No more blessings for nuclear weapons says Russian Orthodox Church

RUS KirillMOSCOW - It was early evening on Moscow’s ring road, when a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt.
As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox Christian priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

This startling incident took place ahead of last year’s annual May 9 military parade in Moscow in honor of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War Two, but similar scenes have become common since relations between Russia and the West plummeted after the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. Priests have also sanctified S-400 surface-to-air missiles, nuclear submarines, tanks, and fighter jets.

Few priests have spoken publicly about their motivations for blessing weaponry. However, in 2016, Maxim Samokhvalov, a priest in Russia’s Far East region, told state media that weapons, including nuclear missiles, were “perceived as a means of protection and salvation.”

But the controversial practice could soon be a thing of the past. A Russian Orthodox Church committee on ecclesiastical law recommended last month that clergy concentrate on blessing soldiers, rather than weapons.

“One can talk about the blessing of a warrior on military duty in defence of the Fatherland," said Savva Tutunov, a bishop of the Moscow patriarchate. "At the end of the corresponding ritual, the personal weapon is also blessed — precisely because it is connected to the individual person who is receiving the blessing. By the same reasoning, weapons of mass destruction should not be sanctified.”

The possibility of a ban has provoked a debate among Russian Orthodox Christians. “Blessing weapons, any weapons, is in my opinion both stupid and sinful,” said Karina Chernyak, who runs an Orthodox Christian youth club in Moscow.

Not everyone agrees with the committee’s proposal, which still has to be approved by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Vsevolod Chaplin, an influential priest and former spokesman for the patriarch, told the Vzglyad newspaper that nuclear weapons were the country’s “guardian angels” and necessary to preserve “Orthodox civilization.”

“Only nuclear weapons protect Russia from enslavement by the West,” Chaplin said.

In any event, a ban on sanctifying weapons of mass destruction is unlikely to affect the intertwining of Russia’s armed forces – including its nuclear forces – with the Russian Orthodox Church under President Vladimir Putin.

Patriarch Kirill has described the Kremlin’s military campaign in Syria as a “holy war,” while uniformed clerics embedded with the armed forces are being trained to drive combat vehicles and operate communication equipment. Some critics have likened the role of priests in the modern Russian military to that played by Soviet-era political officers, whose task was to root out dissenting views. Russia is also currently constructing a vast Main Cathedral of the Armed Forces near Moscow, whose steps will be made from melted-down tanks seized from the Nazis.

But the Church’s support for Russia’s nuclear arsenal is no less enthusiastic. Although the global Orthodox Church has condemned weapons of mass destruction, Patriarch Kirill has credited Russia’s nuclear capability with “preventing World War Three” and ensuring Russia’s state sovereignty. The Russian Orthodox Church also consecrated the country's nuclear arsenal during a service in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2007.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal also has its own patron saint – Saint Seraphim, whose remains were discovered in 1991 in a disused monastery in Sarov, a small town in central Russia that was home to several key nuclear facilities in the Soviet era.

“The Russian Orthodox Church has systematically and openly supported the Kremlin’s foreign policy gambits involving nuclear weapons,” wrote author Dmitry Adamsky in his recently-published book, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy. “At a time of economic austerity, it supports the Kremlin’s national security course and legitimizes budget allocations to the defense sector.”

In exchange for its support, Adamsky wrote, the Church had received a boost to its “social and political influence.”

Putin has memorably described Orthodox Christianity and nuclear weapons as “twin elements of Russia’s domestic and foreign security.” He has also used religious terms to discuss the nightmare scenario of nuclear war.

“An aggressor should know that vengeance is inevitable, that he will be annihilated. Whereas we would become the victims of their aggression, and as martyrs, will go to heaven – they will just end up dead, because they won’t even have time to repent,” he said last year.

Ideas such as these have been melded into a radical ideology described as “Atomic Orthodoxy” by Yegor Kholmogorov, a nationalist writer.
“To remain Orthodox, Russia must be a strong nuclear power, and to remain a strong nuclear power, Russian must be Orthodox,” Kholmogorov wrote.

The ideology was never officially approved by Patriarch Kirill, but it has gained a degree of popularity in recent years among radical Orthodox groups.

“I was myself, to some extent, a medium for such ideas,” Dmitry Tsorionov, the former head of a radical Orthodox Christian movement called God’s Will that sometimes clashed with anti-Kremlin activists. “It was not uncommon to see how church functionaries openly flirted with these toxic ideas.”

Tsorionov, who is better known by his pseudonym, Enteo, said he broke with militant Orthodox ideology when he witnessed how young Russian men took up arms and voluntarily headed to eastern Ukraine to fight “under the banner of Christ” after the Kremlin’s support for separatist forces there.

“It was only then that I finally realized what the blessing of military hardware leads to,” Tsorionov said.

Photo: Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus Kirill.
Credit: Courtesy photo from the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate official website. (06/13/19)

Story/photo published date: 07/09/19

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

A "new era" coming for the European Parliament according to populists

EUPopulistsUntieParis - For months, far right leaders across the European Union have been breathlessly talking about the 'new era' that will come with European Parliament elections this week.

They may be right.

Analysts and pollsters predict a major surge for the right-wing, anti-immigrant parties across the 28-member bloc. In fact, anti-EU parties are projected to become the second-largest bloc in the parliament, projected to win up to 35 percent of seats – a gain of as much as 14 percent over 2014's elections, according to a poll for the Berlin-based European Council of Foreign Relations.

If that happens, it means that the next European Parliament will be almost split between the far right, and the left bloc, projected to garner 34 percent, and the center-right with 32 percent. And while populists won't likely win a majority of the body's 751 seats, they will probably win enough to cause gridlock, say analysts.

"They won't be able to take control," said Adriano Bosoni, an analyst with Stratfor based in Barcelona. "But it will be a much more fragmented parliament. And while they won't necessarily be more influential directly, they will likely force the center-right more to the right."

The European Council of Foreign Relations said it expects the far right's gains to translate into a bloc advocating for "a return to a 'Europe of the nations,'" one against free trade, immigration and "supportive of Moscow’s arguments about the need to flout international law in the Russian national interest in Ukraine," it wrote.

"And, in the longer term, their ability to paralyze decision-making at the center of the EU would defuse pro-Europeans’ argument that the (EU) is imperfect but capable of reform. At this point, the EU would be living on borrowed time," the study added.

Analysts say that part of the reason for the likely stronger showing this time around is that voters act differently in European Parliament elections than in national elections.

"Voters are more likely to indulge themselves in the non-traditional candidates," said Ben Tonra, a politics professor at University College Dublin. "They are more likely to make choices they might not have otherwise made in national elections – that tends to benefit the (far left and the far right)."

The far-right exists in most European nations in opposition, their support has been rising over the years and they have garnered between 10-20 percent of the vote in most countries
with the strongest support in Austria – 26 percent in the last election.

"(The EU election) mirrors the development taking place on the national level," said Bosoni. "In most states, the traditional mainstream parties are losing ground to the right and the left. That's because of a decline of trust in the mainstream parties.

At the same, voter apathy in the EU helps the far right, say analysts. Turnout has been steadily dropping over since 1979 when the EU elections were first held – from 61.8 percent to 42.6 in the last election in 2014.

In the Bastille neighborhood of Paris Saturday, members of Macron's upstart La République En Marche party – running for the first time in the EU elections – were out passing out flyers, talking to voters as they shopped in the busy district. They were begging voters to vote.

"We don't care if they vote for us," one campaign worker admitted. "It's just important they show up because when they don't, it's the far right that wins."

Analysts say many voters this election are motivated by fear of the far right. Voters bear that out.

"I’m worried about the European elections because I think they’ll just give more power to the nationalists," said Antonio di Renzo, 51, a civil servant in Rome. "There have been some mistakes (in the development of the EU) but I think it’s the only way forward…"

Meanwhile, on Sunday, thousands took part in pro-Europe rallies across Germany.

Still, for all the optimism by far-right leaders, the parties are facing some serious issues.

Austria has one of the most firmly established on the continent but over the weekend, Vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party stepped down after a video surfaced showing appearing to show him offering government contracts in exchange for campaign support to a woman pretending to be the relative of a Russian oligarch.

No one is quite certain how that will affect the elections, analysts said.

Another question is unity.

In spite of efforts by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the country's far-right League party, to drum up support for a united far-right movement, “Toward a Europe of Common Sense,” differences between the far-right parties across Europe are stark and tensions linger – especially over Russia.

Le Pen, Salvini and others are very pro-Russia and have called for closer ties with the country, a stance that puts off Eastern European members such as Poland's Law and Justice party. Other issues include friction over which countries will take migrants.

On Saturday, Salvini again hosted nearly a dozen far right leaders from across Europe, including France's Marine Le Pen and the Netherland's Geert Wilders, and tried to paper over those differences.

"This is a historic moment,” said Le Pen, said at a rally in Milan. “Five years ago, we were isolated. Today, with our allies, we will finally be in a position to change Europe."

Another open question is what the far-right bloc will do with its increased power. Most believe it will be less than they say they will.

"Once you have to start making decisions, it's harder than being in the opposition," Bosoni said.

Regardless, analysts say this year is almost certain to see a blanket rejection of the European political status quo. Most believe that will benefit the far-right but Tonra says not to count out the far left or the Greens either.

"There’s a revolution happening," said Federica Romano, 31, a hairdresser in Rome and a League voter. "I think we will start to see the changes we need after the election. That’s when we will be the strong voice."

Photo: May 18, 2019 - Milan, Italy - Leaders of populists parties in the European Union during a rally in Piazza d'Uomo in Milan, Italy. From left to right: Geert Wilders (Dutch Party for Freedom in the Netherlands), Matteo Salvini (The League in Italy), Jorg Meuthen (behind, Alternative for Germany in Germany) and Marie Le Pen (National Rally in France).
Credit: Courtesy of Marie Le Pen's official Twitter page. (05/18/19)

Story/photo publish date: 05/21/19

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

Italian nationalists see increased support after new wave of migrants from Africa

ITAMatteoSalviniBy Eric J. Lyman

ROME – Weeks of civil war have destabilized the country that is the starting point for the bulk of Europe-bound migrants, setting the stage for a humanitarian crisis analysts said could play into the hands of Europe’s nationalist parties in the leadup to European elections.

Libya is in the midst of its bloodiest period since the ouster of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011. A rebel group led by military officer Khalifa Haftar is threatening Tripoli, the capital, with the goal of toppling the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord. Among the targets of Haftar’s forces: migrant holding centers on the Libyan coast.

Matteo Villa, an analyst with the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a think tank, said the violence in Libya may prove more effective at achieving the aim of the Italy’s previous strategies of closing ports to rescue ships and slashing spending on assimilation programs.

“Instability in Libya really plays into the hands of anti-migrant forces if they are somehow able to turn their backs on the humanitarian crisis brewing in the country,” Villa said.

The largest nationalist party in Italy, the League, has warned that the violence in Libya could trigger a massive new wave of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. Italy has deep ties to Libya, a former colony. The Italian government was one of only a handful to maintain diplomatic relations with the former regime of Moammar Gaddafi, ousted in 2011, and it has kept a significant commercial and diplomatic presence in the country since then.

Based on its own intelligence, Italy warned the European Union that as many as 800,000 refugees were preparing to set shore from Libya to Europe and it called for EU member states to take steps to confront the threat.

“We cannot allow Europe be overrun,” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the League, told the Italian media in late April. “We have to take action now to avoid disaster.”

But analysts said the League’s stance is most likely a scare tactic designed to shore up support from the party’s anti-migrant base ahead of the May 23-26 European vote.

“There is a kind of stability paradox in these situations,” Villa said. “It’s not true that the more unstable a country becomes the more refugees it produces. Yes, they have more reason to what to go. But below a certain level people lack the means and the assets needed to leave.”

Villa said the claim that there were 800,000 migrants preparing to leave was “ridiculous,” estimating there were a few tens of thousands of refugees in the country with few options to move on.

Andrea Torre, director of the MEDI Studies Center, which focuses on migration issues in the Mediterranean, noted that a minority of the migrants that departed Libya for Europe in recent years actually came from Libya.

“We will probably see fewer migrants arriving in Libya from Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, and elsewhere,” Torre said. “Some may try their luck in Morocco or Tunisia or Algeria, but those routes are far less defined and they all have their own problems. Those already in Libya will have a very difficult time.”

That crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better: in April, Amnesty International said an assault on the Qasr Ben Ghashir refugee center, home to nearly 1,000 asylum seekers, should be investigated as a war crime.

Meanwhile, networks that bring food and medicine to refugees in the country have been slowed or shut down by the violence. Most aid workers have been forced by now to flee, and Villa said that at least two ships Italy donated to the Libyan Coast Guard for the purpose of keeping patrolling the coastline for unsafe migrant ships have been commandeered by the government for the war effort.

But despite all that, the political benefits of the topic are measurable, according to Maria Rossi, co-director of the Rome polling company Opinioni. Rossi said despite reports on the humanitarian problems, warnings of migrant threats remain effective in Italy.

“Many League supporters blame migrants for the country’s economic problems, for crime rates, and for high unemployment levels,” Rossi said. She said the problems could be similar in other parts of Europe were nationalist sentiment is on the rise.

The League’s rapid rise to prominence in Italy has been built on its anti-migrant policies. And the party’s supporters say they want more of the same.

“I’m sorry to say it, but Italy has too many of its own problems to spend money on Africans or Muslims who come here,” said 29-year-old Italo Ricci, who works for Rome’s public transport system. “They should look out for themselves or look for help somewhere else.”

In the last round of elections for European Parliament five years ago, the League won just 6 percent of the vote in Italy, earning five of Italy’s 73 seats in the legislature.

But Opinioni’s latest poll predicts the party will win more than a third of the vote later this month, 10 points more than its nearest rival. If the poll is accurate, that would give the League around 25 of the country’s 76 seats, making it one of the largest single blocs in what will be a 751-member parliament.

Sandro d’Alessi, 49, who operates the cash register at a coffee bar, is illustrative of why the League will likely do well later this month.

“I talk to people all day and I think that people are getting tired of the way politicians misspend our money on programs that don’t help Italians,” d’Alessi said.

Photo: Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account. (2018)

Story/photo publish date: 05/19/2019

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

Putin contemplates another arms race

RUSPUTINMOSCOW - Intercontinental nuclear missile launchers rumbled across Red Square Thursday at a World War Two Victory Day parade in Moscow that came amid growing fears of a new arms race between Russia and the United States.

After hailing the sacrifices that Soviet troops and civilians made during the war against Nazi Germany, better known here as the Great Patriotic War, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged that his country would continue to strengthen its military capabilities.

"The lessons of the past war are relevant once again. We have done and will do everything necessary to ensure the high level of readiness of our armed forces," Mr. Putin, 66, said. “We call on all countries to realize our shared responsibility for creating an effective, balanced security system.”

Mr Putin’s comments came after President Donald Trump in February withdrew Washington from a key Cold War-era arms treaty that banned the deployment of ground-launched nuclear missiles with a range of up to 3,500 miles. The treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, brought an end to the build-up of nuclear missiles in Europe. Mr. Putin has threatened to target the United States with nuclear missiles, if Washington moves to deploy warheads that were prohibited by the landmark deal.

Although Victory Day is dedicated to the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany, the Communist state only staged a handful of military parades in Moscow to commemorate the event, which did not become a public holiday until 1965. Under Mr. Putin, however, Russia has used the annual anniversary of the end of the war to display its military might, as well as promote what opposition critics say is an aggressive form of nationalism.

Yars ballistic missile launch units, advanced S-400 air defense missile systems, tanks, and 13,000 troops were on show at the Red Square parade, which also saw the participation of the recently-created Youth Army, a Kremlin-backed military organization with almost half-a-million members between 4 and 18 years of age. Cheering crowds, including small children wearing Red Army hats, waved Russian and Soviet flags as heavy weaponry was transported through central Moscow after the event. A fly-over by dozens of fighter jets was cancelled due to heavy cloud cover.

“I brought my grandchildren here to teach them that we must never forget those who saved the world from fascism,” said Tamara Borisova, 65. “In the West, people don’t realize how much our Soviet people suffered to defeat the Nazis.”

At least 24 million Soviet citizens and soldiers – around 14 percent of the Communist state’s population - are estimated to have died during World War Two. In comparison, the total death toll for the United States during the 1939-1945 conflict was around 420,000.

Hundreds of thousands of people later marched along Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, which leads directly to the Kremlin, carrying portraits of relatives who fought in World War Two. Mr Putin, whose father was wounded during the war, was among them. State media said some ten million people participated in so-called Eternal Regiment marches across the country.

There were military parades in almost 30 towns and cities throughout Russia, from its borders with eastern Europe to Sakhalin Island, near Japan. In Pyatigorsk, a city in Russia’s south, over 500 kindergarten-aged children dressed in full military uniform took part in an event described as a “parade of pre-school troops” that Kremlin critics said was a perfect illustration of the militarization of Russian society under Mr. Putin.

Despite Mr Putin’s promise to boost further Russia’s armed forces, Moscow’s defense budget has been in decline for the past two years. Although Russia’s military is involved in ongoing military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria, its defence budget shrank by 3.5 per cent in 2018 to $61.4 billion, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The slump in Moscow’s military spending followed a 20 percent decline in 2017, as the Russian economy was hit by Western sanctions and a lower global price for oil, the country’s main export. SIPRI analysts said the trend was likely to continue.

This year’s Victory Day parade in Moscow was the first to take place without the attendance of a single foreign leader, after the Kremlin declined to issue invitations. Although President George W. Bush attended Russia’s 2005 Victory Day parade, foreign heads of state have largely stayed away from the event since the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Mr. Putin made no direct mention of any other country during his Victory Day address.

“Judging by the president’s speech, Russia no longer needs any allies,” wrote Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin advisor, in an online post. Steven Seagal, the former Hollywood action star whom Mr. Putin last year named as Russia’s special envoy for humanitarian ties with the United States, was among the few foreign guests at the Red Square parade.

While Soviet soldiers died defending what was an officially atheist state, Victory Day has also taken on an increasingly religious element. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu publically crossed himself as he gave the signal for the start of Thursday’s military parade on Red Square.

At next year’s Victory Day, Russia will unveil near Moscow a massive Orthodox Christian cathedral in honor of its military triumph in World War Two. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says that Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, financed the cathedral’s main religious icon out of his own pocket. He declined to reveal how much Mr. Putin paid.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin

Story/photo publish date: 05/09/19

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

France's Yellow Jackets don't want to be forgotten

NotreDameYJParis – Holding signs that read "What about the poor," and chanting "justice for all," France's so-called “yellow vest” protestors hit the streets of Paris and other French cities Saturday despite the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, vowing to persevere in what they called "Ultimatum 2."

"These (protests) are very important for social justice," said Jean-Baptiste Redde, at the protest Saturday on Republique square in central Paris. "We have to help the poor, the disabled, those who don't have roofs to live under. It's important to hold on."

The French capital quickly became the epicenter of Saturday’s violence, with hundreds arrested and dozens injured as violence broke out between demonstrators and police, upended transport and sealed off entire sections of the city.

While the protests started out peacefully, almost with a carnival like atmosphere, violence erupted as demonstrators approached the Place de la Republique. People threw rocks and lit trash cans at the police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

It was the 23rd demonstration by the loosely organized, disparate movement that is mainly united in its resentment over the lack of economic quality in France and displeasure with President Emmanuel Macron, whom many see as 'president of the rich."

The grassroots movement that started on social media has proven to be one the biggest tests to Macron’s presidency, with protestors refusing to let this week’s fire at Notre Dame pause their demonstrations even as the president and French political parties put aside politics and halted campaigning for the upcoming European Parliament elections.

In fact, in some ways the fire Monday inflamed some protestors because of the hundreds of millions of euros raised immediately afterward to restore the 850-year old Notre Dame. Some of that money was pledged by French billionaires such as luxury goods Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault and LVMH head Bernard Arnault as well as French companies such as oil giant Total.

“I would like us to get back to reality,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the informal leaders of the movement, speaking on French broadcaster, BFM TV last week. Levavasseur said it was important to criticize “the inertia of large companies and (billionaires) in the face of social misery as they display their ability to raise a crazy amount of money in a single night for Notre Dame."

Her comments and others were widely shared on social media. Many agreed. “If they are able to give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us that there is no money to counter social inequality,” Philippe Martinez, head of France’s CGT workers union told French radio last week.

That sentiment was reflected on the streets of Paris Saturday.

"Billions should also be given to the poor, to help the environment, to promote biodiversity," said Redde," holding a sign that read, "Millions for Notre Dame – and what about the poor?" "But Macron and this government only wants to help the rich, so we can't stop."

'A pointless debate'

Even so, the fire at Notre Dame, which is revered by the French – Catholic, Muslims and Jews – as part of France's cultural and historic legacy, set off a national outpouring of grief. As a result, the anger at the donations set off a backlash within the government and among the public.

"It is a pointless debate," said Culture Minister Franck Riester, interviewed on RMC radio. "To say, 'there's too much money for Notre Dame and there is need elsewhere' – of course there is need elsewhere, for health care, the fight against climate change. But Notre-Dame is not only a collection of old stones. It's a part of our identity."

France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner was more pointed: "The rioters have not been visibly moved by what happened at Notre Dame,” he said angrily, soon before the ministry announced that France would deploy 60,000 police officers Saturday, and prevent any protestors from getting near Notre Dame and the Champs-Elysees, where in March, they set fire to a bank, smashed the front of a renowned restaurant and looted stores on the Champs-Elysees.

The public, meanwhile, already growing weary of the protestors – recent polls show that support for the yellow vests has dropped to about half from 80 percent. And an Odoxa poll released on Friday indicated that a slim majority of French wanted the demonstrations Saturday suspended.

"I'm tired of this," said a clothing shop owner in the Marais, a major tourist district just next to Republique square, told Al Jazeera privately. "For five months, we have had almost no business – the tourists are not coming here because of the protests."

Notre Dame even gave pause to such within the movement. Many in the movement on Tuesday called for protests to be delayed in deference to the 'national tragedy' at Notre Dame.

Still ‘too little, too late’

Monday’s fire broke out just an hour before Macron was scheduled to give a televised address detailing a series of policy reforms in response to the yellow vest protesters and their grievances. The speech was cancelled last minute, and set for next Thursday.

Even so, copies of the taped speech sent to reporters were leaked: In it, Macron promised to lower taxes for the middle class, reconsider his decision to cut a ‘fortune solidarity tax’ on top earners, and make adjustments to the lowest pensions for inflation.

Macron was also set to announce the closure of the highly prestigious École nationale d'administration, a college that trains public servants. Many have criticized the school as a place reserved for the elite.

The Odoxa poll showed that the majority of French citizens supported these changes. But many yellow vest demonstrators and others continued their chant of ‘too little, too late,’ and vowed to continue protesting for weeks to come.

"Pfff – blah, blah, blah," was the reaction of Catherine Lopis, when asked about Macron's plans. "I voted for him (Macron) – had no choice but him or (far right leader Marine) Le Pen. But he isn't interested in helping anyone other than bankers – our problems are not his problems so it is easy for him to turn away."

Jérôme Rodrigues, a leader in the movement said on Saturday that the postponement of Macron's speech was calculated.
"The world stops turning when there is a fire in France?" he wondered, while being interviewed on French television. "I think it was a government strategy to get some information leaked to buy time to then better sell us his new program, changes he wants to make that we are denouncing here at the demonstration."

'Protestors have a point'

“These protests aren’t going to end any time soon,” said French radio personality and political commentator Jean-Michel Aphatie.

But without concrete goals and a clear leader, Aphatie said the movement is struggling and will continue to, to be effective and bring concrete change.

“The only thing they know for sure is that they want to go out every Saturday to protest,” he said, referring to the fact that the protests have run continuously every Saturday since Nov. 17, even as they have grown smaller.

Even so, he added that the protest did have legitimacy: The French have seen their purchasing power decline over the years and many are struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s difficult to say the protests are no longer legitimate because of the Notre Dame fire,” Aphatie said. “Life goes on. And so do the yellow vests."

Photo: April 20, 2019 - Paris, France - A protester holding a sign reading "Millions for Notre Dame de Paris. What about the poor?"
Credit: Jabeen Bhatti/ ARA Network Inc. (04/20/19)

Story/photo publish date: 04/20/19

A version of this story was published in Al Jazeera.

A bad guest: WikiLeaks founder's arrest receives mixed reaction in the British public

Julian Assange ArrestedLondon--Protests broke out to "Free Assange" Thursday even as lawmakers in parliament cheered following the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at Ecuador's embassy in London Thursday.

The mixed reaction, evident everywhere in the UK, showed how Mr. Assange, charged with involvement in computer hacking, has won sympathy even as he wore out his welcome at the embassy and also among some Brits.

He was a bad guest, smug and self-important, a no-no in British culture, say observers.

"I think he probably started out with good intentions but has compromised himself through his actions so many times, becoming a villain," said Peter Hills, 29, engineer from Harrow in England.

"It's his general behavior and outbursts and his cozying up to Putin that really turned me off him," he added.

Mr. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuador embassy since 2012 following a request from Sweden for his extradition on rape allegations, a request granted by the British high court.

But over time, he wore out his welcome at the embassy with his incessant demands, meddling in "other country's affairs" and reluctance to clean up after his cat.

On Thursday, Ecuador withdrew his political asylum.

“Today, I announce that the discourteous and aggressive behavior of Mr. Julian Assange, the hostile and threatening declarations of its allied organizations, against Ecuador, and especially, the transgressions of international treaties, have led the situation to a point where the asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable,” said Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno in a recorded statement.

“While Ecuador upheld the generous conditions of his asylum, Mr. Assange legally challenged in three different instances the legality of the protocols.”

Soon after the withdrawal, Wikileaks posted a video of Mr. Assange being dragged out of the embassy holding a copy of Gore Vidal’s book, “History of the National Security State,” a choice much speculated about in the British press. As he resisted arrest, he shouted, "The UK must resist this attempt by the Trump administration."

Taken to a London police station, he later pleaded not guilty to a charge of violating the terms of his bail at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London.

Now, he faces extradition to the US, where US authorities plan to charge him in connection with helping army analyst Chelsea Manning to leak classified information in 2010 – it was one of the biggest leaks of classified material in US history.

A majority of Brits wanted his extradition in 2013, according to a YouGov poll. And while that amount fell to 43 percent this year, only one in nine Brits held a positive opinion of Assange, according to the poll.

That was reflected in Parliament Thursday: British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers the "welcome" news that the situation around Assange was finally resolved after seven years, news saying that the arrest, "goes to show that, in the United Kingdom, no one is above the law.”

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, said Thursday that Assange is “no hero.”

“He has hidden from the truth for years and years and it is right that his future should be decided in the British judicial system,” Hunt said. “I mean it’s not so much Julian Assange being held hostage in the Ecuadorian Embassy, it’s actually Julian Assange holding the Ecuadorian Embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them.”

Meanwhile, Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, outside of Westminster Magistrates' Court, told reporters that the legal team has seen the arrest warrant issued Thursday and provisional extradition request from the United States. She warned over the implications for journalists.

"This sets a dangerous precedent for all media organizations and journalists in Europe and elsewhere around the world," she said in footage aired by the BBC. "This precedent means that any journalist can be extradited for prosecution in the United States for having published truthful information about the United States.”

Wikileaks called the withdrawal of asylum "illegally terminated."

Russia, who has long backed Assange, declined to say whether they would offer him asylum. Russian officials did complain over the arrest. "We certainly hope that all of his rights will be respected,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, prosecutors are contemplating reopening the rape investigation against Assange after a plaintiff requested they do so – Sweden dropped the extradition request in 2017.

"We will now examine the matter to determine how we proceed," said Deputy Chief Prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson in a statement. She added that the statute of limitations on the rape charge runs out next year.

Many Brits say that while they want Assange gone, extradition to Sweden is preferable.

"The Swedes don't have the death penalty so that would be fine with me," said Hills.

Photo: Screenshot of Julian Assange (with beard) being escorted by British police. While being taken, he shouted “The UK must resist this attempt by the Trump administration."
Credit: Courtesy of Russia Today's official YouTube channel.

Story/photo publish date: 04/11/2019

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

Merkel's Chinese puzzle

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU121121AA001.jpegBERLIN — French President Emmanuel Macron took a hard turn toward "Europeanizing" his nation's policy toward China on Tuesday by inviting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend a state visit by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in Paris.

Such a move is high on Merkel's agenda in her last term in office: During her tenure over the past decade, Germany became the continent's economic powerhouse thanks to close economic ties with China.

Even so, Merkel is worried: Hungary, Greece, and on Saturday, Italy, have all signed on to China's trillion-dollar investment plan "One Belt, One Road," stoking concerns of further European dependency on a rule-bending regime.

“It's a dilemma because Germany is an open economy in favor of open markets, but at the same time it relies on the fact that everyone is playing by the same set of rules," said Cora Jungbluth, a senior analyst on China with Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation. "If this is not the case, Germany has to walk a fine line with its long-term interests."

Starring down a recession in the early 2000s, Germany became a European pioneer when it chose to invest heavily in Chinese markets, where German motor vehicles, machinery and chemicals were seen as vital for building the emerging nation's infrastructure.

Today, some 5,200 German companies operate in China, and about 900,000 jobs in Germany depend on exports to China, according to Germany's Chambers of Industry and Commerce. In 2018, for the third year in a row, China was named Germany's most important trade partner, with commerce between the two nations totaling about $226 billion, according to government figures.

But as China has transformed from an emerging market with cheap labor into an economic juggernaut with skilled workers and massive tech companies like Huawei and Tencent, "the fairly cozy and stable economic relationship between China and Germany is being disrupted," said Max Zenglein, head of economics at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

Chinese firms have taken advantage of Germany's open markets by attempting to buy up Germany's prized small and medium-sized enterprises, which comprise 99 percent of all German firms, according to government figures.

At the same time, expectations that China would gradually open its markets to allow fair competition to foreign firms have fallen flat. China continues to impose steep taxes on foreign companies in order to grow domestic firms.

"This is the biggest source of frustration," said Angela Stanzel, a senior policy fellow in the Asia Program with Institut Montaigne, a Paris thinktank. "There's a lot of fear in Germany about losing our edge and selling off our high-tech."

Such frustrations have recently come to a head. Since 2017, the German government has tightened rules on foreign corporate takeovers and sought to cap the percentage of a company non-European firms can purchase.

At the same time, German industrial lobbies have demanded that Brussels and Berlin finally come to terms with the fact that Chinese markets will not bend to international trade norms without pressure — a "remarkable" development, considering German industry's dependence on Chinese markets, said Stanzel.

“The People's Republic is establishing its own political, economic and social model,” said Dieter Kempf, the President of the Federation of German Industries, in a January policy paper. "No one should simply ignore the challenges China poses to the EU and Germany.”

Even so, Germany's new hawkish tone toward China isn't satisfying the administration of President Donald Trump. Germany has refused to ban Huawei from bidding to build its 5G digital networks, despite fears that doing so would allow Beijing unbridled access to confidential information.

The United States' Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell warned Germany earlier this month that the United States would withhold crucial intelligence sharing with Berlin if Huawei took part in the 5G project. It only adds to the many tensions surrounding trade and geopolitics that have colored the transatlantic relationship since President Trump took office, said Stanzel.

"The irony is that the German relationship toward China has never been as close to the US position as it is today," she said. "With the US, Germany, being the strongest economy in Europe, could have achieved a lot in leveraging China."

Dependent on China but wary of its motives, Germany is seeking to forge a future relationship with the world's second-largest economy that reflects its own ethos. Apart from close cooperation with France and other reliable EU partners, representatives of the German government have traveled to Vietnam and other emerging economies in the region to broker new trade deals that diversify away from China.

"With China and Chinese companies, they're somehow playing by their own rules. It's difficult for Germany to support that," said Jungbluth. "So Germany is looking for a third way between being too naïve with regards to China and being too protectionist to the point that it could damage the economic relationship.”

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Story/photo published date: 01/04/2019

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

Fantasy to reality: Ukrainian comedian leads presidential race

UKRCandidatePresidentKiev—Political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky has become a surprise hit on the Ukrainian political stage with his anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform. In fact, in interviews, it's hard to tell if it is Mr. Zelensky the candidate speaking or the hapless teacher he plays on the hit television comedy, "Servant of the People."

Regardless, it's resonating in the lead up to the presidential vote March 31, says Wojciech Kononczuk, the head of the Department for Ukraine at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. Polls show he’s taken the lead over Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko.

“I think that many voters don't believe in the real Mr. Zelensky but in the image of him as an actor," said Mr. Kononczuk. "He plays a humble and very honest history teacher who by accident is elected the next Ukrainian president. I think that many voters believe that it could be repeated in real life.”

For the past three years, Mr. Zelensky has starred in “Servant of the People” while also naming his new party after the show, which features a teacher fighting against the country’s oligarchs and trying to fix the country.

The show – and the candidate – are appealing because many Ukrainians are tired of the country's oligarchs and elite, say voters.

"Why not him for president," asked Olga Kulov, 27, of Kiev, referring to Zelensky. "I don't know if he will do well. But I want to give someone new a chance to try."

Even though Mr. Zelensky’s got the star appeal, Mr. Kononczuk says his platform is vague and worse, his statements on the war in the east of the country are naïve: He has said he would be able to solve the stalemate in the east by sitting down with Vladimir Putin and "meeting him halfway."

There are also concerns over his financial backing: Mr. Zelensky’s show is shown on Channel 1+1 owned by Ukrainian billionaire oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, known for his questionable tactics in taking over companies and who has been accused of theft.

Kolomoisky's support of Mr. Zelensky’s campaign is unconfirmed but his channel has featured very pro-Zelensky content in the run up to the election. Also, there is speculation among pundits that Kolomoisky is trying to get back at Poroshenko for firing him as governor of the eastern Ukrainian province of Dnipropetorsk.

“His ties to Ihor Kolomoisky, although they are denied by both sides, are very hard to completely ignore," said Ukraine regional researcher for Amnesty International, Krasimir Yankov of Zelensky. "(It's also hard to ignore) that that they will not play a role in the potential future presidency of Mr. Zelensky.”

Andrey Dikhtyarenko, editor of Realna Gazeta, one of Ukraine’s independent news outlets, says there's no question though as to why Mr. Zelensky is so appealing to voters – and that has nothing to do with his plans for reform.

“I would say this is a protest vote," he said. "People see that that there is no worthy candidate and they very much would want to throw a spanner in the higher echelons of politics and place at the top a totally new figure. This new figure happens to be a comedian and actor Zelensky.”

Analysts say Ukraine is ripe for change. While the country's economy has grown in the low-single digits in the past two years, unemployment remains at almost 9 percent, and per capita income at under $9,000 income. The World Bank says that growth will slow this year if major reforms are not enacted. Meanwhile, the war in the east continues to plague the country, and drain its resources.

Mr. Poroshneko came into power after the revolution five years ago and turned Ukraine decisively away from Russia and toward the West and Europe. However, during his tenure, he’s made slow progress in reforms and tackling corruption, analysts say.

Even so, he's the stalwart candidate for many in these unstable times: Many voters say he is the least bad choice, and brings stability and experience with him, as well as solid support in Europe.

“I will be voting for Poroshenko – I will vote for a candidate with who I am familiar with and someone who will continue on the democratic path rather than stray toward a totalitarian state," said Irina Dovgan, 57, who fled eastern Ukraine for Kiev. "What I expect from Poroshenko, and the most important thing to me, is the country’s path toward NATO membership and the European Union.”

Meanwhile, trailing in third is two-time former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, 56, who has wanted to regain her former post even as she lacks credibility.

“She was highly influential in the past and would like to regain the power again but not for the sake of fixing the country or to implement some reforms but rather for power as a power," said Mr. Kononczuk.

Still, it's undecided voters – currently about 20 percent, according to the latest polls – who will make or break the election, analysts said.

Olga Ivanova, 35, from Kiev, who works at a charitable foundation, says a lot of people she knows are lost as to who to vote for.

“The problem is that there is no trust," she said. "(It's become about) who is more handsome, who is cool and who is not cool, and that’s very sad.”

Even so, it's clear that the two establishment candidates – Timoshenko and Poroshenko – are getting desperate, not least because of Mr. Zelensky's popularity.

“We see from their statements weeks before the crucial vote that they are (behaving as) complete populists," said Mr. Yankov. "They will say whatever is needed, even if they contradict themselves, to get that extra percentage point.”

Jabeen Bhatti contributed from Berlin.

Photo: Screenshot of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky during an interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, in "Visiting Gordon."
Credit: Courtesy of "Visiting Gordon" official YouTube page. (12/25/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 03/17/2019

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

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 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


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

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