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

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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 Second Quarter of 2017


Le Pen’s Russian Political and Financial Connections    22 April 2017

Two French reporters have uncovered that Marine Le Pen has met Vladimir Putin not just once, as she has claimed publicly, but three times.  Furthermore, her party, the National Front (Front national, FN) has benefitted from Russian funding, including the First Czech Russian Bank, which is now defunct and whose former deputy director is charged with embezzlement.  See https://euobserver.com/elections/137629.

Russia’s Efforts to Influence the French Election    21 April 2017

Two media studies focus on the efforts of Russia to influence the French elections through fake news and social media.  See http://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/89/2017/04/What-Are-French-Voters-Sharing-Over-Twitter-v9.pdf; and https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58495e3329687f8bfbb3f25c/t/58f5b4cd2994ca075dfa803c/1492497618893/Role+and+Impact+of+Non-Traditional+Publishers+in+the+French+Presidential+Election+-+Report+1+-+Bakamo.pdf.  Furthermore, an article by Andrew Rettman examined several reports of Russian funds making their way into the coffers of parties that seek to undermine the European Union and otherwise advance Russia’s interests.  See https://euobserver.com/foreign/137631.

Turkey’s “Yes” Vote    18 April 2017

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been on a path to hijack Turkey’s democratic institutions and concentrate power in his hands, and the narrow and suspicious 51.4 percent majority in the 16 April constitutional referendum is a major step in that direction.  Erdoğan, as president, now controls the most important levers of Turkish administration and justice, but he does so without the support of the country’s major cities and the eastern part of the state.

There were problems with the campaign and voting procedures that OSCE observers noted, including the inability of those opposing the referendum to present their message and instances of voter intimidation.  In his victory speech, Erdoğan warned the staff of OSCE that “first of all, you should know your limits. Know your limits. We would neither see nor hear nor know the politically-oriented reports you prepare. We will just march ahead. This country has just undertaken the most democratic elections never seen in any Western country.”  Opposition parties vow to challenge the vote, but the outcome will not be in their favor.

Erdoğan also praised capital punishment in his speech, much to the distress of various politicians in the European Union who see the Turkey as distancing itself from democratic values.  Donald Trump, however, telephoned Erdoğan to congratulate him, and critics deride Trump for his decision to do so.



Erdoğan has solidified his reputation as a usurper of democracy, like Vladimir Putin.  Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński are not far behind.  The question is whether the departure from democracy these leaders represent is the sign of a growing trend.  If the attrition of democratic principles is limited, there is hope that the time of dictators who pay lip service to democracy will be brief.  If not, the effects will be chilling.

Democracy at Stake in Turkey’s Referendum    15 April 2017

Turkey’s constitutional referendum to strengthen the presidency takes place tomorrow.  Should it pass, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as president, will have extensive powers over the judiciary and the legislature, and he will remain in power until 2029 or even 2034, depending on the election cycle.  A perspective on the referendum, originally published in February, from the Middle East expert Juan Coal is available at https://www.juancole.com/2017/02/danger-presidential-emergency.html.  The Economist offers an update at http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/04/economist-explains-15.

Lex CEU    13 April 2017


Edit Zgut, a foreign policy analyst at Political Capital, and Wojciech Przybylski, the editor-in chief of Visegrad Insight and chairman of the Res Publica Foundation, have written an article that puts the law against CEU into perspective.  Hungary, like Poland, is rapidly abandoning democracy, and both countries are using the tactics of Vladimir Putin to advance and justify their own form of authoritarianism.  In the case of Hungary, there is no coincidence that the law against CEU comes after the Russian government revoked the license of St. Petersburg’s European University, that both the Hungary and Russia established a registry of non-governmental agencies that receive foreign funding, and that both governments attack the media.  

“History Is Not a Useless Major”    12 April 2017

Paul B. Sturtevant, an analyst at the Smithsonian Institution and editor of The Public Medievalist, published an article, titled "History Is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data," that tackles three myths about majoring in history: history majors are unemployed, the major does not prepare one for gainful employment, and history majors are underpaid.  See https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/april-2017/history-is-not-a-useless-major-fighting-myths-with-data.

Montenegro Closer to NATO Membership    12 April 2017

On 11 April, Donald Trump ratified Montenegro’s membership in NATO.  Almost all the other countries of the alliance have approved Montenegro’s entry, and once Spain, the last country on the list, makes its decision, Montenegro will be a NATO ally.  Russia is unhappy with Montenegro’s choice to join NATO, and an attempted coup last year involved Russian nationals, who fled through Serbia.  Popular support in Montenegro for NATO entry has increased, over the years, but the percentage of those supporting the decision and those opposing it still is close, with a significant percentage of undecided.  The Russian media outlet RT stated that “more than half of Montenegro’s 620,000 inhabitants are opposed to NATO membership, according to recent polls.  The ruling Democratic Party of Socialists has recently cracked down on the opposition and accused it of plotting a coup with Russian assistance.”  Trump ratified the measure while his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was visiting Moscow.  See http://www.newsweek.com/trump-nato-montenegro-putin-membership-582454; and https://www.rt.com/usa/384360-trump-montenegro-nato-ratification/.

A Call for Greater EU Unity    11 April 2017

In 1967, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber (1924-2006), a French journalist and politician, published The American Challenge that called on Europeans to unite economically and politically, in part to better compete with America, which had become powerful as a result of the Second World War.  Now, 50 years later, EU Digest has published a blog with a similar message.  It is brief enough to cite in its entirety:

EU–when will the EU sit up and smell the roses when it comes to its relations with the US    by RM

When President Trump sits around the table with his policy advisors you can be sure that the EU is not on top of the agenda.

Just compare last weekends state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Trump Estate in Palm Beach Florida to the "sober, cold shoulder" reception by Trump given to European Heads of State, Angela Merkel and Theresa May in Washington, DC.

That probably says it all as to how President Trump ranks Europe in his thought process.

Trump has also said that he trusts German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin equally. Does that imply that the United States will pursue a policy of equidistance between the EU and the Kremlin?

Everything is possible

It is not an idle question. Trump has made it obvious that established partnerships, alliances, rules, and protocols mean little to him. In his tweets, he rants about the media, attacks independent judges, targets individuals and companies, and belittles international organizations.

But even though the US under Trump is now a very unattractive ally for Europe, writing off the US as a European partner–which some in Europe would like to do sooner rather than later–would probably be a major mistake.

In the meantime, maybe Mr. Trump and his advisors should start to read-up on how important the EU and the US are to  each other’s economic well being.

Total US investment in the EU is three times higher than in all of Asia.

EU investment in the US is around eight times the amount of EU investment in India and China together.

EU and US investments are the real driver of this EU-US  transatlantic relationship, contributing to growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. It is estimated that a third of the trade across the Atlantic actually consists of intra-company transfers.

The transatlantic relationship also defines the shape of the global economy as a whole. Either the EU or the US is the largest trade and investment partner for almost all other countries in the global economy.

The EU and the US economies account together for about half the entire world GDP and for nearly a third of world trade flows.

Nevertheless, it is also very important for the EU to realize, if they haven't already, that they can't continue to be a "lackey" of the US, having to say "how high," whenever  the US says "jump."

But first,  before issuing an avalanche of "directives", the EU Commission, which has been running a pretty colorless "operation," should set itself a primary goal, which is to get all the member countries of the EU running in the same direction. This is not the case at present.

They can do this by initiating some basic changes as to how the EU operates, in order to make it more homogeneous and people friendly including:

Having the President of the EU Commission, who is presently appointed,  instead elected by popular vote in all EU member states.

Develop an independent foreign policy for the EU, which is not aligned with any other country's foreign policy.

Develop an independent EU Military defense force, which includes a central EU command and is not aligned with any other foreign military force.  

It is  no secret that NATO (which includes many EU member states)  and which was initially intended, after WW2, to protect Europe from Soviet aggression during the cold that followed, was gradually expanded by the US into a US government policy controlled global strike force.

Its purpose being to support US foreign policy in military operations around the world.

For the past  16 years, however, [it has been] mainly focusing on Afghanistan and the Middle East.

So far the results of these NATO military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Libya) have been a complete disaster.

In the meantime, NATO and US military campaigns in the Middle East over these past 16 years have also resulted in hundreds of thousands of people killed, created millions of displaced persons, flooding the EU and Turkey with refugees, and created major economic and social hardship.

Last but not least, the turmoil surrounding these wars  in the Middle East also resulted in the birth of the so-called Islamic State, which in reality is an assortment of former Iraqi soldiers, disturbed Islamic radicals and young indoctrinated Islamic fanatics from Europe and other parts of the world who have made terrorism their trade mark around the globe.   

Unfortunately, there is very little time left for the EU to change course in this turbulent world.

The EU  must be warned, however, that if they fall apart into smaller states again, these individual states will become "chopped meat" in serving US, Russian and Chinese interests and ambitions to obtain global dominance.

If BREXIT wasn't a wake-up call, Mr. Trumps foreign policy "tap-dance" with Russia and China certainly is a signal for the EU Commission to sit up straight and smell the roses.

Make Europe Great Again--MEGA    11 April 2017

One of the campaign slogans of the Social Democrat Martin Shulz is "Make Europe Great Again" or MEGA.  Although catchy, it does not apply to his sense of what Germany should spend on defense.  At a recent NATO meeting, member countries decided to reach the 2 percent target for defense spending, but Shultz, in a recent press conference, stated that he would not attempt that for Germany were he to become chancellor.  He believes that efforts should focus on finding ways to end conflicts and misunderstandings, not stockpile weapons.  Another big issue for Europe, according to Schultz, however, is that spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense would make Germany one of the strongest militaries in the world.  It is likely that such  "force armed to the teeth in the middle of Europe" as Schulz described it, might give pause to Germany's neighbors.  See http://www.dw.com/en/germany-wont-spend-2-percent-on-defense-says-spd-candidate/a-38368346.

Armenian Elections    11 April 2017

On 2 April, elections took place in Armenia, and the ruling Republican party won 49.1 percent of the votes.  The election, however, was not simply an example of the basic principle of non-democratic elections: the party in power stays in power.  The European Union helped finance the election and determined that it was fair, despite a few irregularities.  Also significant is that this election is part of the transformation of Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary system, which will be complete when the current Armenian president's term expires.  Finally, it is a sign of Armenia's amazing ability to steer a course between the EU and Russia.  A few years ago, as it was about to enter into a partnership with the EU, it suddenly shifted course and entered the Russian-let Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).  Since that time, however, it has managed to trade with both the EU and Russia and has not instituted a Russian-like or Belarussian-like dictatorship.  Part of the reason may well be that Armenia is 98 percent Armenian, and Russians account for less than 0.5 percent of the population.  See https://euobserver.com/opinion/137555.

The Plight of Gays in Chechnya    11 April 2017

The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has described the mistreatment of homosexual men in the Chechnya Republic of Russia.  There are claims of police abuse, a concentration camp, and honor killings that the authorities never investigate.  The Cechnyan authorities deny the charges.  See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gay-crisis-in-chechnya_us_58eba074e4b081da6ad0060e; and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chechnya-gay-concentration-camps_us_58ece3d2e4b0ca64d9194e28.

Hungarian President Signed University Law    11 April 2017

The Hungarian president, János Ader, signed legislation into law that places new requirements on foreign universities operating in Hungary and that may result in Central European University to close or move.  About 70,000 protested the bill on Sunday, and a spontaneous protest took place on Monday.  Another demonstration is scheduled for Wednesday.  Áder stated that “it is the interest of all of us that the value created at foreign universities in Hungary in the past years should continue and accumulate further and academic work should continue undisturbed.”  CEU released a statement that it will negotiate with the government but will not compromise academic freedom.  It also “will immediately seek all available legal remedies.”  See http://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-soros-president-idUSKBN17C23M.  The CEU statement is at https://www.ceu.edu/article/2017-04-10/ceu-disagrees-decision-sign-legislation-plans-immediate-legal-action.

Britain or United Kingdom?    11 April 2017

In a letter to media outlets, the Slovak government agency Geodesy, Cartography and Cadastre Authority, has threatened to impose fines for referring to Britain instead of the United Kingdom.  Slovakia’s leading newspaper, Sme, said the demand is absurd and will not change its common practice.  The British Embassy Bratislava–note the name–stated that it does not mind the term Britain.  See http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-slovakia-idUKKBN17C1KW.

Slovenia-Croatia Border Delays    10 April 2017

The European Union decreed more thorough border checks between Schengen and non-Schengen countries, even of EU citizens, in an effort to stop the entry of those who may have been fighting in Syria and Iraq.  As a result, the lines on the border between Slovenia, which is in Schengen, and Croatia, which is not, were unbearable on Friday, 7 April, so Slovenia suspended implementation of the order. The EU initiated the change just as vacationers from the EU began commuting to the beaches of Croatia.  See https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/slovenia-says-tougher-eu-border-checks-unacceptable/.

Kosovo Postpones Army’s Creation    10 April 2017

Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaçi, has withdrawn plans to transform Kosovo’s security force into an army, an idea that the Serbian minority in the country opposes.  Claims of the United States and NATO that the creation of an army in Kosovo would destabilize the peacekeeping efforts between Serbia and Kosovo influenced the decision.  See https://www.voanews.com/a/kosovo-bows-to-us-nato-pressure-puts-off-plan-to-create-army/3801503.html.

Russia-Syria-US-Public Relations    10 April 2017

The United States sent missiles to destroy part of a small military base after having informed the Russians so that they were able to alert Syria to remove its aircraft.   That was the scenario of America’s 6 April attack, according to the historian Juan Cole.  The White House billed the strike as a stern warning against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, after it had reportedly used chemical weapons in Idlib Province.  Cole believed the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons was likely, but he warned that “plausibility is not the same as certainty.”  According to Cole, the US retaliation not only was symbolic but “could be a desperate attempt [of President Donald Trump] to dig out of his public-approval basement.”  See https://www.thenation.com/article/what-is-it-with-us-presidents-and-tomahawk-cruise-missile-strikes/

Protests in Budapest    10 April 2017

Approximately 70,000 protested in Budapest, on Sunday, 9 April, against the bill that would force Central European University out of Hungary.  János Áder, Hungary’s president, must decide, on Monday, 10 April, whether he will sign the bill.  See http://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-soros-protest-idUSKBN17B0RM.

No Roaming Charges in the EU    7 April 2017

The European Parliament has passed legislation to eliminate roaming charges in the European Union.  The new rules will take effect on 15 June 2017.  See http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20170329IPR69066/end-of-roaming-final-hurdle-cleared.

MEPs Approve Ukraine Visa-free Travel to EU    7 April 2017

The European Parliament approved visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the European Union for 90 days within a 180-day period, provided they have a biometric passport.  Member states must approve the change, so it likely will not take effect until June.  See http://www.dw.com/en/european-parliament-approves-visa-free-travel-for-ukrainians/a-38324354.

Polish Government Takes over Museum    6 April 2017

One of the characteristics of a totalitarian regime is when it suppresses and then controls expression.  Poland is not totalitarian, but it certainly is losing more of its democratic characteristics rapidly.  On 5 April, the Supreme Administrative Court gave its approval to the government’s plan to take over the Second World War Museum in Gdańsk, giving the Law and Justice party (PiS) control of its content and exhibitions.  The museum, which just opened last month, focuses on the war in general, and PiS contends that it should concentrate on the Polish experience.  Part of the reason the museum irritates PiS likely is the fact that Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and current president of the European Council, was responsible for its creation and the appointment of its administration.  See https://www.voanews.com/a/nationalistic-poland-government-changes-world-war-two-museum/3797932.html; http://www.npr.org/2017/03/25/521474699/nationalist-polish-government-wants-changes-to-world-war-ii-museum; and http://www.dw.com/en/polish-government-wins-gdansk-world-war-ii-museum-case/a-37261074.

Hungary Passed University Law    5 April 2017

On 4 April, thousands protested in Budapest, after the government passed new legislation regulating foreign universities.  Although there are more than two dozen foreign universities that operate in Hungary, the measure is designed to attack Central European University, whose founder, George Soros, is an opponent of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.  The university is calling on the president to veto the legislation.    See http://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-soros-parliament-idUSKBN17619Q.

Information about the threat to CEU is available on the website of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, the professional association for specialists in the field, at http://www.aseees.org/advocacy/aseees-expresses-support-central-european-university.  Those wishing to sign a petition in support of CEU may do so at https://www.change.org/p/hungarian-national-assembly-save-the-central-european-university.

Hungarian Government to Remove Lukács Statue    5 April 2017

The Hungarian government announced that it will remove a statue of György Lukács (1885-1971) and replace it with one of St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king.  Lukács was a Hungarian-Jewish Marxist philosopher and literary critic.  He was actively involved in Hungarian Communist politics but always as an independent thinker.  Lukács was the commissar of education and culture, during the 1919 Hungarian communist government, and he was in the government of Imre Nagy (1896-1958) during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  Nevertheless, Lukács did not hesitate to criticize government policies and the Soviet Union.  The government of Viktor Orbán likely finds Lukács an inconvenient figure because of his courage and outspoken opposition to authority.  See http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/228736/statue-of-gyorgy-lukacs-in-budapest-to-be-removed.

Timothy Snyder and Bill Maher    5 April 2017

In March, Bill Maher interviewed Yale historian Timothy Snyder, about the transformation from a democratic to an authoritarian regime, during an informal panel discussion that included Chris Hayes and Louise Mensch.  See the exchange at https://www.rawstory.com/2017/03/watch-a-yale-historian-explains-to-maher-how-trump-resembles-1930s-fascists-and-makes-the-russia-connection/.

IMF Loan for Ukraine    4 April 2017

The IMF released USD 1 billion to Ukraine, and the country anticipates the same amount from the United States and an additional EUR 600 million from the European Union.  The IMF expects Ukraine to further reform pensions, change the tax structure to avoid higher deficits, and restructure state-owned companies.  See http://fortune.com/2016/09/15/imf-ukraine-bailout-aid/

Belarus-Russia Petroleum Deal    4 April 2017

On 3 April, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, during a meeting in St. Petersburg, sketched out the major aspects of a deal in which Belarus will begin paying its USD 726 million debt to Russia, which, in turn, will resume shipping oil and gas to Belarus.  See https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-belarus-say-energy-dispute-settled/28408509.html.

Update on Russian Involvement in US Politics    2 April 2017

There are three investigations dealing with Russian involvement in American politics, and Clint Watts, once an FBI special agent, told a Senate committee that, if they wish to get to the bottom of Russian involvement in the US, “follow the trail of dead Russians.”  See http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russian-meddling-investigation-misinformation-tactics-senate-intelligence-committee/?ftag=YHF4eb9d17&yptr=yahoo.

A new attempt of the Russians to curry favor with the White House recently surfaced.  In February, based on National Security Agency advice, the White House cancelled a meeting with Alexander Torshin, known as the conservatives’ “favorite Russian.”  Torshin, a well-known member of the National Rifle Association, was to meet Donald Trump in connection with this February’s Prayer Breakfast, but on NSA advice, the White House cancelled the meeting.  Torshin is the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia and a close associate of Vladimir Putin.  He evaded arrest in 2013 in Spain, where the authorities identified him as the godfather of a money-laundering scheme.  The exclusive story is available at https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-house-pulled-out-of-meet-and-greet-with-conservatives-favorite-russian-a-suspected-mobster-060026495.html.

Also in the news is Marine Le Pen’s visit to Russia to meet with Putin last month.  The French, however, can rest assured that the Russians will not interfere in their election, she learned at the time, because Putin denied any intent to do so.  See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/24/vladimir-putin-hosts-marine-le-pen-in-moscow.

It should be disturbing not only to Americans and French but anyone in a democracy that a major political party or a serious candidate for high public office seeks the friendship of those who are a apparent enemies of democratic methods, including the political leader of a kleptocracy.