China, Russia hold off on congratulating Biden; U.S. allies rally round

By Cate Cadell and Dmitry Antonov

BEIJING/MOSCOW (Reuters) – China and Russia held off congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Monday, with Beijing saying it would follow usual custom in its response and the Kremlin noting incumbent Donald Trump’s vow to pursue legal challenges.

Democrat Biden clinched enough states to win the presidency on Saturday and has begun making plans for when he takes office on Jan. 20. Trump has not conceded defeat and plans rallies to build support for legal challenges.

Some of the United States’ biggest and closest allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia quickly congratulated Biden over the weekend despite Trump’s refusal to concede, as did some Trump allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called for the European Union and United States to work “side by side,” holding up Biden as an experienced leader who knows Germany and Europe well and stressing the NATO allies’ shared values and interests.

Beijing and Moscow were cautious.

“We noticed that Mr. Biden has declared election victory,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily media briefing. “We understand that the U.S. presidential election result will be determined following U.S. law and procedures.”

In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent congratulations to Trump on Nov. 9, a day after the election.

Relations between China and the United States are at their worst in decades over disputes ranging from technology and trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus, and the Trump administration has unleashed a barrage of sanctions against Beijing.

While Biden is expected to maintain a tough stance on China — he has called Xi a “thug” and vowed to lead a campaign to “pressure, isolate and punish China” — he is likely to take a more measured and multilateral approach.

Chinese state media struck an optimistic tone in editorials, saying relations could be restored to a state of greater predictability, starting with trade.

KREMLIN NOTES TRUMP’S LAW SUITS

The Kremlin said it would wait for the official results of the election before commenting, and that it had noted Trump’s announcement of legal challenges.

President Vladimir Putin has remained silent since Biden’s victory. In the run-up to the vote, Putin had appeared to hedge his bets, frowning on Biden’s anti-Russian rhetoric but welcoming his comments on nuclear arms control. Putin had also defended Biden’s son, Hunter, against criticism from Trump.

“We think it appropriate to wait for the official vote count,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

Biden cleared the threshold of 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House on Saturday, four days after the Nov. 3 election. He beat Trump by more than 4 million votes nationwide, making Trump the first president since 1992 to lose re-election.

Asked why, in 2016, Putin had congratulated Trump soon after he had won the Electoral College and beaten Democrat Hillary Clinton, Peskov said there was an obvious difference.

“You can see that there are certain legal procedures that have been announced by the current president. That is why the situations are different and we therefore think it appropriate to wait for an official announcement,” he said.

Peskov noted that Putin had repeatedly said he was ready to work with any U.S. leader and that Russia hoped it could establish dialogue with a new U.S. administration and find a way to normalize troubled bilateral relations.

Moscow’s ties with Washington sank to post-Cold War lows in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Biden was serving as vice president under President Barack Obama at the time.

Relations soured further over U.S. allegations that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to try to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor, something the Kremlin denied.

(Additional reporting by Brenda Goh, Tony Munroe and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Darya Korsunskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Catherine Evans)

Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

German spy scandal exposes deep divisions in Merkel government

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hans-Georg Maassen, the President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic security agency in Cologne, Germany October 31, 2014. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

By Paul Carrel

BERLIN (Reuters) – A scandal over migrants being chased through the streets has exposed a rift between Angela Merkel and Germany’s security establishment that is dividing her coalition and hindering efforts to contain the fall-out from her “open door” refugee policy.

The crisis blew up when Hans-Georg Maassen, chief of the BfV intelligence agency, said he was not convinced far-right extremists had attacked migrants in the eastern city of Chemnitz last month and a video said to show the violence may be fake.

That put Maassen at odds with Merkel, who said the pictures “very clearly revealed hate” which could not be tolerated.

“For a more decisive chancellor, this would have been enough to fire him,” said Carsten Nickel at political consultancy Teneo Intelligence, adding that support for Maassen from Merkel’s conservative Bavarian allies was staying her hand.

Now, Merkel is caught between her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which backs Maassen, and her other coalition partner, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), who say he has lost credibility and must go.

The upshot is that the chancellor looks weak, her coalition is in crisis and she is less able to deal with pressing issues such as Brexit, European Union reform and trade problems with the United States.

“The migration issue will certainly continue to haunt Merkel until the end of her term,” said Nickel.

The Maassen row has its roots in Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees fleeing war in the Middle East. More than one million came in total.

“Maassen is not an isolated case. Maassen is part of the security community,” said Robin Alexander, author of ‘Die Getriebenen, or ‘Those Driven by Events’, an account of how Merkel and her lieutenants handled the refugee crisis.

“For this security community, autumn 2015 was a disaster – not just for Maassen, but for all of them,” he added. “There is a deep alienation of the whole security community from the chancellor, and that was not the case in Germany previously.”

FRUSTRATED SPIES

The rift opened up in October 2015, when Merkel put her chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, in charge of Germany’s response to the refugee crisis, with Emily Haber – a diplomat – acting as point person in the Interior Ministry.

That chain of command effectively shut out the security services, which couldn’t get face time with Merkel.

“That totally frustrated these people … they were horrified,” said Alexander.

In private, Maassen complained about the difficulty of keeping tabs on the refugees and assessing whether they posed a security risk.

His cause got a boost with the 2017 election, when the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged into parliament for the first time and Merkel had to reshuffle her government.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who had called Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis a “reign of injustice”, was made interior minister. He gave Maassen political cover to push his security agenda, which he duly did.

In an interview with Reuters in January, Maassen, 55, called for a review of laws restricting the surveillance of minors to guard against the children of Islamist fighters returning to Germany as “sleeper agents” who could carry out attacks.

Maassen also clashed with other more circumspect government officials when he said Russia was the likely culprit behind cyber attacks on Germany.

SPOKE TOO SOON

Then came Chemnitz. This time, Maassen publicly questioned the authenticity of the video before his agency had finished its work on the incident.

“The bottom line is that he spoke before the agency finished its assessment,” said one source familiar with the issue.

In a Sept. 10 letter to the Interior Ministry, seen by Reuters, in which he explained his comments on Chemnitz, Maassen said he wanted to shed light on events after the state premier of Saxony, where the city is located, denied migrants had been hounded.

But the letter failed to draw a line under a scandal that has also revived questions about Maassen’s ties to the far-right AfD.

A former leader of the AfD’s youth wing, Franziska Schreiber, wrote in a book she published this year – “Inside AfD: The report of a drop-out” – that Maassen had advised ex-AfD leader Frauke Petry on how the party could avoid being put under surveillance by his agency. He has denied giving such counsel.

Fresh allegations arose on Thursday, when the BfV was forced to deny a report by public broadcaster ARD that Maassen had told an AfD lawmaker about parts of a report from his agency before it was published.

But Maassen has the backing of Seehofer, who said the intelligence chief “gave a convincing explanation of his actions” to a committee of lawmakers on Wednesday.

The SPD nonetheless called a crisis meeting of governing party leaders on Thursday.

Coalition sources said the decision by the leaders of the three ruling parties to adjourn the Thursday meeting until next Tuesday could mean they hope Maassen will voluntarily step down.

However, the situation could be complicated by a meeting of the CSU on Saturday. If it supports Seehofer’s decision to back Maassen and he does not quit, coalition leaders will be under pressure to take a decision on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Violent crime rises in Germany and is attributed to refugees

Armed police officers guard 'St. Petri Dome,' next to the town hall of the northern German city Bremen, February 28, 2015.

By Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) – Young male refugees in Germany got the blame on Wednesday for most of a two-year increase in violent crime, adding fuel to the country’s political debate over migrants.

Violent crime rose by about 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, a study showed. It attributed more than 90 percent of that to young male refugees.

It noted, however, that migrants settling from war-torn countries such as Syria were much less likely to commit violent crimes that those from other places who were unlikely to be given asylum.

Migration will be a key issue in forthcoming coalition talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). The arrival of more than a million migrants since mid-2015 hurt both parties in last September’s election.

The government-sponsored study showed a jump in violent crime committed by male migrants aged 14 to 30.

Christian Pfeiffer, a criminology expert and one of the study researchers, told Deutschlandfunk radio there were huge differences between various refugee groups depending on where they came from and how high their chances were of staying and gaining legal status in Germany.

Asylum seekers who are regarded as war refugees who have relatively good chances of staying in Germany tend to avoid trouble more, the study found.

Around 17 percent of violent crimes in Lower Saxony that were attributed to refugees, for example, were suspected of being committed by North African asylum seekers who made up less than 1 percent of the state’s registered refugee population. North African asylum seekers have relatively slim chances of obtaining legal status in Germany.

“The situation is completely different for those who find out as soon as they arrive that they are totally undesirable here. No chance of working, of staying here,” Pfeiffer said.

The study said reuniting refugees with their families by allowing them to come to Germany too could help to reduce violence. Such reunions look set to be a particularly contentious issue in talks about a new coalition government.

The predominantly young male majority of refugees live in Germany without partners, mothers, sisters or other females whom the study sees as a “violence-preventing, civilising force.”

(Reporting By Riham Alkousaa Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Trump, Germany’s Merkel to hold first face-to-face meeting at White House

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a statement at the Chancellery in Berlin. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

By Jeff Mason and Andreas Rinke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday for a White House meeting that could help determine the future of the transatlantic alliance and shape the working relationship between two of the world’s most powerful leaders.

The new U.S. president and the long-serving stateswoman, whose country is Europe’s largest economy, will discuss funding for NATO and relations with Russia in their first meeting since Trump took office in January.

The meeting is consequential for both sides.

Merkel, who officials say has prepared carefully for the encounter, is likely to press Trump for assurances of support for a strong European Union and a commitment to fight climate change.

Trump, who as a presidential candidate criticized Merkel for allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, will seek her support for his demand that North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations pay more for their defense needs.

Relationship building will be a less overt but important agenda item. Merkel had close relations with Trump’s Democratic and Republican predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and she is likely to seek a strong working relationship with Trump despite major policy differences and wariness in Germany about the former New York businessman.

“Those who know the chancellor know that she has a knack for winning over people in personal discussions. I am sure that Donald Trump will not be immune,” said Juergen Hardt, a conservative lawmaker who helps coordinate transatlantic relations for the German government.

Trump is eager to see follow-through on his demand that European countries shoulder more of the burden of paying for the NATO alliance, which he has criticized.

He will also seek counsel from Merkel on how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader Merkel has dealt with extensively and whom Trump, to the consternation of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, has praised.

“The president will be very interested in hearing the chancellor’s views on her experience interacting with Putin,” a senior administration official told reporters.

CLIMATE ACCORD

A U.S. official said the Trump administration’s position on U.S. participation in the Paris agreement to curb climate change would likely come up in the Merkel meeting and be further clarified in the weeks and months ahead. Merkel is a strong supporter of international efforts to fight global warming.

Trump has called climate change a hoax and vowed during his campaign to “cancel” the Paris agreement within 100 days, saying it would be too costly for the U.S. economy.

Since being elected, he has been mostly quiet on the issue. In a New York Times interview in November, he said he would keep an open mind about the Paris deal.

Merkel is also likely to press Trump about U.S. support for European security, despite assurances from Vice President Mike Pence about that issue on his recent trip to Europe.

“There is still lingering doubt about … how the U.S. sees European security, and whether the U.S. sees its security and Europe’s security as intrinsically linked and inseparable,” Jeffrey Rathke, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told reporters.

(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin; Editing by Peter Cooney)

‘We need to talk’, Bavarian CSU tells Merkel on migrants

Bavarian state premier and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) Horst Seehofer attends a CSU party meeting at 'Kloster Seeon' in Seeon, southern Germany,

SEEON, Germany (Reuters) – Insisting “this is serious”, the leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian sister party stood by his demand for a refugee cap and said the conservative allies still have differences to resolve before campaigning for September’s election.

Horst Seehofer, the leader of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), said on Wednesday a “reconciliation summit” he is due to hold with Merkel in Munich in February was still planned but that the program was not finalized.

The CSU has long bristled at Merkel’s open-door policies that allowed into Germany about 1.1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since mid-2015. Ignoring her objections, it insists on a limit of 200,000 refugees per year.

By saying the two parties, who form the conservative “Union” bloc, still have differences to resolve, Seehofer kept up pressure on Merkel to toughen her stance on migrants.

“We still need to discuss some things and then we will go into the election together,” Seehofer said of his CSU and Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), speaking at the beginning of his party’s annual January retreat.

“This country is polarized and divided and it must be the task of all democrats to lead their country together,” he said.

The migrant issue has become more heated after an attack before Christmas in Berlin in which an asylum-seeker from Tunisia killed 12 people. After that, the CSU pushed for the Mediterranean Sea route for migrants to be closed by sending them back to Africa rather than allowing them to stay in Europe.

Merkel and Seehofer’s February meeting in Munich was planned after they each stayed away from the other’s party conference late last year as their conservative alliance struggles to repair the divisions over migrant policy.

Members of the CDU are concerned the divisions have not healed.

Ahead of the national election, the CSU is worried about losing votes to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that takes a hard line against refugees.

Seehofer is also looking ahead to a regional election in Bavaria in 2018, worried about losing votes then too to the AfD, which punished Merkel’s CDU in other state votes last year.

Appealing to his Bavarian base, Seehofer rejected a proposal by Merkel’s interior minister for Germany’s state intelligence agencies be centralized. At the moment, each of the 16 federal states has its own.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel in Berlin; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Alison Williams)