Europe/Americas update: December 13 2018

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian government has expelled a “military attache” from the Slovak embassy in Moscow. This is in retaliation for the Slovakian government’s decision to expel a Russian diplomat last month on espionage allegations.

The captains of at least two of the three Ukrainian naval vessels seized by Russia last month say they’re refusing to cooperate with Russian authorities and say they consider themselves prisoners of war. Which I suppose means we should start asking whether Russia and Ukraine are technically at war.

UKRAINE

Speaking of which, at a summit on Thursday the European Union offered increased aid to Ukraine to help it make up for commerce lost to the Russian blockade of the Sea of Azov. It is not, however, prepared to levy additional sanctions against Moscow. At least, not at this point. NATO, meanwhile, says it will provide Kiev with more secure military communications equipment as part of a €40 million aid package.

KOSOVO

Kosovo’s parliament is set to vote Friday on whether to turn its lightly-armed 4000 person national defense force into a full blown army. If it votes in favor, as expected, that’s likely to cause a big rupture in the already pretty lousy Kosovo-Serbia relationship and will be a major setback in Kosovo’s plans to one day join NATO and/or the European Union. But with many Kosovar politicians growing angry that those membership processes haven’t advanced very far, and with a national army seen as an important symbol of Kosovar statehood, it’s likely they’ll vote to move forward with the idea.

HUNGARY

Thousands of protesters clashed with police in Budapest on Thursday evening as they protested the new so-called “slave labor law,” which allows employers to demand up to 400 hours of overtime each year from their workers. Protesters also expressed frustration with increasing corruption and with the Hungarian government’s efforts to restrict basic freedoms. The government, naturally, referred to the protesters as anti-Christian agents of George Soros. You have to stick with what you know.

CZECH REPUBLIC

The European parliament censored Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš over allegations that Babiš steered EU funds toward the Agrofert conglomerate he owns. It’s the first time the EU has censored a current national leader within the bloc. The parliament also voted to suspend all EU payments to Agrofert and to recover payments already made, but those demands are non-binding and possibly unenforceable.

ITALY

The Italian government has blinked in its deficit standoff with the EU, agreeing on Thursday to reduce its deficit target for 2019 to 2.04 percent from 2.4 percent. That’s still nominally above the EU’s preferred 2 percent cutoff and it’s unclear whether Brussels will accept it. The cutback will require cuts in planned pension reforms and a new universal basic income plan–I mean, I guess Rome could raise taxes instead, but they won’t. Italian leaders have been adamant that their 2.4 percent target was necessary to boost an Italian economy that has remained stagnant since the 2008 economic crash. It’s unclear how big a stimulus they now expect to get out of the lower target.

FRANCE

Cherif Chekatt, the man believed to have been responsible for Wednesday’s attack on the Christmas market in Strasbourg, was killed by French police in that city on Thursday after an hours-long manhunt. Chekatt reportedly opened fire on police who then returned fire and brought him down. At least three people were killed in Wednesday’s attack. Chekatt has now been claimed as a “soldier” by ISIS, though so far there’s no evidence connecting him to the group directly.

UNITED KINGDOM

Theresa May’s plea for additional Brexit concessions from the EU has been met with some vague “assurances,” mostly that the EU won’t force the UK to abide by its rules forever, and the promise of some more “assurances” after the holidays. Apparently May was unable to articulate exactly what it is she needs from the EU to help sell her Brexit agreement in parliament, and so as a result she didn’t really get anything. The EU does not seem to have any interest in renegotiating the deal to help May out of her jam. The UK Labour Party has said it intends to force May to get parliamentary approval of her plan, and is prepared to call for a no-confidence vote if necessary–possibly even as soon as next week, though more likely in the new year.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

Human Rights Watch is reporting that disgruntled former FARC rebels are fueling a massive crime wave in the Colombian port city of Tumaco:

Groups that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are terrorizing the mostly Afro-Colombian municipality of Tumaco, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 57-page report, “Recycled Violence: Abuses by FARC Dissident Groups in Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast,” shows how flaws in the demobilization of FARC guerrillas – and in their reincorporation into society – helped prompt the formation of these new dissident groups. These groups, including United Guerrillas of the Pacific and the Oliver Sinisterra Front, now batter urban neighborhoods and rural hamlets of Tumaco. These groups have engaged in scores of killings in Tumaco, contributing to a dramatic spike in homicide rates.

“Tumaco residents hoped that the accord would finally bring peace to their communities and neighborhoods, but their hopes were soon frustrated,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “FARC dissidents are killing and disappearing those who dare defy them, raping women and girls, recruiting children, and forcing thousands of people to flee.”

MEXICO

Hey, you remember how Mexico was going to pay for the border wall? Well, about that:

Even by Trump’s standards this is lame. Even if the USMCA is somehow going to “save” the US money, that’s completely unquantifiable. I at least thought Trump would slap a new wall tariff on Mexican imports or something and then pretend that Mexico was paying it rather than US consumers. This is even dumber than that.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Mercy Corps researchers Dafna Rand and Rebecca Wolfe argue that Congress should be focusing on foreign aid as a way to ameliorate the kinds of conditions that could lead to the rise of the next ISIS:

Though it has been a full year since the defeat of the Islamic State, the United States has yet to define how it will prevent the return of the militant organization and the emergence of other violent extremist groups. This task merits top consideration for the new U.S. Congress this January: Islamic State strongholds are reportedly regrouping in Syria and Iraq, and more localized extremist groups remain committed to violence in Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Further, across the Sahel, extremists are still exploiting the upheaval caused by unprecedented displacement, climate change, and economic disadvantage in order to regroup and recruit.

Through our programs and research at Mercy Corps, we have seen how a long-term strategy to prevent violent extremism depends on addressing the socioeconomic, institutional, and political factors that determine whether these groups form and are able to recruit in certain communities.

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