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Monday, 3 April 2017

The Missing Flag – Solidarity upon Conditions

After the Metro bombings in Saint Petersburg, the Berlin Brandenburg Gate was not illuminated with the victim's flag this time - there was no Russian flag on Brandenburg Gate, due to a "technicality" by the Berlin Senate.

There is a new tradition in Berlin, even though there are plenty of them in a vibrant city like Berlin: whenever there is a terrorist attack in any bigger city in the world, the Brandenburg Gate in the city centre gets illuminated with the flag of the affected country.
That was in particular the case after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, and also with any following attack that took place somewhere else in the world: in Brussels, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Nice, in Berlin itself – even after the attack on a Gay-club in Orlando in the US. In this latter case, the Gay-Pride flag was illuminated on the Brandenburg Gate.

After the first news of today’s terrorist attacks in Saint Petersburg Metro, Russia, officials and world leaders immediately expressed their condolences and solidarity with the Russian people and the citizens of Saint Petersburg. Even though it was a mayor topic in today’s news, you could feel that the solidarity is not quite the same as it was the case with Paris, Brussels, or even London very recently.
Personally, my thoughts this evening were drifting and wondering if Berlin would repeat this “new tradition” of displaying the affected country’s flag on Brandenburg Gate. Would the Russian flag be displayed in the same way as it was the case with the French tricolore or the Union Jack?
The answer came quickly and was: no!

Frankly, I was not surprised that this time there won’t be any Russian flag being displayed on Brandenburg Gate, considering the fact that it was not a Western European country or a country closely related to Germany as such. With deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, it would have been a small, but at least a symbol of mutual solidarity to show from the German side that any country and any city being hit by bombings can be sure to get compassion from around the world – especially from the city of Berlin that has also been hit by terrorism itself in December last year.

The question is: why was the Russian flag not displayed this time?
In a statement to the Berlin newspaper “Berliner Morgenpost”, the Berlin city senate justified its decision not to illuminate Brandenburg Gate with the Russian flag with a technical, yet very questionable reason: Saint Petersburg is not a partner city of Berlin and there can only be made a few exceptions.
Puzzling as it might sound, but does it depend on a city partnership if a country’s flag can be displayed or not? Even though the cities of Paris, Brussels, London and Istanbul are partner cities, Nice and Jerusalem are not – yet their flags have been displayed on Brandenburg Gate.

Therefore, this argument of non-partnership between Berlin and Saint Petersburg cannot be taken as a fact for non-illuminating and it is apparent that there are deeper reasons for not continuing this new “tradition”.

The most convincing reason is that Germany’s relations with Russia recently depend of four main factors:
1st: Russia’s continuing repressive domestic politics, in particular with opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the anti-Putin demonstrations in the past few days;
2nd: The ongoing Ukraine crisis and the sanction regime against Russia, which will not ease;
3rd: Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and allegations of war crimes against the Syrian population;
4th: The Russian military presence alongside its borders to the Baltics, probably as a respond to NATO’s troop enforcement in its Baltic allies.

Even though it is a small, maybe insignificant symbol that Brandenburg Gate was not illuminated this time, it carries a profound subtle message to Russia: if Russia wants to receive full solidarity from all countries and people – in particular in the west, it has to make concessions to the West and agree on Western terms:
“Fulfil our criteria, our standards and play our game upon our rules, then maybe we can treat you equally”.

Conflicts can be defused with small steps and small symbols, but they can also escalate the same way. As things are right now, they tend to escalate with small steps. The Berlin senate’s decision and reasons not to display the Russian flag is a rather shabby decision and does not comply with its precious decisions, neither its own moral standards. There cannot be any double standards when it comes to bombings or terrorist attacks, and still they are used regarding Russia.

Apparently, sympathy and solidarity depend on the country itself and not on city-partnership or not.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Shockwave Approaching – The Return of the Ugly German

What has been predicted for the past months has now happened. At today’s regional elections in three federal states – Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony Anhalt – the right-wing AfD party achieved staggering results and will now send members to three additional regional parliaments. Germany is witnessing a political earthquake and a fundamental change in its political party structure.

The AfD (Alternative für Deutschland = Alternative for Germany) has easily outperformed established parties such as the liberal FDP, the Green Party, as well as the left wing “Linke”. Even more: first results indicate that the AfD has even outperformed the SPD and the Linke in Saxony-Anhalt, becoming the second strongest party in the federal state in East Germany, just behind the conservative CDU. Last week’s local government elections in the federal state of Hesse already predicted strong results for the AfD, where it partly achieved two-digit results in several cities and municipalities. Just a week later, the AfD has arrived in wide bases of the German population, in the West as well as in the East.

The Refugee Crisis and the Effects of Cologne
Frankly speaking, the results for the AfD were not a true surprise as the ongoing refugee crisis and the long-term effects of the Cologne New Year’S Eve incidents have raised significant concerns in wide parts of the German population, in particular in the view of security, the social welfare system, and the presumable loss of national identity through a steady – what the AfD calls – “alienation” of the country. While the government on the federal, on the regional, and on the municipal level struggle to find solutions for the integration process of acknowledged refugees and had even enforced harsher rules for quicker deportation regulations for rejected asylum seekers, the AfD and many other right wing parties and groups have been riding on an emotional wave of fear, panic making and polemics. Obviously, a significant part of the population was very receptive towards these loudmouths.

Even though the CDU tried to change its previous open-door policy that had strongly been advocated by Chancellor Angela Merkel, it now has to be regarded as a vain attempt to pull potential AfD voters towards the CDU. On the contrary, the open rebellion of several CDU politicians against their party leader Angel Merkel and even of the top candidate for the Prime Minister’s post in Rhineland-Palatinate, Julia Klöckner, caused a loss of credibility for the CDU overall. On the other hand, the left wing parties such as Linke, Grüne and SPD were unable to make a profit of the CDU’s inner quarrels and instead lost the opportunity to defend the refugee policy.

Fear eats Brain – The Louder, the Better
The AfD had one very simple strategy: creating fear through the instrument of the “evil, raping, and greedy” refugee. This was the main agenda not only of the AfD, but of all right wing extremist parties running for the elections – including the neo-Nazi parties NPD and III. Weg (Third Way), as well as from the anti-Islamic PEGIDA-Movement (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes = Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the Occident). The initial overall welcoming-euphoria for refugees arriving in Germany last summer was almost completely wiped-out after the incidents of Cologne at New Year’s Eve, where thousands of presumable Arab and North African migrants have molested and robbed women. This image of the “sex hungry” refugee was the main image displayed on the AfD’s election wall papers, creating a picture of imminent threat and fear.

The message of the AfD’s policy agenda sent out was simple: enforce harsher asylum laws, deport illegal immigrants more quickly, and enforce national identity throughout society. Taking a closer look at the agenda, it becomes evident that the AfD is targeting a revisionist strategy towards German society: turning the country more restrictive towards all foreigners, elitarian in terms of taxation and social welfare (i.e. massively cutting the welfare system benefits, including withdrawing the voting rights for long-term unemployed people, introducing a flat-tax system from which only top earners will benefit), backwards-drawing in terms of society, i.e. enforcing so called traditional family images, or banning same-sex rights and privileges, and anti-European to the bone.

The Final Triumph of the Right?
Unlike other right wing parties, such as the infamous NPD, the AfD is rather well organized and achieved a stable voters’ base within a short period of time. What originally started up as a Euro-Scepticist, though liberal party has rapidly shifted into a populist right wing party with a strong xenophobic agenda setting under its new leader Frauke Petry. The AfD seems to have overcome the notorious dysfunctional and chaotic organisation of other right wing parties and is winning supporters not only in notorious right wing voters’ strongholds, such as in East Germany, but in West Germany as well.

If it is going to lead to a long-term success for the AfD, is hard to predict and needs still to be waited for, as it has to face parliamentary routine and daily real political life. In the past, other right wing parties that had achieved seats in regional parliaments, were unable to provide significant results in parliamentary work and failed to implement any significant results as opposition parties. Consequently, they could not repeat their previous electoral success and quickly dropped out of the parliaments at the following elections.

While this was specifically the case with the “Republikaner” (Republicans) in the 1980ies and the NPD in some East German states a few years ago, for the AfD it could be different, though. Having established a strong electoral base, and being intensively supported in East and West, it could become a part of parliamentary real life from now on – on the opposition’s bench, from now on. At the present time it is, fortunately, unlikely to become part of any government collation, as the party that is willing to set up any coalition with the AfD, needs still to be founded yet.

However, that is exactly what people thought of the NSDAP during the Weimar Republic, and the results are very well known.

A Repeat of History?
Germany is currently going through a phase of significant political changes where it needs to deal with an increasing sensitive electoral base, rapidly willing to shift to the extreme. If today’s elections were the beginning of a long-term change of voters’ preferences to extremism or just another act of short-term protest vote, has yet to be determined. Past elections with a strong tendency to protest votes have shown that it was rather a temporary rejection of the government’s current politics rather than a permanent shift of preferences. A reason why this time it could be different has to be found in the development of the AfD until now. At the 2013’s general elections, the AfD achieved 4.8 percent of the votes – just slightly missing the 5 percent minimum requirement to access to the parliament in Berlin. In previous votes, the votes have increased and as for now, the AfD is not only represented in the European Parliament, but will also have seats in 7 out of 16 regional parliaments in Germany.

If this tendency continues, the AfD is very likely to win votes in the Federal Parliament in Berlin at next year’s general elections. This will most definitely lead to a political earthquake and fundamentally reshape the political life of Germany. Winning votes through loud emotional protest and a strong revisionist policy agenda was the agenda that made the NSDAP strong.
Although analysts and political scientists anticipate the support for the AfD to drop once the refugee crisis has been solved – in which way ever, it has to be determined yet if it will also be linked to the voters’ behaviour, or if the AfD will be a strong party by then.

Will the German people at least learn the lessons from the past this time, or repeat their mistakes once again? The numbers of right wingers’ protests are increasing and their high volume is over-shouting every sensible argument – on the streets and in political discussions throughout all media channels.

The shockwaves are approaching, and they are thundering in fast and loud.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Ugly Awakening of Cologne – How Euphoria turns into Panic

The general euphoria and enthusiasm with which the German population welcomed arriving refugees last summer(nearly one million), has suddenly vanished and turned into a collective feeling of anxiety and increasing suspicion. Questions arose very quickly if the men from the Cologne mob on New Year’s Eve were refugees who came to Germany last summer, or if those were other immigrants living as asylum seekers for a longer period of time. As it turned out, Cologne was not the only venue for these assaults. Similar incidents where reported from Stuttgart and Hamburg, though not as extreme as in Cologne.

The events of Cologne on New Year’s eve was Germany’s “9/11” – if you want to dramatize the impact of it on Germany’s society and public discussions. It has been nearly a month since the dramatic incidents at Cologne train station where at New Year’s Eve a mob of North African and Arab immigrants have sexually attacked and robbed women. Official numbers indicated that around 1,000 men have gathered at the square between the main train station and Cologne Cathedral, hunting women and physically harassing them. In the view of the masses, the outnumbered police was unable to cope with this security challenge. Even female police offers quickly became victims of the mob.

From Open Arms to Closing Borders
The first reactions were predictable. Conservative politicians immediately called for a change of the current refugee and asylum policy and demand a more restrictive approach. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s infamous refugee slogan “We can do it” (“Wir schaffen das”), which she repeated during her New Year’s speech just a few hours before the incidents, now sounds like a desperate call not to give up and to prevail as the presumably last standing EU country willing to accept refugees. In the meantime, more and more EU member states consider a closure of their borders, as very recently stated by Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz.

Merkel’s support in the own party is diminishing, more fellow party members of CDU and CSU call for a recall of Merkel’s refugee policy. Desperate to keep her power within the own party she remains significantly silent and proceeds with her policy despite the growing resistance. However, she needed to do some alterations to keep the growing resistance in her own party silent. Asylum applications of refugees from the Maghreb countries Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia will be processed quicker, in order to deport them sooner. As it turned out, some refugees managed to get registered in Germany various times and in some other individual cases – as in the killed Islamist in Paris a few weeks ago – they had several identities.

This week, Austria announced to implement a cap of 37,500 refugees this year, which is one third of last year’s overall refugee count. That leaves Germany all alone in its refugee policy – with vanishing inner-party and public support for Merkel. The Bavarian CSU Party (Christian Social Union) strongly supports Austria’s unilateral decision and strongly advocates for a similar solution.

Panic Move to the Right – Feeding the Dumb
With elections in three federal states coming up in March (in Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate and in Baden-Württemberg), everyone anticipates a drastic shift of voters towards the extreme political right – in particular towards the right-wing populist AfD Party (“Alternative for Germany” – “Alternative für Deutschland”). Recent polls indicate more than 10 percent for the AfD, clearly a result of the refugee policy and in particular of the Cologne incidents. A concerned and emotionally terrified part of the German population, which feels not only disappointed of the political establishment, but distrust the governments’ ability to cope with the integration of the refugee masses, move away from the conservative bias of CDU towards the right wingers and could potentially cause a political earthquake in Germany. Even though the next general elections won’t be held before autumn 2017, these three upcoming elections – taking place simultaneously on the 13th of March – could have a profound effect on the Merkel administration and mark the beginning of a serious crisis for the German post WW2 political system.

To gain votes, the AfD does not hesitate to present what they pretend to call “true facts” about the refugee situation in Germany. Stating that more than 1.5 million unregistered refugees are currently moving throughout the country and that each family received up to 5,000 Euros every month from the state, it creates an artificial state of fear and “over-alienation” which needed to be fought. This way of twisting the facts and making up wrong numbers as an election campaign strategy is – in times of increasing uncertainty and rising fear in public – a welcoming instrument for the AfD to trigger the sensation of paralysation and panic.

Taking a look on social media, an increasing number of xenophobic comments have been registered where users do not hide their identity any longer and drag more users to follow and share their racist comments. This could be an instrument of recruiting supporters for any right wing extremist party or movement, making it socially acceptable to publically spread hatred throughout the web. According to journalist and Spiegel columnist Sascha Lobo, this phenomenon is predominantly a sociological gathering of “dumb” people determined to spread their own xenophobic thoughts and making them acceptable through a broad public online-audience. This is being used by the AfD, as well as by the xenophobic PEGIDA movement (“Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the Occident” = “Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes”). The brown mob therefore is not only spreading on the roads, but also in the web, and the numbers of dumb brown posts is growing.

Can we really? A Threat for Merkel, a Threat for Social Peace
Merkel’s popularity rates are dropping, so does the support of her own party. Some CDU delegates are already speculating that Merkel might eventually resign from office, but leaving the question unanswered who might replace her. Former Bavarian Prime Minister Günther Beckstein made a rather delicate point by stating in a recent radio interview that Merkel’s unilateral refugee policy was a “dictatorial move” and not made in accordance with the federal states. In a single event, a Bavarian district chief executive made a very striking move to protest against the alleged “top down imposed” refugee relocation among the federal states, by putting 31 refugees on a bus and driving them singlehandedly to Berlin. Disregarding the obvious challenges for municipalities regarding the accommodation and administrative care of refugees, this kind of instrumentality is an indication that some individual local politicians are ready to lose human decency – a dangerous development that could cause free riders to do something similar. As a side effect, these actions will seriously damage social stability in the country, on a local and a national level.

The biggest threat though is not only the rise of right wingers, but above all how the German public will behave towards refugees and asylum seekers from now on. Will they still welcome them as enthusiastically as before? Can the population really cope with the masses of refugees as propagated by Merkel’s “We can do it” mantra? Or will the xenophobes prevail and infiltrate a feeling of overall fear and distrust towards any Arab and Muslim person living in Germany and violently shake the political and social system in its very foundations?

Eventually, the refugee crisis that started last year is definitely changing Germany already, though not the way Merkel wished.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Into the Maelstrom of “non-coalition” – Why Germany wants (not) to fight now

A bit more than two weeks ago, the German Parliament has approved, by a big majority, to deploy army troops and fighter jets for reconnaissance flights to Syria, to fight alongside French troops against ISIS. Out of its in total 598 members, the mandate was endorsed by 445 votes, with 146 voting against the mandate and 7 abstaining from the vote. After weeks of controversial discussions and still shocked by the terrorist attacks of Paris last November, the German government under its Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided to join the international alliance in its fight against ISIS in Syria. Though it is not the first military mission for Germany – already being committed in missions in Afghanistan, Mali and in the Balkans, it is in fact Merkel’s first war.

Yes, the terminology used was – and even is – actually “war”; a word that was avoided for years and for which different synonyms have been used, just not to admit that Germany was involves in “war-like” out of area missions. Unlike Germany’s most prominent out of area mission in Afghanistan running since 2002, Germany does not go to Syria out of its own motivation – and it frankly even did not so with Afghanistan. Enormous international pressure and the paralysed impression that it cannot remain at the side line for much longer forced Germany to join the alliance against ISIS. But if you ask about the purpose of Germany’s “involuntary” commitment, then even political leadership fails to give satisfactory answers.

A huge Risk, Yet another hasty Action
This year, Europe has witnessed some hasty actions by Germany – something that is usually uncommon regarding its hitherto reluctant and waiting behaviourism, specifically related to foreign and security policy. While Merkel’s quick “We can do it” policy in the view of the refugee crisis was a humanitarian necessity, disregarding the enormous social and political challenges it was unaware of at that time, the decision to send troops to Syria has to be regarded as a pressured “out of alternative” call for arms. The deployment of troops will involve six Tornado fighter jets, the frigate “Augsburg” to guard and escort the French aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle”, which is patrolling in the Eastern Mediterranean, and from where French jet fighters are dispatched for bomb raids on ISIS deep inside Syria.

In a recent poll conducted by the polling institute “infratest dimap”, around 58 % of the interviewees supported a military mission against IS, while 37 % oppose a military commitment – disregarding the outcome of such a mission would lead to presumably more terrorist attacks, as stated in another poll by infratest dimap that 63 % of the interviewees fear that the risk of terrorism will increase if the Bundeswehr is being deployed to Syria.
Though there seems to be a public support for the government decision to join the anti-ISIS alliance, it is questionable if the German leadership is fully aware of the consequences linked to this commitment, which is not the only one Germany is undertaking. It seems like the aftermath of Paris in November had more or less forced Germany to enter a military adventure which – taking a look back to 2003 Iraq War – the former Schröder-Administration had avoided.

As a side note: this kind of “silent approval” was also seen in the immediate prequel to World War 1, before it turned into awar euphoria.

Overstretching the own Capabilities and Abilities
As for now, Germany has deployed in total 2,696 soldiers throughout 13 different areas of mission, with Afghanistan being the biggest one with 923 soldiers present. Regarding the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the German Secretary of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen, has recently announced to maintain the troops there.

Deploying soldiers and planes to Syria not only brings the German military capacities to its limits, it will in the mid-term also lead to a security challenge that Germany will not be able to handle that easily and which will in the end lead to massive security concerns for the present soldiers and also for the own security in the own country. It is questionable if and how Germany will be able to run several parallel running missions at the same time and – as far as the US is concerned, disregarding its own “non-direct commitment” – the deployment of Tornado fighter jets is apparently not enough. Washington demands an expansion of Germany’s military commitment, which Germany has instantly rejected – for the time being.

With ISIS controlling wide parts of Syria and Iraq, and just very recently gaining control of oil fields in Libya, the international alliance with all its direct and indirect commitments is gradually turning into a very loose global war coalition – with multiple actors in essence following one target, but without common strategy.

Lost in Words, Lost without a Clue
It is questionable if the current anti-ISIS coalition will eventually come up with a common strategy to fight ISIS efficiently and in a way that can sustainably bring peace and stability back to Syria. Presumably overwhelmed by the strength of ISIS and its brutality as shown in video clips, the only thing all actors can agree on is that ISIS has to be defeated – though the methods and strategies differ partly completely. For Russia for instance, stability can only be brought alongside with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whereas the West rejects any cooperation or alliance with Assad to fight ISIS. Still being blinded by the long-gone Arab Spring hype, the West believes that the only solution to regain stability in Syria and to defeat ISIS is to have Assad removed from government and to sustainably support the rebel groups and in particular Free Syrian Army (FSA) the Peshmerga and Kurdish fighters. Their strategy: support these groups to defeat Assad and to fight ISIS, without own direct broad involvement.

Unfortunately, it does not provide an efficient strategy to fight ISIS at all.
Ever since the beginning of military operations against ISIS, every bombing of ISIS positions has led to an increase of strength for ISIS. ISIS’s strength is in fact the international community’s inability – or unwillingness – to cooperate against the common adversary. Just very recently, Russia has offered to the US to draft a common list with all radical Islamist groups involved in the Syrian conflict so that the alliance has a common framework of who is a true adversary and who is not.
It is not to be expected to come up with a common strategy, as both main anti-ISIS actors in the Syrian conflict – the USA and Russia, follow their own geostrategic interests in the region and specifically the US – essentially having caused ISIS to rise as a result of its own misguided Iraq war – is expected to remain widely idle in the conflict and limited to air strikes until the Presidential elections are done; by November next year.

Terror leads to Bombings, Bombings lead to Terror
Currently, even though the alliance against ISIS is growing and Saudi Arabia has announced a Sunni-Alliance against ISIS, the lacking common strategy and the hasty actions taken my Germany will undoubtedly lead to more violence through terrorist attacks. Up to now, Germany was spared from terrorist attacks, even though some attacks could have been prevented in the early stages. The recent decision to deploy troops and fighter jets to Syria, however, will definitely put Germany on the list of eligible targets for ISIS. The question is not if there will be terrorist attacks in Germany, as it is only a matter of time.

From the beginning of the so called “War against Terrorism” every terrorist attack was answered with military strikes against terrorist havens, wherever they were located; which in response led to more bombings. The spiral of violence is increasing and a visible end of violence in the Middle East is not visible. The “War against Terrorism” is turning into a constant war, a normal state of life in which the people have to live with the sensation of threat and danger. What the people of Brussels had to go through in the first days and weeks after the Paris bombings was just a first image of what will happen to European society if war and violence start to dominate daily life.

The Orwellian eternal war, as pictured in “1984” has become reality, so did the “eternal war”. Just today, Germany has launched its first Tornado missions into this eternal war.