The saga of Hatice Molla Sali: Sharia law and the Greek legal system

GREShariaATHENS, Greece – Hatice Molla Sali will discover on Wednesday, December 19 whether or not she will live in poverty in her twilight years. That’s when the European Court of Human Rights will render judgement on the 68-year-old Muslim’s case against an Islamic court in Greece that deprived her inheritance from her late husband under Sharia law.

Sali’s plight stems from a treaty Greece signed with the newly established Turkish republic in 1922. Under that agreement, the two countries agreed to respect the legal systems of their respective religions of their largest minorities – Muslims in Greece and Orthodox Christians in Turkey.

Ironically, Turkey banned Sharia law in 1923. But Greece honored the treaty, making it the only country in Europe that recognizes Sharia today. Early this year, the Greek government gave Muslim citizens an option about whether to appeal to Sharia or Greek public courts. But many of Greece’s 100,000 Muslims, mostly ethnic Turks concentrated along the Turkish border, still turn to Islamic religious judges in legal disputes.

The woman’s case highlights a peculiar legal dilemma in the cradle of Western Civilization, said Sali’s attorney, Yannis Ktistakis, who also teaches international law at the Democritus University of Thrace. “Two parallel systems can’t exist,” he said. “Only the civil code can exist, because Sharia is from its foundations opposite to European law.”

Sali’s troubles started in 2008 when Sali’s sisters-in-law disputed her right to inherit her husband's properties, including shops and apartments in Thrace and Istanbul and proceeds from successful textile business, even though she could produce his notarized last will and testament stipulating that she would be his sole heiress.

The sisters-in-law took the case to a Greek civil court, arguing that as Muslims they had the right to seek recourse with a mufti, an Islamic judge, under Sharia law. Greek lower courts decided in favor of Sali, but the country’s Supreme Administrative Court finally ruled against her, citing the 1922 treaty. A mufti then ruled that Sali should only receive one fourth of her inheritance under Sharia law while her sisters-in-law received the rest.

"Her husband decided the way he wanted his inheritance to be passed on," Ktistakis said. "The Greek court should have respected his desire."

Some Muslims in Greece oppose Sharia law, saying it doesn’t reflect human rights that Europeans are entitled to enjoy.

For parliamentarian Mustafa Mustafa, a member of the left-leaning governing party Syriza, the fight against Sharia is personal.

When Mustafa's father, Memet Mustafa, died, Memet wasn't entitled to his parents' inheritance because they had passed away when he was a minor. Instead, it should have gone to his uncles and aunts.

But, Memet's legal guardian, his great grandfather – his grandparents had also already died – made arrangements to make sure he inherited his family’s wealth.

“My great-grandfather was a wise man,” said Mustafa. “He took my father, who was still a boy, and transferred to him his part of the family property. I feel like I’m honoring my family by fighting to abolish sharia.”

Under the new law enacted this year, if one of the two Muslims in a Sharia law case prefers a civil court, then the case shall be tried in a civil court. But Mustafa still isn’t content.

“The progressive members of the minority want the definitive abolition of Saria,” he said. “The state should have solved this problem decades ago. Nevertheless, we believe our small society will solve this problem on its own.”

For decades, Greek politicians upheld the treaty with Turkey to placate Muslim leaders who promise them votes. That also suited the goals of Greek nationalists.

“For a long time, it was in the interests of the Greek government to maintain sharia for the Turkish-speaking minority because it emphasized their religious identity more than their ethnic and linguistic [Turkish] identity,” said Yuksel Sezgin, director of the Middle Eastern Studies
Program at the Syracuse University, who’s studied Sharia law in Greece and around the world.

Even if the European Court ruled in Sali’s favor, Sezgin didn’t think the Greek government should dispense with altogether with Sharia law, which is applied relatively moderately. Instead, he thought officials should discuss reforms with the Muslim community and codify Sharia law in Greece. Currently, he added, the laws aren’t written down.

The Greek government should also put Muslim judges on Greek civil courts in regions where Muslims appear before the bench regularly.

“Even in Israel there are Muslim civil judges, while India has 7 percent Muslim judges,” he said.

But simply abolishing Sharia law will probably spark a backlash, he added.

“I’m not trying to defend Sharia, but if you abolish it unilaterally it will only radicalize certain elements in the region,” Sezign said. “And although the community is so well integrated and there’s not one single case of a person going from Greece to Syria to join ISIS, under the current populist regimes, and without knowing how Erdogan might react to it, it will be like setting off a time bomb.”

Photo: Screenshot of Meco Cemali, Mufti of Komotini, Greece during an interview with Deutsche Welle for the program "Focus on Europe." Cemali said "It's important to me that Europe knows Muslims enjoy religious freedom in Greece. We don't observe the complete Sharia, only a part of the family law. We've never chopped a thief's head, or hand, off here."
Credit: Courtesy of Deutsche Welle (06/07/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/18/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Jerusalem casts shadow on Africa's Arab neighbors

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ISR251118002AG.jpegCAIRO – Israel is moving quickly to fill a security vacuum in Africa as the United States reassigns forces from terror-plagued Africa to allies on the frontiers of China and Russia.

The latest example of the shift came on November 25 when Chadian President Idriss Deby visited Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Israeli eagerness to join the fierce wars against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Africa.

“Chad is a very important country,” Netanyahu told Deby in his welcoming remarks. “It's an important country in Africa. It's an important country for Israel.”

Using Israeli technology and aid to address Chad’s security and economic development challenges were among the issues discussed by the two leaders. Chad’s army reportedly is already using Israeli satellites to eavesdrop on terror groups operating in the north of the country.

Reports have also said that Chad has purchased armored equipment from Israel, though neither Deby nor Netanyahu responded to questions about those arms sales.

The expected collaboration came after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced a 10 percent cut in troop strength for the U.S. Africa Command, saying "great-power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

Chad, like its neighbors the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Niger consistently ranks near the bottom –186 out of 189 –in the United Nations’ yearly Human Development Index of countries’ health, education and income.

Those conditions make the continent ripe for a jihadism, said African leaders who cite the rise of the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram as a sign of the ideology’s appeal. Last year, Chad joined the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, a coalition of impoverished African countries.

Israel is not a formal member of the coalition because it includes Arab League nations such as Iraq, Tunisia and Lebanon. They don’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state.

Chad severed ties with Tel Aviv in 1972 when the the Organization of African Unity urged its 53-member states to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to reclaim lost lands.

But Deby opted to come to Jerusalem anyway, saying Africa needed to forget anti-colonial rhetoric and focus on counter-terrorism efforts. “We have a shared struggle, against the sickening evil of this century, which is terrorism," said Deby at the Jerusalem press conference.
Washington may appreciate Israel’s assistance in counter terrorism training and technology in Africa.

But Arab leaders are concerned. They see Israel’s involvement in the region as an encroachment that might incite Muslim hate.

“Cooperation between Chad and Israel gives a strong pretext for extremist Islamic groups to align with the Chadian rebels to expand in Africa,” said Aadelsatar Hetieta, an Egyptian author who writes about regional conflicts like Libya and Yemen. “Israel's presence will give al-Qaeda justification and encourage further action and deployment in the countries of the continent.”

The issue especially impacts the messy security situation in Libya, said experts.

Tribal leaders in the south Libyan desert bordering Chad believe President Deby is preparing to enlist Israel in exploiting natural resources in disputed border areas where nomadic groups are involved in smuggling arms and illegal migrants.

“It is a rough terrain,” said Easa Abdelmegeed leader of the Tabu Congress, a council of non-Arab tribes concentrated in southern Libya with branches in both Chad and Niger. “But Israeli companies are seeking gold and uranium exploration in northern Chad. It’s likely Israel will be asked to help Chad’s army move out terror groups in the area and the fear here is that these elements could end up in Libya.”

Jalel Harchaoui, a geopolitics lecturer at the Université de Versailles near Paris, believed Chad’s openness to Israel came after Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia pressed Deby to cut ties with Qatar. With the US pulling back from the region, unstable Chad needed a new patron who could provide military assistance.

“France supports Chad, but that assistance is not going to grow much and, meanwhile, the U.S. military are interested in withdrawing. When you look at all those trends taken together, Chad is seeking — perhaps even begging for — new regional sponsorships,” Harchaoui said.

Chad closed its border with Libya in January in the hope of barring the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and anti-Deby militants from entering. That effort failed to stop the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic from attacking the mining town of Kouri Bougoudi in August.

“Chad is under pressure—economically, ecologically and security-wise,” said Harchaoui. “This year, a Chadian rebel group based in Libya carried out the first significant cross-border attack against Idriss Deby’s government since 2009.”

But in the capital N'Djamena, Deby’s new ally, Netanyahu, is not universally embraced.

"Chad should only resume ties with Israel after it stops its aggression against the Palestinians and end its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, especially the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem," said Mahamat-Ahmad Alhabo, leader of the opposition Freedom and Development Party, a group that has criticized Deby for human rights abuses.

In its latest report from Chad, the rights monitoring group Amnesty International called out Chadian authorities for banning peaceful assemblies and arresting activists and journalists.

“Israel is only looking after its own interests and intends to use Chad as a Trojan horse through to use as a forward base to establish ties with other African nations," Alhabo said Wednesday even as officials in neighboring Sudan denied reports by the Israeli Channel 10 claiming Jerusalem officials had secretly met with Khartoum’s top intelligence officers in Istanbul, Turkey in an effort to establish ties.

“This information is false and fabricated,” said Sudan’s Information Minister Bushara Gomaa. “We have deep and ongoing political, ideological and religious disputes with Israel.”

Outside observers tend to downplay Arab denials and objections about the growing Israeli diplomatic and security footprint in Africa.

“The United States is reducing its presence in Africa, Gadhafi is dead, and Libya is no longer an influencer in African projects nor politics,” said Frank Corsini, a global energy entrepreneur who served as an economist in the Ford White House. “I can only opine that Israel as the U.S. proxy is better than no one taking charge.”

Photo: Nov. 25, 2018 - Jerusalem, Israel - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the president of Chad, Idriss Deby. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chad President Deby met over dinner together with their entourages. Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the start of their meeting: "President Déby and I had the opportunity to discuss the relations between our two countries and the way we can cooperate for the benefit of our peoples and for peace and for security. And I'm delighted that my wife Sara and I can welcome you to our home and your delegation. We will continue our discussions and I think they are going to be very fruitful. I think the historic visit of President Déby to Israel marks a new era, a new era for security, for cooperation and for peace. I welcome you in this spirit to our home here in Jerusalem. Welcome."
Credit: Courtesy of Amos Ben-Gershom/ Government Press Office (11/25/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/12/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Macron waves white flag to "yellow vests" in a blow to the climate change movement

MacronScreenshotPARIS, France – French President Emmanuel Macron is caving to the demands of protesters who have shut down much of the country, offering wage hikes and tax cuts starting next year in what is also a retreat from his greater plan to reform the French economy.

Addressing the nation on television, Macron called the protesters’ grievances "deep, and in many ways legitimate" and asked businesses to help quell their anger.

"I would ask all employers who can, pay an end-of-year bonus to their employees," he said.

Macron’s move reflects the tense atmosphere after four consecutive weekends of violent protests throughout France that called to memory the unrest of 1968, when youths clashed with authorities.

He had already agreed not to levy a planned tax on gasoline – designed to curb carbon emissions – that sparked anger among French citizens who said it symbolized the president’s aloof approach the economy. A former banker, Macron has pursued pro-business policies that critics have said neglected ordinary people.

Analysts weren't sure his concessions would be enough.

"Macron has made some convincing gestures," said Bruno Cautrès, a political science researcher at Sciences Po University. "He spoke in a simple, modest, and less arrogant tone than we've seen. But I'm not sure it was convincing enough to change the hearts and minds of the French people."

The president’s popularity has plummeted last month to a dismal 26 percent, a remarkable decline for an outsider politician who defeated mainstream parties with the hopeful promise of outside-the-box thinking at the highest levels of power.

The Gilet Jaunes – or Yellow Jackets after the gear drivers are required to keep in their cars by law – first hit the streets in mid-November in anger over Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce carbon emissions.

But the demonstrations have become a general expression of discontent over living conditions in France, and Macron’s pro-business policies, which have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations but have yet to restrain rising living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people. Specifically, many of the protestors want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts.

The movement has no official leadership and is organized via social media. On the streets, it's comprised of young and old, urbanites and folks from the countryside. More notably, it is seemingly non-partisan.

Meanwhile, support for the movement is high: Polls suggest around three-quarters of the population supports the movement, though many people disagreed with the violence.

“I’m not against the cause, but I am completely against the way it has been carried out,” said Arnaud Dumas, 28, who works for a communications consultancy on Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris.

The Interior Ministry said 136,000 people participated in Saturday’s protests, similar to the previous week’s numbers. Police made four times the number of arrests – more than 1,700 compared to 400 the week before. Around 900 were in Paris.

Others believed the protestors known as the Gilet Jaunes were taking the necessary steps to be heard. Macron would have never slowed his reform programs if they hadn’t stood up to him, they said.

“The government did not listen to the people when there were peaceful protests,” said Christian Sourd, who owns a record shop in northeast Paris. “So clearly these tactics have worked.”

In his speech, Macron pledged to increase the minimum wage by around €110 ($125) a month, scrap taxes on overtime and stop a planned tax increase for low-income pensioners.
The concessions were significant.

But they might have been unavoidable given how the protesters had shut down the country.

The riots have undercut commerce, leading tourists to avoid downtown Paris and clogging highways and commuter train lines. French Finance Minister said the disruptions have lowered gross domestic product by 0.1 percent points. Business groups have said the country could lose a total of more than $11 million.

The losers of the 2017 election, the far left and the far right, have been trying to capitalize on the anger at the government. Far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and far right National Front chief Marine Le Pen, have been calling for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten the power of Macron’s political party, En Marche (Forward March).

Monday night’s address was the first time the French President had spoken in weeks.

Macron said he would spare “no indulgence” for protesters who had hurt people or damaged property. He also pledged to continue his policies of liberalizing the economy to make France more competitive.

"We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns," he said.

But he nonetheless appeared chastened.

“I know that I hurt some of you with my previous comments,” said Macron. “If I fought to shake up the political system, it’s because I believe in this country more than anything else.”
Photo: Screenshot from French President Emmanuel Macron's address to the nation regarding the "yellow vests" protests, on Monday December 10, 2018. He tweeted: "You will have your share in the national debate."
Credit: Courtesy of French President Emmanuel Macron's official Twitter page (12/10/18)

Story/photo publish date: 12/10/18
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Selling Brexit: Theresa May making last-ditch efforts to sell her proposed deal

TheresaMayBrexitLONDON—There are no stadiums full of placard-waving supporters for British Prime Minister Theresa May these days as she makes a last-ditch effort to sell her Brexit deal – instead, the beleaguered leader the has to make do with a much more lackluster welcome.

Case in point: In a leather factory near Glasgow Wednesday, workers carried on with their business in the background as Mrs. May conducted interviews on camera, more interested in finishing their shift than listening to the prime minister sell her vision of how the country will leave the European Union next year.

As Mrs. May continues her two-day road trip through the Celtic countries of the United Kingdom, starting at a winter fair in Wales, followed by a university in Northern Ireland and finishing up at a factory in Scotland, the many warring sides of the Brexit battle finally have something to agree on – they hate it.

She tried anyway.

Despite the government’s own economic forecasts, speaking to the factory workers in Scotland, the prime minister insisted the deal was a boon for the economy. “It’s a deal that is good for Scottish employers and will protect jobs,” she said.

But many are just not interested in hearing it.

“We’re in a bad place, the economic forecasts suggest we’re not going to be better off with this Brexit deal or any other,” said Thomas Hills, 29, a chemical engineer from North Yorkshire.

Analysts say that if Theresa May’s proposed divorce deal with the European Union goes through, “A lot of people will be left feeling angry, but then a lot of people will be left feeling angry whatever course is taken,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mrs. May’s whistle-stop tour was designed to whip up enthusiasm for her deal, which will be put to a vote in parliament on Dec. 11, but at best she has gained commiseration rather than outright support.

Brits in the town of Newry in Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU and sits near the frontier with the Republic of Ireland, told The Guardian of their sympathy for the prime minister even though they didn't like the deal.

“It means we’d still be governed by European law. And the backstop could extend to infinity and beyond. We’d be better off with no deal,” said Phil Wallace, 52, a scaffolding contractor in Northern Ireland who supports Brexit. “But I recognise she didn’t have an easy job.”

Some believe that getting the sympathy vote is part of May's strategy, especially with the lukewarm welcome she has received on this cheerleading Brexit tour.

“She is hoping to secure respect for her stoicism in seeing this through. She’s faced numerous resignations, critics, attacks, and failed leadership challenges. Yet she plods on,” said Mr. Oliver.

Meanwhile, while trying to win hearts and minds, she's still facing an uphill battle politically.

The Labour Party, the official opposition to Mrs. May’s government has said they will vote against the deal along with the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats who want the U.K. to have a second referendum and stay in the EU.

To make matters worse, the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party – who prop up Mrs. May’s minority government – are also refusing to back the deal. Close to 100 lawmakers from both wings of the prime minster’s own Conservative Party have also said they’ll vote against her.

This means it’s almost impossible for Mrs. May’s bill to advance from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, said Mr. Oliver. “The parliamentary arithmetic is too much against it.”

Meanwhile, the arrangement to be voted on Dec. 10 is not the final Brexit deal – it is the terms by which the U.K. will leave the European Union – namely the divorce bill of approximately $49 billion and the rules at the boarder between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.

The future relationship between the U.K. and EU is yet to be negotiated.

Mrs. May’s deal means the U.K. would leave the EU in March 2019 as planned and enter what is known as a transition period.

During the transition stage, the U.K. and EU would negotiate their future relationship, including trade.

“This is in itself a mine field that will drag on and which people in the U.K. have few if any ideas about,” said Mr. Oliver.

President Trump has expressed concern that the deal could mean the U.K. is tied too closely to the EU’s tariff rules to make its own trade deals with other countries such as the United States.

Mrs. May denies this. But even some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest critics here in the U.K. admit that he is correct.

The disdain for what Mrs. May has brought back from Brussels extends beyond the halls of power in Westminster. According to polling company, YouGov, the majority of Brits, regardless of their political persuasion, think May’s Brexit deal does not respect the referendum result.

But the deal’s unpopularity across the political spectrum does not necessarily translate into a desire for Mrs. May to resign.

According to more data from YouGov, just 27 percent of Brits think a different Conservative prime minister could achieve a better deal, which falls to 19 percent for a theoretical Labour prime minister.

Nevertheless, some respect her drive to carry on despite the odds and don’t see any credible alternative.

“Just because someone is bad you can’t replace them with nothing. Show me an alternative Conservative or Labour candidate who could actually slot in and do it instead. There’s no one else,” said Patrick Mason, 40, a software engineer from London.

Photo: Screenshot of UK Prime Minister Theresa May updating the House of Commons on the G20 Summit in Argentina. She told the House: "Once we leave the EU, we can and we will strike ambitious trade deals."
Credit: Courtesy of the UK Prime Minister official Twitter page (12/03/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/05/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

French stingers: Yellow jacket protests in Paris threaten Macron

MacronProtests001Paris--Vandals wrote graffiti on stores and monuments. Students lit fires in trash cans and torched cars. Demonstrators blocked major highways, gas stations and toll booths. Police shot tear gas and water cannons into crowds of angry rioters.

France's most iconic boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, was a haze of smoke and gas and screams.

"It's the hour of revolt," demonstrators chanted.

For weeks, tens of thousands of protestors called Gilets Jaunes – or Yellow Jackets after the gear drivers are required to keep in their cars by law – have been hitting the streets of Paris and other cities in France on the weekends, and now Belgium.

The Interior Ministry said almost 140,000 people participated in the protests on Saturday, down from a maximum number of more than 280,000 on Nov. 17. Three have died in incidents connected to the violence. Hundred have been injured in clashes with the police. More than 300 people are in custody on charges related to the riots. And the damage in Paris amounts to more than four million euros, Paris officials said, as they continued to clean-up the district.

Protests in various parts of France continued Monday, even as French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe held emergency talks with officials. He was scheduled to meet with protest leaders on Tuesday but representatives of the protest movement told Le Figaro newspaper they wouldn't go unless their demand to freeze new taxes are met.

President Emmanuel Macron and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, meanwhile, were determining whether or not to impose a state of emergency that would allow security forces more leeway in cracking down on rioters.

"Nothing is off-limits,” Castaner told reporters on Monday. "I am considering everything."

Paris hasn’t seen such violence since 1968, a time when social discontent among youth and a backlash from authorities reached a climax. While some in the local media are dismissing the protestors as thugs, hooligans and rightwing extremists, Macron has been caught off balance and now it's anyone's guess where the movement is going, say analysts.

"France is dancing on a volcano – we will know in a few days, after Saturday's protests and the first negotiations with the Yellow Jackets if it can avoid the explosion," said Nicolas Beytout, a political commentator and newspaper editor, writing in L'Opinion, a French daily newspaper. "For now, there is something to be worried about."

The rioters first blocked roads in mid-November anger over Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce carbon emissions.

But the demonstrations have morphed into a general expression of discontent over living conditions in France and also Macron’s pro-business policies, which have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations but have yet to restrain rising living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people as he promised before he assumed the presidency last year. Specifically, many of the protestors want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts.

"We are hungry…we don't have jobs...we want to live…stop the taxes…the people are tired of it," read one sign at the demonstration on Saturday, as people chanted "Macron, resign!"

The movement has no official leadership and is organized via social media. On the streets, it's comprised of young and old, urbanites and folks from the countryside. More notably, it is seemingly non-partisan.

"I'm here because we need more social justice," said Daniel, 62, of Paris. "It's not good, what's happening in this country…(people) are just getting poorer and poorer. But Macron, he represents the rich."

"I voted for Macron," he added, referring to elections last spring, which saw Macron's anti-establishment party, En Marche (Onward), win decisively. "I didn't want to but I was worried about the far right winning."

Meanwhile, Loic, 47, from a Paris suburb, said he usually votes conservative but when the Republicans lost in the first round of the elections, he supported the National Front. "I don't like the far right so much," he said. "But no one else was offering anything different. Things have to change here."

Support for the protestors is strong considering the disruption to the economy – the demonstrations are hitting some of the top tourist centers, shops and eateries in Paris – and also to everyday life, particularly for motorists and commuters. Polls show that three-quarters of the French approve of the movement even as the president's ratings have fallen to below one-third.

Still, at a bus stop across town from the protests in the Marais district, a sign indicated that the buses weren't running Saturday because of the protests. Would-be commuters grumbled over having their plans thwarted and their lives interrupted.

Meanwhile, analysts pointed out that the losers of the 2017 election, the far left and the far right, were trying to capitalize on the anger at the government.

Far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and far right National Front chief Marine Le Pen, both called for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten En Marche's hold on power.

But Najet, a business owner in Paris, said she doesn't want that: It is too early to judge Macron, she said.

"He's only been here a short time, we need to give him a chance," she said. "I understand why people are angry, but he didn't create this mess."

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron meeting citizens in the Le Puy-en-Velay prefecture in southern France. In response to the violent protests in the small town, Macron tweeted: "To the officers of the Préfecture du Puy-en-Velay: you experienced something terrible on Saturday. There is no justification for this violence."
Credit: Courtesy of French President Emmanuel Macron's official Twitter page (12/04/18)

Story/photo publish date: 12/03/18

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

A tiny village in Slovakia shows the rest of Europe how to integrate 'the other'

SVK24102018MC004SPIŠSKÝ HRHOV, Slovakia – Derogatively known as gypsies, the Roma people have long been victims of discrimination in Eastern Europe.

But a remarkable municipal-owned business has helped this little mountainous village in the heart of Europe overcome those prejudices, providing a model for integration of the continent’s longest-suffering underclass.

"Based on my experience, as soon as Roma and white people start to work together, they will become very close to each other,” said Vladimír Ledecký, the mayor of Spišský Hrhov in rural eastern Slovakia.

As other villages in this depressed region of eastern Slovakia declined as manufacturing evaporated after the end of communism in the early 1990s, Spišský Hrhov launched a government-owned business in 2005 with the goal of employing local people to improve local infrastructure.

“We did not have enough apartments. Such necessities as electricity and running water were lacking,” said Ledecký. “Almost nobody had any proper education. [But] we came to conclusion that 80 to 90 percent of the people were very clever and willing to work hard.”

The municipal government gave a $7,600 loan to the business – called Spišský Hrhov Municipal Social Enterprise. The funding was enough to hire three workers to make paving stones for the village’s crumbling sidewalks. The business paid off the loan after a year, then used its profits to expand into local construction projects, including building 100 apartments, a swimming pool, gymnasium. More recently, it launched other ventures like a bakery, sausage making facility and lumber milling, with the sawdust providing biofuels for municipal vehicles.

In 1998, Spišský Hrhov had 700 inhabitants, or around 500 less than under communism. Half were Roma, an ethnic minority who migrated to Europe from India around 1,500 years ago. Nearly all the Roma were unemployed.

Today, almost 2,000 people live in the village, the enterprise has around 100 workers and 80 percent of the Roma have jobs, according to Slovak government figures.

In contrast, government statistics show that only 21 percent of Roma on average in Slovakia have a job. In other words, 79 percent of Roma people in Slovakia are unemployed.

"Spišský Hrhov was on the verge of extinction but Mr. Ledecký established a community enterprise which built everything in our village, arranged hot water for every apartment,” said Jozef Seman, who manages the business.

Much of the acrimony between Slovaks and Roma, whom Slovaks often regard as lazy and unwilling to work, especially during the anxious post-communist times when the economy was imploding, has disappeared, Seman added. “Relations between the Roma community and white population are much better,” he said

Jozef Kandráč, a 34-year-old Roma, works as a mechanic in the business. He married a Slovak woman in 2006, a rare occurrence even in the cosmopolitan capital of Bratislava.

"My wife is white and we are very happy together,” said Kandráč. “We have never encountered any discrimination problems. We are satisfied with our life here. There are other intermixed marriages. One of the most beautiful [Roma] girls in the village, Miša, even made one Roman Catholic priest renounce celibacy. They have a happy family together.”

The integration starts early.

In the village school of 300 students, half are Roma. Typically, only 18 percent of Roma children attend schools in Slovakia for more than 10 years, a crucial factor in their likelihood of lacking a job later in life, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Jarmila Lajčáková, an analyst at the Bratislava-based Centre for the Research and Ethnicity and Culture in Slovakia, said Ledecký realized that the integration of Roma was crucial to development of Spišský Hrhov in general.

"Spišský Hrhov is considered to be a big deal because of a widely shared prejudice against Roma people that they will never work or send children to school, they will only try to abuse the social system,” she said. “Ledecký was not driven by human rights ideals, but he rather pragmatically understood that having a poor Roma community in Spišský Hrhov was a potential source of problems.”

The mayor didn’t solve every problem. Twenty percent of the Roma remain unemployed. Two Roma families in particular refuse to work in the business. Taking into account the growth of the village, further extension of the school and kindergarten is also on the agenda, potentially costly projects that will strain the village tax base and enterprise’s balance sheet.

"Spišský Hrhov is not a community where all the problems have been already solved,” said Alexander Mušinka, a researcher focused on this topic at the Institute of Roma Studies at the University of Prešov. “But it clearly shows that change is possible.”

Ledecký highlighted that there are many villages in Slovakia with problems of Roma integration. Their representatives came to see him to seek help but did not implement any of his suggestions.

"The media and people who have never met Roma people are creating discrimination and prejudices against Roma people,” said the mayor. “Nevertheless, people who work with them are very satisfied with their performance.”
Photo: October 24, 2018 - Spišský Hrhov, Slovakia - Jozef Kandráč, a mechanic in the village's social enterprise.
Credit: Tomas Kolar/ ARA Network Inc. (10/24/18)

Story/photo published date: 11/9/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Chancellor's exit is an opportunity for Germany's far-right party

DEU130906aa002BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Monday that she will step down as head of her conservative party and also as chancellor when her current term ends in 2021, ending her prominent role in German politics – and in steering Europe – after 18 years.

The decision followed another abysmal regional election result this month for her conservative Christian Democrats, who are in need of an image reboot after her decision to allow more than 1 million refugees into the country since 2015.

"I am trying to do my part to ensure that the federal government finally gets the strength to focus on doing good for the country," Ms. Merkel said Monday. "I am convinced that this action offers many more opportunities than risks."

Voters by and large agreed, saying the chancellor had worn out her welcome.

"Ms. Merkel does whatever is on the top of her head, and most of that seems to be her own opinion," said Erika, 77, a retiree in Berlin who refused to disclose her last name out of privacy concerns. "It's time for her to hand the leadership to someone else."

But the chancellor's surprise decision could also be part of a longer game, analysts said. Her fragile government is more likely to hold it together if her rivals know she’s leaving, preventing early elections that would only benefit fringe parties on both the right and left of the political spectrum and destabilize Europe's most influential nation.

"She's aware that the slaughter of her party losing so much support has never happened before," said Olaf Boehnke, a senior political analyst in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a thinktank in Brussels. "Nobody wants to risk new elections right now."

Ms. Merkel's decision comes on the heels of massive political setbacks in two pivotal regional elections this month.

On Oct. 28, her Christian Democrats secured only 28 percent of the vote in the state of Hesse, home to the nation's financial capital of Frankfurt, marking an 11-percent loss from the last elections in 2013. The environmentalist Green Party and the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany won significant boosts, receiving almost 20 and more than 13 percent of the vote, respectively.

In Bavaria on Oct. 14, voters delivered Ms. Merkel's conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union, only 37 percent of the vote – its weakest result in more than 50 years. The Greens became the state's second-strongest political force with 17.5 percent of the vote, and the Alternative for Germany secured more than 10 percent.

In both elections, Ms. Merkel's embattled coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, lost more than 10 percent of their support, cementing a trend of voters fleeing parties currently in Berlin's shaky government.

Ms. Merkel's conservative bloc is only polling at 24 percent nationally. The Social Democrats enjoy the support of only 15 percent, compared to 20 and 16 percent for the Greens and the Alternative for Germany, according to an Oct. 27 poll from German research institute Forsa.
"This is a clear signal that things can't continue as they have been," Ms. Merkel said at the press conference on Monday.

Still, many voters recognized the tenacity of her political resolve as the nation's first female chancellor, as well as her contributions in uniting Europe during a time of increased instability.

"People will miss Angela Merkel once she's gone," said Stefan Baumann, 51, in Hesse who said he voted SPD. "She is the last among German politicians to have a strong conviction for Europe – the rest have no understanding nor respect of and for our historical responsibilities."

Ms. Merkel successfully navigated Germany and Europe through the Eurozone financial crisis at the start of the decade and prevented a humanitarian disaster in the European Union in 2015 when she unilaterally allowed almost 1 million refugees to seek asylum in Germany as other bloc members closed their borders.

But the political maneuvering for which Ms. Merkel is so lauded didn't come without pushback: Her refugee policies gave meteoric rise to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, which siphoned more than 1 million votes from Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats in 2017. They are now the nation's third-largest party in Parliament.

"It will be a loss of great leadership in the country," said Oliver Schulte, a university student in Berlin.

With the chancellor's days now numbered, Germany, Europe and the world are wondering who will fill the power vacuum in Berlin in her absence.

Big-name conservatives and longtime rivals of the chancellor within the Christian Democrats' ranks have already announced that they'll be vying for Ms. Merkel's spot at the party's convention in early December.

Among them is current Minister of Health Jens Spahn, a Merkel critic whose staunch conservativism and homosexuality make him a prime candidate to reach a new generation of German conservatives, and current secretary general of the Christian Democrats, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Catholic mother or three whose rhetoric and personality mirrors that of the current chancellor.

Either choice would move the Christian Democrats to the right, allowing them to gain ground lost to the Alternative for Germany, said Boehnke, adding that Kramp-Karrenbauer would be Merkel's favorite.

"She'd be the piece of the puzzle that Merkel was lacking, and at the same time wouldn't try to oust Merkel prematurely," he added.
Handpicking a candidate who will ensure a smooth transition is crucial to a chancellor wary of throwing her coalition government into a nosedive that could lead to new elections – and cataclysmic results for her already ailing party.

"This sacrifice is clever – Merkel is saying that the Christian Democrats need to get their house in order," said Boehnke. "Because for both the Christian and Social Democrats, it could only get worse with new elections."

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision comes on the heels of massive political setbacks in two pivotal regional elections this month.
Credit: ARA Network Inc. (2013)

Story/photo published date: 10/29/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Putin is not the popular kid anymore

RUSPUTINMoscow, RUSSIA - Widespread discontent, fueled by a massively unpopular pension reforms, has sent approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling party tumbling to historical lows.

But in a development that is likely to cause alarm among western observers, the sudden loss of trust in Mr Putin’s rule is benefiting the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), whose leader often urges the Kremlin to carry out nuclear attacks against Moscow’s foes. Both parties made big gains in recent regional elections, crushing Mr Putin’s United Russia party.

Forty-five percent of Russians now say they would back Mr. Putin at presidential elections, down from 67 percent at the start of the year, according to Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), a Kremlin-linked pollster. Support for United Russia is at 32 percent, an almost 20 percent decline since January, FOM also said this month.

“People are so fed up of United Russia that they are ready to vote for a party of clowns,” said Ilya Yashin, a Kremlin critic, refering to LDPR's election successes.

Analysts say the dramatic decline in support for Mr. Putin is linked to a new law that increases the national retirement age by five years, from 55 to 60 for women, and 60 to 65 for men. Mr. Putin, in a televised address in August, said an ageing population meant Russia risked economic collapse, if the pensions reforms were not introduced.

Few Russians were convinced, with around 90 percent of the population against the law, according to an opinion poll by the Levada Centre, an independent pollster based in Moscow. The reforms are unpopular because the average life expectancy for Russian men is just 66, and many fear they will not live to see their pensions.

In a poll result that caused shockwaves in Moscow, the LDPR scored a landslide victory over United Russia at last month’s election for the governor’s seat in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s far east, taking 70 percent of the vote. The United Russia candidate received just under 28 percent. The LDPR, the third biggest party in parliament, also won in the run-off election for governor of the Vladimir region near Moscow, garnering 20 percent more of the vote than United Russia.

The vehemently anti-western LDPR is led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran firebrand politician who has previously urged nuclear attacks on Turkey and Japan, as well as the carpet-bombing of Germany. Earlier this year, he proposed dropping a nuclear weapon on the Ukrainian president’s residence. “A small bomb. Not a big Hiroshima, a small one,” he said on state television. “Radiation will be minimal.”

Over the years, Mr. Zhirinovsky, 72, has also pledged to provide free vodka, legalize polygamy, and clone famous Russians such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Mr. Zhirinovsky hailed the results as evidence that his party was on the right path. “This is a deserved victory. We have also had the support of the electorate,” he said.

Some analysts suggested, however, that the LDPR’s electoral success was purely the result of protest voting. “People are sick of the status quo and they want change for change’s sake,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a prominent political analyst.

The Communist Party, which ruled the Soviet Union for seven decades, also scored big wins in local parliamentary elections in central Russia and Siberia last month. Its candidate was only prevented from taking control of Vladivostok, a major port city in Russia’s far east, by vote-rigging in favour of Mr Putin’s candidate.

Andrei Ishchenko, the Communist Party challenger, was defeated in elections for the regional governor’s seat despite having led Mr Putin’s candidate by 2 percent with 99 percent of the vote counted. In an near-unprecedented development, the results of the vote were annulled by the government-controlled election committee after street protests. A new vote will take place before the end of the year.

The recent election results are United Russia’s biggest setbacks at the polls since the party was formed in 2001. They are doubly surprising because most analysts say that under Mr. Putin’s carefully managed political system, rival parties are allowed to enter Russia’s parliament to provide the illusion of a functioning democracy but are expected to adhere to strict rules in return for massive state funding. Those rules include a ban on contesting elections too fiercely, and supporting the Kremlin on key policy issues.

“This is a very serious challenge for the Kremlin, and the presidential administration will be carrying out brain-storming to try and somehow fix the political and electoral system,” said Vladimir Slatinov, a political analyst with the Humanitarian and Political Studies Institute in Moscow.

Vedomosti, a respected Russian business newspaper, reported that the Kremlin was seeking ways to “punish” the Communist Party and the LDPR for their refusal to play the game. The electoral losses also triggered the mass dismissals of incumbent United Russia governors with falling voter support, as the Kremlin attempted to shore up its position in the regions.

Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist widely seen as the Kremlin’s harshest critic, has so far been unable to capitalize on the growing unrest. Although Mr. Navalny has built up an impressive nationwide network of supporters, he is barred from forming a political party and has been subject to a smear campaign by state media. Just 3 percent of Russians say they trust him, according to the Levada Centre, an independent pollster in Moscow.

Although Russian parliamentary polls aren’t due until 2021, and presidential elections, at which Mr. Putin is ineligible to stand, aren’t scheduled until 2014, rising distrust of the government threatens political turbulence, analysts say.

“United Russia’s aura of invincibility has now vanished, and voters have seen that Putin is not some powerful wizard,” said Mr. Oreshkin, the political analyst.

Some Kremlin critics fear that Mr Putin may be planning a new foreign military adventure to boost his ratings. When Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Putin, who was facing large-scale opposition protests in Moscow, saw his popularity rocket to sky-high levels.

“The authorities could again find themselves on the back foot,” wrote Vitali Shkliarov, a Russian political consultant, in an article for Republic, a Russian-language current affairs website “Another ‘geopolitical success’ remains, perhaps, one of the few strategies for Putin.”

Photo: Unpopular pension reforms have decreased the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling party. 

Story/photo published date: 10/24/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Bavaria's decades-old ruling party might lose ground in upcoming elections


BERLIN – When it comes to regional politics in Germany, no state is more influential than Bavaria, the nation's economic powerhouse and an unabashed conservative stronghold often compared to Texas.

But Oct. 14's election in Bavaria is expected to be a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel's policies over the past few years, and on her fellow conservatives to the south, who have repeatedly caused trouble for her since her decision to allow more than a million refugees into the country three years ago.

In fact, for the first time in decades, the conservatives in Bavaria are under threat from the far right – and from the left.
"They tried to fight fire with fire at the beginning of the year with regard to the migration crisis," said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think-tank, referring to Bavaria's conservatives. "But they're realizing that if you try to be more extreme than the extremists, it's a lost cause."

For 12 of the last 13 elections in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative sister-party of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), has ruled with an absolute majority – a rarity in German politics, where compromise and coalition building between parties is the norm.

That's allowed the CSU in Bavaria, home to famed automotive giant BMW and the Oktoberfest, to create a conservative, semi-autonomous cultural and political bubble in Germany's south. The state recently passed laws mandating that crosses be hung in all administrative buildings, much to the ire of Berlin.

But the political hegemony of the CSU will likely change Sunday: Chancellor Merkel's sister party is only polling at 33 percent, according to the latest figures from German broadcaster ZDF. That's a whopping 15 percent less than they won in the last Bavarian elections in 2013.

Meanwhile, the environmentalist Greens are polling in second at 18 percent, while the AfD is polling at 10 percent, according to the ZDF poll.

Regional elections in Germany have a huge impact on national politics, though election outcomes are often due to both local and national factors, wrote Carsten Brzeski, chief economist for ING Germany, in an analysis of the upcoming election.
But this time around, the question of what's driving the demise of the CSU in Bavaria is very clear.

"The CSU tried to make the election a kind of referendum on Merkel's stance on refugees," Brzeski said. "The continuous nagging and trouble-seeking in Berlin, initiated by the CSU, has completely turned this around."

Chancellor Merkel's conservative bloc lost over one million votes to the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in last year's federal elections, a development largely connected to the party's condemnation of her 2015 decision to open the nation's borders to over 1 million, mostly Muslim refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It was a decision that particularly affected Bavaria, a Catholic stronghold which served as the main entry point for those who traveled through the Balkans to reach Germany, said Boehnke.

That gave Bavaria and the CSU "a special role to play as to how to cope with this," he said. "They don't only reject free-floating migration, but also were the first victims who were subject to this new trend."

With refugees a hot-button issue in the state and the AfD gaining ground, the CSU – which forms a government in Berlin with Chancellor Merkel's CDU and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) – sought to move refugee and immigration policy to the right in order to assert their dominance.

In doing so, however, they almost toppled Merkel's already-fragile coalition multiple times in recent months.

In June, CSU party chairman and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer threatened to order German police to turn away refugees at the Bavarian-Austrian border without Berlin's blessing. Such a move would have undermined Merkel's authority and shattered her coalition. She was forced to hold an emergency summit on asylum policy with European partners in order to calm her unruly sister party.

Intergovernmental tensions spiked again in September, when two refugees allegedly murdered a German-Cuban man in the eastern city of Chemnitz, prompting riots and right-wing violence that lasted for a week.

Such acts were caught on video, but dismissed by the head of the nation's domestic security unit, sparking public outrage and calls for his resignation. Being a close ally of Seehofer's, however, he was instead given an interior ministry posting – once again demonstrating how the CSU continues to "hijack" the government in Berlin in order to win back votes locally, wrote Brzeski.

The CSU's abysmal numbers ahead of the Bavarian elections indicate that voters are tired of their political meddling in Berlin – a positive signal for an embattled Chancellor Merkel who's struggling to keep her government together, said Boehnke.

"They cannot play the blame-Merkel card too excessively," he said. "They tried to make her a boogeyman, but there's not much to this."

But the suspected outcome of Sunday's elections is also indicative of a larger trend of political fragmentation in Germany, said Georg Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

With both the Greens and the AfD strengthened by voter dissatisfaction with mainstream parties on both the local and federal level, a more segmented political environment is taking hold in Germany that will ultimately put the nation in the same precarious political situation as once-stable nations like Sweden and Austria.

"We're currently seeing a break down of society, or at the very least in this case a breakdown of large political milieus into many smaller ones," said Neugebauer.

Such a consequential political trend has expanded the scope of how an election in Germany's Texas can impact the nation and beyond.

"Things are changing on a bigger scale – and Bavaria is a perfect example," said Boehnke. "The political system is on the move."

Photo: Würzburg, Germany - Minister President of Bavaria Markus Söder (CSU) at a CSU party rally in Würzburg, Germany.
Credit: Courtesy of Christian Social Union's official Twitter page (10/09/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 10/11/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times.

Refugee children in Greece are still out of school

GRE040918NA06ATHENS, Greece – Sixteen-year-old Abdul Rashid will attend school for the first time in Greece this month, even though the Afghan refugee has been in the country for almost three years.

He says he expects it to be tough.

“It's very important to learn the language of the country you're living in,” Rashid said in English. “So now I'm learning Greek. But it's very difficult. It's very different from our language.”

As parents and kids return to school in Greece – and around the world – thousands of children that arrived in the Mediterranean country during the refugees crisis that began three years ago have been staying home, whether in an apartment, house or a shipping containers in a refugee camp.

Four out of 10 children between five and 17 years old weren't enrolled in school in Greece, according to a UNHCR report on refugee children’s education. Sixteen and 17-year-olds had the worst enrollment rate, with only four out of 10 enrolled, while only one out of 10 children living on the Greek islands was enrolled in school.

Rashid hadn't gone to school since leaving Afghanistan. When he first arrived in Greece he was trying to reach Germany with his family, where his brother was already living. But he got stuck in Idomeni, a Greek town on the Macedonian border, in 2016 when the EU shut down the free flow of migrants through the Western Balkans – starting in 2015, more than a million refugees flowed into Europe.

He spent a year expecting to be reunified with his brother in Germany but the reunification program, according to UNHCR numbers, has been virtually frozen this year.

As another year passed, Rashid didn't know he could attend public school in Greece or even how to enroll because no one provided him with that information.

His plight is common.

Half of the world’s refugees are children, according to a UNICEF. Of those who are school age, more than half are not in the classroom. That means 4 million children around the world are out of school. Last year, the number of out-of-school refugee children increased by 500,000, UNICEF report published last month said.

Germany and Italy, which along with Greece, have taken the lion's share of refugees arriving in Europe. While Italy is still lagging behind in processing the new arrivals or getting the children into school, Germany has recognized it’s a problem and tried to integrate the kids into the classroom with special help to address their unique needs. It's had mixed success so far.

In Greece, experts are hopeful that more children will attend school this year. They said the Greek government's policy is now to integrate and school these children.

Even so, the Greek Ministry of Education didn't have numbers available on how many refugees enrolled in school this year.

“We're expecting an increase in the teenagers that have enrolled and that's thanks to (the ministry appointing) new education coordinators for refugees and the NGOs that helped refugees with the paperwork in order to enroll,” said Savas Kalokairinos, a social worker for Elix, a Greek non-government organization where Rashid has been taking Greek language courses this summer.

Elix caters to 2,500 refugee children and their parents, offering them Greek, English, Math, and Physics courses.

There are still plenty of hurdles to refugee children's education, like red tape and teachers who don’t know how to teach Greek as a second language. But also, many migrants are highly mobile and move from place to place – from camps to apartments in different cities in the middle of the school year. Others find smugglers and continue their journey to Western Europe.

Parents often don’t facilitate their children’s education, either.

“Some 70 percent of the parents have never entered a school in their lives, so it's hard for them to teach their children how to behave in school, said Kalokairinos.

In Eleonas, one of the refugee camps in Athens, Fariba Khodadadi, 9, switches from English to Greek easily and sometimes uses both languages in one sentence. Khodadadi looks forward to starting school this month for a second year at the 87th Public Elementary School of Athens, where her favorite subjects are math and Greek.

Starting this month, every day, International Organization for Migration school buses will arrive at the Eleonas refugee camp to take Khodadadi and the 133 other kids living to nearby schools.

For the first time in her life, Khodadadi went to school last year in Greece. She started walking her way from Afghanistan to Europe with her family, before she was even of school age. “It was cold, and my legs hurt,” Khodadadi said. “I was five years old.”

She tries to explain how her family had to leave Afghanistan because of violence. She gestures digging, placing something in the area she's dug, and then shouts “Bam!” and spreads her arms toward the sky to imitate a bomb explosion. Then she goes back to highlighting in green the vowels and in pink the consonants of a page in Greek she's found.

Teachers at the camp said NGOs like Elix have been crucial in helping kids learn.

But because the funding for the Elix program ends in December – European Union funds for the program will go to the Greek government – many refugees hope their experiences in Greek schools will be positive.

Rashid isn't afraid.

“I'm going to make it,” said Rashid, highlighting that someday, he wants to become a journalist. “Here it's good. There's peace. In Afghanistan we'd know that there was a war going on by looking outside our home before leaving for school. If there was no one on the streets, we wouldn't go to school that day.”

Photo: ATHENS, GREECE. Refugee children learn Greek at Eleonas refugee camp and one of the six educational centers, run by Elix, a Greek NGO that caters to 2,500 refugee children and adults. Elix offers supportive classes to refugee children that go to Greek public school, as well as their parents.
Credit: Nikolia Apostolou/ ARA Network Inc. 09/04/2018

Story/photo publish date: 10/01/18

A version of this story was published by USA Today.

Young Brits ditch tea time

GBR190918BP003LONDON—The British are known for tradition – they will often tell you it’s what they do best: The queen, stiff upper lip and a unique sense of humor.

But now, one of the realm’s oldest pastimes – drinking tea – is now coming under threat: Brits are eschewing their traditional cup of strong, black tea with a dash of milk in favor of trendier, herbal infusions instead.

In fact, British tea consumption fell by 5.9 million pounds in weight compared to last year, according to recent data compiled by the consultancy firm Kantar Worldpanel. That equates to about 870 million fewer cups of tea in the nation of 65 million.

“It’s an older demographic that drinks tea,” said Chris Hayward, a consumer specialist at Kantar Worldpanel. “The classic English breakfast tea is in a challenging place.”

The younger generations are fed up with the same old concoction, and are driving the trend.

“I drink ginger tea,” said Stephanie Fowler, a 29-year-old fulltime mom from North Yorkshire. “It’s much more refreshing than black tea.”

“It’s more trendy, it’s different and I think herbal teas and green teas are marketed as being good for you in terms of antioxidants,” added Ms. Fowler.

Major tea brands have noticed.

The market is deteriorating, conceded Ben Newbury, senior brand manager at Yorkshire Tea, a company best-known in the United Kingdom for its luxury black tea blend “Yorkshire Gold.”

But he insists there’s still life in the old brew yet.

“Traditional black tea remains extremely popular and is still loved by the nation," he said. "But today’s consumer has a huge amount of choice when it comes to drinks.”

Still, while Mr. Newbury is correct that the British still drink an awful lot of tea – only the Turkish and Irish drink more per capita – that love is fading: Back in 1974, Brits were drinking an incredible 23 cups of tea a week. These days that figure is closer to an average of just 10 cups a week, according to Mr. Hayward.

So what gives? Ms. Fowler said it’s about health. “I think people are more aware of their caffeine consumption, which I think has driven a lot of people to swap,” she said.

It’s also about a change in culture, said Mr. Hayward. Fewer Brits are taking the time to sit down for breakfast and are instead rushing out the door in the morning. That’s a problem because breakfast is when the majority of traditional tea used to be consumed, said Mr. Hayward.

“We’re more of a grab and go culture now,” he added.

For example, loose leaf tea, which requires more effort to brew, is plummeting out of favor much quicker than the more convenient tea bag. Loose leaf tea purchases have fallen by 11 percent compared to last year.

But like almost everything else in the U.K. at the moment, there’s a Brexit angle to this too.

Brexit supporters are sticking to the conventional cuppa.

Those in favor of quitting the European Union buy on average 20 percent more traditional tea than those who voted to stay, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

That’s not too surprising when you consider the demographics of Brexit, analysts say: Age was one of the biggest fault lines between the two camps. Black tea drinkers are more likely to be older and that chimes with the age dynamics of those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Meanwhile, Remain supporters are 27 percent more likely to buy champagne and prosecco.

That’s where black tea’s problem lies, say observers: It has to appeal to the younger, trend conscious, champagne-quaffing, remain-voting Brits if it wants to stem the decades of decline.

To do that, the tea industry need look no further than another British staple: Gin.

Not too long ago, gin used to suffer from a tough PR image – seen as a stuffy old woman’s drink. Now, gin consumption is on the rise, and it has now become the hipster’s beverage of choice.

Tea, take note.

“Look at the renaissance of gin in this country,” said Mr. Hayward. “It’s now our most popular spirit again and that’s because it’s gone high end.”

He says tea brands need to diversify and become more luxurious to flourish again.

Ordinary gins are still challenged, he said. “But when you’ve got something that’s well branded at a premium then it’s relevant to the consumer,” he said.

Mr. Newbury says Yorkshire Tea has recognized this new reality, which is why his is the only major black tea brand in the U.K. to still enjoy growth.

“We know that consumers are mixing up their drinks repertoires and this was the inspiration behind our recently introduced range of specialty brews; Breakfast Brew, Bedtime Brew and Biscuit Brew.”

Tea drinking may be less popular, he added, but the British don’t give up on tradition easily: “We’re still a nation of tea drinkers.”

Photo: Sept. 14, 2018 – London, United Kingdom – Outside of Fortnum & Mason in central London, a supplier of tea to Buckingham Palace.
Credit: Benjamin Plackett/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: September 25, 2018

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times.

No safe haven for African LGBTI refugees

UGA170614TO002KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya – When Kennedy Mukama fled from Uganda in 2015 because of harsh anti-gay laws and harassment, he hoped to find safe haven in a United Nations refugee camp.

But within a few months, those hopes were dashed.

He says religious leaders spurred their followers to attack and beat him for allegedly promoting homosexual behavior.

“It was the saddest day in my life,” said Mukama, 25. “I didn’t expect that people who call themselves Christians could attack me in that manner. I lost consciousness after one of them hit me on the head with a sharp object. I found myself in hospital after I recovered.”

Religious hostility is a major challenge for the estimated 200 self-identified lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender refugees at Kakuma, which hosts almost 180,000 refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Uganda.

Many refugees at the camp believe that homosexuality is wrong and gays must be punished, said Moses Mbazira, a representative of the LGBTI refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp.

“They have attacked and injured some of us. They think we are cursed with a demon and evil spirit of homosexuality,” Mbazira said. “The religious leaders are too homophobic and we so much fear them of even getting near them for fear of being killed or attacked.”

Uganda is among 73 countries in the world where homosexuality is illegal, according to a comprehensive survey of sexual orientation laws from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. A 2103 Pew Research survey found only 4 percent of Ugandans say society should accept homosexuality.

And Uganda is among the most dangerous places in the world to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Many LGBTI Ugandans face arrest, discrimination, eviction from their homes and violence from Ugandan police and individuals. Some sought refuge in Kenya, where homosexuality is also illegal but enforcement of the law is sporadic.

But they could not escape hostility fueled by religion.

“The first time I attended a church service in the camp, the pastor preached against homosexuality, saying they were evil kind of people,” said Mukama, who used to live in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. “When I went there for a second time, they rejected me, saying somebody had told them I was gay. They threatened to beat me and even kill me.”

Mbazira said the government of Kenya was not the enemy. He blamed religious leaders instead.

“Words preached by spiritual leaders in big churches and mosques in the camp are not anointful since they focus on preaching hate, henceforth breeding insecurities from holy places that agonize our lives,” said Mbazira.

Peter Long, a South Sudanese pastor at one of the Pentecostal churches in the camp, said the LGBTI refugees need to change their behaviors before they can attend his church.

“We want them to come and pray with us only if they can accept to change,” he said. “Light and darkness cannot mix. They might influence others to become what they are. So, they need to accept change. Then they will be accepted.”

Seda Kuzucu, the UNHCR senior protection officer of Kakuma Refugee Camp, recently said that all refugees have equal rights to live in the camp.

But Mbazira said LGBTI refugees are treated differently. They are separated from others, often in worse conditions, and even are denied food, he said.

“We are very much discriminated,” Mbazira said. “Living as an LGBTl in Kakuma Refugee Camp has been of a great challenge than the rest of other refugees. LGBTI members are heavily persecuted by both the host community and other refugees in all spheres of life.”

Now they are not sure where to go.

Mukama and other LGBTI refugees now prefer to be relocated in America or Europe, where they feel they will receive protection.

“I want to get out of this camp as soon as possible so that I can save my life,” Mukama said. “I no longer feel safe in the hands of these cruel people.”

Mbazira and other LGBTI refugees in the camp have now decided to form their own church. But they still do it under fear of attack.

“We conduct private prayers among ourselves because that’s the only way we can pray or encourage each other,” he said. “But it’s a huge risk for us, too, because sometimes we gather together with fear of being invaded by these religious people. Some are fellow refugees but not LGBTIQ, and some are even from the Kenyan community. So we face hostilities of all kinds.”

Photo: Gay rights activist Frank Mugisha and his colleague during a celebration of International day against homophobia and transphobia at his office this year. Mugisha has vowed to fight for the rights of LGBTI. He has been arrested by police several times because of his stand.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo published date: 09/20/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

Russian torture video goes viral, prompts outrage, soul searching

RUS-tortureMOSCOW - Ruslan Vakharov was in a punishment cell at a penal colony in central Russia’s Yaroslavl region when around a dozen prison guards led a fellow inmate into the neighboring cell and began torturing him.

“I heard him screaming, and saw how the prison guards were taking breaks in between taking turns to beat him – they tortured him for at least 40 minutes,” said Mr. Vakharov, who was released from the penal colony in March.

The torture session occurred in June 2017, but its brutal details only became known to the outside world this July, when a 10-minute video was published by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian opposition newspaper. The video, which was recorded by a body-mounted camera worn by a prison guard, was given to the newspaper by Irina Biryukova, a lawyer for Public Verdict Foundation, an independent Russian human rights organization. Ms. Biryukova refused to reveal how she obtained the harrowing footage.

In the video, a man identified as Yevgeny Makarov is pinned to a table by prison guards, while others strike him repeatedly with batons on his legs and the soles of his feet. Mr. Makarov, who was handcuffed, screams with pain and begs for mercy. From conservations audible in the video, it appears that the inmate was tortured as punishment for swearing at a prison guard. Mr. Makarov, who is still behind bars, but has been transferred to a different penal colony, says the guards also waterboarded him.

The video triggered the arrests of six of the guards involved in beating Mr. Makarov, while seventeen officials have been dismissed from their posts. In August, the incident was discussed at the United Nations, where the UN Committee against Torture ordered Russia to report back next year on the prosecutions of those responsible for the brutality. The UN committee also said Russia should do everything to protect Mr. Makarov and Ms. Biryukova from possible reprisals. Ms. Biryukova fled Russia after receiving death threats.

The UN committee also demanded to know how Russia was investigating the death of Valeri Pshenichny, a 56-year-old businessman, who was found hanging in his cell in St. Petersburg in February. Medical experts ruled out suicide.

“Electric shock burns from a hot-water boiler cord were found in his mouth. Cuts and stab wounds on his body. A broken spine,” reported Novaya Gazeta, the opposition newspaper. “In short, he was tortured.” He was also raped before his death, medical reports said.

Mr. Pshenichny was arrested in January at the apartment he shared with his wife, Natalia. Police were said to have told him that he would have no further use for his business suits. “An investigator told him he would need a two meter-long grave,” Ms. Pshenichny said. Human rights groups believe he was killed after he refused to pay off corrupt officials. Before his death, Mr. Pshenichny managed to smuggle out of prison a note that read: “Don’t pay anyone anything.” No one has been charged over his death.

Russia has some of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with only the United States jailing more people annually among G20 countries. Some 600,000 people are held in nearly 1,000 prisons and detention facilities across Russia. Reports of torture are frequent, but video evidence of violence at penal colonies is rare.

After the video of Mr. Makarov’s ordeal was published, Russia’s Federal Prison Service promised to launch a nationwide inspection of correctional facilities. But human rights activists have little faith in such statements.

“Inspections do not uncover violations. But if a (torture) scandal gets too big, then charges will be bought, but the investigation will be focused on two things – who leaked the information and who will be the scapegoat?” said Olga Romanova, the director of Rus Sidyashchaya, a prisoners’ rights organization

Ex-inmates such as Mr. Vakharov are also skeptical that anything will change. “In Russian penal colonies, torture isn’t an exception to the rule, it is the system. This goes on every day, every week, every month,” he said.

Mr. Vakharov served five and a half years behind bars after being arrested while urinating at the side of a road. Police charged him with exposing himself to a minor, because there were children nearby, and demanded a bribe to ensure he received a suspended sentence. He refused to pay up, and complained to the authorities, something he believes contributed to his alleged ill-treatment behind bars. “Prison guards beat me because I stood up for my rights,” said Mr. Vakharov.

Torture within Russia’s penitentiary system is one of the issues that has led to the dramatic worsening of relations between Moscow and Washington. In 2012, the United States passed a law known as the Magnitsky Act, which gives Washington powers to impose financial and visa sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. The law was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was allegedly tortured to death in a Moscow prison after accusing interior ministry officials of tax fraud.

Ms. Romanova, the prisoners’ rights advocate, says that only mass dismissals of penal colony staff and officials will eradicate the culture of torture in Russian penal colonies. She also says that many Russians are indifferent toward torture allegations in penal colonies, which are known collectively as the Zone.

“They torture people, beat them, and kill them in the Zone,” she said. “(But most people think), 'Well, prison isn’t a health camp. And, anyway, how else should they be treated?'”

Photo: A screenshot from a 10-minute-video obtained by Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper showing several guards from the Federal Penitentiary Service in Yaroslavl, Russia allegedly torturing prisoner Evgeny Makarov on June 2017. Guards used fists, rubber batons, and one was seen pouring water on the prisoner's face.

Story/photo publish date: 9/18/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times

The French to Macron: ne plus ça change

Macron WorkPARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron recently told a class of sixth-grade students in Laval in western France that he he was having a tough time in his job.

“Some days are easy,” he said. “Others are not.”

The difficult days have particularly piled up in the last few weeks.

Slumping approval ratings, unplanned cabinet reshuffles, growing skepticism of his planned reforms and his so-called “Jupiterian" approach to government, a term Macron adopted during his campaign to describe his goal of reshaping French society, have taken the shine off the 40-year-old presidency 16 months after he won office.

The French are divided on whether Macron will achieve his ambitious reform plan, which include loosening labor laws, boosting innovation and reducing bureaucracy. But they agree that he will have to reconnect with the people of France if he wants another shot at re-election in 2022.

“He’s young, ambitious and keen on shaking things up in this country,” said retired postal worker Annick De Oliveira, 61. “But I don’t see him as someone who is close to the people. He’s anything but humble.”

Marcon, for example, made an off-the-cuff remark – “Gauls who are resistant to change” –during a visit to Denmark in August, landing him in hot water at home, where his comment was widely deemed arrogant and interpreted as an insult to French identity.

A few days later, Macron’s approval rating plunged to 31 percent, according to French polling firm Ifop, making him more unpopular than his one-term predecessor Francois Hollande at the same point in office.

Those ratings also reflected dismay among citizens over a scandal involving one of his closest security officers, who was filmed while assaulting demonstrators during a May Day rally in Paris.

The embarrassment diverted attention from a wave of economic reforms he proposed after France’s traditional summer break in August.

Macron also had to deal with an unexpected cabinet reshuffle in late August after the dramatic exit of Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, who resigned during a live radio interview without informing Macron first.

Hulot, a popular politician and green activist, said he was frustrated by the "small steps" the government was taking to deal with climate change. "This subject is always relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities,” he said in the interview.

The departure of Hulot was widely regarded as a major blow to Macron, who has tried to portray himself as a moderate who wants to both reform France’s economy but also address climate change.

A week later, Sports Minister Laura Flessel said she was resigning from the government for "personal reasons.” Macron replaced here with former backstroke swimming champion Roxana Maracineanu.

At first, voters backed Macron’s pro-business reform plan, expecting it to boost growth and jobs.

Voters largely sided with Macron when he announced controversial cuts and reforms to indebted railway operator SNCF, which sparked months of strikes, according to polls. They were finally approved in June.

Economic growth, however, has been more sluggish than Macron hoped in recent months, however, particularly among lower-income families, sparking criticism that Macron’s policies favored big business and the wealthy.

An Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll in Le Figaro newspaper showed that three-quarters of French people perceived the former investment banker as “the president of the rich” just a year into office.

Macron’s main problem is that his reforms don’t appear yet to have tangible effects on people’s everyday lives. Many voters fear his changes will end up hitting their pensions, their jobs and their purchasing power.

“The French are critical because the reforms keep accumulating without a corresponding improvement in the quality of life,” said Philippe Waechter, director of economic research at Ostrum Asset Management in Paris. “They don’t understand how reforms will change their life for the better.”

Businesses are also bridling under his reforms.

A planned reform of the revenue tax, which will mandate pay-as-you-earn monthly deductions for employees from 2019 in a bid to simplify tax collection, has reportedly run into technical troubles amid concerns that many French companies are not ready to implement it. Stories of employees paying workers’ taxes twice or paying for the wrong people have also surfaced.

If Gauls don’t like change, they’ll have plenty of reasons to dislike the new tax system even if it works, potentially sending Macron’s popularity ratings even lower.

“Will the reform create the conditions to improve everyone’s situation after the initial psychological shock the French will experience at the sight of their pay slip in January?” Waechter asked. “Will everyone see an improvement in their life quality, or will they find a reason to be critical?”

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron meeting workers during visit in Loire-Atlantique and Morbihan. Credit: Courtesy of the French government, 6/1/17
Story/photo publish date: 9/11/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times

Frenemies: Diverging German-American interests

DE240718EB001BERLIN – From trade to defense and every policy in between, Germany appears to be President Donald Trump's favorite frenemy as of late.

It's a startling development for Germany, the posterchild of the social and economic order that the United States established after World War Two.

Now, just a year and a half into the Trump presidency, anti-Americanism is on the rise here and German-American interests are quickly diverging, said analysts. As Europe's economic engine and ideological compass, longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German leaders must walk a fine line to preserve a rapidly changing transatlantic relationship, they added.

"There's still an undercurrent of security and economic relations that will prevail," said Henning Riecke, head of the USA/Transatlantic Relations Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. But "this is certainly a changed transatlantic relationship."

Germans are puzzled by the sharp turn in their relationship with the United States. The past few months having been particularly contentious.

In June, President Trump tweeted out a raft of falsehoods about rising crime rates in Germany, placing blame on Merkel's 2015 decision to provide almost 1 million refugees safe haven in Germany.

The following month, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, normally a quiet event between committed allies, the American president lambasted Germany over its anemic defense spending, its unbalanced trade relationship with the United States, and its controversial energy dealings with Russia – even going so far as to call Germany Russia's "captive."

"There's a German feeling that Trump is singling out Germany because he perceives that Germany is his prime opponent in the West," said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "We really don't know what to do about it except to be patient."

But patience can only go so far in a country where citizens feel scorned by a longtime benefactor and close ally.
Germans used to cherish their special relationship with the United States. Americans helped end both communism and fascism in the country in the 20th Century.

But Trump's constant vilification has crossed a line.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 56 percent of Germans thought US-German relations were bad and only 11 percent expressed confidence in the New York real estate mogul and former reality television star – a nose dive in figures from the heyday of the Obama years, when 80 percent were confident in the American president.

The poll led to calls for normally stoic German Chancellor Angela Merkel to confront Trump in order to preserve the Western order.
"Merkel needs to act with more strength against Trump," said Jörg Dobers, 49, a pharmaceutical representative in Berlin. "She has no other choice – she just has to do it. We need to make Trump much more conscious of his actions."

While Merkel has heeded the call in some respect, calling on Europe to "take its destiny into its hands" and pushing against American disapproval to foster economic relations with both Iran and Russia, Germany might not be able to break with its longtime ally.

For all its economic might, German success remains deeply intertwined with that of the United States, especially when it comes to trade and security. The United States remains the largest market for German exports, and Germany's anemic spending on defense makes it no match to any foreign aggressor looking for a fight.

Ultimately, Germany must tread lightly on remolding the trans-Atlantic relationship. That means heeding Trumps calls to boost defense spending, while at the same time working toward integrating more countries into the rules-based Western order despite President Trump's work to do the opposite, said Riecke.

"Whenever politicians say that we need to take our fate into our own hands, that doesn't mean we need to break with America," he said.
Doing so would signal that "Germany is ready to pick up the task" of dealing with 21st Century problems facing the globe – like Russian aggression, climate change, migration issues and the rise of right-wing extremism – without giving into "the furor of anti-American rhetoric," said Gressel.

"It would give the German electorate a bit more reassurance that in spite of the difficult times and the Trump situation, that Germany is ripe and ready," he said. "Trump is unpredictable, but any Trump successor would rather deal with a Germany that can do more on its own, than with a Germany that's still passively waiting on what Washington does."

Photo: Promotional items advertised on the official Twitter page of the German delegation to NATO. The post says: "Now that the #NATOSummit is over, have a guess which of our promotional items made it beyond the test phase: The quote mug, the tote bag or the copy-cat hat?"
Credit: Courtesy from the official Twitter page of the German delegation to NATO (07/24/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 09/10/2018

A version of this story was published in

Caught in the middle

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU161616aa0030.jpegBERLIN—On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the outskirts of Berlin, marking the pair's second meeting since May.

During what's normally a dull political season in Germany, much has transpired this summer that's affected the two nations' longstanding relationship. That included President Donald Trump declaring that Germany was "captive to Russia" due to a controversial new natural gas pipeline connecting the two nations.

But this latest meeting shouldn't be read as one of Russian appeasement, analysts said.

As the American-led diplomatic order of old is being dismantled piece by piece, the quick succession of meetings between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin shows how the chancellor is leveraging her nation's historic ties to Russia to keep diplomacy and Western interests afloat.

"What's the benefit of having moral integrity toward Russia, which means a more confrontative position, when there's nobody left with a weight like Germany, with that relationship with Russia, who can talk to them on the same eye-level," asked Olaf Boehnke, a senior adviser with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.

At the height of the Cold War, as the United States pursued a strategy of Russian isolation, Germany believed that the best way to deal with Moscow was to foster good economic relations and interdependence – despite the fact that the Soviet Union was the overseer of formerly communist East Germany for more than four decades.

That strategy persisted well after German reunification in 1990 and into the new millennium, as former citizens of East Germany held steadfast to the notion of maintaining a special relationship with their former benefactor.

"It was an economically driven policy…where you're trying to ignore the political consequences," said Stefan Meister, the director of programs on Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

But things changed after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, what Meister calls the "big break in German-Russian relations" that led to Germany – once Moscow's most amicable partner in the Western camp – leading the charge on crippling, retaliatory sanctions and alienating Russia.

Even so, there are some policy initiatives that still show the bones of that former relationship – much to the ire of the United States and Germany's partners in the European Union.

Called Nord Stream 2, German businesses have led the charge in building a second natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline would effectively double gas supplies to Germany from Russia, which already accounts for 40 percent of German gas imports – 9.6 percent of total energy consumption – according to government statistics.

"[President Trump] wasn't so wrong" when he deplored Germany's energy dependence to cheap Russian gas at July's NATO summit – especially as Germany, Europe's largest economy, could buy gas from less problematic partners, said Claudia Kemfert, head of the Department for Energy, Transportation and Environment at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

Ms. Merkel has called the choice of Russia purely a business decision. But that decision becomes much more when considering the raft of geopolitical issues Nord Stream 2 presents.

For one, opening Nord Stream 2 threatens Ukraine's status as a transit hub for Russian gas heading to Europe. Of the 193.9 billion cubic meters of natural gas sent to Europe in 2017 from Russia, almost half transited through Ukraine's infrastructure, according to European Union statistics.

At the same time, a new pipeline only lines Mr. Putin's pockets and supports his network of corruption, all while aggravating states like in the EU like Poland – historically untrusting of both Russia and Germany – and the United States, who have long been against the project for its potentially disastrous consequences.

"From the perspective of Angela Merkel, I think she underestimated from the beginning the damaging factor of Nord Stream 2 within the European Union," said Meister.

But as the United States under Mr. Trump becomes increasingly absent in dealing with Russian aggression in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, Nord Stream 2 presents an "opportunity to use this limited influence Germans might have on the Russian side" to curb Moscow's actions, said Boehnke.

It's a buyer's market for natural gas, with Germany able to turn anywhere – from the United States to inside the EU – to buy gas. That means that Russian state-controlled oil giant Gazprom won't play hardball out of fear that Germany will withdraw from the deal, said Gressel.

Ultimately, that means that Ms. Merkel can tease concessions out of Putin. She might score a guarantee that Ukraine doesn't lose its transit rights, or get Russia's commitment to help end the war in Syria so migrants from Germany can be sent back, a nagging domestic issue for Ms. Merkel, who has opened the door to more than a million refugees since 2015.

That leverage is only magnified by the fact that Ms. Merkel grew up in East German, speaks Russian and was surveilled by Russian intelligence. She knows how to deal with Mr. Putin, said Gressel.

"There is a micro version of the special relationship and (that is the one between) between Putin and Merkel," he said. "Other politicians from non-post-Soviet countries of Europe will be duped by Putin quite quickly."

And as Mr. Trump undermines the multilateral Western order and weakens international institutions, "we have to have clear positions, we need western unity," said Boehnke.

"She [Merkel] is maybe the best in negotiating this."

Photo: Chancellor Angela Merkel is leveraging her Germany's historic ties to Russia to keep diplomacy and Western interests afloat.
Credit: ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo published date: 08/26/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Turkish dissidents find safe haven in Greece

TUR190518SK011ATHENS, GREECE – After spending 10 years in maximum security prisons in Turkey – stints that included isolation and torture – Turgut Kaya, a prominent local journalist and dissident, decided to flee.

And like thousands of his fellow Turks in recent years, his destination was neighboring Greece.
“It's not just me,” Kaya, 45, who was recently given asylum after a 55-day hunger strike, said at an Athens cafe. “Erdogan is attacking students, academics, teachers, and many other people that have no relations with any of the organizations he considers his enemies."

They don’t have any proof to go after me or these people – even judges are now in prison or exile,” he added.

Since the failed coup in July 2016, Turkish President, Recep Tayip Erdogan has intensified his crackdown on Turkish journalists and dissidents like Kaya. But the sweep has been all-encompassing and massive, and has ensnared thousands of people from all walks of life.

As of July, tens of thousands of people are in jail and more than 100,000 investigations have been launched against members of the military, teachers, lawyers, doctors, even Supreme Court justices and prosecutors, who are suspected of either being members of Kurdish organizations or the one known locally as FETO run by US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, whom Erdogan considers the mastermind behind the failed coup.

“It's definitely a witch hunt,” said Spyros Sofos, a researcher at Center of Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. “Everyone in the opposition is being criminalized. Also, anyone with a personal animosity against someone else can just accuse them of being a member of FETO or the Kurdish organizations – and because no one is willing to investigate the claims, these people are easily included in the list of suspects.”

As a result, the numbers of Turkish citizens applying for an asylum in Greece skyrocketed from 42 in 2015 to 1,827 in 2017, and 1,152 the first six months of this year.

More than 3,000 Turkish refugees have settled mostly in Athens and Thessaloniki, a city very close to Turkish hearts, as it was the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, and home to a Turkish minority until the 1920s, when a population exchange between Greece and Turkey took place.

Some like Kaya apply for political asylum. Others, come with student visas or have work permits. And the better-off buy property: 1,000 Turks have bought homes valued at more than $283,000, the minimum necessary to spend for buyers to get the Schengen visa that enables them to stay in Greece and freely move around other countries in Europe in that bloc.

Some, like Serkan Zihli, 38, say Greece is an obvious choice due to its proximity to Turkey.

Zihli, who until three years ago co-owned a PR company and employed 10 people in Istanbul, it was obvious that he would be targeted: He had participated in protest in 2013 against Erdogan's plans to turn a central Istanbul park called Gezi into a mall. The protest later turned into a nationwide movement, where millions of people of diverse political views and socioeconomic class – as well as age – protested the government as well as the plans for the park.

Zihli was a visible protestor, widely quoted in the media and his tweets were widely spread. Shortly after, he was prosecuted under Turkish laws that make it criminal to insult the president. Then came the visits by tax authorities to his business resulting in constant fines, visits he believes was deliberate harassment.

Zihli decided to sell everything and move to Greece, where he found a job and where his family can visit due to its easy travel connections to Turkey.

“I was sued for insulting the president and the government on Twitter even though I was just criticizing the government,” Zihli said. “But you can get prosecuted even if you just retweet something…this is done to frighten ordinary people. I'm never going back to Turkey.”

Still, this surge in asylum claims has resulted in further tension between the two countries, whose relationship has rarely been cordial.

This time, Erdogan is demanding extradition of the asylum-seekers from Turkey. One notable case was right after the coup, when eight Turkish soldiers, who on the night of the coup flew with a military helicopter from Turkey to Greece. Despite Erdogan's requests for extradition, the eight soldiers were given asylum.

The latest tiff is over Kaya's case – Turkey has issued an international arrest warrant via Interpol for his arrest.

On Aug 4, the spokesperson of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hami Aksoy, urged Greece to “respect good-neighborly relations and follow international law" while pushing Greece to extradite kaya.

But the Greek Minister of Justice said no even though a Greek court ruled in favor of the extradition to Turkey.
Erdogan has been using such cases to Turkey's political advantage.

"This reveals once again that the traditional sentiments of the Greek political power against Turkey have not changed,” said Aksoy.
Analysts agree.

“He’s trying to convince people that there are forces in the West and Greece that are fighting to destabilize the country,” Sofos says. “He’s even using the current economic crisis saying that Turkey is under attack to reinforce that narrative.”

“He is actually making it possible for an easy and voluntarily exit to potential dissidents," he added. "In a way it's a continuation of the purge.”

Meanwhile, those in exile say that the divisions that plague Turkey are mirrored in exile.

“Normal people have been divided into those that are conservative religious and the secularist modern ones,” said Zihli. “The two groups don’t speak to each other anymore. They live in different neighborhoods, they hang out in different areas.”

And those stuck in exile believe it won't end anytime soon.

Zihli works in customer support in Athens at a telecommunications company. He is vastly underemployed.

“This is the only job that I can do here because they provide me with the visa,” said Zihli. “(I'm in) an entry-level position, thanks to Erdogan. But, the most important thing is I’m free.”

Photo: May 19, 2018 - Istanbul TURKEY - Nilgun Yilmaz, a 56-year-old female accountant, voted in the June 24th elections for the social democratic CHP Party leader Muharrem Ince. She says she doesn't like Erdogan's government and with wants to keeps Turkey a secular republic.
Credit: Sevgi Koç / ARA Network Inc. (05/19/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/26/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

German work-life balance

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU_IGMetall.jpegBERLIN – Hani Ewald, 48, a nurse in Berlin who regularly puts in more than 40 hours a week, would gladly slash the time she spends at work if she were guaranteed her full-time salary.

"Why wouldn't I work less?" she said in Berlin recently on a rare afternoon off. "I could use that time to relax and maybe sleep in for once."

Such a proposal sounds like a pipe dream for Americans who worked the most hours among the world's seven largest economies last year, according to OECD statistics.

But for Germans, designing a work schedule to accommodate a healthy work-life balance could soon become a reality thanks to the nation's largest union.

German metal workers and electricians can now opt for a 28-hour work week for as long as two years without taking a loss in wages after around 1.5 million metalworkers and electricians went on partial strike in January and February demanding more workplace flexibility. Under the new labor rules that took effect earlier this year, taking the shorter workweek poses no threat to their full-time positions.

Industry leaders caved to most of the workers' demands, giving the workers a 4.3 percent wage hike in addition to the option of a shorter workweek for up to two years.

In a country staring down an aging workforce and the rapid digitalization of traditional industries, the optional shorter workweek and other measures may keep the German economy humming into the future, economists said.

"Both employers and employees should have the freedom to jointly find the ideal arrangement for their specific circumstances," said Christoph Schmidt, president of the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises the government.

In return for the 28-hour workweek option, employers can introduce a temporary workweek of up to 40 hours per week for as much as 18 percent of their employees in order to compensate for less staff. That's five hours more than the mandated 35 hours per week for metal workers and electricians. But employers can only demand more time on the job when the average workweek per full-time employee reaches 35.9 hours per week.

Proponents of the arrangement said it helps even out an "enormous polarization" in the workforce, where some employees work longer hours while those who'd like to work more are shut out from extra shifts.

"Reduced full-time hours for all would mean less work for all those who work too much already and more work for those who would like to work more," said University of Jena Sociologist Klaus Dörre.

Flexibility in work schedules is becoming the key benefit employees seek out nowadays when starting a new career, especially given the rise of remote work in a digitized economy, Dörre said. "They demand time sovereignty, such as more individual control over free time," he said.

Heeding such demands and weaving them into Germany's already strict protections for workers could be key to meeting the raft of challenges the world's fourth-largest economy faces in the future.

In Germany, traditional, family-owned enterprises adhering to a strict 9 to 5 work schedule have dominated economic output for generations and facilitated Germany's current status as the world's exporting powerhouse.

But such firms spread across the country in rural enclaves are no longer attractive to a new generation drawn to the bright lights of Berlin and Hamburg, where a startup culture of home offices and flexible work schedules is the norm.

It doesn't help matters that, by 2030, declining birthrates and disinterest in traditional industries like metalwork could leave Germany needing as many as 3 million skilled laborers by 2030, according to a 2017 study by Swiss economic research institute Prognos.

Presenting workers with flexible work arrangements like the temporary 28-hour week could make traditional enterprises attractive again and help them to meet the challenges of globalization and digitalization, said Dörre.

But in Berlin, where creative professionals have flocked for generations to the city's laid-back lifestyle, nurse Hani Ewald said that a disadvantage of the scheme could be that "I'd get too accustomed to not working as much and I may not want to go back [to full-time work]."

At the same time, workplace flexibility would require loosening strict German legal restrictions in order to allow digital nomads to work longer than the current 8-hour workday with an 11-hour break in between as codified in German law. That’s a highly controversial move, said Schmidt.

Despite the unknowns, Dörre remains confident that traditional German industries are already reading the writing on the wall that the future of work in Germany means more workplace flexibility – and an arrangement where workers can choose to work less.

"Considering the effects of digitization, what we need is a markedly more radical, collective reduction in working hours," he said. "Initial debates within the trade unions are already pointing in such a direction."

Photo: May 30, 2018 - Giffhorn, Germany - IG Metall workers striking in Giffhorn, Germany.
Credit: Courtesy of IG Metall official Twitter page (05/30/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/23/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Greeks don't feel the celebratory mood after EU bailout ended

GRBailout18ATHENS, Greece – After eight years, Greece is slated to rejoin the international economy when it’s European bailouts officially end on Aug. 21.

“Greece will now become a regular country,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in Athens recently in a speech marking the end of the $305 billion rescue dating from the Eurozone crisis. “It will get back its political and economic sovereignty. With the agreement on the Greek debt, the country is finally turning a new page and moves on a new period, where austerity will every day be substituted by social justice.”

After teetering on bankruptcy in 2009 amid the financial crisis and ensuing recession, and government spending that had been rising since Athens hosted the 2004 Olympics, Greek debt has stabilized at $402 billion, or 180 percent of gross domestic product, up from 109 percent before the crisis started, according to analysts.

But many Greeks aren’t celebrating.

Greece’s creditors – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – forced Tsipras to hike taxes and cut pensions, social welfare benefits and other public investments.

Unemployment is 20 percent, up from 12 percent when the crisis started, and more than double that for those under 35. One out of three Greeks now live under the poverty line. From a $414 billion economy – close to that of Washington State – Greece's GDP is now $227 billion, a 45 percent decrease.

“The celebration for the end of the crisis for us, young people, is like we’re being administered a placebo,” said Eleni Polydorou, a 24-year-old unemployed video producer who has never had a full-time job. “It’s a moment of optimism that you know isn’t real. We’ll still be living in conditions dictated by the bailout agreements and austerity.”

With half of Greece’s youth out of work, Polydorou is desperate. She’s been sending out many resumes and gets the same canned response: she shouldn’t expect a lot of money.

“Most jobs don’t pay anymore,” said Polydorou. “That’s why many young people leave the country.”

With elections slated for next year, the government is promising jobs and economic reforms to help. Many are skeptical.

Dimitris Charalambis, a political scientist who recently retired from the University of Athens after 35 years of teaching, knows austerity all too well. His salary shrunk by 40 percent. He fears he’ll soon be seeing cuts in his pension.

“Pension cuts are obviously unfair, especially for us who've spent so many years working in such a crucial sector, like education,” he said. “Now, we have to live at risk of poverty.”

The future feels gloomy, some say, because of the June agreement between Greece and its creditors. The Mediterranean country will have to achieve a 3.5 percent surplus until 2022 and a 2 percent surplus until 2060. Such high surpluses are difficult even for oil-producing countries to achieve for 40 years in a row, said Charalambis.

The accord requires the government to cut spending to reach that ambitious surplus, which could lead officials to cut pensions. Delays in payments to contractors and pensions account for this year’s surplus, Charalambis said. While he waits for his pension to arrive in the coming months, he has no other income.

Average incomes are down to $11,400 compared to $52,190 nine years ago.

Today, Greeks make 67 percent of what their European counterparts earn. As a result, almost half of Greeks struggle to pay their home loans, compared to the 5 percent who did before the crisis started. Foreclosures have become normal.

“The bank tried twice to kick us out of our home,” said 56-year-old former electrician Vasilis Skopelitis, who recently suffered a heart attack. “The first time they came, they saw me enraged and got scared and left. The second time, solidarity groups showed up in our doorstep and in order to avoid any media attention, they left again.”

Skopelitis describes how before the crisis, Greek banks gave him, his wife and his children all sorts of loans, for example, $150,000 to buy and renovate a house. His children then lost their jobs, couldn’t pay their loans, lost their homes and moved back in with him and his wife.

Today, they’re all unemployed and they all live under Skopelitis’ roof. They now survive on $584 worth of his monthly pension benefits.

“I paid every single installment when I had a job and until the crisis started,” said Skopelitis, referring to taxes and pension payments. “Now, what should we pay first? Food, electricity, or the bank?”

Photo: July 3, 2018 - Athens, Greece - Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in a meeting with EU Commissioner for Economic & Monetary Affairs Pier Moscovici in Athens. Tsipras posted on his official Twitter account that Greece finally managed to end the bailout program succesfully.
Credit: Courtesy of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' official Twitter account. (07/03/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/20/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Nigeria's ongoing child labor issue

NGR180610AA002ABUJA, Nigeria – Hadiza Musa, 14, carried a bucket of plastic sachets filled with chilled water toward a commuter bus.
It's her job.

“Every day I stand here by the roadside, come rain, come shine, trying to earn money to help my parents,” said Hadiza. “It’s a risky business as sometimes accidents do occur. Last year, three girls were killed by reckless drivers.”

Hadiza is among several girls between the age of 10 and 15 hawking at a railway crossing in Gudi, a small agrarian community along the busy Abuja-Akwanga motorway in Nasarawa State in north-central Nigeria.

She and millions of other kids are why child labor remains a major source of worry in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

More than half of Nigerian 79 million children – those between the ages of five and 17 work – including employment in hazardous conditions, according to a report issued in February by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, UNICEF and other organization.

It's something to be deeply concerned about, say NGOs.

“The high level of diverse and tedious jobs that children execute in dangerous circumstances is particularly worrying,” said a UNICEF Nigeria statement. “These jobs include being street vendors, beggars, car washers or watchers and shoe shiners. Others work as apprentice mechanics, hairdressers and bus conductors while a large number work as domestic servants and farm hands.”

For Fatima Usman, 7, hawking chilled water along streets in Lafia, the capital of Nasarawa State, has been a major source of income helping her widowed mother. She faces the constant risk of being run down by a fast-moving vehicle.

“I have to sell pure water every day to help my mother towards feeding (the family),” said Fatima before she dashed across a busy motorway to sell water to drivers stopping for fuel at a gas station on the Lafia-Makurdi motorway. “I lost my father two years ago and there is no one looking after us. We survive mostly from this. My mother does domestic chores to earn money.”

Child’s right expert Lucy Usen said girls often work at an earlier age than boys, particularly in rural communities. They especially face danger, she added.

“They stand the risk of being abused, emotionally and physically,” said Usen, who is coordinator of the Child’s Protection Network. “Sometimes, they can get knocked down by vehicles. Sometimes people lure them into uncompleted buildings and rape them. Sometimes even in their houses, they offer to buy the whole items the girls hawk and in return they violate these girls.”

Only recently, Usen said, four men lured an 8-year-old girl selling peanuts on the streets of Gombe in northeastern Nigeria and gang-raped her.
A joint report of the Nigerian National Population Commission, UNICEF and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, approximately six out of 10 street children experience some form of violence. One in four girls and one in five boys experienced sexual violence.

“There are several dangers these children face out there on the street,” said Usen. “People can deceive them, they can be abducted, kidnapped. Sometimes they can get infected with HIV AIDS. The prevalence rate is still high and some people believe that having sexual relationship with a minor is a cure. That’s a myth but they are doing it.”

Fatima,13, of Angwan Rairayi in Lafia, experienced those dangers while selling Madidi, a local corn snack.

“I was going about hawking Madidi one afternoon a year ago in September,” Fatima recalled. “I was approached by a man who indicated interest to buy the snacks. He asked me to follow him to his house. When we got there, he brought out N2000 [about $6] saying he’s paying for all that I was peddling but that he must have sex with me.”

When she refused, the man raped her several times, she said.

It's incidents like these that have child advocates so desperate to get these children off the streets and back into schools. But they say they are fighting a losing battle as people become more desperate due to falling oil prices hurting the economy.

In fact, Nigerian officials say widespread child labor in Nigeria, particularly in the northern part of the country, is due to widespread poverty, rapid urbanization and a breakdown in extended family affiliations.

At the same time, advocates say it's also the north's largely Muslim population that is resistant to the Child's Right Act, and is why the act has not been fully adopted in Nigeria: The act protects children and sets punishments for offenders of trafficking in children, child abuse, forced child labor and other violations of children's rights.

Rotimi Olawale, executive director of the African Youth Panel, a youth advocacy organization, says that 26 of 36 Nigerian states have adopted the act, with all 10 resisting in the north because parents see the Act as ‘Western’ in origin and contrary their culture and religion.
That has led to predicable consequences, he added.

“It’s not strange that the ratio of out-of-school girls is high in the north compared to other part of the country,” said Rotimi Olawale, executive director of the Africa Youth Panel.

Gombe University Political Scientist Abdulkadir Saleh says the Boko Haram insurgency is a major reason girls don’t go to school but hawk on the street: Besides disrupting families, villages and local economies, there is fear of going to schools, a major target of the extremist group.
He added that Muslim practice of polygamy was also a factor.

“This increases the burden on the family because if you have two wives and many children, of course you may not be able to cater for their needs,” said Saleh. “They sometimes provide for themselves.”

Olawale said his organization is working in collaboration with local officials in the north to adopt the Child Rights Act and improve the situation for children.

Girls like Hadiza hope for that, for a better future.

“I would like to go to school and become a teacher,” Hadiza said, with a brief sparkle in her eyes. “I want to be able to work and earn enough to take care of my mother.”

Photo: June 10, 2018 - Lafia, Nasarawa State, Nigeria - A young girl sells packaged table water on the street in Lafia. She is at risk of molestation from motor-park touts as well as sanitary officials who make her do chores such as cleaning.
Credit: Ali Abare Abubakar/ ARA Network Inc. (06/10/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/30/18

A version of this story was published in Public Radio International.

"Meat wars" get serious in France

PETAFranceMeatPARIS—A decade ago vegetarian visitors to France had to face scornful looks and a diet of omelettes and salad when eating at restaurants or in French homes.

But times have changed.

Not only are there over 320 vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Paris alone, but the country’s butchers now fear the popularity of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles is threatening French culture.

In June, the French Federation of Butchers sought the help of the government against the rising number of attacks from vegan activists, who have been targeting shops with anti-meat graffiti and stickers.

"It's terror that these people are seeking to sow, in their aim of making a whole section of French culture disappear," Federation chief Jean-François Guihard wrote in a letter to Interior Minister Gérard Collomb.

While French consumers, particularly in urban areas, have been warming up to meat-free cuisine on health and animal-welfare concerns, the ready availability of quinoa and kale isn’t likely to replace their penchant for boeuf bourguignon and steak frites.

Since 1959, Parisians and tourists have been patiently waiting in line for up to 30 minutes to gain a table at Le Relais de Venise, an unassuming restaurant in the 17th arrondissement (district) in northern Paris that lists only one main course on the menu: entrecote steak accompanied by a secret sauce and double portion of fries.

“I come here to treat myself,” said Alice, 35, waiting in line with her office co-workers at lunchtime. “I try to eat less meat and charcuterie for health reasons but I don’t want to give it up completely. After all it’s part of the French way: we like to live well and enjoy nice food and drink.”

While their views on meat eating might differ, the growing ranks of vegans and vegetarians in the land of gastronomy share the same approach. Even though people who eschew all animal products, including wool and leather, remains a tiny percentage in France, around 5% percent of French people consider themselves vegetarian or vegan, according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted in 2017.

“France is certainly behind countries like Germany in terms of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. But we remain very demanding when it comes to the quality of the alternatives to meat and dairy products,” said Yannick Fosse, one of the three young entrepreneurs who founded Les Petits Veganne, an artisanal organic vegan cheesemaker based in Lorraine, eastern France.

The trio spent more than a year perfecting a recipe that would meet the exacting standards of French palates.

“There is huge demand for our products because we use a slow process that ensures the flavor and the texture resemble those of traditional French cheese,” he added.

The meat-free trend isn’t restricted to haute cuisine.

According to Herta, a supermarket delicatessen brand, 30 percent of people in France are “flexitarians,” opting for a plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat. The findings have prompted the company to launch a range of vegetable-based meat substitutes to appeal to the changing taste of French consumers.

And in a worrying sign for the poultry, pork and beef farmers, at least 50 percent of people in France say they want to increase consumption of vegetable-based food, according to an Ifop/Lesieur poll.

Farmers and butchers also seem concerned about a significant fall in meat consumption in France, which has slumped 20 percent in the past 20 years.

Meat consumption in France was estimated at 185 pounds per person in 2017 compared with an average of 152 pounds for the rest of the European Union, according to French farming agency FranceAgriMer. But it’s still well below the 207-pound peak in 1998.

These figures point to increased awareness among the French public about the effects of intensive farming on animal welfare and the environment, said Eddy Fougier, a French political scientist specializing in protest movements.

“There is of course the trendy aspect of the ‘veggie’ lifestyle that has been seized by food producers because it’s fashionable," he said. "But it’s obvious we are eating less meat and our attitude toward animals is changing, as people come to terms with the reality of intensive animal farming and its negative effects on the environment. For example, the proliferation of toxic seaweed on the coast of Brittany, fueled by intensive pig farming.”

“Today, fewer people find it acceptable to buy eggs laid by hens kept in cages," he added. "They’d rather eat organic or free-range eggs."
The involvement of French celebrities has also contributed to spreading this message. Earlier this year, well-known actress Sophie Marceau spoke out against the production of battery-cage eggs as part of an awareness campaign launched by animal protection association L214.

For many years French icon Brigitte Bardot has been at the forefront of several campaigns against bullfighting, hunting and animal cruelty, such as the breeding of ducks for foie gras, or duck liver. The production of this luxury food involves force feeding the animals with a tube to obtain an enlarged liver with a fatty texture that is prized by gourmets around the world.

However, farmers and butcher are fighting back and resorting to lobbying against the perceive threat against France’s tradition of meat eating.

Their strategy seems to be working.

A proposal to require schools to introduce a weekly vegetarian meal was swiftly rejected in parliament. On the back of an amendment submitted by a farmer lawmaker, vegetarian food producers no longer have the right to use the words “steak,” “fillet,” “bacon,” “sausage” or any meat-related terms to market products that are not partly or wholly made up of meat.

The regulation also applies to vegetarian and vegan products sold as dairy alternatives. For example, Les Petits Veganne has to market its version of camembert cheese with the similar-sounding “camembaire.”

Refusals to comply with these regulations could lead to fines of up to $350,000.

Photo: PETA France tweeted "The real victims of violence in the meat industry are animals exploited for their meat."
Credit: Courtesy photo by animal protection association L214

Story/photo published date

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Don't touch my pension, Mr. Putin!

RUSNavalnyRetirementMoscow--Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have survived allegations of high-level corruption and falling living standards in recent years, but they are now falling fast over an unpopular government plan to raise the national retirement age.

Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, announced last month that the state pension age would gradually rise by eight years to 63 for women and five years to 65 for men. The increase is the first change to norms that were established by Soviet authorities during the 1930s.

The news triggered anger and nationwide protests that look set to grow. Just under 60% of Russian men die before the age of 65, according to statistics. Although Russian women can expect to live to 73, many say their employment opportunities are limited once they reach middle age.

“A significant portion of Russian citizens will not survive to retirement,” said the Confederation of Russian Labour, the trade union that is spearheading opposition to the pension reforms, in a statement.

The government’s move, which was announced on World Cup opening day in an apparent bid to bury bad news, was particularly controversial because Mr. Putin had previously pledged he would never increase the age at which Russians can stop working. Mr. Medvedev also announced that VAT would rise from 18% to 20%, earning an extra 600 billion roubles ($9.6 billion) for the Treasury. Mr. Medvedev said that the increase was “unavoidable and long overdue”.

“I’ve worked my whole life and paid taxes, and now the government wants to cheat me out of my pension,” Stanislav Orlov, a 47-year-old I.T. worker in Moscow, told the Washington Times.

Mr. Putin’s ratings have slipped from 77% to 63% since the reforms were announced, according to VTsIOM, the state-run pollster. The slump comes despite Russia’s successful hosting of the 2018 World Cup, which was widely described as one of the best tournaments ever. The figures are the Kremlin strongman’s lowest since shortly before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, when Mr. Putin’s popularity rocketed to sky-high levels amid a wave of nationalist sentiments.

“For the first time, Putin’s ratings aren’t coinciding with the ratings of Mother Russia,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a political commentator for the Vedomosti business newspaper . “Mother Russia is rising, but the father of the nation is falling, and dragging down with him all government institutions.”

Over 90% of Russians are against the increase in the national retirement age, and in a rare show of public dissent, over 2.5 million Russians have signed an online petition calling on Mr. Putin to drop the plan.

Further declines in Mr. Putin’s approval ratings could have dramatic consequences, analysts warned. Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speech writer turned political analyst, said that the president’s popularity underpinned the entire government. “If this foundation vanishes, the whole structure will collapse like a house of cards,” Mr Gallyamov told the BBC’s Russian-language service.

Russians opposed to the pension reforms have held small-scale demonstrations, but protests are banned in major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg until July 25 due to World Cup security measures. One activist risked arrest however by stripping naked and standing on Red Square with a sign that read: “They robbed me even of my underwear.”

Russia’s Communist Party, the second largest party in parliament, is urging further nationwide rallies on July 28 to force the government to reverse its decision. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, said that the increase in the state pension age would mean that “grannies will no longer be able to look after their grandchildren” while their parents go out to work, as is common in many Russian families. Mr. Zyuganov is calling for a national referendum on the issue, a suggestion that has been rejected by United Russia, Mr. Putin’s ruling party.

“Medvedev and Putin raising the pension age is a genuine crime. It’s a simply robbery of tens of millions of people masquerading as a necessary reform,” said Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic.

When reminded of Mr Putin’s 2005 promise that he would never raise the state pension age, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that rising life expectancies and economic difficulties meant that the president had been forced to go back on his word. “There have been changes both in terms of demography and from the point of view of the level of economic development. No country exists in a vacuum,” Mr. Peskov said. Retirement ages for some professions, including soldiers, police officers, teachers and doctors will remain unaltered.

Some analysts have suggested that the government is actually seeking a smaller increase in the retirement age than the one it has announced and is planning to offset public anger by announcing a watered down version of the plan at a later date. Supporters of the increase say the current pension system is a Soviet-era relic that is badly in need of an overhaul and that it would be untenable in the long-term.

For now, though, the Kremlin is so worried about street protests over the pension issue that it has tasked officials with monitoring the public mood, Russian media has reported, citing sources close to the presidential administration. Some of the largest protests of Mr Putin’s rule took place in 2005 after the government scrapped social benefits for senior citizens.

There are about 36 million senior citizens in Russia, according to government statistics. The average pension is 13,342 rubles ($213) a month, and many are forced to work part-time or depend on financial support from family members to supplement their meagre incomes.

Anton Siluanov, the finance minister, drew fire in June when he suggested that people should set aside funds for their old themselves and not rely entirely on state pensions. About 22 million Russians — roughly 15% of the population — are officially living in poverty, with monthly incomes of less than 9,827 roubles ($157).

“Officials are out of touch with ordinary people,” said Mr. Orlov, the I.T. worker. “I’d like to see Siluanov survive on just an average state pension.”

Photo: Screenshot of a video by Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny criticizing the new retirement age and asking people to join him in a protests on July 1.
Credit: Courtesy of Alexei Navalny's official Instagram page (06/14/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/19/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Bringing aging Nazi war criminals to justice

DEU 201201000069BERLIN – German prosecutors are intensifying their hunt for Nazi war criminals still at large by expanding investigations to the German death squads known as the "Einsatzgruppen," who are responsible for more than a million murders.

As of July, prosecutors had launched investigations into three suspected members of these death squads who they say took part in some of the most notorious massacres of World War Two.

The effort, coming more than 70 years since the end of the war and as the youngest survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust enter their 90s, underscores how the race to find the remaining Nazi war criminals is intensifying.

This attempt to bring them to justice is providing long-awaited vindication, said survivors' families.

"In a way, when the Nazis said that they would create a thousand-year empire, they weren't wrong – what they did will be felt for the next thousand years," said Rabbi Daniel Fabian of the Kahal Adass Jisroel Jewish community center and synagogue in Berlin, whose grandmother was in Auschwitz.

"For the 95-year-old men who are being tried, perhaps this is a distant memory," he added. "But for people like myself and my parents, it's still something that's very palpable."

During the six years of World War Two, Nazis systematically murdered some 6 million Jews and countless others. Horrific scenes from death camps like Auschwitz persist in history books and films. But little is taught about the brutal shooting squads known as the Einsatzgruppen.

In the war’s early years, Nazi death squads tore through villages of the former Soviet Union in the wake of German troops, killing mass numbers of Jewish and other people before Adolf Hitler established death camps like Birkenau and Auschwitz.

Some estimate that the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for more than 1 million murders, including the two-day massacre of more than 33,000 mostly Jewish people at Babi Yar near Kiev, Ukraine.

Efforts to find members of that group after so many years has become pivotal in seeking justice for the Holocaust, some say.

"The camps liberated by the Western Allies, they're the iconic images of the Holocaust," Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, an international Jewish human rights organization, told USA Today. "But the truth of the matter is that the greatest horrors of the Holocaust are really the murders by shooting."

While Allied forces tried and convicted a few dozen members of the Einsatzgruppen during the Nuremberg Trials after the war, only a handful of death squad members have been tried since then, said Zuroff. None have been brought to justice in the past 40 years.

Initially, German prosecutors targeted the death squad leaders instead of rank-and-file members due to the sheer number of those involved in the genocide. The strategy was logical given the desire to bring prominent Nazis to justice, but the implications of ignoring those killers were troubling, said Zuroff.

"People who were out there shooting and murdering innocent people…day in, day out, were basically ignored," he said.

It’s also difficult to prove if suspected Einsatzgruppen members had actually pulled the trigger because the killing squads were constantly on the move, Jens Rommel, who heads up the German federal prosecutors' office that investigates Nazi war crimes, told USA Today.

But after groundbreaking cases in 2011 and 2015, everything changed, said Rommel.

First, in 2011, John Demjanjuk, a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in modern-day Poland who had become an American citizen in the 1950s, was convicted as an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Jews. Then, in 2015, Oskar Gröning, a junior squad leader at Auschwitz, was convicted as an accessory to 300,000 murders.

Prosecutors now had new legal precedent to go after suspected Einsatzgruppen members, too: They could now indict low-level abettors of atrocities just by proving they were active Nazis at the time.

That's when Zuroff got to work. Combing through archives, he compiled a list of 79 people who were known members of the killing squads and suspected to be alive.

Zuroff's work now has German authorities looking into three suspects in the cities of Kassel, Osnabrück and Braunschweig, though no formal charges have been filed yet, said Rommel.

All three men – 95-year-old Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Hoffmeister, 94-year-old Kurt Gosdek and 96-year-old Herbert Wahler – are all suspected of having belonged to Einsatzgruppe C, the group responsible for the murders at Babi Yar, the Associated Press reported.

"Finding these people has been one of the most satisfying results of my work over the years," said Zuroff, who's been hunting down Nazis since the 1970s. "When they're brought to justice, there will be no person happier than me."

Some 70 years after the war, as perpetrators of the Holocaust and those who survived the Nazis' terror decrease in number, prosecutors are increasingly under pressure to bring suspected perpetrators to justice, said Rommel.

"We don't conduct historical investigations but rather criminal ones, meaning that we need the accused to be living," he said. "We cannot prosecute the dead."

Despite the difficulties of bringing such individuals to justice, the final-hour effort is welcome by victims of the Nazis and their living family members, as well as Germany's Jewish community.

"Even if these perpetrators are already very old today, it's a gesture of latent justice," said Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

With that gesture, added Rabbi Fabian, the arduous process of forcing the German nation – and the world – to atone for the Holocaust has found new energy.

"It brings uncomfortable memories back to the surface," he said. "But in order to come to terms with the horrors of the past, it's both necessary and important."

Photo: September 10, 2012 - Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany - Anti-Nazi sticker on a lamp pole in the state capital Schwerin.
Credit: Harald Franzen/ARA Network Inc. (09/10/12)

Story/photo published date: 07/18/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Anti-immigration and populist messages awe European masses

DEU130903JC010BUDAPEST, Hungary —Prime Minister Victor Orban has garnered criticism for undermining the judiciary, compromising press freedoms and demonizing refugees – critics have even described him as a dictator.

But Vilmos Nagy, a grad student of political science at Corvinus University of Budapest, was happy when Orban won a fourth term in office in April.

“Having a strong leader for a country like Hungary is important,” said Nagy, 40. “Someone strong has a greater ability to ensure our interests.”

In recent years, voters throughout the European Union have elected rightwing, populist, charismatic strongmen who are often compared to President Donald Trump.

But the populist gains don't mean that citizens are turning their backs on democracy, according to a study published last month by the Austrian Society for European Policy.

In a survey of voters in the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary – most of which already have strong rightwing governments – respondents increasingly preferred strongmen personalities to lead their nations but still hold steadfast to democratic ideals.

In Hungary, for example, 88 percent of those surveyed said that it's at least important to have a strongman leading the nation.

At the same time, over 90 percent of people in all five countries surveyed said that an independent judiciary, a pillar of democracies around the world, is important.

The strange paradox is partly a reaction to Europe's so-called refugee crisis in 2015, which served as the "tipping point" for the electoral success of many parties in these countries with strongmen leaders at their helm, said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.

In Hungary, for example, Orban honed in on the ills that migration would bring to the largely homogenous nation in April's election campaign, even proclaiming at a rally just before the poll that "countries that don't stop immigration will be lost." The call resonated with voters, who delivered his Fidesz party and its conservative coalition partner an absolute majority in the nation's parliament.

In Austria, where the survey found that 58 percent of the people wanted a strong leader, a far-right government unexpectedly swept to power in 2017's election on promises to rein in immigration and preserve the cultural traditions of the "homeland." Rightwing forces with similar messages emerged victorious in elections in Slovenia and Italy this year as well.

Even in Germany, often considered the nation in Europe most resistant to populist forces and charismatic leaders due to its Nazi past, the rightwing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany entered parliament for the first time in 2017 with 12.6 percent of the vote – making it the nation's largest opposition party.

Voters in the Western world have long been disenchanted with the status quo – a key factor in Trump’s win in 2016 – according to a recent study by Rasmussen Global.

Published last month, the study of 125,000 people across 50 countries revealed that over two-thirds of respondents living in democracies believed their governments either rarely or never act in the public interest.

Though immigration to Europe served as the springboard for these parties to gain a foothold in established democracies, failures of more mainstream parties to address the concerns of the public also led to their rise, said Boehnke.

"The one thing that's most important is that you have to take the concerns of people seriously, even if reality is different from what people perceive," he said. "Politicians shouldn't try to cover up the deficits and the imperfections of democracy."

But make no mistake, strongmen in many Eastern and Central European countries have gamed their systems, said Boehnke. "These strongmen understand where the weak spots are that they can use to increase power,” he said.

In Hungary, Orban has been accused by global watchdogs of weakening the nation's judiciary and free press. A recent piece of legislation also heavily taxed civil society organizations that work with refugees.

Hungarian music composer Attila Szervác, 44, doesn't like the trend.

“The government projects false problems to the destitute masses, such as inciting hatred towards foreigners,” he said. “This is targeted against a few hundred miserable refugees coming from various war zones. It is claimed that the efforts made to integrate them are the main reason 40% of the Hungarian population lives in deep poverty.”

In Poland, another EU country led by a rightwing movement, the ruling Law and Justice Party recently forced out 40 percent of the nation's 72 Supreme Court justices and increased the total number of those sitting on the bench to 120 – allowing the government to stack the judiciary.

But such shifts don't paint the whole picture. According to the Austrian Society for European Policy survey, more than 90 percent of all those in the five Eastern and Central European countries polled believe democracy and human rights are important.

After all, citizens took to the streets recently after Poland's judicial reforms, and the suspicious murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in Slovakia earlier this year, who was reporting on state corruption in the highest levels of government, also drew public outcry.

Such engagement is positive, said Boehnke, because it's not just strongmen politicians, but citizens' apathy for democracy, that poses the real threat.
"Populists tend to hijack the rules," he said. "At some point, society has to acknowledge that if you want to live in a system and keep your rights, do something."

Photo: August 31, 2013 - Berlin, Germany - Anti-fascist activists hand out fliers and keep watch over a home for asylum seekers in the Berlin working class district of Marzahn Hellersdorf. The refugee home has come up against stiff opposition from locals and protests by the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).
Credit: Jennifer Collins/ ARA Network Inc. (08/31/13)

Story/photo published date: 07/16/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Caught in the middle

DEU161616aa0030BERLIN – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12 left Germans stunned by President Donald Trump's relentless attacks on the nation's contributions to the defense alliance and its economic ties to Russia.

Germans were particularly shocked by accusations that they are in bed with Russia.

"Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia," President Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, former leader of Norway, on the first day of the summit. “We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”

Now, as President Trump travels to Finland for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, Germans worry that the nation's decades-long balancing act between East and West might come tumbling down, leaving them – and Europe – reeling from the fallout.

They are bracing for the worst from what was once their once-most stalwart ally.

"The Germans are trying to assess what could be the maximum damage and how should the Europeans react if Trump does something horribly stupid," said Gustav Gressel with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

The trans-Atlantic relationship is especially important for Germans, who have American investments to thank for helping rebuild the nation after World War II, and helping Berlin during the Cold War. American politicking also contributed to the collapse of the communist regime in East Germany in 1989, and George H. W. Bush's nod of approval allowed for German reunification a year later.

Many Germans have family across the Atlantic as well, and hundreds of thousands study or work in the US each year. The German language – and food – is peppered with American influence.

Faith in that relationship and the nations' shared democratic values, however, have made Germany reliant on the United States for its domestic security, analysts say.

Under the protection of NATO, Germany has winnowed away at its defense budget, which now stands at just 1.23 percent of GDP, according to government figures. That's far lower than the 2-percent threshold agreed upon by NATO members in 2014, although defense spending is slated to increase in the coming years.

At the height of the German-American relationship, Germany's dependence on the United States hardly tarnished citizens' views toward America. But relations experienced a 180-degree shift with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

Many Germans see the American president's constant criticism of the United States' $64-billion trade deficit with Germany and his gloating over American patronage to Germany as distasteful and an affront to nation's sovereignty.

In 2017, 56 percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center study thought US-German relations were bad, while only 11 percent of Germans expressed confidence in President Trump. That's compared to over 80 percent who expressed confidence in the capabilities of former President Barack Obama in 2016.

"I think generally speaking, we're losing a very good friend," said Jörg Dobers, 49, who works in pharmaceuticals in Berlin. "We know that Trump will be gone in four years but I'm fearful that he'll leave much broken in his wake. That will be difficult to repair."

Germany, in general, considers alliances with the US as well as with the rest of the EU as key to maintaining stability, peace, and healthy trade. Throughout its history, however, the United States isn't the only superpower with which Germany has sought to maintain close relations.

In order to pacify the Russian threat during and after the Cold War, Germany began developing energy networks with Russia, which were accelerated at the beginning of the millennium, said Gressel.

The relationship spawned massive natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany, and Russian gas now makes up almost 10 percent of Germany's energy mix, according to government figures.

That amount could increase when a second pipeline, Nord Stream 2, opens in the coming years, especially as Germany moves to shut down coal-fired and nuclear energy in line with its energy transition to renewable sources, analysts say.

Economic and cultural rapprochement between Russia and Germany, however, reached its apex in 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula, said Gressel, showing that the "attempt to flatter Russia, or to provide economic incentives to Russia to make Russia more conformist and to accept Europe as it is, has basically failed."

At the time, ultra-pragmatic German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a product of Soviet-controlled East Germany herself who also speaks Russian, was adamant in levying sanctions against Russia for the deed. That is in spite of deep trade ties valued by businesses in Germany, a leading exporting country.

Still, there was reluctance, say analysts.

"Germans are all-in-all for more of a cooperative tone with our former enemy in the Second World War," said Henning Riecke with the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

After all, Germany's formerly communist eastern states are still shaped by Russian culture, and many here feel a special relationship with Moscow.
"We have the advantage of having a chancellor who grew up in East Germany, the mid-point between East and West," said Ruth-Janessa Funk, in her 40s, who teaches fashion marketing in Berlin.

But given increased Russian interference in Western elections, cyberattacks and President Putin's desire to fray Europe at the seams, "I think our relationship with Russia is getting so hot that it might boil over," said Funk.

Looking forward to Helsinki on Monday, analysts fear that President Trump's aggressive tone toward Germany and other traditional allies will only bolster President Putin's resolve to create chaos in the political alliances that have come to define the West's geopolitical dominance, said Riecke.

"We're now hoping that Helsinki doesn't produce a complete break of Western consensus," he said. "If Trump makes specific special deals with Russia that he didn’t pre-negotiate inside NATO, that would be a problem."

Now caught between a geopolitical rock and a hard place, many analysts and Germans say that Chancellor Angela Merkel needs to take advantage of her position at the helm of Europe's ideological and economic engine to return some semblance of normalcy to the East-West relationship.
That could take the shape of hiking up defense spending and bending slightly to President Trump's demands, but not to the point that she looks like a "poodle of Trump," said Riecke.

And with President Putin, that could mean leveraging Germany's historical cooperation with Russia to salvage the relationship, "while also holding the European Union together and promoting European harmony," said Sabine Reed, a city planner in Berlin in her 50s.
With President Trump in particular, said Gressel, the key is appeasement and waiting it out to minimize the damage that his unilateral actions could have on Germany, the European Union and beyond.

"Germans don't want to do a lot of damage on their end," he said. "They basically want to freeze relations and hibernate the trans-Atlantic relationship through the Trumpian winter. And with whomever succeeds him we can start talking serious stuff again."

Photo: German Chancelor Angela Merkel is caught in the middle in balancing her Germany's relationship with Russia and the United States.
Credit: ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo published date: 07/13/18

A version of this story was published in Public Radio International.

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