Police In Germany Halt Protest Calling For End To COVID-19 Restrictions

A protester is held by German riot policemen in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag lower house of parliament, at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions related to the new coronavirus pandemic, in Berlin, on August 29, 2020. John MACDOUGALL / AFP
A protester is held by German riot policemen in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag lower house of parliament, at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions related to the new coronavirus pandemic, in Berlin, on August 29, 2020. John MACDOUGALL / AFP

 

German police halted a Berlin march by thousands of people opposed to coronavirus restrictions in the biggest of several European protests Saturday against anti-virus curbs and masks to halt the pandemic.

With new Covid-19 cases on the rise, European nations are starting to tighten controls while trying to avoid the major lockdowns imposed earlier this year to contain the outbreak that has killed more than 800,000 people worldwide.

Across the globe, governments are struggling to revive battered economies while managing public frustration over new restrictions and masks to curb infections.

In Germany, around 18,000 people massed in Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, before the rally was forced to stop due to a police injunction because many were not respecting social distancing measures.

The demonstration had initially been allowed to go ahead after a bitter legal battle.

“The minimum distancing is not being respected by most (of the demonstrators) despite repeated requests,” the police said. “There is no other option than to break up the gathering.”

Several thousands stayed on to protest after the announcement, chanting “resistance” and a small group clashed with police, tossing bottles and rocks. Two people were arrested, police said.

A man wrapped in a black-white-red flag leans towards the German riot policemen standing guard in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag lower house of parliament, as protesters tried to storm in at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions related to the new coronavirus pandemic, in Berlin, on August 29, 2020.  John MACDOUGALL / AFP
A man wrapped in a black-white-red flag leans towards the German riot policemen standing guard in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag lower house of parliament, as protesters tried to storm in at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions related to the new coronavirus pandemic, in Berlin, on August 29, 2020. John MACDOUGALL / AFP

 

Protesters waved German flags and shouted “Merkel must go!”, a chant often used by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party against Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“I’m not an extreme right-wing sympathiser, I’m here to defend our fundamental freedoms,” said Stefan, a 43-year-old Berlin resident with a shaved head and a T-shirt with the words “Thinking helps” written in large print.

“We’re here to say: we have to be careful! Coronavirus crisis or not, we must defend our freedoms,” Christina Holz, a 22-year-old student, told AFP.

‘Stop the lies’

About 1,000 anti-mask protesters also gathered in the Swiss city of Zurich and a similar number demonstrated in London at the Trafalgar Square landmark, many holding home-made banners.

One called for an “End to medical tyranny”; another read “No to mandatory vaccines” while one man waved a placard declaring “Masks are muzzles”.

Around 300 people protested peacefully in Paris to denounce the government’s decision to make masks obligatory in all public places as cases rise in the French capital.

Participants wave national flags during a gathering on the 17. Juni avenue in Berlin at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions related to the new coronavirus pandemic, on August 29, 2020. John MACDOUGALL / AFP
Participants wave national flags during a gathering on the 17. Juni avenue in Berlin at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions related to the new coronavirus pandemic, on August 29, 2020. John MACDOUGALL / AFP

 

Protesters, some waving placards stating “Stop the lies”, were quickly surrounded by police who handed out 135 euro ($160) fines to those not wearing masks.

“There is no scientific proof of the usefulness of wearing a mask outside,” said Anais, a sociology student.

“Covid-19 is not so dangerous, it mainly kills people over the age of 60.”

‘Anti-Corona’

The pandemic has killed more than 838,000 people worldwide since surfacing in China late last year, and more than 24.7 million cases have been registered. The United States has recorded the highest number of deaths with 181,779.

US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro were among global leaders who initially played down the gravity of the pandemic while others have dismissed the need for social distancing measures.

Many governments now hope tighter mask rules will offset the need for a return to economically-devastating lockdowns, though the French government said it could not rule out new stay-at-home orders.

France on Saturday said there had been 5,400 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours following over 7,400 registered  on Friday.

But the increasing cases did nothing to stop several hundred young party-goers people holding an illegal rave in the centre of the country despite a ban on such events.

Police were out in force and made some arrests but did not forcibly evacuate the youngsters.

Saturday’s Berlin rally came as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Germany, with daily new infection numbers reaching highs not seen since April.

At the start of August, a similar German “anti-corona” march in Berlin took place with 20,000 protesters, a mix of the extreme left and right, anti-vaccination campaigners, conspiracy theorists and self-described “free thinkers”.

Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states on Thursday introduced tougher coronavirus restrictions to curb the pandemic, including a minimum 50 euro ($59) fine for people caught not wearing face masks where one is compulsory.

“We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come,” Merkel warned. “It is still serious. Please continue to take it seriously.”

 

 

AFP

German Choirs Silenced As Singing Branded COVID-19 Risk

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 10, 2020, members of the congregation wearing protective face masks observe social distancing as they attend a Sunday service at the Berliner Dom cathedral in Berlin, amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP.

 

When the Berlin Cathedral Choir gathered for a rehearsal on March 9, the new coronavirus was still a distant concern, with fewer than 50 confirmed cases in the German capital.

But five days later, one of the ensemble’s 80 singers contacted choir director Tobias Brommann to say she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Within two weeks, around 30 members had tested positive and a further 30 were showing symptoms — including Brommann himself, who was struck down with a headache, cough and fever.

“We also can’t be sure if those without symptoms were not infected too, as we have not done antibody tests,” Brommann told AFP.

Hardly considered an extreme activity up to now, singing — especially choral singing — is quickly earning a reputation in the pandemic as about the most dangerous thing you can do.

Similar horror stories have emerged from choirs around the world, including one in Amsterdam where 102 singers are reported to have fallen sick with COVID-19.

– High-risk activity –

Though much is not yet understood about how the new coronavirus spreads, anecdotal evidence has been enough to convince German authorities that singing is a particularly high-risk activity.

Under new freedoms being gradually introduced across the country’s states, Germans can meet friends in the park, dine in a restaurant, play sports, go to church, browse the shops, watch football and even go swimming.

READ ALSO: EU Agency To Set Up ‘Independent’ Research On COVID-19 Vaccine

But singing remains broadly off limits, and it looks likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

In recommendations for the resumption of church services published in April, the federal government stated that singing should be avoided “because of the increased production of potentially infectious droplets, which can be spread over greater distances”.

Several states have heeded the advice and banned singing from services.

Even Germany’s revered Robert Koch Institute (RKI) disease control centre has warned against singing, with RKI head Lothar Wieler saying that “droplets fly particularly far when singing”.

– Infectious particles –

The fears are partly based on the fact that when singing, as Brommann points out, “you inhale and exhale very deeply, so if there are virus particles floating in the air then they can get into the lungs relatively quickly”.

But there is also evidence to suggest that singing produces especially high numbers of potentially infectious micro-particles. According to a study published in the Nature journal in 2019, saying “aah” for 30 seconds produces twice as many such particles as 30 seconds of continuous coughing.

Indeed, many choirs fear their future looks bleak. Five German boys’ choirs have written to the government saying their existence is under threat and demanding action to save them from ruin.

At the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Berlin’s Schoeneberg district, there have been no choir rehearsals since early March.

Soprano Heike Benda-Blanck, 59, has been singing there for 10 years.

“I do miss it,” she said. “You can still sing in the shower but it’s not the same.”

Some research has given cause for optimism. The Bundeswehr University in Munich published a study in early May showing that singing only disturbs air flow up to half a metre (1.6 feet) in front of the person.

Freiburg University’s Institute for Performing Arts Medicine has also published guidelines for singing partly based on a study it carried out in the southern city of Bamberg with similar results.

However, institute head Bernhard Richter warns: “Contrary to what was sometimes reported, we did not make any aerosol measurements” — tiny particles that have the potential to circulate much further in a room.

The institute published updated guidelines this week that include limiting the number of people in the room and the length of rehearsals, staying two metres apart, keeping rooms ventilated, screening choir members and wearing masks.

– ‘Work in progess’ –

“This is a work in progress,” Richter said. “Of course singers want clear statements, black and white, but then you have to say, maybe we don’t know yet.”

In proposals to the authorities, Germany’s Catholic Church has endorsed “quiet singing” in services, as well as restricting numbers and requiring people to stand 1.5 metres apart, though the Protestant Church continues to advise a complete ban.

But the potential dangers of singing became clear once again this month after a virus outbreak at a church service in Frankfurt — where the congregation had been singing and not wearing masks. At least 40 people were infected at the service, with 112 affected overall.

It remains to be seen whether singing can be controlled at other events in Germany, such as Bundesliga football matches, which are being played behind closed doors until further notice.

Singing could also potentially spread the virus at large events such as rock concerts and the Oktoberfest beer festival, where rowdy singing is an integral of the proceedings — undoubtedly one of the reasons it has been cancelled for 2020.

A spokesman for the interior ministry told AFP that since all major events are banned until at least August 31 in Germany anyway, this remains a “hypothetical question”.

“It depends on how the infection situation develops,” he said.

AFP

Just In: Leaders Bayern Munich Brush Aside Union On Bundesliga Return

Robert Lewandowski bagged his 26th league goal this season as leaders Bayern Munich maintained their four-point lead by brushing aside Union Berlin 2-0 behind closed doors on Sunday on the Bundesliga’s restart weekend.

READ ALSO: Dortmund Thrash Schalke As Bundesliga Makes ‘Very Strange’ Return

Lewandowski netted a first-half penalty and defender Benjamin Pavard added a late header in Berlin after the Bundesliga became the first top European league on Saturday to resume during the coronavirus pandemic.

World Leaders Gather In Germany To Seek Elusive Libya Peace

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso upon his arrival to attend the Peace summit on Libya at the Chancellery in Berlin on January 19, 2020.
John MACDOUGALL / AFP

 

World leaders gather in Berlin on Sunday to make a fresh push for peace in Libya, in a desperate bid to stop the conflict-wracked nation from turning into a “second Syria”.

Chancellor Angela Merkel will be joined by the presidents of Russia, Turkey and France and other world leaders for talks from around 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) held under the auspices of the United Nations.

The summit’s main goal is to get foreign powers wielding influence in the region to stop interfering in the war — be it through weapons, troops or financing.

Leaders of both warring factions — strongman Khalifa Haftar and the head of Tripoli’s UN-recognised government Fayez al-Sarraj — are also expected at what is the first such gathering since 2018.

READ ALSO: Erdogan Hopeful For ‘Important Step’ In Libya Ceasefire

Speaking to reporters before leaving Istanbul for Berlin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the summit could be “an important step on the way to cementing the ceasefire and a political solution” in Libya.

But pro-Haftar forces upped the ante ahead of the talks by blocking oil exports at Libya’s key ports, crippling the country’s main income source in protest at Turkey’s decision to send troops to shore up Sarraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

The move underlined the devastating impact of foreign influence in the crisis.

“Libya needs all foreign interference to stop,” the United Nations’ special envoy Ghassan Salame told AFP.

 

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar (2ndR) is surrounded by security personnel as he gets out of his car upon his arrival at his hotel in Berlin on January 18, 2020, on the eve of a peace conference on Libya to be held at the Chancellery.
Christian SPICKER / AFP

The UN hopes all sides will sign up to a plan to refrain from interference, and commit to a truce that leads to a lasting end to hostilities, according to a draft of a final communique seen by AFP.

That document also urges all parties to re-commit to a much-violated UN arms embargo and raises the prospect of intra-Libyan political talks in Geneva at the end of the month.

If all goes to plan, the Berlin participants will hold an evening press conference.

But the summit has already ruffled feathers, with several countries in the region fuming at being left out, including Greece, Morocco, and Tunisia.

‘Second Syria’

Libya has been torn by fighting between rival armed factions since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Most recently, Sarraj’s troops in Tripoli have been under attack since April from Haftar’s forces.

Clashes killed more than 280 civilians and 2,000 fighters and displaced tens of thousands, until a fragile ceasefire backed by both Ankara and Moscow was put in place on January 12.

At follow-up talks in Moscow, Sarraj agreed to a permanent truce but Hafter walked away without signing the deal.

Although Sarraj’s government is recognised by the UN, powerful players have broken away to stand behind Haftar — turning a domestic conflict into what is essentially a proxy war in which international powers jostle to secure their own interests.

Alarm grew internationally after Erdogan ordered troops to Libya early January to bolster Sarraj.

Underlining the stakes involved, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “we have to make sure Libya doesn’t become a second Syria.”

Sarraj meanwhile issued a call for international “protection troops” if Haftar were to keep up his offensive.

“Such a protection force must operate under the auspices of the United Nations. Experts will have to advise who should participate, such as the EU or the African Union or the Arab League”, he told Die Welt newspaper on Sunday.

He also criticised the EU, saying it had not been proactive enough on Libya.

“Unfortunately the role of the EU so far has been very modest… even though some EU countries have a special relationship with Libya, we are neighbours and have many interests in common,” he said.

Lip service?

Erdogan has repeatedly urged Europe to stand united behind Sarraj’s government, warning that Tripoli’s fall could allow jihadist groups like the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda to regroup.

He has also warned that further unrest could prompt a new wave of migrants to head for Europe.

For Turkey, a fall of Sarraj’s GNA could jeopardise a maritime boundary agreement the parties signed. It gives Ankara extensive rights over the eastern Mediterranean where the recent discovery of undersea gas reserves has triggered a scramble by littoral states.

But Haftar is backed by Turkey’s fiercest regional rivals — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Erdogan has also accused Russia of sending in mercenaries to help Haftar, as Moscow seeks to extend its influence in the region.

The International Crisis Group’s Libya expert Claudia Gazzini said the Berlin conference “could be a modest step forward” on the path to peace.

“Yet the risk remains that some participants will merely pay lip service to the diplomatic initiative, even as they continue to fuel a war from which they benefit.”

AFP

Germany ‘Strongly Condemns’ Iran Missile Attacks

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting on January 8, 2020, at the Chancellery in Berlin. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

 

Germany’s defence minister condemned Iranian missile attacks on Iraqi bases housing coalition military on Wednesday and called on Tehran to end a “spiral” of conflict.

“The German government strongly condemns this aggression,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told broadcaster ARD.

“It is now crucial that we do not allow this spiral to continue,” said the defence minister, adding that “it is now primarily up to the Iranians to refrain from further escalation.”

Kramp-Karrenbauer said that Germany had been in contact with the US department of defence throughout Tuesday night, and that “all channels” of communication would be opened in a bid to prevent further escalation.

She added that she would seek a meeting of the coalition’s 13 framework nations to discuss the situation in the region.

Separately, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged Iran to “refrain from all steps that could lead to further escalation”. He also called on all parties to exercise restraint.

The overnight attack on bases in Al-Asad and Arbil was the latest escalation amid growing tensions in the region since a US drone strike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani last Friday.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is also the leader of Angela Merkel’s ruling conservative party, said the missile attacks could see further withdrawals of German troops in Iraq.

Germany temporarily withdrew 32 of its soldiers from a camp close to Baghdad on Tuesday, and the defence minister said that plans were now being drawn up for a “possible partial withdrawal” from Arbil.

Merkel, Macron, Johnson Agree To Work Towards ‘Reducing Tensions’ In Mideast

 

The leaders of Germany, France and Britain on Sunday agreed to work towards bringing about de-escalation in the Middle East amid heightened tensions following the US drone strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a German government spokesman said.

“The chancellor, the French president, and the British prime minister agreed to work together to reduce tensions in the region,” said the spokesman, after Germany’s Angela Merkel spoke with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Boris Johnson on the phone.

China slams Pompeo for ‘Cold War thinking’ in Berlin speech

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands after making press statements prior to talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on November 8, 2019.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands after making press statements prior to talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on November 8, 2019.

 

China on Monday accused Mike Pompeo of “outdated Cold War thinking” after the US Secretary of State warned against a Chinese threat to Western freedoms.

Pompeo — who spoke in Germany on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — said the Chinese Communist Party “uses tactics and methods to suppress its own people that would be horrifyingly familiar to former East Germans”.

He added that Washington has made clear to Beijing that they should “honour their commitment” to the “one country, two systems” policy that allows Hong Kong rights unseen in the mainland.

In response Beijing slammed Pompeo’s “baseless malicious attacks” on the Chinese government.

Some figures in the US have “attempted to build an ideological wall between Chinese and foreign enterprises,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday at a regular press briefing.

Geng accused Pompeo of ignoring the interest of the American people to pursue personal political goals, and urged him to “abandon his ideological bias and outdated Cold War thinking”.

Pompeo’s visit to Berlin came as Germany prepared to mark three decades since November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, ultimately culminating in the collapse of the communist regime in the east.

Pompeo said on Friday that the United States and its allies should “defend what was so hard-won… in 1989” and “recognise we are in a competition of values with unfree nations”.

His Berlin speech was the latest in a string of hawkish remarks on China by the Secretary of State.

In October, Pompeo called Beijing “truly hostile” to the United States, and vowed to ramp up pressure on China on multiple fronts.

 

AFP

Pompeo Warns Against China, Russia On Eve Of Berlin Wall Anniversary

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday issued a stark warning against China and Russia on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Western, free nations have a responsibility to deter threats to our people” from governments like China, Russia and Iran, Pompeo said, speaking just a few metres (yards) away from where the Wall ran past the German capital’s world-famous Brandenburg Gate.

The US and its allies should “defend what was so hard-won… in 1989” and “recognise we are in a competition of values with unfree nations,” he added.

Picking at sore spots in Washington’s relationship with Berlin, Pompeo said the under-construction Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany would mean “Europe’s energy supplies… depend on (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s whims”.

READ ALSO: Trump Will Not Impose Tariffs On EU Cars – Juncker

Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly said the pipeline is a purely private business concern.

And he warned of “Chinese companies’ intent to build 5G networks”, after the German government failed to exclude tech giant Huawei from the bidding process for the next-generation mobile network infrastructure.

Pompeo is on a whirlwind two-day tour of Germany where he has revisited the site of his Cold War military service on the former Iron Curtain border and is slated to meet leaders including Merkel.

While in Europe, he has looked to shore up transatlantic relations eroded by trade conflicts and discord over geopolitical crises and military spending.

Spurred by the US leaving the way open to Turkish and Russian military action in northern Syria, France’s President Emmanuel Macron told The Economist this week that the NATO alliance — of which Ankara is also a member — was suffering a “brain death” of lack of coordination between Europe and Washington.

Recalling past “challenges between partners” within NATO, including France’s 1960s departure from the alliance’s command structure, Pompeo on Friday dismissed the debate around Macron’s comments as a “kerfuffle”.

Other leaders including Merkel, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have also firmly rejected Macron’s assessment.

Merkel Attends Berlin Synagogue Vigil After Halle Shooting

File Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel/Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended an evening vigil at a historic synagogue in central Berlin in honour of the victims of a Yom Kippur attack in the city of Halle Wednesday.

An AFP reporter saw the German leader at the event, which was called in solidarity with the Jewish community following the suspected anti-Semitic, far-right shooting which left two dead.

Germany Warns Of Possible Recession

 

The German economy could enter a recession in the third quarter, the Bundesbank warned Monday, as the debate on government measures to support the economy swelled in Berlin.

“The economy could contract again slightly” this summer, Germany’s central bank said in its monthly report, following a 0.1-per cent decline in gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter.

“According to data currently available, industrial production is expected to shrink markedly in the current quarter as well.”

Having seen a decline in trade against the backdrop of the US-China trade war, two of its main customers, Europe’s biggest economy will enter what it technically defines as a recession should GDP shrink further.

Alarmist signals are reviving the political debate between those who support the German government’s dogma of balanced budgets and those seeking more flexibility in order to revive the economy.

Germany can afford it on paper after five consecutive years of budget surpluses and interest rates for long-term loans that are extremely attractive to the federal government.

As US-China tensions intensify, economists have urged Berlin to fork out cash to avoid a recession, but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has previously said things were not yet bad enough to warrant loosening the purse strings.

Balanced Budget

Citing anonymous sources, Der Spiegel news magazine said Friday that the government “had no intention of continuing to set aside money in the event of a recession”.

That would mean abandoning the so-called “black zero” doctrine committing the German state to a balanced budget.

On Sunday, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz hinted at a potential intervention, stating that Germany could “fully face up to” a new economic crisis.

“It is sometimes important, when things change completely, for example, for us to have enough strength to react,” he said during an open house day at government offices.

“If we have debt in Germany that is less than 60 per cent of our GDP, that is the strength we need to stand up to a crisis,” he added.

Scholz pointed to the estimated 50 billion euros ($55 billion) that the 2008-09 financial crisis had cost the German government.

“We have to be able to muster that and we can muster that –- that’s the good news.”

In particular, several Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel’s coalition government, want Germany to draw on its reserves to finance a plan to combat global warming or infrastructure works.

Flexibility instruments could enable Berlin to draw on its large budget surplus of 1.7 per cent of its GDP as early as September.

Merkel’s conservatives have so far resisted and abandoning the popular balanced budget stance seems unlikely with major regional elections looming in September and October.

Berlin Calls Outcome Of Trump-Juncker Meeting ‘Constructive’

US President Donald Trump meets with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 25, 2018.
SAUL LOEB / AFP

 

Germany on Thursday welcomed an agreement between US President Donald Trump and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to ease a trade spat that has been simmering for months.

“The government welcomes the agreement for a constructive approach on trade.

“The European Commission can continue to count on our support,” German government spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer, wrote on Twitter.

Berlin Talks Aim To Revive Stalled Ukraine Peace Process

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) reacts beside Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde (Center L) during a press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin on June 11, 2018.
John MACDOUGALL / AFP

 

Top diplomats from Ukraine and Russia met their German and French counterparts in Berlin Monday seeking to revive long-stalled efforts to end the smouldering civil war in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukraine conflict, half-forgotten by the West amid other crises and its own divisions, has claimed over 10,000 lives and still sees daily clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces.

After over a year on the back burner as France, Germany and Russia have been caught up in their own elections, all three have now turned their focus back on Ukraine which goes to the polls next year.

At the start of the talks — the first between the quartet in 16 months — German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said they were hoping to reach “a ceasefire that deserves its name”.

Key aims include the withdrawal of heavy weapons along the frontline, the launch of de-mining operations, and generally “breathing new life” into the 2015 Minsk agreement that sought to end the fighting.

Maas said another new topic would be the eventual deployment of a UN peace-keeping mission in eastern Ukraine, but acknowledged that ideas on the issue “are far apart”.

While Moscow favours blue-helmet troops only along the frontline, Kiev would want them to also police the Ukraine-Russian border to prevent soldiers and weapons from crossing.

The UN Security Council last week condemned “continuous violations of the ceasefire” and “the tragic humanitarian situation” on the frontline.

“I have no illusions — the new start will be difficult,” Maas told Bild daily.

On Friday, his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that, given the daily death toll, “the credibility of the current peace process is at stake”.

– Putin-Poroshenko phone call –

The Berlin meeting is an attempt to restore dialogue between the two sides, even as they blame each other for the ongoing conflict.

In a rare phone call Saturday to prepare for the meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko discussed an “exchange of people being held” by both sides.

But given the deepening distrust between the West and Russia, hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough are low.

After a popular Ukrainian uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed president in Kiev in 2014, Russia moved to annex the Crimea peninsula, backing insurgents in the former Soviet state.

Brussels responded to the territorial grab with a series of asset freezes and travel bans as well as stinging economic sanctions, with Moscow retaliating in kind.

Since then, the US and European powers have accused Moscow of using hackers and propaganda to sow discord, meddle in elections and back eurosceptics and rightwing populists, as well as ramping up military posturing to threaten eastern European states.

And in 2015, Russia entered into Syria’s brutal civil war, defying the West by unleashing a bombing campaign in support of Bashar al-Assad.

Relations hit a new low in March when many western states expelled Russian diplomats over Moscow’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain.

– Seeking EU divisions? –

Putin, who was re-elected to a fourth term in March, has denied all the charges and argued forcefully that hostile NATO powers are seeking to demonise and weaken Russia.

Moscow also accused Kiev of spreading “bizarre” fake news after Ukraine’s secret service last month staged the murder of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, claiming it did so to foil a Russian plot on his life.

Heightening tensions, Putin on Thursday warned that any military “provocations” during World Cup football tournament which Russia is hosting, would have “very severe consequences for Ukraine as a state”.

Russia’s main goal is the lifting of damaging economic sanctions, a push aided by the rise of sympathetic populist parties in the EU, most recently in Italy.

On a visit last week to conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose far-right junior coalition partners back Russia’s claim of sovereignty over Crimea, Putin denied any wish to “divide” the EU bloc.

France and Germany agree that any sanctions relief for Russia must be conditional on advances in the Ukraine peace process.