"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 Fourth Quarter of 2019

Further Evidence of Corruption in Slovakia    16 October 2019

A leaked recording provides evidence that Dobroslav Trnka, a former general prosecutor of Slovakia, had close relations with Marian Kocner, a businessman whom the police have detained in connection with the 2018 murders of the journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner.  In the seventy-minute conversation that dates from 2014, Kocner threatened Trnka, in part because, in 2011, Trnka tried to blackmail the head of the Penta business concern with a clandestine recording, known as Gorilla, that proved Penta’s corrupt activities.  The case related to the recording has not yet gone to trial.  See https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/leaked-recording-shakes-slovak-politics-confirms-high-level-political-corruption/.

France Rejects EU Enlargement    16 October 2019

The French minister for European affairs stated that his country will not support accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.  He cited the many difficulties the European Union currently faces, including Brexit, and flaws with the accession procedure.  Many in the EU criticized the French stance, including the German government.  Annual talks between Germany and France took place on 16 October, and the leaders of the EU member states will discuss North Macedonia and Albania during their summit on 17 and 18 October.  The political scientist Florian Bieber remarked that the French position can “undermine the credibility of the EU” in the Balkans.  See https://www.euronews.com/2019/10/16/balkan-membership-talks-rejected-by-france-who-wants-reforms-to-enlargement-policy?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=en&utm_content=balkan-membership-talks-rejected-by-france-who-wants-reforms-to-enlargement-policy&_ope=eyJndWlkIjoiZDRkM2Q2MTRjMjNjMTIzNWM0YzhmNWQ2MzEwOWI0ZDQifQ%3D%3D.

Elections in Poland and Hungary    16 October 2019

As a result of elections this past weekend, ruling undemocratic populist parties in both Poland and Hungary have reason to be concerned about the future, even though the governing Polish party also boasted of a victory.

In Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) party won a majority in the Sejm, but they did not win enough votes to push through constitutional reforms without the support of other parties.  In the Senate, PiS lost its majority, but that legislative body has little power, compared to the Sejm.  For example, the Senate cannot overturn legislation that comes from the lower house.

In Hungary, Fidesz lost the mayoral race in Budapest to an individual who united a number of opposition parties.

Opinion: The Kurds Did Not Fight at Normandy    12 October 2019

Recently, Donald Trump justified abandoning the Kurds, who had assisted the United States and other countries in defeating ISIS, and allowing Turkey to construct a buffer zone out of the territory the Kurds hold in northern Syria.  In his justification, Trump repeated the logic he apparently had read in an article by a right-wing author, Kurt Schlichter, who stated that “The Kurds helped destroy ISIS, true.  It’s also true that the Kurds would have fought ISIS anyway, since the psycho caliphate was right next door.  Let’s be honest–the Kurds didn’t show up for us at Normandy or Inchon or Khe Sanh or Kandahar.  The Syrian Kurds allied with us in their homeland because we shared a common interest in wiping out the head-lopping freak show that was ISIS.”

Earlier in his article, Mr. Schlichter stated, “how dare he actually deliver on his promise not to have anymore of our precious warriors shipped home in boxes after getting killed on battlefields we can’t even pronounce, while refereeing conflicts that began long before America was a thing, in campaigns without any kind of coherent objective?”

The reference to “battlefields we can’t even pronounce” is strikingly similar to another statement associated with the 1938 Munich Agreement: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”  The author of that comment, Neville Chamberlain, soon learned that betraying a friend and appeasing a dictator to prevent a war was futile, especially since a resolute stance, on the part of Czechoslovakia’s allies in 1938, may have deterred Nazi Germany from provoking aggression.  No country maintains the undivided loyalty of its friends by betraying them to dictators.    

For a criticism of the US withdrawal from Northern Syria that is facilitating the Turkish advance, see the piece by General Joseph Votel, the former commander of CENTCOM who now is with the Middle East Institute: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/10/danger-abandoning-our-partners/599632/.

Bulgarian Truckers in the EU’s Rear-view Mirror    12 October 2019

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has proposed a number of changes in the European Union’s trucking industry, some with safety in mind.  One item on his agenda, however, is that trucks must return empty to their state of origin once every four weeks.  Were that provision to take effect, it would harm truckers from the Balkans who haul cargo in other parts of the EU.  Negotiations continue, and the Bulgarian government is representing the interests of its truckers, who are particularly vocal on the issue.  See https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/bulgaria-mulls-taking-macrons-mobility-package-to-eu-court/.

Russia’s Secret Unit 29155    9 October 2019

A recent article in the New York Times reports that Western governments have learned of the existence of Unit 29155, a part of the Russian GRU that uses hybrid warfare to destabilize the West.  Authorities claim it is responsible for a range of attacks, including the 2015 attempted poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer, the 2016 attempted coup in Montenegro, and the 2018 attempted poisoning of a former double agent and his daughter in the UK.  These three missions failed, but they demonstrate a pattern of Russian ruthlessness and willingness to take extreme measures to further the country’s national interests.  Of course, there may have been other Unit 20155 operations about which Western intelligence agencies are unaware, and the unit will learn from its mistakes.  Its commander is Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, who likely fought in the Chechen wars.  Other GRU units were responsible for election interference in the United States, including the hacking of Democratic Party e-mails, and the occupation of Crimea.  See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/world/europe/unit-29155-russia-gru.html.

News of Unit 29155 comes just as the Republican-controlled Senate released its report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and the Russians’ efforts to use social media to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump.  The report is available at https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report_Volume2.pdf.

The American Role in the Destabilization of Northern Syria    9 October 2019

The Trump Administration announced that it will withdraw American troops from Syria and pave the way for a Turkish-controlled corridor in Syria along the Turkish border.  The region is in the hands of democratic Kurds, whom the Turks will suppress and drive from the area.  Kurds also are in Turkey, where they form nearly 20 percent of the population face persecution under the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  The Kurds are a people without a state, and the Turkish government sees any success of the Kurds in implementing self-government in the autonomous northern portion of Syria, known as Rojava, as an existential crisis for Turkey.  Background and analysis into this issue appears in an article by Djene Bajalan, an assistant professor in the Department of History at Missouri State University, and Michael Brooks, a journalist, that is available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/10/rojava-syria-erdogan-turkey-united-states-military.

The EU Needs to Open Negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania    9 October 2019

In an opinion piece, Caroline de Gruyter, a journalist with NRC Handelsblad in the Netherlands, argued that the European Union needs to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.  She compared the EU to the Habsburg Monarchy, which, as A. Wess Mitchell argued in his book The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire, was skilled at soliciting its neighbors to protect its long borders and at engaging enemies individually.  That approached worked until the reign of Franz Joseph (1830-1916; reigned 1848-1916), who was not a very skillful diplomat.  With that lesson in mind, de Gruyter maintains that the EU must not delay the process of welcoming North Macedonia and Albania into the EU, especially given the Russian propensity of meddling in the Balkans.

De Gruyter’s approach is sound, but the EU’s own history presents another argument for beginning accession talks with the two Western Balkan states.  The EU has expanded into territories that are at risk of ethnic, economic, or political instability not only to enhance its markets and secure a larger labor force but also to ensure that instability does not menace its borders.  If the EU shuns North Macedonia and Albania because of its fear that expansion can be divisive, especially given the perception that the EU is saddled with too many poorly performing economies in its southern tier, it will deliver Russia an excellent opportunity to meddle in the EU’s backyard.

Poland’s Upcoming Election    8 October 2019

Poland will conduct elections to the Sejm on 13 October, and the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), once again, appears poised to secure a plurality of votes.  For a summary of the accomplishments of PiS while in office, some of which amounts to the dismantling of Polish democracy, see https://www.reuters.com/article/us-poland-election-factbox/factbox-polands-ruling-nationalists-unfinished-business-idUSKBN1WN1I7.

The Women of Kihnu    8 October 2019

Hillary Richard, writing for the New York Times, has penned a fascinating description of Kihnu, an Estonian island in the Gulf of Finland.  The inhabitants of the island's four villages are overwhelmingly women, with just a handful of men.  Traditional dress and customs survive, and women are responsible for most everything on the island.  In 2008, its uniqueness earned it a place on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a list of slightly more than 500 cultural traditions, as opposed to buildings and other sites.  See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/02/travel/kihnu-estonia-women-unesco-folk-culture-tourism.html?utm_source=pocket-newtab.

Kosovo Election Results    7 October 2019

In Kosovo, on 6 October 2019, with approximately 80 percent of the vote counted, the opposition Vetëvendosje (Self-determination) Party won a plurality in the election, with 25.93 percent of the vote.  Vetëvendosje is a center-left party that is a member of the European-wide Party of European Socialists.  The second strongest party in Sunday’s election is the LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo), a conservative party that won 24.87 per cent of the vote.  The third strongest party, with 21.09 percent of the votes, is PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovo), a center-right party which heads the current governing coalition and has a leadership that includes nationalists who were active in Kosovo’s secession from the former Yugoslav state.  This is the party of Ramush Haradinaj, the former prime minister whose resignation prompted the election.  Haradinaj left office because the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) demanded that he appear for questioning related to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity for his activities during the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia (in 2008 and 2012, the court acquitted him on similar charges).  Among the Serbian minority in the country, the Srpska Lista Party, which has the backing of the Serbian government, won nearly all of the votes.  Vetëvendosje will have to negotiate with other parties to form a coalition government.  See https://balkaninsight.com/2019/10/07/opposition-vetevendosje-party-triumphs-in-kosovo-election/.

Poland’s Election    7 October 2019

On 13 October 2019, Poland will conduct parliamentary elections, and it appears that the Law and Justice Party (PiS) again will emerge victorious.  The opposition faces a number of difficulties and is disunified, which is helping to boost support for PiS.  Unfortunately, PiS has pursued policies, such as packing the courts, that have made Poland authoritarian.  Politics in Hungary have been on a similar course, and the two countries threatened to veto any sanctions the European Union might attempt to place one country of the other.  Their solidarity, now with the backing of Bulgaria’s government, help ensure that neither regime will face serious challenges from the EU to their credibility.  On the upcoming Polish elections, see https://www.socialeurope.eu/the-parliamentary-election-in-poland-the-future-at-stake.

EU Divide over Ukraine    6 October 2019

The controversy over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which it took from Ukraine in 2014, and the frozen war in the eastern portion of Ukraine that began with Russia’s 2014 clandestine invasion continues, but France and Russia are attempting to negotiate a settlement between Russia and Ukraine.  The war zone has been quiet in recent months, but the stalemate on the ground continues.  Within the European Union, the three Baltic states, which once were part of the Soviet Union, along with Poland and Romania, are skeptical of any deal that would accede to Russian demands that would amount to appeasement.  The Germans and French insist that the basis of any agreement must be the February 2015 Minsk Agreement that called for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy artillery, monitoring, preparations for elections, pardons and amnesties for separatists, the release of hostages, the delivery of humanitarian aid, the resumption of economic links with the separatist areas, the restoration of border control to Ukraine, the withdrawal of foreign troops from the separatist areas, and changes to Ukraine’s constitution.  See https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-russia-eu/eu-divisions-over-russia-mount-as-france-germany-seek-peace-in-ukraine-idUSKCN1WL04D.

Russian Witness in US trial Survives Fifty-foot Fall    4 October 2019

According to a Russian opposition group in London, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who is involved with the Kremlin and whom the Southern District of New York indicted for obstruction of justice in the Trump Tower meeting between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian representatives, was involved in discrediting Nikolai Gorokhov.  An individual who was close to Sergei Magnitsky, the murdered tax attorney who had uncovered massive fraud in Russia, Gorokhov found evidence about Russians who used embezzled funds to purchase real estate in New York.  Veselnitskaya, who saw the evidence from Gorokhov as part of the trial, revealed him as the source.  Before Gorokhov was to testify for the US government in a court case about the real estate deals, he supposedly fell four stories (about 50 feet) while moving a bathtub.  Gorokhov survived with a fractured skull.  While he and others suspect foul play (Gorokhov has not regained his memory), Gorokhov is concerned that there will be another attempt on his life or on his family before he testifies in New York.

Karel Gott (1939-2019)    2 October 2019

The world-famous Czech popular singer, Karel Gott, died on 1 October 2019 of leukemia.  Gott became a phenomenon beginning in the 1960s.  He sang in several languages, including German, and he was wildly popular in Germany.  He recorded scores of albums and about 1,300 songs.  His repertoire, however, included approximately 2,500 songs.  In his later years, Gott devoted more time to painting, which was one of his greatest loves.  See https://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/czech-pop-music-legend-karel-gott-dies-at-the-age-of-80; and https://www.dw.com/en/top-czech-singer-karel-gott-has-died/a-50674107.

New Evidence about the Death of Jan Masaryk    2 October 2019

According to an investigation by Czech authorities in 2003, on 10 March 1948, unknown assailants killed Jan Masaryk (1886-1948), the non-Communist foreign minister of Czechoslovakia.  The Communists claimed it was a suicide, but the evidence was suspicious, and a number of individuals close to Masaryk met tragic fates.  The paper trail leads to the Kremlin, but Russian archivists refuse to make the necessary documents available.

One of the first persons on the scene was Vilibald Hofmann, a policeman.  In 1968, at the home of his cousin and her husband, Hofmann recorded a twenty-minute statement about what he saw and the inconsistencies with photographs.  For example, a doctor had placed bone fragments from Masaryk’s instep on a handkerchief next to Masaryk’s body, and the handkerchief is missing in official photographs.  Hofmann also maintained that the first doctor on the scene, who met a suspicious death, claimed Masaryk’s death was six hours earlier than the official time of death.  Hofmann’s cousin’s husband has donated the tape to Radio Prague.

Václava Jandečková, a Czech historian, has requested a new investigation into Masaryk’s death.

Right-wing Guns and Violence in Germany    2 October 2019

German authorities have confiscated an increased number of weapons from right-wing groups compared to last year.  The incidents of violence that right-wing groups and individuals have perpetrated also have increased.  See https://www.dw.com/en/germany-sees-surge-in-weapon-seizures-from-far-right/a-50618760.

Ukraine and Trump    2 October 2019

In a phone call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, the American president, Donald Trump, attempted to press the Ukrainian government to reopen an investigation on Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden.  The Ukrainian government already concluded the investigation and found no wrong doing on the part of Hunter Biden.  Furthermore, Trump has accused Joe Biden of interfering in the investigation by pressuring for the removal of Ukraine’s general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, but Joe Biden’s effort, in fact, was part of the international pressure to remove Shokin because of corruption.  In the phone call, Zelensky talked about his interest in purchasing more Javelins, but Trump responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.  I  would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike,” the cybersecurity company that investigated the Democratic National Committee cyber attacks.  An unidentified whistleblower also claimed that the American government withheld aid to Ukraine before the call to help pressure the Ukrainian government to cooperate with Trump’s request.

An interview with the journalist who wrote about Hunter Biden in 2015 and his claim that the Trump Administration has twisted the facts for political gain is at https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/10/01/who-is-hunter-biden.

For an analysis of Trump’s phone call by Taras Kuzio, a political scientist, see http://neweasterneurope.eu/2019/09/26/latest-trump-ukraine-scandal-reveals-there-is-plenty-of-blame-to-go-around/.