On July 10th, as members of Crimea’s 10,000-strong Jewish community gathered to pay homage to their ancestors massacred by the Nazis in 1942, they found the event had been taken up a notch. Being the first Remembrance Day, as the event is called, that has taken place in Russian-controlled Crimea, Moscow pulled out all the stops, financing the entire event and facilitating the arrival of rabbis and other visitors from around the world. One day earlier, President Putin himself even met with top rabbis from across Europe, thanking them for their constant struggle “against all manifestations of the Nazi ideology and any attempts to revive it.”
Tag Archives | Hungary
In a recently published piece entitled “The House of Habsburg, Revisited,” the author, Simon Winder, engages in a thoughtful yet hyperbolic polemic ridiculing the recent resurgence of interest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe. His argument in a nutshell is that, while the Austrian Empire was backward and oppressive, it nevertheless provided a sense of security and rule of law for the eleven different nationalities inhabiting this vast state in Central Europe.
Did the European Union provoke Russia?
Is it possible that the EU forced Russia’s hand on the Ukraine issue? That it inadvertently provided Russia with no other choice but to react the way it did? Is it possible that the EU leadership (if any…) is not reading the signs that Russia has awakened and that the era of careless expansion into the ex-Soviet block is over? Whatever the outcome of the present turmoil, we may very well enter into a new era of foreign relations between Europe and Russia, affecting a good number of nations and potentially leading to a second Cold War type relationship.
Russia emerges from hibernation
As Russia recovers from the fall of the Soviet Union and works to find itself as a nation among nations, it has been developing a stronger sense of self and presence on the international arena. Along with Russia’s many honorable and influential titles, such as member of the G8 (now suspended) and Permanent Member of the UN Security Council (heritage of the Soviet Era), this notion that the dark days are behind them has been giving the Russian leadership an appetite for the renewal of Russian power, combined with an ambition of political re-dominance over its’ vast neighborhood and desire to be respected - or rather feared – at its’ borders.
The German energy giant RWE has begun to “reverse flow” supplies of gas from Europe back to Ukraine via Poland, a process first arranged in 2012, with an agreement to deliver up to 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year. The question for the Ukrainian interim government and state-owned energy firm Naftogaz is how this gas will be delivered, how soon, and whether it will be enough. Hungary has the capacity to deliver 5.5 billion cubic metres (bcm), Poland could deliver 1.5 bcm, and Romania could potentially provide 1.8 bcm capacity, but not before 2016-17 at the earliest.
Talks between Ukraine and Slovakia have renewed in an effort to tap into its capacity to deliver 9 bcm of gas, but the Slovak government and pipeline operator, Eustream, are anxious to ensure that feeding gas back to Ukraine does not breach its contracts with Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Given that Ukraine imports around half of its annual 55 bcm of gas consumption, even with these new suppliers it will remain dependent on Russian gas.
“The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law.” – White House
Referenda tend to be the devices used to seal the kiss of secession. It is an instrument of the ballot box, an expression of popular will. Its first formal use, according to Eugène Solière’s Le Plébiscite dans l’annexion (1901) came in the referendum held by Lyonnais in the 13th century when citizens sought to escape Church rule, with its citizens claiming “themselves subjects of the King of France” and requesting that he “take them under his special care.”
One would think that such action immediately promises it a degree of high status from democratic powers: after all, the ballot box should be gospel, an indicator of “sovereign will” of the people. In practice, responses have been uneven, disingenuous and strategic. International law, for instance, takes an ordered, even glacial view of it. To be recognised, the seceding group must be denied “international self-determination” by the central government. It must also be subject to grave human rights abuses.
For many, the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Hungary is goulash.
Like stew, made from a collection of unlikely ingredients, “goulash” seems an apt metaphor for Hungarian politics today, which has a confusingly mixed image of setbacks and achievements. Depending on who one talks to, Hungary’s current government is either undermining democracy or a shining example for its region. Parliamentary elections are due to take place in a few weeks’ time and, even more confusingly, the country’s firebrand Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is leading in national polls, despite the fact that his international image is regularly pummeled with accusations of authoritarianism.
According to the established narrative in the West, he has in mind one goal: to obtain and hold on to power. In support of the narrative, many point to criticism coming from the European Union. It is true that the Union tends to its flock with a heavy hand, punishing any transgressions coming from its member states. In the past four years, Hungary has seen a plethora of accusations delivered from Brussels over its democratic credentials, especially on the topics of electoral reform and economic programs.
“The Member States of the EU are not immune to this reality. Corruption varies in nature and extent from one country to another, but it affects all Member States.” – European Union Anti-Corruption Report
It has become one of those curious organisations: sanctimonious yet delinquent; aspiring and failing. Riddled with ordinances, directives and suggestions about the rule of law, the European Union has found itself in another round of financial bother. Money speaks, and money has spoken rather loudly through the European Commission – to the tune of €120 billion. The EU Anti-Corruption Report, authored by the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament is filled with bureaucratic stodge (“Eurobarometer surveys” on perceptions of corruption, to take one example) and themes. It was clear, claimed EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstroem, that Europe lacked “corruption-free” zones.
In what is an at times painful read, the report suggests in contorted fashion that “Member States can be characterised in different ways” in terms of experiences over who gets bribed or who doesn’t. That is when the report gets interesting. Perceptions and prejudices, in various measures, combine to create a landscape of stringency, or laxness. “Answers confirm a positive perception and low experience of bribery in the case of Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden.” In those countries, the expectation that a bribe had to be paid lay at less than 1 percent.
Back in the 1960s, the U.S. peace movement came up with a catchy phrase: “What if the schools got all the money they needed and the Navy had to hold a bake sale to buy an aircraft carrier?” Well, the Italian Navy has a line of clothing, and is taking a cut from a soft drink called “Forza Blu” in order to make up for budget cuts. It plans to market energy snacks and mineral water. Things are a little rocky in Europe these days.
Unemployment is over 25 percent in Greece, Spain and Portugal—and far higher among young people in those countries—and most economies are dead in the water, if not shrinking. Relentless austerity policies have shredded Europe’s traditional social compact with its citizens, fueled a wave of debt-related suicides in the continent’s hard-hit south—Greek suicide rates jumped 37 percent from 2009 to 2011—and locked much of the continent into a seemingly endless spiral: austerity means layoffs, fewer jobs equal less revenue, lower revenues leads to more austerity=the classic debt trap.
“The economic situation in Europe is moving from bad to catastrophic,” says Douglas McWilliams, chief executive for the Centre for Economic and Business Research. “There is a danger that economic problems will spill over into social breakdown.” So why hasn’t the U.S. Treasury pressured lending agencies, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to shift from austerity formulas to stimulation policies? Why is the Obama administration pressing Europeans to increase military spending? And what should it matter to Washington if Britain remains in the European Union (EU)?
Now that the talks with Iran on its nuclear program appear to be on the ropes, are we on the road to war? The Israelis threaten it almost weekly, and the Obama administration has reportedly drawn up an attack plan. But in a sense, we are already at war with Iran. Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern warfare, defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the case of Iran, international politics has become a de-facto state of war.
According to reports, the annual inflation rate in Iran is 22.2 percent, although many economists estimate it at double that. In the last week of June, the price of chicken rose 30 percent, grains were up 55.8 percent, fruits up 66.6 percent, and vegetables up 99.5 percent. Iran’s Central Bank estimates unemployment among the young is 22.5 percent, although the Financial Times says “the official figures are vastly underestimated.” The production sector is working at half its capacity. The value of the Iranian rial has fallen 40 percent since last year, and there is a wave of business closings and bankruptcies due to rising energy costs and imports made expensive by the sanctions.
Oil exports, Iran’s major source of income, have fallen 40 percent in 2012, according to the International Energy Agency, costing the country just under $32 billion over the past year. The 27-member European Union (EU) ban on buying Iranian oil will further depress sales, and a EU withdrawal of shipping insurance will make it difficult for Teheran to ship oil and gas to its diminishing number of customers. Loss of insurance coverage could reduce Iran’s oil exports by 1/5 million barrels a day, or $4.5 billion a month. Energy accounts for about 80 percent of Iran’s public revenues.
When the Hungarian Communist regime fell in 1989, the transition occurred rather smoothly.
The transition to democracy had been encouraged by political parties such as the Christian Nationalist Party and the Hungarian Democratic Forum. Hungary did not witness the same amount of violence that has followed dramatic shifts in governance like in Romania at the time, or Iraq in the early part of the last decade or in Libya this decade. A gradual transformation to full democracy was planned and executed. The main proponent supporting the move to a social democracy was Viktor Orbán. Orbán, then only 26, demanded that Soviet troops withdraw, and free and fair elections be held. Flash forward to April 2010, when Orbán’s conservative party, Fidesz, won a supermajority, commandeering two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, as well as making Orbán Prime Minister.
Since that time, the fears of a return to an authoritarian rule have risen under the watch of Orbán’s government. Recently, Orbán has led an effort to change Hungary’s constitution and institute curbs on free speech and the media. There is also a lurking suspicion among many that Orbán’s agenda includes staying on as prime minister. The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders writes, “Across Europe, leaders have been reacting with alarm to a man who has used this huge surge of popularity to impose an assertive, intensely nationalistic style of politics. It marks the latest stage in his startling journey – long-haired, anti-communist libertine in the 1980s; democracy-movement hero in 1989; increasingly conservative leader in the 1990s; and today, a figure likened to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as the most authoritarian-styled elected leader in the 27-nation European Union.”