Spain heads to the polls again on June 26 in an election that is widely expected to result in another hung Cortés - Spain's parliament - just as it did in December of last year. The problem is that Spain's electoral system may again give parties reason to play profiling games to prepare for new elections, rather than forming a coalition government. Which parties will dare to take responsibility after June 26?
With the possible exception of the socialists of the PSOE and the centrist Ciudadanos, most parties never lost sight of the possibility of new general elections after those of Dec. 20. One of the winners of the 2015 elections, the left-wing newcomers of Podemos, seemed to vacillate for months, never really committing to join a government with the PSOE.
It was as if every time the PSOE offered up a compromise Podemos couldn't refuse, its leader Pablo Iglesias, or someone else high up the Podemos hierarchy, found a new argument to back away.
Meanwhile, sitting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the Partido Populár - which lost the 2015 elections but remained the biggest party in the Cortés, holding a firm majority in the Senate - cunningly played the role of Mister Responsibility. Rajoy at every turn harangued Pedro Sanchez of the rival PSOE about joining a grand coalition, knowing full well that the socialists would never accept, as it would mean political suicide. The PP and the PSOE have been implacable archrivals ever since democracy was re-established in 1978.
At the end of February, the socialists cut a deal with Ciudadanos, a new political party of reformist centrists and like Podemos also a winner of the elections. But while Podemos had at first signalled an interest in supporting a PSOE-Ciudadanos government, and maybe even joining one, it backed out almost immediately after the PSOE and Ciudadanos announced their cooperation.
Meanwhile, the center-right Partido Populár welcomed the PSOE-Cuidadanos agreement. Ciudadanos has been viewed as a rival to the PP, with both parties vying for parts of the same voter bloc. There's no doubt that some cheering erupted in PP headquarters when Ciudadanos tied the knot with the socialists, potentially pushing away disgusted right-wing voters.
This is probably the reason Ciudadanos sought to distance itself from the PSOE, downplaying the deal. One Cuidadanos official declared it "dead and forgotten".
Cut a deal before the elections, not after
Brazil's President, Dilma Rousseff, is responsible in three ways for her country's predicament. She is responsible for her erratic economic policies, characterized by lavish public spending and mismanagement of public funds, which, along with an adverse world economic climate, have contributed to Brazil's dismal performance in recent years. She is responsible, too, for her reckless oversight of the state-run Petrobras oil firm when she was Energy Minister and chair of the Petrobras board. That firm is at the center of the gravest corruption scandal in the history of Brazil. Finally, she is responsible for doctoring downward the size of the public deficit with the aim of enhancing her chances of being re-elected in 2014 - a re-election she won with only 51.2 percent of the vote.
It is on charges of statistical manipulation that the lower house of Brazil's parliament has approved an impeachment procedure against her - charges the Senate is considering. If the Senate follows through, and it apparently will, Rousseff will be suspended from office for 180 days while the trial takes place.
The political crisis has divided Brazilians and sent millions to the streets, some to request Dilma Rousseff's departure, others, less numerous, to support her. Backed by her party, the Workers' Party, and its founder and godfather, the charismatic leader of Brazil's populist left, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva - suspected, for his part, of illicit enrichment - Brazil's president has chosen so far to resist.
Rousseff tried to protect Lula by appointing him to a top governmental post, a move that would have taken his case off the desk of the pugnacious judge Sergio Moro. Lula's appointment was thwarted by a Supreme Court judge, but the damage to Rousseff's image had already been done. The move drew the disgust of large swaths of the Brazilian public against both leaders of the Workers' Party.
As a line of defense, Rousseff and Lula have chosen to present themselves as victims of an alleged conspiracy and have denounced what they call a parliamentary coup d'état.
The problem with such a line of defense is that the impeachment process launched against Rousseff, as well as the judicial enquiry into Lula, conform with the Constitution and the legislation of Brazil.
Still, the two can play the underdog. And if Rousseff is deposed, the lawmaker who would take over as president - Michel Temer, Brazil's vice president and a member of a party that broke away from the coalition government - has also been cited in connection with the Petrobras corruption scandal.
Temer's position was weakened by a recent Supreme Court decision to accept as evidence into the Petrobas probe the confession made by Delcidio Amaral, former leader of the Workers' Party in the Senate, who accused not only Rousseff and Lula, but also Temer, of involvement in the scandal.
Add to this the fact that the president of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, who has played a leading role in the impeachment process, has been charged with corruption and money laundering.
Thus, if Temer and Cunha are not separated from their functions, while Rousseff is chased away, Brazil's populist left will have a convincing argument that there is a double standard. That may not enhance Rousseff's approval rating (currently at 11 percent, the lowest in the history of Brazil's democracy), but in any event the popularity of Lula, who has made clear his intention to run for president in the elections scheduled for 2018.
According to a recent poll, 60 percent of Brazilians want Rousseff to leave the presidency, whether by resignation or by removal. That doesn't mean, however, that this 60 percent will all vote against Lula in 2018.
Lula left the presidency in 2010 with an approval rating of 80 percent. That leaves him plenty of room to absorb a drop in popularity and still win in 2018. This is all the more so as those Brazilians who have not yet made up their minds about Rousseff's impeachment may feel outraged if Temer and Cunha manage to escape justice. (According to the above poll, 58 percent of Brazilians would approve of the impeachment of Temer in addition to that of Rousseff).
To punish the double standard, many Brazilians may be tempted to vote for the Workers' Party candidate, whether that is Lula or someone else.
Following years of rumors, and its initial showing during a military parade in Moscow last year, Russia's newest battle tank, the Armata, continues to make headlines.
The Uralvagonzavod factory tabbed to produce the machine announced recently that it could produce an unmanned Armata as well, calling such a tank the weapon of the future.
The worsening state of the Russian economy is under increasing scrutiny, as are divinations of its meaning for the Russian regime. Most prognostications stop short of issuing a verdict on the future of the Russian state should its economy plunge even further. Despite a state of affairs that would alarm a truly Western-style economy, the Russian economy continues to function, and even shows short spikes of growth in the face of the broad sanctions imposed on Russia. While arguments in favor of Russian stability in the face of continued economic instability are probably correct, many analysts in the former Soviet Union are nonetheless ringing alarm bells as the Russian economic outlook continues to darken, without any significant rebound or restructuring of an economy whose health depends on the price of oil. Ukrainian daily Obozrevatel.ua published an analysis that concentrates on Russian so-called mono-cities. These are single-industry towns with one dominant employer, usually an industrial plant or a factory that depended on state orders in Soviet days and continues to depend on Moscow today.
"What is particularly frightening," reads the analysis, "and may cause a collapse in such company towns, is a difficult post-Soviet legacy, where, after 30 years from the beginning of perestroika under (former President Mikhail) Gorbachev, nothing was done. Such towns will simply stop functioning, as happened in Pikalevo in the Leningrad region in 2008. Back then, Putin put out the fires singlehandedly, having arrived there by helicopter, calling on (industrialist and state enterprise manager) Oleg Deripaska, forcing him to sign a document on the resumption of production at known loss-making enterprises." Similar situations, and the plight of towns such as Tver, where Carriage Works industries stopped all production for two months in 2015 and the Kremlin had to buy off protest leaders, are also noted in the analysis.
"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," wrote Benjamin Franklin. That truism seems a bit less true after the Panama Papers exposed one of the biggest tax dodging scandals in history. The reveals from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca showed that yes, death is inevitable, but some of us can avoid taxes. It is time to bury what lies at the heart of the problem: tax competition.
"The problem is bad laws."
That is what U.S. President Barack Obama said in response to the Panama Papers revelations about companies and people engaging in tax evasion and avoidance. Obama perfectly encapsulated what lies at the heart of the problem: that it is made possible by laws drafted by politicians. Lawmakers are the enablers.
The State of Israel turns 68 next month.
Is Israel doomed? Will bad demography, bad neighbors, and bad Israeli behavior turn the once hopeful and idealistic notion of a thriving Jewish democratic state into a veritable Middle Eastern Sparta -- isolated in the international community and struggling to survive in a hostile region even as it occupies a restless and growing Palestinian majority?
Having worked the Israel issue for half a dozen secretaries of state, I certainly wouldn't want to minimize the challenges Israelis face at home and abroad.
It was off the radar screen for some time but it looks to return with a vengeance this summer: the Greek Question about debt relief. Pressure is on eurozone nations to finally write off some of the debt Athens owes them but cannot easily pay back.
"We will get every cent back, with interest."
European sanctions against Russia are set to expire on July 31, barring a unanimous vote to extend them the next time EU heads of state meet. Russia has developed several ways to influence Europeans. Over the long term, Moscow has chosen economic diplomacy, while also supporting any movement that seeks to unravel European integration and disrupt Transatlantic links.
This support covers all kinds of actions: from funding European far-right parties, to supporting roundtables focused on issues of national self-determination, to fostering dialogue on national spiritual awakening -- especially in those countries where Russia can involve the Orthodox Church in the debate. These measures are of little help in the short run -- they are not designed to round up citizen support to press governments to lift EU sanctions in July.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia show no signs of abating, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was unsparing when he recently criticized Russia for destabilizing his country.
Speaking on March 25 at a government meeting marking the creation of the Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, Poroshenko said that of the more than 200 terrorist attacks prevented by Ukraine in 2015, most were prepared in Russia. The president said such attacks were meant to to destabilize the political situation in the country and were planned for Kiev, Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv, and Lviv -- the nation's major cities and regions.
Victory or defeat in war is often as much psychological as it is military. Military forces fight to impose their wills, and at a certain moment, even if the weapons are not yet silent, one side or the other loses heart. Its will to resist breaks, and defeat becomes a matter of time. Arguably, we are getting to that point in the war against the so-called Islamic State group.
Classical military theory broadly emphasizes that the battlefield advantage lies with the defenders, because defense requires fewer soldiers and weapons to hold positions than the attacker needs in order to overrun them. But when ISIS swept out of northern Syria two years ago, they staged a blitzkrieg offensive, replete with sophisticated strategy and tactics, including unprecedented barbaric treatment of soldiers and civilians to win through terror as well as by weapons. The ISIS onslaught was in effect a months-long rolling surprise attack on disorganized, demoralized, poorly equipped, internally divided adversaries. Syria and Iraq had been battlefields in failed-state territories even before ISIS arrived on the scene. ISIS just took advantage of the chaos.
Weeks before President Obama's arrival in Havana, uneasiness was already perceptible in the ranks of the Cuban government. For sure, President Raul Castro knew how much his regime could benefit from a historic event that would signal, better than anything else, the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. He was no less aware, however, of the risks associated with hosting an American president who was intent on openly defending the cause of human rights and liberty during his journey.
The ruling government's anxiety was all the more understandable considering that a poll carried out in April 2015 found President Obama's popularity among Cubans (80 percent) soaring well overhead that of the Castro brothers (47 percent for Raul and 44 percent for Fidel).
I had the opportunity to visit Havana with the permission of the U.S. government in March 2013. Thankfully, I am blessed with a vivid imagination, and I could see that it must have been an incredible city prior to 1959 -- certainly the crown jewel of the Caribbean. That is no longer the case. The torment of communism is absolute, and it eats away at buildings the same way it does mankind.
Those buildings tell their own story. Once-beautiful facades, paint chipped and fading, hid rotting wood floors and crumbling walls. Famed cars from the 1950s drove past these buildings, several now serving as taxis, driven by doctors who pick up fares to supplement their measly incomes. Nothing brought home the lasting impact on everyday life of the Castro regime so much as to see the homes along once-spectacular boulevards once bedecked with flowing water fountains. These served as single-family homes. The former owners of the remarkable buildings, however, fled long ago to American shores, and the homes now are filled by three or four families that hang their clothes on wires from window to window and sit hunched over listening to radios, while their 60+ year old car, if they have one, sits idle in the driveway.
Several days after the terrorist mayhem in Brussels, reflection on how the attacks could happen is in full swing. Part of the answer: Belgian politicians simply don't care about the safety of their citizens.
Ever since the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, and the leading roles Belgians played in them, Europe and the Belgians have wondered why so many of the leading perpetrators hailed from one quarter in Brussels.
In the near future, Ukraine plans to conduct test launches of domestically produced ballistic missiles built without the involvement of foreign companies, said National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchinov in an interview with Interfax-Ukraine news agency. According to Turchinov, resuscitating the domestic missile industry is a priority for Ukrainian authorities. "We need to develop as a space-faring nation, producing high-tech spacecraft, but we also need to restore the necessary production line of combat missiles that will protect the country," added the secretary. "We will soon carry out test launches of missiles of indigenous production, created by exclusively Ukrainian enterprises."
Turchinov noted that the domestic rocket industry has struggled since the loss of close cooperation with Russian enterprises after 2014. Turchinov would not specify the missile types, citing the interests of strategic partners, but he stressed that Ukraine has strengthened its defense without violating any of its international obligations. This development follows plans laid out in 2014 by the newly elected pro-Western Ukrainian President Poroshenko -- his "Strategy 2020" plan called for major overhaul of the nation's armed forces, a plan that involved increasing domestic development of the armaments industry and decreasing reliance on certain exporters, such as Russia, which drove domestic military production without leaving much for Ukrainian forces.
My daily digest of reading this morning started on a troubling if relatively speculative note. As a naturalized Dutch citizen living in the United Kingdom, I take a personal as well as professional interest in Britain's June 23 vote on whether to remain in the European Union. This article in the Financial Times encapsulated the concerns of the 2.9 million EU citizens living here, as it described a rush on applications for British citizenship by long-time residents hoping to avoid their status being subject to "negotiations between the UK and Brussels" in the event of a so-called Brexit.
I'll come back to that topic in proper context. No sooner was that article digested than Twitter feeds, smartphone alerts, and front pages across the web began to blaze with the news of just the latest vicious attack on Europe's open forums. The details are still coming in now, three-quarters of a workday later, with the latest updates being the inevitable claim of responsibility by the Islamic State group, and the disarming, reported by AP, of a third bomb at Zaventem Airport.
Kazakhstan has long been a model of post-Soviet cooperation with Moscow and a cornerstone of the Kremlin's plan for a Eurasian economic block drawing on the allegiance former Soviet states have to their onetime motherland, or the Russian Federation. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only leader the littoral Caspian state has ever had. Nazarbayev gained power for good in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed, and he stayed firmly ensconced at the top through suppression of the political opposition. Today the Russian-Kazakh relationship is one of Moscow's closest in terms of post-Soviet leadership.
However, there are troubles ahead for this cozy alliance. Nazarbayev is aging, and his health is failing. There is no clarity on who will succeed him, says Alexandre Mansourov, adjunct professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and at the Security Studies program at Georgetown University. Nazarbayev's daughter, as well as the current prime minister, Karim Massimov, have been floated as possible successors, but neither is seen as reliable to the Kremlin. The next leader of Kazakhstan will most likely be less pro-Russian and more open to better relations with China or engagement with Europe, an outcome that is Moscow's worst nightmare.
These are hard times for Latin America's populist left, the one that, inspired by the Castro model, was brought to power at the dawn of the present century by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil. After claiming the moral high ground for years, it sees its popularity and electoral weight shrinking by the day.
In Argentina, the hard-left Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner handed over the country's presidency to the pro-market Mauricio Macri, after the latter defeated the candidate of Ms. Kirchner's party in elections held last December. Around the same time, Venezuela's regime, led by President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's uncharismatic handpicked heir, was dealt a crushing blow at the parliamentary elections held on Dec. 6. More recently, Bolivian President Evo Morales lost a referendum that he organized to allow him to stand for a fourth consecutive term in office.
The U.S. president had not set foot in Cuba when the regime began to drop rhetorical bombs. First came a long editorial in Granma. Its essence? That Cuba won't budge an inch from its socialist and anti-imperialist positions, including its support for the Chavismo it spawned in Venezuela, an enormous source of subsidy for the Cubans, of woe for the Venezuelans, and of unease for its neighbors.
Then, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, the Castros' diplomatic errand boy, warned that his government would not appreciate it if Obama spoke about empowering the Cuban people. Or if the United States tried to impose the Internet on the Cubans. Cuba, he said, "will protect the technological sovereignty of our networks." In plain language he meant that the political police will continue to control communications. They live for that and make a living from that.
Turkey and the European Union achieved a Herculean feat, finally sealing a deal that has been in the works since October. According to the agreement, Syrian refugees fleeing to the Continent via Turkish-Greek waters will be sent back to Turkey. With this, European leaders hope to put a stop to the hitherto unstoppable influx of asylum seekers from the Syrian civil war. However, now comes the hardest part, one at which the European Union has in the recent past proven incredibly inept: actually executing the agreement.
Starting this Sunday, Syrian refugees reaching Greek shores will be processed in Greece and then sent back to Turkey. From there, the deal stipulates, the European Union will take refugees and redistribute them among the member states that are willing to accept them. This will happen according to the so-called 1-for-1 rule demanded by Ankara: For each refugee taken back by Turkey, another one will be taken in by an EU member state.