"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 2020

Recollections of Liberating Auschwitz    20 January 2020

David Dushman is one of the few surviving Soviet soldiers who liberated Auschwitz near the end of the Second World War.  A brief video interview (subtitles provided) with him is available at: https://www.reuters.com/video/watch/auschwitz-red-army-soldier-recalls-momen-idOVBWPGM0B.

Putin and the Hitler-Stalin Pact    20 January 2020

Vladimir Putin has maintained that the Soviet Union was not an aggressor against Poland in 1939 but only entered the country after the disintegration of the Polish government.  He also cites an anti-Semitic comment of the Polish ambassador to Adolf Hitler and claims that the Soviets saved the lives of Jews in the path of the Nazi advance.  Putin, however, ignores the atrocities the Soviets committed, such as the mass executions at Katyń.  For an analysis of Putin’s comments and responses to them, see https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/174070.

Snubbing China and the Country’s Executive    15 January 2020

The mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, who is a member of the Pirate Party, discontinued the city’s partnership with Beijing, China, and initiated ties with Taipei, Taiwan.  The decision has deep political overtones.  Miloš Zeman, the Czech president, has friendly relations with nondemocratic governments, including China, and advances economic cooperation with the Chinese.  The Pirate Party opposes Zeman as well as Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, whom many accuse of corruption.  Babiš leads the populist ANO 2011 movement (distinct in Czech law from a political party).  See https://www.yahoo.com/news/prague-inks-partnership-taipei-snubbing-145248412.html.

Judges Protest in Poland    15 January 2020

On 11 January, judges from all over Europe joined in protests in Warsaw against the government’s efforts to prevent judges from challenging the the Law and Justice Party (PiS), including initiatives to pack the courts, through various forms of harassment and intimidation.  Most recently, the government passed a law prohibiting the judiciary from questioning the government’s appointments.  The European judges recognized that the case of Poland is a threat to justice in other countries of the European Union and elsewhere in the world.  See  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/12/poland-march-judges-europe-protest-lawyers.

Putin’s Plans for Perpetual Power    15 January 2020

On 15 January, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin outlined plans to strengthen Russia’s Security Council and limit presidents to only two terms in office (Putin will have served four).  He also proposed strengthening the legislature, with respect to the presidency.  For example, the legislature will appoint the prime minister, instead of the president nominating a person for the post.  A referendum is to confirm the changes.  In anticipation of the changes, Dmitry Medvedev has resigned as prime minister but will remain as the deputy chairman of the Security Council.  His government remains in place, however, until the designated prime minster, Mikhail Mishustin, currently the head of the Federal Tax Service, forms a cabinet.  The changes appear to pave the way for Putin to head the Security Council and direct affairs from behind the scenes once his presidential term ends in 2024.  The well-orchestrated events in Moscow contribute to the understanding of the political system in Russia as authoritarian and not democratic.  See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/putin-proposes-strengthening-parliament-even-while-keeping-his-own-powers-intact/2020/01/15/695eac6a-36e5-11ea-a1ff-c48c1d59a4a1_story.html?utm_campaign=post_most&utm_medium=Email&utm_source=Newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1.

The Croatian Presidential Election    6 January 2020

In the presidential elections in Croatia on 5 January 2020,  Zoran Milanović, a Social Democrat and former prime minister, emerged the victor over the incumbent center-right politician, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, in the second round of voting.  The defeat of the former member of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) provides complications for the current prime minister and chairman of the HDZ, Andrej Plenković, who heads a coalition government with the Croatian People’s Party (HNS).  There may not be any change in government until Croatia ends its presidency of the Council of the European Union, which extends from January through June of this year.  See https://www.euractiv.com/section/all/short_news/zagreb-now-begins-a-war-in-the-party-with-everyone-against-plenkovic/?utm_source=EURACTIV&utm_campaign=361079d8f9-The_Capitals_COPY_05&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c59e2fd7a9-361079d8f9-116229519.

Opportunism in Austria    5 January 2020

Austria has a new government (pending final legislative approval), with the Austrian People’s Party heading a coalition and the Greens as junior partners.  Sebastian Kurz, the young leader of the Austrian People’s Party, will return as chancellor after his government with the former vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, who headed the Austrian Freedom Party, had collapsed.  A film emerged showing Strache willing to enter into a corrupt arrangement, and his party lost in the late September 2019 elections.  The Austrian People’s Party won 37.5 percent of the seats in the Austrian Parliament as a result of the polling, and the Greens won 13.9 percent.

The arrangement is rather opportunistic.  The conservative agenda of the Austrian People’s Party does not mesh well with the liberal and environmental interests of the Greens, but the two sides have made compromises that, should they continue, may lead to a lasting partnership.  The coalition, for example, has agreed to extend the headscarf ban in schools, but it also committed the country to reaching carbon neutrality a decade before the European Union’s target.  It appears that the Austrian People’s Party was willing to make a pact with any party it could, in order to stay in power, and the Greens were willing to enter the government for the first time (they have been in the governments of the federal states) to advance their standing among voters.  That sort of view may be too cynical.

Compromises between the Austrian People’s Party and the Social Democrats were at the heart of the consociational governing arrangement in Austria after 1945, and the current arrangement between the Christian Socialists and the Greens, in many respects, is a return to right-left cooperation and the consociational tradition of the past 75 years.  That argument is quite plausible if the Greens either will supplant the Social Democrats, which fell to 21.2 percent of the vote in the recent elections, or will join them on the left as a viable alternative for grand consociational coalitions.  From that standpoint, the opportunistic agreement between the two parties may turn out to be the sort of bargaining that maintains stability in the country’s politics.

Zoran Zaev Resigned    4 January 2010

The prime minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, resigned on 3 January 2020, and his government’s interior minister will head a caretaker government.  Zaev’s position weakened after France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, this past October, objected to the entry of North Macedonia and Albania into the European Union.  North Macedonia will hold elections on 12 April 2020, and Zaev warned that “if nationalism and radicalism return here we will lose decades.”  One of the nationalist parties wants to undo the name change from Macedonia to North Macedonia, an arrangement that Greece accepted, in January 2019, to recognize the country and support its entry into the EU.  Zaev expended a great deal of political capital in negotiating the name change with Greece and position his country for EU entry.  “I was broken and crushed,” was Zaev’s response to the EU’s decision to postpone North Macedonia and Albania’s accession.  See https://www.dw.com/en/macedonian-prime-minister-zoran-zaev-resigns/a-51880689; and https://www.dw.com/en/north-macedonias-pm-if-the-nationalism-returns-well-lose-decades/a-51834352.

Russia Is Intimidating Belarus    4 January 2019

Claiming that it no longer will subsidize inexpensive petroleum products without closer ties, Russia has cut off oil supplies to Belarus.  Nearly all of the energy Belarus needs come from Russia, but authorities in Minsk claim that the country has sufficient reserves to avert a crisis.  Putin appears desperate to come to some agreement with Belarus that would allow him to restructure the Russian constitution and stay in power after he completes his constitutionally limited second term as president this year.  See https://apnews.com/f838df5ec695041388b96f4388370b13 and the background to the pending crisis between Belarus and Russia in the posting below dated 1 January 2020.

New Year’s Celebration with the Vienna Philharmonic    1 January 2020

Hugh Bonneville will host this year’s PBS broadcast from the Vienna Philharmonic.  The premier is Wednesday, 1 January 2020, at 2.30 pm and 9.00 pm on PBS (check local listings).  It will be available online on 2 January 2020 at pbs.org/gperf and through the PBS Video app.  See http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/from-vienna-the-new-years-celebration-2020-about/10339/.

The Independence of Belarus    1 January 2020

Belarus and its leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, are faced with a dilemma, but so is Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.  Belarus is dependent on Russia for its energy needs, which is a crucial matter in the winter.  Putin is interested in creating a new union between Belarus and Russia, presumably so that he can change the constitution of Russia to enable him to rule for another two terms as president, what amounts to a dozen years, according to the current Russian constitution.  Despite the close ties Belarus has with Russia, many in Belarus value their independence, even though there is a strong Russian-sponsored program to minimize the ethnic and linguistic differences between Russians and Belarusians and to advance Russification in Belarus.  Finally, Lukashenko wants to maintain power.

On 20 December, Lukashenko and Putin met in St. Petersburg, and many suspected that they would announce some sort of new union in the near future.  Such was not the case.  It seems that Lukashenko’s desire to stay in power is strong enough to risk Putin’s ire.

Demonstrations in support of Belarusian independence might provide a clue about the future.  In the past, the police have broken up demonstrations in support of Belarssian independence that have taken place without a permit.  One such small protest just took place on 29 December, in the bitter cold of Minsk, and the police did nothing to stop it.  Perhaps Lukashenko wishes to use the demonstrators to send a message to Putin that a closer union with Russia that involves the loss of Belarssian sovereignty is unacceptable.

In the end, Putin might have to play the card he used after he finished his first two terms: place a trusted lieutenant in the presidency, while he takes the prime ministry for six years.  It is a reasonable plan, but Putin may be impatient and may not wish to engage in a game of charades.