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CRIMEA LAWMAKERS SCHEDULE VOTE ON JOINING RUSSIA

Thursday, 06 March 2014 07:46 Published in National News

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Lawmakers in Crimea called a March 16 referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia instead, voting unanimously Thursday to declare their preference for doing so.

"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature, said. "We will decide our future ourselves."

The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions in favor of holding the referendum, and for joining Russia. Local voters will also be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.

There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian central government to the vote. On Wednesday, Ukraine's prime minister told The Associated Press that Crimea would remain part of Ukraine.

In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia's parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week, the state news agency ITAR-Tass reported.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum. Putin called a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.

A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy "state autonomy" within Ukraine.

Earlier, Crimea's new leader said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all military bases that have not yet surrendered.

The West has joined the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev in demanding that Russia pull its forces back from Crimea, but little progress was reported after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Paris on Wednesday involving U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

European Union leaders will meet for an emergency session in Brussels on Thursday to decide what sort of sanctions they can impose on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Moscow has threatened to retaliate if any punitive measures are put in place.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Brussels for the summit, said Russia was continuing to stir up trouble.

"We ask Russia to respond whether they are ready to preserves peace and stability in Europe or (whether) they are ready to instigate another provocation and another tension in our bilateral and multilateral relations," Yatsenyuk said.

In Simferopol, Crimea's capital, about 50 people rallied outside the local parliament Thursday morning waving Russian and Crimean flags. Among the posters they held was one that said "Russia, defend us from genocide."

"We are tired of revolutions, maidans and conflicts and we want to live peacefully in Russia," said one of the bystanders, Igor Urbansky, 35. "Only Russia can give us a peaceful life."

Maidan is the name of the downtown square in Kiev where tens of thousands of protesters contested the rule of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia.

Not all in this city favored the lawmakers' action.

"This is crazy. Crimea has become Putin's puppet," said Viktor Gordiyenko, 46. "A referendum at gunpoint of Russia weapons is just a decoration for Putin's show. A decision on occupation has already been made."

Svetlana Savchenko, another Crimean lawmaker, said the choice she and her fellow deputies took in favor of joining Russia will force Moscow to make a decision.

"This is our principled position," she told The Associated Press. "Now the Russian Federation must begin a procedure - will it take us in or not."

Under the Soviet Union, Crimea belonged to the Russian Federation until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Concern that the turmoil could engulf eastern Ukraine grew after hundreds of demonstrators — many chanting "Russia! Russia!" — stormed a government building on Wednesday in Donetsk, a major industrial center near the Russian border.

Clashes between protesters and police broke out early Thursday in Donetsk as police cleared demonstrators from the regional administration center. The Ukrainian flag once again was hoisted over the building, and about 100 Ukrainian Interior troops could be seen in and around it. Two large trucks were parked in front to block the approach.

The European Union on Wednesday extended $15 billion in aid to help support the new Ukrainian government, which took over in late February after months of protests drove out Yanukovych, the Moscow-supported president.

The EU also imposed asset freezes against 18 people held responsible for embezzling state funds in Ukraine, including Yanukovych, his son and some of his closest allies.

Crimea's new leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said his government was in regular contact with the Russian officials, including those in a large Russian delegation now in Crimea.

Speaking at Crimea's government meeting late Wednesday, Aksyonov said the strategic peninsula is fully under the control of riot police and security forces joined by about 11,000 "self-defense" troops. All or most of these troops are believed to be Russian, even though the Russian president and defense minister have denied sending in the military other than those stationed at the home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

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EU LEADERS WEIGHING SANCTIONS AGAINST RUSSIA

Thursday, 06 March 2014 07:32 Published in National News

BRUSSELS (AP) — Russia will face sanctions over its military incursion in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula unless it withdraws its troops or engages in credible talks to defuse the situation, European leaders said Thursday.

"We need to send a very clear message to the Russian government that what has happened is unacceptable and should have consequences," British Prime Minister David Cameron said as he arrived at an emergency meeting of the bloc's 28 leaders in Brussels.

But leaders appeared divided between nations close to Russia's borders and some western economic powerhouses — notably Germany — that were taking a more dovish line.

"Whether (sanctions) will come into force depends also on how the diplomatic process progresses," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, noting that foreign ministers including Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Sergey Lavrov were holding talks again in Rome on Thursday.

"Russia today is dangerous," insisted Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, warning Moscow is seeking to expand its borders. "After Ukraine will be Moldova, and after Moldova will be different countries."

Among initial sanctions Moscow could face are the suspension of talks on visa liberalization and an economic agreement. More drastic steps like asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials were unlikely to be adopted, not least because of Europe's close economic ties with Russia.

The United States has already suspended talks on an investment treaty and threatened further steps. NATO on Wednesday suspended most of its meetings with Russian officials, halting military cooperation and deciding to review all aspects of its relationship with Moscow.

"We cannot go back to business as usual," Merkel said.

Poland, Lithuania and other eastern European countries closer to Russia's borders pushed for a strong and united EU response including meaningful sanctions, but Germany, the Netherlands and others preferred defusing the crisis through diplomacy without alienating Moscow.

"We should do everything to give the route of de-escalation a chance and if we come to the conclusion today or the next 24, 48, 72 hours that de-escalation is not an option then obviously sanctions are back on the table," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

Russia is Europe's third-largest trading partner and its biggest gas and oil supplier. EU exports to Russia in 2012 totaled 123 billion euros ($170 billion), and European banks have about 200 billion euros in outstanding loans to Russia.

Cameron, Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk held initial talks to coordinate their strategy before the summit. The 28 leaders then opened their meeting with talks with Ukraine's new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

"This is not just the Ukrainian-Russian crisis, this is the crisis in Europe," Yatsenyuk said at a meeting earlier Thursday with European Parliament leaders.

The EU proposed a $15 billion aid package for Ukraine Wednesday. The U.S. has so far pledged $1 billion and is working on a more comprehensive package, in coordination with the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

Ukraine's economy is faltering and the country is running out of cash. The government in Kiev estimates it will need $35 billion in bailout loans for this year and next.

The EU also offered Ukraine a wide-ranging free trade and economic agreement that would draw Kiev closer to Europe and help boost its economy.

At a protest close to the summit in Brussels, Ukrainian Myroslava Finiw said he wanted the leaders to take tough measures.

"Our expectations are that the European leaders will impose some sorts of sanctions on President (Vladimir) Putin and try and get the message through to him that these sorts of actions are just not acceptable "

SILICON VALLEY BOOM ELUDES MANY, DRIVES INCOME GAP

Thursday, 06 March 2014 07:30 Published in National News

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Arwin Buditom guards some of the most successful high-tech firms in America. Joseph Farfan keeps their heat, air and electric systems humming. But these workers and tens of thousands like them who help fuel the Silicon Valley's tech boom can't even make ends meet anymore. Buditom rooms with his sister an hour's drive from work. Farfan gets his groceries at a food pantry.

"It's unbelievable until you're in the middle of it," Farfan said, standing in line at the Sacred Heart Community Center in San Jose for free pasta, rice and vegetables. "Then the reality hits you."

Silicon Valley is entering a fifth year of unfettered growth. The median household income is $90,000, according to the Census Bureau. The average single-family home sells for about $1 million. The airport is adding an $82 million private jet center.

But the river of money flowing through this 1,800-square-mile peninsula, stretching from south of San Francisco to San Jose, has also driven housing costs to double in the past five years while wages for low- and middle-skilled workers are stagnant. Nurses, preschool teachers, security guards and landscapers commute for hours from less-expensive inland suburbs.

Now the widening income gap between the wealthy and those left behind is sparking debate, anger and sporadic protests.

"F... the 1%" and other rants were spray-painted last month on walls, garages and a car in the Silicon Valley town of Atherton, home to many top tech CEOs that Forbes magazine last year called the nation's most expensive community. In Cupertino, security guards rallied outside Apple's shareholder meeting on Feb. 28 demanding better wages. "What's the matter with Silicon Valley? Prosperity for some, poverty for many. That's what," read their banner.

Farfan, 44, a native of the valley, said he figured he must be mismanaging his $23-an-hour salary to be struggling with what seemed like a decent paycheck. But when he met with financial counselors, they told him there was nothing left to cut except groceries because rent, child support and transportation expenses were eating away the rest of his money.

Buditom, also 44, said the reality of working for some of the nation's richest companies has sapped his belief in the American dream. For the past four years, he has been living in his sister's apartment, commuting an hour in stop-and-go traffic for a $13-an-hour security job.

"I'm so passed over by the American dream, I don't even want to dream it anymore," said Buditom, who immigrated from Indonesia 30 years ago. "It's impossible to get ahead. I'm just trying to survive."

From the White House to the Vatican to the world's business elite, the growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else is seizing agendas. Three decades ago, Americans' income tended to grow at roughly similar rates, no matter how much they made. But since about 1980, income has grown most for the top earners. For the poorest 20 percent of families, it's dropped.

A study last month by the Brookings Institution found that among the nation's 50 largest cities, San Francisco experienced the largest increase in income inequality between 2007 and 2012. The richest 5 percent of households earned $28,000 more, while the poorest 20 percent of households saw income drop $4,000. To the south, Silicon Valley's success has made it a less hospitable place for many, said Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, an organization focused on the local economy and quality of life.

"We've become a bifurcated valley, a valley of haves and have-nots," Hancock said. "The economy is sizzling any way you slice it, and it's about to get hotter. But having said that, we are quick to point out there are perils to our prosperity."

Once a peaceful paradise of apricot, peach and prune orchards, the region is among the most expensive places to live in the U.S. Those earning $50,000 a year in Dallas would need to make $77,000 a year in the Silicon Valley to maintain the same quality of life, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research; $63,000 if they moved from Chicago or Seattle.

Housing costs are largely to blame. An $800-a-month, two-bedroom apartment near AT&T's Dallas headquarters would cost about $1,700 near Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Dental visits, hamburgers, washing machine repairs, movie tickets — all are above national averages.

Five years ago Sacred Heart was providing food and clothing for about 35,000 individuals a year. This year it expects to serve more than twice that. On one brisk morning recently, families, working couples, disabled people and elderly lined up out the door for free bags of food, just miles from the bustling tech campuses.

Those firms, meantime, are increasingly opting to build their own infrastructure rather than depend on public systems and have become social bubbles, with their own child-care centers, cafes, dry cleaning services, gyms, onsite health providers and hair salons. eBay changes its employees' oil; Facebook repairs their bikes. Some of those workers are in-house, with good salaries and benefits. Others are contracted out.

The companies have also put some money back into the communities. In the past three years, Google has given nearly $60 million to area nonprofits, including Second Harvest Food Bank. The firm also gives grants to advance math and science education, and every June workers are encouraged to volunteer during a weeklong event called GoogleServe. Apple donated $50 million for new buildings at Stanford University.

"Google strives to be a good neighbor in the communities where we work and live," Google spokeswoman Meghan Casserly said.

Still, said Poncho Guevara, who runs Sacred Heart: "The juxtaposition of the innovation and growth happening here, compared to the social needs, portends what's going to be playing out in the rest of the country in years to come."

While some are struggling to survive, others are fighting back.

Twice in December and again in January, activists in San Francisco, where recent tax incentives have lured Twitter, Yelp, Spotify and other firms, swarmed privately run shuttle buses that ferry workers for Google, Facebook and other tech companies from the city to work. Tires were slashed, rocks hurled. Signs taped to the buses read: "Gentrification & Eviction Technologies: Integrated Displacement and Cultural Erasure" and "F--- Off Google."

Last month, as protesters beat drums outside, former Daily Show member and comedian John Oliver mocked the tech elite during an annual awards ceremony in San Francisco that honors startups and internet innovations. "You are no longer the underdogs," he told the audience. "You're pissing off an entire city, not just with what you do at work, but how you get to work. It's not easy to do that."

The crowd roared with laughter, and he went on.

"I heard the latest design for your buses is to use tinted windows but reverse, with the tint on the inside, the reason being, 'Look, I don't mind if the peasants see me, but I would rather not see them, hmm?"

Fewer laughs followed that one.

The protests and critiques have left some who work in the industry nonplussed.

"I'm not a billionaire. Like many people, I'm still paying off my student loans," said Google maps program manager Crystal Sholts during a meeting in which San Francisco officials approved a plan to charge a fee for the corporate shuttles to use municipal bus stops.

Activist Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco said the protests weren't intended to target the workers themselves.

"We're going after the bus as a symbol, a very palpable symbol, of the dramatically growing income divide in our city," she said. "Frankly those gleaming white buses with their tinted windows are a slap in the face to the rest of us who are waiting for the public bus or riding our bicycles down the bike lanes competing with these mammoth vehicles."

Last month during a conference aimed at helping tech workers find more wisdom and peace in their lives, protesters with a banner reading "EVICTION FREE SAN FRANCISCO" drew nervous applause when they jumped on stage. But when a woman with a megaphone began jumping up and down and yelling "San Francisco, not for sale!" and guards scuffled with the group to move them offstage, the audience grew silent and a live stream video was cut.

When calm was restored, Google's Bill Duane, a senior manager for well-being, led the crowd in meditation.

Economist Steven Levy has tracked the region's economy through boom and bust. He said talking about the wealth gap "gets you nowhere."

"It's an indicator that the top are getting richer, but the folks at the bottom are stuck, with stagnant wages and not enough housing, not enough transportation, not enough infrastructure," he said.

Solutions abound: Build more affordable housing, raise the minimum wage, train locals for high-tech jobs. But they all cost money, and advocates such as Guevara said not enough has emerged.

"There is this sense of disconnection," he said. "The techies may live and work in the same city, but their kids are not going to the same schools. They don't live in the same neighborhoods. There simply isn't much engagement across the divide."

A few prominent figures in the tech elite have fanned flames on the issue of income disparity. Greg Gropman, CEO of the tech startup AngelHack, ridiculed San Francisco in a now-deleted Facebook post in December: "Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue."

A month later, venture capitalist Tom Perkins likened what he called "the war on the one percent, namely the 'rich'" with fascist Nazi Germany in an open letter to The Wall Street Journal: "Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?" He apologized a few days later, calling his choice of words "terrible."

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