Uzbeks breathe a sigh of relief as new leader brings reforms

UZB250219MB003Tashkent, Uzbekistan –Two and a half years after the death of Islam Karimov, the ruthless dictator who ruled Uzbekistan for over a quarter of a century, most people in this former Soviet state have stopped worrying about an unannounced visit by the secret police.

“There is no fear anymore that the state security service could come and just grab you,” said Andrei Kudryashov, a photographer in Tashkent, the sprawling Uzbek capital.

Mr. Karimov, who died of a stroke in 2016, stamped down mercilessly on his enemies, real or imagined. Under his rule, the Uzbek security forces shot dead hundreds of protesters, and his critics were imprisoned in the country’s brutal penitentiary system, where some were allegedly boiled alive.

A member of the Communist Party during the Soviet era, Mr. Karimov also oversaw a crackdown on religious freedoms in this Muslim majority state, including barring the call to prayer from mosques. Hundreds of thousands of children were coerced into working on cotton plantations. Mr. Karimov also ordered his own oldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, a glamorous socialite and pop singer, to be imprisoned in 2015 on corruption charges amid a bitter family dispute. Her fate remains unclear.

Since Mr. Karimov’s death, his successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 61, has launched much-vaunted reforms that have included the freeing of around 30 high-profile political prisoners, moves to reduce the powers of the much-feared state security service, as well as a government campaign to eradicate forced labor. The measures came as a surprise to many observers because Mr. Mirziyoyev was prime minister under Mr. Karimov for more than a decade and was widely seen as his right-hand man.

The sweeping reforms have brought Uzbekistan, an impoverished country of 33 million people which neighbors Afghanistan, out of the cold after years of international isolation. In May, Mr. Mirziyoyev held talks with President Donald Trump at the White House just as Uzbekistan signed business deals with American companies worth $4.8 billion. Last month, Mr. Mirziyoyev also met Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in Berlin. Uzbekistan desperately needs foreign investment: average monthly salaries are just under $200, while teachers, doctors and other professionals are forced to moonlight as taxi drivers to make ends meet.

“It’s clear that Mirziyoyev needs to change Uzbekistan’s international image. He realizes that Uzbekistan is in a state of total economic decay, and these economic problems are impossible to solve without investment and tourism. He needs to be accepted in Europe and the United States,” said Daniil Kislov, the editor of the Fergana.ru news website, which was barred under Mr. Karimov.

However, Mr. Mirziyoyev has not publically criticised Mr. Karimov, whose former residence in Tashkent has been transformed into an exhibition hall devoted to the late dictator’s “love for the Uzbek people.” Outside the building stands a bronze statue of Mr. Karimov, one of three to go up in Uzbekistan since his death. Mr. Mirziyoyev also recently paid his respects at Mr. Karimov’s ornate tomb in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road city. “There will be no investigation into Karimov’s crimes because Mirziyoyev served as prime minister under him and he is afraid to do this,” said Mr. Kislov.

Some critics say that while they welcome Mr. Mirziyoyev’s reforms, there is no prospect of free elections, an end to media censorship in the near future, or an independent judiciary to protect private property rights.

A controversial urban reconstruction project has seen tens of thousands of people forced from their homes across the country, often with little or no warning. In some cases, demolition crews have started tearing down houses with people still inside them. An estimated 50,000 families have so far lost their homes in Tashkent alone. The authorities frequently offer miserly compensation or poor-quality replacement housing. Anger over the project, which is mired in allegations of massive high-level corruption, has triggered a burgeoning political grassroots movement unlike anything Uzbekistan has ever witnessed.

“These demolitions have wiped out the benefits of any reforms that have taken place,” said Farida Charif, a Tashkent resident who is coordinating online opposition to the reconstruction project. “I’m afraid to go anywhere. I always think ‘what if they knock my house down when I’m away?’”

“There was repression in the past, but it was very specific – they would seize Muslims, or Baptists, for example. People knew ‘if I don’t get involved in that, then no one will touch me.’ Now, anyone can be sitting at home, and they can come and start tearing your roof off.”

Ms. Charif's comments are no exaggeration. There have so far been two documented cases of demolition crews removing roofs from residential buildings with people still inside them. In another case, workers “urgently” destroyed dozens of houses ahead of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s state visit to India in October, reportedly because he had promised New Delhi a new, larger embassy in Tashkent. Four months on, there is no sign of any construction work at the site, which is still full of the debris of demolished homes, while the families who once lived in the buildings have been scattered across the city.

On a recent afternoon in Tashkent, the Washington Times witnessed scores of angry locals march to a district administration building to demand answers from officials over reports that their homes are next in line to be torn down. “This is a disgrace – they are treating us worse than animals,” said Vladimir, an elderly man, as police looked on.

“Unfortunately, Mirziyoyev’s reforms have only affected those spheres that Western society paid attention to,” said Shukhrat Ganiev, an Uzbek human rights campaigner. “That is, forced labour, torture, and human rights issues. But problems such as the demolition of homes have grown and are uniting people. The situation reminds me of steam building up in the neck of a closed bottle.”

Photo: February 21, 2019 - Tashkent, Uzbekistan - A cleaner washes the area around a bronze statue of Islam Karimov, the late dictator of Uzbekistan.
Credit: Marc Bennetts/ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: 03/04/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

France's Le Pen sees opportunity in Yellow Vests

LePenPARIS - As the first French political leader to start campaigning for the European Parliament election, which will be held in France on May 26, Marine Le Pen is predicting “far better results” this year for her party and its anti-establishment, Euroskeptic allies.

Le Pen who is head of the former National Front party – now renamed National Rally – reckons the political balance in EU will be profoundly changed by the European elections in May, as voters continue to grow disillusioned with globalization and its failure to bring any economic benefits to ordinary people.

“The nationalist parties, the patriotic parties, the parties that want less European Union and are critical of the EU will record far better results than five years ago,” she said, speaking at her party’s headquarters in Nanterre, near Paris Friday.

“Will it be enough to form a majority in the European Parliament? I don’t assume anything," she added. "But the way the European Parliament works, the way the European Council works, will be upset by this powerful upswing,” she said.

The elections across 27 EU member states will be the most closely watched in decades as polls suggest that far-right and Euroskeptic parties are set to make significant gains.

As the head of France’s first opposition party, Le Pen is pitching her campaign against President Emmanuel Macron, the upstart pro-European centrist she lost to by a landslide in the runoff of the French presidential election in 2017.

Despite suffering a severe slump in popularity as the grassroots Yellow Vest protests flared across the country demanding economic justice since November, Macron has managed to claw back some approval. His rating in January rose to 27% in January, up 4 points since the previous month.

Political leaders like Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left France Unbowed have tried jump on the Yellow Vests bandwagon, without much success so far. The lack of appeal of these two parties, which usually attract people who feel marginalized, signals that the Yellow Vest protesters are wary of the political establishment.

"The influence of nationalist parties, first in Eastern Europe and then in Italy, which shares a border with France, has been increasing – this cannot be ignored,” said Paris-based lawyer and political commentator Arnaud Touati. “And some of the Yellow Vests’ claims, such as immigration, are the same as those of the National Rally. But at the same time, the latest polls show a tie between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, so it’s not game over yet.”

The Yellow Vests rebellion, which started in November, was sparked by protests of the rural poor and small-business owners as well as laborers and public sector employees disillusioned by mainstream parties and government policies. Protesters adopted the yellow high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to carry in their vehicle to protest initially against rising fuel prices.

Faced with repeated demonstrations, Macron launched a “Grand National Debate,” a three-month nationwide series of consultations with the public aimed at calming anti-government protests and convince protesters he’s not out of touch with French people.

The move seems to be working so far, with a recent Elabe poll showing for the first time that 56 percent of the French think the Yellow Vests should call off their weekly protests since they began more than three months ago.

According to January’s Ifop-Fiducial poll, the governing party has once again overtaken Le Pen’s National Rally in support in the European elections.

Still, Le Pen is convinced the Yellow Vests crisis is not over yet.

“The Yellow Vests … are the expression of the lower middle classes who have been squeezed by a spectacular tax hikes in the last 10 years. There is also a malaise, the feeling that they are not represented by political institutions in our country,” she said.

After the shakeup of the French political landscape during the last French elections, when the Socialist party and the mainstream conservatives reported heavy losses, Le Pen said she’s not afraid of the emerging movement and the voting intentions of its supporters. Some Yellow Vest leaders hope to enter politics by running in the European elections in May. But for the most part, the movement remains fractured into several groups that display often diverging views that range from far left to far right.

Le Pen thinks some may end up voting for her party, some will prefer far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, while others will abstain.
Cajoling disillusioned voters into the ballot box will be a key challenge in the run up to the elections for political leaders in France, where abstention has often been called the country’s main political party, particularly among the young and the less affluent.

“I’m not sure I will vote this time around. I still haven’t made up my mind,” said Agnès, a young mother of two from Nanterre. “The Yellow Vest movement has given voice to ordinary people who struggle to make ends meet, but I don’t think these elections will change anything for us.”

Photo: Marie LePen during a public meeting in Saint-Paul-du-Bois, France asking French voters to vote on the European Union Parliament elections on May 23, 2019. In her official Twitter account, she posted: "I say to the French: your power is the vote! Every vote placed in the urn is a useful contribution to pave the way for the liberation of the people!" #On Arrival"
Credit: Courtesy of Marie Le Pen's official Twitter page. (02/17/19)

Story/photo: 02/19/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Elections in Nigeria come amid hard times

NGR190121AA002Abuja, Nigeria – Since Alejo Fred lost his job as an engineer two years ago, he’s been earning a living by salvaging sellable items from trash.

“There was a robust, private sector-driven construction industry,” he said. “But this is all gone in a cloud of economic uncertainty.’’

As Nigeria approaches a general election on February 16, Fred and other voters in the most populous country in Africa are disappointed with President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military general running for reelection.

Buhari rode to power in 2015 promising to turn around the country’s moribund economy, tackle corruption and defeat militants like Boko Haram, the Islamic State-affiliated militants wreaking havoc in the northeast.

But low oil prices sparked a recession in 2016, arguably dashing Buhari’s hopes of fulfilling his campaign pledges. Almost 10 million people have lost jobs since the recessions struck, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, or NBS. Today, unemployment stands at more than 23 percent. Half the population of 180 million live in extreme poverty. Gross domestic product is expected to hit 1.5 percent in the current quarter, nearly a quarter lower than a year ago.

Leading opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party is pledging to sell off the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, a hotbed of corruption, if elected in the February vote. Abubakar recently called on Buhari to resign after the president confessed to regional governors that the economy was in bad shape.

“The economy has collapsed under his [Buhari’s] watch,” said Abubakar, a former vice president under ex-President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. “He has no idea on how to fix it.”

Supporters of Buhari saw his tenure differently, arguing that Buhari has been making reforms but Nigeria’s economy won’t change overnight.

‘’President Buhari is confronting the effect of gross mismanagement of the country under the previous regimes,’’ said Abdulkarim Muhammad Abdullahi, a leader of the APC Big League, a pro-Buhari advocacy group. “Buhari has done well to rejig the country’s economy.’’

Critics also charge Buhari of falling short in the fight against terrorism. Soon after his election, he launched an all-out assault on Boko Haram, resulting in a lull in their rampages. Many militants were pushed into a narrow region on Nigeria’s border with Chad.

But as the country inches towards the general election, the terrorists are resurfacing to carry out their deadly activities.

Recently a faction of the Boko Haram renamed themselves the Islamic State's West Africa Province and launched brazen assaults in the Northeast, overrunning military bases and rural communities, fueling fears that the fight against terrorism is not yet over. Armed bandits are now wreaking havoc in communities in lawless Northwestern Nigeria, too.

“The impact of recent fighting on innocent civilians is devastating,” said Samantha Newport, the UN’s spokesperson Nigeria. ‘’It has created a humanitarian tragedy.’’

Newport estimated that the Islamic State's West Africa Province has displaced around 30,000 people. The UN recently withdrew 260 aid workers from Borno State in Northeastern Nigeria, the largest pullout in three years, she added.

The violence ironically could help Buhari at the ballot box. Many residents of the northeast would vote against the president if they had a chance. It’s not clear if voting will occur in regions where the militants are active, however.

“Our people are made to flee back to Maiduguri [the regional capital] and probably consigned to IDP camps,” said Mohammed Imam, who is running for the Borno State governorship with the opposition Peoples Democratic Party.

A spokesman for the government, Lai Mohammed, said officials were taking measures to ensure that free, fair and credible elections were held throughout the country.

Buhari has also been embroiled in corruption scandals.

Nigeria improved on the Transparency International corruption perception index last year, moving from the 148th to 144th most corrupt states in the world. But the country didn’t improve its score in the index compared to 2017. Rather, other countries did worse.

The president recently, for example, suspended the country’s chief justice, Walter Onnoghen, over allegations of corruption, but the opposition accused him of seeking to eliminate an independent authority who might challenge his efforts to fix the coming election.

“It means that the next election is nothing more than a ritualistic outing,’’ said Mike Ozekhome, a Nigerian constitutional lawyer, referring to the suspension.

American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria issued concerns about the suspension, too, warning the move could "cast a pall over the electoral process.”

Onnoghen allegedly failed to list his personal assets before taking his job. He refused to step down, forcing Buhari to suspend him, the president’s spokesman said recently. Officials are now examining the allegations.

Many ordinary Nigerians feel as if they can’t do much about high-level corruption. But they have strong opinions about their fortunes under Buhari, who assumed office on a wave of hope. His ascension marked the first peaceful democratic transition of power in the country.

“I’m running out of business because of the harsh economy,” Yazidu Harisu, 15, an itinerant tailor who was sitting under a tree with his mobile sewing machine in One Man Village, a suburb of Abuja, on a recent evening waiting for customers.

‘’I don’t want Buhari to be re-elected,’’ said Harisu. “It’s not that we don’t like him. But the people are suffering under his watch.’’
Photo: January 21, 2019 - Damaturu, Yobe, North-eastern Nigeria - Supporters of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari display the double-hand symbol representing two four-year tenures.
Credit: Ali Abare Abubakar/ARA Network Inc. (01/21/19)

Story/photo publish date: 02/05/2019
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

The Russian-Ukraine rift spills over into the orthodox church

UKR250218OR002ATHENS, Greece – Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, the foremost leader in the Eastern Christian Church, is scheduled to recognize the newly founded Ukrainian Orthodox Church on January 6.

Bartholomew give the tomos, or the formal decree of autocephaly, to primate Metropolitan Epiphanius in an elaborate ceremony in Istanbul that coincides with one of the most important celebrations for Orthodoxy, the Epiphany, when Bartholomew will throw a cross into the icy cold waters of the Bosphorus and believers jump in to catch it to receive a blessing.

But not everyone in the Orthodox world will be celebrating with them.

As Ukraine’s central government fights Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions and Ukrainian leaders continue to resist Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Bartholomew’s decision to create an independent Orthodox church in Ukraine has created a rift between Moscow and Istanbul.

Now other churches are lining up on the divide, with clerics issuig anathemas and excommunications and others beating priests, hurling Molotov cocktails and conducting cyberattacks.

“Its traditional allies have already sided with Moscow,” said Ilias Kouskouvelis, a professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in northern Greece. “Allies like Serbia, Bulgaria and, naturally, the Patriarchate of Antioch, due to its proximity with Syria and Russia’s relationship with the Assad regime, [have sided with Moscow.] Those who haven’t spoken up, like the Greek Church, are siding with the ecumenical patriarch.”

Bulgarian Metropolitan Daniil, the church’s spokesman, questioned why Bartholomew hadn’t recognized the Ukrainian Church earlier. “He suddenly states that Kiev was never given the full jurisdiction to the Moscow Patriarchate,” said Daniil in an interview published on the church’s official website.

The Polish Orthodox Synod last month also published a communiqué stating that it was irrational to recognize Metropolitan Epiphanius because until recently Bartholomew and other Orthodox leaders considered the church he led, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, as schismatic, or illegally breaking away from the Moscow church.

Until recently, Ukraine had three different churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate. But only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate was widely recognized in the Orthodox world. The two others were considered schismatic.

“Persons deprived of episcopal ordinations and priests cannot be leaders in introducing peace in the Orthodox Church of Ukraine,” read the communiqué. “Their actions cause even more confusion and scandal.”

In the meantime, members of other churches that have provoked schisms, like the Macedonian and the Montenegrin Churches, which have broken off from the Serbia Church, are hopeful Bartholomew might also recognize them, too.

Unsurprisingly, the Serbian Orthodox Church opposes the Istanbul-based leader’s move. “The Patriarchate of Constantinople made a canonically unfounded decision to rehabilitate and recognize as bishops two leaders of schismatic groups in Ukraine,” the Serbian Church wrote in an announcement on their website.

The Moscow Patriarchate has been in charge of Ukraine’s Christians for more than 330 years since Constantinople’s Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysius IV transferred part of the Kiev-based Ukrainian church’s jurisdiction to Moscow, which was then capital of Imperial Russia. But Dionysius made the transfer with a Synodal Letter and not a tomos, which would fully transfer it to Moscow, leaving the Ukrainian church doctrinal wiggle room for independence.

“Russia today, but also during its tsarist and communist periods, used religion as an instrument to expand and increase its influence,” Kouskouvelis said.

An independent Ukrainian Church undercuts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to expand his country’s power, including boosting Moscow as a so-called “Third Rome” that would become a center of the Orthodox faith.

With 150 million followers, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest denomination in the faith. Bartholomew’s recognition would remove some 30 million people from the Russian church.

The disagreement between Istanbul and Moscow is part of the ongoing political conflict in the region after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Tensions are still high.

On November 25, in the Kerch Strait near the peninsula, the Russian coast guard fired upon and captured three Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to pass from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov.

Since Crimea’s annexation, Ukrainian politicians have been pushing harder for independence from Moscow. President Petro Poroshenko has met multiple times with Bartholomew to talk about an independent Ukrainian Church and will be accompanying Metropolitan Epiphanius in Istanbul in January.

This week the Ukrainian Parliament voted a law to regulate the Ukrainian Patriarchate.

When Bartholomew, also known among Orthodox patriarchs as “first among equals,” announced in October that all three Orthodox Churches should unite into a new, single institution that would be independent and therefore not schismatic, Moscow cut ties with Istanbul.

Moscow also retaliated by calling its members to stop their pilgrimages and donations to Mount Athos monasteries in Greece, one of the most important centers of Eastern Orthodox monasticism that is under Bartholomew’s jurisdiction. Pious Russian men flock there and have helped renovate the island’s stunning ancient monasteries.

Bartholomew has been trying to cool tensions.

“It’s humane, and it’s democratic [to have different opinions,] but to cut the holy communion as a form of pressure and coercion in order to make others agree with one’s opinions is unacceptable,” he said during his homily at the Russian-speaking Orthodox Church of Saint Andrew in Istanbul recently. “I’m certain that soon our sister Church of Russia will repent for this extreme decision.”

But Putin attacked Bartholomew at his annual press conference on Thursday.

“Look how it [the new Ukrainian Church] is becoming dependent on Turkey, the Turkish patriarchate,” he said to a group of 1,700 reporters. “I think Bartholomew’s main incentive and motive is to subdue this territory and then start profiting from it.”

Moscow and Bartholomew have locked horns before.

When the patriarch reestablished the Orthodox Church of Estonia in 1996, after the country’s independency from the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church severed full communion with Istanbul for three months.

Experts said tensions would last much longer this time.

“I believe this is just the beginning of this conflict,” Professor Kouskouvelis said. “But I don’t believe this is as serious yet to be considered a schism in the Orthodox world.”

Photo: Parishioners walk to the St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in central Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 25. The cathedral is the mother church of the Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, competing for dominance in Ukraine with a bigger Russian-led orthodox church with the center in Moscow.
Credit: Olga Rudenko / ARA Network Inc. (02/25/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 01/02/2019
A version of this story was published in the Religion News Service.

For Romanians, little to celebrate during centenary revelries

ROU170215GP004BUCHAREST, Romania – Aurel Vulcu was on the streets of Bucharest In December 1989 when he and other fighters for democracy overturned the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu.

“That victory gave us hope,” Vulcu said, recalling how Romania was isolated and impoverished behind the Iron Curtain. “I thought that democracy will soon enter the door of the parliament, the doors of the courts.”

Recently, Vulcu, 61, a retired backer, was standing outside the government buildings in the city center with a European Union flag draped over his shoulders, his voice hoarse from shouting anti-government slogans. Like many Romanians, he opposes ongoing efforts that he claimed would weaken the judiciary and hobble the fight against corruption.

Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă and her Social Democrat party are targeting the country’s top public prosecutor and the National Anticorruption Directorate, an agency that prosecuted six cabinet ministers – ultimately convicting two – as well as 23 lawmakers and many mayors and managers of state-owned companies in recent years.

Earlier this year Justice Minister Tudorel Toader, a Social Democrat, dismissed the directorate’s chief prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kovesi, and initiated the dismissal of a key official in the chief prosecutor’s office, Augustin Lazăr.

The assault on justice illustrates how Romania is becoming an “illiberal” democracy like Hungary, Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries whose leaders are undercutting the legal systems, opposition parties, critics in civil society and anyone else who represents a challenge to their dominance, said experts and others.

In mid-November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that expressed deep concerns about the rule of law in Romania, particularly so-called reforms that undermined in the judiciary and National Anticorruption Directorate. EU officials have similarly criticized Hungarian and Polish leaders.

The democratic transformations in ex-communist countries like Romania, Hungary and Poland weren't complete, said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia.

“We’re dealing with some residues from the past, patterns of political culture involving authoritarian methods, nostalgia for the communist regimes, seen as ‘more just’ and the lack of experience on the side of democratic politicians,” Mesežnikov explained. “The common effect is strengthening the position of populist parties.”

Civil rights activists became concerned about Romania in January 2017 when then-Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, another Social Democrat, signed an order to decriminalize abuses in public office if the financial damage was less than $48,000. After hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Bucharest for massive protests, the government withdrew the order.

The main beneficiary would have been Social Democratic Leader Liviu Dragnea, a former interior minister who is now leader of the lower house of parliament. At that time, he was facing corruption charges involving a sum below the threshold. A panel of judges had already convicted Dragnea of electoral fraud and gave him a suspended sentenced of two years.

On Monday, President Klaus Iohannis asked Dăncilă for word of her government’s plans 24 hours before officials meet to make sure they don’t give amnesty to people imprisoned on corruption charges. Iohannis made the request after Dragnea called for such an amnesty over the weekend.

"Romania won't return to the black era of a one-party state,” said Iohannis, a former Liberal Party leader who has long said Dragnea wields too much power in the country.

The Social Democrats have proposed other laws that would undermine the fight against corruption, according to a European Commission report issued last month.

They have proposed special prosecutors to investigate allegations involving judges, a tactic that critics said would limit the freedom of expression of magistrates; a new early retirement scheme that would remove experienced judges; a new, looser definition of the abuse of power; restrictions on what judges could say from the bench and – in a move that echoed similar changes in Hungary and Poland – broader grounds for removing members of top appellate courts.

Defenders of the measures said they would prevent abuses of power among prosecutors who often work hand-in-glove with shady interests in the Romanian bureaucracy – a claim that has never been proven but which many Romanians believe.

“The rights of defendants have been violated,” said Bogdan Chireac, a former journalist who is now a political commentator on Romanian television. “There were secret protocols between judicial institutions and the former leadership of the Romanian Intelligence Service. Intelligence officers were directly involved in giving sentences.”

The pace of changes sped up after the June conviction of interior minister and Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who was sentenced for three and a half years in an abuse-of-power case. Dragnea and his allies are now pushing for an executive order that would allow the prime minister to grant him amnesty.

Other changes include forcing non-governmental organizations to report their donors or face dissolution. The could silence many government critics.

The Social Democrats appear to be rushing the measures through in part because Romania will take over the presidency of the European Union on January 1, 2019. The country will be under tremendous scrutiny from Brussels as well as powerful leaders in Europe and investors throughout the world.

“If the government would decide to grant amnesty to politicians convicted or prosecuted for corruption, and do this during the presidency, I would say that this would be worse than Brexit,” said Elena Calistru, president of Funky Citizens, a civic group based in Bucharest. “It would mean that the government decided to defy not only its citizens, but also the hope that many of them have towards a Europe that can accommodate the East as well.”

Romanians have protested the measures. In August 10, they clashed with police who fired tear gas into the demonstrations and fought with demonstrators with batons. After the event, more than 350 people filed complaints of excessive force against the police.

But the crackdown didn’t dissuade Vulcu.

“We do not lose hope of seeing them [corrupt politicians] in jail,” he said. “We want to see them where they belong, according to their deeds. If you did something wrong, you need to pay.”

Photo: February 15, 2017 - Bucharest, Romania - A group of protesters gathered in Victoria Square, to ask for the resignation of the Romanian government led by then Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu.
Credit: George Popescu/ARA Network Inc. 02/15/2017

Story/photo publish date: 12/25/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Putin speaks during press briefing: support for Donald Trump, his personal life and trivialities

putin-cc-270312-lo-00By Marc Bennetts

MOSCOW--Russian President Vladimir Putin offered both praise and biting criticism of US foreign policy at his annual press conference in Moscow Thursday, a carefully stage-managed event that is a key element in state media’s fawning portrayal of the ex-KGB officer.

Speaking for almost four hours, Mr. Putin, 66, said President Donald Trump’s intention to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, could result in the collapse of the international system of arms control.

Mr. Putin also warned that what he said were the Pentagon’s plans to develop non-nuclear ballistic missiles could inadvertently trigger World War Three.

“Just try to figure out while it’s flying, if it is nuclear or not,” he said, adding that such a situation could lead to “the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet,” he said.

Mr. Putin hailed, however, Mr. Trump’s unexpected announcement to withdraw all US troops from Syria, saying that Islamic State had been dealt a serious blow in the war-torn Middle East country. “Donald is right, I agree with him,” the Russian president said. He also said presence of US troops in Syria was illegal because President Bashar-al-Assad had not given the green light for their deployment.

State television had aired an on-screen countdown for Mr. Putin’s press conference, which was held in Moscow’s very own World Trade Center. More than 1,700 journalists were accredited for the event, which coincided with Russia’s national holiday for security service officials.

Russian journalists vied for Mr. Putin’s attention with colorful signs and other eye-catching objects. Journalists, many from the country’s remote provinces, were holding up a golden boxing glove, a large artificial hand, a photograph of a bare-chested Mr. Putin fishing, a cardboard television, a balloon, and a Russian flag. Journalists jumped excitedly to their feet after each of Mr. Putin’s answers, causing Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman who moderated the event, to appeal for calm.

Foreign media outlets were allowed to attend but only a handful were permitted to pose questions. Russian media largely avoided sensitive issues, such as a fire in a shopping mall in Kemerovo, Siberia, that took the lives of 64 people, the majority of them children, in March. The deadly blaze was blamed on the failure of local authorities to enforce fire-safety regulations, and triggered days of angry protests in the city.

There were likewise no probing questions about allegations by Britain that the Kremlin sent military intelligence officers to attempt to kill a former Russian double agent with the novichok nerve agent in England in March. Mr. Putin has said the two men accused by Britain of trying to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, are civilians. The United States was among a number of western countries to expel Russian diplomats over the incident, sparking tit-for-tat measures from Moscow.

The editor of The Insider, a Russian website that helped expose the would-be assassins as GRU military intelligence agents named Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, was barred from entering the press conference.

On Maria Butina, the alleged Russian agent suspected of attempting to influence Washington’s policies toward Moscow, Mr. Putin said there was “no reason” to jail her. Ms. Butina pleaded guilty last week to a charge of trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) on the orders of a top Russian official.

“I can say for sure that she didn't execute any state tasks, whatever she may have said under the threat of 12 to 15 years in prison,” Mr. Putin said. “I don't understand why they imprisoned her, there was no reason. We'll see how it ends. We are not indifferent to this.”

Mr. Putin also offered some unexpected, and likely unwelcome, support for Theresa May, Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, who is resisting increased calls to hold a second referendum on the country’s planned exit from the European Union in March. The Kremlin has been accused of trying to influence the initial referendum in 2016 that saw a slim majority of voters elect to leave the EU.

“The referendum happened,” Mr. Putin said. “What can she do? She should fulfil the will of her nation, as expressed at the referendum. Or it isn’t a referendum.”

Security guards removed two signs accusing the Kremlin of corruption from Dmitry Nizovtsev, a supporter of Alexei Navalny, the prominent Kremlin critic. The security guards refused to provide an explanation for the confiscation of the signs ahead of Mr. Putin’s appearance on stage.

Mr. Putin’s annual press conference, the 14th since he took power in 2000, came at the end of a year that has seen his approval ratings slump over controversial five-year increase in the national pension age. He defended the controversial decision, which sparked nationwide protests, saying rising life expectancies and an ageing population meant the unpopular move was inevitable.

Despite rising poverty triggered partly by western economic sanctions, Mr. Putin attempted to paint a rosy picture of Russia’s economic prospects. He said Russia’s gross domestic product was set to grow by 1.8 percent this year, while industrial output has grown at 3 percent.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant, said that Mr. Putin’s annual press conferences and television call-ins were an important part of his attempt to present an image of a leader “in touch with the country.”

“Demand for a strong leader among Russian voters is going down, so it’s more important to appear as a concerned leader, a leader that cares for people,” Mr. Gallyamov said. “That’s why he has to continue, although it’s already turned into a ritual without much meaning.”

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

The saga of Hatice Molla Sali: Sharia law and the Greek legal system

GREShariaATHENS, Greece – Hatice Molla Sali will discover on Wednesday, December 19 whether or not she will live in poverty in her twilight years. That’s when the European Court of Human Rights will render judgement on the 68-year-old Muslim’s case against an Islamic court in Greece that deprived her inheritance from her late husband under Sharia law.

Sali’s plight stems from a treaty Greece signed with the newly established Turkish republic in 1922. Under that agreement, the two countries agreed to respect the legal systems of their respective religions of their largest minorities – Muslims in Greece and Orthodox Christians in Turkey.

Ironically, Turkey banned Sharia law in 1923. But Greece honored the treaty, making it the only country in Europe that recognizes Sharia today. Early this year, the Greek government gave Muslim citizens an option about whether to appeal to Sharia or Greek public courts. But many of Greece’s 100,000 Muslims, mostly ethnic Turks concentrated along the Turkish border, still turn to Islamic religious judges in legal disputes.

The woman’s case highlights a peculiar legal dilemma in the cradle of Western Civilization, said Sali’s attorney, Yannis Ktistakis, who also teaches international law at the Democritus University of Thrace. “Two parallel systems can’t exist,” he said. “Only the civil code can exist, because Sharia is from its foundations opposite to European law.”

Sali’s troubles started in 2008 when Sali’s sisters-in-law disputed her right to inherit her husband's properties, including shops and apartments in Thrace and Istanbul and proceeds from successful textile business, even though she could produce his notarized last will and testament stipulating that she would be his sole heiress.

The sisters-in-law took the case to a Greek civil court, arguing that as Muslims they had the right to seek recourse with a mufti, an Islamic judge, under Sharia law. Greek lower courts decided in favor of Sali, but the country’s Supreme Administrative Court finally ruled against her, citing the 1922 treaty. A mufti then ruled that Sali should only receive one fourth of her inheritance under Sharia law while her sisters-in-law received the rest.

"Her husband decided the way he wanted his inheritance to be passed on," Ktistakis said. "The Greek court should have respected his desire."

Some Muslims in Greece oppose Sharia law, saying it doesn’t reflect human rights that Europeans are entitled to enjoy.

For parliamentarian Mustafa Mustafa, a member of the left-leaning governing party Syriza, the fight against Sharia is personal.

When Mustafa's father, Memet Mustafa, died, Memet wasn't entitled to his parents' inheritance because they had passed away when he was a minor. Instead, it should have gone to his uncles and aunts.

But, Memet's legal guardian, his great grandfather – his grandparents had also already died – made arrangements to make sure he inherited his family’s wealth.

“My great-grandfather was a wise man,” said Mustafa. “He took my father, who was still a boy, and transferred to him his part of the family property. I feel like I’m honoring my family by fighting to abolish sharia.”

Under the new law enacted this year, if one of the two Muslims in a Sharia law case prefers a civil court, then the case shall be tried in a civil court. But Mustafa still isn’t content.

“The progressive members of the minority want the definitive abolition of Saria,” he said. “The state should have solved this problem decades ago. Nevertheless, we believe our small society will solve this problem on its own.”

For decades, Greek politicians upheld the treaty with Turkey to placate Muslim leaders who promise them votes. That also suited the goals of Greek nationalists.

“For a long time, it was in the interests of the Greek government to maintain sharia for the Turkish-speaking minority because it emphasized their religious identity more than their ethnic and linguistic [Turkish] identity,” said Yuksel Sezgin, director of the Middle Eastern Studies
Program at the Syracuse University, who’s studied Sharia law in Greece and around the world.

Even if the European Court ruled in Sali’s favor, Sezgin didn’t think the Greek government should dispense with altogether with Sharia law, which is applied relatively moderately. Instead, he thought officials should discuss reforms with the Muslim community and codify Sharia law in Greece. Currently, he added, the laws aren’t written down.

The Greek government should also put Muslim judges on Greek civil courts in regions where Muslims appear before the bench regularly.

“Even in Israel there are Muslim civil judges, while India has 7 percent Muslim judges,” he said.

But simply abolishing Sharia law will probably spark a backlash, he added.

“I’m not trying to defend Sharia, but if you abolish it unilaterally it will only radicalize certain elements in the region,” Sezign said. “And although the community is so well integrated and there’s not one single case of a person going from Greece to Syria to join ISIS, under the current populist regimes, and without knowing how Erdogan might react to it, it will be like setting off a time bomb.”

Photo: Screenshot of Meco Cemali, Mufti of Komotini, Greece during an interview with Deutsche Welle for the program "Focus on Europe." Cemali said "It's important to me that Europe knows Muslims enjoy religious freedom in Greece. We don't observe the complete Sharia, only a part of the family law. We've never chopped a thief's head, or hand, off here."
Credit: Courtesy of Deutsche Welle (06/07/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/18/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Jerusalem casts shadow on Africa's Arab neighbors

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ISR251118002AG.jpegCAIRO – Israel is moving quickly to fill a security vacuum in Africa as the United States reassigns forces from terror-plagued Africa to allies on the frontiers of China and Russia.

The latest example of the shift came on November 25 when Chadian President Idriss Deby visited Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Israeli eagerness to join the fierce wars against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Africa.

“Chad is a very important country,” Netanyahu told Deby in his welcoming remarks. “It's an important country in Africa. It's an important country for Israel.”

Using Israeli technology and aid to address Chad’s security and economic development challenges were among the issues discussed by the two leaders. Chad’s army reportedly is already using Israeli satellites to eavesdrop on terror groups operating in the north of the country.

Reports have also said that Chad has purchased armored equipment from Israel, though neither Deby nor Netanyahu responded to questions about those arms sales.

The expected collaboration came after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced a 10 percent cut in troop strength for the U.S. Africa Command, saying "great-power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

Chad, like its neighbors the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Niger consistently ranks near the bottom –186 out of 189 –in the United Nations’ yearly Human Development Index of countries’ health, education and income.

Those conditions make the continent ripe for a jihadism, said African leaders who cite the rise of the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram as a sign of the ideology’s appeal. Last year, Chad joined the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, a coalition of impoverished African countries.

Israel is not a formal member of the coalition because it includes Arab League nations such as Iraq, Tunisia and Lebanon. They don’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state.

Chad severed ties with Tel Aviv in 1972 when the the Organization of African Unity urged its 53-member states to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to reclaim lost lands.

But Deby opted to come to Jerusalem anyway, saying Africa needed to forget anti-colonial rhetoric and focus on counter-terrorism efforts. “We have a shared struggle, against the sickening evil of this century, which is terrorism," said Deby at the Jerusalem press conference.
Washington may appreciate Israel’s assistance in counter terrorism training and technology in Africa.

But Arab leaders are concerned. They see Israel’s involvement in the region as an encroachment that might incite Muslim hate.

“Cooperation between Chad and Israel gives a strong pretext for extremist Islamic groups to align with the Chadian rebels to expand in Africa,” said Aadelsatar Hetieta, an Egyptian author who writes about regional conflicts like Libya and Yemen. “Israel's presence will give al-Qaeda justification and encourage further action and deployment in the countries of the continent.”

The issue especially impacts the messy security situation in Libya, said experts.

Tribal leaders in the south Libyan desert bordering Chad believe President Deby is preparing to enlist Israel in exploiting natural resources in disputed border areas where nomadic groups are involved in smuggling arms and illegal migrants.

“It is a rough terrain,” said Easa Abdelmegeed leader of the Tabu Congress, a council of non-Arab tribes concentrated in southern Libya with branches in both Chad and Niger. “But Israeli companies are seeking gold and uranium exploration in northern Chad. It’s likely Israel will be asked to help Chad’s army move out terror groups in the area and the fear here is that these elements could end up in Libya.”

Jalel Harchaoui, a geopolitics lecturer at the Université de Versailles near Paris, believed Chad’s openness to Israel came after Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia pressed Deby to cut ties with Qatar. With the US pulling back from the region, unstable Chad needed a new patron who could provide military assistance.

“France supports Chad, but that assistance is not going to grow much and, meanwhile, the U.S. military are interested in withdrawing. When you look at all those trends taken together, Chad is seeking — perhaps even begging for — new regional sponsorships,” Harchaoui said.

Chad closed its border with Libya in January in the hope of barring the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and anti-Deby militants from entering. That effort failed to stop the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic from attacking the mining town of Kouri Bougoudi in August.

“Chad is under pressure—economically, ecologically and security-wise,” said Harchaoui. “This year, a Chadian rebel group based in Libya carried out the first significant cross-border attack against Idriss Deby’s government since 2009.”

But in the capital N'Djamena, Deby’s new ally, Netanyahu, is not universally embraced.

"Chad should only resume ties with Israel after it stops its aggression against the Palestinians and end its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, especially the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem," said Mahamat-Ahmad Alhabo, leader of the opposition Freedom and Development Party, a group that has criticized Deby for human rights abuses.

In its latest report from Chad, the rights monitoring group Amnesty International called out Chadian authorities for banning peaceful assemblies and arresting activists and journalists.

“Israel is only looking after its own interests and intends to use Chad as a Trojan horse through to use as a forward base to establish ties with other African nations," Alhabo said Wednesday even as officials in neighboring Sudan denied reports by the Israeli Channel 10 claiming Jerusalem officials had secretly met with Khartoum’s top intelligence officers in Istanbul, Turkey in an effort to establish ties.

“This information is false and fabricated,” said Sudan’s Information Minister Bushara Gomaa. “We have deep and ongoing political, ideological and religious disputes with Israel.”

Outside observers tend to downplay Arab denials and objections about the growing Israeli diplomatic and security footprint in Africa.

“The United States is reducing its presence in Africa, Gadhafi is dead, and Libya is no longer an influencer in African projects nor politics,” said Frank Corsini, a global energy entrepreneur who served as an economist in the Ford White House. “I can only opine that Israel as the U.S. proxy is better than no one taking charge.”

Photo: Nov. 25, 2018 - Jerusalem, Israel - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the president of Chad, Idriss Deby. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chad President Deby met over dinner together with their entourages. Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the start of their meeting: "President Déby and I had the opportunity to discuss the relations between our two countries and the way we can cooperate for the benefit of our peoples and for peace and for security. And I'm delighted that my wife Sara and I can welcome you to our home and your delegation. We will continue our discussions and I think they are going to be very fruitful. I think the historic visit of President Déby to Israel marks a new era, a new era for security, for cooperation and for peace. I welcome you in this spirit to our home here in Jerusalem. Welcome."
Credit: Courtesy of Amos Ben-Gershom/ Government Press Office (11/25/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/12/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Macron waves white flag to "yellow vests" in a blow to the climate change movement

MacronScreenshotPARIS, France – French President Emmanuel Macron is caving to the demands of protesters who have shut down much of the country, offering wage hikes and tax cuts starting next year in what is also a retreat from his greater plan to reform the French economy.

Addressing the nation on television, Macron called the protesters’ grievances "deep, and in many ways legitimate" and asked businesses to help quell their anger.

"I would ask all employers who can, pay an end-of-year bonus to their employees," he said.

Macron’s move reflects the tense atmosphere after four consecutive weekends of violent protests throughout France that called to memory the unrest of 1968, when youths clashed with authorities.

He had already agreed not to levy a planned tax on gasoline – designed to curb carbon emissions – that sparked anger among French citizens who said it symbolized the president’s aloof approach the economy. A former banker, Macron has pursued pro-business policies that critics have said neglected ordinary people.

Analysts weren't sure his concessions would be enough.

"Macron has made some convincing gestures," said Bruno Cautrès, a political science researcher at Sciences Po University. "He spoke in a simple, modest, and less arrogant tone than we've seen. But I'm not sure it was convincing enough to change the hearts and minds of the French people."

The president’s popularity has plummeted last month to a dismal 26 percent, a remarkable decline for an outsider politician who defeated mainstream parties with the hopeful promise of outside-the-box thinking at the highest levels of power.

The Gilet Jaunes – or Yellow Jackets after the gear drivers are required to keep in their cars by law – first hit the streets in mid-November in anger over Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce carbon emissions.

But the demonstrations have become a general expression of discontent over living conditions in France, and Macron’s pro-business policies, which have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations but have yet to restrain rising living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people. Specifically, many of the protestors want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts.

The movement has no official leadership and is organized via social media. On the streets, it's comprised of young and old, urbanites and folks from the countryside. More notably, it is seemingly non-partisan.

Meanwhile, support for the movement is high: Polls suggest around three-quarters of the population supports the movement, though many people disagreed with the violence.

“I’m not against the cause, but I am completely against the way it has been carried out,” said Arnaud Dumas, 28, who works for a communications consultancy on Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris.

The Interior Ministry said 136,000 people participated in Saturday’s protests, similar to the previous week’s numbers. Police made four times the number of arrests – more than 1,700 compared to 400 the week before. Around 900 were in Paris.

Others believed the protestors known as the Gilet Jaunes were taking the necessary steps to be heard. Macron would have never slowed his reform programs if they hadn’t stood up to him, they said.

“The government did not listen to the people when there were peaceful protests,” said Christian Sourd, who owns a record shop in northeast Paris. “So clearly these tactics have worked.”

In his speech, Macron pledged to increase the minimum wage by around €110 ($125) a month, scrap taxes on overtime and stop a planned tax increase for low-income pensioners.
The concessions were significant.

But they might have been unavoidable given how the protesters had shut down the country.

The riots have undercut commerce, leading tourists to avoid downtown Paris and clogging highways and commuter train lines. French Finance Minister said the disruptions have lowered gross domestic product by 0.1 percent points. Business groups have said the country could lose a total of more than $11 million.

The losers of the 2017 election, the far left and the far right, have been trying to capitalize on the anger at the government. Far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and far right National Front chief Marine Le Pen, have been calling for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten the power of Macron’s political party, En Marche (Forward March).

Monday night’s address was the first time the French President had spoken in weeks.

Macron said he would spare “no indulgence” for protesters who had hurt people or damaged property. He also pledged to continue his policies of liberalizing the economy to make France more competitive.

"We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns," he said.

But he nonetheless appeared chastened.

“I know that I hurt some of you with my previous comments,” said Macron. “If I fought to shake up the political system, it’s because I believe in this country more than anything else.”
Photo: Screenshot from French President Emmanuel Macron's address to the nation regarding the "yellow vests" protests, on Monday December 10, 2018. He tweeted: "You will have your share in the national debate."
Credit: Courtesy of French President Emmanuel Macron's official Twitter page (12/10/18)

Story/photo publish date: 12/10/18
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Selling Brexit: Theresa May making last-ditch efforts to sell her proposed deal

TheresaMayBrexitLONDON—There are no stadiums full of placard-waving supporters for British Prime Minister Theresa May these days as she makes a last-ditch effort to sell her Brexit deal – instead, the beleaguered leader the has to make do with a much more lackluster welcome.

Case in point: In a leather factory near Glasgow Wednesday, workers carried on with their business in the background as Mrs. May conducted interviews on camera, more interested in finishing their shift than listening to the prime minister sell her vision of how the country will leave the European Union next year.

As Mrs. May continues her two-day road trip through the Celtic countries of the United Kingdom, starting at a winter fair in Wales, followed by a university in Northern Ireland and finishing up at a factory in Scotland, the many warring sides of the Brexit battle finally have something to agree on – they hate it.

She tried anyway.

Despite the government’s own economic forecasts, speaking to the factory workers in Scotland, the prime minister insisted the deal was a boon for the economy. “It’s a deal that is good for Scottish employers and will protect jobs,” she said.

But many are just not interested in hearing it.

“We’re in a bad place, the economic forecasts suggest we’re not going to be better off with this Brexit deal or any other,” said Thomas Hills, 29, a chemical engineer from North Yorkshire.

Analysts say that if Theresa May’s proposed divorce deal with the European Union goes through, “A lot of people will be left feeling angry, but then a lot of people will be left feeling angry whatever course is taken,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mrs. May’s whistle-stop tour was designed to whip up enthusiasm for her deal, which will be put to a vote in parliament on Dec. 11, but at best she has gained commiseration rather than outright support.

Brits in the town of Newry in Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU and sits near the frontier with the Republic of Ireland, told The Guardian of their sympathy for the prime minister even though they didn't like the deal.

“It means we’d still be governed by European law. And the backstop could extend to infinity and beyond. We’d be better off with no deal,” said Phil Wallace, 52, a scaffolding contractor in Northern Ireland who supports Brexit. “But I recognise she didn’t have an easy job.”

Some believe that getting the sympathy vote is part of May's strategy, especially with the lukewarm welcome she has received on this cheerleading Brexit tour.

“She is hoping to secure respect for her stoicism in seeing this through. She’s faced numerous resignations, critics, attacks, and failed leadership challenges. Yet she plods on,” said Mr. Oliver.

Meanwhile, while trying to win hearts and minds, she's still facing an uphill battle politically.

The Labour Party, the official opposition to Mrs. May’s government has said they will vote against the deal along with the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats who want the U.K. to have a second referendum and stay in the EU.

To make matters worse, the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party – who prop up Mrs. May’s minority government – are also refusing to back the deal. Close to 100 lawmakers from both wings of the prime minster’s own Conservative Party have also said they’ll vote against her.

This means it’s almost impossible for Mrs. May’s bill to advance from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, said Mr. Oliver. “The parliamentary arithmetic is too much against it.”

Meanwhile, the arrangement to be voted on Dec. 10 is not the final Brexit deal – it is the terms by which the U.K. will leave the European Union – namely the divorce bill of approximately $49 billion and the rules at the boarder between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.

The future relationship between the U.K. and EU is yet to be negotiated.

Mrs. May’s deal means the U.K. would leave the EU in March 2019 as planned and enter what is known as a transition period.

During the transition stage, the U.K. and EU would negotiate their future relationship, including trade.

“This is in itself a mine field that will drag on and which people in the U.K. have few if any ideas about,” said Mr. Oliver.

President Trump has expressed concern that the deal could mean the U.K. is tied too closely to the EU’s tariff rules to make its own trade deals with other countries such as the United States.

Mrs. May denies this. But even some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest critics here in the U.K. admit that he is correct.

The disdain for what Mrs. May has brought back from Brussels extends beyond the halls of power in Westminster. According to polling company, YouGov, the majority of Brits, regardless of their political persuasion, think May’s Brexit deal does not respect the referendum result.

But the deal’s unpopularity across the political spectrum does not necessarily translate into a desire for Mrs. May to resign.

According to more data from YouGov, just 27 percent of Brits think a different Conservative prime minister could achieve a better deal, which falls to 19 percent for a theoretical Labour prime minister.

Nevertheless, some respect her drive to carry on despite the odds and don’t see any credible alternative.

“Just because someone is bad you can’t replace them with nothing. Show me an alternative Conservative or Labour candidate who could actually slot in and do it instead. There’s no one else,” said Patrick Mason, 40, a software engineer from London.

Photo: Screenshot of UK Prime Minister Theresa May updating the House of Commons on the G20 Summit in Argentina. She told the House: "Once we leave the EU, we can and we will strike ambitious trade deals."
Credit: Courtesy of the UK Prime Minister official Twitter page (12/03/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/05/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

French stingers: Yellow jacket protests in Paris threaten Macron

MacronProtests001Paris--Vandals wrote graffiti on stores and monuments. Students lit fires in trash cans and torched cars. Demonstrators blocked major highways, gas stations and toll booths. Police shot tear gas and water cannons into crowds of angry rioters.

France's most iconic boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, was a haze of smoke and gas and screams.

"It's the hour of revolt," demonstrators chanted.

For weeks, tens of thousands of protestors called Gilets Jaunes – or Yellow Jackets after the gear drivers are required to keep in their cars by law – have been hitting the streets of Paris and other cities in France on the weekends, and now Belgium.

The Interior Ministry said almost 140,000 people participated in the protests on Saturday, down from a maximum number of more than 280,000 on Nov. 17. Three have died in incidents connected to the violence. Hundred have been injured in clashes with the police. More than 300 people are in custody on charges related to the riots. And the damage in Paris amounts to more than four million euros, Paris officials said, as they continued to clean-up the district.

Protests in various parts of France continued Monday, even as French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe held emergency talks with officials. He was scheduled to meet with protest leaders on Tuesday but representatives of the protest movement told Le Figaro newspaper they wouldn't go unless their demand to freeze new taxes are met.

President Emmanuel Macron and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, meanwhile, were determining whether or not to impose a state of emergency that would allow security forces more leeway in cracking down on rioters.

"Nothing is off-limits,” Castaner told reporters on Monday. "I am considering everything."

Paris hasn’t seen such violence since 1968, a time when social discontent among youth and a backlash from authorities reached a climax. While some in the local media are dismissing the protestors as thugs, hooligans and rightwing extremists, Macron has been caught off balance and now it's anyone's guess where the movement is going, say analysts.

"France is dancing on a volcano – we will know in a few days, after Saturday's protests and the first negotiations with the Yellow Jackets if it can avoid the explosion," said Nicolas Beytout, a political commentator and newspaper editor, writing in L'Opinion, a French daily newspaper. "For now, there is something to be worried about."

The rioters first blocked roads in mid-November anger over Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce carbon emissions.

But the demonstrations have morphed into a general expression of discontent over living conditions in France and also Macron’s pro-business policies, which have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations but have yet to restrain rising living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people as he promised before he assumed the presidency last year. Specifically, many of the protestors want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts.

"We are hungry…we don't have jobs...we want to live…stop the taxes…the people are tired of it," read one sign at the demonstration on Saturday, as people chanted "Macron, resign!"

The movement has no official leadership and is organized via social media. On the streets, it's comprised of young and old, urbanites and folks from the countryside. More notably, it is seemingly non-partisan.

"I'm here because we need more social justice," said Daniel, 62, of Paris. "It's not good, what's happening in this country…(people) are just getting poorer and poorer. But Macron, he represents the rich."

"I voted for Macron," he added, referring to elections last spring, which saw Macron's anti-establishment party, En Marche (Onward), win decisively. "I didn't want to but I was worried about the far right winning."

Meanwhile, Loic, 47, from a Paris suburb, said he usually votes conservative but when the Republicans lost in the first round of the elections, he supported the National Front. "I don't like the far right so much," he said. "But no one else was offering anything different. Things have to change here."

Support for the protestors is strong considering the disruption to the economy – the demonstrations are hitting some of the top tourist centers, shops and eateries in Paris – and also to everyday life, particularly for motorists and commuters. Polls show that three-quarters of the French approve of the movement even as the president's ratings have fallen to below one-third.

Still, at a bus stop across town from the protests in the Marais district, a sign indicated that the buses weren't running Saturday because of the protests. Would-be commuters grumbled over having their plans thwarted and their lives interrupted.

Meanwhile, analysts pointed out that the losers of the 2017 election, the far left and the far right, were trying to capitalize on the anger at the government.

Far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and far right National Front chief Marine Le Pen, both called for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten En Marche's hold on power.

But Najet, a business owner in Paris, said she doesn't want that: It is too early to judge Macron, she said.

"He's only been here a short time, we need to give him a chance," she said. "I understand why people are angry, but he didn't create this mess."

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron meeting citizens in the Le Puy-en-Velay prefecture in southern France. In response to the violent protests in the small town, Macron tweeted: "To the officers of the Préfecture du Puy-en-Velay: you experienced something terrible on Saturday. There is no justification for this violence."
Credit: Courtesy of French President Emmanuel Macron's official Twitter page (12/04/18)

Story/photo publish date: 12/03/18

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Bavaria's decades-old ruling party might lose ground in upcoming elections

DECSUSOEDERBy Austin Davis

BERLIN – When it comes to regional politics in Germany, no state is more influential than Bavaria, the nation's economic powerhouse and an unabashed conservative stronghold often compared to Texas.

But Oct. 14's election in Bavaria is expected to be a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel's policies over the past few years, and on her fellow conservatives to the south, who have repeatedly caused trouble for her since her decision to allow more than a million refugees into the country three years ago.

In fact, for the first time in decades, the conservatives in Bavaria are under threat from the far right – and from the left.
"They tried to fight fire with fire at the beginning of the year with regard to the migration crisis," said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think-tank, referring to Bavaria's conservatives. "But they're realizing that if you try to be more extreme than the extremists, it's a lost cause."

For 12 of the last 13 elections in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative sister-party of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), has ruled with an absolute majority – a rarity in German politics, where compromise and coalition building between parties is the norm.

That's allowed the CSU in Bavaria, home to famed automotive giant BMW and the Oktoberfest, to create a conservative, semi-autonomous cultural and political bubble in Germany's south. The state recently passed laws mandating that crosses be hung in all administrative buildings, much to the ire of Berlin.

But the political hegemony of the CSU will likely change Sunday: Chancellor Merkel's sister party is only polling at 33 percent, according to the latest figures from German broadcaster ZDF. That's a whopping 15 percent less than they won in the last Bavarian elections in 2013.

Meanwhile, the environmentalist Greens are polling in second at 18 percent, while the AfD is polling at 10 percent, according to the ZDF poll.

Regional elections in Germany have a huge impact on national politics, though election outcomes are often due to both local and national factors, wrote Carsten Brzeski, chief economist for ING Germany, in an analysis of the upcoming election.
But this time around, the question of what's driving the demise of the CSU in Bavaria is very clear.

"The CSU tried to make the election a kind of referendum on Merkel's stance on refugees," Brzeski said. "The continuous nagging and trouble-seeking in Berlin, initiated by the CSU, has completely turned this around."

Chancellor Merkel's conservative bloc lost over one million votes to the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in last year's federal elections, a development largely connected to the party's condemnation of her 2015 decision to open the nation's borders to over 1 million, mostly Muslim refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It was a decision that particularly affected Bavaria, a Catholic stronghold which served as the main entry point for those who traveled through the Balkans to reach Germany, said Boehnke.

That gave Bavaria and the CSU "a special role to play as to how to cope with this," he said. "They don't only reject free-floating migration, but also were the first victims who were subject to this new trend."

With refugees a hot-button issue in the state and the AfD gaining ground, the CSU – which forms a government in Berlin with Chancellor Merkel's CDU and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) – sought to move refugee and immigration policy to the right in order to assert their dominance.

In doing so, however, they almost toppled Merkel's already-fragile coalition multiple times in recent months.

In June, CSU party chairman and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer threatened to order German police to turn away refugees at the Bavarian-Austrian border without Berlin's blessing. Such a move would have undermined Merkel's authority and shattered her coalition. She was forced to hold an emergency summit on asylum policy with European partners in order to calm her unruly sister party.

Intergovernmental tensions spiked again in September, when two refugees allegedly murdered a German-Cuban man in the eastern city of Chemnitz, prompting riots and right-wing violence that lasted for a week.

Such acts were caught on video, but dismissed by the head of the nation's domestic security unit, sparking public outrage and calls for his resignation. Being a close ally of Seehofer's, however, he was instead given an interior ministry posting – once again demonstrating how the CSU continues to "hijack" the government in Berlin in order to win back votes locally, wrote Brzeski.

The CSU's abysmal numbers ahead of the Bavarian elections indicate that voters are tired of their political meddling in Berlin – a positive signal for an embattled Chancellor Merkel who's struggling to keep her government together, said Boehnke.

"They cannot play the blame-Merkel card too excessively," he said. "They tried to make her a boogeyman, but there's not much to this."

But the suspected outcome of Sunday's elections is also indicative of a larger trend of political fragmentation in Germany, said Georg Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

With both the Greens and the AfD strengthened by voter dissatisfaction with mainstream parties on both the local and federal level, a more segmented political environment is taking hold in Germany that will ultimately put the nation in the same precarious political situation as once-stable nations like Sweden and Austria.

"We're currently seeing a break down of society, or at the very least in this case a breakdown of large political milieus into many smaller ones," said Neugebauer.

Such a consequential political trend has expanded the scope of how an election in Germany's Texas can impact the nation and beyond.

"Things are changing on a bigger scale – and Bavaria is a perfect example," said Boehnke. "The political system is on the move."

Photo: Würzburg, Germany - Minister President of Bavaria Markus Söder (CSU) at a CSU party rally in Würzburg, Germany.
Credit: Courtesy of Christian Social Union's official Twitter page (10/09/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 10/11/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times.

Refugee children in Greece are still out of school

GRE040918NA06ATHENS, Greece – Sixteen-year-old Abdul Rashid will attend school for the first time in Greece this month, even though the Afghan refugee has been in the country for almost three years.

He says he expects it to be tough.

“It's very important to learn the language of the country you're living in,” Rashid said in English. “So now I'm learning Greek. But it's very difficult. It's very different from our language.”

As parents and kids return to school in Greece – and around the world – thousands of children that arrived in the Mediterranean country during the refugees crisis that began three years ago have been staying home, whether in an apartment, house or a shipping containers in a refugee camp.

Four out of 10 children between five and 17 years old weren't enrolled in school in Greece, according to a UNHCR report on refugee children’s education. Sixteen and 17-year-olds had the worst enrollment rate, with only four out of 10 enrolled, while only one out of 10 children living on the Greek islands was enrolled in school.

Rashid hadn't gone to school since leaving Afghanistan. When he first arrived in Greece he was trying to reach Germany with his family, where his brother was already living. But he got stuck in Idomeni, a Greek town on the Macedonian border, in 2016 when the EU shut down the free flow of migrants through the Western Balkans – starting in 2015, more than a million refugees flowed into Europe.

He spent a year expecting to be reunified with his brother in Germany but the reunification program, according to UNHCR numbers, has been virtually frozen this year.

As another year passed, Rashid didn't know he could attend public school in Greece or even how to enroll because no one provided him with that information.

His plight is common.

Half of the world’s refugees are children, according to a UNICEF. Of those who are school age, more than half are not in the classroom. That means 4 million children around the world are out of school. Last year, the number of out-of-school refugee children increased by 500,000, UNICEF report published last month said.

Germany and Italy, which along with Greece, have taken the lion's share of refugees arriving in Europe. While Italy is still lagging behind in processing the new arrivals or getting the children into school, Germany has recognized it’s a problem and tried to integrate the kids into the classroom with special help to address their unique needs. It's had mixed success so far.

In Greece, experts are hopeful that more children will attend school this year. They said the Greek government's policy is now to integrate and school these children.

Even so, the Greek Ministry of Education didn't have numbers available on how many refugees enrolled in school this year.

“We're expecting an increase in the teenagers that have enrolled and that's thanks to (the ministry appointing) new education coordinators for refugees and the NGOs that helped refugees with the paperwork in order to enroll,” said Savas Kalokairinos, a social worker for Elix, a Greek non-government organization where Rashid has been taking Greek language courses this summer.

Elix caters to 2,500 refugee children and their parents, offering them Greek, English, Math, and Physics courses.

There are still plenty of hurdles to refugee children's education, like red tape and teachers who don’t know how to teach Greek as a second language. But also, many migrants are highly mobile and move from place to place – from camps to apartments in different cities in the middle of the school year. Others find smugglers and continue their journey to Western Europe.

Parents often don’t facilitate their children’s education, either.

“Some 70 percent of the parents have never entered a school in their lives, so it's hard for them to teach their children how to behave in school, said Kalokairinos.

In Eleonas, one of the refugee camps in Athens, Fariba Khodadadi, 9, switches from English to Greek easily and sometimes uses both languages in one sentence. Khodadadi looks forward to starting school this month for a second year at the 87th Public Elementary School of Athens, where her favorite subjects are math and Greek.

Starting this month, every day, International Organization for Migration school buses will arrive at the Eleonas refugee camp to take Khodadadi and the 133 other kids living to nearby schools.

For the first time in her life, Khodadadi went to school last year in Greece. She started walking her way from Afghanistan to Europe with her family, before she was even of school age. “It was cold, and my legs hurt,” Khodadadi said. “I was five years old.”

She tries to explain how her family had to leave Afghanistan because of violence. She gestures digging, placing something in the area she's dug, and then shouts “Bam!” and spreads her arms toward the sky to imitate a bomb explosion. Then she goes back to highlighting in green the vowels and in pink the consonants of a page in Greek she's found.

Teachers at the camp said NGOs like Elix have been crucial in helping kids learn.

But because the funding for the Elix program ends in December – European Union funds for the program will go to the Greek government – many refugees hope their experiences in Greek schools will be positive.

Rashid isn't afraid.

“I'm going to make it,” said Rashid, highlighting that someday, he wants to become a journalist. “Here it's good. There's peace. In Afghanistan we'd know that there was a war going on by looking outside our home before leaving for school. If there was no one on the streets, we wouldn't go to school that day.”

Photo: ATHENS, GREECE. Refugee children learn Greek at Eleonas refugee camp and one of the six educational centers, run by Elix, a Greek NGO that caters to 2,500 refugee children and adults. Elix offers supportive classes to refugee children that go to Greek public school, as well as their parents.
Credit: Nikolia Apostolou/ ARA Network Inc. 09/04/2018

Story/photo publish date: 10/01/18

A version of this story was published by USA Today.

Young Brits ditch tea time

GBR190918BP003LONDON—The British are known for tradition – they will often tell you it’s what they do best: The queen, stiff upper lip and a unique sense of humor.

But now, one of the realm’s oldest pastimes – drinking tea – is now coming under threat: Brits are eschewing their traditional cup of strong, black tea with a dash of milk in favor of trendier, herbal infusions instead.

In fact, British tea consumption fell by 5.9 million pounds in weight compared to last year, according to recent data compiled by the consultancy firm Kantar Worldpanel. That equates to about 870 million fewer cups of tea in the nation of 65 million.

“It’s an older demographic that drinks tea,” said Chris Hayward, a consumer specialist at Kantar Worldpanel. “The classic English breakfast tea is in a challenging place.”

The younger generations are fed up with the same old concoction, and are driving the trend.

“I drink ginger tea,” said Stephanie Fowler, a 29-year-old fulltime mom from North Yorkshire. “It’s much more refreshing than black tea.”

“It’s more trendy, it’s different and I think herbal teas and green teas are marketed as being good for you in terms of antioxidants,” added Ms. Fowler.

Major tea brands have noticed.

The market is deteriorating, conceded Ben Newbury, senior brand manager at Yorkshire Tea, a company best-known in the United Kingdom for its luxury black tea blend “Yorkshire Gold.”

But he insists there’s still life in the old brew yet.

“Traditional black tea remains extremely popular and is still loved by the nation," he said. "But today’s consumer has a huge amount of choice when it comes to drinks.”

Still, while Mr. Newbury is correct that the British still drink an awful lot of tea – only the Turkish and Irish drink more per capita – that love is fading: Back in 1974, Brits were drinking an incredible 23 cups of tea a week. These days that figure is closer to an average of just 10 cups a week, according to Mr. Hayward.

So what gives? Ms. Fowler said it’s about health. “I think people are more aware of their caffeine consumption, which I think has driven a lot of people to swap,” she said.

It’s also about a change in culture, said Mr. Hayward. Fewer Brits are taking the time to sit down for breakfast and are instead rushing out the door in the morning. That’s a problem because breakfast is when the majority of traditional tea used to be consumed, said Mr. Hayward.

“We’re more of a grab and go culture now,” he added.

For example, loose leaf tea, which requires more effort to brew, is plummeting out of favor much quicker than the more convenient tea bag. Loose leaf tea purchases have fallen by 11 percent compared to last year.

But like almost everything else in the U.K. at the moment, there’s a Brexit angle to this too.

Brexit supporters are sticking to the conventional cuppa.

Those in favor of quitting the European Union buy on average 20 percent more traditional tea than those who voted to stay, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

That’s not too surprising when you consider the demographics of Brexit, analysts say: Age was one of the biggest fault lines between the two camps. Black tea drinkers are more likely to be older and that chimes with the age dynamics of those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Meanwhile, Remain supporters are 27 percent more likely to buy champagne and prosecco.

That’s where black tea’s problem lies, say observers: It has to appeal to the younger, trend conscious, champagne-quaffing, remain-voting Brits if it wants to stem the decades of decline.

To do that, the tea industry need look no further than another British staple: Gin.

Not too long ago, gin used to suffer from a tough PR image – seen as a stuffy old woman’s drink. Now, gin consumption is on the rise, and it has now become the hipster’s beverage of choice.

Tea, take note.

“Look at the renaissance of gin in this country,” said Mr. Hayward. “It’s now our most popular spirit again and that’s because it’s gone high end.”

He says tea brands need to diversify and become more luxurious to flourish again.

Ordinary gins are still challenged, he said. “But when you’ve got something that’s well branded at a premium then it’s relevant to the consumer,” he said.

Mr. Newbury says Yorkshire Tea has recognized this new reality, which is why his is the only major black tea brand in the U.K. to still enjoy growth.

“We know that consumers are mixing up their drinks repertoires and this was the inspiration behind our recently introduced range of specialty brews; Breakfast Brew, Bedtime Brew and Biscuit Brew.”

Tea drinking may be less popular, he added, but the British don’t give up on tradition easily: “We’re still a nation of tea drinkers.”

Photo: Sept. 14, 2018 – London, United Kingdom – Outside of Fortnum & Mason in central London, a supplier of tea to Buckingham Palace.
Credit: Benjamin Plackett/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: September 25, 2018

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times.

Russian torture video goes viral, prompts outrage, soul searching

RUS-tortureMOSCOW - Ruslan Vakharov was in a punishment cell at a penal colony in central Russia’s Yaroslavl region when around a dozen prison guards led a fellow inmate into the neighboring cell and began torturing him.

“I heard him screaming, and saw how the prison guards were taking breaks in between taking turns to beat him – they tortured him for at least 40 minutes,” said Mr. Vakharov, who was released from the penal colony in March.

The torture session occurred in June 2017, but its brutal details only became known to the outside world this July, when a 10-minute video was published by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian opposition newspaper. The video, which was recorded by a body-mounted camera worn by a prison guard, was given to the newspaper by Irina Biryukova, a lawyer for Public Verdict Foundation, an independent Russian human rights organization. Ms. Biryukova refused to reveal how she obtained the harrowing footage.

In the video, a man identified as Yevgeny Makarov is pinned to a table by prison guards, while others strike him repeatedly with batons on his legs and the soles of his feet. Mr. Makarov, who was handcuffed, screams with pain and begs for mercy. From conservations audible in the video, it appears that the inmate was tortured as punishment for swearing at a prison guard. Mr. Makarov, who is still behind bars, but has been transferred to a different penal colony, says the guards also waterboarded him.

The video triggered the arrests of six of the guards involved in beating Mr. Makarov, while seventeen officials have been dismissed from their posts. In August, the incident was discussed at the United Nations, where the UN Committee against Torture ordered Russia to report back next year on the prosecutions of those responsible for the brutality. The UN committee also said Russia should do everything to protect Mr. Makarov and Ms. Biryukova from possible reprisals. Ms. Biryukova fled Russia after receiving death threats.

The UN committee also demanded to know how Russia was investigating the death of Valeri Pshenichny, a 56-year-old businessman, who was found hanging in his cell in St. Petersburg in February. Medical experts ruled out suicide.

“Electric shock burns from a hot-water boiler cord were found in his mouth. Cuts and stab wounds on his body. A broken spine,” reported Novaya Gazeta, the opposition newspaper. “In short, he was tortured.” He was also raped before his death, medical reports said.

Mr. Pshenichny was arrested in January at the apartment he shared with his wife, Natalia. Police were said to have told him that he would have no further use for his business suits. “An investigator told him he would need a two meter-long grave,” Ms. Pshenichny said. Human rights groups believe he was killed after he refused to pay off corrupt officials. Before his death, Mr. Pshenichny managed to smuggle out of prison a note that read: “Don’t pay anyone anything.” No one has been charged over his death.

Russia has some of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with only the United States jailing more people annually among G20 countries. Some 600,000 people are held in nearly 1,000 prisons and detention facilities across Russia. Reports of torture are frequent, but video evidence of violence at penal colonies is rare.

After the video of Mr. Makarov’s ordeal was published, Russia’s Federal Prison Service promised to launch a nationwide inspection of correctional facilities. But human rights activists have little faith in such statements.

“Inspections do not uncover violations. But if a (torture) scandal gets too big, then charges will be bought, but the investigation will be focused on two things – who leaked the information and who will be the scapegoat?” said Olga Romanova, the director of Rus Sidyashchaya, a prisoners’ rights organization

Ex-inmates such as Mr. Vakharov are also skeptical that anything will change. “In Russian penal colonies, torture isn’t an exception to the rule, it is the system. This goes on every day, every week, every month,” he said.

Mr. Vakharov served five and a half years behind bars after being arrested while urinating at the side of a road. Police charged him with exposing himself to a minor, because there were children nearby, and demanded a bribe to ensure he received a suspended sentence. He refused to pay up, and complained to the authorities, something he believes contributed to his alleged ill-treatment behind bars. “Prison guards beat me because I stood up for my rights,” said Mr. Vakharov.

Torture within Russia’s penitentiary system is one of the issues that has led to the dramatic worsening of relations between Moscow and Washington. In 2012, the United States passed a law known as the Magnitsky Act, which gives Washington powers to impose financial and visa sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. The law was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was allegedly tortured to death in a Moscow prison after accusing interior ministry officials of tax fraud.

Ms. Romanova, the prisoners’ rights advocate, says that only mass dismissals of penal colony staff and officials will eradicate the culture of torture in Russian penal colonies. She also says that many Russians are indifferent toward torture allegations in penal colonies, which are known collectively as the Zone.

“They torture people, beat them, and kill them in the Zone,” she said. “(But most people think), 'Well, prison isn’t a health camp. And, anyway, how else should they be treated?'”

Photo: A screenshot from a 10-minute-video obtained by Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper showing several guards from the Federal Penitentiary Service in Yaroslavl, Russia allegedly torturing prisoner Evgeny Makarov on June 2017. Guards used fists, rubber batons, and one was seen pouring water on the prisoner's face.

Story/photo publish date: 9/18/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times


The French to Macron: ne plus ça change

Macron WorkPARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron recently told a class of sixth-grade students in Laval in western France that he he was having a tough time in his job.

“Some days are easy,” he said. “Others are not.”

The difficult days have particularly piled up in the last few weeks.

Slumping approval ratings, unplanned cabinet reshuffles, growing skepticism of his planned reforms and his so-called “Jupiterian" approach to government, a term Macron adopted during his campaign to describe his goal of reshaping French society, have taken the shine off the 40-year-old presidency 16 months after he won office.

The French are divided on whether Macron will achieve his ambitious reform plan, which include loosening labor laws, boosting innovation and reducing bureaucracy. But they agree that he will have to reconnect with the people of France if he wants another shot at re-election in 2022.

“He’s young, ambitious and keen on shaking things up in this country,” said retired postal worker Annick De Oliveira, 61. “But I don’t see him as someone who is close to the people. He’s anything but humble.”

Marcon, for example, made an off-the-cuff remark – “Gauls who are resistant to change” –during a visit to Denmark in August, landing him in hot water at home, where his comment was widely deemed arrogant and interpreted as an insult to French identity.

A few days later, Macron’s approval rating plunged to 31 percent, according to French polling firm Ifop, making him more unpopular than his one-term predecessor Francois Hollande at the same point in office.

Those ratings also reflected dismay among citizens over a scandal involving one of his closest security officers, who was filmed while assaulting demonstrators during a May Day rally in Paris.

The embarrassment diverted attention from a wave of economic reforms he proposed after France’s traditional summer break in August.

Macron also had to deal with an unexpected cabinet reshuffle in late August after the dramatic exit of Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, who resigned during a live radio interview without informing Macron first.

Hulot, a popular politician and green activist, said he was frustrated by the "small steps" the government was taking to deal with climate change. "This subject is always relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities,” he said in the interview.

The departure of Hulot was widely regarded as a major blow to Macron, who has tried to portray himself as a moderate who wants to both reform France’s economy but also address climate change.

A week later, Sports Minister Laura Flessel said she was resigning from the government for "personal reasons.” Macron replaced here with former backstroke swimming champion Roxana Maracineanu.

At first, voters backed Macron’s pro-business reform plan, expecting it to boost growth and jobs.

Voters largely sided with Macron when he announced controversial cuts and reforms to indebted railway operator SNCF, which sparked months of strikes, according to polls. They were finally approved in June.

Economic growth, however, has been more sluggish than Macron hoped in recent months, however, particularly among lower-income families, sparking criticism that Macron’s policies favored big business and the wealthy.

An Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll in Le Figaro newspaper showed that three-quarters of French people perceived the former investment banker as “the president of the rich” just a year into office.

Macron’s main problem is that his reforms don’t appear yet to have tangible effects on people’s everyday lives. Many voters fear his changes will end up hitting their pensions, their jobs and their purchasing power.

“The French are critical because the reforms keep accumulating without a corresponding improvement in the quality of life,” said Philippe Waechter, director of economic research at Ostrum Asset Management in Paris. “They don’t understand how reforms will change their life for the better.”

Businesses are also bridling under his reforms.

A planned reform of the revenue tax, which will mandate pay-as-you-earn monthly deductions for employees from 2019 in a bid to simplify tax collection, has reportedly run into technical troubles amid concerns that many French companies are not ready to implement it. Stories of employees paying workers’ taxes twice or paying for the wrong people have also surfaced.

If Gauls don’t like change, they’ll have plenty of reasons to dislike the new tax system even if it works, potentially sending Macron’s popularity ratings even lower.

“Will the reform create the conditions to improve everyone’s situation after the initial psychological shock the French will experience at the sight of their pay slip in January?” Waechter asked. “Will everyone see an improvement in their life quality, or will they find a reason to be critical?”

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron meeting workers during visit in Loire-Atlantique and Morbihan. Credit: Courtesy of the French government, 6/1/17
Story/photo publish date: 9/11/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times

Frenemies: Diverging German-American interests

DE240718EB001BERLIN – From trade to defense and every policy in between, Germany appears to be President Donald Trump's favorite frenemy as of late.

It's a startling development for Germany, the posterchild of the social and economic order that the United States established after World War Two.

Now, just a year and a half into the Trump presidency, anti-Americanism is on the rise here and German-American interests are quickly diverging, said analysts. As Europe's economic engine and ideological compass, longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German leaders must walk a fine line to preserve a rapidly changing transatlantic relationship, they added.

"There's still an undercurrent of security and economic relations that will prevail," said Henning Riecke, head of the USA/Transatlantic Relations Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. But "this is certainly a changed transatlantic relationship."

Germans are puzzled by the sharp turn in their relationship with the United States. The past few months having been particularly contentious.

In June, President Trump tweeted out a raft of falsehoods about rising crime rates in Germany, placing blame on Merkel's 2015 decision to provide almost 1 million refugees safe haven in Germany.

The following month, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, normally a quiet event between committed allies, the American president lambasted Germany over its anemic defense spending, its unbalanced trade relationship with the United States, and its controversial energy dealings with Russia – even going so far as to call Germany Russia's "captive."

"There's a German feeling that Trump is singling out Germany because he perceives that Germany is his prime opponent in the West," said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "We really don't know what to do about it except to be patient."

But patience can only go so far in a country where citizens feel scorned by a longtime benefactor and close ally.
Germans used to cherish their special relationship with the United States. Americans helped end both communism and fascism in the country in the 20th Century.

But Trump's constant vilification has crossed a line.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 56 percent of Germans thought US-German relations were bad and only 11 percent expressed confidence in the New York real estate mogul and former reality television star – a nose dive in figures from the heyday of the Obama years, when 80 percent were confident in the American president.

The poll led to calls for normally stoic German Chancellor Angela Merkel to confront Trump in order to preserve the Western order.
"Merkel needs to act with more strength against Trump," said Jörg Dobers, 49, a pharmaceutical representative in Berlin. "She has no other choice – she just has to do it. We need to make Trump much more conscious of his actions."

While Merkel has heeded the call in some respect, calling on Europe to "take its destiny into its hands" and pushing against American disapproval to foster economic relations with both Iran and Russia, Germany might not be able to break with its longtime ally.

For all its economic might, German success remains deeply intertwined with that of the United States, especially when it comes to trade and security. The United States remains the largest market for German exports, and Germany's anemic spending on defense makes it no match to any foreign aggressor looking for a fight.

Ultimately, Germany must tread lightly on remolding the trans-Atlantic relationship. That means heeding Trumps calls to boost defense spending, while at the same time working toward integrating more countries into the rules-based Western order despite President Trump's work to do the opposite, said Riecke.

"Whenever politicians say that we need to take our fate into our own hands, that doesn't mean we need to break with America," he said.
Doing so would signal that "Germany is ready to pick up the task" of dealing with 21st Century problems facing the globe – like Russian aggression, climate change, migration issues and the rise of right-wing extremism – without giving into "the furor of anti-American rhetoric," said Gressel.

"It would give the German electorate a bit more reassurance that in spite of the difficult times and the Trump situation, that Germany is ripe and ready," he said. "Trump is unpredictable, but any Trump successor would rather deal with a Germany that can do more on its own, than with a Germany that's still passively waiting on what Washington does."

Photo: Promotional items advertised on the official Twitter page of the German delegation to NATO. The post says: "Now that the #NATOSummit is over, have a guess which of our promotional items made it beyond the test phase: The quote mug, the tote bag or the copy-cat hat?"
Credit: Courtesy from the official Twitter page of the German delegation to NATO (07/24/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 09/10/2018

A version of this story was published in Occupy.com.

Amal, Berlin! guides refugees settling in Germany

May 31, 2018 - Berlin, Germany - Khalid Al Aboud, 33, works on finishing up the day's news items for the Amal, Berlin! website, a digital outlet that publishes local news about Berlin and Germany in Arabic and Farsi. Khalid originally came to Germany in 2014 with the German branch of Reporters without Borders, which helped him file for asylum once he arrived. After a short stint at German public broadcaster Radio Brandenburg-Berlin, Abud joined Amal, Berlin! in 2016, where he tries to contextualize the current political climate in Germany with cultural comparisons, like how the Ba'ath Party stacks up to Germany's right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD. (Photo: Austin Davis|ARA Network Inc.)BERLIN – In the early decades of the 20th century, Egyptian and Palestinian authors like Jurji Zaydan, Georges Henein and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra drew on the history of the Middle East and the energy of postcolonial Arab states to imagine cosmopolitan futures for their societies.

Zaydan, for example, known as one of the first thinkers of Arab nationalism, envisioned a postcolonial Egypt that would merge with Syria as a single nation. In vignettes found shortly after his death in 1914, he imagined a country where women would shed their veils and enjoy the same indulgences as men. Other writers played off of the greatness of the pharaohs and envisioned a future Egypt that would lead the world in science and technology in the 21st century.

Those grand, utopic visions didn't materialize. But that hasn’t stopped modern Arab authors, filmmakers and cartoonists from offering new visions for the Arab world.

Some of those visions were explored at a recent forum in Berlin organized by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), an independent initiative based in Beirut that funds organizations and individual artists in cinema, performing arts, literature, music and visual arts. The forum, called “Imagining the Future: The Arab World in the Aftermath of Revolution,” was held here on June 9 and 10 at the Archive Kabinett publishing house and exhibition space in the predominately Arab and Turkish neighborhood of Wedding.

Open to the public and simultaneously translated between Arabic and English, AFAC invited prominent Arab artists and scholars like the writer and translator Haytham El-Wardany to attend the forum to discuss the ways in which contemporary interpretations of future Arab societies are in dialogue with those of generations past.

Whether grim, mundane or surreal, modern Arab artists' interpretations of future societies depart from the nostalgic and utopian visions of their predecessors in order to stoke thoughtful dialogue about the present.

"Reality opens up, and humans become a part of the universal storm around them," said El-Wardany, who was born in Cairo and currently lives in Berlin. "In the position of utopia, we give up the standpoint of controlling reality."

Presentations ranged from close readings of prominent authors like Henein and Zaydan to screenings of modern films depicting haunting Arab futures.

One such film, In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2015), part science-fiction and part political commentary, by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour, combines live-action and computer-generated imagery to tell the story of a future resistance group in an unknown land. The fictional group embeds porcelain shards laced with DNA in the earth in order to influence the course of history and support a fictional civilization's future claims over their vanishing homeland.

An homage to the conflicting narratives of homeland playing out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sansour plays with arguments of national identity and symbolic ownership of homeland on both sides of the debate. Science-fiction is used to address how history and the archaeological record can be harnessed to support either side’s argument in the conflict.
Such controversial depictions of a future Palestine mired in identity politics and historical meddling are a far cry from the hopes of author and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra for a cosmopolitan Palestinian society in the early decades of the 20th century, said Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, an associate professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the American University of Beirut.

Born in 1919 in Bethlehem – shortly after the pivotal Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave momentum to the drive for a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine – Jabra wrote captivating autobiographical narratives of Palestinian life before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In doing so, he alluded to what a diverse Palestinian state could be, said Mejcher-Atassi during a presentation on Jabra on the first day of the conference here.

Even his correspondences with the intelligentsia of Jerusalem in the 1940s and thereafter – after being forced to leave his homeland and resettle in Baghdad, where he died in 1994 – show that Jabra clung to hope for a cosmopolitan and peaceful future in Palestine.

That hope, however, became more fleeting the longer he lived in exile, as shown through his later works of fiction, said Mejcher-Atassi.

"He placed too much hope in intellectuals," she said. "His novel, In Search of Walid Masoud (1978), doesn't breed hope anymore, but rather is more realistic of the situation – the protagonist disappears, but what role does he play in society when he returns?"

Modern Arab authors, hardened by the persistence of authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, haven't been as green in their depictions of the future in the Arab world. Rather than depicting shining utopias or catastrophic dystopias, many instead envision future Arab societies caught up in the trappings of Western capitalism.

Reading from the last chapter of his novel Women of Karantina (2014) on the first day of the conference, Egyptian writer and journalist Nael Eltoukhy imagines an absurd near-future in Egypt in which capitalist ambitions have led to the construction of novelty tunnels cutting through the earth like Swiss cheese, which serve almost as amusement park rides for the highest bidder.

Instead of adhering to a common utopia-dystopia dichotomy, Eltoukhy presents political commentary by depicting "a future that doesn't look like a future" in which people are increasingly oblivious of how they're being influenced by others.

"All of the tacky scenes of government officials, the tacky press headlines, the smug governor and the media. … People will never change," he said. "People will stay stupid."

But imagining a world so caught up in mundanity and stupidity, said Eltoukhy, is comforting in a way, given the oppressive reality on the ground in many Arab states today.

"I didn't want to look back to reflect on a past that represents a golden past, and I didn't want a protagonist that everyone likes," he said. "I have a small girl, and I like imagining her with her grandchildren around her, just living a normal life. Everyone likes to imagine the paranormal, these superhumans," he added. "I like to imagine these normal things."

A version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media.

Family of slain man in Greek island still awaiting justice

Bakari Henderson, a 22-year-old Arizona University graduate, killed in Zakynthos, Greece, on July 7, 2017. (Courtesy of the Henderson Family)ATHENS – The alleged killers of Bakari Henderson, a 22-year-old Texan beaten to death on the Greek island of Zakinthos a year ago this month, are slated to go to trial in the fall as the family continues to wait for justice.

The trial, which has yet to be assigned a start date, is expected to raise issues of racism and anti-Americanism in Europe.

Henderson died outside a bar on July 7 last year at the tourist resort of Laganas when a Serbian woman took a selfie with him and his friend.

A man labeled as one of the defendants – whose identities largely remain protected due to European privacy laws – then approached the woman.

“There are so many Serbs in this bar,” said the man, according to the April indictment obtained by USA Today recently. “Why are you talking to a black guy?”

The man then threw a glass at a table in front of the Serbian woman. When Henderson talked back to the man, the defendant slapped him. Henderson reacted by punching him and hitting him with a beer bottle, according to the indictment.

Later, while exiting the bar, Henderson called at the defendants: “Come here, come.”

The group reacted by throwing different objects at him, then following him and fatally assaulting him. In an 11-second attack, they struck him 33 times, court papers said.

The Greek coroner concluded that the death occurred from brain injuries that occurred from a solid object. The indictment alleged that Henderson suffered repeated, severe kicks and punches to his head, neck, and torso. One of the defendants, a 34-year-old male, was using brass-knuckles to hit Henderson, according to the indictment.

The Misdemeanors Board of Zakinthos, a three-judge panel on the island, ruled that seven of the nine co-defendants must remain in prison until they’re found guilty or innocent. Two other defendants were set free but must also stand trial.

Henderson had just graduated from the University of Arizona, where he majored in finance and entrepreneurship. He was launching a line of casual sportswear and was in Zakinthos for a photoshoot. Just hours after his death, he was supposed to board a plane to Spain to shoot a promotional video for his clothing line.

His family in Texas believe he was targeted due to his race and nationality.

“I hate to assume,” said Jill Henderson, Bakari’s mother, from her home in Texas. “But it felt like it started as anti-American and then escalated into a hate crime because he was African-American. But, of course, we have to hear what they (the defendants) say about it.”

Henderson and two friends were in the bar but only he was targeted by the defendants.

The Henderson family plans to travel to Greece in the fall, where the trial will take place at the Mixed Jury Court of Patras, a southern Greek city. The jury will be made of three judges and four citizens. The defendants face charges of first-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in Greece.

The Greek lawyer for the Hendersons’, Andreas Patsis, believes justice will favor Bakari.

“That’s why the trial will hold surprises,” said Patsis. “We’ll find out the true motives of the killing during the trial – there are already hints of strong anti-Americanism sentiment among the Serbians involved. Despite how there was no provocation, the Serbs attacked Bakari and focused only on him, who was an African-American.”

But the lawyer representing the 34-year-old defendant accused of using brass knuckles disputed Patsis' version of the events.

“For us the indictment has positive parts,” said Thanasis Tartis, the lawyer of the 34-year-old who admits to punching Henderson three to four times with his left hand. “The indictment accepts that my client was using his left arm, his weak arm, to hit the young man, because his right arm was broken in a cast. So my client couldn’t have had enough strength with his weak arm to cause life-threatening injuries. For us, it’s a matter of proving that he wasn’t carrying any object in his hand.”

Meanwhile, the tourist season has started in Greece, also in Laganas, where tourists flock to take advantage of the sun and weeklong package deals from Serbia and the UK for just $300, including happy hours with $1.25 drinks.

“I’ve never sold drinks so cheap because it’s impossible to even communicate with the clients after a while,” said Giannis Aridakis-Kefallinos, owner of the Ocean Inn bar in Zakinthos.

Still, he said despite all the partying, he believes things are changing in Laganas following Henderson’s death.

“There’s more policing," he said. "Instead of bouncers, there are more licensed security guards, and the police have gone after those trying to illegally sell laughing gas to tourists trying to get high.”

Back in Texas, the Henderson family waits for justice. They have also created a foundation in honor of their son, with proceeds of Bakari’s clothing line to be donated to the Bakari Foundation.

“The foundation’s cause is to help families similar to ours that lost loved-ones in a tragic situation,” said Jill Henderson. “We provide to them the travel experience abroad, so they can have time together to start their healing process, but also help them with council services, legal fees, and things like that.”

A version of this story can be found on USA Today.

French people are slowly saying goodbye to cigarettes

In France, cigarette packages are required to be a drab dark green, with the brand written plainly. The packs also must contain a health warning and often have a photo illustrating the dangers of smoking. Here is a pack of Marlboro Red bought in Paris with a health warning reading, "Smoking causes nine out of 10 cancers of the lung." (Photo: Jabeen Bhatti|ARA Network Inc.)PARIS – The glamorous image of cool Parisians lighting up a Gauloises while lounging at a street-side café may soon go up in smoke.

The French government is stubbing out the country’s love affair with tobacco.

"In France, tobacco kills 200 people every day,” said Health Minister Agnès Buzyn. “We need to continue this fight against one of the biggest scourges of public health.”

In recent years, France has moved to feature gruesome photos of diseased lungs on cigarette packs while also forcing companies to take brands off the covers and other deterrent measures such as government reimbursement of cessation aids. Steep taxes have pushed a pack of cigarettes to around $9 and to $12 by 2020.

The measures appear to be working.

The number of people smoking on a daily basis in France dropped from 13.2 million to 12.2 million from 2016 to 2017, according to recent French Health Ministry figures.

Still, the same data showed that 27 percent of the French continue to light up daily, a number that is among the highest rates of smoking in the European Union.

Around 14 percent of the US population smokes cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

“We must drop down to the rates of Anglo-Saxon countries, to around 15-16 percent,” said Buzyn.

But that’s not an easy goal in France, since it would mean changing the long-entrenched café culture the French seem reluctant to give up.

Tucked in the residential neighborhood behind Montmartre Hill – a neighborhood once frequented by artists like Pablo Picasso – La Renaissance is a 1930s-era café known among locals for its laid-back atmosphere and among movie buffs for appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglorious Basterds.”

No matter the weather, the outdoor tables are always packed with customers puffing away while chatting with friends or watching the world go by.

Since smoking was outlawed inside public spaces in 2007, and smokers have had to light up outside on the terrace, though some venues allow smokers to indulge in their habit inside after officially closing for the day.

“Smoking is one of life’s pleasures, and part of the ritual of meeting among friends,” said Benjamin Gourio, 44, who works in communications and said he has no plans to give up his two-pack-a-day habit. “I have been smoking since I was 16. It was pleasurable to meet with friends after school and have a smoke.”

His 46-year-old sister, Sylvie, on the other hand, has no regrets about quitting her one-pack-a-day habit that she acquired, like many in France, while attending high school. “I had to stop smoking because I didn’t have a choice: My doctor warned me I faced living with respiratory failure if I didn’t give up,” she said.

Two years ago, Gourio began a program with France’s National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction, a government-backed organization that offers free-of-charge support to quit smoking. The group offers regular counseling sessions, nicotine patches and chewing gum.

As a result, Gourio has been smoke-free ever since. She has even discovered a few unexpected benefits.

“I have recovered my sense of smell: It’s nice to be able to smell freshly baked bread at the boulangerie,” she said, referring to the ubiquitous small bakeries in France. “I have also taken up sports, like running, swimming and judo, which in a way have replaced my cigarette addiction.”

It’s a trend that increasingly resonates with French urban millennials who are far more health oriented and environmentally aware than older generations in France. Vegan, gluten-free cafes and juice bars are fast replacing traditional bistros as favorite hangouts in Paris, and these days, it’s not unheard of to swap a leisurely lunch – once a staple of French life – to go to the gym.

“The new generations have a different attitude and will change the image of the 1960s French, sitting at a cafe with a drink and a cigarette,” said Dr. Christophe Cutarella, an addiction psychiatrist and member of the scientific board at the Ramsay Générale de Santé Foundation, a hospital group.

The changes in behavior are clearly reflected in the declining number of younger smokers.
Last year, the number of smokers among men between the ages of 18 and 24 dropped to 35%, compared with 44% in 2016.

Whipping out a cigarette has become less cool, said Emmanuelle Beguinot, director of anti-smoking association CNCT.

“Even if tobacco consumption remains important in France, its image is not what it used to be,” said Beguinot.

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

These Turks would rather leave than see Erdogan become president

June 19, 2018, Istanbul, TURKEY - Bilal Dündarlioğlu, a 34 year-old IT engineer from Niğde (Central Anatolia), is planning to leave Turkey. He says he's not happy with the political and economic situation in his country. (Photo: Marga Zambrana|ARA Network Inc.)ISTANBUL - Bilal Dündarlioğlu, a 34-year-old information technology engineer from Niğde, in Turkey’s Central Anatolia region, says he loves his country.

And in the next breath, he explains why he wants to leave.

“Human and political conditions are not good," he said. "I am not quite happy with the [situation] here — there is no justice."

"I am not happy with the economy either," he added. "Taxes are too high and salaries too low.”

Dündarlioğlu is not alone. In Istanbul, most young people interviewed by PRI say they either know someone who has left Turkey or wants to. Many say they’re thinking about it themselves. In cities from Barcelona and Madrid to Stockholm, Berlin and Athens, researchers say Turkish diaspora communities are growing. And for the first time in modern Turkey's history, it seems the exodus isn’t mainly due to a search for economic opportunity.

There are no official figures on emigration compiled by the Turkish government that break down the motives behind people's departure. But recent emigres and would-be emigres told PRI their decision was about safety from persecution, having a voice in society and, even more crucially, an uncertain future in the so-called “new” Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They say that Turkey went from being a haven of a stability and economic growth in the region to a country with increasing societal divisions, rising violence and a government that continues to become increasingly authoritarian.
Many people — particularly young, secular and educated Turks — say they have had enough.

"Here unfortunately a human being has no value and cannot express oneself," said Dündarlioğlu, adding that his final decision to leave will depend on what happens in Sunday's election, which could give Erdoğan even more power. "If you support the government, maybe you will be valued."

Over the 15 years Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party have been in power, they have eroded freedom of the press, free speech, expanded the role of conservative Islam in the officially secular republic and presided over an increasingly fragile economy, analysts and emigres say.

After an unsuccessful coup attempt in July 2016, Erdoğan and his allies stepped up those efforts to clamp down, instituting a state of emergency that further grants them powers to detain and imprison alleged coup conspirators and sympathizers as well as anyone else who supposedly supports Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric living in exile in the US whom Erdoğan has blamed for organizing the coup.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers, lawyers, intellectuals and artists as well as members of the civil service, the judiciary and the military have been jailed or have lost their jobs.

Then last year, voters approved changes to Turkey’s constitution to abolish the office of the prime minister and transform the country’s now-ceremonial presidency into a full-fledged chief executive. Supporters of the change said it would make the government run more efficiently. Opponents said it was move to give an increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan even more power.

If Erdoğan wins Sunday's election, he could wield near-absolute authority and cement his status as the most important Turkish leader since Kemal Ataturk founded the country in 1923.

Erdoğan is leading in most polls. But his power grab has also galvanized his opponents: He’s forecast to come close or slightly top the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff election.

Still, many of these Turks say nothing will change.

"I learned not to be hopeful about the elections because it's the same guys who always win," said a 26-year-old woman studying in Malmö, Sweden, who left Turkey in 2015, saying she couldn't take the oppressive environment any longer.

“I wasn't happy in Turkey as a woman, as a non-Muslim, single woman,” said the student, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal against her or her loved ones at home. “Harassment became a part of your everyday life. You just hoped that you'd be one of the lucky ones, so no psycho will kick you in the face in the bus because you were wearing shorts that day.”

"Those who remain in Turkey face an uphill battle against the changes that have occurred in the country in recent years, especially if Erdoğan wins," she added, explain that she visited Turkey after the coup attempt and found it "scary."

"I remember thinking, 'Where am I?'" she recalled, after seeing pro-government propaganda in the subways and experiencing the tense feeling. "I felt like the Turkey I knew, the Turkey I left died on [July 15, 2016]."

She says she knows at least six people who have left Turkey. "But every time I go back and see my friends, they are all talking about leaving," she said.

Researchers say that while there are no exact figures, there is evidence that many young Turks have left to escape persecution, to find jobs and other opportunities or because they can't imagine raising children in the current atmosphere.

“There is anecdotal evidence that the coup and the purges that have ensued have resulted in an exodus of skilled professionals especially in the areas of the media, universities and the creative industries,” said Spyros Sofos, a researcher who coordinating Project Mosaic, a program that brings together academics from Lund University in Sweden, Istanbul University and Koç University in Istanbul to promote democracy and civil society.

He notes that the impact of the migration and the purges has been to leave some sectors reeling: For example, several universities do not have enough staff despite a reverse trend of Turks sympathetic to the government returning from Europe and elsewhere.

Sofos says that it's particularly hard to measure how many Turks are leaving over fear and politics, because emigres want to avoid applying for political asylum in order to keep a low profile and protect their families and their future. Still, he says, Turkish diaspora communities across Europe, for example in Spain and Greece, have grown since the coup.

"It is true that one can easily locate clusters of a post-coup Turkish diaspora in various cities," he said.

Emmanuel Virgoulay, founder of Barnes Spain, a real estate company, says he has noticed an uptick in Turkish buyers of real estate in Spain. Turks have become the third largest group of foreign buyers of luxury apartments in Barcelona — and often these buyers tell Virgoulay one of the reasons for their move is the search for economic and political stability.

Buying real estate valued at more than 250,000 euros is one way to ensure a residency permit in some European countries such as Spain and Greece.

Mehmet Siginir, 39, a translator who had worked at publishing house in Turkey, fled to Madrid after the 2016 coup — he had translated Gülen’s books from Turkish into Spanish.

“I have no plans to go back to Turkey,” said Siginir. “Things are getting worse by the day."

Meanwhile, Siginir says he is too scared to approach a polling station abroad to vote — or return to Turkey. "But I would like to go back to visit the grave of my eldest son, who passed away a few months before the coup," he said. "He was only 9 years old.”

Still, of course, many Turks unhappy with the state of the country are determined to stay.

Bariş Bariştiran, 32, lost his job after the government shuttered his television station. He's trying to stay true to his mission regardless, in Turkey.

“I was born in this country and I love my country,” said Bariştiran, a member of the ethnic Kurdish minority from Van on the Iranian border. “Now, I try to do journalism through the internet, by any means. I want to keep defending the right to deliver information. We have technology today, we can do something. And the people has the right to access information.”

He didn’t fault those who left, however.

“Some of them have no other way out, the ones who are being persecuted,” he said. “I think they do the right thing if they leave. But for the rest I think they should stay and fight.”

Marga Zambrana and Zekine Türkeri reported from Istanbul.

A version of this story can be found in Public Radio International.

Merkel's 'open door' policy could spell the end of the German Chancellor

DEU121121AA001BERLIN – Three years after German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to open her nation's borders to refugees, the policy that's come to define her political career appears poised to end it.

But the threat comes from an unlikely source: Merkel's conservative, Bavaria-based sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Spearheaded by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder, the party has given Merkel two weeks to develop a plan with European Union partners to reform asylum the bloc’s policies or else Seehofer and Söder would unilaterally implement a policy to turn away asylum seekers at the German border, likely bringing an end to Merkel's already fragile centrist coalition just three months after its inauguration.

That would not only spell the end for Merkel, Europe's longest-serving leader, but would also recast the future of the European Union, where eastern members have grown increasingly hostile to Brussels’ refugee policies.

"It would mean that the positions on the fringes of the European Union in Eastern and Central Europe to not accept any refugees will become stronger, which would be a potential end to German-led European policy and German-led refugee policy as we know it," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist in Berlin. "It's like domino theory in a way if the coalition falls apart: first one stone falls, then another and another."

The Christian Social Union has been vehemently against Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, which ignored EU regulations that require refugees to undergo the asylum process in their first country of arrival. Her decision to allow unrestricted travel for asylum seekers has brought more than 1 million newcomers, predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa, to Germany, overwhelming authorities and creating a cultural backlash.

The move rankled many Germans.

Last year, the right-wing, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, entered the German parliament for the first time with 12.6 percent of the vote, effectively tripling their support from 2013’s poll when they failed to enter parliament.

Meanwhile, on the heels of a series of mess-ups by the government – including a terror attack in December 2016 at the hands of a migrant that should have been deported and the recent discovery that authorities had botched thousands of asylum applications in the city-state of Bremen – the AfD has continued to rise in the polls.

To staunch support for the AfD, Merkel and her centrist government have walked back on the open-door policy in some respects, increasing deportations, allowing only limited migration of refugees’ families and forming bilateral deals with outside partners like Turkey to halt the flow of migrants into the country. Such actions have greatly decreased the number of migrants coming to Germany.

But two weeks ago, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wanted to take German immigration policies even further by beefing up border security and reinstating the European regulations mandating that refugees must remain in the country where they were registered.

Merkel accepted the border moves but rejected reinstating the EU policies. Instead, she called for measures that would create a unified European asylum policy to replace country-by-country actions.

“I’m deeply convinced whenever we talk about the dangers of the European Union, that it’s first and foremost about the foreign policy polyphony that we have, and secondly, that we still don’t have a common strategy to answer the question of mastering migration,” Chancellor Merkel said June 10 on the political talk show Anne Will. “If Europe doesn’t accomplish that, then Europe is in danger.”

Instead of getting in line with the chancellor, leaders of her sister party have dug in their heels.

If she tries to stop the interior minister and his CSU allies, they’ll end the coalition, Seehofer told the German daily Passauer Neue Presse in an June 21 interview.

“If you dismiss a minister who only cares about the safety and order of his country, that would be unprecedented,” Seehofer said. “I am chairman of the CSU, one of three parties in this coalition, and I act with full backing of my party. If the person in the chancellery is dissatisfied with the work of the federal minister of the interior, then she should end the coalition.”

The threat could force Merkel to curb her divisive refugee policies ahead of the Christian Social Union’s tough battle against the AfD in regional elections in Bavaria in October, said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.

“Seehofer is trying to kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “The CSU is under enormous pressure in Bavaria, and it’s in his own interest to say, ‘I’m the strong Bavarian guy in Berlin’.”

Merkel has reacted by working some of the politicking for which she’s known in a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron June 20. The chancellor agreed to the French president’s controversial plans to erect a common Eurozone budget, an obvious concession to the president in order to get his support for a revamped asylum policy at upcoming migration summits in Brussels both this weekend and next.

But it will be a tough task with nations like Italy, Hungary, Poland and Austria, now all led by right-wing, anti-immigrant forces bent at bucking a Merkel-led bloc and stopping refugees at all costs.

“She’s trying to practice the same magic and come to a compromise. She has to, or else she’ll lose all support,” said Boehnke. “It will be a hard task this time around. She has to acknowledge that the populists are very successful in stimulating this atmosphere that we have to urgently do something about migration.”

If Merkel isn’t able to stanch those forces and make progress, “then the coalition will end,” Neugebauer added.

That would not only provide more footing for the AfD to gain ground by attacking Merkel and her coalition partners as incompetent. It would also lend weight to those forces within the European Union that have sought to dismantle the liberal, German-led status quo within the block.

“That would be a danger for the German democracy and everything that stands behind it if she’s not able to implement something,” Neugebauer said.

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Italian PM finds some common ground with US President Donald Trump

GiuseppeConteROME, Italy – One is a flamboyant billionaire known for speaking off the cuff, the other an obscure and low-key law professor who rarely departs from his prepared remarks.

But among the leaders of the world’s industrialized countries, President Donald Trump and newly-installed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte seem to have found unexpected common ground on two of the world’s prickliest geopolitical questions: the treatment of migrants in their country and the role Russia should play in the world.

While the U.S. is drawing worldwide criticism for its new policy of separating migrant children from their families at the southern border, Italy has drawn ire for turning away refugee rescue ships. And at the recent Group of Seven summit in Canada, Conte was the only leader to voice support for Trump’s statement that Russia -- which had been booted from the exclusive club after its invasion of Crimea in Ukraine -- should be let back in.

“It does seem the two men have found common ground on some difficult areas,” said Arianna Montanari, a professor of political sociology at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “They are both part of the same trend. Will anything change for the White House because Italy has some of the same views? Will the Italian government be bolstered by the situation? Maybe a little. But the real news is that the anti-establishment wave that created Brexit and then Trump’s victory has now rolled over Italy.”

Analysts said the face of that trend in Italy is not Conte, but rather Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-establishment League and the minister of the interior in Conte’s government.

Salvini, is a long-time admirer of Trump’s. When Salvini just a leader of a regional political party two years ago, he traveled to the U.S. expressly to meet and pose for a photo with then-candidate Trump. Salvini is the author of the policy to turn away most refugee rescue ships. And while Salvini has not formally called for Russia’s return to the G-7, the League has been dogged by allegations of Russian ties in recent years, and, like Trump, Salvini says he is an admirer of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“For now at least, it seems Salvini will have the biggest say in what direction the Italian government will head,” said Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, a former Italian diplomat who is now president of Italy’s Institute For Foreign Affairs, a think tank. “But Conte is the head of government, he has the final say, and Conte clearly has sympathies for much of Trump’s agenda.”

Trump said as much after the G-7 summit, praising Conte. “The new prime minister of Italy is great,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News. “He’s very strong on immigration, like I am.”

Italy’s new government has been in power since June 1, and for its supporters, that kind of endorsement carries weight.

“One or two months ago, Italy didn’t have a government and hardly anyone knew who Giuseppe Conte was,” said Riccardo Milanese, a 30-year-old restaurant manager who voted for the League in Italy’s general election in March. “Now he’s getting compliments on television from the president of the United States.”

But Gian Franco Gallo, a political affairs consultant with ABS Securities in Milan, said supporters should keep Trump’s stated endorsement in perspective.

“In the short term it’s much better to hear nice words from the U.S. president rather than the kind of critical comments he made about Canada and [its Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau,” Gallo said. “But I think Trump said what made sense for him personally. On Italian television, they had to add Conte’s name to the subtitles for that interview. Trump did not even say Conte’s name.”

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Arab artists and the changing future

June 9, 2018 - Berlin, Germany - Rima Mismar, executive director of the Beirut-based Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, delivers opening statements at the Imagining the Future symposium at the Archive Kabinett in Berlin. The two-day conference showcased the work of classic and contemporary Arab artists who have produced striking works of art about the imagined futures of Arab societies. Conference participants were posed the question: Have rosy visions of future Arab societies fallen to the wayside in the wake of the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring? (Photo courtesy Mathias Völzke)BERLIN – In the early decades of the 20th century, Egyptian and Palestinian authors like Jurji Zaydan, Georges Henein and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra drew on the history of the Middle East and the energy of postcolonial Arab states to imagine cosmopolitan futures for their societies.

Zaydan, for example, known as one of the first thinkers of Arab nationalism, envisioned a postcolonial Egypt that would merge with Syria as a single nation. In vignettes found shortly after his death in 1914, he imagined a country where women would shed their veils and enjoy the same indulgences as men. Other writers played off of the greatness of the pharaohs and envisioned a future Egypt that would lead the world in science and technology in the 21st century.

Those grand, utopic visions didn't materialize. But that hasn’t stopped modern Arab authors, filmmakers and cartoonists from offering new visions for the Arab world.

Some of those visions were explored at a recent forum in Berlin organized by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), an independent initiative based in Beirut that funds organizations and individual artists in cinema, performing arts, literature, music and visual arts. The forum, called “Imagining the Future: The Arab World in the Aftermath of Revolution,” was held here on June 9 and 10 at the Archive Kabinett publishing house and exhibition space in the predominately Arab and Turkish neighborhood of Wedding.

Open to the public and simultaneously translated between Arabic and English, AFAC invited prominent Arab artists and scholars like the writer and translator Haytham El-Wardany to attend the forum to discuss the ways in which contemporary interpretations of future Arab societies are in dialogue with those of generations past.

Whether grim, mundane or surreal, modern Arab artists' interpretations of future societies depart from the nostalgic and utopian visions of their predecessors in order to stoke thoughtful dialogue about the present.

"Reality opens up, and humans become a part of the universal storm around them," said El-Wardany, who was born in Cairo and currently lives in Berlin. "In the position of utopia, we give up the standpoint of controlling reality."

Presentations ranged from close readings of prominent authors like Henein and Zaydan to screenings of modern films depicting haunting Arab futures.

One such film, In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2015), part science-fiction and part political commentary, by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour, combines live-action and computer-generated imagery to tell the story of a future resistance group in an unknown land. The fictional group embeds porcelain shards laced with DNA in the earth in order to influence the course of history and support a fictional civilization's future claims over their vanishing homeland.

An homage to the conflicting narratives of homeland playing out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sansour plays with arguments of national identity and symbolic ownership of homeland on both sides of the debate. Science-fiction is used to address how history and the archaeological record can be harnessed to support either side’s argument in the conflict.

Such controversial depictions of a future Palestine mired in identity politics and historical meddling are a far cry from the hopes of author and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra for a cosmopolitan Palestinian society in the early decades of the 20th century, said Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, an associate professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the American University of Beirut.

Born in 1919 in Bethlehem – shortly after the pivotal Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave momentum to the drive for a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine – Jabra wrote captivating autobiographical narratives of Palestinian life before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In doing so, he alluded to what a diverse Palestinian state could be, said Mejcher-Atassi during a presentation on Jabra on the first day of the conference here.

Even his correspondences with the intelligentsia of Jerusalem in the 1940s and thereafter – after being forced to leave his homeland and resettle in Baghdad, where he died in 1994 – show that Jabra clung to hope for a cosmopolitan and peaceful future in Palestine.

That hope, however, became more fleeting the longer he lived in exile, as shown through his later works of fiction, said Mejcher-Atassi.

"He placed too much hope in intellectuals," she said. "His novel, In Search of Walid Masoud (1978), doesn't breed hope anymore, but rather is more realistic of the situation – the protagonist disappears, but what role does he play in society when he returns?"

Modern Arab authors, hardened by the persistence of authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, haven't been as green in their depictions of the future in the Arab world. Rather than depicting shining utopias or catastrophic dystopias, many instead envision future Arab societies caught up in the trappings of Western capitalism.

Reading from the last chapter of his novel Women of Karantina (2014) on the first day of the conference, Egyptian writer and journalist Nael Eltoukhy imagines an absurd near-future in Egypt in which capitalist ambitions have led to the construction of novelty tunnels cutting through the earth like Swiss cheese, which serve almost as amusement park rides for the highest bidder.

Instead of adhering to a common utopia-dystopia dichotomy, Eltoukhy presents political commentary by depicting "a future that doesn't look like a future" in which people are increasingly oblivious of how they're being influenced by others.

"All of the tacky scenes of government officials, the tacky press headlines, the smug governor and the media. … People will never change," he said. "People will stay stupid."

But imagining a world so caught up in mundanity and stupidity, said Eltoukhy, is comforting in a way, given the oppressive reality on the ground in many Arab states today.

"I didn't want to look back to reflect on a past that represents a golden past, and I didn't want a protagonist that everyone likes," he said. "I have a small girl, and I like imagining her with her grandchildren around her, just living a normal life. Everyone likes to imagine the paranormal, these superhumans," he added. "I like to imagine these normal things."

A version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media.

Reinvigorated opposition poses a challenge for Turkey's Erdogan

TUR130607AA006BERLIN, Germany — A prolonged state of emergency after a failed coup attempt and a constitutional referendum that delivered Turkey’s president sweeping new powers should deliver strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an easy win in Turkey's June 24 snap elections.

But a reinvigorated opposition cleverly banding together in an attempt to reverse the nation's slide toward authoritarianism is proving more of a challenge to Mr. Erdogan's attempts at all-out control in Turkey than previously anticipated, observers said.

"The opposition seems much more energized, and we're seeing that voters who traditionally supported the government are having second thoughts – the economy isn't doing well, and they're tired of seeing the same man on their TV screens all day, every day," said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University.

It's a far cry from the political situation in Turkey only two years ago.

After a failed coup attempt in 2016, Mr. Erdogan instituted a state of emergency. He then fired or jailed enemies in government institutions, civil society and elsewhere. Thousands of opposition candidates, journalists, teachers and military personnel were ousted from their positions or jailed, giving way to a society completely acquiescent to the president.

Last year, criticism that Mr. Erdogan was eroding democracy in Turkey intensified after a constitutional referendum narrowly passed, transforming Turkey's parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, and giving the once-ceremonial post real power while allowing Erodgan to stay on as de facto chief.

Now, whoever wins this month's presidential elections will enjoy sweeping new executive powers, including the ability to unilaterally pass decrees without parliamentary approval.

But polls indicate that it's still a toss-up whether Mr. Erdogan will be the president to inaugurate the new system.

Mr. Erdogan is leading the race with about 48 percent of the votes in the first round, followed by Muharrem Ince, the candidate from Turkey's largest opposition party, the center-left Republican People's Party, with 25.8 percent of the vote, according to Turkish pollster Gezici.

Former interior minister Meral Aksener, who founded her own nationalist party last year, rounds out the top-three with 14.4 percent of the vote.

Mr. Erdogan has an impressive lead, but even the most optimistic polls indicate he won't secure the 51 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff.

That means his rivals could mount a winning challenge against him. Turkey's opposition candidates have vowed to support whoever stands against Erdogan in the runoff, presenting the greatest challenge to his presidency since he first came to power 15 years ago.

"Mr. Erdogan and his party seem to be quite worried," said Marc Pierini, a Carnegie Europe scholar and a former European Union ambassador to Turkey. "They're not as comfortable as they used to be."

Opposition parties in Turkey span the political spectrum but they've regrouped under turbulent political conditions in order to beat Erdogan at his own game, Mr. Pierini said.

Mr. Ince, a physics teacher and longtime member of parliament with the secularist, center-left Republican People's Party, or CHP, avoids the soft-spoken, technocratic tendencies that opposition parties in Turkey used to employ in favor of a campaign style more reminiscent of Mr. Erdogan himself.

"For the first time in 15 years, we have an opposition candidate that has an appeal to the public and is able to make himself heard," said Mr. Pierini. "Among other things, he uses some of the stunts that the president uses: He's loud, he's populist, and he mingles with the people."

Mr. Ince's mix of popular appeal and promises to restore democracy and secularism in Turkey resonated with voters in Istanbul one recent afternoon.

"I will vote this time for the CHP and Muharrem Ince. He is more democratic compared to the rest of the candidates," said Hazal, a 22-year-old political science student in Istanbul, who declined to give her last name, fearing it would cost her a job in the future.

Meanwhile, many voters more in tune with the president's traditional Islamic ideals and conservative politics are jumping ship to Ms. Aksener's aptly named Good Party, said Mr. Turan with Istanbul Bilgi University.

Founded last year, the party is siphoning support from the president's election partners, the conservative Nationalist Movement, eroding his chances at both a parliamentary and presidential majority.

It's an election strategy Ms. Aksener's nationalist Good Party, along with the nation's other opposition parties in the new electoral block, hope will deliver at least a parliamentary majority.

"It would be a big slam in the face if he gets a parliament where he doesn't dominate," said Mr. Turan. "He may feel quite weakened."

Such a political upset could also help restore harmony to international institutions Mr. Erdogan's nationalist policies have disrupted, said Mr. Pierini.

"You'll have a return to rule of law and a reset of press freedom," he said. That would mean a "big sigh of relief" from the EU and could help "heal the relationship with NATO and the US." Mr. Erdogan damaged those traditional partnerships through his involvement in Syria and cozying up to Iran and Russia.

But with so much on the line, Mr. Erdogan isn't taking any chances.

He's dominating in the media compared to other candidates. And he’s using state coffers to finance flashy campaign events using airplanes and helicopters when inflation and Mr. Erdogan's tight grip on political institutions are driving Turkey into an economic crisis.

Even so, that doesn't seem to concern Mr. Erdogan's supporters.

"After the elections we are expecting a big economic crisis. But how is that the AKP’s fault?" said Erhan Yevsikof, a 40-year-old chef in an Istanbul restaurant, who's voting for Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP. "What they do looks positive and sincere to me."

Observers also worry that fraud might move the needle enough to deliver Mr. Erdogan a win. Electoral inconsistencies were already reported in last year's constitutional referendum.

"The central issue here is the fairness of the election," said Mr. Pierini. "You could see those in power using all possible means to make sure things go their way."

That ultimately means that this election is in no way "in the bag" for the opposition, he added, a sentiment echoed by many in Istanbul, despite their opposition to the president.

"I have the feeling that Erdoğan will win again, even maybe in the first round," said Hazal, the political science student in Istanbul. "See how desperate we are? He has taken from us the right to dream! What a nightmare!"

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

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