Europe/Americas update: March 12 2018



European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is taking a lot of heat for appointing his personal aid, Martin Selmayr, to be the commission’s secretary-general. Needless to say the appointment smacks of nepotism at a time when euroskepticism is already high, though defenders say that Selmayr is qualified for the job.


OK, I am prepared to concede that Vladimir Putin wasn’t being antisemitic in his interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly over the weekend. People whose Russian is much better than mine–not a very high bar, but still–are saying his remark that seemed to distinguish between “Jews with Russian citizenship” and “Russians” was more likely a problem of translation than a wink at the global right-wing fringe:

This is not to defend Putin for his smug and condescending tone throughout the interview, his palpably dishonest statements regarding whether the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election, or his unhelpful injection of ethnicity into the debate. Nonetheless, it’s important to be accurate about what Putin most likely meant and whether it represents a deeper animus toward Jews. Anti-Semitism in Russia is a real problem, but the panicked responses to Putin’s offhand comments miss the mark.


To some extent, this was a problem of translation. There are two words for “Russian” in Russian: rossiiskii, referring to any citizen of the Russian Federation, and russkii, which refers to a specific “nationality” (in the former Soviet Union, this means something closer to “ethnicity”), ethnic Russians, who comprise 77.7% of the total population, according to the 2010 census.


In total, there are more than 200 nationalities in Russia that have been officially recognized since the Soviet period. Most of these are quite small in number and many are associated with specific, nominally autonomous republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chechnya. All of them are considered rossiiskii, but only the ethnic Russian majority is considered russkii.

Putin used the word “ruskii” with Kelly, which the interpreter correctly translated as “Russian,” but the nuance was completely lost in that translation. Which is not to let Putin off the hook in terms of antisemitism–as Klion notes, he supports far right antisemitic parties all over the world–but he does so tactically. There’s no evidence that Putin himself is antisemitic on an interpersonal level even if he does sometimes run in those circles. As to why he specifically singled out Tatars, Ukrainians, and Jews as possible suspects for having intervened in the 2016 US election, New York University’s Eliot Borenstein writes that traditionally they are probably the three most prominent non-ethnic Russian groups in Russia, or “in other words, if we are talking about Russian citizens who are not ethnic Russians, these are the groups that first to come to mind.”


The European Union announced on Monday that it’s extending its sanctions against Russia, over its role in the situation in Ukraine, for another six months.


The Bosnian government is warning that recent actions taken by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik are threatening the country’s “integrity” in advance of elections in October. Dodik has been heavily arming the Republika Srpska, cultivating ties with paramilitary groups like the Russian “Night Wolves” motorcycle club, and allegedly sending young Bosnian Serbs to Russia for military training.


Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told Reuters on Monday that his government expects to work closely with the new Italian government–whatever it turns out to be–and the right-wing Austrian government to hang a giant “WHITES ONLY” banner over Europe hang a giant “CHRISTIANS ONLY” banner over Europe pursue anti-migration policies within the European Union. Hungary already works with its Visegrád Four partners–Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic–on these issues, but that group isn’t expected to add any new members.


Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico on Monday canned his interior minister, Robert Kalinak, in an effort to stem public outrage over the murder of Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak last month. Well, technically Kalinak resigned but I don’t think there’s much question that he was forced to do so. Fico has been trying to avoid this outcome and in the process has made things worse by raging about “globalists” and George Soros, and it doesn’t require a secret decoder ring to see where’s he’s going there. At this point it’s not at all clear that Kalinak’s resignation is going to be enough to keep the Most-Hid party in Fico’s coalition, in which case he’s either going to be running a minority government or he’s going to have to call for new elections. Fico could reach out to the far right for coalition support but it would probably cause a major crisis within his center-left SMER-SD party.


Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stepped down on Monday as head of Italy’s Democratic Party, after apparently securing a commitment from the party not to join a coalition led by either the Five Star Movement or the League-led center-right alliance. That’s a blow to Silvio Berlusconi, who had called on the PD to form a coalition with the center-right, though League leader Matteo Salvini appears to want nothing to do with that arrangement. Salvini has suggested a union with Five Star in which the League would control one house of parliament and Five Star the other, and that would probably leave even Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party out in the cold.

The Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien argues that the euro has contributed to the rise of right-wing populism in Italy (and, indeed, throughout Europe). After noting that the Italian economy has been stagnant at best for the past two decades, he writes that the euro has been constraining any government response to the problem:

Now, there are two things you’d expect here. The first is that a zero sum economy would lead to zero sum politics. In other words, a shrinking economic pie would make people fight more about who’s getting how big a slice — especially if they think someone, like, say, an illegal immigrant, doesn’t deserve one at all. That has indeed been the case with the way that the League’s extreme anti-immigrant and pro-Christian rhetoric has helped turn it into the second-biggest party in the country.


The second is that you’d think the center-left would respond by calling for some kind of stimulus to jump-start the economy — but it’s not. The euro won’t let it. Or, more specifically, the European Central Bank won’t. The important thing to understand is that it’s what is keeping the country’s borrowing costs down and its banks afloat, so it could crash Italy’s economy if their government ever tried to defy the euro zone’s deficit rules. This is no idle threat. The ECB basically forced Berlusconi out of office back in 2011 by allowing Italy’s borrowing costs to soar after he ignored their strongly worded letter, well, suggesting he cut the budget. All the center-left can do, then, is say it would do a better or more compassionate job pushing through the tough cuts and reforms that Europe wants. Austerity with a human face, though, isn’t much of a platform.


Theresa May says it is “highly likely” that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter last week. The agent used in the attack has been identified as Novichok, which is a Soviet-era chemical weapon allegedly more powerful than VX, so it would seem that the alternative to Russia having been involved in the attack is that some rogue element is running around with this stuff, which is worse. May says that the Kremlin has until midnight Tuesday to explain itself, or else…well, who knows? She’ll probably expel a couple of Russian diplomats and they’ll retaliate in kind.



With the results from Sunday’s Colombian legislative election almost fully counted, the result appears to be a hung congress:

Early results showed the country’s right wing gained strength but its main parties failed to secure a majority. The three largest right-wing parties received just more than 40 percent of votes for seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, election officials said, with more than 95 percent of votes counted.


Meanwhile, the centrist parties led by President Juan Manuel Santos lost ground, a blow to the departing leader, whose popularity has suffered immensely since a 2016 peace deal with the former rebels.

Santos, either undaunted or with nothing left to lose, is planning to reopen peace talks with Colombia’s largest remaining rebel group, the ELN, after walking away from talks six weeks ago due to a series of ELN attacks on Colombian police.


BuzzFeed’s Karla Zabludovsky reports that, in trying to broaden his appeal, Mexican presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador may be alienating his base:

[former López Obrador supporter Elvira] Martínez was convinced that López Obrador would do right by his promise to fight the “power mafia,” his signature term for the political and business elites. Eager to change the status quo, she is emblematic of the leftist candidates’ core support base.


Not anymore. Last month, in a move Martínez says can only be attributed to López Obrador’s desire to “win at all costs,” the candidate announced that he is offering a seat in Mexico’s Senate to Gómez Urrutia, who has been living in exile in Canada for about a decade and at one point had an Interpol red notice — a request for police around the world to arrest him on Mexico’s behalf — issued against him.


“It’s unforgivable for a person who pledged to represent you to sell you out instead,” said Cristina Auerbach, representative for the Pasta de Conchos victims’ relatives.

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