BBC 2024-02-26 16:32:01


Alexei Navalny: Putin critic about to be freed in prisoner swap when he died, says ally

Alexei Navalny was about to be freed in a prisoner swap when he died, according to his ally Maria Pevchikh.

She said the Russian opposition leader was going to be exchanged for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian hitman who is serving a life sentence for murder in Germany.

Two US citizens currently held in Russia were also going to be part of the deal, Ms Pevchikh claimed.

She added that negotiations were at their final stage on 15 February.

The next day, Mr Navalny died in his cell in the prison colony in Siberia where he was being held on a 19-year sentence over charges that were widely seen as politically motivated. Prison officials said the 47-year-old had fallen ill following a “walk”.

In a video posted on Mr Navalny’s YouTube channel, Ms Pevchikh, who is the chairwoman of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), said negotiations for a prisoner swap had been under way for two years.

She added that after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 “it was clear that Putin would stop at nothing” and that Mr Navalny “had to be freed from jail at any cost, and urgently”.

According to Ms Pevchik, Mr Navalny was going to be freed under a humanitarian exchange and American and German officials were involved in the talks.

The process finally resulted in a concrete plan for a prisoner swap in December, she said.

Vadim Krasikov – a Russian who was found guilty of shooting former Chechen rebel commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in the head at close range in Germany in 2019 – was going to be part of the deal.

Two US nationals currently held in Russia were also going to be exchanged, Ms Pevchikh said, although she did not name them.

However, earlier in February, President Putin told US host Tucker Carlson that talks were ongoing with the US about freeing American journalist Evan Gershkovich, who is being held on espionage charges.

President Putin hinted that in exchange Russia would accept a person who “due to patriotic sentiments, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals… during the events in the Caucasus” – almost certainly a reference to Krasikov.

According to Ms Pevchikh, Russian President Vladimir Putin changed his mind about the deal at the last minute. She said he “could not tolerate Navalny being free” – and since there was an agreement “in principle” for Krasikov’s freeing, Mr Putin decided to “just get rid of the bargaining chip” and “offer someone else when the time comes.”

“Putin has gone mad with hatred for Navalny,” Ms Pevchikh said. “He knows Navalny could’ve defeated him.”

As a former KGB officer, President Putin is used to saying – or promising – one thing, and then doing something completely different.

It is a policy he and his government have been consistently implementing for almost a quarter of a century.

Up until the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Putin and several Russian officials repeatedly denied there was a plan to invade the country.

Although we do not know what exactly happened to Navalny in prison, engaging in negotiations on his release without intending to set him free would fit the Kremlin’s behaviour over the past years.

Within an hour of publication, Ms Pevchikh’s video had had hundreds of thousands of views.

The Kremlin has not yet reacted to the claims put forward by Ms Pevchikh, but President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has previously said allegations of government involvement into Navalny’s death were “absurd”.

Authorities initially refused to hand Navalny’s body over to his mother, only relenting eight days after his death.

On Monday, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmish posted a message on social media saying his allies were looking for a venue where supporters could hold a public farewell later this week.

Such an event is expected to be closely monitored by the authorities, provided it is allowed to go ahead at all.

A rights group said 400 Russians were arrested across the country for laying flower tributes to Navalny following his death.

Hungary’s parliament clears path for Sweden’s Nato membership

Hungarian MPs have ratified Sweden’s bid to join Nato in a long-delayed vote which paves the way for the Nordic nation’s membership.

Sweden applied to join in 2022 after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but Hungary had accused it of being hostile.

Last week, however, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said they were now “prepared to die for each other”.

All Nato members are expected to help an ally which comes under attack.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said today was a “historic day” and that Sweden was “ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security”.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Hungarian parliament’s decision made the alliance “stronger and safer”.

  • What is Nato and which countries are members?
  • Who is Viktor Orban, Hungarian PM with 14-year grip on power?

Mr Orban is a nationalist politician with close ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

He has often blocked EU efforts to send military aid to Ukraine.

Sweden is one of the EU countries which have accused Hungary of backsliding on the EU’s democratic principles.

In turn, Mr Orban’s spokesman Zoltan Kovacs accused officials in Sweden of sitting on a “crumbling throne of moral superiority”.

Last week, however, Mr Orban hosted his Swedish counterpart Ulf Kristersson and announced his support for Sweden’s membership.

“Being members of Nato means that we are prepared to die for each other. It is based on mutual respect. Taking that process at an appropriate pace has been wise,” he said.

The Hungarian parliament’s approval must now be signed by the president – after which a formal invitation is sent to Sweden to join the 31-member-strong group.

The process usually lasts a few days.

Turkey had been the other Nato country to withhold approval of Sweden’s application in a row over what it called Sweden’s support to Kurdish separatists. It eventually lifted its veto in January.

Every member has a veto over the expansion of the defensive alliance.

Sweden and its eastern neighbour Finland, both long considered militarily neutral, announced their intention to join Nato in May 2022.

Finland formally joined in April last year, doubling the length of the alliance’s border with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his army into Ukraine in 2022 in the expectation it would check Nato’s expansion and weaken Western collectivism.

In fact, with the adhesion of Sweden and Finland, the exact opposite happened.

Aaron Bushnell: US airman dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli embassy in Washington

A US airman has died after setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington DC.

The man was identified by police as Aaron Bushnell, 25, of San Antonio, Texas.

Officers from the US Secret Service extinguished the flames before the man was taken to hospital on Sunday afternoon.

Before setting himself on fire, he said he would “no longer be complicit in genocide”.

In a video aired live on a streaming site, Twitch, the man identified himself and said he was a serving member of the Air Force.

He said he was “about to engage in an extreme act of protest.” After setting himself on fire, he repeatedly shouted “free Palestine”.

The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington said that it was “not confirming the authenticity of the video”.

No embassy staff members were injured in the incident, said a spokeswoman for the embassy.

The incident happened at 13:00 local time (18:00 GMT) on Sunday.

A bomb disposal unit was sent to the site over concerns about a suspicious vehicle that could have been connected to the individual.

This was later declared safe after no hazardous materials were found.

DC police said officers were working with the US Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate the incident.

Mr Bushnell was taken to the hospital in a critical condition.

The Air Force would not confirm details of Mr Bushnell’s service, citing family notification policies.

The Israel-Gaza war erupted on 7 October last year when Hamas gunmen infiltrated southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking 253 others hostage.

Israel responded by launching a military campaign in Gaza, during which 29,300 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

As of mid-January, 1.9 million civilians in Gaza have been displaced amid Israel’s military operations, according to the United Nations, accounting for 85% of its population.

In an interview with CBS News on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the offensive in the face of international criticism, saying America would be “doing a hell of a lot more” if it had suffered such an attack.

It is not the first time someone has turned themselves into a human torch in front of an Israeli diplomatic mission in the US.

In December, a protester self-immolated in front of the Israeli consulate in the US state of Georgia.

A Palestinian flag found at the scene was part of the protest, police said.

AI could make the four-day work week the norm

As artificial intelligence gains traction in office operations, some companies are giving employees a day to step back.
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Working four days while getting paid for five is a dream for many employees. Yet the dramatic shifts in the pandemic-era workplace have turned this once unfathomable idea into a reality for some workers. And as more global data emerges, an increasing number of companies are courting the approach after positive trial-run results across countries including the UK, Iceland, Portugal and more.

Now, as pilots continue – in Germany, a trial of 45 companies has just begun, for instance – another factor has entered the mix. Artificial intelligence (AI) is gathering pace in the workplace, and some experts believe it could accelerate the adoption of the four-day workweek.

Data from London-based news-and-events resource Tech.co collected in late 2023 lends credence to this idea. For their 2024 Impact of Technology on the Workplace, the company surveyed more than 1,000 US business leaders. The researchers found 29% of organisations with four-day workweeks use AI extensively in their firms’ operations, implementing generative AI tools such as ChatGPT as well as other programmes to streamline operations. In comparison, only 8% of five-day working week organisations use AI to this extent. And 93% of businesses using AI are open to a four-day work week, whereas for those who don’t, fewer than half are open to working shorter weeks.

By handing over simple tasks to AI tools, we gain invaluable time previously lost to slow aspects of the process – Abb-d Taiyo

At London-based digital design agency Driftime, adopting AI technology has been crucial to enable the business to operate a flexible four-day work week. “By handing over simple tasks to AI tools, we gain invaluable time previously lost to slow aspects of the process,” says co-founder Abb-d Taiyo. “With tools like Modyfi, the graphics are all live and modifiable, making it so much easier and quicker for our designers to create concepts and ideas.”

Taiyo believes it makes sense for both his employees and his bottom line to work the condensed week. “Instead of a dip in the quantity of work created over just four days, we’ve seen a remarkably high quality of work matched by a high staff satisfaction return. The health and happiness of our team is in direct correlation to the high standard of work produced,” he says.

The mainstreaming of AI tech may mean workers get an extra day off (Credit: Alamy)

Shayne Simpson, group managing director of UK-based TechNET IT Recruitment, also believes AI has been fundamental to the success of the company’s four-day work week policy. The firm has found AI tools save each of their recruitment consultants 21 hours per week, primarily by automating previously manual tasks like data input, confirmation emails, resume screening and candidate outreach. This has reduced the time to fill permanent roles at the company by an average of 10 days. “This timesaving allows our team to achieve their weekly goals earlier in the week and the flexibility liberates our consultants from being tethered to their desks, enabling them to enjoy a well-deserved Friday off,” says Simpson.

Not only has the company’s abridged workweek boosted productivity and morale, Simpson says it’s also been key to attracting talent to work within the company itself. “Seasoned recruitment professionals are enticed by our streamlined processes while entry-level talent is eager to embrace new tools.” It’s lifted the entire business, he adds.

Rather than becoming mere caretakers or servants of machines, human workers need to develop new skills that can leverage, complement and lead AI, achieving the enhanced outcomes – Na Fu

While AI tools are certainly paving the way for a four-day work week within some industries, the technology can’t usher in the change alone. Organisational culture within a business is also fundamental, says Na Fu, a professor in human resource management at Trinity Business School, Ireland. “An openness to innovative work structures, an experimental mindset and, importantly, a culture grounded in high levels of trust are all important for the four-day work week to be successfully adopted,” she says.

As the digital transformation with AI progresses, employees themselves also must be willing to level up, she adds: “Rather than becoming mere caretakers or servants of machines, human workers need to develop new skills that can leverage, complement and lead AI, achieving the enhanced outcomes.”

Some industries will benefit from AI more than others, however – notably those who are able to use generative AI tools for such tasks including software development, content creation, marketing and legal services, says Fu. Plus, artificial intelligence development still has a way to go if it is to substantially reduce human working hours across the board.

What may drive the shift to a four-day workweek in an AI-powered business landscape may not ultimately be up to the robots, however. Executive buy-in is required, and whether leaders will embrace the unconventional concept will vary depending on a firm’s overarching purpose and values, says Fu. Instead of letting AI supplement the work of humans, for instance, some businesses could use it to automate certain tasks while piling other work on employees to fill newly open hours.

Still, despite some reservation, an increasing number of business leaders – including those from some of the world’s highest-earning companies – see a technology-driven shortened workweek as an inevitable future. In October 2023, JPMorgan Chase & Co CEO Jamie Dimon told Bloomberg TV: “Your children are going to live to 100, and they’ll probably be working three-and-a-half days a week.” Employees will have to wait and see.

The Mediterranean’s ancient same-sex haven

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My first visit to the island of Mykonos 20 years ago was something of a revelation. Thanks to its seemingly endless queer beaches and bars, I felt a level of freedom as a young gay man that I hadn’t previously experienced, despite growing up in London. But like the UK and elsewhere, Greece’s LGBTQ+ community has fought a long road to equality, which culminated just this month. 

Following a landmark vote in parliament this month, Greece has recently become the first Christian Orthodox-majority nation to legalise same-sex marriage, and the first country in south-eastern Europe to have marriage equality. 

According to Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the new law, which also allows same-sex couples to adopt children, will “boldly abolish a serious inequality”. Greece now joins 35 other nations around the world to allow same-sex marriage. It ranks 11th on the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index, which measures countries’ LGBTQ+ equality – four spaces higher than the UK at 15, but well below Malta, at number one.

But despite lagging behind other nations that embraced marriage equality years earlier, same-sex relations have been a common and documented part of Greece’s cultural fabric from the beginning.

Frescoes, vessels and other artefacts of courting same-sex couples have been recovered throughout Ancient Greece (Credit: Alamy)

As early as the 8th Century BC, the ancient lawmaker Philolaus of Corinth, who himself had a male lover, created laws in support of same-sex male unions. By the 7th Century BC, there were at least five different varieties of same-sex relations in Ancient Greece. The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite military unit comprised of 300 male lovers in the 4th Century BC who courageously ended Spartan domination. And millennia after writers and philosophers such as Plato were busy contemplating same-sex love, many vessels and statues on display in museums and sites in illustrate aspects of homosexuality in Ancient Greece.

In 1951, Greece became one of the first European nations to decriminalise same-sex relations (the UK waited until 1967; though in both countries, lesbians were neither mentioned nor acknowledged). Greece legalised same-sex civil unions in 2015, and in 2021 Nicholas Yatromanolakis became the nation’s first openly gay person to serve as government minister.           

“Greece has made some progress in LGBTQ+ rights over the past decade,” said Konstantinos Menelaou, the founder of Athens-based art collective The Queer Archive. “There have been notable improvements in legal protection, public attitudes and visibility. However, we still suffer from discrimination, violence and stigma. There’s room for improvement.”

Menelaou’s pioneering organisation is designed to bolster and support LGBTQ+ arts and culture across Greece. “Our aim is to fight stereotypes, document queer history and develop inclusive areas for expression, visual arts, performance, film. We give a platform to marginalised voices, combat erasure and discrimination, and promote the idea of a balanced and equal society.”

Athens is home to a vibrant LGBTQ+ scene (Credit: Alamy)

As well as the Queer Archive, which hosts regular pop-up exhibitions and curatorial collaborations, Athens boasts many thriving venues for LGBTQ+ travellers, some of which are located in the former industrial district Gazi. Menalaou recommends Koukles for “the best drag shows and atmosphere”, the queer dance club Smut, The Big Bar “for bears and bear enthusiasts” and Ohh Boy for coffee and cakes. “The queer community of Athens has to deal with brutal heteronormativity on a daily basis,” Menalaou added. “But we know how to party!”

Lesbos-based writer and yoga instructor Clare Hand is also a fan of Athens’ LGBTQ+ scene. She recommends the lesbian-owned pop club Noiz and “Beaver Co-op, founded by eight women, a peaceful cafe with parties, readings, poetry and activist gatherings”.

Hand’s point about activism is important to the LGBTQ+ community in Athens. “Greece is a conservative country, you feel the reins and the ropes of family, and family values, binding queer people. It’s not just about getting married and having kids here: to be queer in the capital city you really need to be an activist.” 

According to Hand, the nation’s second city, Thessaloniki, also has a vibrant, if smaller, queer scene that’s worth visiting. She recommends the long-running gay club Enola, which has been open since 2008, and the city also hosts its own International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.

A statue of Sappho stands in the village of Mytilene in Lesbos (Credit: Alamy)

The big news, however, in 2024 is that Thessaloniki is set to attract global attention as it hosts Europride (21-29 June). A major highlight will be the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival’s Citizen Queer, which will screen 25 LGBTQ+ documentaries over the course of the week. 

But Hand’s favourite queer scene in Greece is on the rugged island that birthed the word “lesbian”: Lesbos. “When I first landed on that tiny island the feeling was extraordinary,” she said. “In particular Eressos, the town where Sappho, [the Archaic Greek poet who inspired the word “sapphic”] was born, which is why it’s been a mecca for queer women for half a century. It’s the complete epicentre of queer, or sapphic, life: one of the most affirming experiences you can have is to be in the majority for more than a night, for more than an allotted window of time. You realise there are more lesbian bars and cafes in Skala Eressos than anywhere in the world – even LA, New York, London.”   

A big annual event on the island is the Queer Ranch Festival (28 May-1 June 2024) run by a local collective who own the bar-restaurant Ohana Saloon. Another must is the International Eressos Women’s Festival, held each September. “For over 20 years, [it’s been] an important meeting space for queer elders who’ve been visiting the island since the 1970s.”

Back in Mykonos, on that first visit two decades ago, I remember being thrilled to discover its genesis as a queer haven also dated back to the ’70s, the result of Jackie Onassis’ patronage lending it a certain glamour. By the 1980s, it had transformed into an increasingly gay destination, with one of its most well-known bars named after her. It, too, hosts a large annual gay festival, Xlsior (22-28 August), with around 30,000 attendees. 

And now, in 2024, you could even tie the knot on one of Mykonos’ many queer beaches. As Menalaou said, “The same-sex marriage bill partly achieved what should have been for granted: the legal recognition and equality for LGBTQ+ individuals. Hopefully, it will challenge stigma and promote inclusivity.”

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