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As EU squeezes Russia, Serbia embraces old ally

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Serbia's bond with Russia is illustrated on a billboard with the word "Together" in Belgrade
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While the European Union scrambles to isolate Russia and reduce energy imports from the country, EU candidate Serbia is tightening its bond with Moscow through a new gas supply deal.

Belgrade has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, but it has refused to take part in sanctions against its old ally, even though Serbia aims to join the EU.

A day before the Europeans agreed to ban most Russian oil imports this week, Belgrade announced a three-year natural gas contract with Moscow, drawing a rebuke from Brussels.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic revealed the “very favourable” gas deal — with “by far the best terms in Europe” — following a phone call with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Sunday.

“We will have a safe winter when it comes to gas supply,” the populist leader boasted, adding that in winter, Serbia will pay “one tenth” of the price shelled out by other European countries.

Russia, meanwhile, has cut gas supplies to several EU nations. The bloc aims to reduce gas imports by two-thirds this year, but an embargo is not in the cards so far.

Underscoring Belgrade’s friendly ties with Moscow, Serbian media reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to visit the Balkan country’s capital soon.

EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc expects Serbia “not to further strengthen its ties with Russia”.

“Candidate countries, including Serbia, are expected to progressively align their policies towards third countries with the policies and positions adopted by the European Union, including with restrictive measures,” Stano said in a statement.

– ‘Side deals’ –

Belgrade officially proclaims EU accession is a priority, but it has consistently shied away from European policies going against Russian interests while pro-government media echo the fierce messages coming from the Kremlin.

Serbian officials have accused Western countries of pressuring Belgrade to impose sanctions against Russia, and some even suggested that the country should drop its EU bid over the issue.

“It’s like they spent the last decade preparing Serbian society not for EU accession, but for an alliance with Moscow,” Srdjan Cvijic, member of The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) think tank, told AFP.

According to a recent opinion poll, 40 percent of Serbians said they would be “happy” if their country gave up trying join the EU and formed an alliance with Russia instead.

Goran Vasic, assistant research professor at University of Novi Sad, said there is always a “brotherly clause” in gas prices that “is not in the contract but implies side deals or political concessions.”

Belgrade rejected the notion that cheap gas was the Kremlin’s “reward” for not heeding the calls for sanctions.

“All those who accuse us of not imposing sanctions against Russia because of a gas deal should be ashamed of themselves”, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told local media. 

“We don’t impose sanctions against Russia out of principle.”

Lavrov told Serbian media that Moscow was “certain that they (Serbians) will continue taking the smart choice in this situation”.

The Russian chief diplomat’s potential trip to Belgrade would be a rare visit to Europe since the February invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has not confirmed the travel plan.

– Energy monopoly –

Serbia’s president has underlined the diplomatic importance of Russia’s refusal to allow international recognition of Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo and historic, political and cultural ties between Belgrade and Moscow.

But the reality is that there was little room for manoeuver from Belgrade.

The previous gas deal with Russia — which was also well under market price — was about to expire with no viable alternative in near future.

In the last few decades, Serbia gradually allowed Moscow almost complete monopoly over its energy sector by building pipelines solely for Russian gas and selling the majority stake of its oil and gas company (NIS) to Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The 2008 deal, penned only months after Kosovo declared independence, was widely seen as a political concession — allowing Moscow to connect a major European gas pipeline through Serbia in exchange for the Kremlin vetoeing the recognition of Kosovo at the UN.

“It’s obvious that all this time there was a well-organised lobbyist group that has defended the monopoly, and still continues to do so,” Vasic said.

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Kellogg’s loses court challenge against UK obesity strategy

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The UK government is introducing new rules to reduce the prominence of sugary foods in English shops from October
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Cereals giant Kellogg’s on Monday lost a High Court challenge against new UK rules limiting the prominence of sugary foods in English shops to tackle child obesity.

At a hearing in April, the Frosties and Rice Krispies maker argued against the government’s strategy to calculate fat, salt and sugar content of cereals when eaten dry, not when taken with milk.

But in a ruling on Monday, the court noted that no breakfast cereal manufacturer raised objections to the methodology during the consultation period about the rules.

The judge, Thomas Linden, said there was “no dispute” that breakfast cereals could be part of a healthy diet.

“But the argument that there are nutritional benefits to the consumption of a given breakfast cereal does not affect the point that if it contains excess fat, sugar or salt, that feature of the product is adverse to a child’s health,” he said.

Linden said 54.7 percent of Kellogg’s cereals would be classed as less healthy under the new regulations that take effect from October.

Kellogg’s claimed the change would hit annual profits by about £5 million ($6.1 million).

Welcoming the ruling, the government said it was “committed to tackling obesity, which is the second biggest cause of cancer in the UK” and costs the state-funded National Health Service “billions of pounds a year”.

Kellogg’s said it did not intend to appeal but urged the government to rethink its strategy, especially amid soaring inflation.

“By restricting the placement of items in supermarkets, people face less choice and potentially higher prices,” said the group’s UK managing director, Chris Silcock. 

“That’s why, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, we would strongly urge the government to rethink these regulations and put the consumer first.”

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UK drivers in go-slow protest over surging fuel prices

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Strike action by criminal lawyers is fuelling fears of a 'summer of discontent' in Britain
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Protesters snarled up major UK roads on Monday with a slow-moving procession of vehicles to demand government action against rocketing fuel prices.

The action came as senior criminal lawyers staged a second walkout in England and Wales against years of government cuts to their fees, intensifying a “summer of discontent” as strikes sweep Britain.

Rail workers have already staged a series of stoppages to press for better pay as Britain’s headline inflation reaches a 40-year high of just under 10 percent, driven in part by the war in Ukraine.

On the roads, a social media campaign called Fuel Price Stand Against Tax mobilised drivers to drive deliberately slowly on motorways and other arterial routes, demanding the government slash fuel duty.

One of the motorways affected was the M4 including the Prince of Wales Bridge, which links England and Wales.

Welsh police said they had arrested 12 people for driving under 30 miles (48 kilometres) per hour for “a prolonged amount of time”.

Vicky Stamper lost her job as a truck driver last month after the company was forced to cut costs in the face of the surging fuel costs.

“I’m here because I’ve lost my job because of the fuel, and the greedy people at the top taking all of our money,” she told AFP just over the border in England.

Addressing any members of the public inconvenienced by the action, Stamper said “we’re doing this for everyone”. 

“If they want to have a whinge, instead of whinging, join us.”

– ‘No choice’ –

The government insists it has already cut fuel duty once, and is offering other financial support for the public, while blaming Russia for igniting the rapid rise in energy prices.

“People’s day-to-day lives should not be disrupted,” a spokesperson said.

The government also says it is addressing the demands of the criminal barristers by offering a 15-percent rise in fees from the end of September.

But the increase will only apply to new cases, not to tens of thousands piling up in a backlog as British courts wrestle with the fallout of the Covid pandemic.

Outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, barristers in black gowns and wigs insisted the government significantly raise its offer as they walked out for a second week and vowed more strikes ahead.

Protesting barrister Emma Heath, 34, said defence lawyers could spend eight hours in preparation for a client receiving legal aid and get paid only £126 ($153) by the government. 

“We fully appreciate the impact it’s having, but until the government wake up and see what’s actually happening to criminal legal aid funding, we’re left with no choice,” she told AFP.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab — a former lawyer — has called the strike action “regrettable” and said it would “only delay justice for victims”.

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Central African Republic dives into crypto with the Sango

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Crypto fan: President Faustin-Archange Touadera
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Undeterred by the turmoil hitting crypto, the Central African Republic (CAR) — one of the poorest and most troubled countries in the world — has unveiled plans to launch its own digital currency.

President Faustin Archange Touadera, in an “online event” on Sunday, announced CAR would create the Sango Coin and a zero-taxation “crypto-hub”, the first in Africa.

The currency is named after Sango, which with French is one of the two official languages in the landlocked country, rated the world’s second poorest nation under the UN’s Human Development Index.

Through a platform called Crypto Island, the Sango will become “the catalyst for tokenising (CAR’s) vast natural resources,” Touadera declared, providing no timeline or other details.

He hailed Sango and Crypto Island as “a new digital system fed by blockchain,” the internet-based ledger that underpins crypto currencies.

“Sango Coin will give the whole world direct access to our resources,” attracting investors and “getting the engines of the economy going,” he enthused.

On April 27, Touadera’s office abruptly announced that the CAR had adopted Bitcoin as legal tender alongside the CFA franc, a currency the country shares with five other central African economies.

It became the first country in Africa to embrace Bitcoin as a national currency, and the second in the world after El Salvador last September.

The April announcement sparked bemusement among analysts, given the entrenched poverty and lack of infrastructure in the CAR, where only one person in seven has access to mains electricity. 

They also voiced concern about the impact of crypto volatility on savings.

Virtual currencies have gone into a tailspin as investors look to safer havens at a time of inflation and uncertainty sparked by the Ukraine war.

Bitcoin has lost nearly 60 percent of its value over the past six months.

– ‘Digital gold’ –

Touadera on Sunday said 57 percent of Africa’s population does not have access to a bank.

“The solution,” he said, was “the smartphone, the alternative to the traditional bank, cash and financial red tape”.

On Twitter, he said, “gold served as the engine of our civilisation for ages! In this new age, digital gold will serve the same for the future.”

The CAR’s rush to crypto has been seen by some critics in the context of its closer ties with Russia.

Touadera has been accused of using Russian paramilitaries to buttress his regime and offering CAR’s natural resources in exchange. 

The country has a treasure chest of minerals, ranging from copper and gold to diamonds and uranium.

The CAR, a former French colony, plunged into a civil war along sectarian lines in 2013 after the then-president, Francois Bozize, was ousted.

Touadera was first elected in 2016 after an interim period and re-elected in disputed circumstances in 2020.

Violence diminished in 2018 but rebel forces remain active.

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