French people are slowly saying goodbye to cigarettes

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

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

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

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

The measures appear to be working.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran's largest dissident group gets fresh support from Trump administration

IRNConference2018PARIS — Iran’s largest dissident group is getting a fresh burst of support in its decadeslong push for regime change, as pressure builds on the Islamic regime in Tehran from the inside as well as the outside.

A large, boisterous rally here over the weekend was led by the largest opposition organization in Iran of exiles, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a well-connected group that has found new prominence and influence in the strongly anti-Iran Trump administration.

The pressure in Iran has been mounting in the weeks since the U.S. pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. President Trump announced a tightening of oil and other economic sanctions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a string of demands to increase the pressure on Tehran, and advocates of regime change such as National Security Adviser John R. Bolton were brought into the administration’s inner circle.

Saturday’s rally also was held amid a string of large street protests in Iran over the country’s faltering economy, including traders in the conservative Grand Bazaar in Tehran incensed over a plunge in the value of the currency and persistent workers strikes.

Gunfire erupted early Sunday as Iranian security forces confronted protesters rallying against water scarcity in the country’s south. Police officers were among the 11 people reported wounded, according to The Associated Press.

Many in Paris insisted that the Iranian regime is at its weakest point in decades.

In one measure of the NCRI’s growing clout, some three dozen current and previous officials from the U.S., Europe and Middle East attended the gathering. One of the most prominent U.S. notables was Rudolph W. Giuliani, now the personal attorney for President Trump and a veteran of many NCRI events.

Mr. Giuliani made a strong call to ramp up sanctions as the protests in recent months have spread to more than 140 cities.

“When they do that, and when these protests continue to grow and grow, this threatens to topple the regime, which means freedom is right around the corner,” he said. “This is the time to put on the real pressure. The sanctions will become greater and greater.”

Red and green confetti rained on the crowd, which organizers estimated to be 100,000, right before NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi spoke.

The stage became a waving sea of red tulips in homage to the 30,000 MEK members, an NCRI faction, who were executed by the Iranian regime in 1981, still a searing memory in the MEK’s checkered and tragic history.

The floral tribute was a nod to an Iranian folk song about red tulips rising from the blood of martyrs.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, urged European nations that have balked at Mr. Trump’s tough line against Iran to get on board to tighten the economic vise.

“We need to insist that [European governments] join the sanctions once again,” Mr. Gingrich said at the rally.

The NCRI backed the ouster of the Shah of Iran with other revolutionary groups in 1979 but clashed with the Islamist forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini afterward. After losing a vicious power struggle, NCRI leaders now say they renounce violence.

On stage at the rally were photos of “ashrafs,” or cells of resistance in Iran. Covert activists inside Iran appeared with their faces covered because many face arrest and imprisonment from a regime that views the group as one of the prime challenges to its authority.

A question of influence

Despite its influential friends and sophisticated media outreach, analysts are divided over the relevance of the NCRI and other exile dissident groups to the political tensions inside Iran.

Mahan Abedin, a British-Iranian journalist for Middle East Eye, said he no longer tracks the group. “They are not important anymore in a strategic sense,” he said by telephone from London.

But many consider the group to be the only credible and organized opposition force outside of Iran, with extensive contacts inside the country. The NCRI has pursued its objective of regime change with discipline and laserlike focus.

Emblazoned along the stage was a giant banner, in English and Farsi for the #RegimeChangeIran, a hashtag that emerged right after Mr. Pompeo last month laid out a long list of conditions and concessions Iran would have to meet to escape future U.S. pressure.

Former Sen. Robert Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, speaking to The Washington Times on the sidelines of the huge Paris gathering, praised the NCRI’s organizational strength and persistence.

“It’s their intensity, it’s their strength, it’s their willingness to sacrifice, and it’s the appeal of their messaging,” he said.

Ms. Rajavi inspired intense fealty from her large cohort of followers, an intensity that critics say verges on cult status. On Saturday, clad in her customary turquoise blue hijab and suit, she reiterated the NCRI’s plan for freedom and democracy in Iran, which includes separation of church and state, gender equality and freedom of expression in an Iran free of nuclear weapons.

After Ms. Rajavi spoke, the people in the crowd, wearing yellow vests to symbolize the sun in the Iranian crest, stood up to show the sign on their backs, which read, “Every moment for the uprising.”

The strong showing of dignitaries from leading Western countries included former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Stephen Harper, a former prime minister of Canada.

Among the U.S. officials present were Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh; and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

Donya Jam, a 23-year-old graduate student studying human rights and European history at George Mason University, took time off from her studies to help plan the rally.

A Christian whose parents fled Iran because of religious persecution, she has never visited Iran.

“I will not step foot in Iran until it is free,” she said.

Photo: June 30, 2018 - Paris, France - The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a well-connected group that has found new prominence and influence in the strongly anti-Iran Trump administration, rallied in Paris on Saturday.
Credit: Sarah Wachter/ARA Network Inc. (06/30/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/01/18

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

These Turks would rather leave than see Erdogan become president

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, many of these Turks say nothing will change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t fault those who left, however.

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

Marga Zambrana and Zekine Türkeri reported from Istanbul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The move rankled many Germans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian PM finds some common ground with US President Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy's Deputy PM gets flak for Roma census

HUN 111501NP01ROME – Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has taken a hard-line stance against migrants, stirred a new controversy and rebuke by turning his sights on Italy's nomadic Roma community.

Salvini said this week he would order government officials to conduct a census of the Roma population and deport any whose documentation is not in order. We must know “who they are, where they live, and how many of them there are,” he said.

Salvini, head of the nationalist League party that helped form the new government, has vowed to expel as many as a half-million migrant residents in Italy. He also sparked a recent multinational showdown by refusing to let a rescue ship carrying more than 600 migrants from docking in Italian waters. The shipped docked Sunday in Spain.

At least 150,000 Roma, sometimes called gypsies, live in Italy, with roots reaching back to the 14th century. They speak their own languages, have their own cultural traditions and rarely integrate into Italian society. Many families have been in the country for generations, but they are not on government rolls. Less than half of the Roma have Italian citizenship, according to most estimates.

Roma who have the correct paperwork, "unfortunately, well, you have to keep them," Salvini said. Italy would deport the rest, he said, though it was unclear where they could go.

Salvini’s remarks drew fire from Birgit Van Hout, the European representative for the United Nations Human Rights Office, who said the policy was “unacceptable” and an effort to “stigmatize” the Roma.

Opposition members of Parliament slammed the census proposal as "racist" and "fascist."

"If we really want to carry out the census, I would start with the census of racists and fascists. To better avoid them," tweeted Democratic Party leader Matteo Orfini.

Also criticizing the plan was former Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who was the head of Italy's government until June 1, when Giuseppe Conte took over. “Yesterday the refugees, today the Roma,” Gentiloni said on Twitter. “How tiring it is to be wicked.”

Even Labor Minister Luigi Di Maio, head of the 5-Star Movement allied with the League party, called Salvini’s order “unconstitutional.” He noted that a previous government tried a similar move a decade ago until it was struck down in court.

Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities said Salvini recalls the country’s fascist race laws that led to Italy's involvement in the Holocaust starting in the 1920s and through World War II.

Popular sentiment may be behind Salvini's latest moves. Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni, said polls regularly show between 70 and 90 percent of Italians have a negative view of the Roma.

“The Roma are identified with petty crime, poverty, and anti-social behavior,” Rossi said. “That makes it easier to attack them without offending as many people.”

Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, a former diplomat and now president of Italy’s Institute for Foreign Affairs, said Salvini’s views work because they are popular with some Italians and don’t cost a lot of money.

“He can say things that may have repercussions in the social fabric of the country, but they do not require a big budget,” he said.

Salvini’s tough stance against migrants prompted fierce debates among rank-and-file Italians, but the response so far has been more accepting regarding the Roma.

“There’s no room for everyone to live in Italy,” said Fillippo Di Marco, 35, a dentist trainee who voted for the 5-Star Movement in the March election. “We have to draw a line, and excluding people who aren’t really Italian makes sense to me.”

Visiting foreigners were more critical. Richard Elgar, 52, an administrator at Washington State University on vacation in Rome, compared Salvini’s comments to President Donald Trump’s controversial remarks about illegal Mexicans in the United States.

“It looks like Italy is having a Trump moment,” Elgar said.

Photo: Roma community in Tatárszentgyörgy, central Hungary.
Credit: Nikos Pilos/ ARA Network Inc. (01/15/11)

Story/photo published date: 06/19/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Arab artists and the changing future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinvigorated opposition poses a challenge for Turkey's Erdogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkish elections might be Erdogan's biggest power grab

May 19, 2018, Istanbul TURKEY - Hüseyin Dağdelen, a 63-year-old male shoe shiner in Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue, used to vote for President Erdogan's AKP party elections. Now, disappointed with politics and living in poverty, says he will cast a big blank vote in the June 24th elections. (Photo: Sevgi Koç | ARA Network Inc.) ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkish voters will go to the polls June 24 to decide whether to give President Tayyip Recep Erdogan even more control, in what is being called his biggest power grab yet.

And though many Turks said they would vote against Erdogan amid his repression of civil rights, an ailing economy and hostile foreign policy moves that have isolated Turkey – once a key strategic Western partner – from the US and Europe, few believe their president will lose his job.

"You cannot stop a tsunami, and you cannot stop Erdogan either after he has gathered so much power – he is devastating the country like a tsunami," said Ömer Yilmaz, an unemployed 25-year-old from Istanbul. "He won’t leave power even if he loses. He will do anything and everything to win."

"You cannot stop a tsunami, and you cannot stop Erdogan either after he has gathered so much power – he is devastating the country like a tsunami," said Ömer Yilmaz, an unemployed 25-year-old from Istanbul. "He won’t leave power even if he loses. He will do anything and everything to win."

Erdogan called the elections 18 months ahead of schedule, after saying the country needed a stronger executive. Under a referendum that passed narrowly last year, his office gains sweeping new executive powers after this election, including the abolition of the post of prime minister and allowing the president to issue decrees and appoint judges. Before the referendum, the Turkish presidency was a purely ceremonial office.

But Erdogan arguably has already taken control of Turkey. The former prime minister and Istanbul mayor now runs the country under a state of emergency declared in July 2016 after a failed coup attempt. Since then, the president has purged civil society, jailing dissenters and journalists and silencing political opponents.

Many citizens have grown tired of his strongman tactics. Erdogan likely won't muster the 51 percent of votes needed to skip a runoff election for the presidency, said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University. His rivals might then have a chance to line up behind an alternative.

A unified opposition coalition also has a good chance of winning back the parliament, creating a potential check on Erdogan’s power and thorn in his side, said Turan.

"The opposition is very energized, unlike earlier when they thought it was a foregone conclusion that Erdogan would win and were demoralized," he said.

One of the most electrifying factors has been inflation and unemployment in the Turkish economy, developments that are hurting his nationalist base.

"I studied business administration. I speak (foreign) languages but I cannot find a decent job.,” said Yilmaz.
“We are now in Ramadan," he added, referring to the Muslim holy month. "How many families can afford to buy Baklava? Can you imagine a Bayram [Ramadan festivity] without Baklava?"

In what used to be one of the Middle East's more secular nations, many other Turks want to pivot away from the fear mongering and conservative Islamic ideals the president has used to rally support. Erdogan has promoted the construction of mosques and madrassahs – or Islamic schools – loosened rules that barred women from wearing headscarves in public sector jobs and restricted alcohol advertisements.

"Freedom of expression is at rock bottom," said Nilgun Yilmaz, 56, an accountant in Istanbul. "If you criticize, you are fired, you are put into prison. There is only freedom to praise Erdoğan.

"I want to recover the secular system," she added. "There is also too much tension going among the people, and that is unsustainable."

Erdogan has also criticized American and European leaders, clashed with US-allied Kurds and sought to improve relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian leaders who are also heavily invested in the future of Turkey's war-torn neighbor, Syria. Currently, relations with the US are strained over Syria and over the US-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, whom Erodgan blames for the attempted coup.

But if an opposition candidate for president was to pull an upset and oust Erdogan, whose has put Turkey at odds with traditional allies, "just the change of rhetoric alone would facilitate communication," said Turan.

"Turkey is now considered an authoritarian state as opposed to a democracy," he added. "I think if the government changes, there would be a restoration of democratic politics."

That could help repair relations with the EU and the US, said Turan. Turkey historically has been opposed to Russian and Iranian meddling in the region, and is also a key NATO ally.

Erdogan's supporters imagine no such scenario, however.

"Our president has done so many good things for the country that I cannot even think to vote for someone else," said Saliha Coskun, a 46-year-old housewife as she strolled through Istanbul with her husband and baby. "If he leaves – I don't even want to think – we will lose all we have won. God willing, he will win again."

Given the way that Erdogan dominates state-controlled airwaves and other political institutions, many of the president’s opponents seem to think the same thing.

"It is hard to digest for me, but I think under these conditions, Tayyip Erdoğan will win again," said Saim Levent, a 26-year-old waiter in a teahouse. "He has created a machine that does not allow any other option. Everything is in his hands, under his control."

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

Pope Francis compares abortion to Nazi crimes

ITA1303XX03VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Saturday said that the use of abortion to terminate pregnancies likely to produce disabled or chronically ill children was the product of a Nazi mentality.

“It is fashionable, or at least usual, that when in the first few months of a pregnancy doctors do studies to see if the child is healthy or has something, the first idea is: ‘Let’s send it away,’” the pope said. “We do the same as the Nazis to maintain the purity of the race, but with white gloves on.”

A Vatican official confirmed the statements, which, according to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, were made when Francis departed from his prepared remarks in an address to the Forum of Family Associations on the 25-year anniversary of its founding.

The pope’s remarks were strong, but clearly in line with the stance of the Catholic Church, which has always been unwaveringly opposed to all forms of abortion or birth control. The Vatican has frequently criticized the use of abortion on unborn children determined to suffer from Down syndrome or birth defects.

Francis’ home country of Argentina voted Thursday for a proposal that legalizes abortion in that country. Last month, Ireland, one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, voted to overturn a national ban on abortion. A similar law is in the works in Catholic Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom where abortion is illegal.

The Vatican also attracted fire when it invited high-profile anti-abortion figures – including United Nations advisor and economist Jeffrey Sachs – to a conference organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last November about population growth and sustainable development.

Francis has long railed against what he called the “throw-away culture” in terms of the way the elderly and unborn children are sometimes seen as less worthy of protection, as well as in terms of material things used briefly and then discarded.

The pope’s remarks were trending on social media in Italy Saturday, where comments were made both in favor of his views and against what some said was too extreme a comparison with Nazi-era atrocities.

Most of the faithful visiting St. Peter’s Basilica Saturday were unaware of the latest comments made a few hours earlier, but said they supported the church’s strong views on the topic.

“What could be a bigger sin than killing an unborn child?” asked Anna Perez, a nun from Nicaragua who lives in New York and was visiting the Vatican City with a church group. “I hope the pope, whoever he is, will always stand up for those who can’t defend themselves, especially the unborn.”

Alex Barry, a volunteer coordinator and mother of three visiting the Vatican from Newton, Mass., said she was not put off by the pope’s mention of Nazis in this context.

“You have to state things strongly these days or nobody will ever listen,” Barry said, speaking as Vatican workers were setting up seats in St. Peter’s Square ahead of Sunday’s mass. “I hope world leaders are listening. The world needs moral leadership now more than ever.”

Photo: Pope Francis.
Credit: ARA Network Inc. (03/18/13)

Story/photo published date: 06/16/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

The big fuss about Macedonia's name change

GREProtests18ATHENS— Greece and Macedonia leaders are expected to meet over the weekend to officially change the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to Northern Macedonia.

And voters of both Balkan countries are already dusting off their flags and cheap copies of ancient warrior helmets to protest it – again.

Why all the furor over a name? It goes back to Alexander the Great.

Greeks like 54-year-old miner George Papavasiliou, who lives in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, say only people living in his region should be known as Macedonians – because they are descendants of the legendary ancient Greek warrior-king who hailed from the region.

And even though population movements in the Balkans have been taking place for thousands of years – leaving a mixed ethnic heritage today – he says people in the Republic of Macedonia are ethnically Slavs or Albanians, not Greeks.

“I’d only agree to a name that doesn’t include the word Macedonia,” he said. "(Otherwise), if like FYROM, India wants to be called Macedonia, they could, since Alexander, the Macedonian king, reached and occupied India too.”

Across the border, in Skopje, protesters gathered outside parliament this week to ask for a referendum because they oppose the name change, too. People here want to be known as Macedonians – it's key to their developing sense of themselves as a nation, say analysts.

That's because FYROM is a relatively new country, one of seven formed after the breakdown of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“These new countries needed nationalism to construct, in a sense, their own national history and their own national uniqueness,” said Anastasia Karakasidou, professor of anthropology at Wellesley College, and author of a book on nationalism and ethnic rivalry in the Balkans. “Countries like Greece and Bulgaria had gone through their national ideology construction much earlier and felt a kind of a threat from these new countries.”
Karakasidou believes the new name, Northern Macedonia, is a good solution for both countries.

“The name is different and it is not different,” she said. “Logically speaking it’s not very different. But emotionally speaking it’s different for the Greek people.”

It's different for those in Skopje, too.

“I don’t think this will pass here smoothly, as it’s a very sensitive and emotional issue for most Macedonians,” Filip Nelkovski, a 39-year-old business consultant in Skopje. "Whatever (the agreement) is, it will not end the name dispute issue."

Meanwhile, even though the Republic of Macedonia has been recognized by more than 140 countries, including the US and most of the EU, for more than 25 years, Greece has been vetoing Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the EU because it was worried that Macedonia had territorial claims against Greece’s northern region with the same name.

That matters to the EU and the US because of pro-Russian sentiments within the country: The West wants FYROM firmly and squarely in the Western camps of the EU and NATO, analysts say.

With the signing of the name-change agreement Saturday, Macedonia is expected to change its constitution and rename itself by the end of the year – and renounce any territorial designs on the Macedonian region of Greece.

It is also expected to change its history books to reflect that its people are not direct descendants of ancient Macedonians, and return statues of ancient Macedonians – or mark them clearly to reflect they were ancient Macedonian (Greek).

In exchange, Greece will agree to Macedonia’s NATO and EU membership.

Even so, as some politicians in both countries oppose the agreement, it could take some time, and more protests on both sides of the border are expected.

And then there is the historical mistrust.

“Greece is famous for not staying true to its previous commitments not to block Macedonia for membership in transatlantic bodies,” said Nelkovski. “And I am not sure (what will happen) if the Greek government changes – everything will likely stay on paper.”

"I cannot see for sure that we will enter NATO or the EU fast enough," he added. "I don’t think this will pass here, unless the Americans push harder.”

Still, as a goodwill gesture, the signs of the airport in Skopje have already been changed from Alexander the Great Airport to Skopje International Airport, and the Motorway Alexander of Macedonia has been changed to Friendship Motorway.

Next are license plate designations – from MK to NM or NMK. And the two countries will convene a panel to decide on commercial names, trademarks, and brand names.

Now is the time, some say, to let go of history.

“I don't think anybody should or can claim they're direct descendants of Alexander's,” said Karakasidou, speaking from her grandmother’s home in Thessaloniki, the heart of Greek Macedonia. “Since the Republic of Macedonia is a relatively new nation, it's more important to them, while Greeks also have to overcome this sentimental response to the ancient Greeks."

"I think we should leave Alexander alone," she added. "He was what he was.”

Photo: February 4, 2018 - Athens, Greece - Screenshot of Greeks protesting in front of the Greek Parliament against the use of the term "Macedonia" in the new name of FYROM. 
Credit: Courtesy of Twitter user Demetrios Ioannou (02/04/18)

Story/photo published date: 06/15/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Obama's ancestral village hopes for tourism boost as the former president plans visit

KEN151218TO004KOGELO, Kenya – When President Barack Obama left office in January 2017, some voters and foreign allies said they would miss him.
But none were so openly heartbroken as residents of this small village in Kenya from where Obama's ancestors hail – the president's familial ties brought boom times to Kogelo, which abruptly ended with his term.

Now, on June 16, Obama makes his first visit to this village since before he took office. And locals are hoping for revival – in tourism and donor largesse – along with welcoming their native son.

“We are happy he (Obama) is coming, and this time to the village,” said Amos Onyango, 44, a resident who owns a grocery shop. “When Obama left office we were left like orphans. All white people left the village and we have never received visitors or any help like it used to be. We hope his visit will bring change once more.”

Obama's late father, Barak Hussein Obama, was born in Kogelo and the former president will visit his relatives on this trip –-- including his step-grandmother, Mama Sarah Obama, 96 and half-brother Malik. He will then travel to South Africa where he will deliver the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Obama Foundation.

Obama has been to Africa multiple times, and to Kenya once as president, in 2015, but he disappointed villagers by not including them on his itinerary on that trip.

But he promised to return: “I will be back to Kenya next time. I would also come with (my daughters) Malia and Sasha. My family loves Kenya,” said Obama during his visit in the country in 2015.

Meanwhile, the town is busy getting ready for the visit: Work has been non-stop for weeks on garden beds, gutters and the impressive potholes that keep drivers alert. At his ancestral home, workers have been painting and renovating the old building that remains before Obama’s visit.

Residents said a team from the US embassy visited the village, including Senator Barrack Obama primary and secondary School, Mama Sarah Obama's home and Sauti Kuu Foundation associated with the President's elder sister Auma Obama.
Residents said they consider him one of them.

"We love him as our son,” said Japhet Omollo, 67, an elder of the village.

Still, they hope the trip helps improve things, too.

During the Obama presidency, the once sleepy village received both local and global recognition, bringing funding for development never before witnessed in Kenya in the past five decades: Roads, schools, hotels appeared as well as tourists.

Now financial aid to Obama-related social welfare institutions in Kenya – the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, the Barack H. Obama Foundation and the Barack Obama Secondary School – has dried up.

“When he comes we need him to help the community," said Omollo. "We have no hospital and water. Our children need to go to school and we have no money.”

Still, many are sure of a turnaround.

“We want to welcome Obama home. His visit means a lot to us,” said Nicholas Rajula, a cousin of the president who owns a resort here. “Our businesses will now pick up and residents will get support that will enable them to take their children to school.”

Obama’s step-grandmother said she will only believe it after Obama actually appears.

“I am not sure he will visit the village,” said Mama Sarah Obama. “But I will be very happy if he comes.”

Photo: This luxurious building in Kogelo village has been named ‘White House’; to mean the official residence and principal workplace of the President of the United States. The building is owned by Obama’s family.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network (12/18/15)

Story/photo published date: 06/14/18

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

Russians exalted at hosting the World Cup, despite having an under-performing national team

RUSWorldCup18Moscow--The World Cup kicks off in Moscow this week, but not even the most enthusiastic Russian soccer fan believes their country’s woeful national team has any hope of winning the high-profile tournament, which runs June 14 through July 15. 

Winless in seven games and with just one shot on target in their last two matches, Russia was jeered off the field following a 1-1 draw with a weak Turkey side in Moscow on Tuesday evening. That was the team’s last match before the tournament begins for real. “This is our worst national side ever,” said the state television commentator, summing up the black mood of millions of Russian soccer fans.

Even President Vladimir Putin admits Russia has almost no chance of success, tipping one of Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain – soccer’s traditional powerhouses – to triumph. As for team Russia, the Kremlin strongman simply says he hopes they will “fight until the end.” That end is unlikely to be long in coming. A popular question among soccer fans here is: “Who are you going to support when Russia go out before the play-offs?”

But Mr. Putin is unlikely to lose too much sleep over the likely lack of soccer glory for his country. As with the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Moscow is using the month-long tournament to promote the image of Russia as a powerful and confident nation able to organize events on an international level. It’s also an attempt, analysts say, to polish Russia’s global reputation, which has been tarnished by its military interventions in Syria and Ukraine, as well as allegations of election meddling in the United States and elsewhere. No expense has been spared. The Kremlin says it has pumped $11 billion into the event, but that does not include sparkling new stadiums and some infrastructure, which the government says would have been built in any case. 

“For the Russian authorities, the sporting element of the World Cup is of secondary significance. Its use for propaganda purposes is far more important,” said Igor Gretskiy, a professor of international relations at St Petersburg State University. “The Kremlin will use the tournament to demonstrate that Russia has not been isolated and that sanctions imposed by western powers are toothless and ineffective.

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, caused outrage in Russia in March when he said Mr. Putin would use the World Cup for propaganda in the same way that Adolf Hitler exploited the 1936 Berlin Olympics to promote Nazi ideas. “Russia has many things it can be criticized for, but this is extremely disrespectful to those people who died in the war against Nazi Germany,” said Robert Ustian, a Russian anti-racism campaigner. An estimated 28 million Soviet soldiers and citizens lost their lives during World War Two. Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said Mr. Johnson had a “poisoned” mind.

Russia’s security services have been tasked with ensuring that nothing goes wrong at Mr Putin’s showcase event. And that includes making sure than there are no embarrassing displays of dissent in front of international media. Police have tightened laws on public protests and detained 19 members of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption movement during nationwide raids. Their crimes? Tweeting about protests. Mr Navalny is also serving a 30-day sentence on protest-related charges. “Let’s call things by their real names. This is political repression,” said Lubov Sobol, one of the opposition activists still at liberty. 

It’s not only political dissidents that the Kremlin is concerned about. In the run-up to the World Cup, law enforcement agencies are clamping down on  the country’s notorious soccer hooligans, who ran riot in Marseille, France during the Euro 2016 tournament. Around 150 people have been placed on a blacklist, and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers have been warning known-hooligans not to spoil the occasion. “I’m absolutely certain that nothing even close to what took place in Marseille will happen here. The authorities are a lot more in control of the hooligan firms here. There is total surveillance,” said Alexander Shprygin, the former leader of a Russian fans association. Although the U.S. soccer team has not qualified for the World Cup, tens of thousands of American fans are expected to travel to Russia for the event. 

In some respects, the timing of the World Cup couldn’t be better for Mr Putin. The tournament comes amid widening differences among European countries over western economic sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. On June 5, Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, broke ranks with allies in western Europe by calling for an end to the sanctions and for Moscow to be brought back into the international fold. His comments came as Mr. Putin used a trip to Austria, one of Europe’s more Moscow-friendly countries, to urge an end to the sanctions, which he described as “harmful for everyone.” 

Despite the Kremlin’s bluster, western economic sanctions, along with lower prices for oil, have hurt Russia. Over three million people have been plunged into poverty since their introduction, raising social tensions and highlighting vast wealth inequality, which is one of the highest in the world. But Mr Putin is hoping the World Cup will provide a boost economic  to the struggling economy. Some 570,000 foreign fans are expected to visit Russia during the World Cup and Kremlin officials insist the tournament will spark a massive increase in tourism and create jobs. Most experts say, however, that government predictions of a $30.8 billion boost to Russia’s GDP over ten years are unrealistic. “We see very limited economic impact at the national level given the limited duration of the World Cup and the very large size of the country’s economy,” said analysts at credit rating agency Moody’s.

There is unlikely to be much backlash for Mr. Putin, if Russia’s national team performs as badly as expected. Many Russians are simply proud that their country is hosting such a major sporting event, and soccer fans are excited about seeing the world’s greatest players in the flesh. Some fans are even somewhat relieved that Russia are unlikely to progress too far: “For me, this is a tournament of two halves,” said Viktor Shenderovich, a well-known writer and soccer fan. “For the first half, while Russia is still involved, the country will be gripped by patriotic hysteria. But in the second half, after our team has been knocked out, I’ll be able to sit back and calmly enjoy the rest of the World Cup.”

Photo: Screenshot from 442ons YouTube channel parodying the match between Russia and Saudi Arabia during the FIFA World Cup 2018.
Credit: Courtesy of 442ons YouTube channel.

Story/photo publish date: 06/10/18
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

<p>The well-coordinated early-morning attack on the editorial offices of the Charlie Hebdo targeted the editor of the bitingly satiric weekly, Stephane Charbonnier, nine colleagues and a security guard, all murdered in cold blood by masked assailants who reportedly called out the names of their victims as they were shot.<br /><a href="/http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/7/terror-assault-at-paris-newspaper-leaves-12-dead/" style="font-size: 11px;"><span style="color: #3366ff;"><strong><br />Read more at The Washington Times</strong></span></a>

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Pope Francis, the environmentalist pope

ITA1303XX03VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Saturday warned some of the most powerful figures in the global energy sector that without their help climate change could put human civilization at risk.

Francis spoke on the second day of a two-day closed-door conference that included many of the world’s most influential oil executives and other energy sector players, including the CEOs from ExxonMobil, BP, Equinor of Norway, and Italy’s Eni.

“Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization,” the pope told the more than two-dozen leaders at the event.

Francis said that protecting the environment and helping the poor were the “two great needs” of the world, and he called on the executives and investors at the event to play a role to limit its impacts.

“I invite you to be the core group of leaders who envision the global energy transition in a way that will take into account all the peoples of the Earth, as well as future generations and all species and ecosystems,” Francis said.

The papal conference comes a little more than a year after President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world’s first global pact to address climate change. It also builds on the foundation created by Laudato Si’, Francis’ first papal encyclical, which three years ago made protection of the environment official Catholic doctrine.

Since the publication of Laudato Si’, dozens of Catholic institutions and some entire dioceses have announced plans to divest from fossil fuels, according to the Global Catholic Climate Movement.

Aside from Francis’ address, little is known about what took place at the meetings Friday and Saturday at the closed-to-the-public 16th century Pius IV villa in the Vatican Gardens. But the pope returned several times to the urgency of taking action.

“Progress has indeed been made,” Francis said. “But is it enough? Will we turn the corner in time? No one can answer that with certainty, but with each month that passes, the challenge of energy transition becomes more pressing.”

Several of the companies represented at the Vatican for the talks have made statements calling for stronger climate policies. But so far that has not translated into action.

Equinor, for example, the Norwegian energy giant formerly known as Statoil, criticized worldwide climate action in a recent report, stating, “The climate debate is long on targets but short on action” and calling for “swift, global, and coordinated political action to drive changes.”

Texas-based ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil and gas company, has called for a tax on carbon emissions as a way to reach the goals stated in the Paris Agreement.

But both companies — along with most other multinational energy companies — continue to search for sources of fossil fuels even though, as Laudato Si’ pointed out, much of the fossil fuel already discovered must stay in the ground if the world is to keep warming to within 2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit as stated in the Paris Agreement. That is a contradiction Francis highlighted Saturday, telling executives that commercial exploration for new sources of fossil fuels was “even more worrying” than the current levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Some conservative Catholic groups have criticized Francis’ stand on the environment. But polls show they are outnumbers by those who support it.

Anna Maria Gelli, 67, a nun from Sicily, was part of a small group of demonstrators supporting the Vatican in St. Peter’s Square as officials left the meetings in limousines with dark windows. She held a placard that read, “God loves us ... as well as the environment.”

“The world is God’s greatest gift to us and it is our obligation to protect it,” the nun said.

Photo: Pope Francis.
Credit: ARA Network Inc. (03/18/13)

Story/photo published date: 06/09/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

A voice for migrants and refugees far from home

GR160406VP025Racial stereotypes and negative overtones have often driven the European media’s coverage of the refugees who arrived on the continent after fleeing from Syria and elsewhere in recent years.

But thanks to the role of community media such as radios and podcasts, migrants have found an outlet to share information, educate fellow refugees and host communities, keep abreast with developments at home and find a respite from their day-to-day lives.

“Radio is a way to let migrants express themselves, find their voice and even enjoy a convivial moment, particularly if they are going through distressing situations,” said Cloé Chastel, a member of Micro Camp, a French association that organizes workshops to teach basic radio and journalism skills to migrants in France and as far as Kurdistan and Georgia.

“We have had instances where participants wanted to discuss their country’s political situation or personal problems, but often they tell us they want to use the medium to do something more pleasurable, like playing music or sharing recipes, to take their minds off serious issues,” said Chastel.

In France, migrants’ community radios tend to focus on practical themes or problem solving such as administrative procedures and access to welfare. One of them is Stalingrad Connection, a radio program in four languages named after the Paris neighborhood that at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe in 2016 became a makeshift camp for hundreds of people. Stalingrad Connection broadcasts from Fréquence Paris Plurielle, a community radio station, and via a podcast.

Broadcasting for an hour a week in four languages (English, French, Arabic and Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages) the program was born out of the will to preserve the community’s network after authorities dismantled the camp. Local volunteers and refugees produce the show.

The segments aim to share refugees’ experiences as well as offer practical information like useful addresses and tips for newcomers.

“We ask ‘What are your problems? How do you manage with food or personal hygiene?’” says Hassan Baigi, a 25-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan who contributes to the program. “But we don’t aim show the ‘dark side’ of refugees living on a street. We want to highlight their qualities, talk about their previous lives as teachers or students in their own countries and show how they could contribute to French society.”

Stalingrad Connection is also a source of insights for refugees as they try to grapple with French bureaucracy and the complexities of the asylum-seeking process. According to Ofpra, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, only 27 percent of applicants are granted asylum status, often because the paperwork is not in order or is completed incorrectly.

“We have cooperated with refugee associations’ staff to produce programs that teach how to fill in forms correctly, for example highlighting the difference between given names and family names, and generally provide advice that is not available on government websites,” says Margot Colinet, 34, a member of the Stalingrad Connection collective. “It’s the kind of advice you only know when you have been in the field.”

This educational approach has become even more relevant as the French government seeks to tighten asylum law by shortening application deadlines. Under a new immigration bill introduced by President Emmanuel Macron, a migrant seeking to receive asylum in France who once had 120 days to file their applications will instead only have 90 days.

In southern Italy, where migrants are often exploited as fruit and vegetable pickers, the local community radio, housed in a makeshift shed, has become a safe space where they can drop by after a long day spent working in the fields in inhumane conditions and talk about their hardships.

Founded in 2012 and broadcasting from a shantytown shack and carried on various West African radio stations, Radio Ghetto, Voci Libere (Radio Ghetto, Free Voices) aims to give a voice to the dwellers of the Gran Ghetto near Foggia, southern Italy.

The Ghetto is a shantytown that houses hundreds – thousands during the summer season – of legal and undocumented migrant farm workers from all over the world, but mostly West Africa. Plantation owners hire often-brutal gang masters in an exploitative system called “caporalato” enforced by the local mafia.

The living conditions of most migrants and their families don’t meet any basic safety or humane standards. While workers make an average of $35 a day in the Apulia region, they can expect to spend half of that on food, transport, water and a cut for the gang master.

Since its inception, Radio Ghetto has become a free space for debate, entertainment, relaxation and sometimes arguments, according to the local volunteers who helped set it up. During the broadcasts, workers discuss issues and difficulties of their life and work, play music, comment on Italian and faraway news and organize rap contests.

“We provide the equipment and a program outline, but then we give free rein to the people living in the shantytowns so that they become the ‘makers’ of the program,” said Raffaele Urselli, 32, a member of the Radio Ghetto collective who also works as a freelancer for researcher for the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation office in Athens.

He says the feedback from Italian and migrant listeners has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We organize phone ins and once even got a call from the migrants’ camp in Calais,” said Urselli. “It was someone who had lived in the Ghetto before moving on to France. He still had our phone number and decided to call to chat with us.”

Photo: April 3, 2016 - Idomeni, Greece – Refugees sit on the railroad at Idomeni during a protest of the closed borders.
Credit: Valerie Plesch/ARA Network (04/03/16)

Story/photo publish date: 06/05/18

A version of this story was published in Al-Fanar.

German metal workers: Less work hours, but still full-time employees

DEU IGMetallBERLIN — Earlier this year, around 4 million metalworkers and electricians throughout Germany won a hard-fought battle for the right to decrease their workweek to 28 hours for periods as long as two years without jeopardizing their status as full-time employees.

Won after months of talks between Germany's dominant metalworkers' union, IG Metall, and manufacturers amid intermittent strikes across the country among 1.5 million workers early this year, the arrangement signals a turning point in German work culture, analysts said experts.

"It's an interesting turning point because we see that there is more flexibility coming into the labor market," said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-DiBa in Frankfurt, in an interview. "It also shows this cultural change that people are interested in a better work-life balance and no longer in just more money."

In what the German media dubbed the "hardest rounds of collective bargaining in decades," IG Metall entered into negotiations with manufacturers last fall with a clear goal: a 6 percent wage increase and a flexible workweek so laborers can spend more time caring for children and parents, al care and pursuing other goals.

Many chastised the union's position as too costly for industry during a time when Germany is staring down a shortage of skilled labor in the coming decades. By 2030, German employers could need as many as 3 million skilled laborers due to declining birthrates and lack of interest in industries like metalwork, according to a 2017 study by Swiss economic research institute Prognos.

But Jörg Hofmann, chairman of IG Metall, told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk in an interview in January that the union estimates that only 4 to 5 percent of workers will take advantage of the new work arrangement at any given time – mostly to take care of family.

Even if more workers take more time off, others would likely flock to the industry on account of the new benefits, he added.

"[Employers] show flexibility when the customer wants it," he said. "And we think they should also show flexibility when it comes to the interests of employees."

Under the deal struck between management and labor, metalworkers last month saw their wages increase by 4.3 percent. In addition to the option of working 28 hours per week for up to two years, workers will also receive a standard bonus every July worth 27.5 percent of their monthly wages. For shift workers who have worked at least five years at a company, parents with children younger than eight years old or workers with a family member in need of care can exchange the new bonus for eight additional vacation days per year.

In return, employers can introduce a temporary workweek of up to 40 hours per week for up to 18 percent of their workforce – five hours more than the legally mandated 35 hours per week – in order to make up for those utilizing the new leave scheme. But they can only do so until the average workweek per full-time employee in the factory reaches 35.9 hours per week.

"What is culturally significant is the fact that the option of an individual reduction of working hours is linked to important social problems such as finding spare time for relatives or partners in need of care," said Klaus Dörre, a sociologist at the University of Jena, in an interview.

In recent years, the work-life balance debate has become increasingly prevalent in Germany, a country where traditional, family-owned industries have dominated economic output for generations.

Though traditional processes helped make Germany Europe's largest and healthiest economy, many enterprises worry about the effects that a new digital economy will have on their production models. They're now looking to become more attractive to a new generation of young workers demanding flexibility in a digitalized workplace.

This new agreement signals that Germany's traditional industries are taking such calls seriously, said Dürre. "Many highly skilled professionals today want more than just good pay and an interesting job," he said. "They want to be in charge of disposable time – that is to say, time to live."

But such extreme flexibility for full-time employees could have negative side effects as well, said Brzeski. Production could tapper off if the new work model fails to draw young people back to traditional industries that are often in rural enclaves far removed from the cities favored by millennials.

Moreover, "if worst comes to worst, men will perhaps work longer hours and women might accept the reduction of working hours, which would certainly add to cementing gender hierarchies," said Dörre.

Even so, the perceived benefits of reduced hours and a flexible work arrangement can only help to bolster the staying power of these ailing traditional industries in Germany, Dörre added.

After all, they're taking a page out a work model long implemented by startups that favor a culture of flexibility and efficiency over more rigid work schedules, he said.

"Real wealth consists of the time available for each individual and for society as a whole," he said, citing Karl Marx. "Reduced full-time [work] of 28 hours per week over a period of two years represents a compromise which entails advantages for all sides."

Photo: May 30, 2018 - Giffhorn, Germany - IG Metall workers striking in Giffhorn, Germany.
Credit: Courtesy of IG Metall official Twitter page (05/30/18)

Story/photo publish date: 06/04/18

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

Pope Francis' liberal stance not shared by Polish Catholic Church

Pope FrancisWARSAW – During communist rule in Poland, the Catholic Church was seen as an institution embodying the resiliency of the nation's identity under a repressive regime.

But today, as the Catholic Church of Pope Francis moves toward modernity and pluralism, the Polish Catholic Church has pulled an about-face.

Becoming increasingly hardline in its stances, the Polish Catholic Church has doubled down on the socially conservative policies of the nation's rightwing government, dividing an overwhelmingly Catholic body politic striving to live in the present while trying to preserve its national identity and historical legacy.

As a result, many Poles are beginning to lose the faith.

"While Pope Francis meets society’s expectations, leading the Church into the future, I have the impression that the ideas of the church in Poland are leading it into the past," said Bożena Kampa, 31, a lawyer in Krakow who identifies as Catholic, but doesn’t support the church. "People will become more aloof unless the Church deeply reforms."

Over 90 percent of Poland's 38 million citizens identify as Catholics, and 64 percent of Poles say that being Catholic is integral to what it means to be Polish, according to a 2017 Pew Research study.

The strength of the Catholic Church in Poland dates back to the 18th century when the nation was divided among Europe's conquering powers – the Catholic faith served as a binding agent between the Polish diaspora scattered throughout the region.

The church also took on a central role during the nation's turbulent post-war communist era, organizing resistance movements and protecting dissidents against an areligious political system it saw as "un-Polish."

"To be a good Pole means to be a good Catholic," said Detlef Pollack, a professor of religious sociology at the University of Münster in Germany. "Poland was divided (in the 18th century) and the Church stood for national autonomy. This can't be forgotten – the Church was and is still seen as the protector of national identity."

But when Poland moved to embrace Western values after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Catholic Church failed to modernize, even though many Poles welcomed more liberal social norms and economic upturn, especially in urban enclaves such as Warsaw and Krakow.

Fearing irrelevancy, the Catholic church entrenched itself in its hardline values on sexuality, migration and reproductive rights, and used its cultural might and historical association with Polish identity to influence policy.

"They were given the freedom they'd fought for against communist oppressors, but that was a fight against a specific evil," said Andreas Püttmann, a German political scientist, author and Catholic commentator. "It didn't mean they wanted to create freedoms for other minorities who didn't share their own moral views."

It's a phenomenon that's only intensified with the rise Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, whose socially conservative and nationalist stances have increasingly mirrored those of the Catholic Church in an attempt to present itself as the party of Polish identity.

And 2015's refugee crisis in Europe, which brought millions of migrants to the continent seeking asylum, only exacerbated the development.

Though Poland has settled the very few refugees compared to other European nations like Germany, both the Catholic Church and Law and Justice have stoked fears of increasing Islamic influence in the nation.

Migrants to Europe have brought diseases like cholera and dysentery, as well as "all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which … while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here," Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland's former prime minister and the current leader of the Law and Justice party said at a political rally in 2015.

Catholic clergymen in Poland deny the church's direct influence on political matters but applaud Law and Justice's achievements on family policies. Law and Justice is currently working toward effectively outlawing abortion in Poland with a law that strikes current allowances for the procedure in the case of fetal deformities, which constitute 95 percent of terminated pregnancies in the country.

"Law and Justice declares respect and faithfulness to Catholic social science," said Father Grzegorz Kurp, a spokesman for the Warsaw Society of the Catholic Apostolate. "We can’t deny their achievements on matters such as family policies."

But as the government and the church in Poland move increasingly to the right, the Catholic Church at large is embracing liberal reforms during the tenure of Pope Francis, whose calls for cultural pluralism and moral tolerance often stand at loggerheads with the Polish clergy.

It's created a fissure within Polish society between liberal modernity and the nation's traditional Catholic identity, and resulted in a decreased approval of the Polish church, said Püttmann: Only 54 percent of Poles view the church positively, according to a recent Polish Center for Public Research poll.

Even so, in an era of creeping nationalism across Europe, many Poles still adhere to faith-based political decision making. Law and Justice is still polling at 39 percent, according to recent surveys, and Catholic Poles turned out in record numbers late last year to pray for the nation's survival at its borders, an event many viewed as a statement against immigration.

"When it comes to elections, I am more likely to vote for parties supporting values preached by the Church," said Marcin Kielak, 33, of Warsaw, who works in marketing. "Humans, in accordance with their conscience, must be aware of their responsibility and the consequences of their deeds."

Still, Püttmann believes the Catholic church's influence in Poland is waning, not least because it's refused to modernize in favor of supporting political parties like Law and Justice.

"The future perspective for the church is one that is ever-shrinking," he said, adding that Law and Justice will sooner or later be voted out of office for ignoring the liberalization of society. "And if the Catholic Church continues to stand there as a companion of this party, then they will get handed a (bill) for their actions."

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

Italy's Salvini takes tips from Trump's playbook

ITAMatteoSalviniROME – Five years ago, the separatist Northern League finished far behind in Italy’s general election, sitting between two parties with so little support they no longer exist.

Now it is a partner in a two-party government coalition, and, according to polls, may soon be the country’s dominant political force. What is behind the rapid growth? An increasingly strong and vocal stand against migration.

“Migrants have become the central issue in Italy, and it’s clear Italy will be tightening the screws of migrant arrivals and on migrants already” in Italy, said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and the president of Rome’s John Cabot University.

Italy is on the front line of Europe’s migration problem: more than 600,000 refugees landed on Italy’s shores in the last four years.

Anti-migrant sentiment in Italy has oftentimes taken a violent turn. In the lead-up to Italy’s March 4 vote that -- after nearly three months of contentious negotiations – resulted in the government installed Friday, six African migrants were shot in one afternoon by a former local League candidate who has a Nazi tattoo on his face.

As recently as Saturday, a refugee from Mali was killed and two others injured in southern Italy, though there were no obvious connections to any political party. There have been multiple reports of less deadly violence against migrants in the last few months.

“There is an increasing belief that the Italy’s problems, whether slow economic growth, jobs, crime, whatever, either come in part from the arrival of too many migrants,” said Gian Franco Gallo, an ABS Securities political analyst. “The League didn’t create the anti-migrant sentiment, but they identified it and made other parties follow suit.”

It represents a radical change for a country until recently seen as among Europe’s most open and tolerant nations. The polling company Opinioni reports that migration tops some polls as the issue Italians care about most, more than education, the environment, or economic issues.

Credit Matteo Salvini, 45, a college dropout and long-time party official, for the change of strategy. Salvini took control of the party in the wake of the 2013 vote, dropped “Northern” from its name in order to broaden its appeal, and de-emphasized the party’s central plank calling for more regional autonomy.

For his part, Salvini has not minced words when addressing the issue, repeating in speeches that “unchecked immigration brings chaos, anger, drug dealing, theft, rape, and violence.”

The message seems to be gaining traction.

In the March 4 vote, the League won 17.4 percent of the vote, a huge rise from 4.1 percent in the previous elections five years earlier but still far behind coalition partner Five-Star Movement, which garnered 32.7 percent. But over the course of the negotiations, the League’s fortunes improved dramatically. According to Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, a new vote held today would see the League finish in a near statistical tie with the Five-Star Movement, 28.5 percent and 30.1 percent of the vote, respectively. Opinioni said the League is now bigger than the Five-Star Movement in at least three regions the latter party won in March.

That newfound strength has resulted in out-sized influence in the new government. Despite having around half as many seats in parliament as the Five-Star Movement, Salvini is co-deputy-prime minister on equal footing with Five-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio. And the League has provided eight of the 18 ministers in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s cabinet, including key posts such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry for European Affairs.

Salvini even went toe-to-toe with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and won. On Thursday, Juncker said Italy should ”stop blaming” the European Union for the country’s problems. “Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy,” Juncker said. “That means more work, less corruption, more seriousness.” Salvini accused him of being “shameful and racist” and within a few hours the former Luxembourg prime minister apologized. Two days later, Juncker was more cautious when asked about Italy: “I do not want to feed the accusations spread by populists that we are sitting in Brussels and meddling with Italian affairs,” he said.

As the League gains more public support and its leadership becomes more experienced, it could create instability for the government, Gallo said.

“If the League feels it will do better with new elections it could make major demands from the government, which will either have to give in [to the League] or risk new elections that could finish with the League as the senior partner in any coalition,” Gallo said.

Meanwhile, the Italian public seems content with the new government despite controversial policies – not just on migration, but on the future of the euro currency, European Union rules on government deficits, and taxation.

“I have no problem giving these new parties a chance,” said Marco Alfonsi, a 44-year-old butcher who supported a small right-wing party allied with the League but who said he would vote for the League in future elections. “They can’t do worse that the governments we’ve had in the past, and I think it’s right that the want to put the interests of Italy before those of the European Union or of migrants from countries I’ve never heard of.”

Chiriac Tiberiu Paul, 56, is a Romanian who has lived in Italy for 24 years. At a crowded rpolitical ally Saturday, he was waving a large Romanian flag with a hole cut in middle, a symbol of his native country’s overthrow of communist-era leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Paul said what was happening in Italy reminded him of what happened in his country nearly 30 years ago.

“I have always thought Italians have to be a bit more revolutionary,” Paul said. “Now it seems they are finally starting to do it. I think it’s a good thing.”

Photo: The Leage leader Matteo Salvini.
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 06/04/18

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

The French student that scandalized secularists

MaryamPougetouxPARIS - The French interior minister, Gérard Collomb, called her appearance “shocking.” Marlène Schiappa, the minister of gender equality, said she exhibited a “manifestation of political Islam.” The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo put her on its cover with a drawing that many considered racist.

Her offense: wearing a head scarf during a television interview.

Elected last December as the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, Maryam Pougetoux, 19, is used to hearing from those who disagree with her progressive views. But she was entirely unprepared for what happened last month after she criticized recent changes in educational policy in the interview.

Ms. Pougetoux, a practicing Muslim who wears a head scarf that covers her hair and neck, had been asked to comment on one of the main television channels, M6, about proposed changes that would make admission to universities more selective. She and the hordes of students who took to the streets recently in protest consider the measure discriminatory and elitist.

But the debate that followed had nothing to do with education and everything to do with her appearance. It was set off in large part by Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of a group called Le Printemps Républicain, or Republican Spring. The group was created in 2016 to defend the French republican ideal of “laïcité,” which emerged during the revolution as a way to keep the Roman Catholic Church out of the affairs of state. But in recent years, critics say, some groups have used it to suppress the growing influence of Islam in France.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Bouvet said, “we aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of a leader of the student group wearing a head scarf. “How can one defend values like abortion and feminist principles while displaying conspicuously their religious beliefs,” he asked.

Pretty soon, it seemed that almost everyone had something to say about this unapologetically religious student.
Ms. Pougetoux herself was baffled by the outburst, saying she had to research “political Islam” online to understand the accusation. She also was not particularly outraged by the caricature of her on the profanity-laced cover of Charlie Hebdo, which many said made her look like a monkey.

“I first laughed. Charlie Hebdo mocks everyone, I didn’t take it personally,” she said in a recent interview. What she liked, she says, is that, “they were the only ones who actually emphasized my message.”

Still, she realized not everyone shared her sense of humor. “I was extremely hurt when I realized that it caused a lot of pain for my family and friends,” she said.

Not surprisingly, she has received plenty of support from her peers.

“In five years I have never seen this level of mistreatment of a student leader,” one student from Denmark said to Ms. Pougetoux in the offices of the student group. “You are super amazing. Don’t let the racists win.”

A sparkle came to Ms. Pougetoux’ blue eyes as she thanked the young man. She has been receiving similar demonstrations of support over the past two weeks on her university’s campus, on the streets of the French capital, and online.

But the entire experience has been quite an ordeal for the 19-year-old, who is studying literature and communications.
Ms. Pougetoux did not break any law. While head scarves and other religious symbols are banned in public service and in primary and secondary public schools in France, they are permitted on college campuses. Moreover, one expert said, the concept of laïcité should not be used to stigmatize minorities but instead to ensure freedom for everyone.

“It is the state that has an obligation to be neutral, not the citizens,” said Nicolas Cadène, a senior member of the Observatory of Secularism, an agency that advocates respect of laïcité and advises the government on the matter.

“There is just one legal definition, but many come up with intellectual definitions,” he said. “People who use the laïcité to extend the neutrality are wrong. It is out of question to challenge anyone’s freedom.”

Still, many French Muslims felt directly targeted by the 2004 law that banned head scarves and religious symbols for girls. Remarks by French political leaders have occasionally fanned the flames, like when President Emmanuel Macron said that the head scarf was not “in conformity with civility.”

Ms. Pougetoux, who started wearing a head scarf in middle school, says she had no problem removing it when she entered her school building.

“It was the law, so I respected it,” she said. “I had a very clear goal to study well, and I thought that it was a sacrifice that anyway I wouldn’t have to endure in college.”

Ms. Pougetoux makes an odd target for the guardians of French identity, Islamophobes and out-and-out racists, in that she is thoroughly French and religiously tolerant. Her family’s roots are in the Correze region of southwestern France, and she grew up in a working-class household in the outskirts of Paris.

She comes from a long tradition of political involvement, particularly in trade union protests over workers’ rights. Her great-grandparents were part of the French resistance during World War II, and her great-grandmother demonstrated for women’s suffrage, which was granted only in 1944.

Ms. Pougetoux’s parents both converted to Islam before they met, and she says she was raised in a tolerant environment accepting of differences. “During our family gatherings, there are Muslims, Christians and everybody gets along,” she said.
While Ms. Pougetoux may not completely realize how much hate she has ignited, observers see the uproar as leading to another in a series of debates over French identity, especially the sexism that many say is latent in the country.

“For some, for a woman to be emancipated, she must fit into a certain stereotype,” said Nadia Marzouki, a political scientist and research fellow at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris. “Some can’t stand that a Muslim woman can be outspoken.”

France has not resolved its colonial past, and many still believe their mission is to civilize other cultures, said Joan Scott, an American historian who has extensively written about the head scarf controversies in the country.

“The conflation of the woman wearing a head scarf with a political threat to the nation is quite extraordinary,” she said. “It’s almost like these women are defined as witches. They’re barring some evil threat to the integrity of the nation. They can’t be seen by anything but an aggressive threat. If that is not a form of racism or Islamophobia, I don’t know what is.”

Mr. Bouvet, in response to emailed questions, said his outburst against Ms. Pougetoux, “is absolutely not a question of secularism, in the sense of the law. Maryam Pougetoux does not break the law and does not go against laïcité. The problem is her role as the official representative of a student union that until now defended ideas and values incompatible with those that are represented by the Islamic veil worn by a woman.”

But Ms. Pougetoux, who hopes one day to work for international nonprofit groups, said she believed that many politicians and intellectuals in France were set in archaic ways of thinking that do not reflect the more tolerant viewpoints of French citizens or, especially, her college peers.

“People think that we can never wear a head scarf by choice,” Ms. Pougetoux said. “I wore it by religious conviction. It does not prevent me from having a normal life, and from having progressive values and dedicating my life to my political engagement.”

Photo: Here appearing on France's BMFTV YouTube channel, Maryam Pougetoux says, "My veil has no political function," after critics and secularists criticized her for wearing a head scarf.

Story/photo publish date: 6/1/18

This story was published by The New York Times.

Say to hello to west Europe's first populist government

Conte-Salvini-DiMaioROME — Giuseppe Conte, a little-known law professor, was sworn in as prime minister Friday, nearly 90 days after an inconclusive March 4 vote.

Italy’s first-ever populist government will now be tasked with repairing ties with the European Union after nearly three months of bitter negotiations.

The new government features the heads of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the right-wing League party – both of whom campaigned as vocal critics of the EU.

Relations between Rome and Brussels got off to a bad start. The continent’s most high-profile euro-skeptic, France’s Marine Le Pen, called Italy’s new government a “victory of democracy over European Union threats.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, earned the ire of Italy’s new leaders by stating Italy should ”stop blaming” the EU for the country’s woes. Juncker later apologized.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome on Friday warned U.S. travelers to beware of three separate demonstrations set to take place Saturday, saying they could become “unruly or violent.”

“It was starting to become a joke: three months of flip-flopping and sudden changes of direction,” said Lorenzo Codogno, a former director-general of the Italian Treasury and now a professor at the London School of Economics. “But the new government will inevitably raise many eyebrows.”

Financial markets have been nervous about the new government. The Italian Stock Exchange lost 10% of its value in May, and yield on Italian bonds this week rose to levels last seen in 2014. Since Italy’s vote in March, the euro currency has lost nearly 1% of its value every week.

“The new government is going to have to make it a priority to calm markets,” said Gian Franco Gallo, a political affairs analyst with Milan’s ABS Securities. “If the volatility continues it will become too difficult for the new government to govern.”

Gallo said he expected leadership in both Rome and Brussels to make conciliatory remarks in the coming days.

Veronica Auriemma, 49, an office manager, said she isn't expecting much from the newly formed government.

“They key is to set expectations low and hope for the best,” said Auriemma, who said she supported a center-left party that is now part of the opposition. “I guess you have to give the new government a chance but I am not expecting too much. Whatever happens, we’ll survive.”

Marco Sagese, 29, a restaurant worker, agreed.

“Most of these new ministers never had a role in government before,” said Sagese, who supported the 5-Star Movement. “We have to be patient and keep our eyes open to be sure they don’t go too far.”

Sagese said he is among the two out of three Italians who support staying in the euro currency zone, something the party he voted for wants to call into question. The euro has been Italy’s currency since 2002, when it replaced the Italian lira.

“I’m too young to remember much about the time before the euro, but I like going on vacation to France and Spain,” he said. “My parents told me that when we had the lira it was too expensive to travel outside Italy. When they had time off, all they could afford to do was to make a ham sandwich and go to the beach. I don’t want to go back to that.”

Photo: From left to right: Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and The League leader Matteo Salvini
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account. (June 2018)

Story/photo published date: 06/01/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Germany looks east

MerkelChina2018BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel set off for China this week with top German industrial leaders to talk business and attempt to blunt the impact that a budding trade war between China and the United States could have on German companies.

A trade war between the United States and China could have huge ripple effects for German companies reliant on the nation's export-driven economy – especially its auto industry.

China has been Germany’s biggest trading partner for the past two years. German companies are also the largest European investors in China, where specialized wares like cars and high-tech machinery are in high demand.

Every fifth car registered in China rolled off a German assembly line. More than 90 percent of premium vehicles in China are German-made, according to the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA).

At the same time, German companies have major investments in the US that export to China – like BMW’s massive manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. American-produced German vehicles comprise about one-quarter of all US passenger vehicle exports. The United States is the second biggest buyer of German cars – after China – according to the VDA.

"There's a small anecdote about who actually is the largest car exporting manufacturer in the US. It's BMW," said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-DiBa in Frankfurt. “Germany could be hit much more by the US-China conflict than the US imposing direct tariffs on [German] aluminum and steel."

Earlier this week, American and Chinese trade negotiators appeared to reach a truce in their trade issues.

China agreed to open its markets to more American agricultural imports and announced it would lower tariffs on foreign-made cars to 15 percent from 25 percent, an attempt to take a chunk out of America’s massive $375 billion trade deficit with the world’s most populous country.

In exchange, the US discussed waving the threat of crippling tariffs and lifting a trade embargo on Chinese cellphone giant ZTE, which is reliant on American-made parts.

But the prospect of a deal disappeared when President Donald Trump later told reporters he was unsatisfied.
On Tuesday, President Trump demanded that China pledge to cut its trade deficit with the US by $200 billion by any means necessary or else no deal.

The following day, the Trump administration called for a national security investigation into automotive imports – a move that could eventually lead to tariffs on cars from Europe, Japan and South Korea, exacerbating already shaky international trade relationships.

While the steel and aluminum tariffs on Germany and others currently set to take hold June 1 are merely a "small needle in the flesh of Germany," said Brzeski, a trade war between Europe and the US that involved cars or other big items could cost both sides dearly.

German automakers have already staked a position against tariffs or any other measures that slowed down world trade.

"The German automotive industry is watching the current development closely and with concern," VDA President Bernhard Mattes said in a statement. "An increase in customs barriers should be avoided. The German automotive industry has always advocated the mutual reduction of tariffs and free trade agreements worldwide."

Increasingly wary of President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, Merkel's prime objective in China will be to strengthen economic ties and avert the risks to German firms newly posed by the American administration, said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, an economist and transportation analyst with the University of Duisburg-Essen.

"Germany and German companies will turn in the direction of China,” he said. “Cooperation and understanding between Germany and China will only get better – and my assessment is that it will lead to a gradual isolation of the USA. The situation has already become more cautious in the interim."

That's not to say that Germans don't share some of Trump’s concerns about Chinese trade practices.

German leaders have long worried about China's growing influence over the country’s small and medium-sized businesses, long the backbone of the German economy. Known locally as the Mittelstand, they comprise 99 percent of German enterprises and 56 percent of the country's economic output, according to Germany's Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Chinese investors have started gobbling up these firms, gaining ownership of their research, engineering and intellectual property. While the trend has not yet made a palpable impact on the economy, that could change quickly, said Brzeski. "The risk is clearly there," he said.

Given the United States' and Germany's mutual interest in reining in China's dubious practices, America's go-it-alone strategy on global trade and the obvious impact of a tariff war on its traditional allies has left many in Germany and Europe scratching their heads.

"It would have been smarter for the US administration if they'd have found allies, namely the Europeans, for such a strategy," said Brzeski. "Now, it looks more or less like they're coming in with a big swinging hammer."

With China spending some $1 trillion on its One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative to open markets between Asia and the Europe and conceding to lower tariffs on imported cars, the Trump administration is taking an increasingly hostile stance on global trade, said Dudenhöffer – it seems Germany has little choice but to be drawn closer into China’s orbit.

"When friends [in the US] become worse than enemies, than one has to analyze the relationship more closely," he said. "The USA will become increasingly isolated, because all signs point to connections in the future being strengthened between Europe and China. China's bolstering of trade now fits perfectly into this pattern.”

Photo: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merke.
Credit: Courtesy of the CCTV Video News Agency YouTube channel (05/24/18)

Story/photo published date: 05/27/18

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

The challenges of Italy's new Prime Minister

GiuseppeConte1ROME — With political novice Giuseppe Conte set to become Italy's next prime minister, reaction at home focuses on his balancing act to hold power, while allies and the European Union fear a collision course with the new anti-establishment government.

Conte, a relatively unknown lawyer picked as a compromise candidate, is charged with enacting a controversial populist, anti-migrant platform of the top two parties from the March 4 elections — the 5-Star Movement and the nationalist League.

Their victory as the top vote-getters comes amid the populist wave that resulted in Britain's Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, both in 2016. Italy's election was marked by vulgar and bitter attacks against the political establishment, migrants and the European Union.

“Conte steps into an enormously difficult position,” said Javier Noriega, chief economist with Hildebrandt and Ferrar. More high-profile choices for prime minister may have been skipped over either because they were opposed by the coalition or because they recognized the extreme challenges Italy faces, he said.

Italy is about to become the first European Union country headed by a populist government, sparking jitters across the continent. The headline in The Times of London on Thursday said: “Alarm in Europe as Italy’s populists rise to power.” The Sun called Conte an “Unknown leader of bizarre Italian coalition.”

In Italy, reaction focused on how little is known about Conte or the disparate coalition he will head. The Italian center-right daily Il Foglio was harsh, proclaiming, “The Third Republic is Born as the World Laughs.” Il Fatto Quotidiano showed Conte on a tightrope under the headline, “The Acrobat.”

Conte’s first order of business will be to convince financial markets and foreign leaders — including those in the U.S. — not to fear a platform that includes reconsidering Italy’s role in the 19-nation euro currency zone, establishing a flat income tax, increasing pensions, ejecting hundreds of thousands of migrants and calling on the EU to write off $300 billion in Italian debt.

Markets reacted poorly after Conte's appointment on Wednesday after meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

“Investors expect a certain amount of instability and uncertainty from Italy, but recent developments have gone beyond that,” Noriega said.

Conte, 53, appeared to acknowledge worries about his new duties, saying he would “safeguard the interests of all Italians.”

“Don’t be surprised to see Conte depart soon for Paris, Berlin or Brussels to reassure European allies,” said Luca Verzichelli, a political scientist at the University of Siena. “The new government will have to start governing as soon as possible, and that is part of it.”

A day after meeting with Mattarella, Conte’s nomination was questioned amid allegations he lied about his academic credentials, but the parties backing him denied Conte lied and still backed him.

Verzichelli said one of Conte's biggest challenges will be balancing the interests of the two parties that back him. They both have populist elements but are not natural allies. The 5-Star Movement is Internet-savvy and anti-elite, while the League is right-wing and nationalistic — and Conte is not a member of either party.

“I want the next government to be successful, but it really seems strange that two parties so opposed to each other just pulled someone out of the woodwork to be prime minister,” said Jessica Adams, 37, a high school teacher from Cedar Key, Fla., who has lived in Italy 11 years. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”

Franco Vecoli, 27, a bike messenger who voted for the 5-Star Movement, said he wasn't worried about the party's extreme policies.

“It’s a negotiation. If you want five, you ask for 10,” Vecoli said. “Everybody has to compromise when they are in a coalition government. The new government will have to moderate some of its stances. I’m sure of it.”

Photo: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Credit: Courtesy of Giuseppe Conte's official Twitter account (June 2018)

Story/photo published date: 05/26/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Tiny German town offers a medieval cityscape, and only renewables

Mar. 14, 2018 – Wolfhagen, Germany – Since 2015, the quaint town of Wolfhagen with its timber-houses has supplied its 14,000 residents with electricity from 100-percent renewable energy sources. Now that it's reached that landmark, the city is looking toward the future to preserve its centuries-old aesthetic while progressing the tenets of Germany's energy transition, known locally as the Energiewende. (Photo: Austin Davis|ARA Network)WOLFHAGEN, Germany – With its centuries-old timber-framed houses and cobblestone lanes, Wolfhagen could easily illustrate a Grimm Brothers' fable.

But for all of its medieval charm and pastoral feel, this town of 14,000 near Frankfurt has taken a big step into the future over the past few years: It has embraced Germany's push to get rid of most fossil fuels and use 100 percent green energy instead – ahead of almost everyone else in the country.

Wolfhagen is an example of a community that took its energy future into its own hands and did what many other communities in Germany and around the world are struggling to do: be self-reliant and sustainable.

"We're definitely further along than others," said Reinhard Schaake, the mayor of Wolfhagen since 1999. "But I think that Wolfhagen shows that this energy transition can actually work."

In the 1970s and 1980s, the global gas crisis and the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor caused a rethink in Germany and elsewhere regarding reliance on gas and nuclear power. The seeds of an idea to go fully renewable took hold and eventually became known as the "Energiewende," (energy transition).

In this period, calls to phase out nuclear energy grew – Germany stopped building nuclear reactors and the first quasi-subsidies for solar and wind energy were introduced. A decade later, the country enshrined firm goals into law for how much green energy should make up the total percent of energy used: By 2050, for example, Germany must get at least 80 percent of its electricity from solar, wind and and other renewables. It must also decrease greenhouse gas emissions by at least 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.

In 2003, Wolfhagen started taking those goals to heart.

Town officials say they wanted residents to become directly involved in producing their own electricity. They also wanted the profits from electricity sales not to flow to a big energy company but to be reinvested into local schools, sports halls and other city works.

The plan was to be self-sufficient – and 100 percent green in a decade or so.

"We all developed the philosophy that we don't just want to maximize profits as an energy producer selling electricity," said Alexander Rohrssen, the chief executive of Stadtwerke Wolfhagen, the town-owned power plant. “Rather, we want to offer residents and customers the opportunity to get involved in the economics of the operation, all while saving energy.”

Town officials therefore jumped at the opportunity to buy back the town's power grid from energy giant E.ON when its contract expired in 2003. They also began to build up wind, solar and biogas farms once the sale was finalized a few years later.

Today, with four windmills, a 42,000-panel solar farm and two biogas facilities that turn waste into energy, the town is able to generate about 106 percent of the its electricity needs throughout the year. Because the plant generates more than the town needs, leftover electricity is sold to neighboring communities. The scheme makes a profit every year, which is paid out in dividends to Wolfhagen's residents.

Contrast that with Germany as a whole, which only produces about 36 percent of its electricity from renewables. It's ranked 19th globally on the World Economic Forum's sustainable energy index – the United States clocks in at number 52.
And in spite of billions spent on the energy transition, its slow progress toward its goals is making it unlikely it will meet them in the future, say analysts.

Still, the transformation wasn't simple in Wolfhagen: Proponents naturally faced some initial opposition to going green.

Opponents to the move balked at the costs – a single wind turbine alone can cost up to $6 million, a large sum for such a small community. There was also worry over how solar and wind farms would mar the town's medieval cityscape and how noise pollution would shatter the quiet charm of rural life.

"I always thought that renewable energy was super and that we had to do something to protect the environment but it's different when you're confronted with concrete plans," said Iris Degenhardt-Meister, who lives about a mile from where officials proposed constructing four wind turbines, and had her misgivings about the plan at first.

But after weighing the concerns versus the environmental benefits and the prospect of the city profiting from producing its own energy, Degenhardt-Meister, like many other residents, got on board.

She rallied support for the initiative and helped form a co-op of Wolfhagen residents who raised $2.84 million to buy a 25 percent stake in the city's power plant.

These days, the biggest obstacle the town faces – indeed, all communities and countries confront – in going green is nature: It doesn't always cooperate.

For example, when the sun shines or when it's windy, wind and solar farms produce more than the town needs. But on cloudy, windless days – common in this region of Germany – the town must buy energy from other energy producers because the technology doesn’t exist yet for sufficient storage of green electricity on this scale.

That volatility is one of the biggest reasons why Germany on the whole has been so hesitant to phase out coal: This source of energy produces about 40 percent of the nation's total.

Another issue facing the town is that using renewables is just one piece of becoming carbon neutral. For example, homes need to be renovated to curb heating waste, which in 2017 contributed to 30 percent of all energy-related emissions. Cars need to go electric to decrease fuel consumption and agriculture needs to develop sustainable practices, analysts said.

Germany as a whole is behind in tackling those issues and predicted to miss its emissions reduction target for 2020 of 40 percent over 1990 levels by as much as 10 percent.

Still, now as the town pats itself on the back for its environmental – and profitable – transformation, it is looking ahead, trying to tackle the issues that still remain, said Mayor Schaake.

"One question we're always candid about is ‘Where do we go from here?’" he said. "We have to pay close attention to what's technologically possible, while also addressing economic concerns."

Wolfhagen intends to hire a town 'climate manager.' It's also discussed sustainable practices with local farmers and considered how to use less raw materials in new building stock. The town's power plant has even developed an app that helps industry and households know when to bests use electricity to take advantage of sun and wind energy.

In this new era of the energy transition in Germany, new ideas on the local level could lead to bigger strategies later on, said Matthias Lang, an energy attorney at Bird & Bird law firm in Düsseldorf, who has seen a number of small communities take the plunge into running their own energy production.

"Someone needs to just try it out, even though there's no guarantee at this stage how it will work," he said. "That's why it's exciting for someone to try it out and to look at how much effect they'll have."

Photo: Since 2015, the medieval town of Wolfhagen has supplied its energy needs with 100 percent renewable energy. Credit: Austin Davis/ARA Network, 5/20/2018

Story/photo publish date: 5/25/18


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

Italy's new coalition struggles with a government plan

Matteo SalviniROME – Italy appears on a path toward anointing its first ever populist government, something that would set the country on a collision course with Brussels over plans to cut taxes, ramp up spending, reconsider the euro currency, and dramatically curb the flow of refugees arriving on the country’s shores.

Negotiations to form a new government have dragged since an inconclusive March 4 general election. But two parties -- the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and nationalist League -- appear to be inching toward an alliance that would have a razor-thin majority in Italy’s parliament.

Party leaders Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, respectively, had been expected to present their governing plan to Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Monday, but instead they asked for more time. Mattarella granted them “a few more days” to try to hash out their differences.

The Italian media reported that the delays are due to disagreements over who will be prime minister in the new government -- neither Di Maio nor Salvini will support the other in that post -- and the specifics of what could be a hundred-billion-euro ($120 billion) spending spree, including proposals for a flat income tax, an automatic basic income for all Italians, and more generous pensions.

Those policies would easily push Italy to the wrong side of European Union limits on government budget deficits, which, combined with worries about a possible Italian referendum on the future of the euro currency and policies aimed at turning away refugees from Africa and the Middle East, has European leaders nervously following developments in Rome.

As the likelihood of a populist government in Italy increased in recent days, the yield on Italian government bonds -- a measure of investor confidence in the country -- has climbed, with the rate on 10-year bonds trading above the 2-percent threshold Tuesday for the first time in more than a year. Meanwhile, the euro has steadily lost value against the dollar and other major currencies in recent days, approaching its lowest levels since December.

“It’s very possible that the parties will have to moderate their plans on a lot of these controversial areas once they try to govern,” Flavio Chiapponi, a political scientist with Italy’s University of Pavia and author of a book about the Five-Star Movement, said. “But during the campaign neither party was shy about criticizing the European Union, and their supporters do not expect them to back down. Nobody knows exactly how it will all play out?”

Nicola Pasini, a political scientist with the State University of Milan, noted that the parties are not a natural fit. Though their demographics do overlap, with both drawing support from young voters and those who oppose traditional political powers, their policies, especially on fiscal matters and on the environment, are often at odds.

Pasini also said they will both have to switch gears from campaigning to governing with only minimal experience to call on. This would be the first time the Five-Star Movement had a role in the government higher than the municipal level, and the League has only ever been a junior partner in governments led by billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Both leaders are also very young -- Di Maio is just 31; Salvini 45.

“Both parties campaigned by attacking the political elite,” Pasini said. “Now they are on the verge of creating a government and becoming the political elite.”

Chiapponi said that would probably result in instability.

“I think we will have a power play between these two parties and as soon as one of them thinks his party will be better off with new elections, he could pull his support and the government would collapse,” Chiapponi said.

The 81-year-old Berlusconi, a four-time prime minister who resigned from his last government in disgrace in 2011, has been an unexpected wildcard in the process. Berlusconi had been banned from public office in connection to a major tax fraud conviction. But over the weekend, a tribunal lifted the ban.

Analysts agree it is very unlikely Berlusconi would have a formal role in the next government, especially since Di Maio agreed to negotiate with Salvini only on the condition that he drop Berlusconi as a coalition partner. But according to Giovanni Orsina, a historian at Rome’s LUISS University and the author of a book about Berlusconi, it is possible a reinvigorated Berlusconi could push for some policies behind the scenes.

“If Berlusconi believes he is strong do not be surprised if he tries to act on that belief,” Orsina said. “He can still make his voice heard.”

A version of this story can be found on Washington Times.

Protests over putrid landfill dump could pose problems for Putin

RUSPUTINMoscow— As he drives down a country road on the outskirts of Volokolamsk, a small town near Moscow, Sergei Zhukov says he's desperate to leave Russia.

“I’d leave here if I could and move to Western Europe,” said Mr. Zhukov, a 35-year-old farmer. “This is no place to live anymore: no place to bring up a child.”

The root of Mr. Zhukov’s dissatisfaction reared into view as he turned a bend: a sprawling landfill garbage site containing tens of thousands of tons of rotting, putrid waste. The noxious stench from the dump frequently hangs over Volokolamsk, causing coughing fits. Levels of hydrogen sulfide and chlorine in the air are so high that the town’s children routinely wear respiratory masks to school lessons.

On one particularly bad day last month, locals say, toxic gases from the open-air landfill poisoned almost 200 people, including dozens of children. Victims complained of nausea, dizziness and vomiting. When regional officials arrived in Volokolamsk to try and placate the angry crowd that had gathered outside the town’s hospital, tempers flared.

Yevgeny Gavrilov, the head of the district, was hit several times on the head, while Andrei Vorobyov, the region’s powerful governor, was forced to flee as snowballs and chunks of ice flew in his direction. A small girl named Tanya dressed in a pink coat became an instant internet meme after she was filmed making a throat-slitting gesture at Mr. Vorobyov, a senior member of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party.

The trouble in Volokolamsk that afternoon was the continuation of a series of grassroots protests against the landfill that began at the turn of the year, shortly after the dump began accepting dozens of trucks a day full of garbage from Moscow and surrounding towns. “I’d never been on a protest before,” said Mr. Zhukov. “But no one was listening to us. Not Putin, not the regional officials.” Activists allege the landfill, and others like it in the region, are controlled by a “garbage mafia” with high-level connections.

Volokolamsk isn’t the only town near Moscow to witness ecological protests this spring. Residents of nine districts dotted around the Russian capital have regularly taken to the streets to demonstrate against mismanaged landfills. Unlike many other European countries, Russia recycles just 4% of its garbage, with over 90% simply dumped on huge landfills that are often located close to residential areas. In comparison, Germany and Sweden recycle almost 90% of their garbage.

The ongoing protests are a concern for the Kremlin because they have involved thousands of ordinary people, including many who traditionally support Mr. Putin. Some regional officials and Russian Orthodox priests have also come out in support of the protesters, who have called for the dismissal of Mr. Vorobyov, the region’s governor. At an April 21 protest against a landfill in Kolomna, a town 70 miles south-east of Moscow, a priest was arrested by police after blocking a garbage truck delivering waste to a nearby landfill.

“When problems are hushed up and not solved for a long time, then people start to think that the authorities should be replaced, because you can only get rid of the dump by getting rid of the governor,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a prominent political analyst.

Of particular concern to protesters is what they suspect are plans to put into operation what would be the largest landfill garbage site in Europe. Just 25 miles from Moscow, and 500 yards from the nearest village, the 64-hectare Malinki landfill could potentially pollute water supplies for half a million people. Officials froze plans to open the landfill last year after public protests, but locals remain wary. “If we don’t keep protesting, the garbage trucks will be on their way,” said Sergei Modestov, an environmental activist.

Stung by this unexpected show of dissent, the authorities have started to hit back. Activists have been detained, beaten and had their apartments raided by police. On April 13, investigators also carried out an early morning search at the home of Pyotr Lazarev, Volokolamsk’s popular mayor, who backs the anti-landfill protests.

“I have absolutely no doubt that this raid was a warning to me to stop supporting the protesters. I’ve been told by highly-placed officials that if I don’t do so, then I will have problems,” Mr. Lazarev told the Washington Times in an interview in his office.

“I’ve also had threats from criminals linked to the landfill,” he said. “ But I have no intention of abandoning the people of this town. I swore an oath to try my best to protect them from harm when I took office, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

Despite the pressure, Mr. Lazarev said he continues to support Mr. Putin. “If he really knew what was going on here, he would resolve things,” he said. It’s is an opinion echoed by many other people in Volokolamsk, including some of the most committed anti-landfill activists. “Why would Putin do anything bad to the people who voted for him?” said Olga, a housewife who has been on all the protests against the dump. “It must mean he is being lied to about the true situation here.”

Mr. Lazarev is not the only regional official to face threats over the landfill protests. On April 8, Alexander Shestun, the head of a district to the south of Moscow, also alleged that high-up officials had warned him he would be framed with criminal charges if he did not drop his support for the environmental activists.

“This is how (highly-placed Russian officials) usually communicate with lower levels of officialdom. In the language of commands, threats and ultimatums,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant. “This case is only unusual in that he dared to record the conversation and make it public.”

Back in Volokolamsk, Maxim Konopko, the director of the landfill, alleged that the environmental activists were all in the pay of a rival garbage disposal business. He also insisted that no one has been made sick by the dump. They faked all those illnesses,” he said. Mr Konopko offered no evidence for his claims. When asked by The Washington Times if he believed the landfill was a health risk for nearby residents, he replied: “living is a dangerous business.”

Amid the gloom, there is one glimmer of hope for the people of Volokolamsk. The regional governor’s office has tentatively agreed to hold a public referendum on the future of the landfill. But no date has been set, and activists are uncertain if it will really go ahead.

Until it does, those who can leave town are doing so. But selling up and moving out isn’t so easy. Property prices have dropped by around 70 percent in Volokolamsk in recent months.

“We spend all this money on bringing Syrian children to Crimea,” said Mr. Zhukov, the activist, referring to a Kremlin project that recently saw Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s children holiday at the Black Sea. “But what about our own children, who are choking on poison here? Why doesn’t anyone care about them?”

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

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