Donald Trump, the Classic European Candidate

American populism has a European streak - or perhaps it is the other way around. The way Donald Trump and his supporters operate is very much like on The Old Continent, right down to the seemingly incomprehensible contradictions. What may unite them is that many of their own supporters don't actually want them to have real power.

Like in Europe, many followers of Trump-like populists have not been seen in voting booths for years, sometimes decades. Like in Europe, after polls suggest that these followers will turn up to vote, many on Election Day don't, leading to surprise losses when results come in.

In the Netherlands one politician is once again riding high in the polls, outrunning all others by wide margins. Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party has for months outpaced all other figures with his tough talk on immigrants, Muslims, the European Union, and the establishment elite.

Like Trump, Wilders is a loner with an authoritarian streak. He doesn't have a party organization. He has a name for his movement, and by law he's been forced to set up a legal infrastructure, a foundation, in order to be allowed to take part in elections. But he is the only real member. He doesn't want the hassle of having to listen to, and deal with, other members. In-depth reporting by journalists with sources close to Wilders -- sources who have revealed hundreds of internal emails, Whatsapp and SMS conversations between them and Wilders -- show that he does not want, and does not like, a democratic party process.

Like Trump's boosters, Wilders' voters don't seem to care what he says. The more extreme, the better. In recent years he proposed cutting up the Quran and "trimming it down to the size of a Donald Duck comic." He also proposed to levy something literally translated as "a towelhead tax" (kopvoddentaks), an extra tax to be paid by Muslim women wearing a headscarf. Recently Wilders called to effectively deport Dutch of Moroccan descent, and he called the Dutch Parliament "a fake parliament" as, considering his support in the polls, it no longer reflects the will of the people.

Like Trump, Wilders' supporters are disgusted by the establishment elite, even though he and Trump are in every sense and for all purposes very much a part of it.

Wilders has been in Parliament for most of his career. He used to work as an assistant to the leader of one of the biggest center-right parties, and he was even a mentor to the current prime minister, who was at that time a backbencher. Wilders then became an Member of Parliament. In all, he had been part of the establishment for 12 years before he walked out of his party, the Liberals, known by the Dutch acronym VVD, taking his parliamentary seat with him and establishing his own party.

Platform-wise, he followed in the footsteps of the harbinger of modern Dutch populism, Pim Fortuyn, someone who probably resembles Donald Trump still more than does Wilders. Fortuyn shot to fame in 2001 and 2002, railing against immigration, the "fifth column of Islam," and what he termed "the bankruptcy of multiculturalism."

Fortuyn attracted the same crowd Wilders does. The similarities between Fortuyn and Trump voters are also striking. But where Fortuyn also viciously attacked the establishment elite, he, like Trump, was very much a part of it.

Fortuyn was a professor and civil servant in the late 1980s and the 1990s, working for various government ministries. He also shopped parties. Before he decided to head up his own party, he had been a member of almost every party represented in Parliament, but left each one due to his brawling nature. His political convictions seemed fluid; he changed left-wing, centrist, and hard-right parties as if they were undergarments.

Like Trump, he had done quite well for himself, mostly thanks to projects won from the establishment he would later despise. So successful he was, that in the early 2000s he lived in a spacious villa he named the Palazzo di Pietro, in one of the most expensive quarters of the Hague, the government capital. He had his own butler and was driven around in his Bentley by a chauffeur. He loved dining in expensive restaurants, and even though he professed to be an unabashed nationalist, Fortuyn was buried in Italy per his will after an extremist animal-rights activist killed him.

What unites populists like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, and Pim Fortuyn -- as well as Marine Le Pen of France's Front National -- is that they seem to defy Marshall McLuhan's truism that "the medium is the message," when applied to persons. It is not the elitist, establishment backgrounds that determine them, but the content of their message.

Perhaps this is another feature that unites them: Like Geert Wilders, Donald Trump's political communication strategy is dependent on his message being distributed by mass media, and then hoping that enough voters will turn out. But that's not enough. It hasn't worked for Wilders. Compared to the polls, Wilders underperformed in every recent election. Trump, too, looked destined to win the Iowa Republican caucus, according to polls, but lost to another candidate who had invested in a ground game.

The populists' authoritarian, go-it-alone streak has thus far proven to be their weak spot. They activate a long-dormant, turned-off electorate, but they fail to realize that it takes more to get people to the voting booth. The question is, why?

Thorough Dutch post-election focus group research performed over the years may provide a hint.

It turns out that even at the height of Fortuyn's popularity, relatively few of his supporters wanted to see him actually become prime minister. The same goes for Geert Wilders. Their voters liked the messages, but when it came to the content of their character, judged by questions about their perceived leadership abilities, other politicians scored better.

So populists seem to be carriers of messages, and not much else. Does this mean that those messages will fade, like their bearers inevitably do? No. It appears that, in the longer term, they do make a difference, exactly as their voters intended.

Many Dutch established parties have over the years copied the principles put forward by Fortuyn and Wilders on immigration and integration. Most parties have taken on tough positions on those matters, either out of pure expediency or because of leadership changes. Fortuyn and Wilders have managed to change the conversation much as right-wing conservative Republicans did in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently as the Tea Party did.

The question this raises is whether the United States will in the long term actually build a huge wall along the Mexican border and stop Muslim immigration.

(AP photo)

A Great Power Caught Between Allies and Adversaries

Is Saudi Arabia an ally of the United States? Is Iran an enemy?
This is not your grandfather's Middle East. In days past the Cold War, an aggressive Saddam Hussein, and al-Qaeda provided a comfortable set of common enemies; you didn't need a score card to keep track of who was on the field, or for the most part, who was on your side. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the rise of Iran, the meltdown of Arab state authority, and the rise of the self-labeled Islamic State, the Middle East is changing, and nowhere are the differences more apparent than in how Washington has come to regard its so-called friends and adversaries.
It's still easy to identify bad guys and to recognize their very bad behavior: among those categories fall the Islamic state, the affiliates of al-Qaeda, and Iran's imprisonment of U.S. citizens, as well as its support of terror and of the regime of Bashar al Assad.  But these days it's a lot harder to look at U.S. allies and adversaries in the region and place them in airtight boxes. In fact, the categorizing is getting downright complicated.
The United States is moving in a new direction, and Washington finds it now has significant differences with its traditional friends and is developing newfound common interests with its old adversaries. This confusion isn't going away any time soon. It's driven in part by a rising Iran and the deal reached on Tehran's nuclear program, but also by a changing Middle East in which the United States is having trouble finding its footing. Indeed, the old designations of ally and enemy may no longer strictly apply. Let's take a short trip around the region and find out why.
Saudi Arabia: Can an authoritarian state that beheads people, discriminates against women, exports Wahhabist fundamentalist ideology, and even funds al-Qaeda affiliates, really be a U.S. ally? Long considered an alliance, the Saudi-U.S. relationship has come under considerable strain. The effects of the so-called Arab Spring, and the perception that Washington wanted to encourage authoritarian regimes to step down (see Egypt and Bahrain), put uncertainty in the relationship. Washington's failure to act boldly against the Assad regime in Syria, and its willingness to cut a nuclear deal with Iran, have persuaded Riyadh that Washington is prepared to accept and even cooperate with a Tehran that is strengthening in the region. So the Saudis have struck out on their own, pursuing a disastrous war in Yemen and funding al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria that are opposed by the United States -- even while Riyadh remains central to the U.S. effort to arm and finance other elements of the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia remains a key oil producer that the United States cannot afford to see destabilized. But Washington now finds itself cooperating with a Saudi Arabia whose interests overlap on some issues but diverge sharply on others. Where the interests split, there is little chance of bridging the gap.
Egypt: With Egypt, things are even more complicated because of that country's size and its centrality in the Arab world. Largely driven by the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Washington for years saw Cairo as its key strategic partner in the region. I remember trips, with a half a dozen secretaries of state, when we stopped first in Cairo to coordinate. No more. The United States and Egypt are no longer closely coordinating their regional strategies and are at odds over human rights and political reform. The memory of what the Egyptian military perceived to be the Obama administration's flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood has broken trust. And the Egyptians, even while they maintain their military relationship with Washington, have branched out to the Europeans and Russians for arms sales. As the Arab world's most powerful country and as peace-treaty partner with Israel, Cairo is a player whose support Washington must keep. But gone are the days of the late 1980s and 1990s, when Egypt was America's closest Arab partner in matters relating to peace and war.
Israel: As the one democracy in the region, Israel is the only state in the Middle East that shares values and some interests with the United States. For years, no matter what else divided Washington and Jerusalem, the partners shared an unequaled cooperation in matters relating to peace and war that made America's relationship with Israel quite unique. In the past several years, however, U.S. and Israeli interests have begun to diverge greatly, both on the issue of how to handle Iran, and on what to do about the Palestinians. These differences are not merely tactical. They flow from deep and divergent perceptions of threats and opportunities, and emerge from differing assessments of risk, particularly as the Middle East continues to melt down. They have been made worse still by a dysfunctional relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. Paradoxically, the worse the region becomes, the more Washington may look to the Israelis as an island of stability and increase the U.S.-Israeli security cooperation. Indeed, unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S.-Israeli relationship may be too big to fail. At the same time, the unresolved Palestinian issue and different perceptions of Iran will inject continued tension into the relationship. Symptomatic of that new reality is Israel's growing closeness to Egypt and some backdoor cooperation with Saudi Arabia out of common concern over a rising Iran.
Iran: Perhaps the main stress point of the fraying relationships between the United States and its old allies is the Iran nuclear deal, and the broader perception that Washington is ending 40 years of tension with Iran in favor of finding a new modus vivendi with Tehran. This is indeed more than a perception. While relations remain contentious, there is little doubt that there now exist both a channel to communicate, and an incentive to do so. The Iranian nuclear deal is the administration's signature foreign policy legacy, and the administration is eager to see it implemented. Washington is looking to Tehran for help in sorting out the mess in Syria; in the struggle against the Islamic State; and in the effort to stabilize Iraq. Whether Iran will cooperate in these matters is unclear. But this U.S. administration has accepted something its predecessors never did: the centrality of Iran's role in the region. Driven by the nuclear deal, this acceptance has unsettled traditional allies who worry about a newfound dependency. Managing a rising Iran may well be the single greatest challenge not just to maintaining relations with Washington's friends, but to protecting U.S. interests as well. The administration argues that the nuclear deal was not aimed at moderating the Islamic Republic. But it will not be easy for the United States to maintain  a close relationship with an authoritarian  regime that is a leading executioner of juveniles, that imprisons U.S. citizens, denies the Holocaust, and represses its own citizens. 
The problem of who is an ally and who an adversary is not going away, nor will it get any easier. If Washington wants to sort out the situation in Syria, it will need the help of its old adversaries, Iran and Russia. If it wants to see the nuclear deal last, it will need to work with Tehran even as it tries to contain it. And this newfound dependency and cooperation will have the effect of sowing mistrust among old friends who may well go their own way to secure what they see as their interests, regardless of U.S. preferences. If it wants a solution to the Palestinian issue, and to pursue serious political reform and a human rights agenda, Washington is likely to clash with Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. 
Indeed the United States is stuck in a region it cannot transform and it cannot leave. And sadly, America is trapped there with old friends that don't trust it and have their own agendas, and emerging frenemies to whom it looks for solutions to problems it alone cannot resolve. Putting this round peg in a square hole will be no easy matter.

(AP photo)

There Is no Plan B for Europe

As European leaders prepare for a mid-February summit -- just the latest such gathering to seek a solution to the Continent's refugee crisis -- the politics surrounding that crisis are intensifying. Under the aegis of Dutch leadership, the 28 heads of state must somehow compromise in order to save one of the fundaments of the EU: free movement across borders. Failing such a compromise, there is no Plan B.

Europe's attention is fixed for now on Amsterdam, as the Dutch government holds the rotating presidency from January until July 1. Within these six months, the European Union needs to find solutions to several daunting challenges at once. The refugee crisis is at present the number one problem faced by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, EU president Donald Tusk, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Rutte caused a bit of a ruckus in EU leadership circles when he said that the union should resort to what he called a Plan B if the leaders of the member states fail to unite on a compromise. Such a compromise would lead to tightened controls along Europe's southern borders, and an allocation of refugees already in Europe among member states. Rutte said that the European Union has six to eight weeks to agree on a compromise.

To Eastern European member states Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia, any forced allocation of refugees from the Middle East is unacceptable. They refuse to offer shelter to any refugees, and they will not accept orders from Brussels on the matter.

Rutte declined to expand on what a Plan B might entail, but last November Dutch finance minister (and Eurogroup chairman) Jeroen Dijsselbloem hinted at forming a mini-Schengen consisting of The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, and Austria. This would abolish the current 26-state Schengen free movement area, whose 26 members include most of the EU states. (The United Kingdom, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania are not members.)

The treaty that arranges free movement of people within the area is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg, where the treaty was signed.

The establishment of a mini-Schengen would mean that these nations would reinstate dormant borders between them and the other EU states, severely limiting the free movement of refugees to the new Schengen countries. It would also effectively mean the end of free movement among a high number of EU nations, removing one of the fundaments of the European Union. Imagine the states of New England uniting to erect fences and border controls to separate them from states outside New England, and you have the idea.

If this is what Rutte meant when he mentioned a Plan B, well, that is not a real plan. Thus far it appears to be a way to exert pressure on those countries that are now opposing a compromise on the refugee issue -- most of them nations that rely on open borders for trade with some of the economically most powerful countries in the EU, among them Germany and the Netherlands. Re-establishing tight border controls would severely hamper trade routes for the economies of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

Thus far the governments of these countries seem unfazed by the Dutch threats.

(AP photo)

As Moldova Marches

The better-known "Radetzky March" is a musical march, Op. 228, composed by Jonah Strauss Sr. and played commonly at New Year's concerts. Less famous, perhaps, is the book written by Joseph Roth that goes by the same name. Roth's "The Radetzky March" is a score written to the rhythm of the glorious Austrian Empire's decline.

The narration of three generations of the Trotta family -- professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin -- spotlights not only the constancy of the notion of the "love of one's own" at a time when the nation-state was still young, but also shows how even despite the best intentions, actions in personal and political life may lead to failure.

The political novel, written in 1932, teaches life lessons of universal value. Read today, while widely applicable to the challenges of governance in general, the book brings to mind the challenges to European cohesion and governance. 

It is obvious that global governance as we knew it until 2008 has been restructured. We never quite had a definition for it before then, but we were hopeful that globalization would equal harmony and shared prosperity. However, the Orange revolution in 2004 -- the moment the so-called Russian Bear awoke -- and the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, alongside the beginning of the global financial and economic crisis, have dramatically changed the way we perceive the world today.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War had formally ended. However, it continued informally along the Russian buffer zone. The struggle was most visible in places like Ukraine that the mainstream Western media has focused on ever since the early 2000s. Moldova's struggle was far less visible. The politics of Chisinau are of interest for Russia, which wants to keep the country in its buffer zone, but also for NATO member states as Romania, which favors a pro-Western Moldova, and Turkey, which needs to keep an eye on all Russian interests near the Black Sea.

Moldova has managed to balance between the West and the East -- but while doing so, the country's political elite has become entangled with its business elite, developing a clan-like ruling class. In time, as the country's economics have worsened, the management style has given way to a zero-sum game pulling in business interests and the pursuit of power. The well-intended actions of the elite, looking to maintain Moldova's neutrality while balancing between the West and the East -- and also pulling the levers of power to build their own fortunes -- have apparently led to the systemic failure of the country. At least it has if we are to consider the last year's political instability, coupled with the near-bankruptcy of the state. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest. While it is true that the pro-Russian factions want to climb through the window of opportunity and regain control of government, the black-and-white image painted by the media, of the pro-Europeans fighting against the pro-Russians, is only part of the story.

This East-West balance has been weighted on the interests of business -- political philosophy has not been a priority. Socialism and liberalism, left-wing and right-wing, tend to have very broad definitions in Moldova, adjusted only by profit rates. While the pursuit of neutrality may be well-intended toward keeping the balance, corrupt practices stemming from business interests that operate as clans are breaking it up. That other balance -- based on "who gives more money" in the short term -- breaks the balance of neutrality and has brought the country's politics to general loss. Russia has had the winning hand during times of economic stability at home, and while as there were different levels of corrupt practices involved in each process, it was easier to get and spend Russian funds than European funds. But as Russia's economy weakened, corruption gained visibility. In the end, the balancing tactics, and the fraud by corruption, used by the governing elite have weakened the state.

Within the blacks and whites of a broader geopolitical struggle, the grays of nuance are provided by the population that is in fact protesting against the corrupt political elite and the poor state of the country's administration. The example of nearby Romania, where the ongoing fight against corruption has shaken off the political elite, has reached the Moldovan public. The influence of the stories of those working abroad -- and who report better conditions in the European Union and even in Russia -- has also grown. All of them want to see order and responsibility from the governing elite.

The protests, and the clash of popular influence against the interests of the elite, seem to create an unstable if not chaotic environment. High political risk no longer characterizes Moldova - uncertainty has replaced it. No calculation is able to issue probabilities and results for short- and medium-term governance. A guess seems just as good. And that is worrying.

All indications are that Moldova is at a turning point -- not only a geopolitical one, but a fundamental one, based on civic choices. The state's institutions seem paralyzed. The protesters, no matter who brought them to the streets of Chisinau, are all calling for the death of old, corrupt Moldovan practices of competing for personal short-term gain while pretending to fight for the country's neutrality. Russia has been most supportive of the formation of a system where politics are transformed into a system that supports a clan-type elite. The West has not been perfect, but has also supported the institutional administrative system where the rule of law matters most. The former system entertains corruption, while the latter fights it. Considering the protesters' constant call against corruption in Chisinau, it seems the civic voice has made its choice between the East and the West.

The march of Chisinau is not an easy one. Governance has to represent the people's choices, and Moldovans want reform. Geography has made of Moldova a strategic country, which means that the veins of external influence are and will always be present. This means reforms are not easy to achieve -- but when politics are turning to the street, for the civic calls of a new shared dream, a new and hopefully better fate becomes possible. It is only possible, however, if the courageous ones take the window of opportunity for transforming the long, enduring march of Moldova into an optimistic -- if not joyful -- march.

Putin's Autonomy Doublespeak

Despite calling the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century, Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently considers the process that gave birth to the USSR as containing the reason for its eventual demise.

It turns out Putin dislikes the idea of autonomy that was at the core of the creation of the 15 Soviet republics and numerous administrative units that eventually made up the Soviet Union. Many such autonomous regions were formed in accordance with ethnicity and nationality; non-Russian populations formed official republics such as Armenia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine, and many regions across Soviet Russia, such as Tatarstan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, and many others, followed the same principle. Speaking at the Council on Science and Education a few days ago, Putin was surprisingly critical of the role of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of Soviet Revolution and the Soviet Union's creator. Responding to a comment that Russian leadership should attempt to control the direction of "national thought" - i.e. public opinion - Putin said it is indeed necessary to control the flow of ideas, but only so that such measures can lead to correct results, "and not as happened under Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin's leadership]."

Said Putin: "Ultimately, many such ideas led to the collapse of the Soviet Union - thoughts like autonomy and so on. This laid an atomic bomb under the foundation of the Russian state that blew up later on."

Perhaps Putin is having second thoughts about the independence shown, in actions and in public statements, by leaders of certain autonomous regions across Russia - Chechnya especially. Under Putin's leadership, Russia crushed Chechen military opposition in the war of 1999-2000. Moscow then forged a strongly pro-Russia region by giving almost complete autonomy to Chechen leadership under its president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Today, Kadyrov is one of the most staunchly pro-Putin and pro-Russian politicians in the country, even as his increasing prominence and closeness to Putin is making many Russians uncomfortable. Last week, Kadyrov organized a massive rally in Grozny, Chechnya's capital. According to official press release by Chechen administration, "the demonstrators are going to express their unconditional support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the head of the Chechen Republic, Hero of Russia Ramzan Kadyrov, in an effort to counter the hostility against our country by hostile forces and to encourage all to rally around the leadership of Russia and present a united front against representatives of destructive forces that recently launched a full-scale information war against the Russian Federation."

It is worth noting that as similar demonstrations across the Russian Federation support Putin and the Russian state, this rally takes place in the very city that was nearly razed to the ground in the First Chechen War and was seriously damaged in the second confrontation. Ethnic Chechens and the Russian military could hardly have been further apart, in that stretch of history, in their feelings toward the Russian state.

Fast forward to 2016, and Kadyrov is acting as one of the sole safeguards of the country that previous Chechen leaders wanted to leave by all means necessary. His administration spared no words to name those who "harm the Russian state:"

"These political imbeciles with the names Shenderovich, Navalny, Khodorkovsky [the last two are in the liberal opposition], and other traitors decided to recast our country into the abyss of bloody ethnic and religious strife. These people decided to sweep away our statehood and our sovereignty. They opened their mouth against our national leaders, President Vladimir Putin, and the national and spiritual leader of the people of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. No coup will pass in Russia! We have a national leader!"

Its worth noting that Putin was not quizzed on his antipathy towards autonomies in his speech at the Council on Science and Education - otherwise the issue of Chechnya would probably have to be discussed openly. On one hand, this autonomous region and its leadership are now part of Russia and are pro-Putin - but only two decades ago they fought for independence in one of the bloodiest modern conflicts. Go figure...

(AP photo)

The Future of ISIS: Al Qaeda 2.0?

President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address spent a couple of paragraphs discussing the terrorist threat to the American homeland. In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, he felt obliged to say what is obvious: that while the Islamic State group "can do a lot of damage" to civilians and property in the United States, "they do not threaten our national existence." On the other hand, new terrorist attacks would surely disrupt American life.

How powerful is the Islamic State really? Is it still expanding? Will its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq endure? Will its government territory become a permanent fact of international life? Is its jihadist ideology still as convincing as it once was? Here's an evaluation of the situation.

The Islamic State/ISIS should be seen as a combination of two phenomena. For clarity, let's use the acronym ISIS to refer to the jihadist movement in general, and Islamic State for the territorial so-called caliphate it holds in Syria and Iraq. Evidence is accumulating in Iraq and Syria that the Islamic State is losing, being pushed back and progressively dismantled. Its defeat is slow and painstaking, but it is also unmistakable. On the other hand, beyond Syria and Iraq, ISIS remains a grave terrorist threat that may well be multiplying.

Geopolitically, the Islamic State has lost a lot of its conquered territory - about 40 percent in Iraq, and approaching half that in Syria. It will surely shrink further in the coming months. Important resources - military, financial, and personnel - have been destroyed. The early excitement for and credibility of the caliphate ideology must be wavering among many ISIS fighters and potential recruits - although this is hard to measure. We know that life inside caliphate territory today is anything but a glorious advent. Terrorist attacks abroad might suggest global enthusiasm remains strong. Yet it stands to reason that, like any movement based on fanatical enthusiasm, the longer ISIS is stymied and the more senseless violence it commits, the less convincing are its claims to be the vanguard of a new world. The number of foreign fighters arriving in Syria may be decreasing, even as terrorist recruits in foreign affiliates may be increasing.

Jihadist organizations in perhaps 20 countries - though not many recently - have pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But this apparent spread of the Islamic State's reach is not what it seems to be; it's not militarily substantive, strategically reinforcing, or contiguous territory. Terrorist attacks seem to have increased across the Greater Middle East and within Europe in addition to the attack in the United States, at San Bernardino. But their frequency and intensity (and whether ISIS actually organizes them) are far from what most people once expected. No war is won by terrorism alone, and the menace posed by the Islamic State is different if ISIS is basically a loose terrorist network.

The future of ISIS

Evidence is accumulating that the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is headed for extinction. It's being beaten back and dismantled, gradually but implacably, in spite of advances here or there. Finished as a geopolitical army, bent on territorial expansion and religious totalitarianism, ISIS will morph into a kind of al-Qaeda 2.0, meaning a transnational terrorist network more extensive, elaborate, and dangerous than al-Qaeda (excepting 9/11), but no longer a semi-state power threatening to convulse the entire Middle East.

ISIS as Al Qaeda 2.0 might establish new local territorial entities in outlying areas, for example the current effort to set up shop in Libya. But any such set-up will be under constant attack, unlikely to survive over time. The big outside powers have seen that failed states and ungoverned areas in the Greater Middle East pose an unacceptable risk to their own vital interests. Consequently, they are moving to freeze civil wars and to impose order over territory, Syria being the first instance.

Here are some other indices of ISIS decline. Drone strikes and other operations have killed many high-level ISIS military commanders and thousands of fighters. Total foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS over the past few years may total about 36,000. However, given the thousands killed, disabled or defected, ISIS today may number no more than its 20,000-30,000 initial core. Given its lack of significant military activity in recent months, the number of remaining ISIS fighters could be even smaller.

In addition, the Islamic State has now been ousted from several cities and big towns it had taken (Tikrit, Sinjar, Baiji, and Ramadi). Oil extraction and refining and shipping resources, especially the key Baiji complex, have been taken back or destroyed. Its main suicide truck-bomb building facility was destroyed a few months ago; MILAN guided anti-tank missiles (furnished to the Kurdish Peshmerga by Germany) were already stopping them anyway. Significant stashes of weapons and ammunition depots have been blown up. Its international finance has been squeezed in several ways. (Reports indicate a depot containing millions of dollars in cash was bombed last week.) Coalition air strikes In Raqqa and surrounding towns have destroyed underground tunnels and warehouses. All this means effective intelligence is increasing.

Of course, remaining ISIS-controlled urban areas such as Fallujah must be riddled with improvised explosive devices, booby-trapped buildings, and other weapons, as was Ramadi. And the city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest after Baghdad, will present a much more complicated battleground than even Ramadi. But in all these situations, ISIS is fighting on defense, not attacking. If coalition forces, both through airstrikes and Iraqi, Kurdish, and Iranian land forces, were not so concerned about limiting civilian casualties, the Islamic State could be destroyed in a few months' time. As it is, ISIS's lack of humanitarian concerns just makes the going slower and rougher.

In terms of significant battlefield trends, a turning point has been reached. In losing Sinjar and Ramadi over the past two months, ISIS leaders didn't even try to reinforce their holdout fighters. These were just abandoned, with impassioned messages reminding them of the jihadist code: There are only "two good ends, victory or martyrdom," i.e. a battlefield death. In fact, when a group of fighters ignored the code and fled back to Mosul, they were rounded up in a public square and burned to death.

While Ramadi was being lost, instead of trying to reinforce its forces there, a surprise attack against coalition forces encircling Mosul was attempted, hoping to break a Kurdish/Iraqi siege on three sides of the city that is the Islamic State's main conquest in Iraq. ISIS came with the usual onslaught of suicide bomb vehicles and staggered attacks, but this time it didn't work. ISIS was thrown back by the Peshmerga in a single day.

Overall, ISIS has notched no significant military victories in six months. Several days ago, a typically barbaric attack was launched on the Syrian city and province of Deir al-Zour to complete a takeover. Perhaps 200 to 300 Syrian government soldiers, militiamen, and civilians were killed, and several hundred civilian hostages have been taken. The significance of this "victory" remains to be seen, but is unlikely to change the overall battlefield trend. An unexpected development is the fact that Deir al-Zour generated so little attention abroad, where the media focused on the Iran nuclear agreement and the release of American hostages. ISIS savagery is, to put it another way, no longer as shocking as it once was.

The path to vanquishing the caliphate

Nevertheless, Deir al-Zour points to another battlefield trend, that is, the difference between Syria and Iraq. In Iraq the battlefield has been simplified. It's no longer a chaos of competing military forces, but increasingly everyone else against the Islamic State. Sectarian rancor and ambitions are being muted in order to crush ISIS. News reports suggest that thousands of Sunni tribal fighters, with the Shia-led Baghdad government's support, are finally integrating with the Shia-led Popular Mobilization Forces.

Syria, by contrast, remains a battlefield chaos of several competing forces: Assad regime forces; insurgent militias (including the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra Front) that fight each other as well as Assad; Kurds that fight Turkey as well as the Islamic State; and the Islamic State itself. Coordinated coalition airstrikes by American, Russian, French, and British planes indicate agreement by outside powers that the Syrian civil war must stop. No side can win militarily, and destroying ISIS removes a complicating factor because so long as ISIS remains on the territory, it would hold hostage any Syrian cease-fire.

The difference between Syria and Iraq shows the way to defeating and dismantling the Islamic State. ISIS's strategy, the so-called management of savagery, is to create chaos and then manipulate that chaos to its own advantage. Opposing military forces and civilians would be terrorized by barbaric fighting methods. Governments would be delegitimized because they couldn't protect their people. ISIS would become a protector of local populations after first brutalizing them unmercifully. Indeed, all this played out in conquered territory, but ISIS is now being rooted out, albeit more in Iraq than is yet seen in Syria.

The need for a sober appraisal

American media ought to present a more realistic picture than the sensationalized news it offers up, inflating ISIS successes and in the process demoralizing the American people. ISIS leaders surely are more pessimistic about its prospects than is American cable television. As Ramadi was falling, for example, al-Baghdadi sent out an audio message exhorting his fighters that "your state continues to do well," despite having lost "many of the areas it had conquered." Allah, he said, is testing the Believers, who will likely have to suffer more defeats before the final victory. This is an old story told by leaderships whose enterprise is going down.

But what about ISIS abroad? And what about the 20-odd declarations of fealty from foreign terrorist organizations? What about the Libya stronghold ISIS is trying to set up? Doesn't this show ISIS is going global successfully, threatening chaos even in Europe and the United States?

These attacks are spectacular, but they are not signs that ISIS threatens to seize power in key countries. They are brutal harassment of peoples and governments as well as morale builders for global Islamist militants. But with the possible exception of local conquests within failed states, ISIS will not be able to reproduce what it achieved in Syria and Iraq.

It's also unlikely that much substantive military and political connections exist between the Islamic State and any affiliates abroad. By no stretch of the imagination is ISIS now a single, organized global terrorist network, as is indicated by the usual media explanation that ISIS has either "organized or inspired" militants abroad. The San Bernardino attack that terrorized Americans and, amazingly, upended the presidential campaign of the most powerful country on the planet, is a good example. It involved two people, a young married couple, in effect a tiny sleeper cell, deciding the target, date, and methods on their own. Casualties, while awful, were modest on the scale of terrorist massacres.

As for Libya, ISIS's hopes to establish a new base in Sirte are not an expansion, but a retreat from its headquarters in Raqqa, which the leadership sees it may soon lose. If the ungoverned situation in Libya permits ISIS to succeed (it may well be prevented), the result would be a kind of government-in-exile whose "country" no longer exists.

Seen in broad perspective, the Islamic State has a fate, not a destiny. By this I mean that it is fated to follow into oblivion previous totalitarian operations, such as the Nazi Third Reich, for whom total war is the essence of existence. ISIS is not very likely to revolutionize world history. The difference is that ISIS will have been stopped at a much earlier point.

Its demise will happen either with a bang or a whimper, either by total defeat or disintegration from within after a period of containment. In either case it could be a rout at the end, with leaders either seeking "martyrdom," killing each other, or running for the exits.

(AP photo)

Europe: From Muddling Through to Stuck in the Mud

Andy Langenkamp is a global policy analyst for ECR Research.

Politicians have become aware that European progress is reversible. Some have even uttered the word "war." Global trends, European developments, and national politics are compressed into an icy snowball that could topple the European edifice.

Individualization of society has led to its fragmentation. As a consequence, political leaders have a weaker grip on their constituencies. In addition, not so long ago, people were fairly certain they would become more prosperous as they got older, while their children would do even better. Now we see great uncertainty about maintaining living standards, let alone improving them.

We are also witnessing a new global order emerging. America and China will eventually be on an equal footing, and a handful of other powers will also make their influence felt. Non-state actors such as Google and the Islamic State group will play significant roles too. Nation-states will be the protagonists for the foreseeable future, and authoritarian regimes use businesses as pawns of the state. However, borderless organizations, networks, and corporations play states against each other and are becoming more powerful.

These developments fuel opposition to free trade, open borders, and the political establishment, and in Europe, this challenge takes place on a continent already struggling with crises of sovereignty, identity, and security. The euro crisis appears to be chronic. Europe has to untangle a gigantic financial-economic knot if it wants to strengthen the eurozone and the common market against a background of structural weaknesses, nationalism, and populism.

Moreover, Europe's foreign policy is haphazard and often non-existent. This scuppers any chance that Europe can have a positive influence on the conflicts that surround it. Strong foreign policy is also hampered by the unhinging of the European balance of power -- a hinge that swung around the Berlin-Paris axis, but has warped as economic issues came to the foreground and Germany started to dominate. Now that security and traditional politics are returning to prominence, France could seize its chance to claw back some of its standing. However, before a new equilibrium can be created, we could see mounting tensions. Britain has moved further away from Europe's epicenter, so London can do little to adjust the balance.

Europeans not seeing themselves as European citizens further undermines Europe's chances of addressing its crises. Lack of European citizenship is increasingly problematic, as solidarity comes at a higher price in times of political and economic insecurity.

The financial crisis has widened the abyss between the European Union and the what it would call its people. If Europe fails to deal with the migrant crisis and the threat posed by terrorism, people will turn their backs on Brussels even more. They feel increasingly detached and unsafe. Many think their own country is merely a plaything tossed about by political and economic waves. States disagree on what problems they face, how these should be addressed, and to what extent they are prepared to transfer sovereignty.

This translates into national political risks. The French regional elections may not have provided Marine Le Pen with the victories she was hoping for, but her Front National speaks to the feelings of millions of French people fearing social-economic insecurity, the destabilizing forces of globalisation and the threat of terrorism. Le Pen has already pulled the mainstream parties somewhat to the populist right, and she now aims to upend the establishment in May 2017, when French voters take to the polls.

At the other side of the French border, Spain is in political disarray, with political struggles in Catalonia and at the national level after inconclusive elections. Catalonia won't call for new elections, as President Artur Mas stepped down, but Mas' successor -- separatist leader Carles Puigdemont -- could renew tensions with Madrid. Already, chances are that we will witness new national elections. It remains to be seen whether the latest Catalan developments and new parliamentary elections will lead to stable governance.

In Germany, regional elections can further undermine Chancellor Merkel's position. She has been under fire within her governing coalition, and the German population is starting to grumble. Europe also has to reach an agreement with the United Kingdom on EU reforms. The latter are meant to ensure that the Brits vote in a coming referendum to stay in the European Union. Some polls show a majority of the British now think a so-called Brexit would be a good idea. Greece could also foment trouble. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' government holds a majority of just three seats parliament; in November it faced a national strike; and the refugees crisis threatens the country's stability.

We're not done yet. The Netherlands will hold a referendum about the Association Treaty between Ukraine and the European Union in the spring.  This is inconvenient as the EU is still at geopolitical loggerheads with Russia, Ukraine continues to be unstable, while Holland has been chairing the European Union since Jan. 1. Elections are due in Slovakia, Romania, and Ireland. Plus, it remains to be seen how the new Polish and Portuguese governments will behave. The Polish combination of right-wing populism and left-wing economic policy is worrying, and the Portuguese minority government leans on communists.

The European economy can carry on for the time being, due to support from low oil prices, the euro's weakness, the European Central Bank's loose monetary policy, and the end of austerity in many countries. These supports will fall away eventually. Europe already has reverted to muddling on instead of muddling through. Soon, it might just start to sink in the mud.

(AP photo)

Obama Has a Nuanced Middle East Strategy That He Fails to Explain

President Barack Obama has taken heat throughout his second term for having an incoherent Mideast political strategy; one ill-suited to addressing the cycle of civil strife and sectarianism that has broken out across the region. Critics see no common thread linking decisions to exercise U.S. military power in Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2014 while avoiding confrontation in Syria over chemical weapons in 2013 and reaching a settlement with Iran over its nuclear program in July 2015.

Upon a closer inspection of many of Obama's most important foreign policy speeches, however, his administration's strategy for U.S. power in the region becomes clearer. It is a strategy that narrows significantly the definition of America's core interests and makes distinctions between the values of specific U.S. alliances in a way quite different to his predecessors in the Oval Office. Obama also takes a generational view of the conflict. As a result, he focuses on the first part of his "degrade and then defeat" formulation when talking about the Islamic State group, at the expense of the latter element.

In speeches to the United Nations in September 2013 and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in May 2014, Obama delineated a policy of both military and diplomatic restraint. That strategy is born out of the Bush-era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- interventions during which Obama felt U.S. involvement often inflamed conflicts and made them worse.

At the United Nations, in what is likely the most detailed foreign policy speech of his presidency, Obama used the phrase "core interests" five separate times, but only at West Point did Obama concretely define the concept as "when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger." Obama, in other words, discarded the use of unilateral force to bring about democratic change or remove unfriendly leaders. This set him apart from his direct predecessor, George W. Bush, and from other U.S. presidents who used unilateral intervention to achieve political aims.

In situations that do not meet Obama's narrow definition of core interests, there must be a multilateral approach, he said at West Point. When "crises arise that stir our conscience ... but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action," he said.

Explanations of the actual logic behind U.S. foreign policy in these speeches are more coherent and cogent than the straw man arguments Obama more commonly relies on. Obama can stand accused of reverting to campaign-style "trolling" explanations during his final State of the Union Speech on Tuesday, especially when he said that the United States "is threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states" or that "we can't try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it's done with the best of intentions."

Such rhetoric may be difficult for historians to reconcile coming as he tries to shape the narrative of his political legacy, but even if Obama is not that interested in using his biggest public speeches to explain his foreign policy to the electorate, his detailed pronouncements on the region give a very good roadmap of what is to come during the rest of his tenure in office.

U.S. Core Interests in the Mideast

Saudi Arabia: The ruling Al-Saud family has operated under the assumption that the United States would protect the regime and its oil assets since 1945. The relationship became even stronger in 1981 when the Reagan administration, in response to the Iran-Iraq War, pledged to defend Saudi Arabia from invasion and to ensure internal regional stability. Obama's decision to effectively end the U.S. promise to guarantee the status quo in the Gulf is at the core of the Saudi crown's regional aggressiveness in recent years. What may come of the changes currently being proffered by King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are unknown, but Saudi Arabia's outsized influence on the world's oil markets means the United States will be patrolling the sea lanes for years and years to come.

Iraq: Only after the Islamic State group threatened to overrun Kurdistan, a key U.S. sub-state ally, and started an extermination campaign against the Yazidi ethnic minority in Aug. 2014, did the administration intervene militarily. Hence, Kurdistan and the Iraqi coalition government constitute a core interest for the administration, and as a result, more than 3,000 troops are on the ground in Iraq coordinating the counter-insurgency against ISIS.

Syria: The lack of any alliance with the regime of Bashar Assad, combined with scant direct threat to U.S. citizens or property in Syria, meant that the country didn't meet the threshold of a core interest, even after resulting in 250,000 deaths and a major refugee crisis in Europe. The administration's Iraq-first focus strongly suggests that the Syrian conflict will not be resolved until well after Obama has left office.

Egypt: The core American interests in the country's strategic relationship with Egypt remain strong priority transit rights through the Suez Canal for the U.S. Navy; a close military and intelligence relationship with the Arab world's most populous country; and continued peace with Israel. The United States continue to protect Egypt and its infrastructure from attack, but Washington will not ensure internal stability, as seen by U.S. inaction when both Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi were swept from power by the military.

Israel: Even a deep personal dislike between U.S. and Israeli heads of government did not upend the economic, cultural, and security linkages between the two states that run deeper than anywhere in the region. The survival of the Jewish state is a core interest of the United States, and it remains so even after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a personal reprimand to Obama before a joint session of Congress in March 2015 over the administration's talks with Iran.

Iran: Defending Iran is not an American core interest by a long shot. The two sides have been major adversaries for decades and killed members of each other's armed forces on many separate occasions in the past. That said, the nuclear agreement signed in July and scheduled to be implemented as early this weekend is a watershed action that effectively ends the era of relations between the two sides symbolized by the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Much will depend on the outcome of the Feb. 26 elections for Iran's parliament, the Majlis, and for the Assembly of Experts, which will choose a successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei , who at age 76 is one of the world's most successful and longest-tenured purveyors of anti-American rhetoric come as a head of state. If reformists take over either body, Obama is certain to take some credit, arguing that his rapprochement with the government of President Hassan Rouhani has borne fruit. 

(AP photo)

Who Dares, Wins

If headlines from the United States and Europe are to be believed, old democracies will be eclipsed by so-called benevolent dictators who will do away with all the tiresome "yes, but..." discourse and confidently make necessary decisions. If believers in true democracy don't act up, this may indeed describe a near future.

What binds many European countries and the United States? These days it appears to be a yearning for a "strong man," a benevolent dictator of sorts who will ignore the wishes of troublesome minorities -- political, ethnic, or combinations of both -- and who will carry out the wishes of another, larger minority without bothering too much with the arguments of others.

Many people appear tired of subway democracy: an arrangement in which successive administrations, when taking office, seem to simply jump on a moving train of government whose schedule and stops are already set. They see leaders preaching that There Is No Alternative, and whose sole power appears to be speeding the train up or slowing it down -- the direction is always a given. Disillusionment then awaits those who expected the train to veer radically off course.

An example of this is Greece, where the radical-left Syriza party took office by promises of finally moving the train of government in a different direction. Yet the eurozone subway system provided no alternate routes, and Syriza in the end chose to stay the predetermined course. As a result, many a former Syriza voter stayed home when the next election came, opting not to bother to vote. Syriza gathered enough votes to stay in power to form a new government, but with a smaller mandate.

As with revolutions, people usually know who they want thrown out of office, but they often have little idea of what is to come after the bums are out. This is where opinions invariably start to diverge, often culminating in a minority of minorities somehow (but often enough through force) seizing power and foisting their radical minority opinions onto the divided majority. That divided majority then invariably rebels to spark another revolution at the ballot box.

Examples beyond Greece abound. They take different shapes and forms. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has actively done away with a range of the institutions that remained to give voice to minorities, taking harsh action against the opposition, the judiciary, and the media.

In Poland, the recently elected Law and Justice party, or PiS -- vilified for its corruption and extremist practices during its first stint in office -- is doing the same. It even went so far as to send a team of soldiers to a NATO intelligence-gathering operation to remove the leading Polish member of the leadership, thought to be a political opponent of the PiS.

In The Netherlands, the Freedom Party, with its promises to throw the bums out and make the country great again, is leading the polls, while in France the popular Front National of Marine Le Pen vows to do the same.

The irony is that this wish to return to some shape of greatness points to moments in time when the country was doing just fine under the leadership of the so-called bums.

Take Donald Trump. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly to what timeframe he wants to take his country back. Should he be referring to the 1950s, for instance, when the United States economy was growing fast, then his voters should know that those years were the epitome of what they appear to be opposing now: the years of compromise and consensus under President Dwight Eisenhower. That, and a progressive income tax that topped out at a 91 percent rate.

The 1960s, then? Hardly a nice, quiet, and safe society. The 1970s, perhaps? Like the '60s, that was a time of great societal and political upheaval. The 1980s? The current Trump or European supporters who lived then may remember the ‘Me'-society they hated. OK, so how about the 1990s? Oh no, that's Clinton country.

So perhaps a timeframe from long before that? Maybe the years of Franklin D. Roosevelt are a popular reference. He pulled the United States out of a depression, creating jobs, successfully fighting poverty, and restoring pride. Sure, government expenses during World War II helped to ensure that everyone had a job. But that was still the government at work for the people.

Perhaps it is time that voters in the United States and Europe took a long, hard look to understand when they were happy, and when they were not. Turns out, they were most happy at times when they had jobs and were assured that their children and their grandchildren saw the promise of an equally rich future.

And so here lies the challenge to the bums: to reroute the subway democracy. Instead of accepting the subway schedule as it is, or promising to take the train to where it cannot go, tear up the schedule altogether and build new subway tubes. Franklin Roosevelt did that. And the facts show that a leader like Barack Obama has done just that.

Perhaps listening to someone like Ron Haskins is worthwhile. Haskins is a lifelong Republican working for the Brookings Institution think tank. He recently wrote a book about evidence-based policy that works -- so not policies based on expectations or assumptions, but literally on returns on government investment as instituted by the Obama administration.

Democracy-loving politicians in Europe would do best to take a page from the Obama script.

(AP photo)

A Dark Cloud Is Descending Over Russia's Economy

Russians are increasingly concerned with their country's economic situation, and despite high levels of support for President Vladimir Putin and his policies, many are worried about their economic future.

Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets recently said in an interview with Russia-24 TV that according to the latest estimates, Russia has 22 million poor -- much of that number includes families with children. Golodets said authorities will do everything to turn that around. Golodets also reported that government programs meant to facilitate employment and labor mobility helped keep unemployment numbers relatively low, but the still-depressed economy has led to a drop in wages.

Statements like these are not making Russians feel any better, especially as other forecasts paint an even darker picture. As reported by the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), young economist Vladislav Zhukovsky startled many Russians when he recently predicted that within 1.5 to 2 years, 80 percent of Russians will live in a state of chronic poverty. Zhukosvky spared no words in describing how the current economic crisis will morph into a large one, calling it "Russia's most serious [crisis] since the Civil War (of 1918-1921)," pointing out that this government's economic policy will accelerate the "death of the Titanic." Complicating matters is the continued slump in oil prices, which will lead the Russian economy into a dead end since it is a "raw materials-dependent, feudal-oligarchic, offshore-comprador form of capitalism in its primitive forms of primary accumulation of capital," the newspaper said.

According to KP, there is a glimmer of hope: that this is not the 1990s. Here is the opinion of Mikhail Belyaev, chief economist at the Institute of Stock Market and Management:

"I agree that the roots of our current economic situation go deep enough -- the problems began not yesterday, but are a logical continuation of the liberal economic model inherited over the past 20-25 years. There is now hope that this model will still be replaced by one that allows our economy to grow. If we assume that we will continue to do what we are doing without any changes, just sit back and watch as it all falls apart and comes to a standstill, and pray for the price of oil and other goods to rise, then the most dire apocalyptic predictions are certainly justified. But there are already signs that we are slowly beginning to move away from this model -- though we do not admit it to ourselves yet. Today, the situation is different than in the 1990s. Back then, our economy and, in particular, scientific heritage, were deliberately killed off because that was advantageous to the West. Now there are glimmers of hope."

KP notes that such "glimmers" include increases in Russian exports not related to oil and gas, such as grain and pork products. "The processes related to our military-industrial complex," notes Belyaev, "this is a spiral that slowly unwinds to become more and more diversified, allowing greater variety in production for producers of copper, plastic, for example. This in turn drives more job creation in single-industry towns. These are, of course, very fragile 'sprouts' and the government and, in particular, the Central Bank, should have to support them more actively. But there is hope."

KP also cited a recent report titled "Economic Crisis -- the Social Dimension," prepared by researchers at the Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. The report forecasts that in the event of a prolonged downturn in the economy, poverty -- meaning the proportion of citizens with incomes below the subsistence level -- could grow to affect around 30 percent of the population. The report notes other tendencies: Russian citizens are not particularly expecting "mercy from above (i.e. government intervention)," and are actively preparing for possible economic disasters. The report notes indicators such as the increased "propensity to save to create a safety cushion." In 2015, the volume of savings deposits increased by 14.2 percent across the country, along with increases in other savings and investments, such as real estate, livestock or poultry. The interest in consumer loans, by contrast, fell sharply -- a reasonable trend in the current economy.

The researchers noted another trend: Despite the crisis, unemployment remains relatively low across Russia. Experts attribute this to what they call the Russian adaptation model: Rather than reducing staff, companies transferred them to part-time positions or reduced their working weeks. This allows companies to save on payroll without causing rapid social discontent, which certainly would have spread if people took to the streets to vent their frustrations. KP notes what researchers see as the pros and cons of such a model. In the current economy, this approach, while keeping everyone more of less content, nonetheless prevents the reduction of inefficient jobs and blocks the restructuring and modernization of various industries: "The passive adaptation of the population to the given circumstances may turn out to be the worst-case scenario for future development."

In fact, Russia has now reached a point in its economic development not dissimilar from that of advanced Western countries. In a number of key industries that grew as a result of import substitution following the imposition of international sanctions last year, key skill and qualified workers are sorely lacking. This, according to some economists, is slowing economic growth no less than the lack of direct investment and the nation's continued dependence on imported materials and components.

At the same time, many people cling to familiar jobs where they are no longer needed and that keep them lashed in poverty. KP opines that much depends not only on the economic policy of the government, but on the citizens themselves, and their desire to take economic and professional risks. KP states that "even if the most ambitious and optimistic forecasts come true and Russia indeed reforms its economy, some people will still remain overboard. A number of economic bubbles, created when the economy heavily depended on oil and gas for its well-being -- such as for example, in real estate -- will burst sooner or later, leading to the collapse of the well-being of many of those who used to consider themselves the Russian middle class."

(AP photo)

The Business of Russia Is Politics

Since the Crimea crisis of February 2014, the Obama administration has tried to use sanctions to persuade Russia to change its course on foreign policy. But for reasons that would seem irrational by Western standards, the Kremlin is increasingly impervious to business or economic considerations. In describing the difference between American and Russians, Putin recently referenced a quote in "Gone with the Wind" where the American heroine states that she cannot imagine starving. Putin went on to say that, "in the concept of a Russian person there are objectives [other than starvation]." In a similar vein, reflecting on international sanctions Russia's deputy prime minister recently told the World Economic Forum that the Russian people will go through any misery -- "tighten our belt, eat less food, suffer any privations" -- in order to defend their president and country against aggression by the West. Economic sticks and carrots have had and will continue to have a limited impact on Russia. For Putin and his advisers politics matters above all else.

Moscow's current approach runs counter to Washington's focus on the economy. Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge famously stated that "the chief business of the American people is business." In more recent times, when then-governor Bill Clinton ran for president, his campaign advisor James Carville famously coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" to divert the electorate's attention from his candidate's perceived weakness in other areas, such as national security and foreign policy; the strategy worked. In every presidential election we rediscover that in the vast majority of instances, the issue that above all else (including national security) dominates the thinking of the American electorate is the economy.

Under Putin, the business of Russia has completely become politics. International politics is all about power and influence, even if the Russian economy suffers as a result. In fact, while Putin's regime has weathered the economic storm that came about as a result of sanctions, the only ones that have suffered have been the Russian people: their income declined by roughly 12 percent between 2013 and 2014; it then declined an astounding 34 percent between 2014 and 2015. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has remained steadfast in its general approach to Ukraine.

Moscow's approach to the Middle East reflects the same mentality. In July 2015 the Public Investment Fund - the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- announced that it had agreed to invest $10 billion in Russia. This was the largest ever foreign direct investment deal in Russia's history. This money was to be spent on agricultural projects, medicine, logistics, and the retail and real estate sectors. Riyadh's intention to invest in Russia was above all strategic: Before the deal Saudi King Salman talked with Putin over the phone about ways to bridge their differences over the Syrian civil war and the regime of President Bashar Assad. Since the start of the war, Riyadh has supported the mainly Sunni opposition to Assad, while Moscow has come out on the opposite end -- in support of Assad's regime, thus allied with Iran, also a Saudi opponent. Saudi Arabia's historic investment in Russia was an attempt to bring the Kremlin closer to Riyadh's side.

In June 2015, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, Saudi deputy crown prince and defense minister, visited Russia during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, where the investment was initiated with a memorandum of understanding, and took part in a meeting between Putin and global investment head funds. This was not the first time that Riyadh tried to use economic diplomacy toward strategic ends. In a 2013 meeting between Putin and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia offered to buy $15 billion worth of Russian arms and pledged not to challenge Russian gas sales in Europe. In return, the Kremlin was to ease its support of Assad and agreed not to block any U.N. Security Council Resolutions on Syria.

However, recent evidence shows that Riyadh's economic diplomacy has failed. Just a few months after Riyadh's historic investment, the Kremlin doubled down on its strategy in Syria and announced that it will be conducting airstrikes in support of the Assad regime. Given Russia's current economic difficulties, Saudi Arabia's historic investment should have budged the Kremlin at least a bit on Syria - and would have in any other country on earth. But in Russia it did not.

What the financial dealings between Riyadh and Moscow also indicate is the resilience of Putin's geopolitical moves and countermoves that serve to check both Western and Saudi ambitions. With Riyadh deeply involved in the Yemen crisis -- where it is backing forces fighting the Iranian-allied Houthi movement -- Moscow appears to have enough breadth in its foreign policy to negotiate arms deals with Gulf states while openly supporting a regime in Syria that they deem undesirable. Putin also demonstrated that he can hedge his bets simultaneously against the West in Ukraine and against a group of Arab nations.

Such actions are reinforced by the currently trending desire in Washington to stay away from any direct involvement in the Middle East, where "leading form behind" places greater burden on Washington's regional allies and forces them to find greater wiggle room amid less-than-perfect choices. In the hope of getting the Kremlin's support on geopolitical issues, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have in recent years increased their investments in Russia. Again, despite the infusion of foreign investment, Moscow has not made any real political concessions in return.

Washington should reconsider its approach to Russia. Obama's strategy has been to put economic pressure on Putin in the hope that his regime will change course on Ukraine. The Saudi strategy was essentially the flip side of the same coin, focused on providing economic incentives in the hope of bringing about a favorable political outcome in Syria. Such moves have not worked: Russia has not budged on Ukraine, while in Syria the promise that Moscow will join the global coalition to counter the Islamic State has turned out to be an illusory one. If the United States hopes to deter Moscow from pursuing policies that clash with Western interests and persuade it to truly join the global fight against ISIS, it should first recognize that the Kremlin's center of gravity is politics, not economics. Policies that address Putin's political calculus will succeed; those that provide economic incentives or disincentives will not.

(AP photo)

Brazil Is Going Nowhere

Brazil's political crisis has now turned into a full-fledged impeachment crisis. The first to pay the price will be the Brazilian people. It will be months - maybe years - before Congress and the executive agree on the economic reforms needed to get the world's eighth-largest economy growing again. Ironically, this crisis shows that political reform, rather than economic change, should be the number one priority in Brasilia.

The crisis is a political equivalent of the Shootout at the OK Corral. It centers on a clash between two political titans - President Dilma Rousseff and the Workers' Party on one side, and Congress President Eduardo Cunha with part of his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party on the other. But this is no longer mere political theater; Rousseff and Cunha are fighting for their political survival and reputations and are on the cusp of widespread accusations linked to the Petrobras corruption scandal.

Implications go far beyond Brazil's borders. The international community needs this important country to get back on its feet, and fast. Brazil is a powerhouse. It provides important petrochemical, steel, financial services, and aerospace exports to countries around the globe. Its 205 million-person economy is the locomotive of the Mercosur trade bloc. At a time of great change in Latin America, the region needs a strong leader, and Brazil should play that role.

But the country faces a wide array of problems. Negative GDP growth is expected to continue into 2016, and unemployment and inflation are rising steadily.

At the core, Brazil is experiencing a crisis of political legitimacy. The Petrobras scandal has managed to shock a populace already accustomed to political graft. Amid a sprawling corruption scheme involving some of the country's largest private companies and kickbacks to political parties through the state-owned oil firm, the list of implicated government officials just keeps growing. In a country already plagued with a slow and inefficient decision-making process, the inertia emanating from the corruption scandal is catastrophic. Brazil cannot come back without a profound shakeup of its political system.

Much the same happened in Italy after the anti-corruption investigations known as Operation Clean Hands essentially dynamited the political landscape that had been in place since World War Two.

Like in Italy of the 1990's, the Brazilian police and judiciary have implemented corruption investigations with impressive vehemence. For a people disillusioned with their institutions, Brazilians admire the bravery of the judiciary taking on cronyism in government and in the private sectors. Travel to any Latin American capital and you will hear considerable envy of the front-page progress of Brazil's investigations.

However, In Italy's parliamentary democracy, the cycle of accusations, confessions and revelations quickly led to change. New elections with massive electoral losses for the traditional parties were followed by the appointment of a non-political caretaker government under a former central bank governor. This allowed political reforms to pass parliament.

How Can Brazil Move Forward Now?

In Brazil, the path to change is nowhere as clear. There is little doubt that, were a snap election possible, the political parties in charge of Brazil's executive and legislative branches would suffer profound losses and third-way parties would surge. But none of this is possible in Brazil's presidential system.

In the United States, another presidential system, one could envisage naming a bipartisan commission led by former presidents to provide advice on the way forward. But in Brazil's highly polarized atmosphere, a commission headed by former presidents Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, for example, would only lead to further dispute.

Brazil's national debate should include a discussion of who should constitute a seven-person commission to redesign the political pillars of the nation. These commissioners should not necessarily be politicians; instead they should come from the private sector, civil society, culture, and academia.

There have been many prior attempts, as recently as last year. The Brazilian Bar Association, several political parties, and even the Senate created groups to analyze political reform. But Brazil needs a different coalition of experts, one capable of forging a new social pact.

The country needs major labor, social services, and pension reforms, along with fiscal adjustments to increase tax revenues. Brazil also must move more quickly toward free trade agreements with other major economic zones. Importantly, all this must happen while preserving the social gains of the last ten years.

Any political reform effort has to be deep but cautious. In Italy, the political hurricane of Operation Clean Hands ended with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi. At this point, the last thing Brazil needs is a power vacuum that nurtures the growth of populist and inefficient leaders.

There is nobody in Brasilia today with the legitimacy to make the necessary decisions; all major policy choices are postponed. That is why real political reform is the first priority. Brazil's citizens, the Mercosur pact, and the region as a whole, cannot grow without a growing Brazil.

(AP photo)

Chavismo Is More Dangerous in Defeat

In March 2014 elections, El Salvador's ruling left-wing party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, fought the ascendant right-wing ARENA party to a draw, effectively maintaining their control in the Legislative Assembly but capturing the symbolically important mayor's seat in the capital and largest city, San Salvador. 
I wrote then that when Chavismo wins at the ballot box even by a narrow margin, radical change is never far away. (FMLN party headquarters features a portrait of Hugo Chavez set between Pol Pot and Lenin.) 
Examples from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua helped prove the point. Leaders in each of these countries - all members of the anti-democratic Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America - routinely undermine the media, judiciary, and electoral councils, with the ultimate goal of dismantling these independent institutions and consolidating power.   
In the last months of 2015, however, Latin America saw a sudden and deliberate political shift. The Chavistas' overreach caught up precisely as the country's petro-driven largesse ran out, leading to severe economic failure and the far left's resounding defeat at the polls. 
In Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's term as president was marked by 30 percent inflation and a decline that cut foreign currency reserves in half. Her mismanagement of the economy was felt by enough Argentinians that it paved the way for Buenos Aires' market-oriented mayor to succeed her in office and end 12 years of Peronist populism. 
In Venezuela, an inflation rate exceeding 100 percent and an economy expected to shrink by 10 percent next year have left supermarket shelves empty. Milk and rice are in short supply in this country, which has the world's largest oil reserves. President Nicolas Maduro's administration incredulously claimed that the country's toilet paper shortage happened because "Venezuelans are eating more," but voters knew better, and they handed the opposition a two-thirds majority in the country's National Assembly.
Finally, no diagnosis of Chavismo's current ills would be complete without mention of the impeachment proceedings against Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, an underwhelming leader with questionable ethics. Accustomed to channeling her more popular predecessor's left-wing populism, Rousseff has stumbled, and Brazil's economy is set to contract by as much as 3.6 percent this year. 
What these three political developments portend for the continent's "pink tide" of socialism is yet to be determined. Many have been quick to say the pink tide is fading. "The pink tide turns," declared the BBC. "The pink tide is ebbing," said the Wall Street Journal. "The pink tide seems to be more centrist or conservative voices are gaining ground," observed the Washington Post.
Unfortunately, this play on words oversimplifies. A closer look shows that where Chavistas still hold power, that power is unabated and is exercised with even greater disregard for democratic principles. 
Not two weeks after Argentina elected its new president, Ecuador's Congress amended its Constitution to allow for indefinite presidential terms. Nicaragua did the same in 2014, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales is pushing for similar changes in his country. In Venezuela, Maduro has said that he may enlist the military to settle disputes with the resurgent opposition, which he deems an enemy of his country's socialist system. He has since gone further still, attempting to pack his country's Supreme Court and to challenge the validity of the recent elections. 
The real observation here is that when Chavismo loses at the ballot box, radical change becomes more urgent. Faced with losing power or being exposed as ineffectual extremists, its leaders work harder to dismantle democracy. When Chavismo loses, its corrosive nature can actually become more acute.
For this reason, the pink tide cannot be turned back through election victories alone. One party's defeat of another is rarely enough to protect democracy over the long term. The pink tide will ebb only when more Latin American countries achieve three things.
First, countries in the region must strengthen their institutions. In places like Colombia, Chile, and Peru, independent albeit imperfect media, judicial systems, and electoral councils keep elected leaders in check. Party control frequently changes hands in these countries, whose leaders mine the electoral center for political support.  
They should embrace their neighbors in North America and across the Pacific through trade agreements and other long-term economic partnerships. Dynamic economies around the world have strong demand for Latin America's abundant exports of natural resources. But the Bolivarian Alliance countries are traditionally suspicious of foreign, especially American, investment (with notable exceptions for China and Russia). This inhibits economic growth and foments greater resentment toward the West.
Leaders in these countries should also support the emerging middle class. Chavismo thrives on legitimate fears and frustrations over economic inequality. But the World Bank shows the wage gap is narrowing in Latin America, where commodity prices helped make the middle class a larger percentage of the population than those in poverty - a first for the region.  Economic growth that lifts more people out of poverty is a strong antidote to ideological fanaticism.
The electoral defeat of Chavistas in Argentina and Venezuela is an important first step for Latin America. For these new leaders to now make a permanent break from decades of twisted ideology and toward an economic future rooted in reality, they must maintain the independence of strong institutions, seek investment unabashedly, and ensure all citizens have the opportunity to achieve greater wealth.

(AP photo)

Donbass Smolders While the World Focuses on Syria

This weekend's shelling of international monitors in Kominternove, a village in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine, shows the violence and instability that is simmering under the surface in the region. Since the withdrawal of small-bore weapons from the front a few months ago, fighting has continued, although at a reduced level than earlier in the year.

The conflict seems to have shifted more to a political confrontation, with the pro-Russian forces stirring up trouble in the capital, Kyiv, and attempting to prevent Ukraine from becoming a successful state that is free from Russian influence. After all, a politically and economically successful Ukraine would be a defeat for Putin's policies and could endanger his position of power at home.

The shelling of the OSCE personnel in Kominternove was only a short distance from Mariupol, the city separating pro-Russian Ukraine from a land bridge to Crimea, now annexed by Russia. This land bridge is the likely long-term goal of the Kremlin to reduce the cost of supply efforts to the Peninsula. It also has the benefit of providing a path for electrical infrastructure away from Ukrainian held territory, which has been anything but reliable. The source of the small arms fire directed toward the OSCE mission is unconfirmed at this point, with both sides pointing fingers at the other.

A source within the Ukrainian military tells me that the situation remains difficult at the front in the Donetsk oblast. It is not the open warfare of the summer with heavy weapons in the mix, but it remains dangerous with separatists regularly using small arms and grenade launchers. In the last few weeks, the government says separatists have started to use mortars and reactive missiles. Government forces fear the situation could change at any moment and revert back to all-out conflict. Soldiers admit their desire to take back their lost territory in the East but are constrained by political considerations at the present time. They observe what is happening on the other side and try to protect themselves, but are ready to bring their heavy weapons back to the front at a moment's notice. Most of the fighting is near the city of Donetsk, from Avdiivka to Marinka, with multiple separatist attacks every day.

What is undeniable is that Russia is keeping Eastern Ukraine in its back pocket as a trump card over Ukraine's future. It is almost impossible for Ukraine to achieve prosperity with a smouldering war on its border and almost certainly Russian security service personal attempting to incite instability and influence events in Kyiv. Russian President Vladimir Putin has allowed the conflict to calm down somewhat as Russia focuses on propping up the government of Bashar Assad in Syria, and preventing the Islamic State from sweeping up through the Caucasus and creating terror in Moscow. However, it is also probable that this will not last. At some point in the future, Moscow will have achieved its goals in the Middle East and focus will shift back to Ukraine, a country that Putin does not see as a real nation-state.

Eastern Ukraine also serves as a bargaining chip for Russia in obtaining the removal of Western sanctions that are slowly crippling its economy. This remains a primary goal for the Kremlin. Russia is working feverishly to reduce the appetite and support for continued sanctions in European capitals. Putin's coordination with France in the Middle East against ISIS, after relations soured over the refusal of France to sell the two Mistral warships to Russia, is a prime example of this effort.

The most likely prospect in the near term for Ukraine is a continued effort by Russia to point out the nationalist tendencies that exist in the country, and to fan the flames of unrest. This approach could allow the Kremlin to achieve its aims without the bloodshed and international condemnation that the conflict in the East was generating. Perhaps this was the Kremlin's strategy all along: to move to a more covert phase of the conflict in Ukraine while shifting its military resources to Syria. So far, with the specter of open fistfights in the Ukrainian parliament, and nationalists marching with Nazi flags in Mariupol, the strategy seems to be working.

Putin Rallies the Faithful

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently spoke at an event commemorating Russia's intelligence services. A former intel officer himself, Putin congratulated the officers and emphasized their role in national security by telling them that they are "strong, determined people, real professionals who reliably protect the sovereignty and national interests of Russia, the lives of our citizens while ready to perform the most complex and dangerous jobs." He further confirmed that Russia may be in for a long haul in Syria by alluding to worsening global geopolitics: "There are growing tensions in the Middle East, the terrorists have openly declared war on civilization and the entire international community. Their actions and plans are a direct threat to our country. Currently, our armed forces are fighting with the bandits on the front lines in order to destroy their infrastructure and bases in Syria. These decisive steps should be linked and coordinated with the hard work of all our security and intelligence services." Putin then stated that his military mission in Syria is tied to Russia's domestic security: "It's all about identifying terrorists' plans, and suppressing the attempts of terrorist and extremist groups to intensify their subversive activities in Russia."

Putin further celebrated FSB officers by highlighting their successes: "This year, thanks to your efforts, we managed to prevent more than 30 terrorist attempts. Particular attention should be paid to the neutralization of all sorts of terrorist recruitment that is trying to involve Russian citizens ... of course, you first need to pay attention to young people in our country."

The Russian president went on to take a swipe at Western attempts to gather intel in Russia: "A lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of our counterintelligence -- this year, they have identified more than 320 employees and agents of foreign intelligence services and their accomplices. We now see that a number of countries are ramping up, as we say, ‘work in Russia.' I am confident that our intelligence services are ready to give this challenge an adequate response."

Putin likewise complimented regular armed forces, and specifically his air force, which is now conducting airstrikes in Syria against ISIS, though not without controversy: "Our pilots and intel services are effectively operating there, they are all coordinating their efforts with each other -- the army, navy, and air force. We are now using our most modern weapons. I note that this is not all we can do -- we are far from using all we have in our arsenal, we have additional means and if needed, we will use them."

Separately, Putin congratulated the Foreign Intelligence Service, which recently celebrated its 95th anniversary: "It is important to quickly identify external threats to Russia's security, to provide a comprehensive analytical information, timely reports on the progress and the likelihood of regional conflict. I am sure you will make every effort to achieve your objectives and will protect Russia and our people. And no matter what difficulties and trials may stand in our way -- we have no doubt we will overcome, we will go forward with confidence and success."

Meanwhile, following this year's mixed results in attempting to fight back pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country, Ukrainian military forces are undergoing a shake-up and reorganization. As reported to Ukrainian-daily by Lieutenant-General Alexander Skipalsky, the former deputy head of the Ukrainian Defense Forces and chairman of the Union of Officers of Ukraine, the recent resignation of Anatoly Pushnyakov, Commander of the Ukrainian Land Forces, as well as a number of others from the Land Forces Command, could mean punishment for "serious failure."

Skipalsky speculated that "If only Pushnyakov was offered to resign, it could mean the individual claims against him related to events in Svatovo six months ago were true. But there is information that an entire group of senior officers were fired. This is an alarming symptom that may indicate a serious failure, and that the country's Armed Forces have serious problems." For Skipalsky, the "big question" was the dismissal of Ivan Chubenko, chief of staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, "who has done a lot in order to make our military more and more patriotic."

The retired general further elaborated on what has to happen in order for the Ukrainian military to become better able to deal with internal issues and difficulties posed by pro-Russia separatists and the new challenges of fighting hybrid warfare: "The dismissal of the commander of the Land Forces Pushnyakov will not solve the problem -- it's only half a percent of what needs to be done in the Ministry of Defense." In his opinion, "it is necessary to change the whole system of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, to introduce a new doctrine. Formally, we have adopted a military doctrine, but in reality it does not meet the requirements of the current war. It is necessary to restore order in the army, especially in matters of security and acquisition of military technology. We must also do everything to implement the spirit of patriotism in the our military."

Gorbachev Could Be Accused of Treason

On Dec. 10, Russian-language Komsomolskaya Pravda ( published previously classified transcripts of 1991 talks between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic Boris Yeltsin, and U.S. President George H. W. Bush. The Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation has now asked the Prosecutor General's Office to determine whether Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's actions constituted state treason and divulging of state secrets.

According to and the transcripts in question, during a telephone conversation with Bush, Yeltsin and Gorbachev gave the U.S. president information on how they governed the Soviet Union. Yeltsin called Bush on Dec. 8, 1991, soon after the signing of the Belovezha Accords that "buried the Soviet Union," and "reported to him for as long as 28 minutes on the accords and his country's future plans." On Dec. 25 of that year, Gorbachev also talked to Bush over the phone, following the official announcement that dissolved the Soviet Union. notes that both calls were recorded by U.S. intelligence services, which immediately restricted access to the transcripts. The transcripts were declassified only in 2008, and later on, copies of the transcripts were transferred to the Yeltsin Center that recently opened in Yekaterinburg, Russia. The Belavezha Accords were signed in Belarus on Dec. 8, 1991 by heads of state and the governments of the three major constituent republics of the Soviet Union: the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The accords officially dissolved the Soviet Union and established the Commonwealth of Independent States.

KP notes that the content of the conversation between the presidents is of great interest to Chamber member Georgy Fyodorov, who submitted the request to the Russian Prosecutor General:

"Judging from the published transcript, according to these telephone conversations, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, in fact, reported to the president of the United States about the destruction of the Soviet Union. I ask you to check the content of these conversations for compliance with the following articles of the Russian Criminal Code - ‘treason' and ‘divulging state secrets' - and, if necessary, take appropriate action."

Fyodorov admits to Komsomolskaya Pravda that his request to the prosecutor was motivated by's publishing of talks between Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Bush about the collapse of the Soviet Union:

"The transcripts have troubled me, and in my opinion, it is necessary to check whether such actions were a deliberate and coordinated betrayal [of the state]. Therefore, I made a request to check this from the legal standpoint."

According to Russian law, the Prosecutor General should reply within 30 days on what actions, if any, have to be taken. "Stay tuned," says

The Belovezha Accords are a source of great controversy to millions of people across the former Soviet Union. Many Russians, including President Vladimir Putin, view them as a "great catastrophe of the 20th century." While Boris Yeltsin passed away in 2007, Mikhail Gorbachev is in bad health and has recently been hospitalized in Moscow with partial paralysis.

(AP photo)

What Happens Now in Spain?

Spanish voters on Sunday delivered not one, but two striking novelties in the electoral history of the fourth-biggest economy of the European Union. For one, the two-party system was brought to an end; but the vote also delivered a hung parliament. The first outcome was widely expected, but the second certainly was not. The four main parties now must somehow find the common ground needed to form a government made up not of two, but three parties -- or else push for new elections.

Spanish politics was thrown into chaos on Sunday evening when results showed that neither the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and liberal Ciudadanos, nor the new far-left Podemos party and the Socialists (PSOE) could form a two-party government based on holding a majority of seats in parliament. Both mainstream parties - PP and PSOE - lost big, and the new parties Podemos and Ciudadanos entered Parliament.

It was expected that the old two-party system, with power alternating between either the PP or the PSOE, would be buried on Sunday. The only question was which party the PP or the PSOE could turn to in order to form a government. Far-left newcomer Podemos had already ruled out governing with the conservative PP, while the reformist centrists of Ciudadanos made a point of fundamental reforms to the Spanish electoral system, requiring the Constitution to be amended. This is strongly opposed by the PP.

Confounding the political gridlock is that the Partido Popular seems to have held on to its absolute majority in the Senate. Amending the Constitution requires absolute majorities in both chambers of parliament, a prospect that seems highly unlikely.

Moderate revolutionaries Ciudadanos win, but also disappoint

Ciudadanos is a new party established in the Catalonia region in 2006. Ciudadanos positions itself as a reformist pro-business party at the political center, and polls in the months leading up to the election showed it would probably become the second party in the lower chamber of deputies in the Cortes, the Spanish Parliament, behind the incumbent Partido Popular. Yet that did not materialize. Instead, it came in fourth, below the PP, PSOE and left-wing Podemos. 

Political analysts in Spanish media were quick to point out that Ciudadanos started shedding support in the polls after the party's leader showed willingness in the last days before the election to support a Partido Popular-led government. This seemed to contradict the party's earlier stance it took against the PP. 

Podemos wins in the cities, PSOE holds on to rural areas

The party of charismatic Pablo Iglesias made strong gains in urban areas where the moderate socialists of the PSOE lost seats to its new, leftist rival. Podemos was born out of the nationwide movement opposing tough austerity policies levied upon Spain by its lenders following the economic crash of 2008-2009, when Spain's main banks were hit by the implosion of the country's housing market bubble. With unemployment among the young at record levels and voters in the cities hit hard by the economic downturn - and disappointed with the mainstream parties' inability to solve problems - Podemos quickly attracted a large share of the urban vote in many of the bigger cities with its promise of more government intervention in the economy.


The election result offers the parties only a few options, none of which is attractive to the parties involved.

One would see the PP and the PSOE putting their age-old rivalry aside and forming a government of national unity - like for instance their sister parties in Germany, where the Christian-democrats of the CDU rule with the social-democratic SPD. This is however seen as highly unlikely. The chasm between the PP and PSOE runs deep in a country that was torn apart by civil war between left and right, and then ruled by Francisco Franco's fascist dictate until 1978, when democracy was restored in Spain. 

Since Podemos has already ruled out governing with the PP, a three-way government of PP, Podemos, and Ciudadanos also seems out of the question. 

That leaves the option of a three-way government comprising either PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos, or PSOE, Podemos, and a smaller party such as the Esquerra Republicana, a left-wing, separatist Catalonian party. The latter would attach a hefty price tag to any deal, demanding more autonomy for Catalonia. This is unpalatable to unionists in the PSOE.

Any three-way government without the PP would however lack a majority in the Senate. While the combination of PSOE, Podemos, and Ciudadanos would have a comfortable majority in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, any policy proposals toward fundamental change, such as amendments to the Constitution that are sought by Ciudadanos, would have a very hard time passing in the Senate.

Still, the lower chamber may overrule Senate votes on proposals that do not amend the Constitution, so a government could function. The question is whether Ciudadanos especially would be willing to swallow its ambitious designs to reform the Spanish political system.

Of course all this is based on the assumption that the PSOE, Podemos, and Ciudadanos would set aside some major differences and agree to cooperate, which is far from certain. Ciudadanos late on Sunday evening came out saying it would not support the leader of either the Partido Popular or the PSOE as prime minister, deepening the political crisis.

In the Spanish electoral system, the king appoints a party leader to take the lead in trying to form a government. The appointee must then gain the backing of a majority of votes in the Chamber of Deputies. There are two votes; the second is a confirmation vote, to be held 48 hours after the king's appointment. So the parties have two days at maximum to hash out a deal. If this fails, the king may appoint another party to have a go. Should the parties fail to reach an agreement after two months, parliament will be dissolved and new elections held.

Consequences for the European Union

The election's outcome is unlikely to alter much in the way Spain operates in the European Union. A clear majority of Spaniards supports remaining in the European Union, and of all four parties contending for a seat at the government table, only left-wing Podemos has ideas concerning European cooperation that clearly diverge from the mainstream.

(AP photo)

Argentina Needs to Leave Tradition Behind

To describe the idiosyncrasies of his fellow countrymen, the novelist Jorge Luis Borges defined the Argentinian as being "an Italian who speaks Spanish, thinks in French, and wishes to be a Brit." The link to France doesn't actually stop at the way of thinking: it pervades other, less inspiring features.
For starters, both countries - one more than the other - have shed a great deal of their past splendor.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Argentina outperformed Germany and France in per-capita Gross Domestic Product, and the country was growing at a faster pace than the United States. Yet, state-led economic meddling, and the lavish public spending introduced in the 1940s by General Juan Domingo Peron - a political icon whose party still pervades Argentina's life and way of thinking - thwarted that upward trend.
The country's economic trajectory has since been one of decline. Argentina is wrestling with the double scourge of inflation and recession. Per-capita GDP has not grown for the past four years, and Argentina no longer ranks with the world's leading economies on that measure; it now barely competes with the economies of middle-income neighbors Chile and Peru.
France has taken a similar downward path. During the past few decades, it has gone from the fourth to the sixth place in the ranking of countries by GDP. In France, the unemployment rate unrelentingly revolves above 10 percent, whereas it has just reached a 24-year low in Germany at 6 percent.
In the stream of economic erosion runs deep a shared anti-market vision - represented in Argentina by Peronism and in France by an infatuation, shared in different degrees by left- and right-wing parties, for strong regulation and fiscal profligacy.
The result thereof is that - apart from some ephemeral bouts of market-friendly policy stances - political leaders hardly dare to stand up against conventional wisdom. In order to stay popular, they eschew badly needed supply-side reforms and public-budget streamlining. In both countries, governments tend to bequeath to their successors problems they have the possibility, and responsibility, of tackling and solving.
The art of procrastination attained recent peaks during the presidential terms of of Jacques Chirac in France (1995-2007) and the Peronist Kirchner couple - Nestor and Cristina - in Argentina (2003-2015).
At the time of Chirac's presidency, labor market rigidities, punitive taxes, and lavish public spending were crippling France's international competitiveness. Yet President Chirac passed over true reforms, and allowed - even encouraged - public deficits to grow.
Under the Kirchners, Argentina's economy has fallen into a similar, indeed worse, public-spending craze. The budget deficit is equivalent to 6-7 percent of GDP, and welfare programs have reached unsustainable levels: Forty percent of Argentinians receive a pension, a salary or a social-welfare benefit from the government - a proportion that doubled during the three-term reign of the Kirchner family.
The inflation rate is at 25 percent (the region's highest after Venezuela's), and Ms. Kirchner's best solution to the problem was to doctor statistics.
Taxes, including on exports, and capital controls have put a break on productivity growth, thereby hampering Argentina's international competitiveness.
Ms. Kirchner, whose mandate expired Dec. 10, thus leaves an economy in shambles to her successor.
One critical problem that Kirchner left unresolved relates to the standoff with foreign creditors who refused to accept the discount value of Argentina's sovereign bonds that was negotiated by the government with 93 percent of bondholders following Argentina's nearly $100 billion default declared in 2001.
The standoff with holdout creditors has impaired Argentina's ability to raise fresh money on international markets at a moment when the country needs to beef up its depleting foreign-exchange reserves, which are at a nine-year trough, and create an environment propitious to foreign investment in critical economic sectors - not the least for the exploitation of recently discovered shale gas reserves.
What is more, a few days before her departure, Ms. Kirchner pushed a Peronist-controlled Congress to approve a further expansion of public spending and the issuance of $1.15 billion of public debt.
Had she wished to make the task of her successor still more difficult, she would not have behaved in a different manner.
Presidential elections held on Nov. 22 resulted in the election of the market-friendly opposition candidate Mauricio Macri. That outcome has been described by more than one analyst as a political earthquake - if only because it marks the first time that a candidate from outside the two establishment political parties wins a presidential election since democracy was restored in 1983.
However strong Macri's intention to carry out pro-market reforms may be, the constraints he will be facing are anything but negligible.
For starters, Macri won by a narrow margin of less than 3 percent, which shows the public's limited approval to his reform program. In addition, more provinces voted for the Peronist candidate than for Macri - and Macri will lack a majority in the Congress.
Does this mean that Macri's presidency is doomed to procrastination as usual? Not necessarily, for there are a few glimmers of hope.
First of all, the fact that Macri does not come from the political establishment makes him an atypical president, less prone to the traditional procrastination game.
Add to this the fact that, under Kirchnerismo, state dirigisme has wreaked havoc on the economy. Argentinians may therefore be more willing than in the past to give a try to the pro-market policies advocated by their new president.
Last but not least, the defeat of the Peronist candidate is expected to create turmoil and scapegoating within Peronism. That could make it easier for Mr. Macri to strike deals with the less ideological or more pragmatic factions of the opposition in Congress.
To succeed, President Macri must deploy not only political determination, but also the shrewdness needed to negotiate with Congress, and the pedagogic skills necessary to galvanize public support to his reforms.
Though not impossible, the mission is colossal.

In Cuba, Change at a Caribbean Pace

Tell someone you've recently visited Cuba, and you'll almost always get the same response: "I'd love to go too. Before it all changes."
Conventional wisdom has existed for years, among travel-junkies and casual foreign policy buffs alike, that the McDonaldsácion of the communist island is imminent. You could hear it repeatedly among hostel-hopping backpackers in Central America 12 years ago. "D17," the Dec. 17, 2014 commitment by Presidents Obama and Castro to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, has intensified the expectation - concern, for some - that Cuba will soon revert to its pre-1959 identity: as a cultural and economic extension of the Floridian peninsula.
On the basis of a recent visit we made to Havana, we would not instinctively agree. 
In our roles as British consul-general in Miami and as foreign affairs attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, we've been exposed this past year to intense, often passionate debate in the United States about Cuba's future, and the proper role for American foreign policy. We went to Cuba to test the analyses and assumptions made by both sides of the debate. (If you're reading this post, you're probably familiar with the parameters of the debate; we won't rehash them here)  We later tested the mood of the Cuban-American community in Miami too.
But what business is it of ours anyway, you may ask? 
Well, for one, it's our job to understand U.S. foreign policy in and of itself. The change in Cuba policy is a case study for the Obama administration's broader approach to international relations.
Second, the United Kingdom shares many of the same foreign policy goals as the United States. We work with Cuba to encourage trade and sustainable economic growth; we co-operate on tackling transnational criminal and security threats; and we seek progress on human rights. A shift in relations between Cuba and its biggest neighbour will directly impact UK foreign policy objectives. 
And third, the shape of U.S.-Cuba relations has regional implications. The United Kingdom's deep ties to the Western Hemisphere predate the founding of the United States. More recently, our Latin-American "Canning Agenda," and Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement in Jamaica of momentous British re-engagement with the Caribbean, have brought renewed focus and dynamism to these relationships. U.S.-Cuba tension has affected the region's diplomacy for 50 years; a healthier relationship would be a boon to the United Kingdom's own interests. For precisely this reason, on Oct. 27 the United Kingdom, along with 190 other U.N. members, again voted in favour of the General Assembly's annual symbolic resolution against the U.S. embargo.
So back to our visit. There we found ourselves, suited, booted and perspiring slightly, in Cuba's seaside capital. Havana was charged with excitement for Pope Francis's visit, and abuzz with the expectation of change. Aided and guided by our colleagues at the British Embassy, we dove into Havana's political, entrepreneurial and activist scenes, to see what we would find.
We spoke with a range of people from right across Cuban society: government, academia, civil society, private business, NGOs, and the diplomatic corps. We discussed politics: Would Castro trial modest democratic reforms? What did the Communist Party of Cuba's (PCC) next generation of leaders want for the country? Economics: Would the travails of Cuba's current patron, Venezuela, have the same impact as the demise of its previous one, the Soviet Union? How would the loosening of U.S. trade and investment proscriptions countervail this, and what opportunities and limitations did private entrepreneurs face? We also discussed diplomacy: What did the PCC want from its rapprochement with Washington - and when, and on what terms?
Suffice to say, we heard a range of answers, both across and even within different parts of society.  But to us, the pivotal question appeared to be this:
How does President Raúl Castro hope to manage the leadership transition in 2018?
One civil society contact, opposed to the U.S. embargo but also to "D17," alleged that President Castro and the PCC's elders were nervous about the transition, fearing their nascent reforms could be undermined. Were their experiment to prove unsuccessful, their credibility - and thus the credibility of their anointed successors - would be called into question. Political turmoil, and rapid change, would ensue. Washington's diplomatic opening had (unhelpfully, they felt) ameliorated this pressure, conferring renewed legitimacy on the government and ensuring reform would happen on the Castros' terms.
Others, in the budding private sector, disagreed. There was a sea-change afoot: Cuba's economy was quietly restructuring, with the tacit acquiescence of both the current and future PCC leadership, and would continue regardless of politics. And with economic change, slowly but surely, would come broader societal change. Opening to the United States had catalyzed this process. 
Government officials conveyed little urgency. The United States' outreach was welcome. The embargo was not. Cuba would move at its own, relaxed pace, and cede little. After all, they alleged, the bilateral strains existing between the two governments were entirely of Washington's making.
So what to make of it all? Two things were clear. One was the inherent uncertainty of the immediate future. There are myriad political, economic, cultural, and ideological forces pulling in multiple directions, from both within Cuba and from outside. Some coexist within the PCC and government themselves. Cuba's leaders will need time to reconcile with these forces, even as the forces themselves evolve. And many of the country's original dividing issues - what economic, political and diplomatic models to pursue; the treatment of political opponents; even personal and familial feuds - remain. Anyone peddling a crystal-ball insight into Cuba's future is naive. The country is complex, and its leaders' minds are impenetrable.
The other, however, was that change of some sort is inevitable. There are, to be sure, powerful actors on both sides of the Florida Strait who seek to maintain the status quo. Among those who do want change, their visions for it - its extent, shape and speed - differ. But there is an unmistakable groundswell, spanning all segments of society both at home and in the diaspora, pushing for something new. Improvements in U.S.-Cuba relations - not just between governments, but also between the entrepreneurs, journalists and activists now travelling regularly between Havana and Miami - appear irreversible enough to make broader change feel more likely, and more real. The old "government-dissident" divide is blurring as officials and businesspeople cautiously feel each other out, testing new boundaries and hedging their bets on the future. They are collectively forming a new center of gravity, both within Cuba and spanning the Florida Strait. This is leaving the extreme views on both sides looking increasingly out-of-step with what most Cubans want, and what they increasingly believe is possible. 
This month, with the anniversary of "D17," much ink will be spilled proclaiming the success or failure of the policy. But Havana wasn't built in a day, and fundamental societal change doesn't happen in a year. Change is coming - probably at a characteristically tropical pace.

(AP photo)

The Islamic State Is Going Down

This is no time to panic. Above all, it's a mistake to lash out in the heat of tragic circumstances that do not justify out-of-proportion reactions.

It's understandable that the San Bernadino terrorist attack has mesmerized many Americans, terrorized by Islamic State's capacity to inspire or to command mass killings and bombings. It's all too easy for people to be swept up in the fear that the Islamic State group is unstoppable; to believe that ISIS is "making war on the world," as one typically over-dramatic CNN headline put it a week ago.

But a more sober and realistic view - one that imagines how the events of the now might look to future historians - provides a different picture. First of all, look at the Islamic State's position in Syria and Iraq - the so-called caliphate as it exists today. It's hardly conceivable that this fighting force - comprising a couple of tens of thousands of fighters, or maybe somewhat more - can win its war against the array of internal and outside military powers that are now bent on destroying it. This is all the more so after the successful attacks in Paris, San Bernadino, and elsewhere: The result of the Islamic State's terrorism abroad will be to increase the determination of its enemies to go after the group. All the conflicting interests and strategies of the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, the Assad regime, and others will tend to diminish in light of what is now the overriding purpose: the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq must be eradicated. No outside government will now be willing to accept a tacit armistice with Islamic State.No one is afraid the group could possibly win in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS's very existence increases the terrorism threat across the globe, including those governments for which it is still for now a second priority. For governments from Washington to Moscow, and from Paris to Istanbul, allowing the Islamic State to survive has become an unacceptable risk.

The most likely next stage - I understand this is a controversial forecast - will be that Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will be dismantled by military defeats and ousted from the Middle East. In effect, the Islamic State as a coherent structure will be shoved off the Eurasian continent entirely. Its leadership is already preparing for this by setting up new headquarters in Libya in the city of Sirte (Moammar Gadhafi's hometown). A move to North Africa will not constitute some dramatic expansion of the Islamic State's governance - the addition of a Mediterranean beachhead to bolster its governance in Syria and Iraq. It will be the result of a strategic defeat for ISIS.

The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is going down. It has already lost significant territory. The Kurds and other ground forces have clawed back 25-30% percent of what ISIS once controlled - and much of that territory is empty desert anyway. An accurate map of its extent shows that Islamic State is not a contiguous territory the size of Indiana or Oregon, but rather a mass of tentacles that are fragile and can be cut up. (The Kurdish ouster of ISIS from Sinjar cut the main road link between Raqqa and Mosul. Raqqa is now under direct attack, and Mosul has been surrounded for weeks.) ISIS has lost control of several cities - Kobani, Tikrit, Sinjar - and an attack on Ramadi is getting under way. Only about 300 ISIS fighters defended Sinjar at the end. Whether they escaped, were allowed to run away, or were killed, is not clear. Perhaps 500 to 1,000 fighters control Ramadi, and they are surrounded by a force of 10,000 that has entered the city with success. Effective ISIS control on the border between Syria and Turkey has been drastically shrunk, and it now amounts to a narrow band of territory wedged between Kurds and the Assad regime's control of Aleppo and its suburbs. Ankara has now committed to completely eliminating ISIS from that border.

As outside governments attack with greater determination, the Islamic State's footprint and military capacity will diminish still more; smaller defeats will lead to larger defeats. In other words, however many lives were lost in Paris and San Bernadino, the Islamic State is through in Syria and Iraq. How long will it take? Of course I don't know. But it's urgent.

I am not saying that ISIS itself will be totally defeated. Even if the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is destroyed, its capacity for terrorism will surely metastasize into a more extensive, more potent, harder to hit transnational terrorist network. Unfortunately for all of us, there will likely be more San Bernadinos. (Just as there may be more mass shootings in the homeland with completely different motivations.) More countries around the world will be hit as well. Larger numbers of deluded, impassioned young Muslims will rally to the cause.

Yet even then, ISIS will not be making war on the world. Its terrorist network, even expanded, will be playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game against intensified counter-terrorism operations. The new base in Sirte should be put under constant attack and pre-empted if possible. So let's fight the urge to panic. The purpose of terrorism is to terrify. Courage is the capacity to resist being terrified.

(AP photo)