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

DECSUSOEDERBy Austin Davis

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 Occupy.com.

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.

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.

Amal, Berlin! guides refugees settling in Germany

May 31, 2018 - Berlin, Germany - Khalid Al Aboud, 33, works on finishing up the day's news items for the Amal, Berlin! website, a digital outlet that publishes local news about Berlin and Germany in Arabic and Farsi. Khalid originally came to Germany in 2014 with the German branch of Reporters without Borders, which helped him file for asylum once he arrived. After a short stint at German public broadcaster Radio Brandenburg-Berlin, Abud joined Amal, Berlin! in 2016, where he tries to contextualize the current political climate in Germany with cultural comparisons, like how the Ba'ath Party stacks up to Germany's right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD. (Photo: Austin Davis|ARA Network Inc.)BERLIN – In the early decades of the 20th century, Egyptian and Palestinian authors like Jurji Zaydan, Georges Henein and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra drew on the history of the Middle East and the energy of postcolonial Arab states to imagine cosmopolitan futures for their societies.

Zaydan, for example, known as one of the first thinkers of Arab nationalism, envisioned a postcolonial Egypt that would merge with Syria as a single nation. In vignettes found shortly after his death in 1914, he imagined a country where women would shed their veils and enjoy the same indulgences as men. Other writers played off of the greatness of the pharaohs and envisioned a future Egypt that would lead the world in science and technology in the 21st century.

Those grand, utopic visions didn't materialize. But that hasn’t stopped modern Arab authors, filmmakers and cartoonists from offering new visions for the Arab world.

Some of those visions were explored at a recent forum in Berlin organized by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), an independent initiative based in Beirut that funds organizations and individual artists in cinema, performing arts, literature, music and visual arts. The forum, called “Imagining the Future: The Arab World in the Aftermath of Revolution,” was held here on June 9 and 10 at the Archive Kabinett publishing house and exhibition space in the predominately Arab and Turkish neighborhood of Wedding.

Open to the public and simultaneously translated between Arabic and English, AFAC invited prominent Arab artists and scholars like the writer and translator Haytham El-Wardany to attend the forum to discuss the ways in which contemporary interpretations of future Arab societies are in dialogue with those of generations past.

Whether grim, mundane or surreal, modern Arab artists' interpretations of future societies depart from the nostalgic and utopian visions of their predecessors in order to stoke thoughtful dialogue about the present.

"Reality opens up, and humans become a part of the universal storm around them," said El-Wardany, who was born in Cairo and currently lives in Berlin. "In the position of utopia, we give up the standpoint of controlling reality."

Presentations ranged from close readings of prominent authors like Henein and Zaydan to screenings of modern films depicting haunting Arab futures.

One such film, In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2015), part science-fiction and part political commentary, by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour, combines live-action and computer-generated imagery to tell the story of a future resistance group in an unknown land. The fictional group embeds porcelain shards laced with DNA in the earth in order to influence the course of history and support a fictional civilization's future claims over their vanishing homeland.

An homage to the conflicting narratives of homeland playing out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sansour plays with arguments of national identity and symbolic ownership of homeland on both sides of the debate. Science-fiction is used to address how history and the archaeological record can be harnessed to support either side’s argument in the conflict.
Such controversial depictions of a future Palestine mired in identity politics and historical meddling are a far cry from the hopes of author and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra for a cosmopolitan Palestinian society in the early decades of the 20th century, said Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, an associate professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the American University of Beirut.

Born in 1919 in Bethlehem – shortly after the pivotal Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave momentum to the drive for a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine – Jabra wrote captivating autobiographical narratives of Palestinian life before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In doing so, he alluded to what a diverse Palestinian state could be, said Mejcher-Atassi during a presentation on Jabra on the first day of the conference here.

Even his correspondences with the intelligentsia of Jerusalem in the 1940s and thereafter – after being forced to leave his homeland and resettle in Baghdad, where he died in 1994 – show that Jabra clung to hope for a cosmopolitan and peaceful future in Palestine.

That hope, however, became more fleeting the longer he lived in exile, as shown through his later works of fiction, said Mejcher-Atassi.

"He placed too much hope in intellectuals," she said. "His novel, In Search of Walid Masoud (1978), doesn't breed hope anymore, but rather is more realistic of the situation – the protagonist disappears, but what role does he play in society when he returns?"

Modern Arab authors, hardened by the persistence of authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, haven't been as green in their depictions of the future in the Arab world. Rather than depicting shining utopias or catastrophic dystopias, many instead envision future Arab societies caught up in the trappings of Western capitalism.

Reading from the last chapter of his novel Women of Karantina (2014) on the first day of the conference, Egyptian writer and journalist Nael Eltoukhy imagines an absurd near-future in Egypt in which capitalist ambitions have led to the construction of novelty tunnels cutting through the earth like Swiss cheese, which serve almost as amusement park rides for the highest bidder.

Instead of adhering to a common utopia-dystopia dichotomy, Eltoukhy presents political commentary by depicting "a future that doesn't look like a future" in which people are increasingly oblivious of how they're being influenced by others.

"All of the tacky scenes of government officials, the tacky press headlines, the smug governor and the media. … People will never change," he said. "People will stay stupid."

But imagining a world so caught up in mundanity and stupidity, said Eltoukhy, is comforting in a way, given the oppressive reality on the ground in many Arab states today.

"I didn't want to look back to reflect on a past that represents a golden past, and I didn't want a protagonist that everyone likes," he said. "I have a small girl, and I like imagining her with her grandchildren around her, just living a normal life. Everyone likes to imagine the paranormal, these superhumans," he added. "I like to imagine these normal things."

A version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media.

Some Brits welcome Trump's visit as Brexit drama continues

GBR221217BP003LONDON – Brits are expected to rain invective down on President Donald Trump when he visits the United Kingdom on Friday.

At the same time, some are welcoming the U.S. president's visit as a chance to strengthen ties.

Specifically, people expressed hope that Trump and British Prime Minister Teresa May would propose a trade pact that would help make up for the potential consequences of Brexit, or the UK’s scheduled withdrawal from the European Union next year, which will likely cause at least short-term pain in the British economy.

"The trip is important to us getting a deal,” said Matthew Peters, 36, a schoolteacher in Stirling, Scotland. Peters felt it was time to renew the special relationship. “I hope he sees that Britain is a better partner in Europe than Brussels."

As many as 50,000 protesters are expected to hit the streets to denounce the Republican president, who is also slated to visit one of his golf resorts in Scotland, attend a NATO meeting in Brussels and meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland during his weeklong trip.

“At first I thought he was a joke,” said Karrie Fransman, 36, a comic book artist who lives in north London, referring to the president. “Now I find I'm running out of things to laugh about."

"I find his policies deplorable," she added. "I feel like we are watching a democratic country, not so dissimilar to ours, crumble at the hands of a government who spreads hate.”

Fransman’s comments reflected the sentiments of many in the British capital, where the mayor recently approved protesters’ request to fly a 20-foot-high orange blimp that portrays the president as an angry baby wearing a diaper and clutching a smartphone over Westminster near the Houses of Parliament.

Fransman and others’ anger also stemmed from their frustration over Brexit, which she opposes. The issue has dominated the press and politics in Britain in recent months as Prime Minister May has been negotiating the country’s exit from the bloc. On Monday, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson quit in protest after he and others claimed May had conceded too much in those talks.

Fransman said Trump’s mistreatment of immigrants, Islamophobia and racist comments mirrored a worrisome nationalism that has arisen in the UK.

“I want to send a clear message to Theresa May and Boris Johnson,” she said. “We refuse to stand quietly by as Trump spreads hate speech for the benefit of profit and our 'special relationship.' I fear our country might follow the US and that now is the time to get out of our armchairs and protest.”


But some Brits pushed back against those sentiments. A majority of British voters opted for Brexit two years ago, said Peters.

“I think the EU is trying to stop us from making good trade deals with other countries,” said Peters. “There are some politicians in the British government who get this and want to keep good relations with the US and Canada and other English-speaking allies but too many are scared of the EU. We need to show the EU that we can go and make a deal with the US just like we used to do before we joined the EU, as an equal partner.”

Director Robin Niblett of Chatham House, a London think tank, said the popular protests expected to greet Trump won’t necessarily be larger than those that erupted during the visits of American presidents in the past, like when Brits demonstrated against Ronald Reagan and the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles during the Cold War and President George W. Bush during the Iraq War.

“At a popular level, it feels simply like another wave,” said Niblett. “I’m not convinced that the anti-Trump mood is more intense than those moments.”

But Niblett said many British officials are nonetheless worried about Trump’s propensity to upend the status quo.

“Where the UK–US split is emerging is not so much at the popular level,” he said. “Rather, it is that America is increasingly not trusted by those who develop policy in the United Kingdom. And that is profound and new.”

Sean Duffy, 30, a Labor Party supporter from Glasgow, Scotland, is no fan of Trump’s. But he said May should listen closely to Trump because the American president won office for many of the same reasons British voters supported Brexit.

“I grew up with the people who drove Brexit to victory – they’re sick of being patronized, and any government which dismisses them will be destroyed at the next election,” said Duffy. “Brexit was a revolt against a complacent establishment that felt it was best placed to dictate to ordinary working people what was right for their communities.”

John Dyer reported from Boston. 


Photo: Peter Bennett, 64, a retired middle manager from Northallerton, said in 2017 it's time the UK got tougher with Europe in negotiations.
Credit: Benjamin Plackett / ARA Network Inc. (12/22/17)

Story/photo published date: 07/11/18

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

Feminists say German language for being too sexist

DEU02072018AD001BERLIN – In the English language, a doctor is a doctor and a lawyer is a lawyer, regardless of whether they are male or female.

But in the German language, professional titles and nouns reflect the gender of the person. For example, a male doctor is an “Arzt” while a female doctor is an “Ärztin" – even a male patient is "Patient" and a female patient is "Patientin."

While it may seem a slight change to outsiders, such issues with the German language have been catapulted to the center of the nation's debate about gender equality as the #MeToo movement has hit Germany.

"It's a dramatic shift in German when compared to English," said Senta Goertler, an associate professor of second-language studies and German at Michigan State University, referring to gender inequality. "Germans tend to see themselves as very progressive when talking about things like maternity leave. But looking at the language and statistics about equal opportunities for men and women, they really aren't."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the longest-serving leader in Europe, and as of this year, Germany officially recognizes a third gender on birth records. So it's hard to imagine that gender inequality could even be an issue here at all.

But German women are still paid 21 percent less than men, according to government statistics, and many in Germany still see it as wrong that mothers work. And meanwhile, women's pensions are on average only about half as much as men's, according to a 2017 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study. That’s the greatest discrepancy of the 37 countries in organization.

Many don't consider how gender inequality in the German language finds its way into "every nook and cranny of society," said Luise Pusch, a German linguist specializing in the concept of feminist speech.

Most job vacancies in Germany, for example, use only the male nouns, meaning that “girls often have a hard time imagining that they're also being sought out," said Pusch.

"They're not only being shut out grammatically, but also through their own image of this profession," she added.

That's why many here have latched on to the connection between language and gender inequality as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in the United States has crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

But activists' fights against the rigid German language have mostly fallen flat.

Germany's Council for Orthography, which sets rules for spelling and grammar, recently shelved a highly anticipated debate about gender equality in language. Meanwhile, in March, a woman sued the German bank Sparkasse for the right to be addressed using female-only nouns without success.

Even German Chancellor Merkel, the nation's first female chancellor, dismissed calls that the German national anthem be changed to address the "homeland" instead of the "fatherland," saying through a spokesman back in March that she's "very satisfied" with the national anthem in its traditional form.

Meanwhile, neighboring Austria, another German speaking nation, omitted similar language from its national anthem in 2012.

Such roadblocks toward gender equality in language are unsurprising in Germany, said Goertler.

"Interestingly enough, in the United States, although many people speak only one language and normally don't learn other languages, people there are more conscious of the fact that language and values are linked," she said, referring to political correctness. "People here don't seem to be very conscious of that connection."

Still, some women in Berlin's hip Kreuzberg area thought it unimportant to focus on adjusting the German language when efforts could be focused elsewhere.

"I think that the gender balance in the German language is completely fine," said Swetlana Soschnilow, 33, an entrepreneur in Berlin. "It should be everyone's goals to have conversations about equality, but we need to make sure that things don't get carried away."

Others, like Sandra Pravica, a 40-year-old philosopher and university researcher currently on maternity leave, saw things differently.

After struggling to break into a male-dominated field for years, she thinks that adjusting formal language to bring women into the fold could grant opportunities to future generations who won't default to male versions of professions.

"These feminine forms (of nouns) suffer from the fact that they weren't ever used for years and years and weren't ever considered to be on par with the masculine form," she said. "It would make a lot of sense if school children could learn that there are two forms of nouns from a young age."

That the debate over making the German language more gender-neutral is even happening at all is something to celebrate, said Pusch.

"They used to call all of us crazy," she said of those who advocated the use of gender neutral language decades ago. "But now the issue has arrived into the mainstream of society. The more generations that pass, the more that this discussion will become obvious."

Photo: July 02, 2018 - Berlin, Germany - A standard letter from a dental practice has to employ both male and female versions of the word "patients" in order to be politically correct in the German language. While this letter does that, most firms can't be bothered and use only the male forms of descriptive nouns and titles in official correspondence. As the #MeToo movement has moved across the Atlantic Ocean, such gender-specific quirks of the German language have been catapulted to the center of the nation's debate on gender equality.
Credit: Austin Davis/ ARA Network Inc. (07/02/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/10/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Family of slain man in Greek island still awaiting justice

Bakari Henderson, a 22-year-old Arizona University graduate, killed in Zakynthos, Greece, on July 7, 2017. (Courtesy of the Henderson Family)ATHENS – The alleged killers of Bakari Henderson, a 22-year-old Texan beaten to death on the Greek island of Zakinthos a year ago this month, are slated to go to trial in the fall as the family continues to wait for justice.

The trial, which has yet to be assigned a start date, is expected to raise issues of racism and anti-Americanism in Europe.

Henderson died outside a bar on July 7 last year at the tourist resort of Laganas when a Serbian woman took a selfie with him and his friend.

A man labeled as one of the defendants – whose identities largely remain protected due to European privacy laws – then approached the woman.

“There are so many Serbs in this bar,” said the man, according to the April indictment obtained by USA Today recently. “Why are you talking to a black guy?”

The man then threw a glass at a table in front of the Serbian woman. When Henderson talked back to the man, the defendant slapped him. Henderson reacted by punching him and hitting him with a beer bottle, according to the indictment.

Later, while exiting the bar, Henderson called at the defendants: “Come here, come.”

The group reacted by throwing different objects at him, then following him and fatally assaulting him. In an 11-second attack, they struck him 33 times, court papers said.

The Greek coroner concluded that the death occurred from brain injuries that occurred from a solid object. The indictment alleged that Henderson suffered repeated, severe kicks and punches to his head, neck, and torso. One of the defendants, a 34-year-old male, was using brass-knuckles to hit Henderson, according to the indictment.

The Misdemeanors Board of Zakinthos, a three-judge panel on the island, ruled that seven of the nine co-defendants must remain in prison until they’re found guilty or innocent. Two other defendants were set free but must also stand trial.

Henderson had just graduated from the University of Arizona, where he majored in finance and entrepreneurship. He was launching a line of casual sportswear and was in Zakinthos for a photoshoot. Just hours after his death, he was supposed to board a plane to Spain to shoot a promotional video for his clothing line.

His family in Texas believe he was targeted due to his race and nationality.

“I hate to assume,” said Jill Henderson, Bakari’s mother, from her home in Texas. “But it felt like it started as anti-American and then escalated into a hate crime because he was African-American. But, of course, we have to hear what they (the defendants) say about it.”

Henderson and two friends were in the bar but only he was targeted by the defendants.

The Henderson family plans to travel to Greece in the fall, where the trial will take place at the Mixed Jury Court of Patras, a southern Greek city. The jury will be made of three judges and four citizens. The defendants face charges of first-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in Greece.

The Greek lawyer for the Hendersons’, Andreas Patsis, believes justice will favor Bakari.

“That’s why the trial will hold surprises,” said Patsis. “We’ll find out the true motives of the killing during the trial – there are already hints of strong anti-Americanism sentiment among the Serbians involved. Despite how there was no provocation, the Serbs attacked Bakari and focused only on him, who was an African-American.”

But the lawyer representing the 34-year-old defendant accused of using brass knuckles disputed Patsis' version of the events.

“For us the indictment has positive parts,” said Thanasis Tartis, the lawyer of the 34-year-old who admits to punching Henderson three to four times with his left hand. “The indictment accepts that my client was using his left arm, his weak arm, to hit the young man, because his right arm was broken in a cast. So my client couldn’t have had enough strength with his weak arm to cause life-threatening injuries. For us, it’s a matter of proving that he wasn’t carrying any object in his hand.”

Meanwhile, the tourist season has started in Greece, also in Laganas, where tourists flock to take advantage of the sun and weeklong package deals from Serbia and the UK for just $300, including happy hours with $1.25 drinks.

“I’ve never sold drinks so cheap because it’s impossible to even communicate with the clients after a while,” said Giannis Aridakis-Kefallinos, owner of the Ocean Inn bar in Zakinthos.

Still, he said despite all the partying, he believes things are changing in Laganas following Henderson’s death.

“There’s more policing," he said. "Instead of bouncers, there are more licensed security guards, and the police have gone after those trying to illegally sell laughing gas to tourists trying to get high.”

Back in Texas, the Henderson family waits for justice. They have also created a foundation in honor of their son, with proceeds of Bakari’s clothing line to be donated to the Bakari Foundation.

“The foundation’s cause is to help families similar to ours that lost loved-ones in a tragic situation,” said Jill Henderson. “We provide to them the travel experience abroad, so they can have time together to start their healing process, but also help them with council services, legal fees, and things like that.”

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

French people are slowly saying goodbye to cigarettes

In France, cigarette packages are required to be a drab dark green, with the brand written plainly. The packs also must contain a health warning and often have a photo illustrating the dangers of smoking. Here is a pack of Marlboro Red bought in Paris with a health warning reading, "Smoking causes nine out of 10 cancers of the lung." (Photo: Jabeen Bhatti|ARA Network Inc.)PARIS – The glamorous image of cool Parisians lighting up a Gauloises while lounging at a street-side café may soon go up in smoke.

The French government is stubbing out the country’s love affair with tobacco.

"In France, tobacco kills 200 people every day,” said Health Minister Agnès Buzyn. “We need to continue this fight against one of the biggest scourges of public health.”

In recent years, France has moved to feature gruesome photos of diseased lungs on cigarette packs while also forcing companies to take brands off the covers and other deterrent measures such as government reimbursement of cessation aids. Steep taxes have pushed a pack of cigarettes to around $9 and to $12 by 2020.

The measures appear to be working.

The number of people smoking on a daily basis in France dropped from 13.2 million to 12.2 million from 2016 to 2017, according to recent French Health Ministry figures.

Still, the same data showed that 27 percent of the French continue to light up daily, a number that is among the highest rates of smoking in the European Union.

Around 14 percent of the US population smokes cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

“We must drop down to the rates of Anglo-Saxon countries, to around 15-16 percent,” said Buzyn.

But that’s not an easy goal in France, since it would mean changing the long-entrenched café culture the French seem reluctant to give up.

Tucked in the residential neighborhood behind Montmartre Hill – a neighborhood once frequented by artists like Pablo Picasso – La Renaissance is a 1930s-era café known among locals for its laid-back atmosphere and among movie buffs for appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglorious Basterds.”

No matter the weather, the outdoor tables are always packed with customers puffing away while chatting with friends or watching the world go by.

Since smoking was outlawed inside public spaces in 2007, and smokers have had to light up outside on the terrace, though some venues allow smokers to indulge in their habit inside after officially closing for the day.

“Smoking is one of life’s pleasures, and part of the ritual of meeting among friends,” said Benjamin Gourio, 44, who works in communications and said he has no plans to give up his two-pack-a-day habit. “I have been smoking since I was 16. It was pleasurable to meet with friends after school and have a smoke.”

His 46-year-old sister, Sylvie, on the other hand, has no regrets about quitting her one-pack-a-day habit that she acquired, like many in France, while attending high school. “I had to stop smoking because I didn’t have a choice: My doctor warned me I faced living with respiratory failure if I didn’t give up,” she said.

Two years ago, Gourio began a program with France’s National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction, a government-backed organization that offers free-of-charge support to quit smoking. The group offers regular counseling sessions, nicotine patches and chewing gum.

As a result, Gourio has been smoke-free ever since. She has even discovered a few unexpected benefits.

“I have recovered my sense of smell: It’s nice to be able to smell freshly baked bread at the boulangerie,” she said, referring to the ubiquitous small bakeries in France. “I have also taken up sports, like running, swimming and judo, which in a way have replaced my cigarette addiction.”

It’s a trend that increasingly resonates with French urban millennials who are far more health oriented and environmentally aware than older generations in France. Vegan, gluten-free cafes and juice bars are fast replacing traditional bistros as favorite hangouts in Paris, and these days, it’s not unheard of to swap a leisurely lunch – once a staple of French life – to go to the gym.

“The new generations have a different attitude and will change the image of the 1960s French, sitting at a cafe with a drink and a cigarette,” said Dr. Christophe Cutarella, an addiction psychiatrist and member of the scientific board at the Ramsay Générale de Santé Foundation, a hospital group.

The changes in behavior are clearly reflected in the declining number of younger smokers.
Last year, the number of smokers among men between the ages of 18 and 24 dropped to 35%, compared with 44% in 2016.

Whipping out a cigarette has become less cool, said Emmanuelle Beguinot, director of anti-smoking association CNCT.

“Even if tobacco consumption remains important in France, its image is not what it used to be,” said Beguinot.

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

Iran's largest dissident group gets fresh support from Trump administration

IRNConference2018PARIS — Iran’s largest dissident group is getting a fresh burst of support in its decadeslong push for regime change, as pressure builds on the Islamic regime in Tehran from the inside as well as the outside.

A large, boisterous rally here over the weekend was led by the largest opposition organization in Iran of exiles, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a well-connected group that has found new prominence and influence in the strongly anti-Iran Trump administration.

The pressure in Iran has been mounting in the weeks since the U.S. pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. President Trump announced a tightening of oil and other economic sanctions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a string of demands to increase the pressure on Tehran, and advocates of regime change such as National Security Adviser John R. Bolton were brought into the administration’s inner circle.

Saturday’s rally also was held amid a string of large street protests in Iran over the country’s faltering economy, including traders in the conservative Grand Bazaar in Tehran incensed over a plunge in the value of the currency and persistent workers strikes.

Gunfire erupted early Sunday as Iranian security forces confronted protesters rallying against water scarcity in the country’s south. Police officers were among the 11 people reported wounded, according to The Associated Press.

Many in Paris insisted that the Iranian regime is at its weakest point in decades.

In one measure of the NCRI’s growing clout, some three dozen current and previous officials from the U.S., Europe and Middle East attended the gathering. One of the most prominent U.S. notables was Rudolph W. Giuliani, now the personal attorney for President Trump and a veteran of many NCRI events.

Mr. Giuliani made a strong call to ramp up sanctions as the protests in recent months have spread to more than 140 cities.

“When they do that, and when these protests continue to grow and grow, this threatens to topple the regime, which means freedom is right around the corner,” he said. “This is the time to put on the real pressure. The sanctions will become greater and greater.”

Red and green confetti rained on the crowd, which organizers estimated to be 100,000, right before NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi spoke.

The stage became a waving sea of red tulips in homage to the 30,000 MEK members, an NCRI faction, who were executed by the Iranian regime in 1981, still a searing memory in the MEK’s checkered and tragic history.

The floral tribute was a nod to an Iranian folk song about red tulips rising from the blood of martyrs.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, urged European nations that have balked at Mr. Trump’s tough line against Iran to get on board to tighten the economic vise.

“We need to insist that [European governments] join the sanctions once again,” Mr. Gingrich said at the rally.

The NCRI backed the ouster of the Shah of Iran with other revolutionary groups in 1979 but clashed with the Islamist forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini afterward. After losing a vicious power struggle, NCRI leaders now say they renounce violence.

On stage at the rally were photos of “ashrafs,” or cells of resistance in Iran. Covert activists inside Iran appeared with their faces covered because many face arrest and imprisonment from a regime that views the group as one of the prime challenges to its authority.

A question of influence

Despite its influential friends and sophisticated media outreach, analysts are divided over the relevance of the NCRI and other exile dissident groups to the political tensions inside Iran.

Mahan Abedin, a British-Iranian journalist for Middle East Eye, said he no longer tracks the group. “They are not important anymore in a strategic sense,” he said by telephone from London.

But many consider the group to be the only credible and organized opposition force outside of Iran, with extensive contacts inside the country. The NCRI has pursued its objective of regime change with discipline and laserlike focus.

Emblazoned along the stage was a giant banner, in English and Farsi for the #RegimeChangeIran, a hashtag that emerged right after Mr. Pompeo last month laid out a long list of conditions and concessions Iran would have to meet to escape future U.S. pressure.

Former Sen. Robert Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, speaking to The Washington Times on the sidelines of the huge Paris gathering, praised the NCRI’s organizational strength and persistence.

“It’s their intensity, it’s their strength, it’s their willingness to sacrifice, and it’s the appeal of their messaging,” he said.

Ms. Rajavi inspired intense fealty from her large cohort of followers, an intensity that critics say verges on cult status. On Saturday, clad in her customary turquoise blue hijab and suit, she reiterated the NCRI’s plan for freedom and democracy in Iran, which includes separation of church and state, gender equality and freedom of expression in an Iran free of nuclear weapons.

After Ms. Rajavi spoke, the people in the crowd, wearing yellow vests to symbolize the sun in the Iranian crest, stood up to show the sign on their backs, which read, “Every moment for the uprising.”

The strong showing of dignitaries from leading Western countries included former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Stephen Harper, a former prime minister of Canada.

Among the U.S. officials present were Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh; and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

Donya Jam, a 23-year-old graduate student studying human rights and European history at George Mason University, took time off from her studies to help plan the rally.

A Christian whose parents fled Iran because of religious persecution, she has never visited Iran.

“I will not step foot in Iran until it is free,” she said.

Photo: June 30, 2018 - Paris, France - The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a well-connected group that has found new prominence and influence in the strongly anti-Iran Trump administration, rallied in Paris on Saturday.
Credit: Sarah Wachter/ARA Network Inc. (06/30/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/01/18

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

These Turks would rather leave than see Erdogan become president

June 19, 2018, Istanbul, TURKEY - Bilal Dündarlioğlu, a 34 year-old IT engineer from Niğde (Central Anatolia), is planning to leave Turkey. He says he's not happy with the political and economic situation in his country. (Photo: Marga Zambrana|ARA Network Inc.)ISTANBUL - Bilal Dündarlioğlu, a 34-year-old information technology engineer from Niğde, in Turkey’s Central Anatolia region, says he loves his country.

And in the next breath, he explains why he wants to leave.

“Human and political conditions are not good," he said. "I am not quite happy with the [situation] here — there is no justice."

"I am not happy with the economy either," he added. "Taxes are too high and salaries too low.”

Dündarlioğlu is not alone. In Istanbul, most young people interviewed by PRI say they either know someone who has left Turkey or wants to. Many say they’re thinking about it themselves. In cities from Barcelona and Madrid to Stockholm, Berlin and Athens, researchers say Turkish diaspora communities are growing. And for the first time in modern Turkey's history, it seems the exodus isn’t mainly due to a search for economic opportunity.

There are no official figures on emigration compiled by the Turkish government that break down the motives behind people's departure. But recent emigres and would-be emigres told PRI their decision was about safety from persecution, having a voice in society and, even more crucially, an uncertain future in the so-called “new” Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They say that Turkey went from being a haven of a stability and economic growth in the region to a country with increasing societal divisions, rising violence and a government that continues to become increasingly authoritarian.
Many people — particularly young, secular and educated Turks — say they have had enough.

"Here unfortunately a human being has no value and cannot express oneself," said Dündarlioğlu, adding that his final decision to leave will depend on what happens in Sunday's election, which could give Erdoğan even more power. "If you support the government, maybe you will be valued."

Over the 15 years Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party have been in power, they have eroded freedom of the press, free speech, expanded the role of conservative Islam in the officially secular republic and presided over an increasingly fragile economy, analysts and emigres say.

After an unsuccessful coup attempt in July 2016, Erdoğan and his allies stepped up those efforts to clamp down, instituting a state of emergency that further grants them powers to detain and imprison alleged coup conspirators and sympathizers as well as anyone else who supposedly supports Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric living in exile in the US whom Erdoğan has blamed for organizing the coup.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers, lawyers, intellectuals and artists as well as members of the civil service, the judiciary and the military have been jailed or have lost their jobs.

Then last year, voters approved changes to Turkey’s constitution to abolish the office of the prime minister and transform the country’s now-ceremonial presidency into a full-fledged chief executive. Supporters of the change said it would make the government run more efficiently. Opponents said it was move to give an increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan even more power.

If Erdoğan wins Sunday's election, he could wield near-absolute authority and cement his status as the most important Turkish leader since Kemal Ataturk founded the country in 1923.

Erdoğan is leading in most polls. But his power grab has also galvanized his opponents: He’s forecast to come close or slightly top the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff election.

Still, many of these Turks say nothing will change.

"I learned not to be hopeful about the elections because it's the same guys who always win," said a 26-year-old woman studying in Malmö, Sweden, who left Turkey in 2015, saying she couldn't take the oppressive environment any longer.

“I wasn't happy in Turkey as a woman, as a non-Muslim, single woman,” said the student, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal against her or her loved ones at home. “Harassment became a part of your everyday life. You just hoped that you'd be one of the lucky ones, so no psycho will kick you in the face in the bus because you were wearing shorts that day.”

"Those who remain in Turkey face an uphill battle against the changes that have occurred in the country in recent years, especially if Erdoğan wins," she added, explain that she visited Turkey after the coup attempt and found it "scary."

"I remember thinking, 'Where am I?'" she recalled, after seeing pro-government propaganda in the subways and experiencing the tense feeling. "I felt like the Turkey I knew, the Turkey I left died on [July 15, 2016]."

She says she knows at least six people who have left Turkey. "But every time I go back and see my friends, they are all talking about leaving," she said.

Researchers say that while there are no exact figures, there is evidence that many young Turks have left to escape persecution, to find jobs and other opportunities or because they can't imagine raising children in the current atmosphere.

“There is anecdotal evidence that the coup and the purges that have ensued have resulted in an exodus of skilled professionals especially in the areas of the media, universities and the creative industries,” said Spyros Sofos, a researcher who coordinating Project Mosaic, a program that brings together academics from Lund University in Sweden, Istanbul University and Koç University in Istanbul to promote democracy and civil society.

He notes that the impact of the migration and the purges has been to leave some sectors reeling: For example, several universities do not have enough staff despite a reverse trend of Turks sympathetic to the government returning from Europe and elsewhere.

Sofos says that it's particularly hard to measure how many Turks are leaving over fear and politics, because emigres want to avoid applying for political asylum in order to keep a low profile and protect their families and their future. Still, he says, Turkish diaspora communities across Europe, for example in Spain and Greece, have grown since the coup.

"It is true that one can easily locate clusters of a post-coup Turkish diaspora in various cities," he said.

Emmanuel Virgoulay, founder of Barnes Spain, a real estate company, says he has noticed an uptick in Turkish buyers of real estate in Spain. Turks have become the third largest group of foreign buyers of luxury apartments in Barcelona — and often these buyers tell Virgoulay one of the reasons for their move is the search for economic and political stability.

Buying real estate valued at more than 250,000 euros is one way to ensure a residency permit in some European countries such as Spain and Greece.

Mehmet Siginir, 39, a translator who had worked at publishing house in Turkey, fled to Madrid after the 2016 coup — he had translated Gülen’s books from Turkish into Spanish.

“I have no plans to go back to Turkey,” said Siginir. “Things are getting worse by the day."

Meanwhile, Siginir says he is too scared to approach a polling station abroad to vote — or return to Turkey. "But I would like to go back to visit the grave of my eldest son, who passed away a few months before the coup," he said. "He was only 9 years old.”

Still, of course, many Turks unhappy with the state of the country are determined to stay.

Bariş Bariştiran, 32, lost his job after the government shuttered his television station. He's trying to stay true to his mission regardless, in Turkey.

“I was born in this country and I love my country,” said Bariştiran, a member of the ethnic Kurdish minority from Van on the Iranian border. “Now, I try to do journalism through the internet, by any means. I want to keep defending the right to deliver information. We have technology today, we can do something. And the people has the right to access information.”

He didn’t fault those who left, however.

“Some of them have no other way out, the ones who are being persecuted,” he said. “I think they do the right thing if they leave. But for the rest I think they should stay and fight.”

Marga Zambrana and Zekine Türkeri reported from Istanbul.

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

Merkel's 'open door' policy could spell the end of the German Chancellor

DEU121121AA001BERLIN – Three years after German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to open her nation's borders to refugees, the policy that's come to define her political career appears poised to end it.

But the threat comes from an unlikely source: Merkel's conservative, Bavaria-based sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Spearheaded by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder, the party has given Merkel two weeks to develop a plan with European Union partners to reform asylum the bloc’s policies or else Seehofer and Söder would unilaterally implement a policy to turn away asylum seekers at the German border, likely bringing an end to Merkel's already fragile centrist coalition just three months after its inauguration.

That would not only spell the end for Merkel, Europe's longest-serving leader, but would also recast the future of the European Union, where eastern members have grown increasingly hostile to Brussels’ refugee policies.

"It would mean that the positions on the fringes of the European Union in Eastern and Central Europe to not accept any refugees will become stronger, which would be a potential end to German-led European policy and German-led refugee policy as we know it," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist in Berlin. "It's like domino theory in a way if the coalition falls apart: first one stone falls, then another and another."

The Christian Social Union has been vehemently against Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, which ignored EU regulations that require refugees to undergo the asylum process in their first country of arrival. Her decision to allow unrestricted travel for asylum seekers has brought more than 1 million newcomers, predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa, to Germany, overwhelming authorities and creating a cultural backlash.

The move rankled many Germans.

Last year, the right-wing, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, entered the German parliament for the first time with 12.6 percent of the vote, effectively tripling their support from 2013’s poll when they failed to enter parliament.

Meanwhile, on the heels of a series of mess-ups by the government – including a terror attack in December 2016 at the hands of a migrant that should have been deported and the recent discovery that authorities had botched thousands of asylum applications in the city-state of Bremen – the AfD has continued to rise in the polls.

To staunch support for the AfD, Merkel and her centrist government have walked back on the open-door policy in some respects, increasing deportations, allowing only limited migration of refugees’ families and forming bilateral deals with outside partners like Turkey to halt the flow of migrants into the country. Such actions have greatly decreased the number of migrants coming to Germany.

But two weeks ago, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wanted to take German immigration policies even further by beefing up border security and reinstating the European regulations mandating that refugees must remain in the country where they were registered.

Merkel accepted the border moves but rejected reinstating the EU policies. Instead, she called for measures that would create a unified European asylum policy to replace country-by-country actions.

“I’m deeply convinced whenever we talk about the dangers of the European Union, that it’s first and foremost about the foreign policy polyphony that we have, and secondly, that we still don’t have a common strategy to answer the question of mastering migration,” Chancellor Merkel said June 10 on the political talk show Anne Will. “If Europe doesn’t accomplish that, then Europe is in danger.”

Instead of getting in line with the chancellor, leaders of her sister party have dug in their heels.

If she tries to stop the interior minister and his CSU allies, they’ll end the coalition, Seehofer told the German daily Passauer Neue Presse in an June 21 interview.

“If you dismiss a minister who only cares about the safety and order of his country, that would be unprecedented,” Seehofer said. “I am chairman of the CSU, one of three parties in this coalition, and I act with full backing of my party. If the person in the chancellery is dissatisfied with the work of the federal minister of the interior, then she should end the coalition.”

The threat could force Merkel to curb her divisive refugee policies ahead of the Christian Social Union’s tough battle against the AfD in regional elections in Bavaria in October, said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.

“Seehofer is trying to kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “The CSU is under enormous pressure in Bavaria, and it’s in his own interest to say, ‘I’m the strong Bavarian guy in Berlin’.”

Merkel has reacted by working some of the politicking for which she’s known in a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron June 20. The chancellor agreed to the French president’s controversial plans to erect a common Eurozone budget, an obvious concession to the president in order to get his support for a revamped asylum policy at upcoming migration summits in Brussels both this weekend and next.

But it will be a tough task with nations like Italy, Hungary, Poland and Austria, now all led by right-wing, anti-immigrant forces bent at bucking a Merkel-led bloc and stopping refugees at all costs.

“She’s trying to practice the same magic and come to a compromise. She has to, or else she’ll lose all support,” said Boehnke. “It will be a hard task this time around. She has to acknowledge that the populists are very successful in stimulating this atmosphere that we have to urgently do something about migration.”

If Merkel isn’t able to stanch those forces and make progress, “then the coalition will end,” Neugebauer added.

That would not only provide more footing for the AfD to gain ground by attacking Merkel and her coalition partners as incompetent. It would also lend weight to those forces within the European Union that have sought to dismantle the liberal, German-led status quo within the block.

“That would be a danger for the German democracy and everything that stands behind it if she’s not able to implement something,” Neugebauer said.

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

Italian PM finds some common ground with US President Donald Trump

GiuseppeConteROME, Italy – One is a flamboyant billionaire known for speaking off the cuff, the other an obscure and low-key law professor who rarely departs from his prepared remarks.

But among the leaders of the world’s industrialized countries, President Donald Trump and newly-installed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte seem to have found unexpected common ground on two of the world’s prickliest geopolitical questions: the treatment of migrants in their country and the role Russia should play in the world.

While the U.S. is drawing worldwide criticism for its new policy of separating migrant children from their families at the southern border, Italy has drawn ire for turning away refugee rescue ships. And at the recent Group of Seven summit in Canada, Conte was the only leader to voice support for Trump’s statement that Russia -- which had been booted from the exclusive club after its invasion of Crimea in Ukraine -- should be let back in.

“It does seem the two men have found common ground on some difficult areas,” said Arianna Montanari, a professor of political sociology at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “They are both part of the same trend. Will anything change for the White House because Italy has some of the same views? Will the Italian government be bolstered by the situation? Maybe a little. But the real news is that the anti-establishment wave that created Brexit and then Trump’s victory has now rolled over Italy.”

Analysts said the face of that trend in Italy is not Conte, but rather Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-establishment League and the minister of the interior in Conte’s government.

Salvini, is a long-time admirer of Trump’s. When Salvini just a leader of a regional political party two years ago, he traveled to the U.S. expressly to meet and pose for a photo with then-candidate Trump. Salvini is the author of the policy to turn away most refugee rescue ships. And while Salvini has not formally called for Russia’s return to the G-7, the League has been dogged by allegations of Russian ties in recent years, and, like Trump, Salvini says he is an admirer of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“For now at least, it seems Salvini will have the biggest say in what direction the Italian government will head,” said Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, a former Italian diplomat who is now president of Italy’s Institute For Foreign Affairs, a think tank. “But Conte is the head of government, he has the final say, and Conte clearly has sympathies for much of Trump’s agenda.”

Trump said as much after the G-7 summit, praising Conte. “The new prime minister of Italy is great,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News. “He’s very strong on immigration, like I am.”

Italy’s new government has been in power since June 1, and for its supporters, that kind of endorsement carries weight.

“One or two months ago, Italy didn’t have a government and hardly anyone knew who Giuseppe Conte was,” said Riccardo Milanese, a 30-year-old restaurant manager who voted for the League in Italy’s general election in March. “Now he’s getting compliments on television from the president of the United States.”

But Gian Franco Gallo, a political affairs consultant with ABS Securities in Milan, said supporters should keep Trump’s stated endorsement in perspective.

“In the short term it’s much better to hear nice words from the U.S. president rather than the kind of critical comments he made about Canada and [its Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau,” Gallo said. “But I think Trump said what made sense for him personally. On Italian television, they had to add Conte’s name to the subtitles for that interview. Trump did not even say Conte’s name.”

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

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