President Vladimir Putin tightened his iron grip on Russia Friday as his party secured enough seats in parliament to change the constitution and his most colorful opponent bowed out of next year's presidential race apparently under Kremlin pressure. \nUnited Russia -- running in the December 7 parliamentary elections under the lone banner of loyalty to Putin -- announced that enough independents had jumped on board in recent days to secure the faction a two-thirds parliamentary majority. \n"This morning we had 308" seats in the 450-member State Duma lower house of parliament, top United Russia deputy Vladimir Pekhin told reporters. \n"Requests to join are still coming in," he said. \nUnited Russia now has enough sway to approve constitutional changes without having to lobby for support from any other parties, although many of the remaining lawmakers are already on good terms with Putin's dominant administration. \nWestern analysts had long suspected that Putin was gunning for a two-thirds Duma majority in order to make sure that he can alter Russia's basic law should he wish. \nOne change could see Putin, 51, run for a third term after his all-but-guaranteed re-election in March. An opinion poll published Friday by the VTsIOM-A polling agency found that 75 of respondents said they would vote for Putin on March 14. \nOthers suggest Putin may want to centralize control over the regions by appointing regional governors. \nPutin used a televised national question-and-answer session this month to dismiss speculation that he planned to alter Russia's basic law. \nBut he later also hinted that he was unhappy with relations between Moscow and the regions, suggesting that they enjoyed too much independence. \nThe Duma is also expected to play an important role in deciding Russia's future prime minister. The current cabinet is headed by Mikhail Kasyanov -- one of the few holdovers from the Boris Yeltsin administration in Putin's court who is widely expected to be dismissed in the coming months. \nThe prime minister is inherently seen here as the top potential successor to the president. Securing a dominant Duma majority could in effect allow Putin -- who presents the prime minister's candidacy for the chamber's approval -- to appoint his own successor. \nIn a symbolic gesture, Putin was expected to secure his stamp over parliament by appearing at the new Duma's inaugural session tomorrow -- for the first time since his term officially began in May 2000. \nMeanwhile the road for Putin's re-election became even smoother Friday when Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- one of the few other politicians with broad name recognition and appeal in Russia -- pulled out of the race. \nZhirinovsky is widely recognized as the Russian clown prince who preaches ultra-nationalist ideology while privately bowing to every Kremlin whim. \nHe has participated and lost in every presidential election since 1991. Most analysts view him as a secret Kremlin stooge who was created as something of a scarecrow in a bid to prompt Western governments to support the more liberal forces of post-Soviet Russia. \nBut his party made strong gains in the Duma vote and emerged third in the popular poll. And he came in second in the VTsIOM-A poll, with support from seven percent of Russians who plan to vote in the March presidential election, way behind Putin's 75 percent. \nOne Russian newspaper predicted in its Friday edition that the Kremlin was frightened that Zhirinovsky might steal some of Putin's nationalist electorate and his symbolic first-round victory iffy and ask the firebrand to pull out of the race. \nZhirinovsky used his usual flair and antics to confirm he would not stand. \n"I will not be a candidate ... to avoid creating a personality cult" around himself, Zhirinovsky told his party congress.
SECRET AGREEMENT: China is paying for construction at Ream Naval Base, where dredging would be needed if larger military ships were to dock there, AMTI said Dredgers have been spotted off Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, where China is funding construction work and deeper port facilities would be necessary for the docking of larger military ships, a US think tank said on Friday. The US, which has sought to push back against Beijing’s extensive territorial claims and military expansion in the South China Sea, reiterated its “serious concerns” about China’s construction and military presence at Ream. “These developments threaten US and partner interests, regional security and Cambodia’s sovereignty,” a US Department of State spokesperson said. The report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank said the
France is to relax some COVID-19 restrictions from early next month in a bet that an outbreak of the Omicron variant of SARS-COV-2 would recede thanks to faster inoculations and plans to shut the unvaccinated out of most social activities. The French government is to lift the obligation to work from home at least three days a week from Feb. 2, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday. It would also remove a requirement to wear a mask outdoors, and scrap attendance limits for sports arenas and cultural venues, Castex said. Infections with the Delta variant are “clearly receding,” while the
‘PRECAUTIONARY MEASURE’: Authorities asked anyone who bought a hamster after Dec. 22 to hand it over after hamsters at a shop tested positive for the Delta variant Hong Kong’s government yesterday faced outrage over its decision to cull hundreds of small animals after hamsters in a store tested positive for COVID-19. Like China, Hong Kong maintains a staunch “zero COVID” policy, stamping out the merest trace of the virus with contact tracing, mass testing, strict quarantines and prolonged social distancing rules. Its latest measures target hamsters and other small mammals — including chinchillas, rabbits and guinea pigs, which authorities on Tuesday said would be culled as a “precautionary measure.” The drastic move came after hamsters sold at the Little Boss pet shop tested positive for the Delta variant of
RED LINE: The US and its allies would not accept if ‘any’ Russian troops cross into Ukraine, the state secretary said, clarifying Biden’s remarks about a ‘minor incursion’ The US and its allies on Thursday warned Moscow of grave consequences if “any” of the tens of thousands of troops massed on the border were to cross into Ukraine. Following talks in Berlin with Germany, France and the UK, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russia “cannot match” Western powers’ resoluteness. Allowing Russia to breach Ukraine’s territorial integrity would “drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent, and this city, were divided in two ... with the threat of all-out war hanging over everyone’s heads,” he told reporters. In a show of that