Thursday, December 18, 2014

As migrant deaths reach record, Europe retreats from protecting lives

Rights groups are urging governments to act after more than 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — When Mazen Dahhan decided to flee Syria’s civil war last year, he entrusted his life and those of his wife and three children to a smuggler in Libya who promised to take them across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The 37-year-old neurosurgeon hoped he and his family would find refuge in Italy. But less than 24 hours after they embarked on the journey, their fate took a harrowing turn.

Their ship came under fire off the coast of Malta from traffickers in another boat. When their vessel sank, Dahhan says, his entire family drowned.

“You can’t imagine what it was like,” he says. “I lost ten years of my life in ten seconds.”

At least 30 of Dahhan’s fellow passengers perished. More than 200 were rescued in the following days, the Guardian reported last October.

The number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has soared since then: More than 3,000 people have drowned attempting to cross the sea this year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. At least 5,000 people have lost their lives while crossing seas and remote deserts or mountains across the globe, making 2014 the deadliest year on record for migrant deaths, the group says. It emphasizes that the real number could be much higher.

(Simran Khosla/GlobalPost)

As the world marks International Migrants Day today, human rights groups are making urgent calls for countries to find a political solution to the global immigration crisis. The issue is particularly severe in Europe because of the number of deadly conflicts raging in nearby regions in the Middle East and Africa.

“We must address the drivers of desperation migration and act in concerted and coherent partnership,” IOM’s director William Lacy Swing said in a statement. “This is a battle we must fight together. We need more political leadership and the courage to counter the worrying rise of xenophobia.”

The tragedy that befell Dahhan’s boat, along with another shipwreck a week earlier in which more than 350 migrants from North Africa died near the Italian island of Lampedusa, prompted Italy’s then-Prime Minister Enrico Letta to announce a robust rescue mission in the Meditarranean.

The Mediterranean had “turned into a grave,” Deutsche Welle quoted him as saying.

Italy’s naval search and rescue operation, called Mare Nostrum, has saved up to 150,000 lives over the years, Amnesty International says. But last month, reeling from the task’s magnitude, the authorities announced they would hand over patrolling the Mediterranean to the European Union.

In October, Britain said it would no longer support future Mediterranean rescue missions, claiming that saving migrants only encourages more asylum seekers to risk their lives.

Even as the question of how to deal with the growing number of refugees seeking asylum in the EU has become increasingly acute, the issue has devolved into a political shouting match among member states.

Some countries are calling to attention to what they say is the disproportionate number of refugees they’re accepting.

A look at the figures indicate that some of the loudest complainers — France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom — aren't actually taking in a significantly larger number of asylum seekers relative to the size of their economies and populations, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Experts point out that countries such as Malta and Sweden are taking on a far greater share of the burden than Germany and other countries raising the loudest outcries.

“Contrary to popular perceptions, Germany’s intake of refugees is relatively low in comparison to other EU countries,” London School of Economics professors Luc Bovens and Jane Von Rabenau wrote in a blog post. “Politicians are playing with the numbers so as to overstate how much responsibility Germany is assuming for EU asylum seekers.”

UNHCR data supports those claims:

France has taken in fewer than four asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 66 million.

The UK has taken in two asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 64 million.

Germany has taken in around two asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 83 million.

Sweden has taken in 12 asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 10 million.

Malta has taken in 23 asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 423,000.

Concerns about the financial and social costs of absorbing refugees has pressed some European lawmakers to direct more spending to border policing and other programs designed to keep asylum seekers out of the continent, Amnesty International says.

“The measures they have been taking to keep people out are getting more severe, and financially they spend more and more money on building the fortress Europe,” says Franziska Vilmar, an Amnesty expert on refugee and migrants' rights. “This is the tendency, and there is no shift in sight.”

EU member states spent almost half of a $5.6 billion EU fund for refugees and asylum seekers between 2007 and 2013 on infrastructure and other border control measures for the Schengen area. Less than a fifth of that amount was allocated for the processing, resettlement and integration of refugees.

What the countries do seem to agree is how much money should be spent on rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Triton, the operation run by Frontex — the EU’s border-policing organization — to fill the gap left by Mare Nostrum’s closure, has a budget of $3.8 million a month. With only a handful of permanent staff, it relies on the largesse of member states for equipment and personnel. It will limit its operations to 30 nautical miles off the coast of Lampedusa, and its primary focus will be border control.

The former Italian operation, in contrast, cost $11 million a month. The Italian navy patrolled as far as 160 nautical miles from Lampedusa to the border of Libyan waters. Although it performed other duties, its focus was search and rescue.

The disbanding of Italy’s Mare Nostrum for a weaker replacement suggests that trend is continuing despite the deaths of as many as 23,000 people trying to reach Europe since the year 2000, Amnesty International says.

Italy discontinued its operation because its neighbors refused to help foot the bill, complaining that Rome was sending asylum seekers on to other countries rather than documenting them according to a set of EU rules known as the Dublin Regulation.

Under those rules, the country that documents an asylum seeker's first entry into the EU bears responsibility for housing while the claim is evaluated — unless the person has family ties in another EU country.

Critics say that gives Italy a strong incentive not to document the people it rescues, while politicians in France, Germany and Sweden have increasingly called for a reform of the Dublin system to push asylum seekers into relatively unpopular destination countries, such as Poland and Slovakia.

As the debate continues, neither the migration policy debates nor the sea journeys' dangers appear to be deterring those fleeing ongoing sectarian violence and civil wars across various parts of the Middle East and Africa.

The toll weighs heavily on survivors like Dahhan.

“I blame myself,” he say of his family's loss. “I cry every night and every day. I don’t know how I’m supposed to live again. Life has no meaning.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Europe's 'supergrid' ambitions show how complicated shifting to renewable energy is going to be

As international negotiators in Lima struggle to set emissions targets, battles in the EU are highlighting trouble ahead for the next phase of tackling climate change.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — As international negotiators in Lima, Peru struggle to agree on a major deal that would cut emissions at a UN climate change convention on Friday, Europe's efforts to forge a united front at home suggest that any binding commitments on reducing greenhouse gases would be only the first of many hurdles in any serious effort to keep global temperatures down.

The European Union is leading the way in some respects.

Before the UN could come up with a plan, the EU passed its own binding commitment in October to slash greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent of 1990 levels before 2030.

Last week, Germany's cabinet also agreed to cut emissions by 78 million metric tons a full decade ahead of that deadline by forcing coal-fired power plants to shut down.

Already, Germany's program of Energiewende, or “energy transition,” has changed market conditions so dramatically that two of its largest energy suppliers — Stockholm-based Vattenfall and Dusseldorf-based EON — have announced plans to quit burning coal or sell offtheir fossil fuels assets altogether.

But as Europe's conflict with Russia raises concerns about energy security on the continent, the competing agendas of the EU's member states and their various electricity companies has made progress on the key prerequisite to meeting emissions reduction targets painfully slow.

There’s nearly unanimous agreement that the cheapest and fastest way to reach the targets is to connect all 28 member states to the same electricity “supergrid.” The European Commission has made more than $7 billion in funding available to spur construction.

Some believe the supergrid could begin to bear fruit as soon as 2018.

But the work needed to put those electricity grid connections in place is so huge, it's easy to see the commission's financing scheme as little more than window dressing, says Andrew McKillop, former in-house policy analyst at the European Commission's energy directorate.

“Cross-border gas transport and storage infrastructures are massively developed relative to the same thing for electricity, which almost do not exist,” he says.

Some forecast that the supergrid won't see “serious development” until at least 2035, after an investment of “several hundred billion euros,” he adds.

But with fixed tariffs for green energy providing a guaranteed return on investments, financing is one of the smaller obstacles.

The real hurdle is that behind every new connection stands a complex set of stakeholders for whom the greater good isn't always good for everyone.

“The overall social welfare effect in Europe [of linking national electricity grids] is almost always positive,” says Markus Steigenberger of the Berlin-based climate think-tank Agora Energiewende.

“But if you go down to look at a single country, the situation might be different.”

The need for the supergrid is well-established.

Because the energy supply from the sun and wind varies according to weather conditions and time of day, distributors will have to build in oversupply and costly storage capacity to meet Europe's goal of generating as much as 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050.

But connecting national electricity grids will dramatically reduce that redundant capacity, the result of a “smoothing effect” from incorporating a larger geographical area so that strong sun in Spain can balance a dearth of wind in Germany, the former EU adviser McKillop says.

“The question of intermittancy of renewables would be resolved or reduced,” he says.

That would mean substantially lower costs.

By some estimates, in order for EU member states to reach the 2020 target of generating just 40 percent of their power from renewables without linking the national grids, they would have to build 70 percent more reserve capacity.

That required reserve increases significantly when the target for the share of renewables is boosted to 80 percent.

“Not doing the grid doesn't mean you can't decarbonize,” Steigenberger says. “But it's many times more expensive.”

Anyone can do the math. But just as the different perspectives of rich and poor countries have stymied the UN negotiations on emission cuts, the different needs of the various EU member states and influential companies continue to plague the nuts-and-bolts efforts to build the supergrid.

It's not always the case that the advance guard of the conversion to renewables — chiefly countries in Western Europe — are pitted against the coal-powered East.

A planned connection between the German and Norwegian electricity grids called NordLink will enable Germany to offload excess wind power to hydropower-rich Norway during its dry season and stabilize its own supply the rest of the year.

Although power companies are keen on the plan, Norway's energy-intensive industries have fought to lock in the country's electricity in the hope of keeping prices down.

Such concerns have thwarted efforts to link Norway to wider European markets since the 1990s, according to a 2012 report commissioned by the Smart Energy for Europe Platform.

Analysts found that another scheme — to increase linkages between Germany and western Denmark — would have a negative effect on social welfare in both countries even though the plan would benefit Europe as a whole. That project was recently shelved.

In another case, experts believe adding a third cable to the two existing links connecting the Polish and German electricity grids would benefit both nations and their neighbors, some of which already receive electricity generated in Germany and routed through Poland's grid.

Polish and German companies, too, were keen on the plan, which has been under discussion since 2006. Wind energy from Germany might have allowed Poland to speed the shutdown of its coal-burning power plants.

Nevertheless, the scheme has yet to get off the ground because of the Polish government's fears that spikes in supply from Germany's wind producers would result in nationwide brownouts.

More from GlobalPost: Britain grapples with its role in the torture of terror suspects

As renewables grow to account for an ever-larger share of the world's energy supply, such problems are poised to become increasingly complex.

Managing a grid dominated by a steady supply from conventional power plants is relatively simple. But with renewables allowing consumers to plug in and drop out, draw power and contribute supply, it can become well-nigh impossible — as suggested by a Hawaiian electricity company's move to stop homeowners from installing solar panels last year.

For the UN negotiators trying to set emissions targets, that’s not a good sign that the next phase of the battle to control climate change will be any easier.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Switzerland considers a gold rush

A referendum requiring the central bank to hoard gold may spell more trouble for the euro zone.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Switzerland may be best known for its bucolic Alpine scenery, chocolate and banking secrets. But they’re sometimes overshadowed by the country’s traditional policy of neutrality.

Now the controversial tendency to avoid alliances is raising eyebrows again as the Swiss prepare for a national vote on Sunday over compelling the national bank to hoard gold instead of foreign currency.

In one of the country's frequent exercises in direct democracy, voters will have the chance to walk back the country's growing ties with Europe by supporting a “Save Our Swiss Gold” initiative by the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party, the SVP.

Critics believe a yes vote could spell more trouble for the euro zone along with a spike in gold prices.

The proposal would force the central bank to increase its gold stocks to a minimum of a fifth of its total assets. It would also bar future sales, effectively handcuffing the country's monetary policy for better or worse, currency experts say.

It may not come to that, however. Support for the measure has fallen from 44 percent in favor in October to 38 percent early this month, according to a recent poll.

If it succeeds, however, the referendum could hold political implications across the Alps.

On one side of the coin, currency experts like Axel Merk of Merk Investments argue that the move would cut the strings that all but made Switzerland part of the euro zone when the Swiss National Bank vowed to intervene to keep the franc below 1.20 euros in 2011.

By buying large amounts of euro- and dollar-denominated assets, the bank is going beyond its mandate by speculating in the currency markets, Merk says.

“This initiative would not have come up if the Swiss National Bank had not veered away from its traditional way of conducting policy,” he said. “The backlash comes because the Swiss don't want to join the euro.”

On the other, Swiss National Bank chairman has called the initiative “dangerous” because it would make it prohibitively expensive for the bank to protect the franc by forcing it to match any acquisition of euros with a purchase of gold to maintain the required asset ratio.

"The connection between a minimum share [of gold] and a ban on selling which it embraces would very greatly restrict our monetary policy room for maneuver," SNB chairman Thomas Jordan said last week.

The implications go beyond the gold and currency markets.

Coming after a February vote to introduce curbs on immigration despite Switzerland's membership in the visa-free Schengen Area, the referendum is essentially about the country's present and future role in the European Union, says Patrick Emmenegger, a professor of political science at the University of St. Gallen.

“It is a reflection of the mindset that we would be better off on our own and being more isolated from our neighboring countries,” he says.

A yes vote could also boost euro-sceptics in countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, where the anti-euro Alternative for Germany Party has already drawn fire forinstituting an online gold shop that skirts the borders of the country's campaign financing laws.

Specifically, a yes vote could increase opposition to European Central Bank Chairman Mario Draghi's commitment to do “whatever it takes” to increase the bank's balance sheet and protect the euro, Merk says.

“It doesn't have practical implications for the rest of the world, but the debate could heat up in other places,” he says.

After the Swiss voted to curb immigration, Britain's UK Independence Party, or UKIP, leveraged the news to open a discussion about leaving the EU.

“This is wonderful news for national sovereignty and freedom lovers throughout Europe,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage said at the time. “A wise and strong Switzerland has stood up to the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels.”

This time, the Swiss banking referendum is likely to inspire critics of the European Central Bank's efforts to stave off deflation through negative interest rates, prompting banks in savings-obsessed Germany to start charging depositors to hold onto their cash.

Across Europe, the economic crisis has raised the stakes in debates about such sovereignty-related issues. Meanwhile, mainstream parties’ reluctance to take up such issues has greatly encouraged the rise of right-wing populism, Emmenegger says.

“These parties come from unpleasant corners, but they articulate things that are very clearly on people's minds,” he says.

Two more measures on the Swiss ballot reflect similar isolationist sentiments from the left, although they’re even less likely to pass. One sponsored by the environmental group Ecopop would introduce a more severe limit to immigration at 0.2 percent of the resident population. Another would scrap tax breaks for wealthy foreigners.

Switzerland's low threshold for putting such measures to a vote is yet another way the mountainous country differs from the rest of Europe.

The gold market is already jittery about the prospect that the Swiss bank may be compelled to buy as much as 1500 metric tons over the next five years, equal to nearly three-quarters of all gold mined around the world in a year.

By some estimates, prices could spike 18 percent next week if the initiative goes through.

The 'Grand Budapest Hotel' and other great day trips from Berlin

By Jason Overdorf
CNN Travel (November 2014)

(CNN) -- Europe's hottest destination for tourists, Berlin offers more than bargain-priced nightclubs and Cold War nostalgia.

Some of the most interesting sights in Germany are just a few hours away -- and with the deregulation of the intercity bus system, getting around is cheaper than ever.

Here's a shortlist of three great day trips from Berlin.


The site of the famous "Potsdam Conference" that negotiated the end of World War II and a series of opulent Hohenzollern palaces, Potsdam lies only about an hour from the center of Berlin, with all the major attractions easily reachable by public transport.

It's a day trip not because of the travel time, but because there's so much to see.

Highlights include the breathtaking Sanssouci Palace (Maulbeerallee, Potsdam; +49 331 9694200), the former summer residence of Frederick the Great -- who ruled the Prussian Empire from 1740 to 1786.

A pale and beautiful Rococo villa, its name means "without a care" and reflects the idyllic atmosphere of tranquil reflection Frederick sought to create with a grand, terraced vineyard to the south and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.

An audio tour covers the palace interior, where most of the original furnishings remain just as the Prussian king preferred them, and on a fine day the huge gardens are perfect for an impromptu picnic.

Hardcore palace fans may have enough energy for a gander at the Orangery and the Spielfestung, or "toy fortress" -- a miniature fort, complete with a working cannon, built for Frederick's son.

But in our opinion it makes a better write-up than it does a visit, and it's better to take the audio tour of the Cecilienhof (Im Neuen Garten 11, Potsdam; +49 331 9694 200)

This mammoth, Tudor-style mansion is where U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin negotiated the partition of post-war Germany in 1945. (As always in German museums, it's advisable to spring for the headphones unless you're a history professor).

Depending on where else you're headed, the Old Town of Potsdam itself can be underwhelming -- cluttered as it is with garden-variety shopping.

The varied architecture of the Russian and Dutch Quarters -- built in Germany's first, misguided effort to attract "desirable" immigrants in the 18th century -- is, however, worth strolling through.

Getting there

Pay an extra 2 euros over the standard charge for the Berlin WelcomeCard and get free travel and discounts for various attractions in Potsdam (not the biggies).

Otherwise, day passes for the A-B-C zones of the Berlin transit system -- which covers buses and trains within Potsdam, as well as the so-called "regional train" -- are available for 7.20 euros.


In the wake of the recent 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nearby cultural capital of Leipzig -- which was the real nerve center of the peaceful East German revolution, as well as the longtime home of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach -- makes an especially compelling day trip.

It's two hours by bus or 70 minutes by train from Berlin.

Though it was virtually destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II, the reconstruction of Leipzig's old town is so seamless that it's difficult to recognize the Renaissance churches and old market square as reproductions.

Meanwhile, a growing community of artists and hipsters have created a mushrooming bar, dance club and arts scene that has some people calling it "the new Berlin" (or, more disparagingly, "Hypezig").

For a tribute to the movement that brought down the Wall, visit the Nikolaikirche (Nikolaikirchhof 3, Leipzig; +49 341 1245380), the church where a small, East German prayer group known as "Swords into Plowshares" grew into a protest involving thousands of people.

Founded in 1165, the church is a mash-up of Roman, Gothic and Baroque architectural styles, but its moment in history gives it an atmosphere that can't be beat.

You can get a glimpse of Hypezig at the Spinnerei (Spinnereistrasse 7, Leipzig; +49 341 4980200; guided tours by appointment) -- a 19th century cotton mill that was converted into an artists' collective in the 1990s.

Put on the map by the so-called "New Leipzig School" -- which includes the post-reunification works of Neo Rauch, Christoph Ruckhaberle, Matthias Weischer and others -- the complex now comprises artist studios, workshops and galleries.

For classical music fans, the Leipziger Notenspur -- or "Music Trail" -- links prominent sites from the city's musical history along a 5-kilometer (3-mile) walking route.

It includes the homes of the renowned 19th Century composers Felix Mendelsohn and Robert Schumann as well as museums devoted to Bach and Ludwig Beethoven.

Regardless of your take on literature -- or deals with the devil -- it's worth enjoying a meal at the Auerbachs Keller (Grimmaische Strasse 2-4, Leipzig; +49 341 216100).

One of Germany's oldest restaurants, it's where 18th century poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a frequent patron, imagined Mephistopheles downing a few with his eponymous hero, Faust.

Getting there:
Tickets on the high-speed train to Leipzig can currently be had as cheap as 29 euros (around $40) from Deutschebahn.

Luxury coaches with snacks, toilets and WiFi can get you there almost as quickly, starting at just 7 euros. Try MeinFernbus (+49 180 5 15 99 15) or Berlin Linienbus (+49 30 338 448 0).


Wee little Goerlitz, about three hours from Berlin if you time the connections right, is a bit more off the beaten track.

But the number of Hollywood productions shot here -- "The Reader," "Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Book Thief," among others -- testify to its status as perhaps the most picturesque prewar German town, even if it doesn't make many guidebooks.

In many respects, it's a place to witness Germany's moribund East -- despite thriving larger cities like Leipzig, many areas are struggling to make a comeback.

There's not a lot in the way of tourist infrastructure, so it's best visited when the weather is good.

It's the kind of place where the renovation team at the famous Goerlitz Department Store (Bismarckstrasse 21, Goerlitz) -- once an icon in the style of London's Selfridges or New York's Bloomingdales -- and more recently the setting for Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel" -- will drop what they're doing to give guided tours.

In nice weather, there are walks along the Neisse River and across the bridge into Poland -- still fun even if the days of passport stamps are long gone.

For some traditional Silesian food, such as pork cooked in plum gravy, the town has several fine sidewalk restaurants.

Other highlights include a series of late Gothic merchant houses, some of which still have interior fittings dating back to the 1500s, a stunning Schonhof, or town hall, built in 1526, as well as a street where local glassblowers still ply their trade.

The real joy of the place, though, is the feeling of discovery from exploring the streets -- which really do look like, well, a film set.

Getting there:
From Berlin, regional trains run from Alexanderplatz more or less hourly for around 40 euros (about $60). But consult the schedule to avoid a wait when transferring in Cottbus.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hungarian protesters are starting to rock the boat

Demonstrations against an internet tax are turning into a movement against Prime Minister Victor Orban. Can it maintain momentum?
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Hungarian street protests against government policies and plans are morphing into calls for ousting Prime Minister Viktor Orban, exposing the first chinks in the popular leader's armor to emerge since he took power four years ago.

Initially inspired by a scheme to tax internet users, tens of thousands of protesters have since turned out to demand a crackdown on corruption, an end to spending cuts in education and a reversal of Orban's moves to centralize government powers.

With the prime minister’s center-right Fidesz Party enjoying a two-thirds majority in the parliament, the demonstrators face a long, uphill slog before they can hope for a change in government.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of young people chanting “Orban go away!” and “Down with Fidesz!” have effectively drawn a line in the sand against the prime minister's stated goal to transform Hungary into an “illiberal state” like China or Russia, political analysts say.

Unlike anti-capitalist protesters in Greece, Hungarians are calling for a return to the moderate pro-Western policies of the country’s recent past, says Peter Kreko of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.

“There are European Union flags in the crowd and even Norwegian flags, which is funny on the one hand but on the other really expresses the Western orientation of the youngsters.”

In June, before the protests had begun, Orban drew criticism for raids on nonprofits that received financing from Norway.

At the end of October, as many as 100,000 demonstrators turned out to rally against an internet usage tax of $0.60 per gigabyte of data.

After the government caved to their demands by shelving its plan, the movement’s leaders quickly pivoted to target corruption, inspiring tens of thousands to challenge Orban's refusal to sack the head of the country's tax authority, who was banned from entering the US because of bribery allegations.

Although subsequent demonstrations — including a rally by teachers on Saturday protesting cuts to the education budget — have been even smaller, participants say the events are becoming more focused and better organized.

Slogans and speeches have taken aim at what the protesters see as Orban's dismantling of democratic institutions, undermining of freedom of the press and fiddling with the election system to benefit Fidesz, says a protester named Eszter Fero.

“It started over the internet tax, but that was just the last drop in the glass,” she says.

Whether the movement can sustain its momentum remains unclear, however.

The street actions have been limited to urban areas, while in the countryside, the far-right Jobbik Party poses Orban a greater challenge than the liberals.

Still, the demonstrations have been notable if only for progressing beyond the usual squabbling between the government and opposition activists.

Although it's too early for bold predictions, some activists are looking to Spain's far-left Podemos Party for inspiration. Podemos became that country’s second-largest political party by number of members and even won seats in the EU Parliament within four months of its formation in January.

“The mood is angry,” says former student leader and veteran protester Benedek Cseri. “And it is also like the masses are getting to know their strength.”

The authorities are downplaying the protests’ importance.

Although he admits the protests have had a “spontaneous element,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs says they were orchestrated by the opposition rather than the result of a genuine outpouring of anger.

“Street demonstrations are a natural component of any nation's daily life,” he said. “We don't see it as a threat to our development agenda.”

The protests’ main significance lies less in any immediate impact they may have than in signifying the start of something new, says Political Capital's Kreko.

“I don't think these protests can maintain the same intensity until [parliamentary elections in] 2018 or that they can sweep away the government,” he says. “What I can expect is that there will be more demonstrations and the mobilization capacity can remain.”

As recently as April, Orban was able to build on his populist, anti-EU rhetoric to strengthen Fidesz's two-thirds majority in parliament. That puts holding a no-confidence vote in the government out of the question.

The opposition faces huge problems at the same time. Its fractured leadership is about as unpopular with the protesters as the government itself.

Even if demonstrators were able to agree on enough common ground to form a political party, various constitutional changes Orban has pushed through make it difficult for newly formed political groups to make an impact.

For now at least, Orban's move to postpone and repackage the internet tax — which government spokesman Kovacs now says was never the government's intention to pass in its current form — has galvanized normally apathetic young Hungarians who are disgusted with party politics.

That’s buoying the hopes of protesters like Fero, who says, “People could feel for the first time that they have the power to challenge the corrupt political elite.”

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Romanians choose change

A surprise new president offers renewed hope for reform in central Europe.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — The surprise victory of a political outsider in Romania's presidential election last week has offered a boost to the country's nascent battle against corruption as well as a renewed commitment to its Western allies.

But Klaus Iohannis’s promise to shake things up also introduces new elements of uncertainty.

Tipped as an also-ran from the beginning, the center-right National Liberal Party's candidate overcame a ten-point deficit in the first round vote to come away with a ten-point margin of victory in the runoff last weekend, defeating sitting Prime Minister Victor Ponta with a 54 percent majority.

The win put to rest fears that Ponta's Social Democratic (PSD) party would stymie the fight against political corruption by gaining control of presidential powers to appoint the head of the National Anti-corruption Directorate, the NAD, as well as other key posts in the judiciary.

The vote also signaled a renewed optimism in Romanian politics that — along with recent anti-corruption protests in Hungary — may herald winds of change across central Europe, observers say.

The vote for Iohannis was a clear affirmation of Romania's pro-Western stance amid worries that the region is drifting toward Russia, says Paul Ivan of the Brussels-based European Policy Center.

“It was clear during the campaign that he had a very clear, pro-Western message,” he says.

In contrast, Ponta's controversial efforts to consolidate power at home and focus foreign policy toward China rather than Europe had prompted comparisons to Hungary's President Viktor Orban, whose open declaration that he’s seeking to create an “illiberal” state is now helping motivate tens of thousands of anti-corruption protesters in Budapest and other Hungarian cities.

Iohannis is a member of Romania's German minority and observers have also hailed his win as an important rejection of the ethnic nationalism on the rise throughout the region.

“This is a very good message of tolerance,” Ivan says.

Corina Rebegea of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis agrees early indicators for reform are promising.

“This is a good sign for the fight against corruption,” she says.

In his first speech as president-elect, Iohannis called on the legislature to scrap a controversial proposal to offer amnesty to political leaders jailed for corruption and lift immunities for others that had been shielded from investigation by parliament.

The Social Democrat-led parliament responded within a week even though rejecting amnestywill threaten several prominent leaders from Ponta's party, including former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who was jailed for a second time in January.

It was a strong signal that Iohannis’s popular mandate offers him a window of opportunity.

“I wouldn't go so far as saying this is a new commitment and things will be different from now on,” Rebegea says, adding that nevertheless “he seized the legitimacy he gained through this vote. This gives him the weight and the leverage to demand that from the political class.”

In other ways, the election results make Romania's future path more uncertain, however.

The swing against Ponta, who was aiming to gain control of the executive as well as the legislative branch of the government, could presage the breakup of his center-left coalition before parliamentary elections scheduled for 2016, says Otilia Dhand of the political risk consultancy firm Teneo.

Moreover, Iohannis’s political future still hangs on an unanswered legal issue despite his having won the presidency.

As mayor of Sibiu, a Transylvanian town located 130 miles northwest of Bucharest, he allegedly violated the law by simultaneously serving on the board of directors of a local public utility, a violation that could still make him ineligible to hold the presidency.

A lower court acquitted him of wrongdoing and the parliament has since passed a law allowing mayors to serve on such boards to represent voters’ interests. Nevertheless, Romania's top court is set to review the law and Iohannis' so-called “incompatability” case later this month.

Although not even the country's constitutional lawyers can predict the outcome, Iohannis's commitment to judicial independence probably gives him an advantage in the proceedings.

However, if the judges rule against him before he officially takes office — and gains presidential immunity — on December 22, a protracted court battle could well determine the country's next president.

Assuming Iohannis overcomes that hurdle, as most observers do, he could still struggle to deliver on some of the broader reforms he promised during his campaign after the early sheen of victory fades.

Opposition legislators have already begun criticizing the president-elect for “issuing orders” — a veiled reference to the historical prominence of ethnic Germans in Romanian society, says Laura Stefan, a former official in the Justice Ministry.

“In Romania, miracles only last for three days, so I expect we'll recover quite soon and go back to the old ways of doing business,” she says.

On corruption, he will need to distance himself from controversial members of his own party and build on a marriage of convenience with civil society that emerged as a de facto anti-Ponta coalition rallied behind him in the election runoff.

A first step could be using the bully pulpit to expand the public's focus from prosecutions to prevention — comparatively boring work on transparency and accuracy in reporting on the use of public resources, Rebegea says.

Still, specific measures to reform economic policy and the political process lie outside the reach of presidential powers, which are limited to foreign policy and judicial appointments.

“When it comes to economic policy, his input is relatively limited,” Dhand says.

But with a far-reaching national security policy — one of the president's most powerful tools for influencing the country's direction — Iohannis also has an opportunity to emphasize Romania's ties with the EU and US in ways that could encourage Western investment.

With some deft maneuvers, he could step into a vacuum of pro-Western leadership created by Hungary's Orban in the region.

“His new strategy needs to really substantiate what he means by pro-NATO, pro-EU and so on,” Rebegea says. “He needs to look at defense modernization and concrete projects by which Romania can really take on a leadership role in Southeast Europe.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Is Washington losing central Europe — or throwing it away?

As American officials respond to Russian actions in Ukraine, some worry Cold War-style rhetoric may be alienating the countries it’s supposed to help secure.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Five years ago, a group of renowned European leaders, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Polish ex-President Lech Walesa, published an open letter to President Barack Obama warning him against abandoning his allies in central Europe in order to cozy up to Russia.

Now it’s America’s turn to worry.

As a new generation of central European leaders strives to balance the demands of Brussels and Washington with their vulnerability to Moscow, commentators and officials in the United States are expressing their concerns about losing the central region to Russian influence.

Some worry that Cold War-style US rhetoric over Ukraine may be alienating the countries it’s supposed to help secure.

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland encapsulated Washington's fears earlier this month.

"Across the region, the twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption are threatening the dream so many have worked for since 1989," she said, referring to the year the Berlin Wall fell and central Europe broke free of Soviet control.

"And even as they reap the benefits of NATO and EU membership, we find leaders in the region who seem to have forgotten the values on which these institutions are based."

The veteran journalist Jackson Diehl phrased it more bluntly.

“In reality, a big chunk of the NATO alliance has quietly begun to lean toward Moscow,” hewrote in the Washington Post.

To be sure, the days of blinding love for Europe are over as NATO's newest members realize that the “benefits” Nuland mentioned also come with costs.

In stark contrast to Havel's distrust of Moscow — the former dissident playwright spent four years in prison under communism — the current Czech president, Milos Zeman, founded his Party of Civic Rights in 2009 with the financial support of Russia's Lukoil. Now he's under fire for a foul-mouthed defense of Putin's jailing of Pussy Riot.

This summer, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka opposed Poland's call for expanding NATO's presence in Europe in response to Ukraine’s crisis, while his Slovakian counterpart Robert Fico obliquely compared the idea of stationing NATO member troops on his country's soil to the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Even Austria, which was never part of the Soviet Bloc, welcomed Putin with broad smiles while Brussels was pushing for tougher sanctions in June. Vienna, like Budapest, is steadfastly moving ahead with plans to help construct a natural gas pipeline that would link Russia to southern Europe against EU objections.

Then there’s Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who recently said he aims to make Hungary an “illiberal state” like China or Russia rather than emulating his European neighbors.

But experts say it's wrong to conflate his extreme position with the more nuanced maneuvers of other central European countries.

Some believe Washington’s rhetoric have been more threatening than reassuring for them.

“It pushes [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to a more defensive and frankly irrational position,” says John Feffer of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

Outside Budapest, central European leaders are walking a tightrope because of an understanding that despite its tough words, NATO may not be as willing to confront Russia militarily as they once believed, says Carnegie Europe director Jan Techau.

“There's a very strong feeling at the moment, particularly with the Obama administration, that people in Washington don't really care at all about cntral Europe,” he says.

In an effort to help pressure Putin to back down in Ukraine without a military confrontation, NATO wants its members to stand united over economic sanctions and threats of a Russian energy cutoff.

At the same time, some of those members increasingly see NATO as unable or unwilling to defend Europe even as it asks them to fight outside its borders — urging Poland to send soldiers to Afghanistan, for example — but declining Warsaw’s requests for a missile defense shield and its own NATO base.

Poland and other former Soviet Bloc countries believe the answer lies in strengthening NATO.

Others say a more robust response to Putin's aggression would bring about even more serious consequences.

“Basing in central Europe is not crucial,” Michael Emerson, former EU ambassador to Moscow, said in an email. “Rather, the strategic choice not to go to war over Ukraine has been the issue, but who would say that was a miscalculation?”

But if relative caution has so far largely prevailed, growing demand within Ukraine to join NATO could soon raise the ante for the military alliance.

Some believe NATO's eastward expansion in the 1990s has already pushed it to a crisis point. “Now it's facing the consequences of the expansion territorially and conceptually," Feffer says.

He advocates a new security architecture that would include Putin in NATO's decision-making process before rather than after conflicts arise. Beefing up the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe could help, he says.

Other factors are affecting central European attitudes.

Europe’s economic crisis has also prompted countries in the region to try to reduce their westward focus.

The Czech Republic once sought to bind its economy to Germany's to cement its place in Europe. Now that a third of its exports go to Germany and two-thirds to the EU, Prague is looking to reduce what it has come to see as a kind of economic vassalage, says Czech journalist Ondrej Soukup.

“Russia is the most viable other option,” he says.

That doesn't necessarily mean an embrace of the Russian model, however.

Despite the president's dislike for Pussy Riot, the Czech Republic's rejection of new NATO forces doesn’t reflect some new allegiance to Putin or a budding love for curbing freedom of speech, says Vaclav Bartuska, Czech ambassador-at-large for energy security.

“Brussels is our second capitol,” he says, “not Moscow.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tinder not working for you? A German website may have an alternative is promising a free market for prostitution.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Flashbulbs light up for a gay porn star hawking DVDs as Julius Dreyer blithely threads his way through booths touting everything from dildos and depilatory cream to accounting services (“Sex and Tax?”).

Taking part in the world's largest trade show for “erotic lifestyles” is old hat for this young entrepreneur, who’s been in the adult industry practically as long as he's been an adult. But his latest venture may be the most controversial here.

As Germany continues to debate the legalization of prostitution a decade ago, Dreyer is promising to make it safer and reduce exploitation. In 2009 he and his two brothers founded, a social networking site for sex workers.

They say it will improve the profession by creating a free market for independent prostitutes.

“Our vision is to see sex work an equal and fully accepted part of society,” Dreyer says. “We believe that all kinds of problems arise from sex workers being isolated and judged [by others].”

Slim with tidy, close-cropped hair, Dreyer founded Germany's most popular hookup site,, before he turned 21.

But the success of his newest site isn’t assured. With free sex apps such as Grindr and Tinder gaining acceptance and brick-and-mortar “swingers' clubs” practically mainstream here, — which translates as “” — may face an uphill battle.

Although pimping and other related activities remain against the law, prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2002.

This spring, the increasing visibility of large commercial brothels and a perceived if unproven uptick in street prostitution prompted a parliamentary call for a debate on tougher regulations.

The expressed aim of proposed new rules for the industry is to protect sex workers. They include a ban on unlimited “flat-rate sex” offers, mandatory registration for prostitutes and tougher licensing regulations for brothels, which proponents say could improve working conditions and help fight human trafficking.

However, sex workers and their advocates say measures such as the introduction of ID cards for prostitutes would be counterproductive. Critics say they could enable customers to blackmail single mothers frightened of losing their children, for example.

“Until such time that our children can say, 'My mother is a sex worker,' without anybody in kindergarten class batting an eye, many of us believe the best protection lies in anonymity,” the Trade Association of Erotic and Sexual Services said in a statement about the proposed regulations.

With 250,000 active members logging in every week, nearly a million page views and more than 100,000 messages sent between users each day, offers an alternative to tougher regulations, Dreyer says.

“We can’t say how many actual dates result from this, but I have to assume it's in the thousands,” he says.

The company earns its revenue from membership fees and online advertisements, not facilitating transactions.

The prostitution portal ranks among Germany's top 200 websites and the top 10 of adult sites.

Like an X-rated Facebook-meets-eBay, it offers sex workers direct access to thousands of customers, which makes operating independently from brothel owners or an illegal pimping service more financially viable, says a sex worker called Undine de Riviere.

“I know other providers who get the majority of their business from [Kaufmich],” she said in an email.

Other features promise to make potentially dangerous interactions safer.

Sex workers and customers can identify themselves as “safe-sex only” users, which has reduced an industry-wide problem of condomless oral sex, according to online feedback.

More than half of Kaufmich's users have opted for the safe sex badge.

An eBay-style ratings system also rewards cleanliness and better customer service.

Prostitutes can rate their customers, helping create virtual identities with histories that promise to reduce the risk of meeting strangers for sex while retaining the anonymity that's essential to the business.

Sex workers can even blacklist customers.

“We want to bring a level of safety and transparency into this whole thing,” Dreyer says. “When you post an ad on Craigslist, you don't really know who the guy is you're going to meet. That's a little scary.”

Although it's essentially a marketing tool, the website also complements the work of Germany's nascent sex worker unions by hosting an online venue for prostitutes to discuss concerns such as taxation that may not receive mainstream media attention, Dreyer says.

The fact that the site makes its users money makes it especially attractive, said de Riviere, who is also a spokeswoman for Germany's recently formed Trade Association of Erotic and Sexual Services.

“You reach a lot of sex workers that way who aren't politically interested much or wouldn't attend actual physical meetups,” she said.

In a country where Amazon and Uber are embroiled in union disputes, that could well make an online marketplace for sex Germany's most labor-friendly website.