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. 

Voter apathy and boycotts dampen Putin's chances for a landslide victory

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_RUS130621aa001.jpegMOSCOW--It’s election season in Russia and there are two dangers for Vladimir Putin as he seeks to extend his long rule for another six years. Neither of them, however, are a rival candidate.

The first is apathy. While there is almost no doubt that Mr. Putin will triumph at the March 18 presidential elections, the Kremlin is desperate for a high turnout to boost the Russian strongman’s claim to represent the vast majority of Russians.

After almost two decades years in power, Mr. Putin enjoys total command over state media, while the Kremlin controls the all-important election committee, which counts the votes and decides who gets on the ballot. Indeed, Mr. Putin is so certain of victory that he has not campaigned, or even published an election program. The predictability of the election result has resulted in widespread indifference toward next month’s vote.

“Why should I bother voting? Everything has been decided in advance. My vote won’t change anything,” Daria Orlova, a 22-year-old university student, told The Washington Times.

Candidates likely to be registered for the election include Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party nominee, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist, and Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal journalist and former model whose father was close to Mr. Putin. None of them are expected to receive more than 10 percent of the vote.

The second threat to Mr. Putin’s legitimacy is a boycott of the vote that has been called for by Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic, to protest what he says are rigged elections. Mr. Navalny, a 41-year-old anti-corruption lawyer with a massive social media following, is barred from the elections over a fraud conviction that he says was trumped up to stop him challenging Mr. Putin. He spent much of last year on the campaign trail in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to force his way onto the ballot.

“What they are offering us can’t be called elections. Only Putin and the candidates he has personally selected, those who don’t represent even the smallest threat to him, are taking part. To go to the polling station now is to vote for lies and corruption,” Mr. Navalny said in a recent online address to his supporters.

All of which poses a problem for government officials, who are reported by Russian media to have been ordered by the Kremlin to ensure Mr. Putin wins the election with at least 70 percent of the vote with a 70 percent turnout.

That could be a tall order.

An opinion poll released in November by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Centre pollster indicated that just 28 percent of Russians definitely intend to cast their vote at the March elections, while another 30 percent said they would “probably” do so. It said around 60 percent of those Russians who are likely to vote plan to back Mr. Putin. Some analysts estimates say the overall turnout could be as low as 45 percent.

In contrast, VTsIOM, the state-backed pollster, said this week that over 80 percent of Russians were likely to cast their ballots, with more than two-thirds of them planning to vote for Mr. Putin. Opposition figures are skeptical about VTsIOM’s objectivity, however: Last year, the pollster’s head, Valery Fyodorov, described those Russians who criticize Mr. Putin as “scum.”

 “The Kremlin is planning to base the legitimacy of Putin’s new six-year term on a high turnout,” said Leonid Volkov, Mr. Navalny's chief of staff. “The reality is that due to a crackdown on the political field, no one find the elections interesting. Of course, we don’t believe the VTsIOM poll.”

One of the most original of the Kremlin’s initiatives to get the vote out is a “Photo at the Polls” competition, which will see iPhones and iPads awarded for the best ballot box selfie. The unusual move is part of a plan by the presidential administration to create a “holiday-like atmosphere” on voting day, Russia’s RBC media outlet reported, citing a leaked Kremlin document. Famous sportspeople, comedians, actors and bloggers will help promote the competition.

Other polling station attractions are likely to include family games such as guess-the-word, soccer skills tests, and non-binding referendums on issues of interest to schoolchildren and their parents. Government employees are also reported to be coming under pressure to vote.

Critics say the schemes to attract voters echo the tactics used by the Soviet authorities to ensure a high turnout at single-party elections, when usually scarce supplies of meat and vegetables were put on sale at polling stations. The elections are also being advertised on everything from billboards to milk cartons.

Outrage over vote-rigging at parliamentary elections sparked massive protests in Moscow in 2011 that continued up until Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012. The authorities, wary of a repeat of that unrest, have made it much harder for independent vote monitors to gain access to polling stations during March’s elections.

“It’s going to be tougher to monitor the vote this time, but we’ll give it our best,” said Mr. Volkov.

Two of Navalny’s supporters were handed brief jail sentences last week on charges of urging people to attend unsanctioned opposition rallies in support of a vote boycott. Ruslan Shaveddinov and Kira Yarmysh had travelled abroad to carry out a live online broadcast of nationwide protests on Feb. 28 and were detained by police when they returned to Moscow.

On Monday, Mr. Navalny’s problems mounted when he was summoned for questioning by investigators over allegations that he hit a police officer during the Feb. 28 protest in Moscow.

Anti-Semitism is still alive in Germany as Jews face 'disturbing' discrimination


BERLIN — When telecommunications manager Mikhail Tanaev emigrated to Germany in 1998 from his native Russia as a teen, his Jewish faith didn't matter to classmates or neighbors.

That's because Germany has taken extraordinary steps since the end of World War II to atone for the Holocaust and prevent anti-Semitism from taking hold again. The country has paid reparations to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, erected dozens of memorials to those murdered and turned anti-Semitic speech into a crime. 

Read more at USA Today

Trump retweets shine spotlight on fringe British far-right figure

    LONDON — Jayda Fransen couldn’t be more pleased with her newfound fame. “I’m delighted that the leader of the Free World has taken the time to retweet three of my tweets in support of me,” she told The Washington Times.

Few Britons knew much about the 31-year-old deputy leader of Britain First, an anti-Islam, anti-immigration and ultranationalist group with an estimated 1,000 members, before President Trump on Wednesday posted three anti-Muslim videos that originally appeared on Ms. Fransen’s Twitter feed.   

Read more at The Washington Times

In France, there is no minimum age of consent for sex — that may change soon

    PARIS — As a campaign to crack down on sexual harassment intensifies, France is considering doing something long ago adopted in other Western nations: setting a minimum age of consent for having sex.

In recent court cases, judges refused to prosecute men for having sex with minor children because there was no proof of coercion.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Uber-like app for motorcycles eases traffic woes in one of world's most congested cities

    ISTANBUL — The narrow waterway separating the European and Asian sides of this metropolis has inspired classical myths and frustrated invading armies for centuries.

But today drivers traveling over the three bridges spanning the picturesque Bosporus are more likely to experience road rage than nostalgia in a city known as one of the world's most congested for traffic.  

Read more at USA Today

The Dutch learn to welcome refugee students

    THE HAGUE, Netherlands–When Wassim Mahmoud needs help navigating student life in Amsterdam, he turns to Rosa Rietkerk, a Dutch political-science student.

Mahmoud, a 29-year-old Palestinian from Syria, and Rietkerk, 20, met through the Foundation for Refugee Students (known by its Dutch acronym, UAF), a charity that supports refugees in higher education.

Read more at Al Fanar

French women go after sexual abusers with 'out your pig' campaign

    PARIS — In the wake of a growing scandal over sexual harassment in the United States, women in France have increased their complaints about sexual abuse to police, on social media, in street protests and through petitions.

The French Interior Ministry said it has seen a spike in women reporting rape, sexual assault and harassment by almost a third in October compared to October 2016.  

Read more at USA Today

Germany's political crisis: What's next for Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful nation

    BERLIN — The breakdown of talks to form a government in Germany — Europe's most powerful nation — means that the continent's pillar of economic and political stability is not so stable at the moment.

Chancellor Angela Merkel faced the biggest setback during her 12-year tenure Monday when the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) walked out of talks aimed at forming a governing coalition.    

Read more at USA Today

Merkel’s failure to form German government puts chancellorship in serious doubt

    BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a government fell apart Monday, throwing Europe’s largest economy into a political tailspin and throwing into serious doubt the future of this generation’s most dominant European politician.

Long an anchor of stability in EU affairs, Germany may soon require more national elections just months after the latest vote, as Ms. Merkel’s hopes of cobbling together a new governing coalition collapsed.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Germany Sees Mixed Results in Refugee Education

BERLIN, Germany—Two years after Syrians started coming to Germany by the hundreds of thousands, the nation has had decidedly mixed results in integrating the new arrivals into its educational system. Older children are often shut out of learning anything other than German language and culture during their first year, though younger children who quickly learn the language can join their German peers in the classroom. 

Part of the problem, experts say, stems from the decentralized, ad hoc approach to refugee education in Germany.

Read more at Al Fanar

Italians in shock, tears after stunning loss knocks national soccer team out of World Cup

    ROME — Italians reacted with shock, grief, illness and tears Tuesday, a day after the unthinkable occurred: a loss by the national soccer team that knocked Italy out of the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.

“It feels like the pope died,” lamented Sandro Lucchesi, 68, a retired bank clerk who was just 8 the only other time Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup. “Usually, everyone loves to talk about soccer, whether it’s to complain or brag. But this time, all my friends are just hanging their heads.”   

Read more at USA Today

Berlusconi returns to Italian politics — this time as likely kingmaker

    ROME — Bunga bunga is back. Silvio Berlusconi may be best known around the world for his “bunga bunga” sex parties and convictions for corruption that have regularly undermined a career unlike any other in postwar Italian politics.

The last time he held political office, he was forced to resign with the country on the brink of bankruptcy, and, because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction, he is legally barred from running for office again until 2019. He’s clearly not getting the message.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Former Russian ‘it girl’ launches unlikely presidential campaign against Putin

    MOSCOW — Presidential election campaigns here are normally dry, dull and entirely predictable affairs that end with another resounding victory for Vladimir Putin over a handful of hapless, Kremlin-approved “opponents.” Ksenia Sobchak, a onetime Playboy pinup and reality TV star turned government critic, is out to change all that.

Ms. Sobchak, 36, dubbed the “Russian Paris Hilton,” has shaken up Russia’s staid political scene with an unexpected bid for next year’s presidential elections, when Mr. Putin is widely expected to seek another term in office that would keep him in power until 2024.  

Read more at The Washington Times

The man who drove Malcolm X around and introduced him to Fidel Castro

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_CAS171717aa001.jpegOne September evening in 1960 during a United Nations’ summit in New York City, Cuban leader Fidel Castro moved his delegation into Harlem’s historic Hotel Theresa to stay among African Americans: He felt they would welcome him.

That same evening, Luqman Abdul Hakeem drove to the hotel – up Lenox Avenue in his Volkswagen, with Malcolm X at his side. The Cuban flag hung over the building, where crowds of anti and pro-Castro protesters had gathered.


Germans still soul-searching on 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130402AA1.jpegBERLIN — The world’s 900 million-plus Protestants are preparing to commemorate a major milestone next week: the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the failings of the Catholic Church.

But in Germany, the land of Luther’s birth, the country where his rebellion took root, and a place where divisions over the onetime Augustinian monk’s legacy linger to this day, the quincentennial commemoration has taken on a more complicated significance.  

Read more at The Washington Times

German far-right party finds a rocky road after electoral success

BERLIN — When the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, placed a best-ever third in Germany’s Sept. 24 general election with 12.6 percent of the vote, supporters celebrated how their populist, anti-Islamic rhetoric rang true for many German voters.

But only 24 hours after the AfD’s historic win, the first right-wing party to enter the lower house of the German parliament since the 1950s already seemed headed for disaster.

Read more at The Washington Times

Londoners just got another reason to hate tourists

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_UK171717aa006.jpegLONDON — Commuters on the crowded London Underground are accustomed to the "mind the gap" warnings from overhead speakers as trains pull into station platforms, but they recently got a glimpse of another change that infuriated many.

The world's oldest subway system unveiled a trial last month to help tourists deal with the congested system: green-painted markings at King's Cross station, a major stop, to show where the doors open.

Read more at USA Today

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