"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


  1. 1 New Year’s Celebration with the Vienna Philharmonic    30 December 2019
  2. 2 The Cost of Withholding Aid to Ukraine    30 December 2019
  3. 3 The Montenegran Religious Law    30 December 2019
  4. 4 Presidential Elections in Croatia and Romania    30 December 2019
  5. 5 Pact of Free Cities–Hope for the Restoration of Democracy    19 December 2019
  6. 6 Wilhelm II and the Misuse of Power    18 December 2019
  7. 7 Of Shengens and Mini-Shengens     17 December 2019
  8. 8 The EU’s Green Deal    17 December 2019
  9. 9 Brexit’s Pyrrhic Victory    15 December 2019
  10. 10 Russian Attacks on the Media    4 December 2019
  11. 11 The Fall of the Berlin Wall    10 November 2019
  12. 12 Fallout from the Hungarian Elections    31 October 2019
  13. 13 Election Brings Changes to Switzerland    22 October 2019
  14. 14 Further Arrests in the Kuciak Case    22 October 2019
  15. 15 North Macedonia to Hold Early Elections    21 October 2019
  16. 16 EU’s Western Balkans Expansion Delayed    18 October 2019
  17. 17 Opinions on Brexit in the UK    18 October 2019
  18. 18 Criminalizing Sex Education in Poland    18 October 2019
  19. 19 New Prime Minister-Designate in Romania    18 October 2019
  20. 20 Further Evidence of Corruption in Slovakia    16 October 2019
  21. 21 France Rejects EU Enlargement    16 October 2019
  22. 22 Elections in Poland and Hungary    16 October 2019
  23. 23 Opinion: The Kurds Did Not Fight at Normandy    12 October 2019    UPDATED!
  24. 24 Bulgarian Truckers in the EU’s Rear-view Mirror    12 October 2019
  25. 25 Russia’s Secret Unit 29155    9 October 2019
  26. 26 The American Role in the Destabilization of Northern Syria    9 October 2019
  27. 27 The EU Needs to Open Negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania    9 October 2019
  28. 28 Poland’s Upcoming Election    8 October 2019
  29. 29 The Women of Kihnu    8 October 2019
  30. 30 Kosovo Election Results    7 October 2019
  31. 31 Poland’s Election    7 October 2019
  32. 32 EU Divide over Ukraine    6 October 2019
  33. 33 Russian Witness in US trial Survives Fifty-foot Fall    4 October 2019
  34. 34 Karel Gott (1939-2019)    2 October 2019
  35. 35 New Evidence about the Death of Jan Masaryk    2 October 2019
  36. 36 Right-wing Guns and Violence in Germany    2 October 2019
  37. 37 Ukraine and Trump    2 October 2019

New Year’s Celebration with the Vienna Philharmonic    30 December 2019

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 Cost of Withholding Aid to Ukraine    30 December 2019

While President Donald Trump admittedly withheld aid to Ukraine to prompt the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, one could argue that, in the end, the aid reached Kyiv, so there was no harm to Ukraine.  In reality, the situation is more complicated.  Withholding aid sent a signal to Russia, which has designs on Ukraine, that the United States does not see Ukraine’s independence as a major issue.  In fact, it is.

Ukraine advances democracy eastward, while it simultaneously prevents dictatorship from moving westward.  A successful democracy in Ukraine can serve as an example of positive transformation to the people of Russia and Belarus, who eventually will grow weary of their kleptocratic dictatorships.  A failed democracy in Ukraine and the advance of Russian interests, under the current leadership of Vladimir Putin, would threaten the eastern states in the European Union and NATO, and it would strengthen the hand of authoritarian leaders, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has established a personal and party dictatorship, even though many in the EU are loathe to admit it.

The link between withholding US aid and Ukraine’s future is the topic of an article by Mac William Bishop, Mariana Henninger, and Oksana Parafeniuk and is available at NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/ukraine-fears-trump-hold-aid-exposed-vulnerability-war-russia-n1106826.

In related news, the Russians and Ukrainians carried out another prisoner swap, the result of recent negotiations, in Paris, between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.  See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50938894.  Meanwhile, an article in The Washington Post, by journalist Philip Bump, explains the efforts of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is gathering hearsay about Ukraine and the Bidens, which he passes on to supporting media outlets and the White House.  Republicans supportive of Trump also use the material to distract attention from the evidence in support of Trump’s impeachment.  See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/30/giulianis-ukraine-efforts-are-formalization-rumor-to-trump-pipeline/?utm_campaign=post_most&utm_medium=Email&utm_source=Newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1.

The Montenegran Religious Law    30 December 2019

Milo Đukanović, the Montenegran president signed into law a measure that passed the legislature under a storm of protests from deputies representing Serbs and Serbs demonstrating in the streets in both Montenegro and targeting the Montenegran Embassy in the Belgrade.  The legislation requires that religious institutions, including churches, prove that they had a right to the real estate they occupy before 1918, when Montenegro became part of Yugoslavia.  If not, the state will take ownership of the property and any structures on it.  Those supporting the Serbian Orthodox Church claim that the law is designed to damage the Church.

Đukanović, in fact, has condemned the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro as a vehicle for attempting to destabilize the country to advance Serbian and Russian interests, and he points to the 2016 failed coup against the government, before the country’s entry into NATO, as an example.  He also supports the reestablishment of the Montenegran Orthodox Church, which existed before end of the First World War.  The authorities after 1918, mostly under the control of Serbs, not only targeted the Montenegran Orthodox Church but religious institutions throughout the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which became Yugoslavia in 1929, in order to centralize them in Belgrade.  Theoretically, once the Montenegran state takes possession of certain structures, partly on the basis of their historic importance, it can permit the unrecognized Montenegran Orthodox Church to use them.

The law takes effect eight days after its publication in the official gazette.  When the state actually attempts to confiscate property, there will be more unrest.

Presidential Elections in Croatia and Romania    30 December 2019

On 22 December, Zoran Milanović, the former Croatian prime minister and Social Democrat, won the first round in the presidential election contest against the incumbent president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, a center-right politician.  The runoff election will take place on 5 January 2020.  Earlier in Romania, on 24 November, President Klaus Iohannis won reelection in the second round of voting that took place on 24 November against a socialist candidate (the Social Democrats in Romania have been involved in a series of scandals).  Iohannis promised to continue his struggle against corruption, and shortly after his reelection, he rejected the proposal of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to create a regional alliance of Central European states and reaffirmed his commitment to European Union institutions.

Pact of Free Cities–Hope for the Restoration of Democracy    19 December 2019

Four countries in East-Central Europe are faced with threats to democracy: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.  The mayors of their capital cities, however, are taking a stand to prevent further erosion.

The cases of Poland and Hungary as authoritarian regimes are well known.  In Poland, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) is abusing the majority it received in the ballot box to entrench itself in power, including successful efforts to pack the courts with the party’s supporters and place the courts under political control.  In Hungary, Fidesz has abused its powers to eliminate the free press, compromise the independence of the courts, spread corruption as a means of strengthening its grip on power, and heighten the citizens’ fears of migrants.  The prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has attacked the influential investor and supporter of democratic societies, George Soros, and the Central European University he sponsors as undermining Hungarian culture.

The subversion of democracy in Slovakia and the Czech Republic is more subtle and less advanced than in Poland and Hungary.  In February 2018, organized crime operatives killed an investigative journalist whose research linked top politicians with organized crime.  There have been top-level resignations, including one prime minister, but Slovakia still is dealing with the fallout of the crisis.  In the Czech Republic, the detractors of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš accuse him of having conflicts of interest because he refuses to divest himself of his business interests, which have benefitted from European Union funding.  Babiš also controls major media outlets in the country.  Frequent protests demand his resignation, and but Babiš dismisses them as insignificant pressures from the street.  Meanwhile, the Czech President Miloš Zeman spouts populist rhetoric and seeks to appease Russia and China.

Support for these nondemocratic thrusts exists across the electorate, as they do in other countries, but urban areas are less susceptible to populist messages.  In recent mayoral elections, the capitals of all four countries–Warsaw (as of November 2018), Budapest (October 2019), Prague (as of October-November 2018), and Bratislava (as of November 2018)–witnessed the rise of opposition parties that are committed to preserving democracy.

On 16 December 2019, the mayors of these cities met at Central European University, which Orbán and his Fidesz Party have disparaged, prompting its move to Vienna, and signed a “Pact of Free Cities.”  Their public statement proclaimed their commitment to democracy and to reversing the fortunes of populism:

We ran for office to show our fellow citizens that there is a better way to govern. We firmly believe in the power of grassroots democracy. We campaigned, and now lead, by listening to the people. We speak to our fellow citizens every day. We thrive on civic association and civic engagement – not on the suppression of civil society. Our motto is “nothing about us without us.”
We reject the false promise to protect our people by walling ourselves off from the rest of the world. We do not cling to an outdated understanding of the concepts of sovereignty and identity, but believe in an open society based on our cherished common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, sustainability, equality, the rule of law, social justice, tolerance, and cultural diversity.

The mayors of these four cities provide leadership to those who recognize the threat of populism, and they serve as a beacon to enlighten not only the inhabitants of their respective capital cities but also the voters throughout their countries to the dangers of antidemocratic forces.  As long as they honor the principles they espouse and remain faithful to the spirit of the dissidents from their countries who sought to end communist abuses, they may aid in discrediting the tendencies of authoritarianism and corruption that threaten democracy in East-Central Europe.  Furthermore, these mayors and those like them may serve as models for other countries where democracy is under threat.

Wilhelm II and the Misuse of Power    18 December 2019

Kaiser Wilhelm II was an awkward ruler who was overconfident of his diplomatic skills.  He failed to renew Germany’s alliance with Russia, which he viewed as illogical.  Then he attempted to break the French-British alliance by starting conflicts over Morocco, in the hopes that the French, who were attempting to solidify their hold over Morocco,  will become angry with the British for not having given them sufficient support.  In the end, the Franco-British alliance held, and Russia, having lost their long-term German ally, joined with France and Britain, leaving Germany surrounded.  One of Otto von Bismarck’s worse fears became reality, and Wilhelm II set the diplomatic scene for the First World War.

It has been a century since the signing of the Versailles Treaty with Germany, one of the treaties that ended the Great War, but Wilhelm’s misunderstanding of world events, his bravado, and his unwillingness to accept the advice of those around him are still instructive.  For an overview of how he contributed to the many factors that led to the outbreak of the First World War, see the article in The New Yorker by Miranda Carter, the author of George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I (Vintage, 2010): 

Of Shengens and Mini-Shengens     17 December 2019

On 22 October, the European Commission announced that Croatia, a member of the EU, has fulfilled all the requirements to enter the EU’s Schengen zone, which allows for the free movement of people, goods, and capital among its member states.  The question is when Croatia will join.

At this point, Croatia merely takes its place in line, along with Bulgaria and Romania, two EU member states that the European Commission approved for membership in December 2018, but the EU has not let them into the Schengen area.  The reasons for delaying the entry of Bulgaria and Romania are complex and involve ongoing problems with corruption, the fear of migrants entering the EU (despite that fear, migrants do not pass through Bulgaria and Romania), and the suspicion of many in the EU that Bulgaria and Romania are second-class citizens of the EU.  The case of Bulgaria is even more complex because some Bulgarians, based on the comments of the country’s prime minister, see entry into Schengen a means for migrants from other parts of the EU to stream into Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, even before the EU decided, in October, to postpone the admission of Albania and North Macedonia, the leaders of those two countries, along with the prime minister of Serbia, took the first steps to forge an agreement to allow the free flow of goods, services, labor, and capital among their countries in what many have dubbed a mini-Schengen.  Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Montenegro joined in the second meeting of countries involved in the initiative, but Montenegro’s economic minister said that the association would not provide any advantage over the international arrangements already in place.  Kosovo, which Serbia as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina do not recognize, did not attend any of the meetings, despite the efforts of North Macedonia to have Kosovo join.  The representatives of countries that are interested in joining the EU and Schengen made sure to stress that any sort of mini-Schengen is not a substitute for integration into the EU.  Negotiators still are working out the details of the mini-Schengen accord.

The EU’s Green Deal    17 December 2019

On 12 November 2019, the European Commission approved the EU Green Deal to make Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050.  By 2030, the EU is to reduce carbon emissions, based on 1990 levels, by at least 50 percent.  Furthermore, in certain industries, there will be a carbon border tax on polluting foreign firms.  Finally, the EU promised 100 billion EUR to member states to end their dependence on fossil fuels.  The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have not signed on to the EU Green Deal, in part because they rely heavily on coal.  On 16 December, the EU agreed to a finance deal that permits funding for natural gas and nuclear power as transition fuels but not coal.  For more information, see https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_6691; and https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/eu-seals-deal-on-green-finance-in-breakthrough-for-climate-goals/.

Brexit’s Pyrrhic Victory    15 December 2019

Boris Johnson, the Tory prime minister who promised voters he would “get Brexit done,” handily won the UK’s 12 December 2019 general election and vowed, in his victory speech, to exit the European Union by 31 January 2020, the most current deadline that EU and UK negotiators established.

Johnson, the prime minister who is to take the UK out of the EU, might well become the prime minister on whose watch the United Kingdom disintegrated.  The election swept the Scottish Nationals to power in Scotland, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vows to hold another referendum on Scottish independence (the first took place in 2014).  Furthermore, in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party lost two seats and has a plurality of eight out of 18 seats, while the nationalist Sinn Féin kept its seven seats and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party gained two seats.  The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, which considers itself neither nationalist nor unionist, won one vote.  The election was a blow to sectarianism in Northern Ireland, but it was not a vote for joining with the Republic of Ireland, or so it seems.

Any decision of voters in either Northern Ireland or Scotland regarding the relationship with England and Wales certainly will influence the other.  Should Northern Ireland unite with Ireland, it automatically would be part of the EU (that is what happened when the German Democratic Republic reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990), but if Scotland becomes independent, it will have to apply for EU membership, a process which likely would be speedy.

Russian Attacks on the Media    4 December 2019

President Vladimir Putin signed two controversial measures into law that harm the open media and free speech.  One requires that manufacturers install Russian software on consumer goods, including computers and mobile phones.  That could enable the Russian government to monitor communications.  The second requires journalists and bloggers to register as foreign agents if they use foreign material or receive funding from abroad.  See https://www.npr.org/2019/12/02/784220222/putin-approves-law-labeling-journalists-foreign-agents-in-russia; and https://www.axios.com/putin-law-russian-software-mandatory-electronics-bfb7036e-1c08-457b-be5f-3a1d24a80218.html.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall    10 November 2019

Thirty years ago, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.  When responding to a question by a reporter, a Communist East German official said that his government intended to permit movement between East and West Berlin.  When pressed further, he indicated that the change would be immediate.  Young people on both sides of the Berlin Wall did not wait for an official signal.  They scaled the wall, hacked at it, and partied.  The sudden change was one of many that had marked the era of openness that began when Mikhail S. Gorbachev took on the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985.  The culmination was the end of the monopoly of power by communist parties in East-Central Europe and the Balkans in 1989 (1991 in Albania and Yugoslavia) and in the Soviet Union in 1991.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.  Carol Guzy/The Washington Post via Getty Images, in Fred Kaplan, "The Berlin Wall's Fall 30 Years Ago Doesn't Mean What It Used To," Slate, 8 November 2019, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/11/berlin-wall-30th-anniversary-optimism-reconsidered-authoritarianism.html.

German activists attempted to deliver a section of the Berlin Wall weighing 2.7 tons to the White House as a symbol of the fact that walls ultimately are ineffective.  The White House refused to accept the relic.

For the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, see https://www.dw.com/en/germany-celebrates-30-years-since-fall-of-berlin-wall-live-updates/a-51178230.  

Fallout from the Hungarian Elections    31 October 2019

On 30 October, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary whose Fidesz Party has created an authoritarian regime, hosted Vladimir Putin of Russia.  Discussions involved a range of issues, including the Russian contract to expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant.  Orbán took the occasion to provide assurances that Hungary will remain in the European Union and NATO.  During Putin’s visit, the Hungarians blocked a NATO joint declaration regarding Ukraine, claiming that they could not support Ukraine when it persecutes its Hungarian minority.  Ukraine requires Ukrainian as the language of instruction in schools and does not permit dual citizenship (Hungary extends citizenship to anyone of Hungarian background in any country).

Meanwhile, Orbán and the Fidesz Party have been on the offensive against opposition parties after having lost the Budapest mayoral race.  For example, authorities recently raided the Momentum Party, which is one of the opposition groups, as part of an investigation about alleged tax evasion.

Election Brings Changes to Switzerland    22 October 2019

Like Belgium, Netherlands, and post-1945 Austria, Switzerland has a consociational democracy, in which grand coalitions represent the major segments of society that enjoy proportionality, autonomy, and the ability to veto proposals that would affect them negatively (interwar Czechoslovakia also was a consociational democracy).  The 20 October 2019 general elections brought a major change to the grand coalition that has been governing Switzerland for a decade.  The Green Party won more seats than the Christian Democrats and could replace that party in the governing coalition that includes the Social Democratic Party, the centrist Free Democratic Party, and the conservative Swiss People’s Party.  In the competition for the National Council, the Green Party took 28 out of 200 seats, and the Green Liberal Party, another environmentalist group, won 16 seats.  Were the two parties to put aside their differences, they could represent a major force in Swiss politics.  Together, however, they would not be as strong as the Swiss People’s Party, which won 53 seats.  See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50116400.

Further Arrests in the Kuciak Case    22 October 2019

Slovak authorities have charged four more individuals with the February 2018 murder of Ján Kuciak, a journalist, and his partner.  A fifth individual made a plea bargain and will testify against the four, which includes the prominent Slovak businessman Márian Kočner, who has pleaded innocent of ordering the killing.  Kuciak was investigating Kočner’s corrupt ties, including those with major Slovak politicians.  Protests after the murders ended the careers of several politicians, including that of Robert Fico, the former prime minister.  See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/21/slovakia-four-people-charged-murder-investigative-journalist-jan-kuciak.

North Macedonia to Hold Early Elections    21 October 2019

After the Denmark, France, and the Netherlands refused to permit the European Union to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, North Macedonian politicians agreed to early elections that will take place in April 2020.  See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50109054.

EU’s Western Balkans Expansion Delayed    18 October 2019

During a summit of the European Union leaders this week, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands blocked accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.  They are concerned about difficulties in the EU, such as Brexit and migration, and problems with the procedures for accession.  In the case of Albania, corruption still is a difficulty.

There is frustration within the EU as well coming from several quarters, such as Germany, which tried to convince France to accept accession talks, and the Visegrád Four–Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary–which supported North Macedonia and Albania.  Some voices in the EU’s leadership called for decoupling North Macedonia from Albania, with the hopes of advancing at least one of the two states.  Jean-Claude Juncker referred to the decision as a “grave, historic error.”

Many experts and politicians are concerned that the Western Balkan states–not just North Macedonia and Albania but also Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia–will be disillusioned with the EU’s hollow promises and turn to support from Russia and even china.  North Macedonia, whose politicians risked much to enact a name change to win the support of Greece for entry into the EU, now fear that the political fallout of the EU’s decision may mean the collapse of the government.

Opinions on Brexit in the UK    18 October 2019

Several opinion polls in the UK indicate that there still is a great deal of division in the country regarding Brexit and that support for leaving the European Union still is strong.  The sentiments of the population, however, reflect the varied opinions of the politicians in Parliament about how to go about departing from the EU and even whether to do so.  See https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-50043549.

Criminalizing Sex Education in Poland    18 October 2019

Polish politicians from the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) are coming under fire at home and abroad for sponsoring legislation that would criminalize sex education directed at students under 18 years of age, with a penalty of five years in prison.  See https://www.dw.com/en/poland-new-legislation-treats-sex-education-as-pedophilia/a-50853031.

New Prime Minister-Designate in Romania    18 October 2019

Romania’s president called on Ludovic Orban, of the National Liberal Party, which was responsible for ousting the ruling Social Democratic Party, to form a new government.  Orban promised to respect the role of law and the independence of the courts, both difficulties of the previous government of the Social Democrats, a party the former Communists established after the ouster of the Communist regime in Romania in December 1989.  See https://www.apnews.com/9f6d707f4f5d412394391229faa11b94.

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    UPDATED!

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/.

For background information about the Kurds, see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440.

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/.