"What's New? How Is the World Treating You?"

In 1939 Johnny Burke (1908-1964) composed the music and Bob Haggard (1914-1998) wrote the lyrics for the hit song "What's New?" whose first line serves as the title of this blog.  To listen to Linda Ronstadt (born 1946) perform "What's New?" with Nelson Riddle (1921-1985) and his orchestra (Asylum, 1983), click here.  A new window will open, allowing the music to play in the background.

Check this web page for occasional posts containing news and commentary, mainly about events in Central Europe.  To read the article of your choice, either click on the title that appears in the table of contents or scroll down the page.
For news and commentary from the most recent past quarter, click here.  For earlier quarters in the year or previous years, see the Introduction and Index for "What's New?"

Table of Contents for the First Quarter of 2016

Czech Trams in Washington, DC    28 February 2015

The Czech company Inekon, which is headquartered in Ostrava, will supply trams for the new light-rail transportation line in Washington, DC.  The Inekon 12-Trio that will carry passengers in the nation’s capital also runs in Seattle, Washington, as well as Portland, Oregon.  See http://www.radio.cz/cz/rubrika/zpravy/do-ulic-americke-metropole-vyjely-ceske-tramvaje (in Czech).

Chernobyl’s Legacy    28 February 2016

When the nuclear accident occurred thirty years ago, on 26 April 1986, at Chernobyl, Ukraine, a nuclear cloud spread over Europe.  One of the most noted effects was the cesium-137 that fell to the ground, along with rain and snow, in Norway.  The lichen absorbed the radiation, the reindeer ate the lichen, and the Sami, who made their living herding reindeer for sale to Scandinavian consumers, lost their livelihood.  The cesium-137 is decaying, but the lichen and reindeer still are unsafe.  For a photographic report by Amos Chapple and Wojtech Grojec, see http://www.rferl.org/fullinfographics/infographics/chernobyls-reindeer/27575578.html#.

The Challenges to Democracy in Poland    27 February 2016

Since coming to power in Poland, in October 2015, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has endeavored to limit Polish democracy and monopolize power.  It placed its own judges on the Constitutional Tribunal and altered its procedures to weaken the Tribunal’s power as a guardian of the constitution.  PiS then made changes to the administration of the state, allowing the president to appoint those in high positions, instead of having them open to merit, and eliminating the requirement that candidates have no party affiliation.  Instead of being responsible to a democratically elected National Broadcasting Council, directors of the state-owned media now serve at the behest of the treasury minister, who happens to be the chairman of the PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, whose late twin brother was the president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński (1949-2010).  Moreover, the government has empowered the police to conduct surveillance on any citizen.  Finally, the party recently has announced its desire to repolonise the country’s economy, which includes the notion of reducing the foreign ownership of Polish firms, through the use of state-owned enterprises.  For the opinion of Martin Mycielski, a member of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, which is resisting the changes, see https://euobserver.com/opinion/132433.  On repolonisation, see https://euobserver.com/beyond-brussels/132421.

Proposal to Make Turkish an Official EU Language   27 February 2016

On 17 February, the president of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, stated, in an official letter to the European Union, that his government has requested that the EU adopt Turkish as its twenty-fifth official language to help pave the way for the unification of Cyprus.  The current proposal for unification involves a rotating presidency.  Cyprus has been divided since a 1974 Greek Cypriot coup resulted in a Turkish invasion of the northern, Turkish-inhabited part of the island.  Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, which other states consider occupied Cypriot territory, and the entire island came into the European Union in 2004.  See https://euobserver.com/institutional/132476.

Slovak Teachers' Strike    24 February 2016

On 5 January 2016, approximately 11,500 teachers went on strike in Slovakia to protest poor wages, the small education budget, and other education-related matters.  The teachers have broad support from parent organizations.  Furthermore, in the days preceding Slovakia’s parliamentary elections, opposition politicians promised political support, in order to gain an advantage over the governing party, Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD).  Then, on 11 February, the parliament promised that the new government will enact various reforms.  The impact of the strike on the coming elections, scheduled for 5 March, is uncertain.  Teachers also struck in 2012 and received the backing of medical doctors, an event that led the government to introduce restrictions on strikes for public employees.  See https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/slovakia-teachers-strike.

Macedonia and Bulgaria–Plan B    24 February 2016

Macedonia has closed its border with Greece to prevent Afghan migrants from entering the country and to restrict Syrian migrants.  Sealing the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders to contain migrants in Greece is the stance of the Visegrad Four countries took at their recent summit.  The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, responded to that proposal with a call for a Europe-wide solution to the migrant problem.  Attending the V4 meeting, with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, were the prime ministers of Macedonia and Bulgaria.  See https://euobserver.com/migration/132403; http://www.euractiv.com/section/central-europe/news/visegrad-countries-call-for-alternative-plan-to-counter-migration-crisis/; and http://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/merkel-warns-against-visegrads-plans-for-a-reserve-border-system/.

Samuel Willenberg (192-2016)    22 February 2016

The last known survivor of the Treblinka Concentration Camp, Samuel Willenberg, who was 93 years old, died on 19 February.  After his involvement in a rebellion at the camp in August 1943, during which he escaped, Willenberg made his way to Warsaw and joined the Polish underground.  After the war, he emigrated to Israel, where he trained as a surveyor.  He published a memoir, became a sculptor, and was well known as a speaker.  See the AP report at https://www.yahoo.com/news/death-last-treblinka-survivor-points-181525379.html.

South Ossetia to Vote on Joining Russia    22 February 2016

Last week, the president of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov, told the parliament that he hopes to hold a referendum about joining Russia in the next year.  According to his plan, the name of South Ossetia would change to Alania, in order to ease the integration with North Ossetia-Alania, an act that would unite all Ossetians.  South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in 1990, and fighting broke out between South Ossetia and Georgia in 1991-1992, 2004, and 2008.  The last conflict resulted in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia.  See https://www.rt.com/news/333069-south-ossetia-russia-referendum/.

Macedonia’s April Elections in Question    22 February 2016

Media bias and voter intimidation have prompted the envoys of the European Union and the United States to urge Macedonia to postpone their scheduled April 2016 parliamentary elections.  The opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, which threatens to boycott the elections, leaked the information to the press.  The Albanian minority, which comprises 25 percent of the country’s population, claims that many of the provisions of the 13 August 2001 Ohrid Agreement, which ended fighting between Macedonians and Albanians, remain unfulfilled.  In May 2015, 14 members of the Albanian National Liberation Army and eight policemen were killed during a police raid in Kumanovo, where Albanians are 26 percent and Macedonians are 61 percent of the population.  See https://euobserver.com/foreign/132378.

UK Deal Reached in the EU    20 February 2016

On the morning of 20 February, European Union leaders finally worked out a compromise deal with David Cameron, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, that satisfies his demands regarding the UK’s future role in the EU and certain current EU policies.  As a result, Cameron will support the UK staying in the EU during the campaigning before a referendum, which will take place on 23 June, that will determine whether UK voters want to remain in the EU.

The arrangement entails four main points:
1) an “emergency brake,” applicable for up to seven years, without renewal, that enables one country to stop providing benefits to gainfully-employed migrants if migrants in that country strain public services;
2) the children of EU migrants who live in a different country than their parents will receive benefits pegged to the cost of living of the country in which they live, although the application of this arrangement will not apply to current claimants until 2020;
3) references to ever-closer ties for EU members in treaties will not apply to the UK, which never can be “forced into political integration”;
4) an “emergency safeguard” will ensure that UK firms will not have to relocate to Europe and will not face discrimination for being outside the eurozone.

In the discussions, both Cameron and the other EU leaders had to make a number of concessions.  For example, Cameron originally wanted the emergency brake to apply for 13 years.

In many respects, Cameron appears to have tamed the lion he unleashed.  His support for a referendum on the UK remaining in the EU has made many in the UK, the EU, and beyond quite nervous.  It also strengthened the resolve of euroskeptics in the UK, who are campaigning hard for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.  Without concessions form the EU, some of which, like the changes in child benefits, are appealing for other EU countries, UK voters may have been more likely to vote for Brexit.  Their victory would have made Cameron their hero and would have helped guarantee his continuation in office.  With the concessions in hand, Cameron now can campaign to remain in the EU, a position most UK voters likely will support in June, and he again can position himself as the UK’s savior.  Still, he will have to work hard, in the coming weeks, to ensure that his plan does not backfire.  In summarizing his victory, Cameron stated that “Britain will be permanently out of an ever closer union, [and] never part of a European superstate.”  As a result of a masterfully engineered series of moves in both the UK and the EU, Cameron can take credit for gaining concessions from the EU and likely will ride the crest of the wave of British support for the UK in the coming referendum.  At the same time, he will continue to appeal to the euroskeptics.

See http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-35616768 and https://euobserver.com/political/132367.

Wałęsa Accused of Secret Police Cooperation    20 February 2016

Lech Wałęsa, the former president of Poland, Solidarity leader, and dissident, faces new charges of collaboration with the Polish secret police.  According to recently released documents, Wałęsa was a police informer from 1970 to 1976, using the code name Bolek.  Mr. Wałęsa denies the charges, and in 2000, a special court found him innocent of similar accusations.  The new documents emerged from those confiscated from the widow of the interior minister who helped suppress Solidarity in the 1980s.  According to one expert, the documents are authentic, but they may have been forged, with the intent of discrediting Wałęsa.  Given the history of the secret police throughout the old Eastern Europe for such deception, it is entirely plausible that Wałęsa is innocent of the charges.  More on the story is at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/19/world/europe/lech-walesa-faces-new-accusations-of-communist-collaboration.html?emc=edit_tnt_20160218&nlid=46945321&tntemail0=y&_r=1, and http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35602437.

Still No Church Burial for the Tsar’s Family    20 February 2016

Despite the fact that scientists have identified the remains of two of the children of Nicholas II (1868-1918; reigned, 1894-1917), the Russian Orthodox church still refuses to conduct a funeral service for them.  The claim is that the evidence is inconclusive, which the scientists deny, and some believe that church authorities simply do not want to admit that they are in error.

On 17 July 1918, because the Bolshevik officer in charge of guarding the royal family feared that approaching Czechoslovak Legions may liberate the tsar, the commander decided to execute the tsar, his family, and their small staff of servants.  Instead of placing their bodies in a nearby mine, as many had suspected, they decided to move them to deeper mine.  When the truck had difficulties in getting through the mud, the soldiers buried the bodies of the Alexei (1904-1918), the heir to the throne, and Maria (1899-1918), Alexei’s sister, in one location, in order to lighten the vehicle.  They interred the remaining bodies, on the side of the road, some distance away, without ever reaching the intended destination.  Amateurs found the graves in 1979, and in 1991, exhumation occurred and a scientific investigation began.  In 1998, those killed and buried with the tsar, without Alexei and Maria, were buried in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, in St. Petersburg, where Russia’s other tsars are resting.  The remains of Alexei and Maria are in the possession of the Church, and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is in favor of the Church holding an open investigation into the matter.

See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/world/europe/russian-orthodox-church-blocks-funeral-for-last-of-romanov-remains.html.

The Controversial Friendship of Pope John Paul II    20 February 2016

The letters of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (1923-2014), a Polish-born philosopher in America, have revealed a close friendship of three decades.  The correspondence, in the National Library of Poland since 2008, and it includes candid photographs of John Paul.  There is no suggestion of impropriety, and John Paul had close friendships with other women.  See http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35542708.

Bosnia-Herzegovina Has Applied for EU Membership    20 February 2016

On 15 February 2016, Bosnia-Herzegovina formally applied for European Union membership.  The high commissioner for foreign affairs and security policy as well as the commissioner for European neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations welcomed the application, stating that:
    The achievements of this past year on a broad reform agenda are impressive. In fact, we would not be here today if it were not for the country’s leadership. The country’s political system has delivered on its citizens’ needs–as long as all leaders and all government levels cooperate towards a common goal.
It likely will take years for Bosnia-Herzegovina to enter the EU, in part because of the underdeveloped nature of its economy and because, in 2014, the head of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, promised that there would be no expansion for five years.  See https://euobserver.com/enlargement/132271.

New Investigation about the Smolensk Crash in Poland    7 February 2016

The Polish government began a new inquiry into the 2010 crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others. The claim is that the government at the time, under Donald Tusk, who now is president of the European Council, covered up the facts surrounding the crash and accepted the Russian version of events. Supposedly, the plain clipped a tree upon landing in heavy fog, but some claim there was a mid-air collision. See https://euobserver.com/foreign/132154.

The Resignation of Ukraine's Economy Minister    5 February 2016

Aivaras Abromavičius, Ukraine's Lithuanian-born Economics Minister, has resigned because he is unwilling to bow to corruption. He indicated, however, that he will rescind his resignation if Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, backs his anti-corruption stance. See https://euobserver.com/foreign/132132.

Interview with Hanna Hopko    5 February 2016

"New Eastern Europe" has interviewed the independent Ukrainian parliament member, Hanna Hopko (born 1982), who entered the legislature in 2014, after a career as a journalist and activist.  She explained her stance on a number of positions, and she accounted for her differences with her former political party, Self-Reliance.  See http://neweasterneurope.eu/interviews/1877-we-have-to-start-from-scratch.

Interview with Fritz Stern    3 February 2016

The noted Columbian historian, Fritz Stern, stated in an interview that "the speed with which an authoritarian system in Poland is being built is shocking."  Regarding the United States, he commented that "the the current political situation is so serious, so destructive, so dysfunctional, that one must deeply worry."  See the entire interview at http://en.europeonline-magazine.eu/interviewhistorian-fritz-stern-we-are-facing-an-age-of-anxietyby-johannes-schmitt-tegge-dpa_436111.html.

Miller's Long Silence    3 February 2016

To all of those who follow the "What's New?" section of this website, I apologize for the long absence.  Teaching, research, and personal matters were overwhelming, and I was unable to keep up with posting any news and commentary. I will make every effort to maintain the most important postings.