Europe/Americas update: September 9-10 2017



Two boats containing 305 Syrian refugees reached Cyprus early Sunday morning, probably the largest single group to make it to the island nation since the civil war began. Cypriot police arrested one of the pilots of the two boats, and the final disposition of the refugees is yet to be decided–some may remain on Cyprus but many will likely be transferred elsewhere in the European Union.


Russia and Belarus will begin their large, perhaps massive, Zapad 2017 military exercise this week. Russian authorities insist that a mere 12,700 soldiers will be involved in the exercise, below the level at which Russian-NATO agreements would mandate the presence of NATO observers, but Western officials say they believe over 100,000 soldiers will actually be participating. Similarly, where Moscow says the exercises are defensive in nature, NATO members are convinced that they’re going to be simulating an invasion of an Eastern European country like Ukraine or one of the Baltic states.


An absolutely bizarre story developed in Ukraine on Sunday, involving ex-Georgian President and Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili. Who’s a pretty bizarre guy. Saakashvili was president of Georgia from 2004 through 2013 (so he was president during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War), and left the country once his second term ended lest he be arrested on a number of what he says are politically motivated charges related to his alleged (innocent until proven guilty) abuses of power while in office. You know how people say you can’t go home again? Well, Saakashvili literally can’t go home again. Somehow, presumably over a shared hatred for Vladimir Putin and the fact that the two men won their respective presidencies under similar circumstances in the wake of anti-Russia protests/coups, he managed to ingratiate himself to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who in 2015 appointed him first to head an anti-corruption body and then named him governor of Odessa province. The latter appointment necessitated making Saakashvili a Ukrainian citizen, and he concurrently renounced his Georgian citizenship.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 10.19.30 PM
Poroshenko (L) and Saakashvili in 2015

Saakashvili quickly became a major pain in the ass for Poroshenko. He launched a new anti-corruption NGO in late 2015, promising that it would not become a political party, and then by the end of last year it had become a political party and Saakashvili had resigned his governorship to lead it on an anti-corruption platform in parliamentary elections. Poroshenko abruptly stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship in July, while the latter was out of the country, and members of Poroshenko’s party started warning that if Saakashvili tried to return he would be extradited to Georgia to face those criminal charges. Saakashvili, who rejects Poroshenko’s right to strip his citizenship (even though it was Poroshenko who had made him a citizen in the first place, it’s not like he’s Ukrainian by birth), announced in the middle of August that he would be returning to Ukraine on September 10, come hell or high water.

Well, it’s September 10, and do you know where Mikheil Saakashvili is? He’s in Ukraine, that’s where. He and a crowd of his supporters simply shoved their way past Ukrainian guards at the Shehyni checkpoint on the Polish border on Sunday. Saakashvili had tried to enter Ukraine by train from Poland, but Ukrainian authorities stopped the train. He then tried a bus, but the bus was similarly stopped. But good old foot power did the trick.

What happens now is up in the air. Saakashvili could be arrested and deported to Georgia. But because Kiev has botched this whole situation and elevated Saakashvili’s profile, he may be untouchable and he’s certainly now in a position to play a major role within Ukraine’s political opposition. He could even be a viable presidential candidate in 2019 if the citizenship thing gets sorted out, though it’s more likely he’d serve as a main supporter of likely challenger (and former Ukrainian prime minster) Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko leads Poroshenko in some early 2019 polls, and she’s latched on to Saakashvili to the point where she participated in today’s circus. Provided Tymoshenko could get elected, restore Saakashvili’s citizenship, and appoint him to some high-level post, maybe even prime minister. That would be some strange career path for Saakashvili, but it probably wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened in Ukrainian politics since the USSR broke up.


Kosovo has a new prime minister: Ramush Haradinaj, whose coalition was approved by parliament on Saturday. Haradinaj leads a party made up primarily of former fighters in Kosovo’s insurrection against Serbia, and Haradinaj himself is wanted in Serbia on war crimes charges, which raises the possibility of a new deterioration in Kosovar-Serbian relations. But in his first speech as PM, Haradinaj promised to maintain dialogue with Belgrade. He’s even decided to incorporate three Serbian ministers into his cabinet, though that may have been more a political deal than outreach to Serbia (ten Serbian legislators voted for Haradinaj’s coalition in exchange for the cabinet spots).


Norwegians will be voting in parliamentary elections on Monday that are expected to be exceedingly close. The country’s two largest parties–the Conservative Party and the Labour Party–are both weakening in the polls, so the final makeup of parliament will likely be determined by the performance of a host of smaller parties. Smaller parties on the left seem to be on the rise, and with the Green Party among them one of the big issues in tomorrow’s vote is likely to be the disposition of Norway’s oil and gas industry.


Social Democratic party leader Martin Schultz said in a video on Sunday that the SPD will only participate in a coalition government following the September 24 election if his “non-negotiable” policies for “fair wages, good schools, secure pensions and a democratic Europe” were ensured. Unless polling has been very wrong, SPD is going to get creamed by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, but the CDU is not going to get an absolute majority. So Merkel could meet Schultz’s conditions and renew the current CDU-SPD coalition or she could attempt to form a new coalition with the Greens and the libertarian-ish Free Democratic Party, depending of course on how those parties do. The thing is, nobody seems to be keen on either of these arrangements. Schultz says he prefers to be in the opposition and it’s highly unlikely that the Greens and FDP could coexist in the same coalition, something that both parties seem to recognize.

Merkel said Sunday that she expects disputes over the EU’s refugee redistribution program, which was just unsuccessfully challenged in the European Court of Justice by Hungary and Slovakia, to be resolved reasonably soon. Brussels may use a carrot approach, offering every EU member 60,000 euros per refugee admitted, with that money being cut off if a country drops its refugee quotas.


French authorities say they’ve found evidence that one of the two men they arrested last week in an anti-terror raid south of Paris had direct ties with ISIS.

Marine Le Pen is desperate to get back the mantle of main opponent to French President Emmanuel Macron, a title recent polling suggests she’s lost to leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon. To that end, she’s apparently planning to tour France to figure out what the National Front is doing wrong–presumably aside from the racism and the Holocaust denial–and she’s planning on changing the party’s name. It remains to be seen if that’s going to fly with the party’s old guard, many of whom aren’t that keen on her to begin with.


Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to rally in Barcelona for Catalan independence on Monday. But the Spanish government is still intent on blocking a planned October 1 independence referendum (which has been suspended by Spain’s constitutional court pending a ruling on its legality), and Spanish police have started raiding printer shops and newspapers in Catalonia looking for ballots.

If polling is to be trusted, Madrid may be making a serious mistake not allowing this vote to proceed. Polls show that support for independence has dropped over the past few years and is now a minority position in Catalonia. However, a majority of Catalan voters want to hold the referendum. Suppressing the referendum could thus have the effect of increasing support for independence, whereas holding the referendum and seeing it defeated would likely put the issue of Catalan independence to bed for at least a generation. Of course that’s assuming the polls are accurate, and in general polling has a bit of a mixed record over the past couple of years, particularly with respect to major referendums like this.



Uruguayan Vice President Raúl Sendic has resigned amid a scandal over his alleged misuse of company/public funds for personal business during his time running Uruguay’s state oil company, ANCAP, from 2009-2013. Sendic insists he’s innocent of the charges.


Nothing tonight but best wishes for those who are facing down Hurricane Irma in Florida tonight and who have already faced it down throughout the Caribbean, those recovering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and those who may still be at risk from Hurricane Jose. While we’re at it, best wishes to those recovering from mudslides in Sierra Leone, monsoons in South Asia, and the earthquake that just hit Mexico Thursday night, followed by Hurricane Katia on Saturday. If you have the resources, please consider giving what you can to some of the reputable charities (other than the Red Cross) responding to these and other natural disasters around the world:

And here are some links for charitable giving beyond these immediate disasters:

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