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Armenian Prime Minister steps down to clear way for early elections

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MOSCOW (Reuters) – Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stepped down on Sunday ahead of an early general election he called following criticism over his handling of last year’s conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pashinyan, who was swept to power in pro-democracy protests in 2018, had been under pressure to resign since ethnic Armenians lost territory in fighting in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave within neighbouring Azerbaijan last year.

He said on his Facebook page he was returning power received from citizens to them so they could decide the future of the government through free and fair elections. As previously announced, the vote will be held on June 20.

His resignation, which was expected, came two days after U.S. President Joe Biden said that massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 2015 constituted genocide, a move welcomed by Armenians worldwide and condemned by Turkey.

Pashinyan told Biden in a letter on Saturday his historic decision was a matter of security to Armenia after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in which Turkey backed Azerbaijan.

 

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Belarusian President signs decree to amend emergency transfer of power

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has signed a decree allowing the transfer of presidential power to the security council if he is murdered or otherwise unable to perform his duties, state Belta news agency reported on Saturday.

Lukashenko said in April he was planning to change the way power in Belarus is set up.

Previously, if the president’s position became vacant, or he was unable to fulfil his duties, power would be transferred to the prime minister until a new president took oath.

 

(Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Scottish nationalists vow independence vote after election win

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By Russell Cheyne

GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) -Pro-independence parties won a majority in Scotland’s parliament on Saturday, paving the way to a high-stakes political, legal and constitutional battle with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the future of the United Kingdom.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the result meant she would push ahead with plans for a second independence referendum once the COVID-19 pandemic was over, adding that it would be absurd and outrageous if Johnson were to try to ignore the democratic will of the people.

“There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson, or indeed for anyone else, seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our own future,” Sturgeon said.

“It is the will of the country,” she added after her Scottish National Party (SNP) was returned for a fourth consecutive term in office.

The British government argues Johnson must give approval for any referendum and he has repeatedly made clear he would refuse. He has said it would be irresponsible to hold one now, pointing out that Scots had backed staying in the United Kingdom in a “once in a generation” poll in 2014.

The election outcome is likely to be a bitter clash between the Scottish government in Edinburgh and Johnson’s United Kingdom-wide administration in London, with Scotland’s 314-year union with England and Wales at stake.

The nationalists argue that they have democratic authority on their side; the British government say the law is with them. It is likely the final decision on a referendum will be settled in the courts.

‘IRRESPONSIBLE AND RECKLESS’

“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” Johnson told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Alister Jack, the UK government’s Scotland minister, said dealing with the coronavirus crisis and the vaccine rollout should be the priority.

“We must not allow ourselves to be distracted – COVID recovery must be the sole priority of Scotland’s two governments,” he said.

The SNP had been hopeful of winning an outright majority which would have strengthened their call for a secession vote but they looked set to fall one seat short of the 65 required in the 129-seat Scottish parliament, partly because of an electoral system that helps smaller parties.

Pro-union supporters argue that the SNP’s failure to get a majority has made it easier for Johnson to rebut their argument that they have a mandate for a referendum.

However, the Scottish Greens, who have promised to support a referendum, picked up eight seats, meaning overall there will be a comfortable pro-independence majority in the Scottish assembly.

Scottish politics has been diverging from other parts of the United Kingdom for some time, but Scots remain divided over holding another independence plebiscite.

However, Britain’s exit from the European Union – opposed by a majority of Scots – as well as a perception that Sturgeon’s government has handled the COVID-19 crisis well, along with antipathy to Johnson’s Conservative government in London, have all bolstered support for the independence movement.

Scots voted by 55%-45% in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, and polls suggest a second referendum would be too close to call.

Sturgeon said her first task was dealing with the pandemic and the SNP has indicated that a referendum is unlikely until 2023. But she said any legal challenge by Johnson’s government to a vote would show a total disregard for Scottish democracy.

“The absurdity and outrageous nature of a Westminster government potentially going to court to overturn Scottish democracy, I can’t think of a more colourful argument for Scottish independence than that myself,” she said.

(Writing by Michael Holden and Andrew MacAskill;Editing by Gareth Jones, Helen Popper, Christina Fincher and Giles Elgood)

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Canada promises two Arctic icebreakers in pre-election job boost

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Canada on Thursday promised to build two Arctic ice breakers and create hundreds of jobs in two politically influential provinces that will help decide an election considered likely this year.

The Liberal government, citing the need to increase Canada‘s footprint in the resource-rich Arctic as global warming opens up the region, said at least one ship would be ready by 2030.

“(This) will give Canada a year-round presence in the Arctic to help … safeguard our marine environments, ensure the safe and efficient movement of ships, and protect our borders,” Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in a statement.

Ottawa said each ship will generate 300 jobs and create another 2,500 positions in various supply chains. One vessel will be built in Quebec’s Davie shipyard and the other by Seaspan in British Columbia.

The two provinces together account for 120 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons and are crucial to the fortunes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who aides say is likely to call an election by end-2021.

Yves-Francois Blanchet, leader of the opposition Bloc Quebecois, dismissed the announcement as electoral politics, saying polls suggested some senior Quebec Liberals could lose their seats.

The ice breaker project has been hit by several delays since the previous Conservative government first announced it in 2008.

Officials declined to say how much each vessel would cost but said it would exceed the most recent estimate of C$1.3 billion ($1.1 billion), which was made in 2012.

The 150-meter (490 feet) ships will weigh 23,700 tonnes and – unlke Canada‘s sole existing ice breaker – are designed to operate year-round throughout the Arctic.

Russia and the United States are the other major Arctic players while China says the region is of strategic interest.

($1 = 1.2193 Canadian dollars)

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Gregorio)

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