Europe/Americas update: October 12-13 2017



Foreign Policy’s Reid Standish looks at the ways Russia’s neighbors are trying to counter all the fun little things that Moscow does to try to destabilize their societies:

The traditional response has been to field tanks and train troops; earlier this year, NATO deployed four battalion-sized battle groups to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to deter the Russian military. But amid the heightened tensions, officials across the region say that they are moving fast to counter and adapt to Russia’s new generation of war capabilities in an emerging defense doctrine that increasingly relies on investing in brainpower as much as it does firepower.


“What we need to change is our attitude and see that this isn’t just about Russia. It’s about us,” Janis Garisons, the state secretary at Latvia’s Ministry of Defense, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “Russia is exploiting our weaknesses.”


A late surge in the polls by Austria’s Social Democrats is somewhat complicating predictions, but it’s still likely that Austrian politics are about to lurch to the right on Sunday:

The recent Austrian presidential election, followed by the defeat of far-right candidates in the Netherlands and in France this year, appeared to blunt the surge of populism in Europe. But last month, the far-right Alternative for Germany party won more than 90 seats in the German Parliament, making it the third-largest bloc in the legislature. A strong performance in Austria by the far-right Freedom Party could give populists additional momentum.


If the polls are correct, the party could emerge from voting on Sunday in second place, with a strong chance of returning to the government for the first time in more than a decade, most likely as the junior partner in a government led by the conservative People’s Party.

Even a third place finish by the Freedom Party could still land it back in government, if People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz decides he would rather form an all-right coalition than do another grand bargain coalition with the Social Democrats (obviously the number of seats everybody wins matters here too, as does the Social Democrats’ willingness to be Kurz’s junior partner). Regardless of how the final numbers shake out though, this election has validated far-right politics in Austria, as Kurz, leading the center-right People’s Party, has oriented his campaign around embracing far-right positions and rhetoric. Even the centrist Social Democrats have shifted right.


Speaking of elections that might not have great outcomes, take the Czech Republic, please:

Late next week, Czechs will head to the polls for parliamentary elections and, if things go as expected, will elect as prime minister an embattled tycoon suspected of stealing money from the European Union and of having worked with communist-era secret police.


The political rise of Andrej Babis, an anti-establishment figure who happens to be the second-richest person in the country, has sparked plenty of fears. Some fret that he’ll turn the Czech Republic — and, with it, Central Europe and a chunk of the European Union — over to Moscow and away from Brussels and Washington. Others worry he will lead Prague down the illiberal path of Budapest or Warsaw. But the reality is a bit more complicated.

Babiš’s history suggests he doesn’t have much of an underlying ideology apart from “whatever is good for Andrej Babiš,” so assuming he wins (and assuming he’s not taken down by ongoing corruption investigations) the nature of his government will likely be dictated by his coalition partners. That’s why everybody is worried about what he might do, and to be honest that’s also why they’re right to be worried. But Czech voters are angry at the political establishment, and Babiš is the right kind of ultra-wealthy fake populist cypher to capitalize on the political moment we’re in.


Carles Puigdemont’s attempt at half-assing a frozen declaration of Catalan independence this week has unsurprisingly managed only to piss everybody off:

Catalonia’s leader faced mounting pressure Friday from all sides, with hardliners in the separatist movement demanding he definitively declare independence from Spain. Spain’s government and the European Union, on the other hand, insisted he must abandon the region’s secession plans.


Spain’s deputy prime minister blamed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont for sinking tourist numbers and for creating such economic uncertainty that a recession could be in the cards. She also said that Spain’s government is considering lowering the growth forecast for the Spanish economy in 2018 if the standoff in Catalonia continues.

Puigdemont has accused Madrid of ignoring his requests for negotiations, but Madrid seems disinclined to talk just now.


A new YouGov poll suggests that British public opinion around leaving the European Union has shifted:

Labour MPs, including a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench team, have seized on a poll suggesting the public now regrets the referendum decision to leave the EU.


A YouGov survey found that only 42% of respondents think it is right to leave the EU, compared with 47% who think it is wrong. This is the biggest gap in favour of remaining in the EU since the referendum in June.


The poll of 1,680 people for the Times, also detected some buyer’s remorse among leave voters. It found that 86% of those who voted leave thought they made the right decision, while 7% said they were wrong and 7% said they didn’t know.

The reason for the shift is suggested in the rest of the polls results–or more specifically, in the finding that almost 2/3 of Britons think Brexit negotiations are going badly. And, you know, I can’t for the life of me imagine why they would think tha-

The chancellor has backtracked on his description of the EU’s Brexit negotiators as “the enemy” after he tried to portray the feuding UK cabinet as united against Brussels.

Oh, yes, that’s right. In truth, Theresa May and her cabinet, also known as the captain and crew of the HMS Plonker, has been the single best ally the “remain” folks could ever have imagined. Nothing could have highlighted the problems with the “leave” side like the absolute incompetence of this government on almost every conceivable level.



Brazil’s sprawling Odebrecht bribery scandal, which has already hit two former Peruvian presidents and the vice president of Ecuador, may have just tagged a new an very high-profile target:

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela received at least $35 million in bribes from a Brazilian construction company in 2013, according to a video posted on a blog run by the country’s former attorney general, who fled the country in August.


In the video, a man identified as Euzenando Prazeres de Azevedo, who managed the Venezuelan operations of the company, Odebrecht, said he was “asked for a large sum” by a representative of Mr. Maduro when he was running for the presidency in 2013.


“He asked for 50, and I accepted to pay him 35 million,” Mr. Azevedo said in the video, published on the blog of Luisa Ortega, who was ousted as attorney general after repeated clashes with the president as he tightened his grip on power and jailed opponents.

Venezuela is holding elections for state governments on Sunday, and if turnout is high Maduro’s opposition is expected to win as many as 19 of the country’s 23 governorships. As a matter of policy that’s irrelevant, since Maduro and his constituent assembly are in pretty much total control of the country at this point, but as a matter of politics a major opposition victory would send another message about what the Venezuelan people actually want. Maduro’s government has reportedly been pulling all sorts of levers–bribing voters, manipulating state TV coverage of the election, intimidating opposition candidates and supporters–to try to swing the vote its way.


Just when I was getting ready to highlight a piece suggesting that “mass hysteria” could explain all or part of the so-called “sonic attack” phenomenon that’s been afflicting US and other Western diplomats in Cuba–which I still don’t think can be ruled out, by the way–the Associated Press published what it claims is a recording of what some of the affected diplomatic personnel say they heard. The brief recording itself is not considered dangerous, so if you’re up to it knock yourselves out:

Some of the affected diplomats say they never heard anything. Among those who did hear something, according to the AP, “it’s not clear they heard precisely the same thing.” But whatever each of them did hear it all appears to have been variations on what you can hear in that recording. And the audible noise may have only been part of what they were actually hearing–it’s still thought that either infrasound or ultrasound may have been involved as well.

You might think that having a recording of the alleged sound weapon would help the investigation into this strange affair, but it appears you would be wrong, at least so far.


Exciting news on Friday: President Donald Trump says he met with the president of the Virgin Islands, who is a fellow by the name of, let’s see, “Donald Trump.” I hope they hit it off. We laugh, of course, but this is an administration that clearly has a hard time believing that US territories in the Caribbean are actually part of the US–retweet if you know why. And there’s no doubt that’s part of the reason why Puerto Rico can’t get the same kind of aid that any other part of the country would be getting under these conditions.

Puerto Ricans who still aren’t being provided basic necessities are drinking water from superfund sites while their president tweets about how we can’t keep the US military and first responders in Puerto Rico “forever” (it’s been less than a month, by the way). If Hurricane Maria had wiped out Mar-a-Lago FEMA would be working around the clock to get the poolside bar operational again, but Puerto Rico isn’t back to normal three weeks after the whole island was completely devastated and President Baby is already bored with their problems.

Puerto Rico highlights the thing that keeps the Trump administration from being a punchline, the thing that keeps the main story of his presidency from just being about his whoppingly comprehensive ignorance. Trump is incredibly stupid, don’t get me wrong, but he’s also a vicious, bigoted piece of shit. And while our attention has been elsewhere, his administration has been codifying his bigotry into our immigration law:

The Trump administration may now consider “certain criteria that enhance a refugee’s likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution in the United States” in addition to the humanitarian criteria that have long been the standard for refugee claims, according to the determination, which is similar to an executive order in that it has the force of law. That term, “assimilation,” is brand-new in the history of U.S. policy on refugees, and it appears in the document over and over again. Previous directives have used the word “integration,” which comes from the Latin “integrare” — “to make whole” — and implies some change on the part of society as well as those entering it. “Assimilation,” in contrast, “is kind of the erasure of cultural markers,” according to Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “It’s important to make a distinction,” because, she said, the word “has that connotation of erasure of one thing and absorption into the mainstream culture.”


There is little doubt that this is the meaning of “assimilate” the White House has in mind. As a candidate, Donald Trump complained about what he saw as a lack of assimilation among Muslim immigrants, a group he has smeared repeatedly, from belittling Muslim Gold Star parents to pretending his “Muslim ban” never really targeted Muslims, despite the fact that his campaign website called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.”. More recently, on Sept. 15, the National Archives in Washington debuted a video of the president welcoming new U.S. citizens in which he says, “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.” He adds, “You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.”

If you think this “assimilation” language isn’t eventually going to be used to prioritize the entry of white Christians above all other possible categories of immigrants, then I’m afraid you don’t know Donald Trump or the movement he’s spearheading.

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