraine was one of the most discussed topics of world politics last year. To show their solidarity with Ukraine, local citizens also supported the cultural events, especially taking into account that most of them are charity. Very often organizers of these events pass collected money for help of ATO needs, treatment of wounded Ukrainian soldiers, or to support IDPs or locals who suffered from warfare in the East of Ukraine.

      Ukrainian diaspora organizes traditional celebrations

      continue read - great photos
      Cultural diplomacy in a festive mood: celebrations Ukrainian style -Euromaidan Press |

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      • 09:13 04.01.2016 INTERFAX-UKRAINE
        Ukraine renames 'Sovetskoye Shampanskoye' under de-communization law

        The 'Sovetskoye Shampanskoye' (Soviet Champagne) brand name has fallen under the law on the condemnation of Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and the ban on propaganda of their symbols, and Kyiv's champagne winery Stolichny has had to rename its product.

        "From now on, the universally known brand is called 'Sovetovskoye Shampanskoye,'" says a report published on the winery's website.

        The company said it had to rename the product for preserving a major attribute of the New Year's Eve celebrations. "Only the name has changed, and the quality of the sparkling wine loved by everyone remains high," the winery said.

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        • 11:02 04.01.2016 INTERFAX-UKRAINE
          Retaliatory measures against Russia in trade with Ukraine effective from Jan 2

          Beneficial import duty rates outlined in the Customs Tariff of Ukraine are applied to all goods of Russian origin from January 2, 2016, and the preferential regime for Russia (free trade) is revoked, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine said on its website.

          The measures are introduced for one year under cabinet resolution No. 1146 of December 30, 2015 passed to protect the economic interests and security of Ukraine, restore violated rights, freedoms and the legal interests of Ukrainian citizens, society and the state caused by actions of the aggressor state – Russia - that restrict the realization of the legal rights and interests of Ukrainian foreign economic entities and in response to the suspension of the free trade area (FTA) agreement of October 18, 2011 for Ukraine by Russia, the government said.

          According to the resolution, the document will become void on December 31, 2016 or when Russia stops violating the FTA agreement of October 18, 2011.

          Deputy Economic Minister, Trade Representative of Ukraine Natalia Mykolska said that the government will protect the interests of Ukraine and Ukrainian goods producers on the foreign and domestic markets.– cabinet

          Retaliatory measures against Russia in trade with Ukraine effective from Jan 2

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          • Year’s milestones. President’s attempts, concealed coalition, and seemingly cool Cabinet
            04.01.2016 | 09:25 UNIAN Yevgeny Magda

            2015 was the year of unfulfilled hopes for Ukraine. The president tried to implement reforms on strategic directions and gently redistribute power in his favor. The Verkhovna Rada was hardly effective throught the year when it was safeguarded from being dissolved. The Cabinet of Ministers reminded of an invigorating civil servant who is chronically ill, but ready to trick the system to avoid layoff.

            Give the current conditions, the very fact that Ukraine remains on the political map of Europe at the end of 2015 should be seen as a positive. Among the success stories of the past year is the build-up of the Armed Forces and reduced intensity of the hostilities in Donbas. Most other political events can be interpreted in many ways.

            For example, Petro Poroshenko has sought to ensure decentralization and judicial reform. The transfer of the power from the capital to the regions was seriously overshadowed by the situation in Donbas and the chronic inability of the authorities to prove conclusively that decentralization is indeed a right thing Ukraine. Judicial reform is no argued so much by the President’s opponents, but has yet to be adopted in its final form. Petro Poroshenko can hardly be satisfied with the performance of the MPs who got to the parliament under his banners. Rada’s largest parliamentary faction is more successful in generating scandals than promoting coherent political decisions. It seems that being a ruling party in Ukraine is a curse for any ambitious political force.

            The Verkhovna Rada has failed to work in a “war mode” and show its maximum involvement in refuting the Russian aggression. The lawmakers seem to have adopted the principle of "we work like we are paid," although the deputy salaries is not the main source of income for most of them. The scandals and mutual accusations have completely replaced the legislature’s commitment to raise the national interests over the private ones and those of the party. The development of inner relations within the European Ukraine coalition is nothing but strife. Although the majority of those surveyed by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation do not want early elections, the claims to the parliament elected after the Revolution of dignity continue to grow.

            The Government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk continues to break records. The lawmakers have been mulling the reshuffle in the Cabinet (and the change of the Prime Minister, frankly speaking) since the spring of 2015, but the Cabinet continues its work with a virtually unchanged lineup. It’s just the Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, Ihor Shevchenko, fell victim to stubborn radicals of Oleh Lyashko, and three ministers - Alexander Kvitashvili, Andriy Pivovarsky and Yuriy Stets chose to resign, but the MPs are in no hurry to give them their freedom. Yatsenyuk tried to present adoption of the budget for 2016 as a vote of confidence in his Cabinet, but the alert Speaker Volodymyr Groysman, who denies any ambitions to lead the Government, recalled the relevance of a reshuffle in the Cabinet of Ministers. It is obvious that Arseniy Yatsenyuk will defend his namesake Avakov, the Minister of Interior, drawn in a notorious and epic confrontation with with Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, the new Russian political culture "for the elite." At the same time, I should note that Saakashvili’s anti-corruption enthusiasm would have looked less impressive if the government’s fight against corruption was not just words.

            Local elections have not become a serious political turmoil. Although the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko-Solidarity is leading across the country, there’s no way it can enjoy a monopoly status. In each area, unique coalitions were created to divide and rule at the local level. Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna has confirmed its systemic nature as a political force. Svoboda Party has, in fact, returned to the top league of big politics, and UKROP [Dill] has harvested a considerable amount of votes in several regions.

            Having survived one of the most difficult years in its recent history, Ukraine remains a country with hardly predictable policy and unclearly formed tasks for the near future. Meanwhile, the emergency reserves of stability are almost gone, which makes the need for real change ever apparent.
            Year’s milestones. President’s attempts, concealed coalition, and seemingly cool Cabinet : UNIAN news

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            • Ukraine increases gas consumption amid cold snap
              04.01.2016 | 14:25 UNIAN

              Natural gas reserves in Ukraine's underground storage facilities (USFs) decreased by 663 million cubic meters (mcm), or 4.6%, to 13.752 billion cubic meters (bcm) from December 26 to January 2, according to PJSC Ukrtransgaz, the operator of Ukraine's gas transportation system.

              The company reports that an average volume of gas being pumped out of the USFs daily has doubled to 125 mcm.

              With the onset of the cold weather in the country, Ukraine on January 1, 2016 increased daily gas imports from Slovakia by 12.6% to 18.96 mcm, as compared to 16.84 mcm on the previous day, according to Slovak gas transmission company Eustream.

              On January 2, the daily volume of gas imports from Slovakia amounted to 18.764 mcm, reaching 18.788 mcm the next day. An application to import natural gas from Slovakia to Ukraine as of January 4 totaled 18.781 mcm.

              As UNIAN reported earlier, Ukraine doubled its natural gas imports from the EU to 10.25 bcm in 2015, as compared to 5.1 bcm in the previous year.

              Ukraine suspended purchases of Russian gas in late November due to the fact that Russian price was higher than the price of gas in the European markets, according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

              Russia's Gazprom had set price for its gas for Ukraine at $227 per 1,000 cubic meters that was effective by the end of 2015.

              This year, Ukraine plans to purchase, when necessary, the Russian gas at $207-208 per 1,000 cubic meters. The price of gas on the European market is projected at $175-180 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2016.

              Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed December 30 a decree on the amount of export duty on gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine until March 31 inclusive.

              According to the government’s decision, the price was reduced by $17.77 per 1,000 cubic meters and the discounted price will now stand at $212.23 per 1,000 cubic meters.

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              • China share trading halted after 7% plunge
                BBC Jan 4, 2016

                Trading on China's stock markets has been suspended after the market dramatically plunged and triggered a new system meant to limit volatility.

                The blue-chip CSI 300 Index dropped 7% while the benchmark Shanghai Composite index fell 6.9%.

                The technology-heavy Shenzhen Composite was the worst performer and fell by more than 8%.

                Trading had been halted earlier in the day for 15 minutes after the stock market fell by 5%.

                But shares continued to fall, leading regulators to end trading early.

                Under China's new circuit-breaker mechanism, moves of 7% from the previous session's close trigger a trading suspension for the day.

                The measures were introduced in early December after the stock market's turbulent sell-off over the summer. They came into effect for the first time on Monday.

                One factor behind the stock market falls was a manufacturing survey that pointed to more bad news for the Chinese economy.

                The Caixin/Markit purchasing managers' index (PMI) slipped to 48.2 in December, marking the 10th consecutive month of shrinking factory activity in the sector.

                A reading below 50 suggests a contraction in the sector, while anything above 50 suggests growth.

                The private PMI survey, which focuses more on small and medium-sized businesses, came after an official survey on Friday, which looked at larger companies, suggested a fifth month of shrinking factory activity.

                In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index closed down 2.7% at 21,327.12.

                China's stock market falls on Monday point to "volatile trading for the rest of the year" according to the BBC's Karishma Vaswani.

                "Retail investors in the Chinese stock market are often driven by sentiment and tend to follow the crowd. When they hear of some bad news from brokers or their friends, and other people start selling - they start selling too."

                Rest of Asia lower

                Shares in the rest of Asia followed China lower. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index closed 3.1% lower at 18,450.98 as a stronger yen weighed on shares of major exporters.

                The market was also catching up with last week's declines in the US, after being closed for the past two sessions.

                Australia's S&P/ASX 200 index closed down 0.5% at 5,270.50, while South Korea's Kospi index finished down 2.2% at 1,918.76.

                A jump in oil prices boosted Australia's energy sector with shares of Woodside Petroleum up 3%.

                Brent crude gained 3%, rising as high as $38.40 a barrel, after Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric ignited tensions in the region, raising concerns among investors about oil supplies.
                China share trading halted after 7% plunge - BBC News

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                • Bellingcat narrows list of possible MH17 culprits from Russian 53rd Brigade to 20 servicemen
                  EUROMAIDAN PRESS 2016/01/04

                  The investigative journalism team Bellingcat has narrowed the list of those involved in the downing of flight MH17, the Malaysian airliner that was shot down above East Ukraine on 17 July 2014 to 20 Russian servicemen.

                  Bellingcat submitted their new report submitted to the Dutch Public Prosecution Service two weeks ago, according to the Dutch outlet NOS, and will be made available to the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which is conducting the criminal investigation about the MH17 catastrophe.

                  According to NOS, all names and other data through the JIT will “be seriously considered, examined and assessed on their suitability for the criminal investigation,” as said by the spokesperson of the prosecutor.

                  Bellingcat names the 53d brigade from Kursk as those responsible for delivering the Buk missile launcher to Ukraine in their report released on 8 October 2015. You can also see the path of the Buk in their interactive StoryMap presentation. Now, Bellingcat narrows the list of servicemen directly involved in the downing to 20 soldiers.

                  One of them is Sergey M., the brigade’s commander. Other stakeholders are Dmitry T., the commander of the Second Battalion, and nine lieutenants who were in charge of the Buk-air defense missile systems within the battalion in 2014, as well as experienced soldiers that had been trained to operate a Buk.

                  Eliot Higgins, bellingcat founder, did the research together with eleven volunteers from many countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and the United States, by scouring social networks for signs of the brigade’s activity.

                  The 123-page long report, which has taken over a year of investigation, contains details which Bellingcat believes are too sensitive to make public during the police investigation, however, a shorter version of the report will be made available.


                  Previously, JIT used Bellingcat’s investigation of the trailer in which the Buk missile launcher was captured in their online call to search for witnesses of its trasportation in a Russian-language video with English subtitles.
                  Bellingcat narrows list of possible MH17 culprits from Russian 53rd Brigade to 20 servicemen -Euromaidan Press |
                  Last edited by Hannia; 4 January 2016, 14:30.

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                  • 12:11 04.01.2016 INTERFAX-UKRAINE
                    Yatseniuk optimistic about Ukraine's reforms, compares them to those conducted by Poland

                    Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk claims that Ukraine's government has been conducting reforms that are similar to those carried out by Poland.

                    "The best example of European integration for Ukraine is a neighboring and brotherly Poland: It took Poland 14 years to conduct uneasy reforms. We've been conducting the same reforms in the past 22 months. After such reforms Poland has not only become a European Union member but it is one of the EU's strongest, developed economies. This is our way to go. And we'll follow it," he said during the weekly TV program titled "10 Minutes with the Prime Minister" broadcast by Channel 5 on Sunday.

                    In his words, there is much work ahead "for Ukraine to become an EU member."

                    But it was last year when the European Commission "clearly indicated that Ukraine had complied with all the criteria required for the introduction of a visa-free regime between Ukraine and the European Union."

                    "We're looking forward to the final decision by the EU on visa-free travels for Ukrainian citizens, as we're participants in one, large European space. We share similar values. We share similar principles. We respect human rights and freedoms. We're guided solely by the principle of the supremacy of law," he added.

                    Yatseniuk said that Ukraine had joined a number of programs with the EU, including for Ukrainian scientists, cultural programs and those of access to European resources.

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                    • 13:45 04.01.2016 INTERFAX-UKRAINE
                      Coalminers from Lviv region plan to block customs checkpoints at border with Poland on Jan 12

                      Chairman of Ukrainian Miners' Independent Trade Union Mykhailo Volynets announces that personnel of Lviv region's coalmines who are now on strike are planning to block customs checkpoints at the border with Poland on January 12.

                      "The coalminers are not sure that they'll get payment in January and in February. The local organization of the independent workers of Ukraine had a meeting yesterday. Another trade union is also about to act. A decision was taken to hold meetings at other coalmines in Lviv region, which should decide whether they are going to join the strike or not," Volynets wrote on Facebook on Monday.

                      He wrote the miners would block the customs checkpoints with Poland on January 12 to attract the public's attention.

                      "A decision has been taken that the customs checkpoints with Poland will be blocked on January 12 to attract the attention of not only the government to the mess happening in the fuel and energy complex and nonfeasance of [Ukrainian Energy and Coal Industry] Minister [Volodymyr] Demchyshyn and his team, but also the international community," he added.

                      According to mass media, personnel of state-run Lviv V uhillia's Stepna coalmine located in the village of Hlukhiv, Lviv region, went on strike on January 2, demanding the repayment of delayed wages.

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                      • Saudi Arabia's allies Bahrain, Sudan and UAE act against Iran
                        BBC Jan 4, 2015

                        A number of Saudi Arabia's allies have joined diplomatic action against Iran after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked amid a row over the execution of a Shia Muslim cleric.

                        Bahrain and Sudan have both severed relations with Iran, and the UAE has downgraded its diplomatic team.

                        Saudi Arabia on Sunday severed ties and gave Iran's diplomats two days to go.

                        Saudi Arabia and Iran are the key Sunni and Shia powers in the region and back opposing sides in Syria and Yemen.

                        Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim king but has a majority Shia population, on Monday gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country.

                        It accused Iran of "increasing, flagrant and dangerous meddling" in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states.

                        It said the attack on the Saudi embassy was part of a "very dangerous pattern of sectarian policies that should be confronted... to preserve security and stability in the entire region".

                        Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet, has frequently accused Iran of supporting a low-level Shia insurgency that flared following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

                        A Sudan foreign ministry statement read: "In response to the barbaric attacks on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad... Sudan announces the immediate severing of ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran."

                        The United Arab Emirates said it was downgrading its diplomatic representation in Tehran and will cut the number of Iranian diplomats in the country.

                        Analysis: Jonathan Marcus, BBC defence and diplomatic correspondent

                        Ties between Iran and Bahrain have long been difficult; influenced by many of the same factors that have poisoned Saudi-Iranian relations.

                        Bahrain has suffered considerable internal turmoil over the past year and has clamped down heavily, with claims that Iran is behind much of the unrest.

                        Last July, Bahrain recalled its ambassador to Tehran after it foiled an arms smuggling plot which it attributed to Iranian-backed elements.

                        The demise of Saddam Hussein's Iraq - which always served as an Arab counter-weight to Tehran - has resulted in a growing regional role for Iran, which the Gulf Arabs see as a serious threat.

                        The US-Iran nuclear deal has also increased sensitivities in the region as has the continuing struggle in Syria, in which the Gulf Arabs and Tehran are on very different sides.

                        There are fears sectarian strife may spread in the region following the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others in Saudi Arabia on Saturday after they were convicted of terror-related offences.

                        On Monday, two Sunni mosques in Iraq were bombed and an imam killed.
                        'Pursuing confrontation'

                        Saudi Arabia announced late on Sunday that it was severing diplomatic relations with Iran after demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. It has recalled its own diplomats.

                        Iran's foreign ministry on Monday accused the Saudis of "continuing the policy of increasing tension and clashes in the region".

                        Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said: "Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them to the outside."

                        He defended Iran's response to the embassy attack, saying it had "acted in accordance with its obligations to control the broad wave of popular emotion". Fifty arrests were made.

                        Iran's first vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said it would be Saudi Arabia that lost out by severing ties, accusing it of "hasty and illogical actions".

                        But in announcing the cut in ties, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said accused Iran of having "distributed weapons and planted terrorist cells in the region".

                        "Iran's history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues, and it is always accompanied by destruction," he said.

                        In other developments:
                        -Bomb blasts rock two Sunni mosques in and around Hilla, 80km (50 miles) south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. A muezzin of one of the mosques is killed
                        -The Sunni imam of a mosque in Alexandria, north of Babylon in Iraq, is killed by gunmen
                        -Police come under heavy gunfire in Sheikh Nimr's hometown, Awamiya in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, on Sunday night, leaving one civilian dead and a child injured.

                        Saudi Arabia's allies Bahrain, Sudan and UAE act against Iran - BBC News

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                        • Who Was the Cleric Saudis Executed and Why His Death Matters
                          BLOOMBERG Ladane Nasseri Updated on January 4, 2016

                          -International condemnation followed death of Nimr al-Nimr
                          -Tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia plummet to 3-decade low

                          Saudi Arabia’s execution of a leading Shiite cleric has triggered the worst crisis between the Sunni kingdom and its chief Middle Eastern foe, Iran, in more than two decades.

                          The execution of Nimr al-Nimr, who was a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, triggered international condemnation, with the harshest reaction coming from Iran.

                          Protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set the building on fire. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saudi officials they will face “divine” revenge for their actions. In Riyadh, authorities responded on Sunday by cutting diplomatic ties and giving Iran’s ambassador 48 hours to leave the country.

                          The sharp escalation in tensions between the world’s largest oil explorer and a nation seeking to emerge from years of international sanctions may have wide-ranging regional repercussions, with the two already engaged in proxy confrontations from Syria to Yemen as they tussle for supremacy.

                          Here’s an overview of who’s involved and what may happen next.

                          Who was Nimr al-Nimr?

                          Nimr al-Nimr, 57, a Shiite cleric from Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, was a well-known figure at anti-government demonstrations and criticized Saudi rulers in some of his sermons for their treatment of the kingdom’s Shiite minority.

                          In 2009, he threatened to lead Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslims to secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. In his sermons, al-Nimr was critical of Sunni and Shiite autocratic rulers alike, though he reserved some of his most scathing attacks for the Saudi and Bahraini royal families.

                          In a meeting with U.S. diplomats in 2008, al-Nimr sought to distance himself from Tehran, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks. Iran, like other countries, acts out of self-interest, and Saudi Shiites shouldn’t expect Iranian support based on sectarian unity, he said. The report describes him as a “second-tier political player” in the Eastern Province.

                          Saudi security forces shot and injured al-Nimr in clashes with his supporters in 2012 as the Shiite cleric tried to escape, the Riyadh-based Saudi Press Agency reported at the time. Al-Nimr also shot at security forces and was eventually taken into custody and transported to a hospital, the news service said. He was sentenced to death in 2014.

                          What does his execution mean for Saudi Arabia?

                          While Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia largely escaped the unrest that spread across the Arab world from 2011, the country’s Shiites, who say they suffer discrimination, have occasionally protested and clashed with security forces. Most Saudi Shiites live near some of the world’s largest oil fields in the eastern region, and according to the CIA World Factbook, make up between 10 percent and 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population.

                          The execution “institutionalizes tension in Saudi Arabia by creating a symbol for Shiite grievances,” Ibrahim Fraihat, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said in an interview. “Not many people in the past saw him as the representative of the Shiite community, but now he has become one of the symbols of the tension between Shiite and Sunnis.”
                          Police clash with protestors during a demonstration near the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, on Jan. 3, 2016.
                          Police clash with protestors during a demonstration near the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, on Jan. 3, 2016.
                          Photographer: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

                          In 2015, Islamic State militants took advantage of Saudi sectarian fault-lines and struck Shiite mosques in the Eastern Province.

                          Shiites are a majority in neighboring Bahrain, a small island that’s home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Bahraini authorities regularly accuse Iran of supporting extremist Shiite groups, a charge the Islamic Republic denies.
                          Why carry out the execution given regional tensions?

                          Given the complex dynamics in the region in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, al-Nimr’s execution was an illustration of Saudi Arabia’s “get tough” policy against Iran and internal dissent, said Scott Lucas, an Iran analyst and professor of international politics at Birmingham University in the U.K.

                          QuickTake Sunni-Shiite Divide

                          “The Saudis deliberately crossed the line by executing him, and to add insult to injury they used the rhetoric that lumps him in with al-Qaeda terrorists,” he said.

                          Al-Nimr was one of 47 men executed on Saturday. Many of them were Sunnis convicted of terrorism-related offenses, whom Saudi authorities described using terms it normally reserves for jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
                          How did Iran react?

                          Iranian protesters armed with rocks and firebombs massed outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran late Saturday and set parts of the building on fire. A small group stormed the premises, ransacking offices, and several were arrested, Tehran police chief Hossein Sajedinia told the state-run Islamic Students’ News Agency.

                          On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Saudi rulers will face “the divine hand of revenge” for their actions. Khamenei, the country’s highest authority and a regular critics of Saudi policies, stopped short of saying Iran would take action.

                          Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, suggested he didn’t seek to escalate the confrontation. While he denounced the execution, he condemned the attack on the Saudi embassy as unjustifiable.

                          This incident might “spiral quickly into a domestic fight” in Iran between hardliners and more moderate factions close to Rouhani, Lucas said.

                          Will tensions between Iran and Saudi deepen further?

                          “The ball is in the Iranian court,” according to Lucas. Signs that the regime in Tehran is ready to step up the confrontation could include “any escalation in Iranian support for Houthi” rebels in Yemen or greater anti-Saudi activity by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which has deployed fighters to Syria, Lucas said before the Saudi decision to cut ties. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
                          Who Was Nimr al-Nimr, and Why Does His Saudi Execution Matter? - Bloomberg Business

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                          • ATLANTIC OCUNCIL Aaron Korewa January 4, 2016
                            What Will 2016 Mean for Ukraine?

                            In 2015, Ukraine proved it wasn't a pushover. The country united in the face of Russian aggression and Russian President Vladimir Putin learned that if he wanted his Novorossiya project, it was going to cost him more than a few little green men.

                            Notably, the war in Ukraine was completely absent from Putin's December 2015 address to the Russian Federal Assembly, in contrast to the one he gave in 2014, where it was the main subject. Of course, that may be part of a plan to ensure that Ukraine disappears from the world's attention. The fact that Putin didn't mind admitting in his annual press conference that there was indeed a Russian military presence in Ukraine shows that he senses fatigue in the West with the conflict.
                            Beyond the headlines, there have been some positive developments from the European Union on the issue. An important trade deal between the European Union and Ukraine, which is essential for revitalizing the country's economy, will be effective next month. Hopefully, visa-free access for Ukrainians to EU countries will soon follow.

                            These are good policies, but their effects are primarily long term. Meanwhile, Putin's current strategy in Ukraine seems to be destabilization. Several explosions, some of them deadly, have been reported in eastern Ukrainian cities since the war began. Recently, the Ukrainian security services uncovered an eight-man-strong terrorist cell in Kharkiv. Three of the men were Russians. This increase in terrorist activity took place at the same time as some European countries, including Italy, were reportedly hesitating over continuing sanctions against Russia. Rome later denied this and the sanctions were prolonged, but of course the Russian propaganda spin was that the collapse of Western unity was imminent.

                            The US-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute has demonstrated that the 2009-11 terrorist attacks in Georgia took place at the height of US President Barack Obama's "Russia Reset" policy. Perhaps Putin was trying to show those who oppose him that they are alone. Most likely, this kind of activity will only increase in Ukraine.

                            But that's not all. Instead of launching a new military offensive on land, Putin is trying his luck at sea. On December 14, Russia hijacked two drilling rigs located in Ukrainian territorial waters in the Odeske natural gas field in the Black Sea, 100 kilometers east of the Ukrainian coastline. The Russian news agency TASS claimed that the deposits in the Black Sea shelf are now Russian, because of the takeover of Crimea. There may be a military logic here. As Euromaidan Press reported, Russian propaganda is already saying that Russian gas rigs in the Ukrainian maritime zone need protection from "terrorism." The distance between the gas field and the western Ukrainian Black Sea coast is well within the range of Russian naval weapons.

                            West of the gas field and close to the western Ukrainian Black Sea coast is the tiny Zmiinyi Island, a former Soviet base with a population of 100. If Russia seized the island, the port of Odesa could be cut off; that would deny Ukraine almost all access to the sea, since Russia already holds Crimea and the gas fields between there and Zmiinyi Island.

                            One could imagine a scenario sometime in 2016 where "Odessan freedom fighters," who are actually Russian naval troops without insignia, seize the island and declare it a part of the "Odessan People's Republic." Russia could then send "humanitarian convoys" or "civilian activists" from Crimea. Such convoys would obviously need "protection" from Russian naval vessels.

                            Odesa is a Russian-speaking city and the local pro-Russian terrorist movement is known as the "Odessa Underground." The group took credit for several bomb attacks over the summer, and one of its prominent figures, Oleksiy Albu, recently gave an interview in which he announced his plans to ramp up activity in the region saying "Soon the time will come." If Russia seizes Zmiinyi Island, it could be turned into a naval base from which fighters from the Odessa Underground could operate in motorboats armed with RPGs and Kalashnikovs. It would be a nightmare for merchant shipping.

                            Does all this sound crazy and far-fetched? Perhaps, but so did a Russian seizure of Crimea two years ago—to some, at least. One should not be fooled by Ukraine's absence from Putin's speeches; the country matters to the Kremlin. The South Steam gas project may be dead now, but if Moscow ever wants a pipeline to Europe through the southern route it is hard to avoid Ukrainian Economic Exclusive Zones in the Black Sea. The alternative is to run it through Turkish zones, which is complicated for Russia these days, or run it through Georgia and Turkey on land. In addition, the industry of eastern Ukraine is closely integrated with the Russian military-industrial complex in areas such as launch vehicle and carrier rocket production, production of turbines for nuclear power plants as well as production of ships and planes.

                            War, as the Russian writer Arkadij Babtjenko wrote, is a key pillar of Putin's regime—together with poverty, prisons, and television. Hopefully, Ukrainians will continue to hold their ground, the West will learn from its previous mistakes, and 2016 will see Putin falter. What Will 2016 Mean for Ukraine?
                            Aaron Korewa is former political adviser to Carl Bildt, former Foreign Minister of Sweden. He lives in Stockholm.

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                            Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp


                            • RADIO FREE EUROPE January 04, 2016
                              Kremlin: Russian Military Intelligence Chief Dies Unexpectedly

                              The Kremlin says the head of Russia's military intelligence agency, which is known as the GRU, has died unexpectedly.

                              A statement posted on the Kremlin website on January 4 said that President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to Igor Sergun's relatives over his "sudden death."

                              Sergun, who had headed the GRU since 2011 and was also a deputy head of the Russian military General Staff, was 58 years old.

                              The Kremlin statement did not give a cause of death.

                              It quoted Putin as saying that Sergun had dedicated his "entire serving the homeland and the armed forces."

                              GRU is a secretive agency, and Sergun was not widely known as a public figure.

                              His death comes amid an upsurge in Russian military activity abroad. Russia launched air strikes in Syria in September and is accused by the Kyiv and the West of direct military support for separatists in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,000 people.

                              Two Russians captured in Ukraine last year have said they were active GRU officers when they were seized, while the Russian military says they were not serving at the time. Kremlin: Russian Military Intelligence Chief Dies Unexpectedly

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                              Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp


                              • RADIO FREE EUROPE Tom Balmforth January 04, 2016
                                Hard Times: Five Russians' Hopes, Fears For 2016

                                MOSCOW -- 2015 has been a tough year for many Russians. The economy has been mired in recession. Dragged down by oil prices, the ruble has languished near record lows. The cost of a typical trip abroad has doubled in ruble terms, and U.S. and EU sanctions over Moscow's interference in Ukraine have increased Russia's isolation. The Kremlin's retaliatory ban has swept many Western foods off the shelves and driven inflation up, while salaries are down.

                                RFE/RL spoke to five Muscovites from different walks of life about their experiences this year, and their hopes and fears for 2016. Here's what they said:

                                Tatyana Zaugolnova, 29 Owns and runs an online cosmetics shop, My Green Style, with a staff of six

                                "On a day-to-day level, I've noticed of course that groceries are much more expensive, especially fish, which now costs two times more than I was used to. Traveling has also gotten twice as expensive. If a year ago I could take my rucksack and head off to Europe for the weekend, nowadays I sit here toting up the costs and then don't go because everything has become really expensive.

                                "Business has gotten harder. The cost of European cosmetics has doubled -- and more than doubled in the case of some producers. Demand, correspondingly, has fallen. It's been a bit easier with Russian cosmetics, which have gotten 20-30 percent more expensive and therefore seem like a better deal in comparison with European brands. In general, though, of course, sales are falling.

                                "I've decided to try and bring down expenses -- to rent less office space and have staff work remotely. Let's see what happens. I hope there will be a result and we'll survive this crisis, as we did the others.

                                "I have the feeling that we've passed the peak of the crisis and that the economy has been restructured with an orientation toward domestic producers. Russian producers have received good stimulus because of the sanctions and the rate of the dollar. The example of cosmetics has shown me this -- Russian cosmetics haven't risen in cost as fast as foreign ones, so they remain popular.

                                "I hope, of course, that the coming year will be easier than this one and that everything stabilizes. At the very least, I would like there to be stability. These jumps in the dollar and euro really affect prices. It's really difficult to predict how much I will spend in the next month.

                                "What are my fears? My biggest fear is that I'll have to close my shop. The situation at the moment is quite difficult. I really hope that my strategy of lowering costs will work and I won't have to close. My biggest fear is that I'll have to close the shop."

                                Vladimir Skiba, 65 Pensioner, teaches music

                                "I think anyone who has a profession of some sort can work in addition to their pension. Especially people who are musicians or work in culture and can do something like play, write, compose -- these people can find use for themselves.

                                "I wouldn't say [the economic downturn] has had a big effect or been very noticeable. I find out about it more from the media. I hadn't been planning in the near future to improve my living standards, to buy an expensive car. As for daily life, I haven't noticed a big impact on grocery prices.

                                "I remember the 1990s well. It was much more difficult and much worse. I remember the default and even remember when I was really small, under [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, when there were awful queues for basic products like bread and butter. The 1990s were also a difficult time.

                                "In contrast, I am aware of this crisis more through the media, the television and the newspaper, and in conversations. There are times when people come up to you and ask for money, but in those years, it was all a lot more evident right in front of your eyes.

                                "I think we've already passed [the peak of Russia's economic troubles] and that prices have stabilized.

                                "My hope is that everyone's life will really get better -- that people won't have to count the kopeks and that they will be able to buy what they want. Not all pensioners are able to work to supplement their pension.

                                "It's not like in some Western countries. I have a lot of friends abroad and I've often noticed that things are a lot better thought out for people [there], especially people of a pension age. As for fears, there isn't anything -- I'm sure that everything will become normal."

                                Svyat Kozlov, 52 Former furniture restorer, on disability pension

                                "The economic crisis has really had an effect on my life as a pensioner. One or two years ago, my pension was the equivalent of $300 or $400. Now, because of the crisis and all this, our pensions have become a hundred and something dollars. That's like in China. It is very hard, in practice, to live on a hundred and something dollars. Groceries are getting more expensive.

                                "The sanctions were declared against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They were not imposed against the people of Russia, but against the friends of Putin. But so that we could all live happily, Putin made it so that we can't buy food from other countries. We don't have our own products in Russia. So now we are rejecting Turkish products and soon we will reject some other countries' products. As a result, we'll soon be given ration cards for food, like at the beginning of perestroika.

                                "How can we say that the peak of the crisis is past us when in the last few years, small business in this country has practically been totally destroyed? In the last two years, small enterprises have been closing on a massive scale. Around 100,000 or 200,000 small businesses have closed in the past year. Only big oligarchs can survive, thanks to stealing our gas and oil. It's enough to drive 100 kilometers outside Moscow and it's evident immediately that this is a poor country. This crisis will continue for a long, long time.

                                "My hope is that the Western countries will remove their [sanctions]. My fear is that we will end up in another war. Russia has been fighting in Ukraine. Russia is fighting in Syria. Russia in effect declared war on the Islamic State -- we declared war on them, not them on us. So there is the fear that the war could come to our territory."

                                Yekaterina Kondratyeva, 28 TV journalist

                                "I've had to take out a loan with an elevated rate to buy a car. Before, I could buy the car with a loan at a 15 percent interest rate, but now it's practically 20 percent. There's travel, as well. If I fly to Europe and pay in euros and dollars, then effectively I have half as much money as I did before. With groceries, I haven't really felt this crisis much. Yes, they've got a bit more expensive, but I don't really feel it that much.

                                "Overall, I've felt the crisis here and there, but this is the first time I've noticed financial changes in my life. Maybe that's because this is the first time I've had loans to pay off. In past crises, I've never felt them because I haven't had a loan before. I don't think we've reached the peak of the crisis. I don't know if it's going to be better or worse, but I don't think the crisis is going anywhere.

                                "I don't have any fears [about 2016]. I don't think it will be very scary. Something could happen in broad terms in the country, but I don't worry about myself very much. I think I'll be just fine.

                                "My hopes -- I hope things get better, of course, that the crisis will end in the next year or two and that everything will be like it was before, or even better. I'm an optimist in life!"

                                Dmitry Klimanov, 29 Self-employed insurance salesman

                                "The insurance business is currently in quite a difficult situation. I work in car insurance and insurance for construction equipment. The situation is that car sales have fallen and the cost of spare parts has risen. It's gotten harder to find clients. That's the first thing.

                                "The second is that companies have started to feel bad. As a result there have been some problems with settling insurance claims. It has a negative impact. Clients are losing trust in insurers a bit. In short, this is a negative environment. But there is also an opposite trend -- people have started to fear losing their property. A car crash will cost 2 1/2 to three times more than before. Spare parts cost more, and people want to insure themselves.

                                "I don't work in a company. Since I work for myself, I don't have a fixed salary, so there is a certain fear about what's going to happen in the future. Another thing is that travel has become significantly more expensive. Before the crisis, I was in the Maldives, but this time I went to the Dominican Republic because it's cheaper. Next year, I don't even know where it's worth going because everything's more expensive. Maybe it would be easier to build another 'banya' [bathhouse] at the dacha and take a vacation out there.

                                "The [economic problems] are still growing. I see this at work. That companies are closing is a fact, and they will continue to close. There is no growth. Many held on until the end. Many of my colleagues are leaving the market to work in an office because they want stability.

                                "Things are simpler for me. In professional terms, I have hope. My friends have fears that their companies will close or cut their salaries and so on. My fears stem from the fact that it's not clear what will happen in the future. There are fears that there will be a rise in crime. There have been cases, for instance, of car theft, and of headlights or wing mirrors getting stolen. The biggest fear, I suppose, is that someone will hit you over the head to take your phone." Hard Times: Five Russians' Hopes, Fears For 2016

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                                Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp