Tiny German town becomes example of green energy transition

Mar. 14, 2018 – Wolfhagen, Germany – Since 2015, the quaint town of Wolfhagen with its timber-houses has supplied its 14,000 residents with electricity from 100-percent renewable energy sources. Now that it's reached that landmark, the city is looking toward the future to preserve its centuries-old aesthetic while progressing the tenets of Germany's energy transition, known locally as the Energiewende. (Photo: Austin Davis|ARA Network)WOLFHAGEN, Germany – With its centuries-old timber-framed houses and cobblestone lanes, Wolfhagen could easily illustrate a Grimm Brothers' fable.

But for all of its medieval charm and pastoral feel, this town of 14,000 near Frankfurt has taken a big step into the future over the past few years: It has embraced Germany's push to get rid of most fossil fuels and use 100 percent green energy instead – ahead of almost everyone else in the country.

Wolfhagen is an example of a community that took its energy future into its own hands and did what many other communities in Germany and around the world are struggling to do: be self-reliant and sustainable.

"We're definitely further along than others," said Reinhard Schaake, the mayor of Wolfhagen since 1999. "But I think that Wolfhagen shows that this energy transition can actually work."

In the 1970s and 1980s, the global gas crisis and the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor caused a rethink in Germany and elsewhere regarding reliance on gas and nuclear power. The seeds of an idea to go fully renewable took hold and eventually became known as the "Energiewende," (energy transition).

In this period, calls to phase out nuclear energy grew – Germany stopped building nuclear reactors and the first quasi-subsidies for solar and wind energy were introduced. A decade later, the country enshrined firm goals into law for how much green energy should make up the total percent of energy used: By 2050, for example, Germany must get at least 80 percent of its electricity from solar, wind and and other renewables. It must also decrease greenhouse gas emissions by at least 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.

In 2003, Wolfhagen started taking those goals to heart.

Town officials say they wanted residents to become directly involved in producing their own electricity. They also wanted the profits from electricity sales not to flow to a big energy company but to be reinvested into local schools, sports halls and other city works.

The plan was to be self-sufficient – and 100 percent green in a decade or so.

"We all developed the philosophy that we don't just want to maximize profits as an energy producer selling electricity," said Alexander Rohrssen, the chief executive of Stadtwerke Wolfhagen, the town-owned power plant. “Rather, we want to offer residents and customers the opportunity to get involved in the economics of the operation, all while saving energy.”

Town officials therefore jumped at the opportunity to buy back the town's power grid from energy giant E.ON when its contract expired in 2003. They also began to build up wind, solar and biogas farms once the sale was finalized a few years later.

Today, with four windmills, a 42,000-panel solar farm and two biogas facilities that turn waste into energy, the town is able to generate about 106 percent of the its electricity needs throughout the year. Because the plant generates more than the town needs, leftover electricity is sold to neighboring communities. The scheme makes a profit every year, which is paid out in dividends to Wolfhagen's residents.

Contrast that with Germany as a whole, which only produces about 36 percent of its electricity from renewables. It's ranked 19th globally on the World Economic Forum's sustainable energy index – the United States clocks in at number 52.
And in spite of billions spent on the energy transition, its slow progress toward its goals is making it unlikely it will meet them in the future, say analysts.

Still, the transformation wasn't simple in Wolfhagen: Proponents naturally faced some initial opposition to going green.

Opponents to the move balked at the costs – a single wind turbine alone can cost up to $6 million, a large sum for such a small community. There was also worry over how solar and wind farms would mar the town's medieval cityscape and how noise pollution would shatter the quiet charm of rural life.

"I always thought that renewable energy was super and that we had to do something to protect the environment but it's different when you're confronted with concrete plans," said Iris Degenhardt-Meister, who lives about a mile from where officials proposed constructing four wind turbines, and had her misgivings about the plan at first.

But after weighing the concerns versus the environmental benefits and the prospect of the city profiting from producing its own energy, Degenhardt-Meister, like many other residents, got on board.

She rallied support for the initiative and helped form a co-op of Wolfhagen residents who raised $2.84 million to buy a 25 percent stake in the city's power plant.

These days, the biggest obstacle the town faces – indeed, all communities and countries confront – in going green is nature: It doesn't always cooperate.

For example, when the sun shines or when it's windy, wind and solar farms produce more than the town needs. But on cloudy, windless days – common in this region of Germany – the town must buy energy from other energy producers because the technology doesn’t exist yet for sufficient storage of green electricity on this scale.

That volatility is one of the biggest reasons why Germany on the whole has been so hesitant to phase out coal: This source of energy produces about 40 percent of the nation's total.

Another issue facing the town is that using renewables is just one piece of becoming carbon neutral. For example, homes need to be renovated to curb heating waste, which in 2017 contributed to 30 percent of all energy-related emissions. Cars need to go electric to decrease fuel consumption and agriculture needs to develop sustainable practices, analysts said.

Germany as a whole is behind in tackling those issues and predicted to miss its emissions reduction target for 2020 of 40 percent over 1990 levels by as much as 10 percent.

Still, now as the town pats itself on the back for its environmental – and profitable – transformation, it is looking ahead, trying to tackle the issues that still remain, said Mayor Schaake.

"One question we're always candid about is ‘Where do we go from here?’" he said. "We have to pay close attention to what's technologically possible, while also addressing economic concerns."

Wolfhagen intends to hire a town 'climate manager.' It's also discussed sustainable practices with local farmers and considered how to use less raw materials in new building stock. The town's power plant has even developed an app that helps industry and households know when to bests use electricity to take advantage of sun and wind energy.

In this new era of the energy transition in Germany, new ideas on the local level could lead to bigger strategies later on, said Matthias Lang, an energy attorney at Bird & Bird law firm in Düsseldorf, who has seen a number of small communities take the plunge into running their own energy production.

"Someone needs to just try it out, even though there's no guarantee at this stage how it will work," he said. "That's why it's exciting for someone to try it out and to look at how much effect they'll have."

A version of this story can be found in Public International Radio.

Italy's new coalition struggles with a government plan

Matteo SalviniROME – Italy appears on a path toward anointing its first ever populist government, something that would set the country on a collision course with Brussels over plans to cut taxes, ramp up spending, reconsider the euro currency, and dramatically curb the flow of refugees arriving on the country’s shores.

Negotiations to form a new government have dragged since an inconclusive March 4 general election. But two parties -- the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and nationalist League -- appear to be inching toward an alliance that would have a razor-thin majority in Italy’s parliament.

Party leaders Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, respectively, had been expected to present their governing plan to Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Monday, but instead they asked for more time. Mattarella granted them “a few more days” to try to hash out their differences.

The Italian media reported that the delays are due to disagreements over who will be prime minister in the new government -- neither Di Maio nor Salvini will support the other in that post -- and the specifics of what could be a hundred-billion-euro ($120 billion) spending spree, including proposals for a flat income tax, an automatic basic income for all Italians, and more generous pensions.

Those policies would easily push Italy to the wrong side of European Union limits on government budget deficits, which, combined with worries about a possible Italian referendum on the future of the euro currency and policies aimed at turning away refugees from Africa and the Middle East, has European leaders nervously following developments in Rome.

As the likelihood of a populist government in Italy increased in recent days, the yield on Italian government bonds -- a measure of investor confidence in the country -- has climbed, with the rate on 10-year bonds trading above the 2-percent threshold Tuesday for the first time in more than a year. Meanwhile, the euro has steadily lost value against the dollar and other major currencies in recent days, approaching its lowest levels since December.

“It’s very possible that the parties will have to moderate their plans on a lot of these controversial areas once they try to govern,” Flavio Chiapponi, a political scientist with Italy’s University of Pavia and author of a book about the Five-Star Movement, said. “But during the campaign neither party was shy about criticizing the European Union, and their supporters do not expect them to back down. Nobody knows exactly how it will all play out?”

Nicola Pasini, a political scientist with the State University of Milan, noted that the parties are not a natural fit. Though their demographics do overlap, with both drawing support from young voters and those who oppose traditional political powers, their policies, especially on fiscal matters and on the environment, are often at odds.

Pasini also said they will both have to switch gears from campaigning to governing with only minimal experience to call on. This would be the first time the Five-Star Movement had a role in the government higher than the municipal level, and the League has only ever been a junior partner in governments led by billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Both leaders are also very young -- Di Maio is just 31; Salvini 45.

“Both parties campaigned by attacking the political elite,” Pasini said. “Now they are on the verge of creating a government and becoming the political elite.”

Chiapponi said that would probably result in instability.

“I think we will have a power play between these two parties and as soon as one of them thinks his party will be better off with new elections, he could pull his support and the government would collapse,” Chiapponi said.

The 81-year-old Berlusconi, a four-time prime minister who resigned from his last government in disgrace in 2011, has been an unexpected wildcard in the process. Berlusconi had been banned from public office in connection to a major tax fraud conviction. But over the weekend, a tribunal lifted the ban.

Analysts agree it is very unlikely Berlusconi would have a formal role in the next government, especially since Di Maio agreed to negotiate with Salvini only on the condition that he drop Berlusconi as a coalition partner. But according to Giovanni Orsina, a historian at Rome’s LUISS University and the author of a book about Berlusconi, it is possible a reinvigorated Berlusconi could push for some policies behind the scenes.

“If Berlusconi believes he is strong do not be surprised if he tries to act on that belief,” Orsina said. “He can still make his voice heard.”

A version of this story can be found on Washington Times.

Protests over putrid landfill dump could pose problems for Putin

RUSPUTINMoscow— As he drives down a country road on the outskirts of Volokolamsk, a small town near Moscow, Sergei Zhukov says he's desperate to leave Russia.

“I’d leave here if I could and move to Western Europe,” said Mr. Zhukov, a 35-year-old farmer. “This is no place to live anymore: no place to bring up a child.”

The root of Mr. Zhukov’s dissatisfaction reared into view as he turned a bend: a sprawling landfill garbage site containing tens of thousands of tons of rotting, putrid waste. The noxious stench from the dump frequently hangs over Volokolamsk, causing coughing fits. Levels of hydrogen sulfide and chlorine in the air are so high that the town’s children routinely wear respiratory masks to school lessons.

On one particularly bad day last month, locals say, toxic gases from the open-air landfill poisoned almost 200 people, including dozens of children. Victims complained of nausea, dizziness and vomiting. When regional officials arrived in Volokolamsk to try and placate the angry crowd that had gathered outside the town’s hospital, tempers flared.

Yevgeny Gavrilov, the head of the district, was hit several times on the head, while Andrei Vorobyov, the region’s powerful governor, was forced to flee as snowballs and chunks of ice flew in his direction. A small girl named Tanya dressed in a pink coat became an instant internet meme after she was filmed making a throat-slitting gesture at Mr. Vorobyov, a senior member of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party.

The trouble in Volokolamsk that afternoon was the continuation of a series of grassroots protests against the landfill that began at the turn of the year, shortly after the dump began accepting dozens of trucks a day full of garbage from Moscow and surrounding towns. “I’d never been on a protest before,” said Mr. Zhukov. “But no one was listening to us. Not Putin, not the regional officials.” Activists allege the landfill, and others like it in the region, are controlled by a “garbage mafia” with high-level connections.

Volokolamsk isn’t the only town near Moscow to witness ecological protests this spring. Residents of nine districts dotted around the Russian capital have regularly taken to the streets to demonstrate against mismanaged landfills. Unlike many other European countries, Russia recycles just 4% of its garbage, with over 90% simply dumped on huge landfills that are often located close to residential areas. In comparison, Germany and Sweden recycle almost 90% of their garbage.

The ongoing protests are a concern for the Kremlin because they have involved thousands of ordinary people, including many who traditionally support Mr. Putin. Some regional officials and Russian Orthodox priests have also come out in support of the protesters, who have called for the dismissal of Mr. Vorobyov, the region’s governor. At an April 21 protest against a landfill in Kolomna, a town 70 miles south-east of Moscow, a priest was arrested by police after blocking a garbage truck delivering waste to a nearby landfill.

“When problems are hushed up and not solved for a long time, then people start to think that the authorities should be replaced, because you can only get rid of the dump by getting rid of the governor,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a prominent political analyst.

Of particular concern to protesters is what they suspect are plans to put into operation what would be the largest landfill garbage site in Europe. Just 25 miles from Moscow, and 500 yards from the nearest village, the 64-hectare Malinki landfill could potentially pollute water supplies for half a million people. Officials froze plans to open the landfill last year after public protests, but locals remain wary. “If we don’t keep protesting, the garbage trucks will be on their way,” said Sergei Modestov, an environmental activist.

Stung by this unexpected show of dissent, the authorities have started to hit back. Activists have been detained, beaten and had their apartments raided by police. On April 13, investigators also carried out an early morning search at the home of Pyotr Lazarev, Volokolamsk’s popular mayor, who backs the anti-landfill protests.

“I have absolutely no doubt that this raid was a warning to me to stop supporting the protesters. I’ve been told by highly-placed officials that if I don’t do so, then I will have problems,” Mr. Lazarev told the Washington Times in an interview in his office.

“I’ve also had threats from criminals linked to the landfill,” he said. “ But I have no intention of abandoning the people of this town. I swore an oath to try my best to protect them from harm when I took office, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

Despite the pressure, Mr. Lazarev said he continues to support Mr. Putin. “If he really knew what was going on here, he would resolve things,” he said. It’s is an opinion echoed by many other people in Volokolamsk, including some of the most committed anti-landfill activists. “Why would Putin do anything bad to the people who voted for him?” said Olga, a housewife who has been on all the protests against the dump. “It must mean he is being lied to about the true situation here.”

Mr. Lazarev is not the only regional official to face threats over the landfill protests. On April 8, Alexander Shestun, the head of a district to the south of Moscow, also alleged that high-up officials had warned him he would be framed with criminal charges if he did not drop his support for the environmental activists.

“This is how (highly-placed Russian officials) usually communicate with lower levels of officialdom. In the language of commands, threats and ultimatums,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant. “This case is only unusual in that he dared to record the conversation and make it public.”

Back in Volokolamsk, Maxim Konopko, the director of the landfill, alleged that the environmental activists were all in the pay of a rival garbage disposal business. He also insisted that no one has been made sick by the dump. They faked all those illnesses,” he said. Mr Konopko offered no evidence for his claims. When asked by The Washington Times if he believed the landfill was a health risk for nearby residents, he replied: “living is a dangerous business.”

Amid the gloom, there is one glimmer of hope for the people of Volokolamsk. The regional governor’s office has tentatively agreed to hold a public referendum on the future of the landfill. But no date has been set, and activists are uncertain if it will really go ahead.

Until it does, those who can leave town are doing so. But selling up and moving out isn’t so easy. Property prices have dropped by around 70 percent in Volokolamsk in recent months.

“We spend all this money on bringing Syrian children to Crimea,” said Mr. Zhukov, the activist, referring to a Kremlin project that recently saw Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s children holiday at the Black Sea. “But what about our own children, who are choking on poison here? Why doesn’t anyone care about them?”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

German state of Bavaria to display crosses in all government buildings

Courtesy Photo of Markus Söder's twitterBERLIN – Bavaria has ordered all government buildings in the predominately Catholic southern German state to hang a cross on their entrances, a move that sparked outrage across the religious spectrum in Germany.

"The cross is a fundamental symbol of our Bavarian identity and way of life," said Bavaria's new state leader Markus Söder, as he hung a cross in the lobby of the state's headquarters in Munich directly after the new rule was passed by the state government Tuesday.

The move comes as Germany continues to grapple with integrating more than a million newcomers mostly from the Middle East and Africa.

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the nation's borders to mostly Muslim refugees, setting off criticism – even in her own conservative Christian bloc – over the "Islamization" of the nation.

Still, leaders of the Bavarian government said the new requirement is "an expression of the historical and cultural character of Bavaria" and that hanging crosses in public buildings is "a visible commitment to the basic values of the legal and social order in Bavaria and Germany."

"It stands for elemental values such as charity, human dignity and tolerance," Söder added.

Some said they expected the government to make such a rule: Visible crosses are already mandatory in Bavarian school houses and courtrooms.

Others said they are reconsidering living in the state.

"I've been forced to consider in the last few days whether I'll reach a point where I'll have to tell my employer that I don’t want to live or work in Bavaria anymore because I just can't accept the legal situation," Bavarian student Florian Meier posted on Twitter.

Politicians also expressed disdain at the new rule.

"The way that Markus Söder and the (party) permanently instrumentalize religion for party politics is reminiscent of Erdogan," Christian Lindner, the leader of Germany's pro-business Free Democratic Party, posted on Twitter, referring to Turkey's strongman and conservative Muslim President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "The constitution has no denomination!"

Still, many were unsurprised: Bavaria was on the frontlines of the refugee crisis that began in 2015, and had even threatened to sue the government for opening the nation's borders as migrants streamed through the state from elsewhere in southeastern Europe to apply for asylum in Germany.

Since then, they've sought to implement policies in Bavaria to preserve Germany's Christian ideals, such as the banning of burkas in public spaces.

"Islam doesn't belong to Germany," Germany's new Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told the German daily newspaper Bild last month. "The Muslims who live with us here are of course a part of Germany, but this doesn't mean that we have to falsely consider giving up our country-specific traditions and customs."

Seehofer's Ministry now includes a "homeland" wing dedicated to protecting traditional German culture, a move condemned by many as placating rightwing, nationalist forces within the country that have disrupted German politics since the refugee crisis.

In September, the rightwing, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013, entered parliament for the first time with 12.6 percent of the vote, making them the nation's third-largest political party. It also marked the first time that such a party had entered the German parliament since the 1950s.

The latest polls from Germany's INSA Institute polls the Alternative for Germany (AfD) at 13 percent in Bavaria, a figure that could greatly disrupt Söder's Christian Social Union's dominance in the state's elections next year.

"The AfD welcomes every measure to make it clear to all people that the basis of living together in Germany is a Christian-Western-inspired guiding culture," said Martin Sichert, a member of the German parliament with the AfD representing Bavaria, in an email. "Therefore, we also look forward to the CSU's approval to our application to hang a cross in the German Bundestag."

"But more important than such symbolic policies would be to actively live by these values, for example, by renouncing Islamic education," Sichert added.

Still, religious leaders from other faiths question the result of such a provocative move.

"In principle, I have nothing against crosses in official buildings, but one must ask themselves the question of what meaning they should actually have," the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, told Bavarian public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk.

Others were quick to point out the double standard that Bavaria shows by banning certain religious symbols while glorifying others.

"We Muslims have no problem with the cross, even with the appreciation of religion in social life. However, state neutrality should always be respected." said Aiman Mazyek, a chairwoman with the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, in an email. "What does not work is the double standard of accepting Christian symbols, but banishing Muslim, Jewish or others from the public sphere."

An alternative version of this story can be found in Washington Times.

Normandy wants the British entrepreneurs who are anxious over Brexit

Chris Penketh, a 54-year-old Business Development Director in North Yorkshire, is displeased with Brexit negotiations but would still vote to leave.PARIS—Normandy may be famous for D-Day landings and Camembert cheese. But these days it’s hoping for another kind of invasion: British entrepreneurs escaping Brexit.

Last month, the Normandy development agency, AD Normandie, launched a charm offensive urging British business owners to “vote with their feet,” cross the English Channel into the European Union and leave their Brexit fears behind.

Britain is set to leave the EU in March 2019. But the shape of its future relationship with the block is still unclear. As a result, many British executives worry that customs, immigration and regulatory barriers will disrupt their business with EU members.

In response, many EU countries, France included, are rolling out the red carpet for them.

"You will find the process as smooth as their Camembert ... or their oysters for that matter," read an ad plastered on a double-decker bus that AD Normandie hired to tour London and other British towns recently to attract local businesses to northern France. The bus parodied the pro-Brexit busses that were part of the Vote Leave campaign.

In British newspapers, AD Normandy ran a tongue-in-cheek advertisement that included a mock newspaper called the Normandy Times. In the mock newspaper, a personal ad sought a “hot entrepreneur” who “must have an appetite for business, beautiful coastal walks and long sun-drenched lunches with wine flowing.”

Transport for London, which manages the Tube and other public mass transport in the British capital rejected the ad for its stations and vehicles, saying it was too “controversial.”

Still, AD Normandie representatives said around 30 small-to-medium sized British companies have requested meetings to talk about setting up business in France. “A week after the campaign ended, three of them came to Normandy to see what could be possible,” said Alexandre Wahl, who heads AD Normandie. “These companies don’t know what will happen with Brexit, but they are aware things won’t be the same.”

Companies that rely heavily on the EU market for their supply chains and employee recruitment, like the automotive, aerospace and high-tech industries, worry they won’t be able to source components or hire foreign talent once Britain leaves the union.

As a result, they are considering alternative headquarters in the EU. British budget airline easyJet last year set up a subsidiary in Austria that would allow it to keep operating flights between EU countries after Brexit.

Although many British businesses are adopting a “wait-and-see” approach in the absence of a final deal between Britain and the EU, the trend is likely to continue.

“This is part of a long game,” said Alasdair Darroch of Altios UK, a consultancy that advises companies on international business development. “No doubt, in 10 years time, there will be more divergence in the relationship between the UK and Europe. It’s going to be important for some companies to have a base in Europe where they can keep trading without complications. It will happen, and it will happen more in the years ahead.”

To entice British businesses, Normandy has set up a special zone offering tax breaks and help accessing grants of as much as $123,000 to foreign companies that decamp to France. There are also incentives for families to settle in the area, which is already the home of around 8,500 British expats thanks to its proximity to both southern England and Paris.

This special economic area, the first in France, will be key in attracting foreign businesses, said Hervé Morin, president of the Normandy regional council. “It’s very well placed because it’s close to the industrial port of Le Havre, and it’s an important economic area with an excellent infrastructure,” he said. “So the idea is to have a company that will accompany foreign enterprises as they settle here, helping them with recruitment, property and schools.”

Normandy’s charm offensive follows similar moves by Paris, as well as other European capitals, to lure banking giants currently based in London’s financial district.

Shortly after the Brexit referendum, the La Defense business district in Paris ran a public relations campaign touting the French capital with the irreverent slogan “Tired of the fog? Try the Frogs!” on billboards at London’s Heathrow airport and the London terminus of the Eurostar trains.

The moves come as President Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, is capitalizing on Brexit woes to fulfill his pledges to attract foreign investments and shake up France’s reputation as a business-unfriendly country with high-taxes and maddening bureaucracy.

He has made strides.

In January, the French government secured a $368 million investment by Japanese carmaker Toyota to increase capacity at its northern French plant, with 800 new jobs to be added by 2020. U.S. giants Facebook and Google as well as German software maker SAP have also pledged to boost their footprint in France.

But central to Marcon’s vision is beefing up the financial sector in France, which is tiny compared to the financial industry in London. No big banks have left London so far, but large American and British banks have proposed expanding their offices in France as Brexit approaches.

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

National militia of Ukraine poses a problem for the country

Feb. 1, 2018 - Kiev, Ukraine - National Militia fighters attend a protest.KIEV, Ukraine – A dozen men between 17 and 21 years old jumped out of a minibus and went inside the main entrance of the ATEK heavy machinery plant in Kiev recently.

They are members of the National Militia, a new patriotic organization that has been recruiting only male Ukrainians for the purpose of “patrolling the streets” to “establish Ukrainian order.”

The new recruits were about to have their physical exam in the factory, which is also a training base for other rightwing militias. It was their last hurdle before becoming a full-fledged member.  

Oleksandr Synyook, 21-year-old deputy commander of Kiev’s National Militia squad, was the examiner. He had been in the militia for a year. He now leads a squad of 127 recruits. Most are war veterans and young recruits.

“Ukrainian order for us is when our streets are clean from crime and lust,” Synyook said. “We see injustice, we call the police and force them to do their job.”

The new vigilante organization announced itself with 600 athletic men in grey military uniforms marching down Khreshchatyk, or Kiev’s main street, in late January.

Since then, National Militia units have spread all over Ukraine. There are several thousand recruits in the organization today, said the group’s spokesperson, Igor Vdovin.

Their roots are in older paramilitary organizations like the Azov Movement, a rightwing paramilitary and political organization that has neo-Nazi sympathies.

In the fifth year of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has stoked nationalist sentiments in the face of Moscow’s onslaught, the Azov Movement is thought to have attracted thousands of members in the country.

In 2016, Azov nationalists created the political party National Corpus, headed by Andriy Biletsky, a former parliamentarian and commander in the Azov Battalion, a special forces unit that volunteers founded in 2014 but which has since joined the Ukrainian military.

“We all work on other jobs or study in the universities,” Synyook said. “So we patrol the streets only when we can.”

However, National Militia have been quite visible. In February, they disrupted a court hearing for Odessa Mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov, clashing with police when they attacked Trukhanov supporters. The mayor faces corruption charges but has been released on bail.

Police tried to interrupt the fight, as the result about a dozen militia members and Trukhanov supporters were arrested and one police officer wounded.

In another incident, the mayor of Cherkassy called the National Militia into a city council to force lawmakers to vote for a city budget back in January.

In April, militia members and other protesters swarmed Kiev city hall and persuaded the city council to vote in favor of creating a museum on an ancient Kyivan Rus street found under Poshtova Square in central Kiev during the reconstruction in 2016.

The militia’s emergence highlights Ukrainians’ disappointment in the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution against their former pro-Russian leaders and the subsequent war with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of Donbas. Today, ordinary Ukrainians have witnessed a decline in security and public safety as the legal system fails to deal with criminals.

In March, more than 38,000 crimes were committed in Ukraine but police are investigating only around 13,000 of them, according to the country’s Prosecutor General.

National Militia members claimed they patrol the streets to make people feel safer by fighting crimes like drug dealing and illegal gambling.

But the Ukrainian government doesn’t welcome them.

“No paramilitary units should do justice in Ukraine,” said Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement earlier this year. “Only the government obtains the monopoly to use force.”

And many Ukrainians saw a parallel between the military squads marching and patrolling the streets of 2018 Ukraine with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Some militiamen denied those associations.

“People call us Nazis just because they don’t know about us and can’t believe in our time people can voluntarily risk their lives for a good cause,” Synook said.

Steel magnate Serhiy Taruta, an independent member of parliament from eastern Ukraine, financed Biletsky and his Azov Battalion in 2014 during the liberation of Mariupol from Russian-backed mercenaries.

But Taruta said he had no ties to the Azov movement and criticized the National Militia because it was trying to become a force that would run parallel with government.

“The militia is yet another evidence of a deep crisis of the government institutions,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong in citizens’ desire to assure public order. It is even necessary in some cases, like when today’s militia members played a key role in Mariupol liberation.”

In three months of patrolling, National Militia members knocked heads with police but also cleared drug dealers from neighborhood corners, shoveled snow from streets and more.

“It is just that we want to be like in Europe, where the law and order is working,” Denys Tretyakov,20, another militia member and a student of Kiev International Architecture University said. “Here every other sphere is corrupt. Officials and their friends, children can easily escape justice. As well as those who spread narcotics, gambling, prostitution on our streets.”

Synook and others added they joined the vigilante patrols because the newly reformed police were slow and never came to the crime scene on time. The militias apprehend alleged criminals citing a law that allows civilian arrests but not the use of force.

During the exam, the newcomers demonstrated their skills in street fighting and Thai boxing.

Recruits underwent introductory interviews with National Militia and National Corpus commanders and had to have passed a test on Ukrainian civics. Owning a registered weapon was considered a bonus.

“It’s not that we are walking on the streets armed,” Vdovin said. “But if the Russian war will spread to other cities, we should be prepared for everything.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Macron outlines political vision for Europe amidst rise of right-wing populism

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_FRA161616aa005.jpegBERLIN – French President Emmanuel Macron doubled down on calls for greater European fiscal and political integration during his first address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

But as President Macron positions himself as Europe's most vehement proponent of unity and pegs his ambitious reform agenda as necessary for the future of the continent, he faces resistance from rightwing, nationalist governments in the bloc seeking to fray Europe.

"All over Europe, even in Germany, the trend is toward the populists," said Tyson Barker, a program director with Germany's Aspen Institute, a political think tank in Berlin. "It's not as happy a story as political Paris would make it out to be."

Since assuming the presidency in May of last year, Macron has set himself in stark contrast to nationalist forces gaining ground in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland.

"In these difficult times, the European democracy is our best chance," Macron told European leaders on Tuesday. "We see authoritarians all around us, and the answer is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy."

His defeat of rightwing populist Marine Le Pen in the nation's presidential contest last year set the stage for a return to eurocentrism in the region’s third-largest economy after a bitter period of insecurity following the 2016 Brexit referendum, said EU leaders.

"I want to express my emotion and friendship, when I hear the French president expressing himself in the way that he has," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament Tuesday after Macron's speech. "The real France is back."

Macron's reforms have focused on modernizing Europe while striking a balance between more financial and political integration, and preserving national sovereignty, according to Mark Leonard with the European Council on Foreign Relations. It's an ambitious mission to "reconcile the irreconcilable," Leonard recently wrote in an analysis of Macron's policies.

Macron plans to shore up Europe's economic union by establishing a common finance minister for the bloc and instituting a pan-European budget. He's also proposed new discussions of European policies on migration, security, digitization and defense, including the creation of a European Defense Force.

But he also likened the ideological divisions between liberal and nationalist government to a "civil war… where there is an increasing fascination with illiberalism". He exhorted his audience to reject rightwing demagoguery.

"I don't want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past," he said Tuesday, alluding to the continent's turbulent history with authoritarianism.

But as Macron waxes poetic about adhering to the traditional ethos of European democracy, an "ethno-nationalist Europe" has emerged elsewhere that "sees Europe as Christian nations that are ethnically homogenous," said Barker.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for example, often attacks non-Christian migrants and stokes fear among the electorate of a loss of national culture.

It's a strategy that secured him another absolute majority in the nation's parliamentary elections earlier this month – a powerful mandate he's used in the past to silence dissidents and pass illiberal constitutional reforms.

"Countries that don't stop immigration will be lost," Orban told crowds at a rally last month outside the Hungarian parliament. "Africa wants to kick down our door, and Brussels is not defending us – Europe is under invasion already, and they are watching with their hands in the air."

Rightwing movements in Poland and Austria have seen success using similar tactics as well. While they support Macron's proposals to bolster the continent's outer borders, they reject his push for all member states to meet refugee quotas.

Macron called out the issue on Tuesday by saying that "there seems to be a certain European civil war: national selfishness and negativity seems to take precedence over what brings us together."

"This is a democracy that respects individual minority fundamental rights, which used to be called liberal democracy," he added. "The deadly tendency which might lead our continent to the abyss, nationalism, giving up of freedom: I reject the idea that European democracy is condemned to impotence."

But it may well be that Macron's reforms are more impotent than he's led himself to believe. The staying power of nationalist movements on the continent seem poised to continue to block Macron's progress on many reforms, while the partner whom France most relies on to kickstart reforms, Germany, is having cold feet as well, said Barker.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has made public overtures to embrace Macron's reforms, but it took six months after the nation's difficult September elections to form a government, mostly due to the strength of a rightwing party that won an unprecedented 13 percent of the vote.

As such, Berlin is more inclined to opt for the status quo as opposed to striking a visionary approach to European reforms, said Barker. "There's a lot of rhetorical lip service to the Franco-German love affair, and there's a lot of outreach on the part of France, but it's an unrequited love," he said.

It's a reality Berlin already realizes.

"These ideas are bringing new momentum into the European project that we need," German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung last week when asked about Macron's push for a European budget and finance minister. "But the French president also knows that not all of his ideas can be realized.”

In the end, without full-throated support from Germany, and with entrenched nationalist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, Macron's ambitions may be reduced to hot air. "There aren't going to be any real, in-depth changes that I can see to the eurozone architecture," said Barker.

An alternastive version of this story can be found in Occupy. 

German integration policies pose critical test for Merkel

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEIntegration.jpegBerlin — On a recent Friday evening in Berlin's northwestern neighborhood of Wedding, a borough where some 49 percent of residents have a non-German background, community organizer and educator Kava Spartak helped about a dozen Afghan refugees navigate the basics of the German language.

The class, an offering of Yaar Berlin, an Afghan education and community center in Wedding that Spartak helped found in 2012, included Afghan refugees of all ages – from 19-year-olds still in school to 50-year-olds with no formal education.

Though everyone in the class has been in Berlin for over a year, none can speak even conversational German, meaning that Spartak, teaching in Farsi, had to use a bit of imagination to get across basic German vocabulary. He wiped his brow to convey the word "summer," and mimed smelling a bouquet of flowers for "spring."

It's an issue Spartak often faces when working with refugees in Germany. Over two years since German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the nation's borders to over one million refugees fleeing war in Syria and conflict elsewhere in the world, Germany's antiquated school structure and preferential asylum system are still posing huge barriers to language learning.

"Germany, in comparison to other countries, is actually not that experienced in terms of integrating people from other countries or cultures – they’re not experienced and they’re not successful," said Spartak. "People need to learn the language, otherwise they cannot feel that they are a part of society and cannot find jobs."

Despite being heralded as a feat of humanitarianism, Chancellor Merkel's move to open the nation's borders in 2015 has overwhelmed educational institutions in Germany originally designed for natives, said Klaus Hurrelmann, a professor of public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

Traditionally, German schools are organized in a tripartite structure, meaning students are routed into one of three secondary schools based on performance and teacher recommendations after elementary school. Only the most prestigious route offers a direct path to university.

Though Germany has been a nation of immigrants since the 1960's, when Turkish and Arab "guest workers" came to Germany to help rebuild the nation after World War Two, the nation's school system hasn't changed in structure, much to the detriment of non-Germans. According to a 2015 OECD study, immigrants in Germany perform about 50 percent worse in subjects like math and science than German students do, even after accounting for socioeconomic status.

Teachers simply aren't versed in how to teach non-German students, who come into classrooms not speaking the German language and have different educational backgrounds than is the German norm, said Hurrelmann.

"The German tradition is teaching for homogenous groups straight from the beginning, and if the child can't keep up, he or she is held back," he said. "This is a tremendous challenge for German schools that are now dealing with thousands of refugee children, who, according to our tradition, would have been placed in special-education."

With as many as 400,000 school-aged refugee children now in the mix, according to government statistics, one solution has been to route students into specially designed welcome classes where newcomers can learn the German language and culture for a year before transitioning into a regular class schedule with German peers.

But studies of the system show that there's a lack of continuity in how these kids are being educated, primarily due to the fact that German schools differ from state to state, and Germany is seriously lacking in qualified teachers. One 2017 study by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation concluded that 24,000 additional teachers will be needed by 2025 to accommodate the 1 million new students who will be in the system by that time.

Meanwhile, it still isn't standard for student teachers to learn how to teach German as a foreign language, said Thomas Bauer, head of Germany's Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration.

"Every fifth resident in Germany has some migration background, so to obtain knowledge of different cultures, of different languages, of how to teach German as a foreign language, should be important for all teachers," he said.

Bauer added that it's still unclear whether the welcome classes are the most effective model for teaching German to refugee students. Past integration experiments weren't scientifically evaluated, and those working in the field today still need to assess the current model for its efficacy.

For Faroz, 19, from Afghanistan, who's been in Berlin for a year and a half, the welcome classes aren't worth the effort. "I'm still in a welcome class, and it's really a waste of time – I don't feel like I learn anything," he said, adding that he comes to Yaar Berlin's language classes to make up what he's supposed to be learning in school.

Teens like Faroz, however, are lucky that they have direct access to language classes at German schools because they're young, said Spartak. For adults, only those with good prospects of staying in Germany from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea are fast-tracked to receive a spot in state-run integration and language courses right after they arrive.

Others from countries like Afghanistan – the country with the highest number of asylum seekers after Syria – have to wait for a decision on their application before they can begin to study German, a process that can take years.

"My proposal would be to open the German courses for everybody from day one," said Spartak. "If you miss the chance to offer these people language courses from the very beginning, you will also miss the opportunity to integrate them."

Even so, the problems in Germany's school system are present in educating adult refugees as well, said Bauer: There's a lack of qualified educators who know how to teach German to adults with little to no formal education.

Figures from Germany's Office for Migration and Refugees indicate that almost one-quarter of newcomers only possess at most an elementary school education, and around 80 percent of those individuals can't display the minimum level of German needed to get an apprenticeship or a job even after having taken state-run courses.

The government's solution to the problem is to speed up the processing of asylum applications by erecting all-inclusive refugee centers across the country. The new centers would cut down the asylum process to 18 months maximum for individuals, and 6 months for families, in order to more quickly get newcomers on the path toward language learning and integration.

While addressing processing speeds are a major cause of integration and language learning issues, there could be negative side effects if the new policy isn't implemented smoothly, said Bauer.

"If they stay there for 18 months and kids don't have access to schools, or individuals don't have access to integration courses or to independent asylum counselling from independent lawyers, then it's a problem," he said.

Whatever government initiatives come to pass, Spartak hopes they will help to solve issues with teaching newcomers German, a skill he sees as pivotal for successful integration to take place.

"One of the biggest weak points is the support for language learning," he said. "We have to provide support for everybody from the beginning and integrate them into the job market."

"That requires the language," he added. "One follows the other."
An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

European leaders faced with tense situation while they wait for Trump's decision on Iranian nuclear deal

Courtesy Photo of Heiko Maas's Twitter, Minister of Foreign Affairs BERLIN — With President Donald Trump on a renewed offensive against the Iran nuclear deal and the mid-May deadline for revisiting America's involvement in the pact approaching, European nations are cooking up contingency plans to keep the agreement afloat.

Europe has a lot riding on the success of the deal, observers said, because an American departure from the pact would likely damage Europe's economic and political relations with Tehran and increase instability in the Middle East.

"They have limited leverage and cards to play," said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. "But if they resign to just watching the deal fall apart, that will burn any influence that they have with Iran to be able to moderate its reaction on the nuclear issue."

Since taking office, President Trump has repeatedly referred to the Obama-era restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief as a "bad deal" with "terrible flaws."

Even so, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the party that oversees the deal, has said over the course of 11 separate reports since 2015 that Iran is adhering to the stipulations of the arrangement to decrease nuclear stockpiles and only enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

That success, however, has been marred by Tehran's continued involvement in messy conflicts around the Middle East, actions seen by President Trump as a violation of the "spirit" of the agreement.

He's now set a May 12 deadline for the US and the deal's other signatories to levy tougher sanctions against Iran, or else the US will withdraw from the pact.

That threat prompted a chilling response from Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day last week.

"Iran will not violate the nuclear deal, but if the United States withdraws from the deal, they will surely regret it," he said. "Our response will be stronger than what they imagine and would see that within a week."

The situation presents economic and political challenges for the deal's European partners, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

European leaders want Trump to decide to remain in the deal before tackling other geopolitical issues that worry the White House, such as Iran's involvement in Syria and Yemen.

German parts manufacturer Daimler and French automaker Peugeot had already planned big investments in the Islamic Republic.

But, threating Europe’s big plans for rapprochement, the Trump administration and its regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia want to scuttle the deal.

"In the wake of the nuclear deal, we've seen some glorification of Iran by the European side that's been economically and politically motivated, whereas with the US administration under Trump, we've seen a return to the demonization of Iran," said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institute in Qatar. "Both narratives are extreme and inadequate. The truth lies somewhere in the middle."

American disdain for Iran is likely to reach a new tenor with the nomination of former CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and former Bush-era UN Ambassador John Bolton for National Security Advisor, said Geranmayeh. Both have been stark opponents of the deal since its inception.

"They take a very different position from the Europeans on Iran, which is to say you can't cut any deals and it's all about containment and confrontation," she said. "The Europeans have had a much different history with Iran and have had diplomatic relations with Iran for the past 40 years."

With economic and diplomatic interests on the line, European players are trying to develop an amicable solution with the Trump administration to halt its departure from the deal.

Though German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for a "firewall" to be erected between the nuclear deal and Iran's other activities as early as last week, high-level talks have been underway since January between Europe and the United States to potentially reissue some sanctions on Iran for its meddling in international affairs in return for a guarantee that the nuclear deal remain in place.

Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will be visiting Washington at the end of the month. The nuclear deal is expected to be a key issue on the agenda.

"The European strategy is twofold," said Fathollah-Nejad with the Brookings Institute. "One is to talk about and possibly also take action on areas of concern under Trump. Second, it's to lay the groundwork for securing European economic interests in Iran."

If European partners can't convince Trump to stay in the deal, they'll try to jockey for an arrangement that would at least allow Tehran to strike economic deals with the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese in ways that would include Iran adhering to its nuclear obligations, said Geranmayeh with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"In my view, that would be the best-case scenario, because you keep the deal alive and you allow the US to come back in when there's a more amicable administration, all the while keeping Iran tied to its nuclear commitments."

Even so, there's still the risk that the United States' departure from the pact could crumble nuclear controls entirely, not only raising the risk of Iranian nuclear proliferation in the region, but also targeted strikes by Israel, the United States and others on Iranian facilities.

"We'd essentially go back to the pre-2013 dynamic of very high risks of military conflict over this issue," said Geranmayeh. "And that's exactly what the Europeans have been trying to avoid for the last decade."

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 

Eastern Orthodox Christians distance themselves from Russian-backed churches

A Sunday service takes place in the St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in central Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 25, the first Sunday of the Great Lent, also known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral is the mother church of the Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, competing for dominance in Ukraine with a Russian-led orthodox church with a center in Moscow.KIEV, Ukraine – Rev. Andriy Lototskiy faced perhaps the toughest decision in his life: he had to choose between his faith and his flock.

Lototskiy had been preaching for 14 years at the Church of St. Volodymyr in the small village of Strilche in western Ukraine. Then in the summer of 2014 – as pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine sought independence from the central government in the capital – his parishioners turned against him and demanded he surrender the keys to his church.

There was nothing wrong with his preaching. It was what he represented.

Lototskiy was a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the largest faith community in the East European country. The problem was, his church owes fealty to the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. His congregants had joined a wave of conversions to an alternative, Kiev-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church founded in 1992.

“I came to my church and heard them pray for Kirill,” recalled Maria Satayeva, a 36-year-old German language teacher who also left her Russian-affiliated church in Kiev in 2014. “I couldn’t be there anymore.”

In Ukraine, some 70 percent of population identify as Eastern Orthodox Christians. Among believers, the rest mostly belong to Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church or Protestant churches.

The original Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been subordinate to Moscow since the 17th century, when Ukraine was made part of the Russian Empire. The relationship continued after the country broke from the Soviet Union.

But those ties started to cause problems in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s territory in Crimea and instigated an ongoing armed conflict in the eastern part of the country that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Moscow’s meddling occurred in the wake of President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who fled the country in 2014 after a groundswell of protests against his corrupt rule.

Now many Orthodox parishioners in Ukraine are distancing themselves from Russian-backed church whose hierarchs are a key pillar of support for Putin’s policies.

Leaders of the Moscow-backed church denied that Russia exerted political influence on them. “People go to church for prayers, not politics,” said Archbishop Kliment of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church who is based in Kiev. “Our churches have no connection to the modern Russian state.”

After much careful thinking, Lototskiy decided to stay with his flock and switch allegiance to the Kiev patriarchate. It wasn’t a painless decision. “All my friends turned away from me in the beginning,” he said, referring to other priests from his old church. “They said I betrayed the true church.”

Around 60 parishes have switched to the Kiev-centered church since 2014. The leadership of the Moscow patriarchate says the transfers were illegal. They have never recognized their Kievan rival, which formed amid a revival of Ukrainian nationalism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Neither has the preeminent Orthodox Christian leader, the patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul.

The absence of the Constantinople patriarch’s recognition is a major reason for parishioners and priests to stay within old Ukrainian Orthodox Church, according to Ivan Sydor, a Kiev patriarchate priest. “I’m sure that many priests [in the Moscow-backed church] will move to the Kiev church the day after it gets recognition,” Sydor said.

But the chances to get recognition from the Constantinople patriarchate anytime soon aren’t high.

“Moscow has influence on Constantinople,” said Sydor. “If the Ukrainian church is recognized, Moscow can break away from Constantinople and proclaim itself the new center of Orthodox Christianity.”

The stakes in the rivalry are high. The two churches are vying for the souls of nearly 30 million people, according to recent surveys.

It is hard to estimate which one actually has more parishioners. The Moscow-backed church has 12,300 parishes against the independent church’s 5,100 parishes.

Some 27 percent of all Ukrainians identified with the indigenous church in 2017, while 21 percent chose the Moscow patriarchy, according to a joint survey by four Kiev-based pollsters.

But the absence of results from Crimea and the war-torn territories in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian church is popular, probably distort the polls.

One of the most striking examples of the rivalry came this January when a priest of the Moscow-backed church refused to conduct a burial ceremony for a child who was baptized in the Kiev patriarchate church despite the parents’ begging. The incident sparked a national scandal.

Soon after, a Moscow patriarchate church in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv burned down. Its priest blamed the arson on nationalist protesters who picketed the church shortly before the blaze.

Around the same time, two protesters set a Moscow patriarchate chapel in Kiev on fire. The protesters told Ukrainian media the attack wasn’t about religion but about “Russia stealing Ukraine’s history” since the chapel was standing on the historic site of an ancient church.

Some parishioners are weary of the rivalry between the two churches. The polls show that about 25 percent of Ukrainians refuse to pick one of the churches, identifying as simply Eastern Orthodox.

One of them is Ievgenii Gryban, a Kiev musician. He used to go to a church of the Kiev patriarchate. But he grew sick of the priest talking politics from the pulpit. “He was saying smart things that I agree with, but I don’t think they belonged in a church,” Gryban said.

He switched to a church allied with the Moscow patriarchate. “I don’t think the God cares if the church is of Moscow or Kiev allegiance,” he said.

Right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban seeks reelection

Photo: Gergely Botár / kormany.huBUDAPEST —Right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orban seems poised for a third consecutive term in office after elections April 8 after having run a campaign geared toward stoking fears about mass migration in the country.

It's a testament to the success of the culture war he has waged in Hungary since 2015's refugee crisis in Europe that's moved the nation increasingly into authoritarian territory and provided Europe with an populist figurehead against the backdrop of the Western European coalition led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, analysts said.

"Viktor Orban has managed to reshape the country in his own image," said Florian Hartleb, a German political scientist specializing in European populism and right-wing extremism. "He's creating an illiberal status quo that's based on systems in China or Russia."

Since some 400,000 people made their way through Hungary en route to Western European countries like Germany and Sweden in 2015, Mr. Orban has unwaveringly focused on stoking fears that Hungary is becoming an "immigrant country" like France, Belgium or the United Kingdom.

"Countries that don't stop immigration will be lost," Orban told crowds at a rally last month outside the Hungarian parliament. The premier dedicated almost his entire 25-minute speech to addressing the ills of immigration, although the country has settled very few refugees and the flood of newcomers crossing through Hungary has decreased to a trickle in recent years.

"Africa wants to kick down our door, and Brussels is not defending us – Europe is under invasion already, and they are watching with their hands in the air," he said.

It's a far cry from his Fidesz party's origins, which began as an anti-Soviet youth movement and Christian Democratic alliance in the 1980s.

But since coming to power for the first time in 1998, and then again in 2010 and 2014, Fidesz has gerrymandered districts and reformed election laws for its own gain, said analysts. It's also cracked down on civil society, opposition groups and the nation's judiciary, as well as independent media.

Even so, Fidesz's landslide victories in 2010 and 2014, which delivered it an absolute majority in parliament, seem to be a thing of the past amid increasing allegations of corruption within its ranks – most polls indicate that the party will at best secure a simple majority.

Though Hungary's left-wing opposition parties are increasingly fractured, they've made gains in smaller elections in Fidesz strongholds in recent months and have attempted to mobilize direct mandate districts, which constitute 106 of the parliament's 199 seats. The remaining seats are determined through proportional representation of a separate party vote.

Should Fidesz lose its absolute majority, it would have no choice but to rule in a minority government, or else band together with the nation's second-largest party, Jobbik, currently polling around 17 percent, which Hartleb describes as a "paramilitary right-wing extremist party."

"When one calculates how many votes Fidesz and Jobbik have been able to gain, then it's certainly cause for concern how nationalist Hungary has become," he said.

Orban and Fidesz likely won't enter a coalition with Jobbik due to political fighting between the parties, which has forced Orban to double down on anti-immigrant rhetoric in order to play to an increasingly nationalist electorate and win votes, said Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a policy research and consultancy firm in Budapest.

"Fidesz is responding to declining poll numbers and increased corruption revelations with hysterical war rhetoric," he said. "It's enclosing itself in a cage of its own conspiracy theories: They talk about the threat of immigrants over and over again, although there are hardly any here."

Fidesz has even gone so far as to widely distribute posters of liberal Hungarian philanthropist and conservative boogeyman George Soros with opposition leaders holding wire cutters, an homage to the razor wire fence Orban erected shortly after 2015's refugee crisis began.

It's only galvanized the opposition, said Hungarian Socialist Party candidate for prime minister Gergely Karácsony.

"Fidesz is weaker than we assumed," he said. "Generous favors for its own clientele and intimidation of political opponents has had the opposite effect – with his threats he unintentionally mobilizes opposition voters."
Even so, left-wing opposition groups are still very much splintered – Karacsony's Socialists are the largest among them, and are only poling with about 12 percent of the vote.

After having developed a hyper-nationalist culture in Hungary over the past decades that's presented a conservative front against Brussels and a banded together largely homogenous, Eastern European states like Poland and Bulgaria, it's unlikely that Orban will lose his mandate, said Hartleb.

Even slightly weakened, as Europe's second-longest serving leader and a stalwart of conservative nationalism within the European bloc, he'll continue to serve as a counterweight to Germany's Angela Merkel, Hartleb added.

"He's one of the most well-known politicians in Europe and therefore can swing his weight around," he said. "As this election has shown, it'll mostly be seen by playing cards against a multicultural society and what he calls Islamization."
And four more years of Orban and Fidesz could mean even further slips toward authoritarianism, said Kreko.

"Only one thing is certain: if Fidesz wins, Orban will go even harder against civil rights groups and the opposition," he said. "Because for him there's no going back on this path toward an illiberal state."

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 

Small country of Kosovo has air pollution that rivals Bejing

Obiliq, Kosovo – February 15, 2018 - One of Kosovo’s two coal-fired thermal power plants in the town of Obiliq a few kilometers from downtown Pristina and home to one of the world’s largest coal lignite reserves. During the winter, it is an everyday reality to smell and breath the toxic fumes from the burning coal used to heat homes and buildings.​ The Kosovo government is planning to build ​a third lignite coal power plant ​to replace and refurbish the aging coal plants but local and international environmental ​and advocacy ​groups want to transform Kosovo into a clean energy leader​ and not rely on coal as its sole energy source.PRISTINA, Kosovo – The rancid smell of burning coal and wood perfumes the air here, even in early spring.

That’s because a mile outside the capital, Pristina, two coal-fired power plants in the town of Obiliq spew toxic fumes that sometimes make the air quality in this tiny Balkan country worse than Beijing, Mumbai and Delhi.

It's so bad that it has spawned protests, apps and even its own hashtag.

“If I hade the opportunity to leave for somewhere else, within 24 hours I would move from this place,” said Elfete Krasniqi, 27, an Obiliq resident. “My son who is almost three-years-old can’t go one month without getting bronchitis – he can’t get used to the environment here.”

Corruption, political instability, economic stagnation and a restive Serbian minority have marked Kosovo, where citizens are ethnically Albanians, since a US-led NATO bombing campaign helped the country split off from Serbia in 2008. But those problems in the long run could pale in comparison to the health challenges that face the country from poor air quality.

Haki Jashari, the director of the small hospital in Obiliq, says the pollution caused from the plants and nearby coal lignite mines – Kosovo has the fifth largest reserves of brown coal in the world – has taken a toll on people’s health.

Brown coal is considered the dirtiest fossil fuel. 

“The issue of environmental pollution is related to the disease in children and the elderly, especially in cancerous and respiratory diseases,” he said from his office that overlooks one of the aging coal-fired power plants, which the World Bank has called the “worst single point source of pollution in Europe.”

Jashari said he sees three new cases of cancer on average each month in the last year and that serious diseases usually affecting the elderly are also appearing in the young and middle aged.

“The pollution of the environment is outside of any norm,” he said.

Thick layers of smog often hover over Pristina, city of 200,000, during the cold months as most buildings’ heating systems use coal and wood. Cars and buses that operate with few or no emissions inspections contribute to the haze.

Pristina residents didn’t know how bad they had it until the U.S. embassy started to measure air quality and release the data in real time on the internet two years ago. The data registered hazardous levels that were at least three times what health experts identify as acceptable. Residents can now monitor their air quality on smartphone apps.

"For me, it was interesting (for the embassy) to give this data and empower people,” said Fabien Techene, an independent environmentalist living in Pristina. “Now we should try to communicate as much as possible the fact that it's not a daily problem or weekly problem, it's a yearly problem.”

Twenty-one-year old human rights and youth activist Ron Idrizaj was one of the organizers of protests against pollution earlier this year, having launched a campaign called #Breathe that aimed to galvanize citizens to call for action to improve the air in Pristina.

"I believe it's a human right to live with air that will not kill you,” Idrizaj said. “Knowing the fact that air quality in Kosovo is worse than in China, for example, even though Kosovo doesn't have corporations or other things, can have an impact on air pollution.

He was planning more actions, he said.

“We should put pressure on the government and municipalities at all time of the year, not only during the winter or autumn," Idrizaj said.

Some cities are so concerned about air pollution that they are trying to go car free for certain days (Paris) and contemplating banning diesel engines from city centers (Stuttgart, Germany).

However, the Kosovo government is planning to build ​a third lignite coal power plant in Obiliq ​to replace the aging coal plants.

That defies local environmental ​​groups' aims to transform Kosovo into a clean energy leader​ and not rely on coal as its sole energy source.

In the meantime, locals contemplate masks as they are losing hope.

“The air is very polluted here and I feel very bad about it, but we don’t know what to do about it,” said 24-year-old Kastriot Krasniqi, a bus ticket collector from Obiliq. “We have to live here. Although there are continually promises that this place is going to be better, still nothing changes.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Greek millenials trade big city life for the farm

Feb. 13, 2018 - Sterna, Messinia, Greece - Margianna Xirogianni, a 33-year-old medical physicist, left the city with her siblings to become a farmer after the economic crisis started in GreeceSTERNA, Greece – Facing a nearly impossible job search and rising costs in the city, Margianna Xirogianni quit the rat race and moved here, a tiny village around 80 miles southwest of Athens.

Xirogianni, three of her siblings and other partners set up Green Land, a cooperative farming business that produces and exports extra-virgin olive oil, olive paste and other olive-based products across the world.

They’re not alone. Like American millennials leaving Manhattan for New York’s Hudson Valley or Los Angeles for the desert towns near Palm Springs, young Greeks are increasingly trading in their urban careers and lifestyles for the countryside.

But Xirogianni’s move stemmed from desperation that most American millennials wouldn't recognize.

For a decade since the onset of the worldwide financial crisis, Greece's economy has been contracting. Youth employment stands at more than 40%, the highest in the EU.

“I finished my master's and had to work as a tutor, a waitress, and a clown at kids' parties because nowadays no hospital hires staff,” said Xirogianni, 33, who formerly dreamed of helping cancer patients with her degree in medical physics. “That's when it came to me: ‘We should start something of our own.’”

The situation is not expected to change soon. Greek growth is likely to remain sluggish as the country repays loans under a bailout financed by Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

Entrepreneurs say the land is giving them a chance and a future.

“In the countryside, we're self-sufficient,” said Xirogianni’s big sister, Ioulia, 34, who left Athens and moved to Sterna with her husband and two children. “We wanted a better quality of life, where we'd get a decent pay. In crisis-hit Athens, the salaries are too small to make ends meet, especially if you have children.”

Petros Giannakopoulos, 24, felt the same way. After holding several jobs in cafeterias supermarkets and beach bars in Patras, the third-largest city in Greece, he decided to return to Agia Mavra, the village of 300 residents where they grew up in western Greece.

With no prior experience in farming, he and his family today own 200 sheep and sell milk and


“Nowadays in Greece, you spend years studying, and then you frame your degree and put it on the wall but the only thing you can do with it is look at it because you just can't get a job,” said Petros Giannakopoulos, 24.

He hopes to create a modern stable with milking machines, buy more land and a tractor and adopt innovations such as placing GPS tracking devices on his animals. He hopes to invest in an olive grove and an aloe vera farm next year, too.

Charalambos Kasimis, secretary general for policy at the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food and a professor at the Agricultural University of Athens, said the government had seen a bump from 11% to 13% in the number of Greeks working in agriculture in the past decade. Much of that increase was from a spike in farmers under 40, he added.

The problem now, he added, is that public infrastructure in rural regions might not be able to handle newcomers.

“Farmers need social infrastructure, schools for their kids, local doctors, banks, and so on,” Kasimis said.

Still, the new trend is a welcome one, he added, because Greek agriculture also needs to change to remain competitive on the world market.

For decades, Greece has been exporting agricultural products like olives and olive oil in bulk to other European countries that rebrand it under their own labels and re-export it. As a result, Italian and Spanish companies dominate the olive-oil industry.

“We need to increase the added value in our products, build on our quality, branding, and agritourism,” Kasimis said.

European Union policies that giving farmers subsidies have also undermined the long-term competitiveness of Greek agriculture, said Thodoris Vasilopoulos, president of the Young Farmer Association in Greece.

“The older generation learned to depend on subsidies and often didn't even bother to farm its land,” said Vasilopoulos. “Right now, subsidies are even given to retired farmers, like my 80-year-old grandfather.”

He believes farming is a way forward.

“Only if we support farmers will we see Greece's GDP grow,” said Vasilopoulos.

Ironically, the Xirogianni siblings are thankful to the economic crisis. Ff Greece hadn't tumbled into hard times, they say they might not have taken the step to become farmers.

“We've even started expanding to agrotourism,” Margianna Xirogianni said as she pushed harvested olives into a large sack. “Tourists can visit our farm and our home in order to see how olive oil is produced.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Russian investments adds to UK spy drama

GBRTheresaMayLONDON—The row between the United Kingdom and Russia over the attempted assassination of a former Russian military intelligence officer and double agent underscores the tricky relationship between Russia and the UK – one that is all about money.

For decades, hundreds, if not thousands of wealthy Russians have been parking assets – also dirty money – in the UK as well as themselves, mostly with Brits welcoming the investment.

There is much to lure Russians to London, says Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian banker and opposition political figure, who was granted asylum in the U.K. in 2015.

"One is its language – if Russians speak a foreign language then it’s English,” he said. "London is a big city not too dissimilar to Moscow and there’s already a lot of Russians here. London is the unrivaled center of business and finance in Europe and the British education system is trusted.”

Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would create an action plan to retaliate against Russia for the UK poisoning by a Russian-developed nerve agent of Sergei Skripal, 66, who spied for the British during the 1990s and early 2000s. He and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, remain in critical condition.

And while Russia has denied the allegations, May has already kicked out 23 Russian diplomats, and promised to crack down on Russian oligarchs who park money in the UK. But that's a tall order, say analysts.

The British government has long been happy to take in its former spies as repayment for their service. It has also welcomed Russian dissidents, which it sees as a counter measure to an anti-Western government in Moscow. The UK, however, is known for welcoming Russian money from the vast fortunes of Mr. Putin’s close allies, and most don't believe that will change anytime soon.

Ashurkov, a prominent critic of what he alleges to be the ill-gotten millions of Mr. Putin’s cronies invested in London’s most glamorous real estate, says some of these homes rival the British royal family’s palaces.

Mr. Ashurkov, in fact, organizes bus tours around the British capital for fellow activists and journalists to showcase the tsar-like opulence that the Russian oligarchy enjoys in London.

“I do it to alert British authorities about dirty money,” he said.

Take for example Witanhurst, London’s largest private home, only surpassed in size by Buckingham Palace. The basement of this stately home boasts a swimming pool, cinema, sauna, gym, staff quarters and parking spaces for up to 25 cars.

Mystery has long surrounded the owners of this North London mansion since it was purchased in 2008 for $70.2 million. Ordinarily, it’s a simple process to figure out who owns real estate in the U.K. – pay a fee to the Land Registry and they’ll provide the name. But when properties are owned by offshore companies, as Witanhurst and many others are, it’s not as simple.

This ostentatious secrecy has a tendency to get on the nerves of locals. In 2011, local town official Michael Hammerson grumbled to the Daily Mail newspaper, “We don’t want limos with smoked windows and men in dark glasses with bulging breast pockets, and the place surrounded by CCTV.”

In 2015, The New Yorker finally revealed the true owner to be Andrey Guryev, the former head of one of Russia’s largest fertilizer companies.

This kind of confidentiality typifies London’s moneyed Russian population, says Mr. Ashurkov, who notes that they go to great lengths to protect their anonymity.

“One billion pounds of Russian money is the minimum invested in London property,” said Mr. Ashurkov. "There are at least 100 Russian families living in mansions worth over 10 million pounds. But it’s very difficult to get an exact estimate because so many hide behind offshore companies."

According to Transparency International UK, almost 10 percent of real estate in the Westminster borough of London is owned by anonymous offshore companies. In Kensington and Chelsea, perhaps the most upscale part of town, the figure is 7 percent. Both of these neighborhoods are favored by the Russian elite.

In fact, illustrious Belgravia Square in Westminster has been teasingly nicknamed “Red Square” due to the influx of Russian residents.

Many of these Russians expats don’t live in London fulltime and actually have a portfolio of houses dotted across the globe. Investing in London real estate isn’t pure vanity though, it is a seen as a safe bet, similar to buying gold bars. If ever the need should arise for a swift exit from Russia, many of these oligarchs can escape to London where their fortunes are secured in the form of well-located bricks and mortar.

William Brown, a London contractor, has worked on a number of renovation projects for Russian billionaires. He won’t reveal the names of his clients, but he says they spend most of their time away from London.

“None of them are here fulltime, they might be in town just two months of the year," he said. "Most of the time there’s no one in these mansions except the butler and security guards.”

Inevitably, largescale renovations follow when a new owner takes over such a grand mansion, which creates a cottage industry that employs thousands of contractors, plumbers and interior designers like Mr. Brown.

“One client had 22 solid marble bathrooms spending $90,000 per bathroom on renovation costs,” recalled Mr. Brown. “It’s extravagance like you wouldn’t believe.”

Working on high end refurbishments for rich Russians in London’s most fashionable zip codes pays a lot more than the average project, he added, but they can have unreasonable expectations.

“The money is good but there’s so much hassle," he said. "Their designers ask for things that are almost impossible.”

Purchasing property of this value contributes significantly to the treasury. For example, the sale of a house with Witanhurst’s price tag would collect more than $10.3 million dollars in taxes.

That money, often amassed from the selling of state assets when the old Soviet Union broke up, has long been directed through London’s famed banks and pumped into the country’s property market and spent at London’s luxury boutiques.

In 2015, Deutsche Bank estimated capital inflows from outside the UK – mostly Russia – at more than $200 billion over the past three decades.

The intertwining of old Soviet wealth into the British economy complicates things. It becomes a tough task for the government to impose sanctions that would target the so-called “dirty money” without also harming British interests at all levels, from the international banks to the self-employed like Mr. Brown, say insiders.

UK officials are likely not to crack down on assets or trade with Russia, given that Brexit is looming and economic growth has been sluggish, say analysts.

Still, Mr. Ashurkov says all this shouldn’t dissuade Mrs. May from taking action against money harbored in her own backyard.

“Britain would be just fine without a few billion of corrupt money," he said. "The British economy would not suffer if dirty money went away.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Anti-corruption leader Vitaly Shabunin faces jail time in Ukraine

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_UKR131221aa001.jpegAt only 33 years old, civil rights activist Vitaliy Shabunin has been at the vanguard of the war against corruption in Ukraine.

At 34, he might be in jail.

The founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a prominent nonprofit that has successfully pushed for key government reforms in recent years, Shabunin has become one of the fiercest critics of President Petro Poroshenko. The activist and other critics accuse Poroshenko and his cronies of bribing lawmakers, profiting from corrupt business deals and hampering anti-corruption efforts.

But now the anti-corruption crusader faces five years in jail for allegedly attacking a blogger that is he and other journalists and civil rights organizations say is actually a paid provocateur affiliated with Poroshenko and the Ukraine security service (SBU).

“The political elite want to ruin the anti-corruption infrastructure that we are helping to build,” said Shabunin. “We aren’t the final target. We are just an obstacle. It’s a piece of a big puzzle.”

Since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, freedom of speech is at its highest level yet, says the president. The country is making strides toward the west, clamping down on corruption, he notes.

But this case, which has the country riveted, belies those statements and underscores how those fighting to clean up the country are being physically attacked, and put on trial for trumped up charges, say analysts.

This latest case stems from an incident in June when Shabunin punched a video blogger who had been following and harassing him and his colleagues for days. In response, the blogger used pepper spray on Shabunin. Both went to police and filed charges against each other.

Even though Ukraine’s most respected professional journalism organizations say the blogger was a provocateur rather than a reporter, prosecutors revised changes against the Shabunin in January from a simple assault to an attack on the press, a more serious crime that is punishable by as much as five years of jail. The blogger was not charged with a crime.

Many Ukrainians saw the charges as an obvious attempt to quiet dissent.

“It is selective justice with the purpose of political persecution,” said Sergii Leshchenko, a pro-reform lawmaker who was elected on the ballot of Poroshenko’s Solidarity political party but turned into a critic of the president. “This incident originated at the highest level.”

The anti-graft crusader epitomized the state of Ukraine after a popular uprising known as the EuroMaidan Revolution kicked out the country’s notoriously corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Four years later, observers say that Ukraine’s post-revolution leadership that vowed to play by new rules is backsliding into old practices.

In 2017, Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, Ukraine ranked 130 out of 180 countries. That’s only a slight improvement since ranking 140 before the revolution.

“If Poroshenko’s government were serious about fighting corruption, it would have reformed its courts and put high-level crooks in jail years ago,” said Melinda Haring, the editor of Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog and a longtime observer of political developments in Ukraine and the region. “At this point, it looks like Poroshenko is committed to preserving the status quo.”

She also points to a number of journalists in the past few years being attacked, with no charges ever filed – or the attacks being classified as a lesser charge of hooliganism – even in cases of murder.

Others share her concerns.

The International Monetary Fund is delaying payments that are part of a $17.5 billion loan package to Ukraine because Poroshenko has dragged his feet on creating a new anti-corruption court. That follows a failed attempt late last year by the government to limit the powers of the state anti-corruption authority.

If Poroshenko doesn’t create the new court, he clearly doesn’t want change, said Timothy Ash, a London-based emerging markets strategist who focuses on Ukraine

“We are approaching a key decision point, with fair questions to be asked if the Poroshenko administration is really serious about fighting corruption,” Ash said. “The fact that no one has been brought to account for corrupt practice sends a very bad signal to the population at large and perhaps signal to others that corrupt practice wins.”

The breakdown of good government comes as the country is fighting for survival against its more powerful neighbor, Russia.

Once part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia have been in the state of undeclared war since 2014, when Russia, in the wake of the uprising, used the confusion to invade and annex Ukraine’s territory of Crimea. Soon after, Moscow instigated a separatist conflict in easternmost region of the country. The ongoing armed conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives, many of them civilians.

But critics said that the attacks on Shabunin illustrate how Ukraine’s ostensibly pro-Western leaders are silencing critics like Russian President Vladimir, who has cracked down on rivals.

He has faced numerous online attacks including on recently in which an online video circulated, reposted by a deputy prosecutor general, that looked like an American television news report about Shabunin’s corruption. It was quickly revealed that the video was a spoof, and the presenter was an American actor.

“This is straight from Putin’s textbook,” said Leshchenko, who likened Shabunin to Alexei Navalny, who had planned to run against Putin in Russia’s March 18 presidential election before he was disqualified after a 2016 conviction of what Navalny claimed were trumped-up embezzlement charges. “They are trying to devalue the results of anti-corruption activists’ findings by saying that they are corrupt themselves.”

Poroshenko’s press office declined to comment.

Shabunin has faced more than harassment. Authorities are currently investigating tax dodging charges against the Anti-Corruption Action Center, which receives most of its funding through foreign grants, said Shabunin.

Meanwhile, in late 2017, Ukrainian lawmakers passed legislation that compels anti-corruption organizations to file detailed yearly disclosures of their assets and incomes.

Ironically, the disclosures were modeled after the very forms that anti-corruption activists like Shabunin had fought to make obligatory for public servants.

“This law opens anti-corruption activists to pressure and harassment,” said Amnesty International Ukraine in a statement. “It violates their right for privacy, making them publish personal information, including home addresses.”

Poroshenko has proposed eliminating the requirement. But, with the deadline for the first disclosures approaching on April 1, the parliament where Poroshenko’s bloc controls majority still hasn’t voted on the president’s proposal.

“This law is more harmful than Russia’s law on foreign agents,” says Shabunin, referring to Russia’s 2012 legislation that made all NGOs with foreign funding register as foreign agents. “Our leaders declare their devotion to Western values but to fight us they are using the tools invented in Russia.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Matteo Salvini emerges as Italian conservative leader amidst a surprising surge of far-right politics

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ITAMatteoSalvini.jpegROME – Matteo Salvini, a former socialist and one-time quiz show contestant, has emerged as the de facto leader of the Italian right over comeback-minded Silvio Berlusconi after the political party he heads, the Northern League, exceeded expectations in Sunday’s national elections.

Negotiations on the next government are ongoing. But the result could put Salvini in a position to become Italy’s prime minister. If that doesn’t happen, Salvini will certainly have a big say in who will take over that role, according to Arianna Montanari, a political scientist and sociologist with Rome’s La Sapienza University.

La Lega, as the party is called in Italian, won nearly 17.5 percent of the electorate in a crowded field, earning 5.7 million votes. That was a dramatic improvement comparted to just a 4.1-percent share five years ago, in the last national vote, earning the support of 1.4 million voters.

The 81-year-old Berlusconi, a billionaire former prime minister in the midst of a well-publicized political comeback, saw his party’s share of the vote fall to 14 percent, compared to 21.6 percent in 2013.

The 2013 election was no doubt the lowest point in the history of La Lega, which in addition to its all-time poorest performance at the polls was also suffering from bad press in the wake of the resignation of the party’s founder, Umberto Bossi, as head amid charges he used party funds for his family.

Bossi founded the party in the 1980s on the belief that Italy should be divided into two countries -- the poorer, less industrialized southern regions would keep the name of Italy and the wealthier northern regions would split away to become the Republic of Padania.

In search of a new direction after the 2013 vote, La Lega turned to Salvini, who was almost unknown outside party circles.

“Under Salvini, La Lega was transformed from a party with almost all its support in the north to a national force,” said Alessandro Franzi, co-author of a biography of Salvini called “Matteo Salvini #theMilitant.”

Franzi said the party also evolved from one that represented a kind of U.S.-style conservatism -- anti-migration, and focusing on gun rights and regional autonomy -- to a party more in line with the European right like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, keeping the stance on migrants but becoming more skeptical of the European Union and the common euro currency.

In fact, Le Pen was among the first European leaders to offer her congratulations to Salvini after Sunday’s vote.

Salvini is also a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, using a photo the two took together in Philadelphia 2016 liberally during the recent campaign.

All told, it’s a dramatic evolution for Salvini, who will be 45 years old on Friday. Salvini’s first national exposure -- albeit in a non-political role -- came when he was a 20-year-old contestant on the game show “Lunch is Served,” where contestants answer questions to earn the five courses of a traditional lunch.

Soon after, Salvini dropped out of the University of Milan and became one of the leaders of Leoncavallo, a socialist welfare center in Milan. In his first foray into politics, Salvini was a socialist candidate for the symbolic regional parliament of Padania.

“The changes in Salvini’s thinking came fairly quickly and all indications are it was in a large part due to political ambition,” said Alessandro Madron, Franzi’s co-author on the Salvini biography. “The only way to move forward in the Northern League was to move closer to the political right.”

According to Montanari, the political scientist, Salvini will now have a bigger voice in government than Bossi, La Lega’s founder, ever had.

“Under Bossi, the party was always a junior member of the coalitions supporting Berlusconi,” she said. “Now the roles have turned around. Salvini is the new head of the Italian right, a kind of new Fascist.”

Many Italians who supported La Lega heading into Sunday’s vote say they bristle at the label of the party as tied to the Fascist movement started by Benito Mussolini before World War II.

“It’s not Fascism, it’s just a priority of putting the priorities of Italians first,” said Alessandro Vernucci, 36, a male nurse.

Vernucci, who lives in the working-class periphery of Rome, said he briefly met Salvini just outside his apartment in the days leading up to the vote.

“He’s the only candidate who came to the party of town where I live to ask questions and to listen to our concerns,” Vernucci said. “That’s what a politician is supposed to do, but he was the only one.”

Antonio Mezza, a 40-year-old youth soccer coach living near Rome, agreed.

“I don’t care if they want to call us Fascists or whatever,” Mezza said. “I don’t care about labels. What I care about is getting this country moving again and I think Salvini’s leadership can do it.”

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

Slovakian reporter promises to finish the story of a murdered colleague

THS IS A TEST THIS FIELD WAS EMPTY!!!!THS IS A TEST THIS FIELD WAS EMPTY!!!!THS IS A TEST THIS FIELD WAS EMPTY!!!!THS IS A TEST THIS FIELD WAS EMPTY!!!!THS IS A TEST THIS FIELD WAS EMPTY!!!!THS IS A TEST THIS FIELD WAS EMPTY!!!!PRAGUE—The tragic murder of a young Slovakian journalist investigating ties between the Italian mafia and the nation's political establishment is rocking Slovakia.

Amid conspiracy theories and protests, Prime Minister Robert Fico's coalition government could fall apart, analysts said.

"This murder put political corruption into focus,” said Aneta Világi, a political scientist with Comenius University in Bratislava. “Many are of the point of view that this is too much. People actually lost their lives because somebody tried to hide this level of corruption. The effect is quite tremendous. It's like an earthquake.”

On Feb. 25, 27-year-old investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kursnirova were found shot dead in their home outside Bratislava.

At the time of his death, Kuciak – an enterprising journalist whose use of public data to reveal corruption within the Slovakian government made him one of the nation's most promising reporters – was about to publish a story revealing ties between the Calabria, Italy-based crime syndicate 'Ndrangheta and officials within the prime minister's office.

Kuciak's story began as an investigation into why Prime Minister Fico, whose tenure has been plagued by corruption scandals within his cabinet, hired a young former Miss Universe contestant, Maria Troskova, as one of his assistants despite her lack of experience.

Kuciak, working with an international team of journalists, traced Troskova to an Italian businessman with close ties to 'Ndrangheta. Their research revealed that the crime group had infiltrated impoverished parts of the country and forged relationships with local politicians to misappropriate European Union funds.

Martin Turcek, an investigative journalist who worked closely with Kuciak at the digital outlet Aktuality.sk, told the Washington Times that uncovering corruption is "business as usual" in Slovakia, a former communist stronghold where Soviet-backed apparatchiks used to run the country without regard for civil rights.

In the past, Kuciak had uncovered cases of multimillion-dollar tax fraud between business interests and government officials without receiving threats of violence, said Turcek. However, Kuciak's latest investigation was of a different caliber.

"He's a person who devoted his life to making this country better," said Turcek. "Unfortunately, that's what probably ended his life."

Prime Minister Fico denounced the "attack on the freedom of press and democracy in Slovakia" shortly after the bodies were found and offered $1.24 million for information about the killings.

Two days after the announcement, Aktuality.sk and their international partners published Kuciak's report linking the prime minister's office to the Italian mafia. Police quickly arrested seven individuals named in the article on suspicion of murder – including an Italian business associate of the prime minister's allies. But authorities later released the suspects due to lack of evidence.

That only provoked an electorate already reeling from both the murders and the corruption allegations that had come to light.

On March 3, protests erupted in 25 cities, including the capital Bratislava, where around 20,000 citizens led by President Andrej Kiska marched on the government's headquarters chanting "enough of Fico" and "an attack on journalists is an attack on all of us."

The calls were heard at the highest levels of government.

Culture Minister Marek Madaric stepped down on Feb. 28, saying he couldn't "identify with the fact that a journalist was killed during my tenure." Additionally, two top officials in Fico's government resigned due to allegations of their ties to the Italian crime syndicate.

"There's a huge public distrust of the state," President Kiska told reporters March 4. "This distrust is justified."

Kiska has demanded that the prime minister call snap elections or expel suspected corrupt politicians from his government. Fico refused, accusing Kiska and other critics of playing politics and seeking to "dance on the graves" of Kuciak and his slain fiancée.

Fico also implied that the president was colluding with billionaire Hungarian philanthropist George Soros to dismantle the government, citing an alleged meeting between the two in September of last year as proof of the theory.

"I really wonder why no foreign ministry official took part in this meeting," he said, adding that the pressure on his government after the murder was "an attempt at total destabilization” by foreign forces.

Slovakian opposition parties are now calling for a vote of no confidence in parliament, while one of Fico's coalition partners, the liberal Most-Hid party representing Slovakia's Hungarian minority, is reportedly considering departing Fico’s ruling coalition over the controversy.

"It's impossible for this party to sustain in a ruling coalition with a prime minister who is praising these toxic, absolutely silly narratives," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, a political scientist and president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia, referring to Most-Hid. "Fico wants to survive at any price. But without this party, the government is over."

In the meantime, investigative journalist Turcek and his colleagues at Aktuality.sk said they have banded together with other prominent journalists in the country to continue Kuciak's work.

"There's still a lot more storylines that haven't been published that we are working on right now," he said. "It's only the beginning of this story."

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

China sees investment into Greek financial crisis as an economic opportunity

ATHENS, Greece – Unlike many in Europe, Chinese investors saw the continent’s economic crisis as an opportunity.
Since 2008, Chinese business leaders have agreed to almost $9 billion worth of deals – equivalent to around 5 percent of Greek GDP – involving ports, telecommunications companies, energy facilities, real-estate, and tourism, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

In its eighth year of economic turmoil, Greece continues to struggle with unemployment topping 20 percent and high taxes that are hurting growth but necessary to pay off a debt burden that is 180 percent of gross domestic product.

Greeks are split. Many are thankful that China is investing as they say Greece needs the cash and the jobs.

“The Greek economy is thirsty for investments and the presence of Chinese companies is important and we welcome it,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in September during a business conference in Thessaloniki that featured representatives of Chinese business.

But others are concerned about Chinese-style management in a southern European country where management traditionally respects labor rights and workplace conditions.

China Ocean Shipping Company, or COSCO, a state-owned company, purchased a majority stake in the port of Piraeus from the Greek government in 2016 for $456 million – the largest Chinese investment in Greece to date. The port is now a major node in China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, a system of trade routes that follow the old Silk Road and maritime passages through the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.

Labor unions now negotiating a new contract with COSCO are likely to have to accept lower wages. Since 2009, when a COSCO subsidiary purchased two piers at Piraeus, workers lost overtime and faced pay cuts of 30 percent.

“This deal shouldn’t make the port into a Chinese colony,” said Giorgos Gogos, secretary of the Piraeus dockworkers union. “It's important to secure good labor conditions and make sure the state actually profits from the investment.”

As real-estate prices in Greece continue to fall, 850 Chinese citizens have also purchased properties worth more than $310,000, making them eligible for so-called “Golden Visas” that allow them to travel within 26 European countries that have eliminated border controls between them. Golden Visas have generated more than $500 million in revenues for the state, according to Enterprise Greece, a state economic development agency.

Still, Chinese money is also raising political questions about Beijing’s influence in Europe.

In June, Greece's leftwing government surprised European leaders by blocking a critical EU statement at the UN Summit on China's human rights record. A year earlier, Greece, Croatia and Hungary – where Chinese investments are also extensive – opposed a joint EU statement on China’s military expansion in the South China Sea.

“China uses Greece in order to have a strong foothold in the European Union,” said Michael Tsinisizelis, a professor of international and European studies at the University of Athens.

In December, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an ardent speech under the Acropolis where he expressed concern about Greek and European economic weakness that targeted Beijing.

“Our European sovereignty is what will enable us to be digital champions, build a strong economy, and make us an economic power in this changing world and not be subjected to the law of the fittest – the Americans and, soon, the Chinese – but our own law,” he said.

China is now the EU's second-biggest trading partner behind the United States. In 2016, China spent $40 billion compared to $23 billion in the prior year.

With its influence increasing, the EU is currently looking to closely regulate foreign investments in European strategic assets, like ports. At present, Greece and many other European countries don’t track foreign investment. The same lack of oversight has prompted many American companies to shift their operations to Ireland and the Netherlands.

“There's a general uneasiness in the EU concerning Chinese investments,” said Polyxeni Davarinou, a researcher at the Institute of International Economic Relations in Athens. “The EU wants to have a better control. At the same time though, Greece and Eastern European countries really need these Chinese investments.”

She believed Greece and Europe could control Chinese influence if leaders enacted bold rules to monitor foreign investment. “There are voices in Europe that believe Greece is too close to China and that's because we've given them reasons to see it that way,” she said. “Greece's problem is how to develop a clear and steady strategy.”

In Piraeus, meanwhile, cranes are offloading shipping containers from huge cargo ships around the clock. COSCO is planning to invest an extra $372 million to build three five-star hotels and a new dock that can accommodate 14 cruise ships.

Still, Gogos was pessimistic over Greece's recovery – no matter how much Chinese money flowed into Greece, he said, the country was still laboring to repay its debts. Greeks wouldn’t see the benefits of their hard work for generations, he said.

“Nothing will change for Greece,” Gogos said. “All the money ends up in the country's black hole, repaying its humongous public debt instead of rebuilding the economy.”

An altenative version of this story can be found in The Wasington Times.

Elections in Italy: Determining the nation's and Europe's future

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ITA171717AA005.jpegROME —  The Italian election Sunday could have a bigger impact on the fate of the European Union and its economy than anything since Brexit.

If the populist group of Italian political parties gets enough votes to form a coalition, it could question whether Italy should stay in the Eurozone, the common currency that unites Europe's cross-border trade. 

No matter which party wins, the country will likely crack down on immigration. 

And if no party gets enough of the vote to have a mandate, Italy will have a year or two of political chaos.

The campaign is so chaotic and confusing that Citigroup bankers advised investors this week to avoid speculating on a specific outcome and instead wait until the votes are counted to determine “how bad is bad.”

There is no "realistic outcome" that would be positive from an Italian or European perspective, according to Javier Noriega, an analyst with investment bankers Hildebrandt and Ferrar.

“Sadly, the best-case scenario is probably that no party does well and Italy has a year or two of political dysfunction that drags down economic growth across the continent," Noriega said.

Italy’s unstable political system has been a punchline for decades. The country has had 65 governments in the 73 years since the end of World War II. The next government will be the 66th.

Italy, one of the USA’s strongest allies in Europe, is already hobbled by slow economic growth, high unemployment, deep public debt and inefficient public services.

Immigration is the election's central issue since the country is on the front line of the European migrant crisis. More than 600,000 migrants, mostly from Syria and North Africa, have arrived on Italian shores in the last four years. Every party has taken a position.

“It’s clear Italy will be tightening the screws on migrant arrivals and on the migrants already” in the country, said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome’s John Cabot University.

Even the most progressive party, the Democratic Party, has taken a tougher position on migrants than it traditionally has, Pavoncello said. 

Sunday's race features three main poles:

• a center-right group headed by Forza Italia, a party led by four-time prime minister and billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who left government amid an array of personal legal problems and with the country on the brink of bankruptcy” since those were all factors. His party is allied with the nationalist Northern League;

• the center-left Democratic Party headed by another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi;

• and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, vice-president of the lower house of parliament.

Italian law does not allow polling in the weeks before an election. In the final published round of polls, released Feb. 16, the strongest of the three groups is the Forza Italia-Northern League’s center-right partnership, which has support of more than 35% of voters. The Democratic Party and the Five-Star Movement follow, each with less than 30% of the vote. 

If a single party gets at least 40% of the vote, it receives bonus seats in parliament that would allow it to rule outright. That is unlikely.

Parties will need to band together into a coalition to claim at least half the votes in the parliament. 

“Any government that comes from the March 4 vote will have to be some kind of coalition,” said Lorenzo De Sio, a political scientist with Rome’s LUISS University. “Maybe Berlusconi and Salvini and some smaller parties will do well enough to get a majority. Or it could be a wide coalition with backers of Berlusconi and Renzi. Or the Five-Star Movement could do surprisingly well, and strike a deal to get a majority.

“Or we could have a stalemate,” he said. “It’s anybody’s guess where that would lead.”

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

France implements new plan to combat Islamic radicalization

Courtesy of French President Emmanuel MacronPARIS, France – The French government is launching tough new measures to tackle radicalization among Muslims in schools and prisons as well as jihadists returning from Middle Eastern regions where the Islamic State once held sway.

The measures are the third package of steps to crack down on would-be terrorists in the last four years, a period when militants killed 240 people in a series of deadly attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere.

“The new plan is much better because it addresses prevention,” said Nathalie Goulet, a senator with the Centrist Union center-right parliamentary group. “Previous measures mostly focused on criminal regulation, which didn’t solve the problem.”

Without providing details on costs, the government will invest in training teachers to detect the early signs of radicalization among students and debunk conspiracy theories and fake news spread through social media, said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe in Lille in northern France when he announced the new policies on February 23.

"No one has a magic formula for de-radicalization' like you might de-install dangerous software," said. "But in France and elsewhere there are good approaches to prevention and disengagement."

Conspiracies and false information are especially causing concern France's current centrist government.

As many as 30 percent of French people between the ages of 18 and 24 don’t believe that Islamist terrorists were responsible for the attack against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 in Paris, according a study published in January by the Fondation Jean-Jaurès and Conspiracy Watch. Twelve magazine staffers died in the attack.

The new measures will also introduce tighter regulations for private and religious schools – including Islamic schools – whose number has grown rapidly in the last few years.

“While the state has to guarantee to parents the freedom to choose their children’s education, it is absolutely essential that we understand that certain private schools, where there is literally very little control, have caused great damage by teaching an ideology that is in total contradiction with the values of the French Republic,” said Simone Rodan Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee in France. “Once these kids are ‘radicalized’ it is very difficult to reverse the damage.”

Though traditionally a Catholic country, France is a secular republic where citizens are theoretically equal before the law regardless of their origin, race or religion. An estimated 5.7 million Muslims, or around 8.8 percent of the population, live in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

For the first time, the government is also taking new steps to reform prisons that have become hotbeds of Islamist radicalization. Radicalized inmates were previously dispersed among other prisoners. Now they will be housed in separate, sealed-off areas to prevent the exchange of radical ideas.

French prisons currently hold 512 people charged with acts of terrorism as well as over 1,100 inmates who have been identified as radicalized.

Cherif Kouachi, one of the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo, and Ahmed Coulibaly, who killed four people at a Jewish supermarket four days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, were radicalized in the French prison system.

Inspired by similar initiatives in Denmark, French officials are also setting up three centers to screen jihadists and help reintegrate other French citizens who are coming back from ex-war zones in Syria and Iraq.

In addition, further investments are being slated for the psychological care of former fighters’ children. According to government data, 68 children, most below the age of 13, have returned from former Islamic State-controlled areas. Another 500 are estimated to be still in the Middle East.

The latest measures mark a U-turn from previous security plans, which critics said lacked comprehensive strategies and failed to deal with the causes of radicalization.

The country’s first and only de-radicalization center was shut down in 2017 after less than a year because it failed to attract volunteer participants. The center cost around $3 million.

Another de-radicalization program that had been outsourced to a non-governmental organization ended in failure when the group’s former president received a suspended sentence for embezzlement of public funds.

The renewed anti-radicalization drive comes as President Emmanuel Macron has proposed hardening France’s immigration and asylum system.

Macron’s legislation, which lawmakers will debate in the spring, aims to speed up the process for asylum requests, double to 90 days the time a person without papers can be kept in holding centers and criminalize illegal border crossings.

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

German court allows cities to ban diesel-fueled cars

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_gavel.jpegBERLIN – A high German court pounded another nail in the coffin for diesel vehicles Tuesday, in a case that is likely to see older and dirtier cars banned from certain city centers in Europe's biggest carmaker, and maybe eventually across the continent.

The case pitted an environment group against the automotive hubs of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf: lower courts ruled that these cities have to take quick action to clean up their air to meet EU standards – including banning certain cars – and the Federal Administrative Court dismissed the case, tacitly agreeing.

The ruling delivers a blow to Germany's beleaguered auto industry, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which has continued to implement diesel-friendly measures, despite emissions scandals that have rocked auto-giants Volkswagen, Mercedes and others in recent years.

"Politicians have caused the problem," said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor with the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. "We have bad laws, and these laws allowed vehicles to be brought into market that are catastrophic for the environment."

In Europe, diesel fuel has been branded for the past three decades as a cleaner and cheaper alternative to gasoline, largely due to the fact that diesel vehicles are more fuel-efficient and emit less carbon dioxide than gasoline counterparts.

As a result, for many years, European governments created massive tax incentives for purchasing diesel vehicles. Last year, 41 percent of all new passenger cars registered in the European Union were diesel, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Such policies, however, didn't take into account that diesel vehicles spew out more particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere than traditional gasoline engines, toxins directly related to serious health issues.

The issue blew up after German auto manufacturers installed so-called defeat devises in their vehicles that shut off during road tests, allowing for vehicles that didn't comply with emissions standards to still enter the market.

They got caught.

Germany auto giant Volkswagen was fined more than $20 billion in the US after the defeat devices were discovered in 2015. The discovery set off an uproar in Germany and across Europe.

However, in Germany, more than half of the country's trade surplus and one in five jobs are linked to the auto industry, and government officials avoided the issue, stalled and later took half measures, say analysts.

Still, the debate raged, especially after new evidence came to light last summer that German automakers had worked together to collectively influence the market – Chancellor Merkel's government reached a deal with the industry to only update emissions software in 5 million affected vehicles to avoid the need for driving bans and decrease emissions. The automakers managed to avoid the costly hardware upgrades needed, say environmentalists.

German courts, however, have deemed that such measures don't go far enough.

With the bans now deemed legal in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf – which would likely apply to all diesel vehicles made before 2015 by September 2019 – bans in other German cities are bound to follow, said Remo Klinger, an attorney representing German environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), the plaintiff in the case.

Meanwhile, DUH currently has 19 cases in litigation against German municipalities.

"All of our lawsuits have been made on the assumption that the fastest possible compliance with air-quality limits isn't possible without these driving bans," said Klinger, adding that the successful case has now set precedent.

The German automotive industry, meanwhile, says the bans are not necessary.

The industry's free software updates for the newest models of diesels, "along with environmental premiums and municipal initiatives, which the automotive industry as a whole has already begun to implement, will rapidly and significantly improve air-quality in cities," said Matthias Wissmann, president of Germany's Federal Association of the Automotive Industry.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel asked the public not to jump to conclusions about the future of their vehicles.

"On this day, it's important to keep in mind: This is about specific cities in which there's still a need for further discussion," she said shortly after the ruling. "This really isn't about all areas and all motorists in Germany."

But Dudenhöffer says that Merkel's government has falsely placated the auto industry for too long: Measures could have been taken years ago to do away with fuel subsidies for diesel, and use the money to reoutfit older, more pollutant-heavy models.

The result will be the implementation of the controversial bans and the end of the diesel market, he added.

"This decision isn't the beginning of the end for diesel," he said. "The point of no return was crossed long ago – (with) dieselgate in America."

Greg Archer, director of clean vehicles with think tank Transport & Environment in Brussels, said the diesel market in both Germany and Europe has been irreparably damaged – sales of diesels are rapidly declining in the United Kingdom and Germany, and are taking root in other European markets as well.

Today's decision is bound to echo across the continent, he adds.

"We know of cities across Europe that are now considering diesel bans that previously weren't," he said.

In the end, mishaps of industry and the government are a lose-lose for everyone – including consumers, he added.

"Drivers are going to be turned off to diesel by fears that they won't be able to drive those cars into cities in the future, residual values are going to be much less than they'd hoped for, and the industry is going to be faced with potentially enormous costs trying to clean up past mistakes."

A version of this story can be found in Washington Times.

New Polish law rids Poland of responsibility from Nazi war crimes

Polish President Andrzej Duda (Courtesy of President of the Republic Poland)WARSAW – Accusations of revisionist history rang in from around the world last week after Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a bill into law that would make attributing Nazi war crimes to Poland an offense punishable by up to three years in prison.

But many Polish citizens believe it's due time that the world adjust its rhetoric: They say no one should be allowed to refer to Nazi extermination camps housed in Poland during the nation's occupation by Germany during World War II as "Polish death camps," a term they feel muddies historical fact and tarnishes the nation's reputation.

"The phrase needs special regulations with criminal sanctions," said Mariusz Przadak, 38, a bar owner in Warsaw. "This law is in line with the ruling party's politics, but also pleases most Poles who want to hear what a great, wise and noble nation we were and still are."

Poland's ruling rightwing Law and Justice Party vowed to create special regulations over speech that associates Poland with the horrors of the Holocaust when it most recently came to power in 2015. But it had delayed such a move until parliament approved a bill on the matter Jan. 26 – on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The international backlash that followed was swift, not least from Israel, which argued that the legislation glosses over Poles' role in the Holocaust, as well as the deep roots of anti-Semitism that still run through this largely homogenous, Catholic nation today.

But here in Poland, the move was greeted warmly by many who believe phrases like "Polish death camps" mislead people into thinking that Poles ran such notorious sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an estimated 1.1 million individuals perished during the war more than seven decades ago.

"In my opinion, the regulation should have been made 30 years ago," said Tomasz Jarosz, 44, the owner of a private IT firm in Warsaw. "It defends historical truth."

Still, despite the backing of the government, a recent poll indicated 32 percent of Poles hold negative opinions of the legislation, as compared to 40 percent who support it.

That’s because the nuanced debate surrounding the legislation is rooted in historical trauma, said Pawel Machcewicz, a professor of political history at the Institute for Political Studies in Warsaw.

"History matters a lot in Poland, and the Second World War was the most painful and tragic period for the Poles," he said. "Almost every family suffered from Nazi, Soviet or Ukrainian terror. So this is still a very vivid memory that's been passed down through generations."

After Jews, ethnic Poles were the Nazi's largest group of victims during the war, with Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) estimating that some 2.7 million were murdered by the Nazis as they expanded Germany's easternmost borders. The IPN also estimates that almost 3 million ethnically Polish Jews were killed during occupation.

Still, over the past two decades, Machcewicz said that information has resurfaced that's forced Poles to reevaluate their collective belief that they were purely victims of the war.

Beginning in the year 2000, the public began having difficult conversations about Poland's role in the Holocaust after an expose was published about the mass murder of Jews in the town of Jedwabne in 1941, in which some 40 townspeople, together with Nazi forces, locked the town's Jewish population in a barn and set it ablaze, murdering 340 people.

"But soon it was discovered that there were many places like this," said Machcewicz. "It was confronting the most painful and, to a great extent, unexpected issues of our history."

The Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw estimates that as many as 200,000 Jews died at the hands of Poles, or because Poles outed them as Jewish to the Nazis, during the war.

Those revelations about such sensitive issues of Polish history triggered a defensive shift toward glorifying positive elements of Polish history, said Machcewicz – and opened the door for politicians to use it for their own benefit.

"This current situation in Poland, this sensitivity, is on the one hand something genuine, something grassroots, resulting from this very sensitive, emotional background," he said. "But on the other hand, it has been exploited and promoted politically by the Law and Justice Party."

The party has said that the law is meant to defend Polish history against slander, but many think the party – accused as recently as last summer of eroding democratic institutions such as the nation's judiciary – will use the new legislation to silence dissenters and gloss over history.

"I regard penalizing people who talk about Polish camps as harmful – not for Poland on the international stage, but for an honest dialog about historical interpretation in Poland," said Franciszek Plociennik, 29, who works at a museum in Warsaw. "I am afraid of other steps that may affect historical education by modifying history in order to glorify the Poles."

Members of the Law and Justice Party have already said that the law could be extended to such works as the expose about the pogrom in Jedwabne, said Machcewicz, a clear indication that this debate is no longer just about the phrase "Polish death camps."

"This isn't about the so-called "Polish death camps," he said. "This is much more broadly against this historical and public reflection which discusses these very painful parts of Polish history about how Poles dealt with the Jews during the war."

Supporters of the legislation don't deny those intentions.

"The amendment is a very important movement in the fight for preserving Poland's good reputation," said Lukasz Rynkowski, 30, of Warsaw. "What will decide if it works is whether they apply other, soft measures....Time will tell if this happens."

Davis reported from Berlin.

An alternative version of this story can be found here.

Angela Merkel struggles to form a coalition amidst an upsurge of German far-far politics

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130906aa002.jpegBERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats penned a coalition agreement with the nation's left-leaning Social Democrats last week after four months of political turmoil, but there's no reason for either camp to celebrate.

Both parties continue to sink in the polls, voters view the parties' policies as a dismissal of their needs and some within Merkel's own party are calling for new leadership.

Meanwhile, Germany's rightwing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) – the nation's third-largest political force – stands to benefit from the wreckage. Another four years of the same governing coalition in Berlin only bolsters the AfD's image as an oppositional tour de force – a phenomenon that will undoubtedly allow the AfD to make gains, analysts said.

"It's clear that the AfD will massively benefit from this constellation," said Alexander Häusler, a sociologist at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, whose research focuses on right-wing extremism and populism. "The tumbling down of this grand coalition is clearly grist to the mill for the AfD."

The writing's already on the wall, said Häusler: Both Merkel's conservative Christian bloc and the Social Democrats had their worst-ever showing in the postwar era in Sept. 24's federal election, winning only 33 and 20 percent of the vote, respectively.

Their support has continued to drop since then, with Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavaria-only sister party currently polling at 31 percent, and the Social Democrats at 17 percent, according to the latest figures from Germany's Forsa Institute.

Such numbers have already prompted leadership change within the Social Democrats' camp – the party's embattled chief, Martin Schulz, resigned this week amid criticism over his leadership. And some conservative Christian Democrats are now calling for the same, albeit still under the guidance of Merkel.

"The CDU is the party of families, the party of the social market economy, the party of Europe and the party of a dominant German culture," conservative Christian Democrat and party up-and-comer Jens Spahn said in a speech Wednesday, adding that the party leadership needed "new heads."

Meanwhile, the AfD – riding a wave of anti-elitist and anti-immigrant sentiment after 2015's refugee crisis brought over 1 million newcomers from Syria and elsewhere to Germany – entered parliament for the first time in September with almost 13 percent of the vote, making them the nation's third-largest party. Some figures now poll the party's support at 15 percent.

The Social Democrats at first rejected entering into a third union with Merkel, citing the abysmal election results as a referendum on the catch-all political constellation whose policies were seen as responsible for the AfD's rise: 1.57 million voters jumped camp from the two parties to the AfD during the Sept. 24 poll, according to figures from German public broadcaster ARD.

The Social Democrats were forced back to the negotiating table, however, after Merkel's attempt to piece together a four-party coalition without the Social Democrats fell flat, much to the chagrin of voters fatigued by the grand coalition, which governed for eight of Merkel's 12-year tenure.

"I've had enough of these elites," said Elisabeth Erdmann, 69, a retiree in Berlin who teaches German to refugees. "All they care about is power and what posts in the government they can get. They don't listen to the problems of normal people."

Chancellor Merkel managed to secure the Social Democrats' support to form a government last week by making concessions on immigration policy and social programs, agreeing to nominal reunification of refugee families on German soil and bolstered investments in subsidized housing and childcare.

But the move comes at a steep political price, analysts said.

"The CDU had to make a lot of concessions and compromises in this coalition agreement – it clearly bears the signature of the SPD," said Jürgen W. Falter, professor of political science at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. "And that almost certainly benefits the AfD, alone by that fact that the (CDU) had to give up certain core conservative values."

"The AfD will now try to fill this gap," he added.

The AfD has sought to do that by drafting strictly conservative laws on refugees and family values since entering parliament, all while remaining vehemently outspoken against Merkel and the grand coalition. 

"The AfD will be the strongest opposition party, representing alternatives to the political establishment in all policy areas," Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the AfD, told the Washington Times. "The AfD will emerge strengthened from the growing political chaos that the established parties have to answer for."

Analysts said there's very little chance that a renewed grand coalition won't come to pass, even though the agreement between the two parties won't be finalized until a majority of the Social Democrats' 460,000 party members approve the coalition in early March.

Meanwhile, if the AfD enters into government in some of Germany's powerful state legislatures – they're currently polling as high as 23 percent in some East German states, bastions of disenchantment with the status quo, some of which will hold elections next year – their emotional, anti-immigrant ideology could fall apart when put to the task of actually governing, analysts said.

"This continuation of the status-quo will only extend the amount of time that the AfD can play their cards as a protest party, but at some point in time they'll have to actually deliver," said Häusler.

In the meantime, the party will continue to benefit from the failures of the catch-all parties.

"The AfD is here to stay as long as long as valued conservative positions aren't occupied by the CDU," said Falter.

An alternative version of this story can be found here. 

Ten shaky years of independence not enough to lift spirits of Kosovo

Pristina, Kosovo - February 17, 2017 - School children march in downtown Pristina with Kosovo flags on the ninth anniversary of independence from Serbia. Kosovo is the newest nation in Europe and the second newest in the world after South Sudan. On February 17, 2018, Kosovo will mark its 10-year-anniversary as an independent nation. (Photo: Valerie Plesch)Rows of blue and yellow balloons the colors of Kosovo’s 10-year-old flag may festoon the main pedestrian drag in downtown Pristina this week marking the country's first decade.

Even so, many here say they are not in a festive mood to celebrate the country's hallmark anniversary Saturday, a day overshadowed by a grim political and economic outlook for the country, and always the past.

“It's a very important day for us – my parents dreamed of having their own state, we fought for this," said Hermonda Kalludra, 25, a graduate student currently in Pristina. "I feel quite emotional but I cannot say that we can celebrate…because there hasn't been that much progress.”

Kosovars are frustrated over flailing prospects to join the European Union and to become a United Nations member state – Kosovo’s independence has still not been recognized by its former master, Serbia, and its allies including Russia and China – and it seems more far off than ever.

At the same time, people here say they are becoming increasingly angry over isolation from the rest of Europe thanks to a strict visa regime that has lasted for years. Kosovars are the only nationality in the Balkans who cannot travel to the 26-nation visa-free Schengen zone in Europe, as well as most other countries around the world, visa-free, and the wait can be up to eight months for permission.

Some blame the succession of governments for not being more effective in combatting corruption, fulfilling the conditions set by the EU for visa liberalization, and improving the situation in Kosovo, especially the economy, health and education.

"People are not up for celebrating – it's not like Feb. 17, 2008 when everyone was in the streets,” said Agron Demi, a policy analyst at GAP Institute, a Pristina think tank. " One reason is the economic situation is not very good and another is corruption, which is very high. The small jails of Kosovo would not have enough space for all the corrupt people to be jailed."

"When talking about 10 years (of independence), usually I compare it to the hopes that we had and what we could have achieved if we had a proper government,” added Demi. “We could have created a much better economic situation or at least (the government) did not have to give (us) such big promises as they used to.”

The youth unemployment rate in Kosovo hovers around 60 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program, which also considers Kosovo’s weak economy as the greatest threat to long-term stability. The lack of employment opportunities was the biggest motivator for tens of thousands of Kosovars leaving home for the EU over the past five years.

“Ten years ago, we had happier times and now we started to be demoralized because there is no income – it’s a bad situation for the youth…they are graduating from (university) and (after), there are no jobs available for them,” said Lirie Shehu, 63, a retired tradeswoman in the capital. “I just feel sorry…they don’t have much opportunity here.”

The Kosovo government says it is working to improve the situation in this small Balkan nation.

“I agree that this is a long process, but we are at the beginning of it, and I believe the work done in the past 10 years is leading us to the right direction for the future,” said Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj in an email.

Various external factors have also hindered Kosovo’s progress, he added.

“It’s crucial for the peace and stability of the region that all Balkan countries become part of the EU, but we have to be careful of Serbia’s and Russia’s intentions, who use the region as a geo-strategic chessboard, which risks destabilization of the Western Balkans and its European (opportunities),” Hoxhaj said.

Meanwhile, the memories of the 1999-98 war overshadow this anniversary, especially for the older generation who lived under Serb occupation until NATO drove Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo after 78 days of airstrikes in 1999, ending the war.

Older Kosovars like Milazim Alshiqi remain thankful for American help in liberating Kosovo from Serbia, but he is not satisfied where Kosovo is today.

“We experience the 10th anniversary as a unique pleasure, for which we gave many lives for centuries – at the end, the possibility to liberate ourselves from our Serb enemy was given to us by America,” said a tearful Alshiqi, 62, a former telecom worker in Pristina. “Kosovo is way better than it used to be, but it is not as it should have been either.”

Around 4,000 NATO troops, including 685 American soldiers, still maintain peace and stability in the country as part of its longest peacekeeping operation in history – longer than Afghanistan. Still, ethnic tensions are on the rise, especially in the north where mainly Kosovo Serbs live, and where rule of law is mostly non-existent.

Meanwhile, former Kosovo liberation fighters are bracing for indictments over war crimes to be handed out in the coming weeks by prosecutors at The Hague through a war crimes court backed by the US and EU. Known as the Special Court, it's likely to target many who currently serve in the government.

The court is highly controversial and unpopular, and viewed as unfair and discriminatory. 

In December, in a surprise move that shocked the US and EU, lawmakers pushed to repeal the law authorizing the Special Court before backing down due to pressure from the US.

In spite of it all, Kalludra the student says she is still optimistic for her generation, and the country's future – even if she knows it will take a while.

“Now people are going abroad to study, so they are more open now, the society and mentality is more open," she said. "Pristina is also becoming a very European city. So I am hopeful in that sense that things are going to change. And we are the change."

An alternative version of this story can be found here

Far-right Reichsbürger refuses to acknowledge German borders and state

GEN121122AA001BERLIN – A new far-right force is growing in Germany.

The Reichsbürger – or “citizens of the Reich” – is a cluster of German and Austrian fringe movements that refuse to recognize German governments and borders after 1937, when Adolf Hitler secured territories that Germany had lost in World War I.

Many insist the country should revert to its borders in 1871, when Kaiser William I declared the first German Empire after defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War. They also believe American, British and other military bases in the country today represent an occupation force that has turned German leaders into puppets. Some support reinstating the German and Austrian monarchies.

“People remembered that their grandfathers had fought in a war, and there was no peace treaty, so the current boundaries are therefore invalid,” said Dirk Wilking of the Demos Brandenburg Institute for Local Community, a think tank that aims to promote democracy. “They believe there can only be a state when there is a contract.”

Wilking referred to the technical absence of a peace treaty between Nazi Germany and the Allies after World War II, when the Germany was partitioned into a communist East Germany and capitalist Federal Republic of Germany. The latter absorbed the former in 1990.

Reichsbürgers mainly present an administrative headache for government officials because – like American conspiracy theorists such as Sovereign Citizens, who insist the federal income tax is illegal or the United States government illegally seized land in the West – they refuse to pay taxes and parking tickets and create their own passports and driver’s licenses.

They often fight parking tickets with 25-page arguments that slow down government bureaucracies.

“The greatest goal of these groups is to delegitimize the state, so they ignore all administrative dictates,” Wilking said. “Dealing with them requires a lot of manpower. A parking ticket process will take two to three years when dealing with them.  At the end they still have to pay, but it is an incredible process.”

But Reichsbürgers can also be deadly when armed.

The German political magazine Focus recently reported that Reichsbürger membership has grown by more than 50 percent, reaching 15,600 members over the last year. The growth appears to be part of an effort to build an army for the eventual reclaiming of German independence. More than 1,000 members own one or more weapons permits, according to Focus.

“They are preparing for Day X,” the magazine wrote.

One of the Reichsbürger groups, the Free Sate of Prussia denied the Focus report, calling it propaganda. “We do not see the need to amass weapons or to create an army,” the group said in a press release. “These actions could invite a terrorist or civil war against us by the Federal Republic of Germany.”

Wilking was skeptical that the groups had the wherewithal to mount a coup. He believed conflict was in the offing, however.

“They do not cooperate well, because they believe strongly in individualism,” Wilking said. “But they enter these organizations with their entire identity. It is not like a sports club you can join and leave. There comes a time when they have to pay a price for not filing their taxes and abiding by Germany’s laws.”

The German government has said they are responsible for approximately 13,000 crimes, most of them minor. But the group’s ideology has led to property seizures that have turned volatile. Last year, a Reichsbürger killed a policeman in a shootout in Bavaria when authorities came to evict him and seize his home.

“The police killing was not about the Reichsbürger ideology, but it had to do with the person himself,” said Wilking. “He was a martial arts fighter and in security, but his girlfriend was in the police so he knew that they were going to come and take his house. To prepare, he bought weapons and protective vests and caused a shootout.”

The man was sentenced to life in prison. After his conviction, his defense attorney said the prosecution was politically motivated.

Authorities now fear a rise in armed Reichsbürgers launching lone-wolf attacks, said Wilking.

“Most of the weapons they are buying aren’t illegal,” he said. “They are usually registered guns obtained as part of shooting clubs or for hunting purposes. But what makes it dangerous is that these groups are highly individualistic and do not recognize German authorities.”

Owing to their disregard for the government, Reichsbürgers rarely ally themselves with political parties, but they have loose ties to the far-right Alternative for Germany, a political party that won sufficient votes in September to become the first far-right party in the Bundestag since World War II.

Reichsbürgers have also collaborated with Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, a group that arose in protest of Middle Eastern and other refugees who fled to Europe in recent year to escape war and poverty at home.

Like PEGIDA supporters, Reichsbürgers claim they are not racist. But they certainly appear xenophobic.

“The party line is that they love all Africans as long as they are in Africa,” Wilking said. “They are not far right extremists, but they are politically extreme. If you ask them who is German and who belongs in Germany, they have a lot of the same answers as Hitler.”

Another version of this story can be found here. 

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