23 2 / 2014
It’s been an incredible week in Kiev. After the government of President Viktor Yanukovych tried to end the protests on Independence Square by force starting Tuesday, the week culminated with the Ukrainian parliament voting to dismiss Yanukovych and appointing an interim president on Sunday.
The whereabouts of Yanukovych, who described parliament’s decision as a “coup,” are still unclear at this point.
For now, the revolution has won.
That victory came at enormous cost: more than 80 people (mostly protesters) died in the running battles with the security forces.
And it might not be quite over yet: after her release from jail, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko urged the crowd on Independence Square to stay put and continue with the protest.
Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, who is a close associate of Tymoshenko, called forming a unity government a “priority task.”
"We don’t have much time," one of the opposition leaders, former world champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko, said as parliament began its debate.
The White House said the US was keen to see Ukraine build a new government and hold early elections, and it welcomed Tymoshenko’s release.
But there’s wariness in western capitals, too. Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague warned of “many dangers” with Russia’s reaction still “uncertain.”
Tymoshenko already had a phone call with German chancellor Angela Merkel who reportedly admonished her to make serious efforts to include people in the eastern part of Ukraine, the pro-Russian power base of ousted President Yanukovych.
Much will depend on what the international sponsors of the political opponents in Ukraine will do now. Many observers see Ukraine as being caught in a kind of modern version of the “Great Game” in which Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia a global economic player, rivaling the US, China, and the European Union.
Not too long ago, it looked like Putin had stopped any eastern expansion of the EU into Ukraine for the time being by making Yanukovych renege on an association treaty with Brussels.
But that move triggered the mass protests that now seem to have caused the downfall of Putin’s ally.
Whether Ukraine can stabilize will become clearer after the next election which now could take place in May.
It’s all happened before: in 2004 Yanukovych was forced out by the Orange Revolution, only to return as prime minister in 2006 and to be elected president in 2010.
09 2 / 2014
Swiss voters narrowly backed a referendum proposal on Sunday to bring back strict quotas for immigration from European Union countries.
Final results showed 50.3% voted in favor. The vote invalidates the Swiss-EU agreement on freedom of movement.
Fiercely independent Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but has adopted large sections of EU policy.
The editorial in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung calls the vote a “turning point for Switzerland.”
“What the result means for the relationship between Switzerland and the European Union is yet to be determined but it seems certain that it won’t be good for the Swiss economy and thus for the prosperity of the Swiss,” writes Markus Spillmann in the Swiss daily.
The German neighbors are concerned, too.
“The leaders of the [Swiss] government and economy will have their hands full to contain the negative consequences of the vote against “mass immigration” for the collaboration with the EU,” writes Jürgen Dunsch in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said the vote would cause “a host of difficulties for Switzerland”.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described the outcome of the Swiss referendum as “bad news” and said France would “review its relationship with Switzerland.”
The European Commission also voiced regret and said it would now “examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole.”
The United Kingdom has also seen a lively debate about immigration lately and, predictably, the Swiss vote was “hailed as significant victory by the UK Independence Party, which said it showed how countries with concerns over immigration could stand up to “bullying” from Brussels,” as the British Telegraph reports.
France’s right wing National Front, expected to do well in France in the European elections in May, also congratulated the Swiss voters on the result. Similar anti-immigrant parties are popular in the Netherlands, Austria and Scandinavia.
Many people in Switzerland and elsewhere went on social media to voice their frustration with the Swiss referendum:
29 1 / 2014
After Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, German media commentaries have been focusing on the President’s intention to move his agenda forward, with or without the help of Congress.
"Barack Obama can still make good speeches," writes Nicolas Richter on sueddeutsche.de. “His state of the union address contains a wonderful message but it comes too late. The President has very little time left to fulfill his promise of wealth and he knows, he has to confront Congress for that. “
"The economic recovery in the US continues, but many Americans are left out. Obama has been faithful to his agenda but lacks new ideas," comments Richter.
"President Obama presented many small measures to demonstrate activity that bypasses Congress," writes Patrick Welter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Obama promises opportunity for all but the great plan is missing.”
"With his state of the union address, Obama tried to inject new momentum into his limping presidency but the many small steps indicate that he has little maneuverability for great initiatives in the sixth year of his presidency," says Welter.
“The Shrunken President” is the title of the editorial in Die Zeit which also notes that the recovery is not reaching many Americans. ”The US economy hasn’t been this good since 2009 but most Americans do not benefit from that,” writes Heike Buchter. “Obama knows that but there is little he can do about it.”
"The economic success story has been overshadowed by the acrimonious budget battle, the revelations about NSA spying, and especially by the self-inflicted debacle during the launch of the health care reform," comments the New York correspondent of Die Zeit.
Der Spiegel also notes that time is running out for Obama. “The President showed his frustration with a gridlocked Congress and nows wants to go it alone with his social agenda,” writes the news magazine’s Washington correspondent Sebastian Fischer.
"Obama wants to score points on social justice, he’s picking up speed toward the finish line by moving to the left. This is meant to keep the democratic Senate majority in November, as a recent survey showed that 65 percent of US citizens believe that inequality has increased in the past ten years," reads the Spiegel commentary.
"Overall, Barack Obama is now fighting for his legacy. With or without Congress."
16 1 / 2014
This year will reveal whether the European Union is on the way to the next crisis. After a record 18 months of recession in 2012-13, the economy is still struggling, with 26 million people out of work. In Greece, for instance, a whopping 27% of the work force is unemployed, despite the international bailout package.
And now the British government is making threatening noises all too familiar in Brussels.
On Wednesday, Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasury secretary) George Osborne raised the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union if the 28-nation bloc fails to improve competitiveness, create jobs and protect the rights of countries which are not in the single currency.
“Protective rights” in this case could even mean veto rights for national parliaments of member states. 95 lawmakers in Osborne’s own Conservative Party want each state to be able to impose a “red card” if EU rules are seen to be hurting the national interest. So far, the Tory leadership does not actually support this approach.
Yet, it already looks like a blast from the past: in the 1990s then prime minister John Major got an “opt-out” from the single currency during the Maastricht treaty negotiations and Britain has refused to join the eurozone ever since.
There seems to be a deep seated fear that Britain will somehow nevertheless be coerced into joining at some point: Osborne warned Brussels not to put the UK in a position where it has to choose between joining the single currency or leaving the EU.
The chancellor stressed his country’s determination to renegotiate the terms of British membership in order that the UK can remain in the EU following a possible referendum on EU membership which could happen by 2017.
So, once again, it’s opt-out and re-negotiate while London wants more influence with less commitment and more veto rights. And Britain is looking for like-minded allies in other European capitals but the “reform camp” will have to deal with EU countries which favor more integration to combat Europe’s economic malaise.
Latvia just joined the euro and a sizable portion of the Ukrainian population has been demonstrating in arctic weather for closer ties with the EU. Conservatives in Britain seem worried about more and more East European nations joining, they already expect large numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians to flood into Britain.
So, instead of pursuing a common approach to solve Europe’s problems, the various camps will be blocking each other’s efforts thus ensuring that the widespread disenchantment amongst Europeans with EU bureaucracy will continue and the necessary collaborative effort bog down as usual.
The European elections scheduled in May could result in an assembly as powerless as ever, filled with eurosceptics of various stripes because a low turnout will favor the radical fringe determined to make the vote about the European project itself.
It doesn’t augur well that Britain now threatens to revive the fight over the purpose of the European Union when accepting majority rule is the way forward. The EU will be unmanageable and dysfunctional if everybody has a veto on every issue at hand.
On the other hand, if Britain leaves, it will be a heavy blow for the EU, and it could entice other ‘eurosceptic’ nations to follow. So far, the European Union has been expanding with ever deeper integration, should that course be reversed, the result could be a dramatically different Europe.
19 12 / 2013
President Vladimir Putin is in a gracious mood this holiday season. He found it in his heart, it seems, to pardon a number of prominent prisoners.
In a surprise move, the Russian leader says he will soon pardon jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Putin said he had received a request from Khodorkovsky - in custody for a mere decade - to pardon him on humanitarian grounds as his mother is ill.
It’s an interesting development, especially since Khodorkovsky’s representatives say they were unaware of any such request.
Khodorkovsky’s supporters have long said he is a political prisoner and he himself has protested his innocence.
Putin’s announcement comes a day after Russian lawmakers backed a wide-ranging amnesty for at least 20,000 prisoners.
So, what’s going on here? Is Putin simply trying to ease international criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi? Or has Vladimir Vladimirovich been overcome by the Christmas spirit?
He certainly has reason to be cheerful: In neighboring Ukraine, things seem to be going his way: On Tuesday, a Russian bailout for Ukraine was announced and the association treaty with European Union continues to be on hold which from Putin’s point of view prevents further westward expansion of the EU - at least for now.
Two days later, his man in Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych told the West to butt out and suggested that Ukraine could adopt parts of Russia’s recently founded Customs Union with other former Soviet republics.
This will not please the demonstrators who have been protesting on Kiev’s Maidan (Independence Square) against Yanukovych’s EU volte-face, despite the arctic winter weather. They regard it as a return of their country into a Soviet-type fold instead of pursuing western integration.
However, Yanukovych supporters in Eastern Ukraine will be happy about a rapprochement with Moscow, Ukraine’s identity crisis continues
And lest we forget, in the summer, Putin could celebrate another diplomatic triumph when he managed to prevent American military action in Syria and was able to present himself as a peacemaker on the international stage.
I would say, it was quite a good year for Vladimir Putin. Who knows, maybe he’ll “pardon” the LGBT community next.