26 7 / 2014

The war of words and sanctions between the West and Russia is going into the next phase.

Almost everybody outside of Russia and the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in eastern Ukraine believes that Moscow-sponsored separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner nine days ago, causing the death of 298 people.

Many experts think the Soviet-era weapons system used in the attack on MH17 was supplied by the Russian military. Neither the rebels nor Moscow were exactly helpful with the investigation after the crash, either.

Now, the European Union is extending its sanctions against Moscow’s security apparatus. Russia is not amused and has indicated that this move will impact its ability to cooperate in “international and regional security issues”.

The foreign ministry in Moscow generally accuses the Obama administration of launching a "smear campaign" over its alleged involvement in Ukraine, saying it rejects “unfounded public insinuations” from the US government.

US and EU sanctions against Moscow started after the Russian annexation of Crimea in March which is not talked about much anymore. President Putin pretty much got away with that one.  Unfortunately, the Russian leader had to follow up with instigating and arming an uprising in eastern Ukraine as well.

Ukrainian government forces were unable to end the rebellion which is led by characters straight out of a James Bond movie. Most of them are suspected to be Russian intelligence or military or both.

President Obama has called the MH17 incident a “wake-up call for Europe” but significant divisions remain over exactly what types of sanctions should be implemented.

Clearly, accepting the aggressive behavior of Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the West but letting the new cold war escalate is not a good option, either. And there seems to be very little maneuvering space in between.

28 6 / 2014

Saturday is the 100th anniversary of one of the darkest days in European history. On June 28, 1914, Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Although his aim was to break off Austria-Hungary’s South-Slav provinces to create a Yugoslav nation, one month later, the terrorist attack triggered a global war, thanks to an intricate system of treaty alliances.

After the Austrian retaliation against Serbia, its ally Russia mobilized, drawing Austria’s ally Germany into the war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s generals fought the Russians in East Prussia but also invaded Belgium and Luxembourg, in order to attack France. This brought the United Kingdom into the war; in November 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers as their ally. The American Expeditionary Force arrived on the Western Front in 1917. Ultimately, there were over 37 million casualties in one of the largest wars in history.

The tangle of alliances which ultimately caused the Great War emerged from the diplomatic maneuvers of the 19th century and were originally designed to prevent war. But by 1914, Germany in particular was happy to force change via the battlefield, expecting easy victories on both the western and eastern front.  

The Kaiser’s hubris led Germany into the disaster of defeat and crushing reparations which paved the road to Hitler, the Holocaust, communism, and another world war even more terrible than the first one.

The map of Europe changed dramatically after World War I, and Princip’s Yugoslavia was one of the new countries to emerge from the vanished empires, although he did not live to see it.

The place where Franz Ferdinand was killed in 1914 now features a billboard reading: “The street corner that started the 20th century.” Yugoslavia didn’t make it to the end of that century and its history still haunts the city of Sarajevo which suffered unspeakable horrors during the bloody breakup of the nation Gavrilo Princip killed and died for.  

26 6 / 2014

European Union leaders are meeting for a summit in Brussels Thursday and Friday to nominate the next European Commission president and to discuss priorities for the next five years following the EU election in May which saw strong results for anti-immigration parties and politicians who want their countries to get out of the EU.

Most everybody wants Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as the next commission president but Britain’s prime minister David Cameron has made it more than clear that he does not.

His “last stand” against Juncker in Brussels will probably be demanding a vote on Juncker. In that case, Germany’s Angela Merkel wants a majority vote and not a British veto. Berlin supports Juncker.

For the French daily Le Monde, Cameron is engaging in “combat perdu” but it’s popular in Cameron’s homeland where he has to deal with the anti-European UKIP.

So, setting the agenda will boil down to bickering over who gets the EU top job, a “federalist” such a Juncker or maybe someone who support reforms that would make the EU more of a European economic zone rather than a political union.

It looks like the European leadership will once again reinforce the notion of all too many European citizens that the EU is an unaffordably expensive talk shop that cannot arrive at an effective common strategy  - on energy and climate change, for example.

Yes, a 2030 framework for climate policies is on the agenda, too but don’t hold your breath for actionable results on this summit. No sense of urgency here and the continuing Ukraine crisis will probably also be drowned out by British posturing over Juncker.    


31 5 / 2014

The European Union is once again in full soul searching mode. Last Sunday’s European parliamentary elections mostly gave a boost to anti-immigration parties and politicians who want their countries to get out of the EU.

Of course, only 43 percent of registered voters across the 28 members states felt motivated enough to cast a ballot which tends to favor the more fanatical causes.  Nevertheless, political analysts have once again been raking Brussels over the coals for being an impersonal and distant bureaucracy that fails to inspire Europeans.

Years of economic misery and financial bailouts didn’t exactly deliver that inspiration, either. Clearly, the quite considerable achievements of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize winner are not on many people’s minds at the moment.

The triumph of the EU-hating UK Independence Party in Britain and the migrant-hating Front National in France will now reverberate through the mainstream parties in Europe.

French president François Hollande lamely demanded the EU should “concentrate more on its priorities” while Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron predictably complained that Brussels had become "too big, too bossy and too interfering."

Cameron must be in panic mode: he has a lot of votes to lose to UKIP and was preparing his country for a rerun of the 1990s Eurosceptic battles even before the disastrous European poll.

There was talk of renegotiating Britain’s membership terms and Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership should he win another term in office.

And for now, Cameron doesn’t want a “business-as-usual” Eurocrat as the next EU Commission president. Too bad that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is supporting exactly that kind of guy: Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Juncker belongs to the European People’s Party (Merkel’s caucus), which after all won the most seats in the European parliament despite the strong showing of anti-EU rebels.

For Cameron, Juncker is an incorrigible EU ‘federalist’ - in other words, someone who wants more power for Brussels and not less. And those people are deeply unpopular in Britain right now.

So, stand by for more unappealing bickering from the EU’s leading politicians just when voters made it clear they had enough of it. At least Europe’s leaders can take comfort in the fact that an EU-funded think tank recently concluded that Americans have even less faith in Congress than Europeans have in the EU.  

25 5 / 2014

The last communist ruler of Poland has died  at the age of  90. In many ways, General Wojciech Jaruzelski exemplified the tragic history of the Polish republic in the 20th century.

The German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the subsequent Soviet occupation of eastern Poland forced the young Jaruzelski to flee to Lithuania.

A short while later, Lithuania, too, was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, Jaruzelski was captured by the Red Army and deported to Siberia. At age 16, he was then sent to work in the coalmines of Kazakhstan.   

He suffered snow blindness during the forced labor which later gave him the trademark dark sunglasses.

Despite being a slave laborer of the Soviets, the young man then became their loyal foot soldier who distinguished himself by fighting against the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), Poland’s  World War II resistance fighters.

In 1944, Jaruzelski  participated in the Soviet military takeover of his own capital, after the Red Army cynically halted its advance at the gates of Warsaw, allowing Hitler to crush the Polish uprising against the Nazi occupiers. This made it a lot easier for Stalin to take over Poland after the by then inevitable retreat of the Germans.   

Having prevented a non-communist future for his homeland,  Jaruzelski rose through the ranks of  the Soviet puppet regime: in 1960 he became ‘chief political officer’ of the Polish armed forces, chief of staff in 1964, and defense minister in 1968 shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in which Polish troops provided “brotherly aid” as well.

In 1981,  Jaruzelski was made prime minister of Poland, at the very moment when the communist regime was beginning to implode.

A trade union called Solidarność (Solidarity) had emerged in Gdańsk the year before under the leadership of one Lech Wałęsa who would eventually bring democracy to Poland.  And a Polish cardinal had been elected pope in 1978: John Paul II quickly became the religious inspiration behind the Solidarity movement.   

Nevertheless, it would take some ten years of strikes and protests, martial law, western sanctions and most importantly reform amongst the Soviet overlords before Jaruzelski would finally give up on communist dictatorship.  

A loyal collaborator to the end, he apparently asked for a Soviet invasion and didn’t get one, while later claiming he had declared martial law to prevent such an invasion. In 2006, Jaruzelski was finally dragged into court for “communist crimes”  but was too frail to actually appear most of the time.

Today, Poland is fully integrated into the European Union and NATO and to many Poles Jaruzelski will remain nothing more than a Quisling, Norway’s infamous collaborator with Nazi occupation. But his life also illustrates the insanely difficult path of a Polish nation, crushed between two totalitarian powers, in which many felt they only had the choice between collaboration or death.