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)

The Long Road to Justice in Bangladesh

On Dec. 15, 1971, a microbus covered in mud came to our home in war-torn Bangladesh and took my father away. Dr. Abdul Alim Choudhury was one of my country's top eye specialists -- a highly respected, much loved man. Three days later, we found his battered, bullet-ridden body in a ditch alongside hundreds of other leading intellectuals. His only crime was that he loved his country and wanted independence for its people.
I was 2 years old back then. Not a single day has passed that my mother, my sister, and I have not asked for justice for this heinous crime. Now, finally, we are beginning to see progress thanks to the trials and convictions of war criminals by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Dhaka. The trials are at long last revealing the tragic truth about the genocide, including the wholesale murder of intellectuals like my father, which occurred during Bangladesh's War of Independence from Pakistan 44 years ago.
The pro-liberation party called the Awami League heeded the popular demand for a war-crimes tribunal in 2009. The League's promise to establish the tribunal was an important reason it won election by an overwhelming majority.
But even since the formation of the tribunal, the path to justice has not been easy. There is no witness protection law in Bangladesh, and supporters of the perpetrators are powerful, wealthy and well connected. Witnesses have been harassed and threatened. A few have been killed. Yet these patriotic people, who had already paid such high price for the country, moved valiantly forward with their eyewitness accounts.
Organized political extremist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami have been doing their best to help the criminals with a seemingly endless supply of funds from the Middle Eastern countries and Western lobbyists. It seems sometimes that Bangladesh is fighting a lonely battle to bring justice to its war heroes.

The government of Bangladesh is regularly attacked by outside organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International over the fairness of the tribunal process. Resistance also comes from inside Bangladesh from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami. Both BNP and Jamaat are wealthy and proactive. They have hired Western lobbyists to argue against the trials.  
What hurts me a lot as a member of a victim's family is that, in the path to realizing justice, we are so frequently made to feel like criminals ourselves. Why conduct trials at all, critics ask. Why now? What is their purpose after so long? Aren't backers of the tribunals engaged in a political vendetta?
Let me clarify my stand as the daughter of a victim of the war. I want a trial because father was taken from his home and killed. I want justice. Just because the state failed to give me justice for more than 40 years, does not mean the crime did not happen. Rather, the fact that nothing was done until recently is itself a terrible injustice.
Propagandists for the criminals have asserted that the trials haven't been free and fair. This is untrue. My mother and sister were witnesses in two cases. I have seen the trial process from inside. Trials are held in an open court, and anyone can observe the proceedings. Reporters take note of everything. The accused have more rights than in other courts of its kind.
The process has also proven to be merciful. Those convicted have a right to appeal. One convicted criminal, Gulam Azam, got clemency from his death sentence and was allowed to die a natural death in prison because of his advanced age.
Critics have also complained about the application of the death penalty. The death penalty is legal in Bangladesh, as it is in many other countries, including a majority of states in the United States. If you kill one person in Bangladesh, you can receive a death sentence. Yet for orchestrating the murder of 3 million people, we cannot apply the death penalty? What sort of a silly demand is that? Horrific crimes were committed. As the daughter of a martyr, I would ask for even a greater punishment for these criminals, if one existed.
International carping has hurt the families torn apart by Bangladesh's genocide. We do not appreciate the interference. Yet Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to complain. They were silent when the Pakistanis were killing 3 million in Bangladesh in 1971. How many more needed to die for recognition to come?
Bangladesh is trying to bring justice its people. I hope the rest of the world sees the light of truth and does not fall prey to lobbyists and propaganda machines. We, the family members of the victims of the war, will continue to demand justice until the last war criminal is punished.

Le Pen Still Has no Winning Strategy

The 2017 presidential election in France will be about more than just the fate of President Francois Hollande and the direction of the French state. Since France is one of the cornerstones of the European Union, whoever leads the country also has a big say about the future of a united Europe. The first round of regional elections on Dec. 6 delivered Hollande a blow, but it would be folly to assume that all is lost for the European Union in 2017.

With the votes of the first round counted, it is clear that the Front National party led by Marine Le Pen has made strong gains. The second round of voting takes place Dec. 13. Les Republicains, the center-right party led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, came in second, while the Socialists of current president Francois Hollande lost roundly.

To prevent Le Pen from celebrating a second time, and to keep from offering her a picture-perfect start to her presidential campaign, the Socialist party has officially withdrawn from competing in several regions where Le Pen's list won in the first round, in hopes that leftist voters will rally to Sarkozy's party to deny Le Pen her ultimate victory in the second round.

Although many leftist voters would rather cut off their hand than use it to vote for Sarkozy's party, it is expected that at least some will vote just as such, in order to push back against the Front National. It might be enough to tip the scale in some regions.

Turnout was low, clocking in at barely 50 percent of the electorate -- roughly 30 percent lower than that recorded during presidential elections. It's not too far-fetched to assume that some of the leftist and moderate right-wing voters who stayed home during the first round may come out during the second round to bloody Le Pen's nose.

Yet Le Pen's victory on Dec. 6 -- however much polls predicted it well in advance -- does not mean France has changed overnight, nor that Europe should now fear that one of the European Union's mainstays has lost its light.

While it's true that the Front National has made strong gains with its anti-EU platform, it is not true that most French want to leave the euro currency or, for that matter, the European Union.

Research shows support in France for the European Union -- most French are moderate supporters. What has changed is that the European Union is perhaps no longer seen as an engine of prosperity. In the eyes of some -- and not only in France -- the European Union has in fact become an obstacle to growth and prosperity. The rules encapsulated in the Growth and Stability Pact that underpins the euro stipulate that a euro currency member cannot have a budget deficit that exceeds 3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, while the national debt may not rise above 60 percent of GDP.

France scores well above both benchmarks. One plank of the Front National's platform promotes a return to the old French ways of fostering growth by expanding government expenses, thus expanding the role of the state in economic affairs, not reducing it. France and the other founding states of the European Union, however, agreed to the eurozone's strict pact. One of the reasons for Hollande's current unpopularity -- his approval ratings hover between 15 and 20 percent -- was his sudden announcement early in 2014 to cut €50 billion in spending, a move that was seen by many French, on the left and on the right, as caving to Brussels.

Many French loathe the lack of economic progress and the high unemployment that have marked the presidencies of both left and right. The unemployment rate hasn't landed below 7 per cent since 1983, and at the end of last quarter it rose to 10.4 percent, higher than the EU average. So, many a disgruntled Frenchman wonders what the European Union has done for France, and with hundreds of thousands of refugees knocking on Europe's door, the question is gaining prominence.

This is Marine Le Pen's third plank, aside from government-led economics and a firm anti-EU stance: a full stop on immigration. With the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, this seems an easy solution to a difficult problem - even though France's terrorist problem appears to be home grown.

But even with the three vows of a return to bigger government, a departure from the euro, and a tough immigration policy, Le Pen cannot hope to become president in 2017. France is not Poland, where the hard-right conservative Law and Justice party recently won elections on the same set of ideas as that espoused by Le Pen. It would be wrong to take the qualms the Front National is addressing as a winning formula one could lay over all of Europe. As Dutch electoral cartographer Josse de Voogd shows here, Europe's populist right comes in many guises, with each party in every country winning on very different platforms, and sometimes even on regional issues that hardly resonate on the national level.

Ironically, it is Le Pen's stance on the euro and the European Union that may deny her the ultimate prize of the presidency. The part of the French electorate that supports all three of her main proposals is simply too small to carry her to the Elysée presidential palace. As polls like the Pew Research study cited above show, a vast majority of French voters want France to remain part of the euro currency, and members to the European Union.

Ultimately, leaders who carry the banner of unity win elections, while those who divide fail. George W. Bush knew this all too well when he famously donned the mantle of being "a uniter, not a divider" during his first presidential campaign. A successful political campaign is always one whose candidate succeeds in persuading the doubting voters to come to his or her side. Banking solely on those voters who are already in your column doesn't win you elections.

In this respect, Marine Le Pen is still too much of a divider. And this holds true for many populist right wing parties that are making waves while the ongoing influx of Syrian refugees dominates the headlines and many a European voter's mind.

(AP photo)

Will Venezuelan Voters Shock the World?

Nicolás Maduro warned that the elections of Dec. 6 will bring a surprise to Venezuela. (He's right, but it won't be the surprise he's expecting.) This time, it wasn't a little bird that told him, but his hard-working election experts. Even if he clearly loses, he'll say that he again won by a narrow margin, as happened in 2013. We'll see if he can.

If they manage to win through vote rigging, Maduro thinks, Congress will remain his or almost his. Some Chavistas say that there is no danger in conceding Parliament by a simple majority. On the other hand, Diosdado Cabello, the powerful speaker of the Assembly, doesn't want to risk losing the majority, and with it his National Assembly presidency. That seems dangerous to him personally, especially after accusations of drug trafficking were levied against him. You don't gamble with power, as the Castro brothers intone incessantly.

What a surprise it would be if Maduro wins. If it happened in a fair contest, such a victory would demonstrate how out of step Venezuelans are. Nevertheless, according to the Chavistas, Venezuelans will neither punish nor replace the leaders who have so greatly harmed them, raising the percentage of poor people from 40 percent to 78 percent of the census, while 1.5 million souls have decided to emigrate because they no longer harbor any hopes.

It's odd. Wherever elections are truly free, people (except for Venezuelans) flatly reject the corrupt politicians and functionaries who squander public funds and are responsible for the world's highest rate of inflation. Add to that a brutal scarcity of consumer goods and a bloody social violence that has wiped out people amid an orgy of robberies and extortion.

There is no doubt that Maduro's victory would be a huge surprise. If it happened, it would prove not only that millions of people vote differently from the way other mortals vote, but also that Venezuelans are pathological liars who lie to all the pollsters who earlier asked him for whom they planned to vote.

They massively assure the pollsters, by a difference that sometimes exceeds 30 percent of those surveyed, that they'll vote for the candidates opposed to the immense mess created in the country by the 16 years of Chavista vandalism. Would they then betray that commitment and vote for the adversary they claimed to detest?

Is it a question of obscure psychological problems? If the Venezuelans sprung a surprise and actually voted for a Chavista majority, they would prove to be masochists. In that case, the problem would not be political but psychological. Eighty-two percent of the registered voters opine that Maduro and his government are the pits, but then would support them at the ballot box. Seventy-six percent think that the situation will worsen, but they would be saying they want it to continue. Who understands them, then?

The surprise that Maduro predicts would show that Venezuelans enjoy poverty, corruption, armed gangs, being afraid of walking the streets, being unable to buy food or medicine, and being colonized and exploited by the Cubans. Strange behavior.

Let's be serious. Nothing is wrong with the Venezuelans. They're like everyone else. Chavismo wins by fraud alone. It has been thus since the recall referendum of 2004, when authorities outright refused to open the boxes with the ballots and carry out a manual recount of the votes. They agreed only to examine the boxes they selected, something accepted -- to their shame -- by former presidents Carter and Gaviria.

How do they do it? It all begins with the announcement of a survey. Shortly before the election, some pollster states that the trend has reversed and the pro-Chavista vote is coming to the surface. Then they accommodate the votes to the predicted results to give verisimilitude to the fraud.

This has just been denounced by expert Joaquín Pérez Rodríguez in a persuasive open letter. How did Nicolás Maduro's sinking popularity suddenly improve by 11 percent 72 hours before the voting, and why? It's not credible.

The anonymous video "7K" that is circulating profusely through the Internet would explain the rest. It has left me intrigued. "7K" represents the 7,000 persons who supposedly will prevent fraud this time. Allegedly, the government holds 2,500,000 false voter registration cards -- dead people, emigrants, displaced folks, persistent abstainers -- that it slips into thousands of polling places controlled by Chavistas in areas favorable to them or far from the opposition.

"7K" vows that this time it won't allow victory to be stolen away because it will be able to count all the real votes, from all the real polling places, in real time. It says that it will go as far as necessary to make the people's vote count. The democrats, with 7,000 assured votes leading the operation, intend to demonstrate that Venezuelans are human beings just like everyone else, not self-contradicting masochists. However, they need Venezuelans to vote in massive numbers. They'll do the rest. That's the surprise.

(AP photo)

Russia's Population Is Being Weaponized

Russian President Vladimir Putin's popularity is higher than ever, approaching a perfect ten. Of course some of that tabulated adoration is a result of individual Russians not wanting to be different from all the rest - not wanting be ridiculed or threatened if they give the wrong answer to a pollster - but the Russian population, for the most part, sees the Russian president as Putin the Great.

Much of this result can be assigned to the particular effectiveness of the Russian state media and propaganda apparatus. The sheer volume and shrillness of the narrative being delivered by especially Russian television is overwhelming. Anti-American, anti-Western, anti-gay, anti-anything not-Russian propaganda is spewed from a media firehose on a twenty-four hour cycle. The effort is having the desired effect.

The Russian people are becoming weaponized - a vehicle for Vladimir Putin and his palace guard at the Kremlin to use at their disposal. If Moscow wants to annex Crimea, the people will support it. If Moscow wants to support the regime of Bashar Assad with military force, as the latter drops barrel bombs on his people, the people will support it. If Moscow wants to further expand the Russian empire at the expense of some other nation-state, the people will, of course, support it.

The Kremlin's accomplice in this effort is the Russian Orthodox Church. During a recent stay in Moscow, I went to an art exhibit created and sponsored by the church. The subject matter was the art commissioned by the Soviet Union to be used as propaganda for the Communist Party, giving form to their utopia. I was struck by one part of the exhibit, where the church had offered its own analysis of the paintings hanging on the wall. The image of an old woman confronting the Nazis in her bare feet was really Moses confronting the Egyptians. The young boy reading a letter from a Soviet soldier at the front to the rest of his family was really spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ - and so it went, on and on. I found the analysis fascinatingly manipulative. Dozens of young Russians gazed in awe at the paintings, simply unaware of the real history of the Cold War and the Soviet Union. They believe what they are told.

Putin has used the church to wrap himself in the Orthodox religion, and this is another way to impact Russian emotions. In the Russian people's eyes, the president is doing God's work. He is making Russia into the Third Holy Roman Empire, a Christian stronghold opposing the Islamic forces of evil.

This is the essence of Putin's brilliance in manipulating the Russian people. He knows exactly how to push their hot buttons, what will make their emotions boil and their support for the Kremlin's policies strengthen.

The recent order by Putin directing the Russian armed forces to work with France as allies in the fight against the Islamic State and its terrorist attacks, is an example of that brilliance. Russians have a soft spot for anything French. Before the October Revolution, aristocratic Russians would only speak French. Wealthy Muscovites travel to France often, import French furniture, and adore French wine. All at once Putin drove a wedge into NATO, stroked the Russian public, and marginalized the United States.

The downing of a Russian airliner by the Islamic State, and the shootdown of a Russian SU-24 by Islamist Turkey, have further cemented Putin's grip on power. Yes, Russia's economy is shrinking, but Russians will suffer through this hardship gladly as long as Putin puts on the show. They will support the return of greatness for Russia, even if it means they can't travel to Europe anymore. They will tighten their belts further for the state. It's just what Russians do.

Events in the Middle East may yet turn around the price of crude oil, to the Kremlin's benefit. The French may work to ease sanctions on Moscow as Russians join France in its existential fight against ISIS. Putin is now simply invincible and will only leave office when he is ready to leave office, with a hand-picked successor firmly ensconced in the trappings of power.

Putin is able to do whatever he wants to do going forward in terms of expansionism and foreign policy. When paired with an extremely weak American president and a European Union coming apart at the seams, this makes for an extremely dangerous combination.

The Changing Face of Europe

Where is leadership in the European Union? Who dares to don its trappings, now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer seems to command the authority she did up until the end of the summer? After the attacks in Paris, and with refugees still knocking on the door in their thousands everyday, voices that speak with authority are necessary. Yet it is not certain whether anyone will really listen.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the European Union as we know it? It sure seems like it. As the Netherlands takes up the rotating chairmanship of the European Union in the first half of 2016, the country's leaders are taking every opportunity to voice dire warnings.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned that the European Union should circle the wagons and finally close and guard its external borders to stem the refugee tide. If EU nations fail to live up to their commitments, said Rutte -- commitments such as actually wiring the money promised to frontier organizations such as Frontex, and actually sending the trained border guards they have promised to that effort -- the European Union will suffer the fate of the Roman Empire.

Rutte's historical comparison was ill-conceived in many ways, but one -- probably unintended -- was right on the money. Rome did not crash and burn because the empire couldn't protect its borders, but rather because of unimaginable corruption and egotism among its leading folk and regions. The northern tribes were able to invade and pillage only because of festering inner weaknesses.

Is the European Union disintegrating? Not yet, but there is a rot, and that rot is spreading. If one views the European Union through an internationalist prism of selfless solidarity, Rome is already burning. But looking at it through the eyes of its founders of yore, the Union is holding up as they meant it to be: a conglomerate of nations pursuing their happiness through open trade and resource sharing, not war.

Or is it?

Even on this fundamental level the rot is setting in. Dutch Finance Minister and leader of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem said that if the EU nations do not live up to their promises on burden sharing regarding refugees, countries like The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg should leave the current Schengen open borders area comprising 26 nations and set up their own "mini-Schengen." The much smaller size of this mini-Schengen would make protecting its external borders -- and closing them -- a lot easier.

The reason for proposing this is precisely the unwillingness of other EU nations to engage in burden sharing, Dijsselbloem said. Because other nations aren't living up to their promises on providing shelter to refugees, or are reneging on those promises like the new government in Poland has done, countries such as Germany and the Netherlands should protect their own welfare states and close their borders. They would thus emulate the behavior of Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern European states, thereby quickening the downward spiral.

By referring to the Dutch welfare state -- the pride and joy of many a Dutchman -- Dijsselbloem is acting no different. He is stepping up for his voters. And so, one by one, EU member states are turning inward.

The problem isn't the sudden erratic behavior of governments. Those now criticizing member states for their egotism seem to forget that all those governments are made up of democratically elected parties. Take the newly elected Polish government, made up solely of the right-wing conservative PiS party. Despite its dark history of political corruption and graft when in government previously, Poles voted for the self-centered, nationalist platform in mass numbers. Against refugees and international solidarity and in favor of biting the EU hand that feeds many expensive projects.

"He can say all he wants: he doesn't have to explain his actions to voters," said an anonymous government minister of a Central European nation to a reporter of Dutch daily De Volkskrant after listening to Frans Timmermans, one of the vice-chairmen of the European Commission. Timmermans spoke about the need for solidarity among EU nations in the face of crises, during a meeting with a number of representatives from several Central and Eastern European countries. Again a telling anecdote. Enlightened treaties of solidarity don't vote in elections; voters do.

So to pro-EU internationalists, the problem should be with the voters. Not the leaders of the European Union, but the people who vote them in. As with the people of the regions making up the Roman Empire, the peoples of the EU member states will gladly remain within the Union so long as the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But each benefit and each disadvantage carries its own weight. And right now, among many voters throughout the European Union, voters are weighing the disadvantages of open borders while refugees are flowing in, against the benefits of the economic prosperity machine that is the European Union. Polls and election results throughout the continent are painting a clear picture of which carries more weight at the moment.

So in the end, Mark Rutte is right, but for all the wrong reasons. The European Union shouldn't close its borders because of supposed barbarians at its gates, but because of inner rustings. Whether Rutte is the leader to whom Rome will listen is however much in doubt. At the moment, no one can claim the title of popular emperor. That is a problem in itself.