Emerging from the lockdown

DE200423JB009Paris—Denmark is tentatively easing restrictions in its mostly locked-down country and will open elementary schools and daycare centers on Wednesday.

Even so, leaders said they would do so cautiously, fearing a second wave.

“This will probably be like walking a tightrope," said Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen last week after announcing the lifting of some lockdown measures.

"If we stand still on it, we could fall. And if we go too fast, it could go wrong. It will have to be one careful step at a time.”

Across Europe, which saw 1,873,265 cases and 79,252 deaths since the outbreak began earlier this year, countries such as hard hit Italy and Spain as well as lesser-impacted Denmark and Austria are starting to ease their lockdowns as of this week.

They do so even as other countries such as France and the UK extending their shutdowns, illustrating how European countries are still at different stages of fighting the novel coronavirus outbreak while becoming impatient to restart their economies.

In Denmark, which had looser restrictions than its neighbors to the south – it allowed Danes to go out as long as they implemented social distancing – officials say they will slowly open businesses and schools in stages. The country was the second in Europe to close down just over a month ago, doing so before it had even reported a death.

Over the past few weeks, Denmark has seen a steady decline in the rate of new cases that led to the loosening of restrictions. On April 7, it reported 390 new infections. On Monday, it reported 144. Also, the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations continues to fall, Frederiksen said Tuesday.

Even so, Denmark plans to keep social distancing rules and its bans on gatherings of more than 10.

Still, some Danes felt it was too soon.

"My jaw dropped (when I heard it)," said Sandra Andersen, mother of two girls, ages five and nine, who created a Facebook group called "My child shouldn't have to be a (guinea pig) for COVID-19" that attracted 21,000 parents in 24 hours, reported Danish daily, Politiken. "It is crazy to send the little ones out first, when they cannot understand the guidelines."

Austria, meanwhile, also locked down early in March and avoided the mass outbreak seen by other countries in Europe. On Tuesday, Austria reopened stores of less than 400 square meters (4,306 square feet) as well as hardware stores and gardening centers. Owners are to make sure that social distancing is practiced within the store and face masks are mandatory.

If new infections don't surge, the plan is for all other stores to reopen May 2, followed by restaurants, bars and hotels in mid-May. Large events are banned until July.

"The experience of countries that have handled the pandemic well taught us that we have to move slowly," said Economic Minister Margarete Schramböck.

Austria saw its daily increase in infections flatten to 3 percent. It has seen 384 deaths in a population of about 9 million since the pandemic first broke out.

By contrast, Spain and Italy were the hardest hit in Europe with 18,056 and 20,465 deaths respectively as of Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins tracker. Italy was the first in Europe to implement a partial shutdown before moving to a complete lockdown on March 9. Spain followed less than a week later. The two countries had the strictest shutdown rules in Europe.

In Italy, small shops such as bookstores were allowed to open in some regions of the country as long as they maintain social distancing. Lombardy and other areas in the hard-hit north are remaining on lockdown.

Spain, meanwhile, allowed some workers unable to work from home such as those in the construction and manufacturing industries to return to work. Other restrictions will be lifted slowly over in the next few months.

Spanish officials said they would distribute millions of masks and maintain guidelines on social distancing.

"The climb has been difficult, the descent will also be," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told parliament.

Still, some union and regional leaders such as Quim Torra, head of Catalonia, said allowing people to return to work was "reckless."

Even though Spain has managed to get its new infection rate to flatten, say health officials, both Spain and Italy still see more than 500 deaths a day.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and the European Union warned that these countries risk a resurgence of infections by easing their lockdowns.

“The overall world outbreak, 90 percent of cases are coming from Europe and the United States of America," said WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris Tuesday. "So we are certainly not seeing the peak yet.”

WHO issued guidance with six preconditions necessary for countries to begin easing restrictions, she added. "And the most important one is: 'is your transmission controlled?,'" said Harris.

Europeans planning to ease restrictions say they are keeping those warnings in mind.

"If we open Denmark too quickly again, we risk that infections rise too sharply and then we have to close down again," said Frederiksen.

French President Emmanuel Macron is not taking any chances in spite of the rate of increase hovering around 3 percent most of the past week. He told the nation Monday evening that the lockdown, which began March 17 and was set to end this week, would be extended to May 11.

"The lifting of the lockdown is only going to be possible if we continue to be good citizens, responsible and respect the rules, and if the spread of the virus has indeed continued to slow," he said in a televised address. “We are living in a difficult moment, but thanks to our joint effort, we are making progress…but it isn't yet under control."

He said France plans to reopen schools and daycare centers on May 11 and some workers will be allowed to go back to work. There was no date given for the reopening of stores, universities or restaurants and bars. It also plans to keep borders to non-European countries closed for up to seven months.

On Monday, France's death rate increased by 20 to 335 deaths in a 24-hour period. The country has the third highest amount of infections in Europe, 144,000 as of Tuesday, and has seen almost 16,000 people die in the pandemic.

In spite of the strict lockdown regime, increasingly more restaurants opened over the past week to serve takeout and streets were busier with cars and pedestrians than in the first three weeks of the lockdown.

"It's beautiful weather and it's hard to stay inside," said Marie, 54, in northern Paris who explained that she was officially shopping for groceries, but taking a detour to get a walk in. "After a month, people are getting restless. Besides, it's safer for me out here taking a walk then inside those crowded supermarkets where almost no one does social distancing or is wearing a mask."

Meanwhile, the UK, which has seen 12,125 deaths as of Tuesday and a new infection rate of about 7 percent for the past week, is expected to announce Thursday that lockdown measures will remain until at least May 7, the Times newspaper reported Tuesday. British officials estimate that the peak is still one to two weeks away.

In Eastern Europe, Poland is set to start opening stores and lifting other restrictions on April 19. Officials in the Czech Republic said they are planning to allow small stores to open on April 20, larger ones on May 11, beer gardens on May 25 and restaurants, theaters and malls on June 8. Larger events, however, remain cancelled. Schools won't reopen until September.

And Germany, with the largest economy in Europe, is set to announce its plan to restart the economy on Wednesday.

"I would very much welcome it if the (governors) and the chancellor could agree tomorrow on a uniform solution for the gradual easing of restrictions," said Health Minister Jens Spahn Tuesday. "It will be a cautious first step back into a new normal. It is about finding the right balance between health concerns and the social and economic consequences."

Still, Maria, a freelance German language teacher in Berlin, says she thinks things will return to normal much more quickly than is maybe good for the country.

"I am sure things get back to normal very quickly because people tend to forget very easily," she said. "Shops will be crammed and I am afraid everything will start all over again."

"Even though I am struggling a bit financially I hope language schools remain closed," she added. "Having many people in tiny classrooms would be irresponsible."

Meanwhile, Filip Bochenski and Anastasia Schöck-Bochenski of the Fabelei cocktail bar in Berlin who only opened their doors 18 months ago say they can't hold on much longer. The country needs to restart now, they added.

"We had to quickly rethink what we could do to stay afloat so within three days (of the lockdown), we created a new system with a cocktail delivery service," said Anastasia. "The demand is not high enough to cover our regular costs but it does take some weight off… But we definitely hope to reopen soon as we – like many other businesses – can only keep this up for a certain amount of time without regular income."

Banaj reported from Berlin.

Photo: April 23, 2020 - Berlin, Germany - Kjello Torgard, a shopkeeper at Daytrip Shoes in the Kreuzberg district, said the store's client base has dropped dramatically due to the lockdown because of a lack of tourists.
Credit: Eros Banaj/ ARA Network Inc. (04/23/20)

Story/photo published date: 04/14/20


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

Keep calm and carry on

UK Johnson CoronavirusLondon—Through happy times or troubled times, for Brits, the pub is always there. So it was a shock to many when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all of them closed – along with cafes, restaurants and bars – indefinitely.

"We're taking away the ancient, inalienable right of the free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub," he said. 


It was for many, a wake-up call to scale of the Covid-19 pandemic and what's facing the country.

"When I was still in London, people were still using public transport and the pub opposite my flat was always really busy every night," said Josh Woodward, a 24-year-old research assistant in London. "I don't think people grasped the seriousness of it all."
In a rare show of political unity, politicians from rival parties echoed the prime minister's appeals for people to stay home.
"This is the biggest health, social and economic emergency we have faced since the Second World War," said Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.
Overall, the public is supportive of Johnson's handling of the crisis. About 53 percent of Brits had "a lot" or a "fair amount" of confidence Johnson's handling of Covid-19, according to YouGov's March 20 poll.
At the same time, the poll showed that the public supports even more draconian measures than Johnson has so far introduced. For example, 64 percent said they support London being placed under a lockdown.
Some believe the prime minister has been lax and that he should have moved more decisively earlier.
"It feels like the government's response has been quite reactionary even though it seems obvious to the rest of us that these things have to happen to stop the spread of the virus," said Mr. Woodward. "The government was too trusting that the public would listen and obey without the ban being enforced."
Earlier last week, Mr. Johnson stopped short of enforcing closures and instead merely asked Brits not to go to pubs and restaurants to help halt the contagion. Still, for most Brits, it was business as usual. There were no border closures, empty streets or shut stores and restaurants as in most of the rest of the continent.
Even so, the day after Mr. Johnson's request, the number of newly confirmed cases jumped by 66 percent, according to the government agency, Public Health England.
There are more than 5,000 confirmed cases and almost 300 deaths of the virus in the United Kingdom as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking infections worldwide. Officials say the true total is likely to be significantly higher amid fears that the country is not far behind neighbors like France where the number of infected have been doubling every week.
Over the weekend, the French press reported that the only reason the British began to lock down the country is because French President Emmanuel Macron forced Mr. Johnson's hand: Macron threatened to ban Brits from coming to France.
An unnamed source in the presidential palace was quoted in the French newspaper Libération as saying, "We had to clearly threaten him so that he would finally move."
After Johnson's announcement, many Londoners with places outside of the capital began to flee –including the 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, who is self-isolating with her husband Prince Philip in Windsor Castle outside of the city.
"Evacuated, escaped. Call it what you like," said Mr. Woodward who moved back to his parents' house in the rural town of Yarm in north Yorkshire.
Meanwhile, those left in the British capital were waiting in long lines outside supermarkets before they even opened. Shelves were stripped of essentials such as bread and toilet paper, while government officials pleaded with consumers to refrain from hoarding. Some national supermarkets have responded by reserving time slots in the day specifically for the elderly and health workers to shop.
The government has also said the armed forces could be called in to ensure vulnerable Brits get the supplies they need to weather the pandemic.
Meanwhile, finance minister, Rishi Sunak, jumped to declare a raft of economic measures aimed at bolstering businesses as they brace for the financial impact of the pandemic.
"You will not face this alone," said Mr. Sunak, as he promised the government will pay for up to 80 percent of staff wages.
Even so, large numbers of self-employed people continue to wonder how they'll pay their bills during the crisis.
"I'm feeling really worried about my job because I have three children at home and I won't have the government's help and I'm the only person who works in my house," said Miriam De Oliveira, a 40-year-old self-employed cleaner from London. Large numbers of her clients have asked her to stay away for the foreseeable future and she expects to work just five hours in the coming week, down from her usual 80. "I think the government could help a little more," she added.
On Sunday as the U.K. celebrated its Mother's Day, Mr. Johnson implored Brits not to visit their mothers.
"The best thing is to ring her, video call her, Skype her, but to avoid any unnecessary physical contact or proximity," he said. "If your mother is elderly or vulnerable then I'm afraid all the statistics show she is much more likely to die."

Photo: March 6, 2020 - Thurleigh, United Kingdom - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) meeting scientists at the Mologic Lab. Researchers are developing eveloping a home testing device for coronavirus.
Credit: Courtesy of United Kingdom's Prime Minister's Office official Twitter account (03/06/20)

Story/ photo published date: 03/23/20

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

Turkey opened the floodgates

EURefugees2020Paris--In Greece, the military and police clash with refugees trying to get across the Turkish border as islanders to the south cope with hundreds of new arrivals. Across a continent, German politicians wow to keep their borders shut even as thousands protest in the capital to open them.

And in France, some wonder if they are going to see refugee tent cities popping up in front of their shops and restaurants again.

"Here we go," said Christine, who recently closed her restaurant in northern Paris on a city square, which hosted hundreds of migrants a few years ago.

"It killed our business," she said of the influx. "We never really recovered."

European officials, worried over a repeat of 2015's refugee crisis, are scrambling to contain the fallout from a move by Turkey over the weekend to open its western borders to the more than 4 million refugees and migrants it hosts.

Over the past two days, European Union countries have moved to shore up their borders and the bloc has sent its top officials to Turkey to resolve a growing dispute over Syria.

An escalating conflict in Idlib between Russian-backed Syrian government forces trying to retake the province from the Turkish-backed opposition has pushed almost a million Syrians to flee, many toward the now-closed Turkish border.

Erdogan has warned that Turkey cannot take more refugees. He wants European support for his efforts in Syria and for the refugees, saying a 2016 deal to limit the influx in exchange for billions of dollars was insufficient.

That deal resulted in a steep drop in new arrivals into the EU, from more than 1 million in 2015 to 123,000 in 2019, according to the UN.
Some Europeans have called his move 'blackmail.'

“I understand that the situation (in Idlib) has become very drastic for Turkey…and I understand that Turkey faces a very difficult challenge," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I certainly understand that Turkish President Erdogan expects more from Europe. Regardless, I find it completely unacceptable that President Erdogan and his government are not talking to us about their unhappiness with the situation but instead, playing it out on the backs of refugees."

In Germany, meanwhile, officials moved quickly to get the message out that unlike in 2015 when Merkel opened the country's doors to newcomers, Germany is closed.

"There is no point in coming to Germany," said former Christian Democrat parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz, a possible candidate for chancellor in 2021. "We cannot accept you here."

Meanwhile, German politicians worry about 2021 when Merkel steps down. Like other European countries, Germany has seen steep gains for far-right parties over the past few years, including in local elections last year. That rise in support is attributed to the refugee issue.

Even so, as in 2015, some in Germany, including church officials, believe the doors must remain open. On Tuesday, a few thousand took to the streets of Berlin to protest closed borders for refugees, chanting "We have space!”

"Everyone should be on the streets protesting today. What is happening in Greece is completely unacceptable - shame on you, Europe!," wrote one supporter Lara Minkus on Twitter.

Greece, meanwhile, has a new conservative government since July, determined to stop the influx. On Sunday, the government suspended applications for asylum applications for a month as it forcefully repelled thousands of refugees at the Greek-Turkish border with tear gas and water cannons.

“(This) is an asymmetric threat to Greece's eastern border, which is also Europe's border,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after he visited the border Tuesday with EU officials. “The illegal invasion of thousands of people takes the form of an attack on our national territory, often with people of unknown origin and unknown purposes on the frontline.”

Greece saw 74,000 arrivals in 2019.

Meanwhile, European countries such as Greece, Germany and France, continue to struggle to integrate refugees.
On the island of Lesbos, near Turkey, 1,500 refugees and migrants arrived by sea this week, joining about 20,000 still stuck there in bursting and unsanitary refugee camps. The government won't allow the newcomers on the islands to leave for the mainland or any other European country.

Rahime Ewazari, 40, of Afghanistan, has been waiting on Lesbos for her asylum application to e processed for the past three months. She can expect to wait for a while as Greece faces an enormous backlog. She says she has no other choice.

“We (of the) Hazara (minority) have a big problem in our country because there's a lot of fighting (that targets us),” she said. “We want to go to the European Union to save our children. Even so, we can't survive in Moria (refugee camp). It's like hell.”

The refugee issue has polarized the 80,000 islanders. Some welcome the newcomers while others form vigilante groups and target the refugees, and those who try to help them. Last week, there were riots that forced the government to back down on its plan to build a new refugee detention center.

“We need a solution for both the islanders and the people arriving,” said Stratis Valliamos, a Lesbos fisherman who has helped save dozens of refugees from drowning on their way from Turkey in the past five years. “I understand that people are afraid, you can't have 20,000 people living in a slum next to a city of 30,000 because among these people there are criminals, too.”

“But, if there was a war here I'd do the same thing," he added. "I'd take my kid and get in my fishing boat or on a plane and save ourselves."

Apostolou reported from Lesbos, Greece. Eros Banaj contributed from Berlin.

Photo: Screenshot taken from Seebruecke International video about the conditions in Camp Moria in the Greek island of Lesbos. The organization tweeted: "We have arrived at Camp #Moria. Thousands of people are forced to live here. The state is failing, important work is being done by NGOs. The members of the delegation are given a tour." 
Credit: Courtesy of Seebruecke International official Twitter page. (02/28/20)

Story/photo published date: 03/04/20

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

No future for Kremlin's "grey cardinal"

RUSSurkov2020MOSCOW – Vladislav Surkov was the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal” – a chain-smoking, secretive ideologue with a fondness for American beat poetry and rap music.

The architect of President Vladimir Putin’s political system, Mr. Surkov, 55, was a master manipulator, creating fake “opposition” parties that provided Russian voters with the illusion of genuine democracy.

Mr. Surkov also founded Nashi, a notorious Putin youth movement whose members harassed foreign diplomats and opposition figures in the early years of Mr. Putin’s rule. He is believed to have written a novel, Almost Zero, under a pseudonym, as well as lyrics for a popular Russian rock group.

Widely viewed as the political heir to Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union’s shadowy chief ideologue during the Cold War, Mr. Surkov was loathed and feared by the Russian opposition.

“[Mr. Surkov] is the lord of darkness,’ Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Kremlin critic, once said. “He has been complicit in all the vileness of the Putin era.”
Now, Mr. Surkov has become the latest apparent victim of a far-reaching political shake-up instigated by Mr. Putin, 67, that has left both his critics and his supporters guessing as to his exact intentions.

In a terse two-sentence decree, Mr. Putin announced this month that he was dismissing Mr. Surkov. He is not believed to have been offered another post. “A person as experienced and talented as Surkov will find employment,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.

Mr Surkov insisted on Wednesday that his departure from the Kremlin was his own decision.

“I created this [political] system, but I was never was a part of it,” Mr. Surkov said in comments published by Russian media. “I am interested in working in the genre of counter-realism. That is, when and if you need to act against reality, change it, remake it.” When asked if he had any enemies, Mr. Surkov replied: “I hope so. I tried so hard, after all.”

In recent years, Mr. Surkov had been in charge of Kremlin policy on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist forces have carved out two so-called people’s republics amid a conflict that has killed over 13,000 people since 2014.

International investigators said in November that recordings of intercepted telephone calls could implicate Mr. Surkov in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. All 298 people on board were killed when the plane was shot down by what investigators say was a Buk missile supplied to separatists by the Russian military.

Mr. Surkov’s abrupt departure from the political scene comes around a month since Mr. Putin proposed sweeping changes to the country’s Constitution during his annual state-of-the-nation speech. Among the amendments proposed by Mr. Putin, who celebrated two decades in power on New Year’s Eve, were an increase in the powers of parliament and a wider role for the State Council, an advisory body. The Kremlin says the proposals will be put to a nationwide vote in April.

Mr. Putin’s moves triggered the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, amid rumours of in-fighting. Mr. Medvedev, 54, was replaced by Mikhail Mishustin, a previously obscure tax official.

Mr Putin is required by Russian law to step down as president when his current and final term of office expires in 2024. His proposed amendments to Russia’s 1993 Constitution were initially seen as paving the way for the ex-KGB officer to prolong his long rule by shifting to the role of prime minister or head of the State Council in four years. But most political analysts say the final wording of Mr. Putin’s amendments contained no significant reduction in the president’s powers. The development sparked speculation that the Kremlin may be preparing to extend to the number of terms that Mr. Putin can serve.

Mr. Surkov added fuel to the discussion Wednesday when he said that Constitutional changes would reset the clock on term limits and allow Mr. Putin to stay in office until 2036, when he will be 79.

“Legal logic will make it necessary to restart the countdown of presidential terms,” said Mr. Surkov. “The restrictions of the current presidency will not be able to apply [to Mr. Putin.]”

One in every four Russians would like to see Mr. Putin remain as president beyond 2024, according to an opinion poll published by the Levada Centre, an independent think-tank in Moscow. One third said they wanted to see Mr. Putin take on another role. Thirty-two percent said, however, they wanted Mr. Putin to retire from public life altogether.

“The increase in fatigue [with Mr. Putin] among people is visible,” said Lev Gudkov, the Levada Centre director.

A government commission tasked by Mr. Putin with proposing additional changes to the Constitution has come with an array of eye-catching suggestions, including changing the official job title of the Russian head of state from “president” to “supreme leader.”

The only other official supreme leader in Russian history was Admiral Kolchak, who led the anti-Bolshevik White Army government during the Russian Civil War. He was executed by a Red Army firing squad in 1920.

The commission includes Vladimir Mashkov, an actor who played a Russian intelligence agent in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and Yelena Isinbayeva, a former Olympic pole vaulter. Only 11 members of the commission’s 75 members have a legal background, but all of them are Kremlin loyalists.

Ms. Isinbayeva was widely mocked when she admitted this month that she had never previously read Russia’s constitution, which she described as “a very important book”.

Other proposals made by Mr. Putin’s commission include granting former life-long immunity from criminal prosecution to former presidents, a formal recognition of Russia as a “victorious power” in World War Two, and legally establishing Orthodox Christianity as the country’s state religion.

It is unclear which of the commission’s proposals will make it into the draft Constitution.

Opposition figures said the proposal to grant immunity from prosecution to former president was a Kremlin ploy to ensure that Mr. Putin would never be tried in a Russian court of law. Mr. Putin has faced corruption allegations since the early 1990s, when he was a little-known deputy to the mayor of St Petersburg, his home city.

Russians plan to rally nationwide Saturday against what they say is Mr. Putin’s intention to rule for life. The protests take place on the fifth anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Kremlin critic who was assassinated near Red Square in 2015.

“They will be watching in the Kremlin to see how many people turn up at the Nemtsov rally,” said Alexei Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition figure. “[The numbers] will decide how brazenly they carry out the operation to keep Putin in power.”

Photo: Video still of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s former “grey cardinal” and architect of President Vladimir Putin’s political system.
Credit: Courtesy of Yasha Levine official Twitter page. (11/20/17)

Story/photo published date: 02/27/20

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

Putin's long-term plans

RUSPUTINMoscow - Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday to call for wide-reaching changes to the Constitution that could enable him to rule indefinitely.

Among the changes proposed by Mr. Putin were an increase in the powers of parliament and a greater role for the State Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin.

“We need a referendum on the entire package of amendments to the Constitution,” Mr Putin told lawmakers from both the upper and lower houses of parliament. He gave no indication of when the referendum, Russia’s first since 1993, would take place.

Mr Putin’s announcement was followed swiftly by the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his entire government, a development that came as a major surprise. Mr. Putin named Mikhail Mishustin, the little-known head of the tax service, as Mr. Medvedev’s successor. Mr. Mishustin was so obscure before his shock nomination that he did not even have an English-language Wikipedia page and Russians expressed bemusement at his unexpected rise to power. “Mishustin has always been in the shadows,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R-Politik political analysis firm

Mr. Medvedev, who had been in office since 2012, said he and his ministers were stepping down to smooth the way for Mr. Putin’s proposed amendments to the Constitution. It was unclear how Mr. Medvedev’s “resignation,” which is believed to have been ordered by Kremlin officials, would make Mr. Putin’s task easier.

Mr. Putin., an ex-KGB officer who marked the 20th anniversary of his ascent to power on New Year’s Eve, is due to step down in 2024, when his final presidential term expires. Only Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, has ruled Russia for longer.

Few in Moscow expect Mr Putin to relinquish power, however, and there has been widespread speculation about how he might seek to prolong his rule. Among the possible scenarios that have been mentioned are a shift to the role of prime minister – a position Mr. Putin held from 2008 to 2012 – or ruling as head of a revamped State Council.

Mr. Putin proposed giving parliament the power to choose the prime minister, as well as confirm cabinet ministers. The president currently makes such appointments.

“This will increase the role of parliament and parliamentary parties, as well as the powers and independence of the prime minister and all cabinet members,” Mr. Putin said.

He also said, however, that Russia “should remain a strong presidential republic” and that the president should retain the power to appoint key security officials, but only after discussions with senators.

“These amendments, when they are adopted ... will make significant changes not only to a number of articles of the Constitution, but also to the balance of power,” Mr. Medvedev said. “In this context, it is obvious that we, as the government, should provide the president of our country with the ability to make all necessary decisions for this.”

Kirill Rogov, a political analyst in Moscow, said the proposed changes to the constitution would allow Mr Putin to “stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors.”

Mr. Putin also proposed to limit the powers of any presidential successors by closing a constitutional loophole that allows presidents to serve more than two terms, as long as they step down for at least a single term before returning to the Kremlin. Mr. Putin made use of the loophole to return to the presidency for a third term in 2012.

“It’s clear to everyone that this is all done exclusively to ensure Putin’s lifetime rule,” said Leonid Volkov, a prominent Kremlin critic.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now a political analyst, raised the possibility that Mr. Putin’s decision to dismiss Mr Medvedev may have been taken spontaneously.

“The fact that they did not offer us any intelligible explanation of what is happening suggests that the dismissal of the government was a surprise,” he wrote on Facebook.

It was a theory backed up by The Bell, a Russian news website, which quoted an unnamed minister as saying that the government had received no warning that Mr. Putin was about to order its dismissal. “This was like a bolt from the blue,” the minister said.

Mr. Putin began his speech by admitting that Russians were hungry for change after years of economic stagnation that has left around 12 per cent of the population — about 17.5 million people – living beneath a poverty line defined as a monthly income of just $194.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin called for wide-reaching changes to the Constitution that could enable him to rule indefinitely.

Story/photo published date: 01/15/20

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

Historic reforms and unending gridlocks

FRMacron2019By Jabeen Bhatti

Paris — At a bus stop just north of downtown Paris, dozens of people waited Tuesday shivering in the morning cold, wondering if a bus would come.

It's a scene that has become familiar over the past 13 days of strikes over pension reforms in France.

"I have to get to work," said Arvin, 42, a cleaner who works for cash, visibly stressed. "I don't make money if I don't get to work – I have a family to support."

One would-be passenger tried unsuccessfully to hail a taxi. Others waiting finally gave up and began walking, hoping they wouldn't get trapped by the big demonstration downtown.

In that mostly-peaceful demonstration, hundreds of thousands of French rail workers, airline staff, doctors, teachers, judges and opera singers walked off the job and onto the streets of Paris and other cities around France Tuesday, trying to force French President Emmanuel Macron to back off on his pension reform plan.

Across the city, schools closed their doors and end of year exams were cancelled. Stores in many districts never opened and other businesses limped by with minimal staff. Numerous flights were cancelled and public transportation came mostly to a halt, as people waited for trains or buses that didn’t come or tried unsuccessfully to get onto the jammed ones that did. Tourists, meanwhile, wondered when the Eiffel Tower would open again.

The big show of force Tuesday which involved a walkout by all the unions for the first time this year comes just before the start of the Christmas holidays: The unions hope the government will cave on its reform plan as it did in 1995 after three weeks of strikes just before Christmas in response to then-President Jacques Chirac's attempt to tinker with the retirement system.

Meanwhile, the unions also worry that public support will drop as people tire of the disruptions and Christmas looms. So far, 54 percent of the French have a "positive opinion" of the strikes, according to a poll Monday by Ifop. But another survey showed that 55 percent say it's not "acceptable" for the strikes to continue over the holidays, which essentially begin on Saturday and run until Jan 6.

Regardless, many are unsure they will be able to celebrate.

"I don't know if I will get home, said Sandra, 40, a freelance designer, who is trying to go to Normandy, a region north of Paris, for the Christmas holidays. She says she threw out the train tickets she bought months ago and will try her luck on a long-distance bus this weekend.

"It's enough now," she added, explaining that she had to cancel her holiday party last weekend because guests wouldn't be able to get to her home, and has had many client meetings postponed to 2020. "It's hurt my business tremendously – and my private life."

The protests center around President Macron's "historic" plan to reform the pension system, one of the costliest in the developed world: It sets an official retirement age at 62, one of the lowest in Europe, which the government is trying to raise by two years. By contrast, Germany and the UK are raising their official retirement ages from 65 to 67 over the next decade.

Macron says in order to avoid billions in deficits and make France competitive, the system has to change. He adds that the current system is essentially unfair to millions of workers: Retirement ages and benefits vary according to sector with 42 different retirement schemes in place. Public sector workers – about 20 percent of the workforce – have some of the most generous retirement benefits and some can retire in their 50s. The new system envisions a single retirement scheme for everyone.

"It is deeply fair," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said of the plan. "We will put an end to special regimes…and will do gently, and progressively."

Opponents, however, say that the change will force workers to work longer and earn less. They accuse Macron, a former banker, of trying to destroy the hard-won gains of French workers in favor of the business elite and the rich.

"We have one of the best pension systems in the world, if not the best. However, the president decided, for ideological reasons, to destroy it," one union, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), said in a statement.

"It's a huge political mistake," said Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France's largest union, of the retirement age hike specifically.

The government will meet with the unions Wednesday. Macron is coming under increasing pressure, especially because his architect of the reform plan, Jean-Paul Delevoye, resigned Monday after it came to light that he failed to disclose income from outside sources as required.

Analysts say that the real problem is Macron himself: Polls show that 64 percent of the French actually support streamlining the pension system, if not the age hike. "The government's ability to convince (people) has been reduced," said an analysis by Ifop, a French pollster.

The polls bear that out: Only 35 percent of the French approve of Macron himself and just 30 percent believe Macron can tackle the problems of the country, according to a recent poll by Elabe. That was reflected in the frontpage of Tuesday's edition of the daily Liberation which showed Macron and Delevoye, with the headline, "Retirement – The Amateurs."

Jacques, who works for the public sector and was at the demonstration with his wife, says the strikes are about far more than the pension system, they are about economic justice. He added that the disruption was necessary even if it hurts.

"A period of chaos is needed," he said. "Otherwise, the government will just wait until the protestors get tired and eventually go home as they always do. This way, the (leadership) is forced to listen."

Ahmad Bejoui, a taxi driver said the strikes are necessary to prevent further rollbacks. "Where does it stop," he asked. "They want to raise the age to 64 but next year they will want to raise it to 65 then 70."

Still, many Parisians expressed frustration.

"This is insane," said Bernard Maupeau, 67, who is retired. "We can't have 20 percent of the country holding the rest of us hostage. A few more days of this and support for this will drop."

"It's my generation that did this," he added, referring to the "extravagant benefit schemes" for pensioners. "But now we have to roll this back, we have to survive."

So far, the government says it will hold firm on its reform plan, which it plans to pass in January. Meanwhile, the unions are split on halting the strike for the holidays even as they wow to continue afterward.

Meanwhile, many in Paris say they feel a sense of despair because there is no sense of when things will get back to normal. Right now, it's anything but.

At clothing chain Mango's usually mobbed Les Halles location, one clerk instead of the usual half-dozen manned the cashier station, serving only a few customers. Starbucks nearby announced it would close early. Some stores didn't bother to open.

Retailers are especially feeling the pain of the strike during what is usually the busiest shopping period of the year. Retail business over the past two weeks has dropped up to 60 percent compared to the same period last year.

"No one is here," said Najed Sali, waving her arms around at her empty boutique in central Paris. "It's a disaster for us."

"It's Christmas time, for goodness sake, but it doesn't feel like it, no one is in a good mood," she added, as fairy lights dressing the street to mark the holidays twinkled outside of her store. "It's supposed to feel festive, fun…instead, we have this situation."

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron says in order to avoid billions in deficits and make France competitive, the system has to change.
Credit: Courtesy of the official website of the France's President

Story/photo published date: 12/17/19

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

Walking a thin line - Italy and the Trump scandal

GiuseppeConteROME - The comings and goings in the Italian capital in recent weeks look a lot like a who’s who list of allies and surrogates for Donald Trump.

Among those who have passed through Rome since August: attorney general Bill Barr, U.S. attorney and Barr lieutenant John Durham, former Trump deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, first son-in-law Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and first daughter Ivanka Trump have all spent time in Rome.

Add to that list former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who advises a far-right Italian political party and has tried to set up a populist academy outside Rome, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose wife, Callista, is the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

“Rome has always been on the political fault lines for many different reasons,” said Francesco Galietti, founder of Policy Sonar, a Rome-based political risk consultancy. “These figures aren’t all coming through town for the same set of reasons, but these visits do show that Rome still has a certain kind of relevance and that it could even play an important role in the U.S. presidential elections next year.”

One key figure in at least some of the visits is Joseph Mifsud, a mysterious Maltese influence peddler whose name appeared more than 60 times in the Mueller Report. Mr. Mueller reported that in 2016, Mr. Mifsud met with former Trump advisor George Papadopoulos in Rome, telling Mr. Papadopoulos that Russia had damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

But multiple media reports show that Mr. Trump’s allies claim Mr. Mifsud was mischaracterized in the Mueller Report and that he is actually an intelligence asset employed by officials from the Barack Obama administration to cause trouble for Mr. Trump. That is a point that Mr. Barr, Mr. Durham and others have reportedly been looking into.

“That’s why Barr came to Rome twice, why Durham came to Rome, to look for corroborating information regarding Mifsud’s role in the 2016 election,” said Massimo Basile, an Italian researcher and journalist who has followed developments related to Mr. Mifsud case closely.

The problem is that Mr. Mifsud’s whereabouts have been unknown since 2017. Mr. Basile said he believes Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham managed to find some information about Mr. Mifsud’s role, and that a report based on their findings could be released in the coming weeks.

But other key observers are not so sure there will be much value in what Mr. Mifsud might have to say. Carlo Bonini, an author and journalist who has written extensively on intelligence issues and on Mr. Mifsud, characterized the 59-year-old as a conman in hiding until he can find a way to “monetize” his situation.

“Nobody knows exactly what Mifsud knows, but he is a desperate man and a man who needs money,” Mr. Bonini said. “I don’t know how much value what he has to say would eventually have.”

For its part, Italy has tried to keep itself at an arm’s length from the scandals swirling around Mr. Trump in recent months. Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, has stressed as often as possible that he never discussed the Russia probe with Mr. Trump or any of his surrogates and that Italian intelligence services played no role in the events that led to the Mr. Mueller’s probe.

“Our intelligence service is completely unrelated to the so-called ‘Russia-gate’ and that has been made clear,” Mr. Conte told Italian reporters after Mr. Barr’s visit a month ago.

According to Mr. Basile, Italian leaders are trying to walk a thin line when it comes to U.S. politics.

“Italian officials will reveal what they know, but beyond that they can’t take sides,” Mr. Basile said. “The U.S. is a close ally but we have no idea who will be president (after the 2020 elections."
Photo: Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, has stressed as often as possible that he never discussed the Russia probe with Mr. Trump or any of his surrogates and that Italian intelligence services played no role in the events that led to the Mr. Mueller’s probe.
Credit: Courtesy of Giuseppe Conte's official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 11/06/19 
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

New revelations about Iran's human rights abuses

ITMEK2019ROME - Members of the European Parliament on Wednesday used a book presentation to heap praise on the head of a leading Iranian dissident group while urging European Union member states to do more to confront Iran over human rights abuses.

The book, "Crime Against Humanity," lists the names of more than 5,000 people reportedly killed by the Iranian regime 31 years ago. The book also details the findings of 35 commissions looking into the atrocities and lists the locations of three dozen mass graves in Iran.

MEK says as many as 30,000 political prisoners and opposition figures were killed in Iran in 1988, though organizations including Amnesty International list lower totals.

The majority of those killed in 1988 were members of Mujahedin-e Khalq, best known as MEK, a group that helped organize and promote Wednesday’s event. MEK leader Maryam Rajavi was the event’s keynote speaker, where she called for a “firm European policy which necessarily requires lending support to the Iranian people’s resistance [in order] to establish democracy and popular sovereignty” in Iran.

Rajavi said that recent events, which include confrontation with tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz and an attack on a major petroleum refinery in Saudi Arabia are proof that her warning to the European Parliament two years ago was coming true: “I warned then that ‘If the ruling religious fascism in Iran is not dealt with decisively they will impose a fatal war on the region and the world.’”

Iran has denied its role in the events Rajavi mentioned.

Rajavi found plenty of allies among several dozen parliamentarians who attended the event, which was held in a committee meeting room at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Anna Fotyga, a Polish member of the legislature and a former minister of foreign affairs who chaired Wednesday’s proceedings, called on the European Union to “focus on human rights abuses when it comes to relations with Iran.”

Other attendees followed suit, with several expressing strong support for Rajavi and MEK as an alternative to the regime.

Patrizia Toia, a member of parliament from Italy, told Rajavi “you have our full support in your struggle to achieve freedom and democracy for your people.”

“I look forward to the day when we are all able to go to a free Iran with Maryam Rajavi as its elected democratic president,” added Anthea McIntyre, a member of parliament from the U.K.

When the 100-minute meeting concluded, attendees stood and clapped as Rajavi, Fotyga, and other figures at the head table exited the room.

Andrea Dessí, a senior fellow with the Institute for International Affairs, a Rome-based think tank, said events like the one on Wednesday could help push the European Union into more of a hardline stance toward Iran that is more in line with that of the U.S. under President Donald Trump.

“We are not going to see a policy shift on Iran from one day to the next,” Dessí said in an interview. “This was a relatively low-key event, but it’s still significant that it took place and that it was well attended even as the European Union is focused on Brexit and what is taking place on the Turkey-Syria border.”

The event also took place the same day police in Albania said they foiled the plans of an Iranian paramilitary network that reportedly had plans to attack the MEK’s main base in that country.

MEK constructed its Ashraf-3 base in what had been Albanian pastureland over the past three years, after previous bases in Iraq were abandoned for safety reasons.

It was the second reported plot to attack the Ashraf-3 base thwarted by Albanian officials in less than eight months.

Photo: MEK leader Maryam Rajavi said that recent events, which include confrontation with tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz and an attack on a major petroleum refinery in Saudi Arabia are proof that her warning to the European Parliament two years ago was coming true: “I warned then that ‘If the ruling religious fascism in Iran is not dealt with decisively they will impose a fatal war on the region and the world.’”
Credit: Courtesy of Maryam Rajavi Official Twitter account (07/13/19)

Story/photo published date: 10/23/19

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

French 'yellow vests' making a comeback

NotreDameYJPARIS - After a quiet summer, the Yellow Vests were hoping for a busy fall. So when Amandine Cantournet saw a call put out in late September urging a “historic” 45th gathering on the Champs-Elysées, she was willing and ready to make the five-hour drive from her home near the Swiss border to Paris.

She arrived upon a scene of confusion.

“I think I saw more security forces on the street than protestors,” said Cantournet, who said the police made it nearly impossible for her and other Yellow Vests to organize effectively.

That Saturday a few weeks ago ended in more than 150 arrests, a disastrous attempt to join forces with a simultaneous youth climate protest and above all, a failure for members of the leaderless movement to organize in one place.

Originally billed as a possible “comeback” for the Yellow Vests, the chaos and disorganization of that Saturday left a number of pundits questioning the movement’s shot at a revival – attendance as well as public support has steeply dropped since the first protests almost a year ago.

Still, some analysts insist the Yellow Vest’s continued presence – no matter how small – is meaningful in itself – and to not bet against them.

“We have a bizarre situation where [the movement] is still there,” said Bruno Cautres, a political science researcher at The Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as Science Po, one of France’s leading political science universities. “Even if you have less people demonstrating...47 Saturdays in a row... we have never seen that before in France.”

Now nearly a year after it the movement first appeared about of nowhere – the Yellow Vest protests began last November in response to a planned fuel tax but quickly grew into a wider anti-establishment movement broadly calling for lower taxes on the poor, higher taxes on the rich and better public services – it's 'leadership' insists that it is heading for success.

“Our anger is stronger than ever before, it’s been accumulating over the last year,” said Francois Boulo, a spokesperson and organizer for the Yellow Vest chapter based in the western French city of Rouen. “We’ve just been waiting for the right moment to express that anger.”

That “moment,” according to Boulo, is likely to come on Nov. 17, when Yellow Vests will officially mark the movement’s one-year anniversary. Boulo said he anticipated turnout to be similar to the height of the movement when it drew more than 280,000 participants across the country.

He says there is a “physical and mental fatigue” resulting in lower participation in recent months.
“We’re tired and afraid of the violence coming from the security forces,” Boulo said. “Six people have lost a hand at these protests. People are afraid, and that’s extremely worrying for us.”

Indeed, violent clashes between demonstrators and police has been a mainstay of the protests. Statistics from the independent French site Mediapart show that at least two-dozen people have lost an eye, 315 have reported head injuries and 5 hands have been severed. Two people have been killed, including an elderly woman who killed by a grenade that flew into her apartment during a protest in Marseille.

Meanwhile, support for the movement among the public has dropped.

According to a recent poll from the behavioral marketing group BVA, support for the Yellow Vest movement currently hovers at around 40 percent, a far cry from the nearly 75 percent approval ratings recorded last November.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s 37 percent approval ratings, on the other hand, are at their highest level in more than a year.

“In a certain way, the [Yellow Vests] were very good for me,” Macron told Time Magazine in late September. “Because it reminded me who I should be.”

In response to the movement, Macron embarked on a months-long “Great National Debate” earlier this year, attending hundreds of local town hall meetings across the country, debating with people as they aired out their grievances to the man so many had billed as an “elitist” and “president of the rich.”

When he unveiled the 2020 budget plans in late September, Macron pledged €9.3 billion in tax cuts to households and another €1 billion in cuts to businesses. This, in addition €5 billion already promised to some 12 million households earlier this year.

The spending has pushed France’s public debt to nearly 100 percent of GDP. To make up for the tax cuts, Macron wants to revamp the state funded pension system that currently takes up 14 percent of public spending. This too, has been met with fierce resistance from unions across the country’s transport and health sectors. More than 40 percent are opposed to the reform.

Those numbers should be considered a warning, says Cautres.

“Macron cannot afford a second crisis...you can only get one crisis in your mandate,” said Cautres referring to the Yellow Vest turbulence of the last year.

Even so, the French unemployment rate currently stands at around 8.5 percent, its lowest rate in over a decade and down from 9.5 percent when Macron took office in May 2017.

Looking ahead, the movement now wants more official civic engagement.

It ran candidates in May's European Parliament elections. And despite winning less than 0.6 percent of the vote in that poll, some Yellow Vests hope to do better in the upcoming municipal elections in March.

Last month, the collective Yellow Vest Citizens presented a list of candidates for the municipal elections in Paris, led by Thierry Paul Valette, one of the movement’s figureheads.

“The movement has always said it needs to be structured to be effective,” said Valette, adding the municipal elections were a chance to achieve that structure.

“We must show the country that we are engaged,” he said. “So many of our grievances come from being shut out of local politics for too long. We need to turn that discourse around. And what better way to do that, then show up on the political stage?"

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 published date: 10/14/19

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

Meet the new and fresh face of Italian diplomacy

ITDiMaio2019ROME -- Italy’s youngest-ever minister of foreign affairs did not take a traditional path to one of the Italian government’s most high-profile jobs. But barely more than a week into his job, 33-year-old Luigi Di Maio may be surprising a few of his critics.

Di Maio, head of Italy’s populist Five-Star Movement, was deputy prime minister for nearly 15 months under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. In the new government, sworn in Sept. 5, Di Maio was tapped as foreign minister – a choice that raised eyebrows in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

Most of Conte’s early appointments have earned praise from political analysts and Italy watchers: a respected former prime minister selected as Italy’s representative on the European Commission; a pro-European economist as finance minister; an experienced technocrat to oversee Italy’s immigration policies; and a popular former culture minister returning to the job he held for four years.

Di Maio was the exception to that trend: The choice was criticized by Italian news sites and panned on social media.

In Italy, the foreign minister job usually goes to a former diplomat, or to someone who has cultivated relationship with foreign leaders through work with multilateral organizations or a European Union entity. Going back decades, Italy’s previous foreign ministers have traditionally been highly educated, and able to communicate in multiple languages.

Di Maio, in contrast, dropped out of university and he struggles with foreign languages. The native of Naples lived with his parents until a few years ago, while hawking drinks at hometown soccer games.

Di Maio’s most high-profile foray into foreign policy as an official in the previous government was to side with anti-government “yellow vest” campaigners in Paris, a move that prompted the French government to withdraw its ambassador to Rome for the first time since the countries were on opposite sides of World War II.

When he was sworn in, Di Maio was about a month younger than Galeazzo Ciano, an Italian aristocrat, war hero, former ambassador, and son-in-law to then-Italian leader Benito Mussolini. In 1936, Mussolini named Ciano Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, a job he held until 1943, when he met his end in front of a firing squad. Before Di Maio, Ciano had been the youngest Foreign Minister since Italy was unified in 1861.

But despite Di Maio’s atypical pedigree, sources said there are reasons for optimism about his upcoming tenure.

“Di Maio is part of a new generation of political figures,” said Andrea Carteny, an international relations professor at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “He doesn’t have a typical background, but he makes up for a lack of experience with savvy and enthusiasm.”

Carteny noted that Di Maio skillfully guided the Five-Star Movement through the baffling government crisis sparked by its former coalition partner, the nationalist, anti-migrant League, which engineered a government collapse in August.

His lack of experience on the foreign stage means he can go into geopolitical situations without the political baggage and pre-conceived ideas others might have, Carteny said.

Matteo Bressan, an international relations specialist at Lumsa University in Rome, said in an interview that Di Maio’s first move as Conte’s choice for his top advisor at the Minister of Foreign Affairs bodes well.

“Di Maio selected Ettore Francesco Sequi as his top advisor, which was a very smart move,” Bressan said. Sequi was Italy’s most recent ambassador to China, who also has diplomatic experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Remember that being foreign minister does not mean a person has to know everything about everything,” Bressan said. “It means they have to be able to surround themselves with the right people and make good judgment calls. So far at least, Di Maio has proved he can do that.”

The next summit of European Union foreign ministers on Oct. 14 in Luxembourg will likely be Di Maio’s coming out party in his new role. Ministry sources say Di Maio will be ready to represent Italy’s foreign policy priorities -- even if it is with the help of a translator.

Photo: September 6, 2019 - Rome, Italy - Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and Italian President Sergio Mattarella greeting Liberia's new Ambassador in Italy Andrew W. Kronyahn.
Credit: Courtesy of Luigi Di Maio's official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 09/15/19
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Second place but Germany's right wing party is still making waves

DEAfD2019By Jabeen Bhatti and Eros Banaj

Berlin--Germany's right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party surged in elections in two former communist eastern states Sunday but failed to take first place as predicted in polls before the votes.

With 94 percent of the vote tallied in Saxony, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) led the state with 32.5 percent of the vote to the AfD's 27.8 percent, according to the state government. The AfD nearly tripled its share of the vote since elections five years ago while the CDU lost almost 7 percent of its support.

In Brandenburg, the Social Democrats (SPD) continued to hold the state with 26.2 percent of the vote, even as the party lost more than 5 percent of its support as compared to five years ago. The AfD won 23.5 percent of the vote, nearly doubling its share over the last election.

Meanwhile, turnout was significantly higher than in the previous elections in 2014. In Saxony, 65 percent of eligible voters went to the polls as opposed to about 49 percent five years ago, according to pollster Infratest dimap estimates. In Brandenburg, turnout slightly topped 60 percent compared to 47.9 percent in the last elections.

Meanwhile, as results trickled in, establishment party leaders conceded they had much work to do in light of the results.

"A few weeks ago, the far right was ahead (of us) but today, there was clear pushback against the AfD – most don't want the AfD to be the strongest party (in Brandenburg)," said SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil. "Nevertheless, these election results are still far too high (in favor of them)."

Meanwhile, the AfD, expressing satisfaction at the results, said they showed that voters were "punishing" the establishment parties and vowed to press on.

"Yes, we have not become the strongest force – there is still some missing pieces – and now, the real work begins," said AfD co-chair Alexander Gauland told German broadcaster ARD. "We won't move the discourse to the right but toward reason."

Sunday’s vote comes as the long dominance of Germany’s centrist parties was already showing serious cracks.

For years, the SPD has been a reluctant coalition partner at best, dragging its heels after the 2017 elections in agreeing to join Mrs. Merkel in another so-called “Grand Coalition,” as many SPD members complained the alliance was steadily dragging down the party’s popularity.

Meanwhile, the CDU has moved more toward the left — leaving a vacuum that the AfD has rushed to fill.

The AfD, which was formed in 2013 as a group that opposed Germany’s policies toward the euro crisis, saw its support surge, especially in the formerly Communist east, because of its staunch anti-immigrant stand. By 2017, it had won seats in 14 out of 16 state parliaments and in the federal government for the first time. Even so, its power has been limited: It usually wins 10-15 percent of the vote and none of the establishment parties will work with the AfD, a stance that is expected to continue in both the eastern states.

Coming just before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, the results of the state elections — as well as one in the eastern state of Thuringia in October — underscore the divide that still lingers between the east and the west, and in some cases nostalgia for communist East Germany. A recent ARD poll found that more than half of voters in Saxony and Brandenburg believe that easterners are still second-class citizens.

Still dealing with the collapse of major industries and markets after the Berlin Wall fell, many easterners express frustration and anger at Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats for opening the door to a million refugees in 2015, mostly from Arab and African countries.

The AfD has run on a platform of more investment in education and infrastructure, more deportations of foreigners, a ban on mosques with minarets and less “appeasement of foreigners.”

Some of the resentment, analysts say, comes from a feeling of missing out: In spite of billions of dollars in transfer payments from the federal government since reunification in 1991, investment in infrastructure and the emergence of business hubs in cities such as Dresden, many in the east feel they didn’t benefit as Germany powered ahead in the 2000s to become the continent’s economic engine. For example, wages remain lower than in the East and certain professionals such as doctors remain lacking.

“There is a sense that people in the East haven’t done so well and feel left behind,” said Matthias Lang, an attorney with Bird & Bird in Dusseldorf. “Whether that’s true or not is a different question. But it’s clear that the AfD’s support is higher in areas where people feel this way.”
He adds that any surges of support for the AfD will just make it harder for the Germany’s eastern regions to attract more investment and raise its living standards.

“If you are an investor and you are watching things not going well in a region then you may be less likely to invest there, and this in turn will not make the situation better in that area which will lead to continued unhappiness,” said Mr. Lang. “But where you have a real problem is where there is unwillingness by the population to have foreigners. Then as a foreign company, you would certainly look elsewhere to invest.”

Ingo Kramer, president of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA), expressed concern over AfD gains in the two state elections.

"The relative strength of the AfD in Saxony and Brandenburg causes us employers increasingly concern, as the verbal statements of top AfD officials are likely to damage the positive reputation of international business in these states," he told German media. "Both state leaders must understand their clear personal electoral success as a mission to form a government that strengthens the economy and thus improves people's living standards more than it has done so far."

The elections in Saxony and Brandenburg have been watched with growing concern in much of the rest of the country, where the AfD has made gains but rarely topping the low teens. Because of Germany Nazi past, many don’t want to see a party many associate with racism and downplaying that legacy make surges in the East.

In Dresden last month, thousands hit the streets in protest.

“I am panicked that the AfD could win,” said Maria, a teacher in Berlin, 45, who votes for The Left Party. “And I can’t believe it that this could actually become a reality.”

Regardless, the elections underscore a division in Germany that exists and continues to grow across Europe and elsewhere, some say.

"Thirty years after the fall of the Wall, our homeland is more divided than ever," wrote Welt editor in chief Ulf Poschardt in an editorial. "There is no desire to build a road between the two sides. And there is a lack of ideas that could bring together the different factions in the country."

Photo: AfD's candidate for Saxony Joerg Urban (left) and Brandenburg Andreas Kalbitz (right) thanking voters for their support.
Credit: Courtesy photo of the Alternative fuer Deutschland Kompakt official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 09/02/19

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

Salvini's self-sabotage

ITASalviniCoupROME – Until a few days ago, it seemed Matteo Salvini could not make a wrong move. Now, after a bold but unsuccessful bid for power, Salvini and the anti-migrant, nationalist political party he leads could find themselves in Italy’s political wilderness for months or years.

On Thursday, Italian President Sergio Mattarella gave former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte a mandate to create a new government – this time without the League, the party Salvini heads.

For most of his time in the public eye, the 46-year-old Salvini had been something of a miracle worker for the League, the party he took over on the brink of irrelevance six years ago.

In the last national vote before Salvini became head of the League, in 2013, the party earned a mere 4 percent of the vote. But under Salvini, the League rode a wave of nationalist sentiment to increase its share of the electorate to 6 percent in 2014, 17 percent last year, and 34 percent in voting for European Parliament in June.

The party also won major legislative victories over its coalition partner, the populist Five-Star Movement. Heading into the August break, the party’s approval levels approached the 40-percent threshold, as Salvini took his politicking to the country’s beaches, where he held rallies and posed for shirtless selfies with supporters.

Soon after, everything starting going wrong.

Looking to rid the League of its uneasy 15-month partnership with the Five-Star Movement, Salvini tried to force snap elections, bargaining that if he could top 40 percent he could join forces with one or two second-tier parties and form a coalition with him as prime minister. The plan backfired.

“It must have seemed to Salvini that he had momentum, and that moment was ripe to take power in his hands,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome’s John Cabot University. “So he created a big mess, bringing down the government in August when nobody wants to think about politics and trying to force elections in the fall, something that hasn’t happened in Italy in a hundred years.”

Immediately after the government’s Aug. 20 collapse, Mattarella began looking for alternatives to sending Italians to the polls in October or November. Elections would have changed the balance of power in the country in the middle of always-contentious negotiations for the following year’s budget plan. What emerged from Mattarella’s consultations was another uneasy alliance, this time between the Five-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party – long-time rivals.

“Will the Faustian pact work?” asked Lorenzo Codogno, founder and chief economist of LC Macro Investors Ltd. and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “The glue for this awkward government will be the desire to prevent Salvini’s League from taking power. Both parties know that if the government fails, that would be a tremendous gift to Salvini, who could sweep back into power.”

Engineering the collapse of the government seems to have cost Salvini and the League, at least temporarily. Polls carried out since the government’s collapse show support for the League eroding from a high of nearly 40 percent to just over 30 percent. Some pollsters predict the numbers could sink still further.

Where does that leave Salvini? The next elections are scheduled for 2023, though they could come sooner if the “Faustian pact” between the Five-Star Movement and the Democratic Party collapses. But as long as those two parties remain in power, it will leave Salvini on the outside looking in.

“Salvini has been hurt by a self-inflicted wound,” Pavoncello said. “But he is not dead, he is not out of the game. If he maintains 30 percent of the electorate, that is a very big number in a fractured political system like Italy’s. It’s enough to let him become a very loud, very consistent, very problematic critic of this new government while hoping it will fall sooner rather than later.”

Analysts noted that waiting for a government to founder is not an unexpected strategy in Italy, which has had 69 governments in the 74 years since the end of World War II.

According to Alessandro Franzi, co-author of “Matteo Salvini: Italy, Europe, and the New Right,” being the head of the largest opposition party could play to Salvini’s strengths more than being in power.

“Salvini has held various party jobs starting in 1993 but up until June of last year, when he became minister of the interior and deputy prime minister, he never held a government post,” Franzi said. “His rise was as a critic, not as a policymaker. I think he will fall back into that role with a very specific target: demolishing the alliance between the Five-Star Movement and the Democratic Party and trying to make people forget he was the one who made that alliance necessary.”

Photo: The League leader Matteo Salvini took his politicking to the country’s beaches, where he held rallies and posed for shirtless selfies with supporters.
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account (08/30/19)

Story/photo published date: 08/29/19

The fight will go on: Iranian dissidents set up camp in Albania

MEK 2By Eric J. Lyman

ASHRAF-3, Albania - Iran’s largest opposition group opened the doors of its new home base to the world on Saturday with a wave of praise from political leaders - from both the left and the right -- hailing from nearly 50 different countries and all enthusiastic about the group and its goals.

The not-quite-finished Ashraf-3 community rests on a sprawling plot of land that until 30 months ago was farmland, located around halfway between the Albanian capital of Tirana and the country’s Adriatic coastline. Home to more than 3,000 Iranian dissidents from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, best known as MEK, Ashraf-3 is too new to appear on map programs. Cement was still drying around the base of some flag posts and workers were still painting the handrails on a bridge as more than 350 dignitaries from 47 countries arrived Saturday.

The gathering was the 15th edition of MEK’s “Free Iran” event, but the first to take place at its new Albanian home. Paris hosted the event between 2004 and 2018.

“We look at the fact that so many leaders came to our home so far from where they live as a testament to the international support that exists for MEK and the faith they have in what we want to accomplish,” said Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the foreign affairs committee for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group that includes the MEK.

The two main themes running through most of the dozens of remarks from speakers Saturday was praise for MEK for building Ashraf-3 and organizing the event, and a desire to see the current regime in Iran toppled.

The latter of those two themes is the central goal of the MEK, though its formal aim is to step into the void a collapsed Iranian government would leave only long enough to hold free elections and the establishment of a secular state.

The plan would see Maryam Rajavi step in as president-elect until elections could be held. Rajavi -- the wife of MEK co-founder Massoud Rajavi, who disappeared in 2003 -- was the star of Saturday’s event. Her remarks were repeatedly interrupted by loud chants of “Iran! Maryam! Freedom!” and “From Ashraf to Tehran we will fight to the end!”

MEK does not formally take sides in internal politics in other countries, and the delegation from the United States included figures from both sides of the political spectrum. But in her opening remarks, Rajavi appeared to endorse U.S. President Donald Trump, who has helped raise MEK’s profile after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal last year.

Iran’s “calculation is that terrorist operations and the warmongering in the region’s countries will not cost them very much, at least until the next U.S. presidential election,” she said. “They say to themselves: ‘Let’s wait another 16 months and maybe the U.S. will have another president from whom we can extract the same super concessions as we did with the nuclear deal.’”

She said that strategy would fail in the face of MEK’s efforts: “We will never abandon our struggle,” Rajavi said.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, a legal advisor to Mr. Trump, attended most of the Paris versions of the MEK event. He said he felt “a kind of optimism at Ashraf-3 that [he] never felt in Paris.” Giuliani said support for MEK should be a simple conclusion for those around the world.
“This isn’t a choice between deposing a dictator when we don’t know if an even more terrible leader will take his place,” Giuliani said. “It’s a choice between with one of the most terrible sponsors of terrorism in the world in the current regime in Iran, and we have MEK ready to step in.”

Joe Lieberman, the 2000 vice-presidential candidate and former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman agreed: “You don’t just represent an alternative to the Iranian mullahs,” Lieberman said. “You represent the right alternative.”

MEK was founded in 1965 when several student groups united to oppose the Iranian shah. It has gone through several phases of development since then, including a period between 1997 and 2012 when it was classified as a terror organization by the U.S. government. The group has been linked to assassinations of political figures and scientists in Iran, and it has reportedly misled officials regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But MEK has also repeatedly been targeted by Iranian officials on a massive scale. Ashraf-3 includes a museum that details the torture and deaths of as many as 120,000 MEK supporters during the organization’s history. In 2015, Iran launched a 40-rocket attack against Ashraf-2, MEK’s previous home in Iraq, leaving 24 dead. A car bomb attack on Ashraf-3 last year was foiled before explosives could be detonated.

Despite the risks, sisters Forough and Hejrat Moezzi, aged 30 and 31, respectively, say that Ashraf-3 is the first place that feels like home to them since they left Iran 12 years ago. Both were previously residents of Ashraf-1 and Asraf-2, both in Iraq.

“This is the best place yet because here we feel safe,” Forough said. “I know we will stay here until we can return to our country.”
Hejrat said it was a particular honor for the international dignitaries to come to Ashraf-3. “These are people who have stood behind us for many years,” she said. “It is so wonderful to be able to welcome them to our home.”

Ashraf-3, MEK’s first home outside the Middle East, was built in Albania because the country was one of a small handful to offer refuge to the group. Speaking Saturday, former Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko explained the move was part of the country’s history.

“In 1943, the Nazi’s conquered Albania and had two main demands when an Albanian delegation went to Berlin,” Majko said. “They wanted our gold transferred to Berlin and they wanted a list of all the Jews in Albania. Our answer was simple: the gold, yes; the Jews, no. Protecting those in need is part of our identity.”

The speed with which the heavily-guarded town was built -- complete with parks, conference halls, shopping centers, restaurants, swimming pools, and a luxury hotel -- was enough to make New York’s Giuliani marvel.

“This whole city was built in less than two years,” Giuliani said. “If we tried to do this in New York it would take 15 years and launch 14 corruption investigations.”

Photo: July 13, 2019 - Tirana, Albania - Attendees during MEK’s 15th “Free Iran” event, the first one in Albania.
Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (07/13/19)

Story/photo published date: 07/14/19

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

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 Fergana.ru news website, which was barred under Mr. Karimov.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story/photo publish date: 03/04/2019

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

France's Le Pen sees opportunity in Yellow Vests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story/photo: 02/19/2019

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

Elections in Nigeria come amid hard times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buhari has also been embroiled in corruption scandals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Russian-Ukraine rift spills over into the orthodox church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bartholomew has been trying to cool tensions.

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

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

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

Moscow and Bartholomew have locked horns before.

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

Experts said tensions would last much longer this time.

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

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

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

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