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#Russia: Civil society under attack

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boris-yeltsin-museum-sound-systemFilm producer Nikita Mikhalkov is leading a campaign against the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre in Yekaterinburg in an attempt to stifle civil society and the development of democracy in Russia, writes James Wilson.

The hugely impressive complex of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre in Yekaterinburg includes a museum, an exhibition and conference centre, a branch of the Boris Yeltsin’s Presidential Library and a Centre for information and education activities. It was built in accordance with a decree approved in 2008 by the Russian Duma, the Parliament of the Russian Federation, and was officially opened in November 2015 at a ceremony officiated by President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the cultural authorities of the Russian Federation and Naina Yeltsina the widow of the late Boris Yeltsin.

The Presidential Centre honours the memory of President Yeltsin and is dedicated to the promotion of “the institution of the Russian Presidency and the development of civil society, democratic institutions and the rule of law” in the Russian Federation. The Centre also organises vibrant social and cultural activities, helping to promote the development of tourism and academic excellence in the third largest city of Russia. It is one of the few institutions in Russia that provide education about democratic values and elections

This lively and multicultural non-government organisation has however come under severe criticism by film producer and cultural icon Nikita Mikhalkov.

The accusation from Mikhalkov is that the Yeltsin Centre is a tool to spread Western influence in Russia. Mikhalkov is a recognised media figure in Russia, and has a powerful network which lends strength to the issues he campaigns on; he is known to respect the Kremlin line and is an extreme defender of traditional patriotic views that glorify Russia’s autocratic past and which demonise the West as Russia’s enemy. He exploits his popularity and his influential personal network in cultural and media circles to promote an aggressive nationalist agenda.

Mikhalkov comes from a distinguished family of famous Russian artists; he is an actor and director and heads the Russian cinematographers’ union. He also hosts the TV Show “Besogon TV” (“The Exorcist TV”), through which he portrays the West as the ultimate enemy of the Russian Federation; on the TV show he demonises the civil society organisations claiming that they tarnish the image of the Russian Federation.

Mikhalkov has attacked the Centre on several occasions. In March 2016 he criticised a short animated film on Russian history released by the Yeltsin Centre, calling it “a symbol of the destruction of Russia” claiming that it portrayed a distorted narrative of Russia’s past history.

A second attack came in July 2016, when Mikhalkov accused the Yeltsin Centre of being linked to the activities of the “sinister” US billionaire George Soros. He accused Soros of financing the printing and distribution of polemic textbooks to Russian schools to corrupt the minds of students with Western values.

Again in December of last year Mikhalkov addressed the Council of the Russian Federation calling upon the government to shut down the Centre or to curb its activities. He argued that the Centre should be reoriented to a more nationalist agenda on the grounds that the Centre promotes individualism and poisons the minds of its visitors with a distorted view of Russia. Visiting the Centre a few days after this tirade, he accused the Centre of wrongly portraying Yeltsin as Russia’s saviour and that the exhibitions on display only featured members of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia.

This sustained campaign by Mikhalkov against the Boris Yeltsin Centre is detrimental to the activities of all Non-Government Organisations, both in Russia and abroad, and their efforts to foster the development of civil society in Russia. Mikhalkov’s campaign should be condemned and refuted for what it is: an attack by Russian right-wing extremists on the independence of thought and freedom of decision of the electorate concerning their democratic future.

This attack is even more serious when viewed against the background of the so-called “foreign agent law” which has drastically limited the activities of several NGOs engaged in the development of democracy such as the non-governmental polling and social research organization the Levada Centre and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, an organization monitoring the respect of human rights in Russia.

So far, Mikhalkov’s aggressive campaign has failed to gather the support of the Russian authorities. But, the threat he poses needs to be contained not only to avoid the loss of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre, but also to maintain the freedom of expression of the supporters of freedom and democracy, both inside the country and exiles campaigning abroad such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

James Wilson is the founding director of the International Foundation for Better Governance.

coronavirus

EAPM and ESMO bring innovations to health policymakers

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For the eighth year in succession, the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) has held a high-level conference series alongside the annual ESMO Congress, writes EAPM Executive Director Denis Horgan.

The EAPM conference was opened with the announcement that the following article was published and contributed to by more than 40 experts across the EU on how to bring Greater Accuracy to Europe’s Healthcare Systems: The Unexploited Potential of Biomarker Testing in Oncology.  Please click here to have access.

Sessions include: Session I: Tumor Agnostic, Session II: Biomarkers and Molecular Diagnostics, and Session III: Utilising Real-World Evidence in a health-care setting.  The conference runs from 08.00 – 16.00. Here is the link to the agenda. The conference aims to bring  key recommendations to the EU level, so as to shape the EU Beating Cancer Plan, EU health Data Space, the updating EU Pharmaceutical Strategy as well as the EU Health Union. 

The conference is held following the first State of the Union address by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday (16 September) – in her first annual address, von der Leyen said the coronavirus pandemic had underlined the need for closer cooperation, stressing that people were “still suffering”.

For me, it is crystal clear – we need to build a stronger European Health Union,” she said. “And we need to strengthen our crisis preparedness and management of cross-border health threats.” Von der Leyen said her commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

And she also raised the importance of the European Beating Cancer Plan as well as European Health Data Space. “This will show Europeans that our Union is there to protect all,” she said.

Fabrice Barlesi, medical director of Gustave Roussy, said: “RCTs are no longer the way to go. A way ahead could be EU support for trialing a new drug and delivering data to a centralised registry, which could give good consolidated data from across Europe.”

Divided into three sessions, the EAPM conference at the ESMO Congress, as mentioned,  dealt with such diverse issues as tumour agnostics, biomarkers and molecular diagnostics and real-world evidence in a health-care setting. Concerning cancer, specifically tumours, the congress stated that  tissue-agnostic cancer drugs are antineoplastic medicines that treat cancers based on the mutations that they display, instead of the tissue type in which they appear.

These drugs include, for example, Entrectinib, Pembrolizumab and Larotrectinib. Former Spanish health minister and MEP Dolors Moseratt highlighted her support for the work of EAPM and looks forward to getting the recommendations of the outcomes from the conference.  “The European added value of health is obvious. It would avoid duplication and enable a better allocation of resources. And it will minimize the risk of fragmented access to therapy across member states.”

And the EAPM conference is at pains to seek the best ways forward for the implementation of Real-World Evidence (RWE) into health care in Europe – looking to find consensus with key decision makers, including at member state level, not least with representatives in the European Parliament, on how to proceed in this area. RWE for health care is a simple concept – harnessing various health data in real time to help make faster and better medical decisions.

Real-World Evidence is an umbrella term for different types of health-care data that are not collected in conventional randomised controlled trials, including patient data, data from clinicians, hospital data, data from payers and social data.

Rosa Giuliani, consultant in medical oncology at the Clatterbridge Cancer Center, said: “Key elements to advance the use of TACs is to conduct dialogue that transcends silos, and to explore re-engineering of the development pathway.” And, as far as biomarkers and molecular diagnostics are concerned, a lot has been said about testing, and often the lack of it, in terms of the COVID-19 outbreak, with different countries adopting different strategies and, also, having different resources when it comes to acquiring necessary kits.

The key focus in the ESMO session was on better and more equitable access to biomarkers and molecular diagnostics across Europe.  This is a must, but, as the attendees acknowledged, we’re a long way short of it. Access to personalised medicine and new diagnostic technologies can help resolve many inefficiencies, such as trial-and-error dosing, the potential for increased hospitalisation time due to adverse drug reactions and the problem of late diagnoses. It may also enhance the effectiveness of therapies through better tailored treatment administration.

In conclusion for the morning session, Giuseppe Curigliano, associate professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Milano, and head of the division of Early Drug Development, at the European Institute of Oncology said: “A real challenge to overcome is the different endpoints between investigators and payers. Policy frameworks and co-operation is essential.” The session in the afternoon will focus on utilizing real-world evidence in a health-care setting.

A report will be available next week. 

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Brexit

EU's Barnier still hopes trade deal with Britain possible, sources say

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The European Union’s Brexit negotiator told the bloc’s 27 national envoys to Brussels that he still hoped a trade deal with Britain was possible, stressing that the coming days would be decisive, diplomatic sources with the bloc told Reuters, write and

Michel Barnier addressed the gathering on Wednesday (16 September) and the three sources either participated in the discussion behind closed doors or were briefed on its content.

“Barnier still believes a deal is possible though the next days are key,” said one of the EU diplomatic sources.

A second diplomat, asked what Barnier said on Wednesday and whether there was still a chance for a new agreement with the UK, said: “The hope is still there.”

The first source said tentative concessions offered by the UK on fisheries - a key point of discord that has so far prevented agreement on a new EU-UK trade deal to kick in from 2021 - were “a glimmer of hope”.

Reuters reported exclusively on Tuesday (15 September) that Britain has moved to break the deadlock despite that fact that publicly London has been threatening to breach the terms of its earlier divorce deal with the bloc.

A third source, a senior EU diplomat, confirmed the UK offer but stressed it was not going far enough for the bloc to accept.

Brexit talks descended into fresh turmoil this month over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to pass new domestic laws that would undercut London’s earlier EU divorce deal, which is also aimed at protecting peace on the island of Ireland.

US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden warned Britain that it must honour the Northern Irish peace deal as it extracts itself from the EU or there would be no US trade deal for the United Kingdom.

The third EU source, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said that the bloc would take a more rigid line in demanding a solid dispute settlement mechanism in any new UK trade deal should Johnson press ahead with the Internal Market Bill.

“There is unease about what Britain is doing but Barnier has stressed he will keep negotiating until his last breath,” said a fourth EU diplomat, highlighting the bloc’s wariness about being assigned blame should the troubled process eventually fail.

Asked about an estimate by Societe Generale bank, which put at 80% the probability of the most damaging economic split at the end of the year without a new deal to carry forward trade and business ties between the EU and the UK, the person said:

“I would put it around the same mark.”

Barnier is due to meet his UK counterpart, David Frost, around 1400 GMT in Brussels on Thursday.

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Brexit

Biden warns UK on #Brexit - No trade deal unless you respect Northern Irish peace deal

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US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden warned the United Kingdom that it must honour the Northern Irish peace deal as it extracts itself from the European Union or there would be no US trade deal, write and

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden said in a tweet.

“Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

Johnson unveiled legislation that would break parts of the Brexit divorce treaty relating to Northern Ireland, blaming the EU for putting a revolver on the table in trade talks and trying to divide up the United Kingdom.

He says the United Kingdom has to have the ability to break parts of the 2020 Brexit treaty he signed to uphold London’s commitments under the 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland between pro-British Protestant unionists and Irish Catholic nationalists.

The EU says any breach of the Brexit treaty could sink trade talks, propel the United Kingdom towards a messy exit when it finally leaves informal membership at the end of the year and thus complicate the border between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator told the bloc’s 27 national envoys that he still hoped a trade deal with Britain was possible, stressing that the coming days would be decisive, three diplomatic sources told Reuters.

Michel Barnier addressed the gathering on Wednesday and the three sources either participated in the discussion behind closed doors or were briefed on its content.

“Barnier still believes a deal is possible though the next days are key,” said one of the EU diplomatic sources.

Johnson told The Sun that the EU was being “abusive” to Britain and risking four decades of partnership.

He said the UK must “ring-fence” the Brexit deal “to put in watertight bulkheads that will stop friends and partners making abusive or extreme interpretations of the provisions.”

Societe Generale analysts said on Thursday they now see an 80% chance that Britain and the EU will fail to strike a trade deal before the end of the year.

Biden, who has talked about the importance of his Irish heritage, retweeted a letter from Eliot Engel, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives, to Johnson calling on the British leader to honour the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.

Engel urged Johnson to “abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

He called on Johnson to “ensure that Brexit negotiations do not undermine the decades of progress to bring peace to Northern Ireland and future options for the bilateral relationship between our two countries.”

Engel said Congress would not support a free trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom if Britain failed to uphold its commitments with Northern Ireland.

The letter was signed by Representatives Richard Neal, William Keating and Peter King.

Johnson is pushing ahead with his plan.

His government reached a deal on Wednesday (16 September) to avert a rebellion in his own party, giving parliament a say over the use of post-Brexit powers within its proposed Internal Market Bill that breaks international law.

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