Why Putin Wants to Change the Russian Constitution

Vladimir Putin Dmitri Medvedev
Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks with his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, at his country residence outside Moscow, January 25, 2016 (Kremlin)

Russian president Vladimir Putin has called for a referendum to approve constitutional changes that would nominally hand more power to parliament.

The changes, if approved, might improve Russia’s rating in the Freedom House index, but democracy is probably not on his mind.

Only hours after his yearly address to the combined Federal Assembly, in which he made his proposals, Putin accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and replaced him with the little-known head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin.

The moves have left both Russians and Russia experts wondering: what’s happening? And what’s next? Read more “Why Putin Wants to Change the Russian Constitution”

From Zero Problems with Neighbors to Zero Friends

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attends a conference in Sochi, Russia, November 22, 2017 (Kremlin)

Ten years ago, Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy was all the rage. I went so far as to predict Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister at the time, could be remembered as the architect of Turkey’s return to preeminence in the Middle East.

Miguel Nunes Silva saw things more clearly, writing for the Atlantic Sentinel in 2012 that Turkey’s policy of antagonizing its allies and befriending its rivals merited little praise.

Turkish appeasement of Bashar Assad and Muammar Gaddafi meant little when those dictators turned their guns on their own people. Turkish appeasement of Iran was rewarded by unwavering Iranian support for Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Assad in Syria, two strongmen Turkey opposed.

Silva also recognized the on-again, off-again nature of Turkish diplomacy with Russia, which has only grown worse. Turkey and Russia back opposite sides in the Syrian War. Turkey even shot down a Russian attack aircraft near its border in 2015. Yet Turkey has also bought missile defense systems from Russia and is helping Russia build a natural gas pipeline into Europe that circumvents Ukraine. Both decisions were strongly opposed by Turkey’s nominal NATO allies. The United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

To form, Turkey has also allowed the construction of a competing European pipeline from Azerbaijan to Greece. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan still — somehow — convinced his American counterpart, Donald Trump, to withdraw from Syria, clearing the way for him to invade and attack the Kurds.

Trump’s memory may be short. He responded with sanctions on Turkish officials and tariffs on steel, which he respectively lifted and halved only a week later. But not everyone is so forgiving. Turkey’s tendency to play all sides, far from giving it more freedom in foreign policy, has hamstrung its diplomacy. It now has to use force to get its way. Read more “From Zero Problems with Neighbors to Zero Friends”

Democratic Primary News

Hillary Clinton Cory Booker
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks with New Jersey senator Cory Booker in Newark, June 1, 2016 (Hillary for America/Barbara Kinney)
  • Cory Booker has dropped out of the presidential contest.
  • Bernie Sanders is criticized for going negative. His campaign has accused Joe Biden of “betraying” black voters (Biden is the favorite candidate of black voters) and Elizabeth Warren of being the candidate of wealthy white liberals. NBC reports it’s bringing back memories of 2016: “Sanders, his supporters and his surrogates go on the attack; Sanders downplays or dismisses the attacks; and the party becomes more divided.”
  • Biden still leads in the endorsement primary, but it’s slow going. Only a third of Democratic governors, senators and representatives have endorsed a candidate. Party leaders may be waiting to see what happens in the first few primaries before making up their minds. Or perhaps this will be like the Republican primary of 2016, when “the” party collectively decided not to decide.
  • Michael Bloomberg has said that, even if he loses, his campaign — the biggest and most expensive of the Democratic candidates — will remain in place to help defeat Donald Trump. He has also shot down criticism, notably from Warren, that he’s trying to buy the nomination, saying, “Do you want me to spend more or less?” Read more “Democratic Primary News”

Five Candidates Qualify to Succeed Corbyn as Labour Leader

Keir Starmer Jeremy Corbyn Rebecca Long-Bailey
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn chairs a meeting in London flanked by Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, April 3, 2019 (PA/Stefan Rousseau)
  • Five candidates have qualified for the second round of the Labour leadership election in the United Kingdom: Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry won the required 10 percent support from lawmakers to make it into the next nominating round.
  • Clive Lewis pulled out after receiving only five endorsements. Some of his supporters switched to Thornberry, who received 23 endorsements, only one more than needed.
  • Keir Starmer won the most endorsements by far (89), including from former leader Ed Miliband. Read more “Five Candidates Qualify to Succeed Corbyn as Labour Leader”

Berlin Shows How Not to Do Housing Policy

Berlin Germany
The sun sets on the Saint Nicholas’ Church and town hall of Berlin, Germany, January 26, 2010 (Mika Meskanen)

If you’re trying to control housing costs in your city, don’t look to Berlin for inspiration.

The German capital is due to implement a five-year, across-the-board rent freeze in March. The measure is expected to save around 340,000 tenants money during that period, but it will come at the expense of housing affordability in the long term.

The German Economic Institute in Cologne estimates that Berlin’s policy will reduce the value of some properties by more than 40 percent.

A consequence of that will be underinvestment. The BBU, a trade association of developers in the Berlin and Brandenburg region, says its members expect to reduce investments by €5.5 billion and construction by at least a quarter.

Germany needs 350,000 new homes each year to keep up with demand. Only 286,000 were built in 2018. If the BBU is to be believed, that number will fall — driving up housing costs across Germany. Read more “Berlin Shows How Not to Do Housing Policy”

Iranians Take to Streets After Government Admits It Shot Down Passenger Plane

  • Protests have erupted in Iran after the government admitted responsibility for shooting down an Ukrainian passenger jet on the same night as it fired missiles into Iraq to avenge the death of its top military commander, Qasem Soleimani.
  • Soleimani, who led Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, was killed in an American drone strike on President Donald Trump’s order.
  • No Americans or Iraqis were killed in the reprisals. All 176 passengers and crew aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, including 82 Iranians, were killed when the plane crashed outside Tehran on Wednesday morning. Read more “Iranians Take to Streets After Government Admits It Shot Down Passenger Plane”

America’s Rigid Two-Party System Is What Its Founders Feared

Washington DC
The sun sets on Washington DC (Shutterstock)

Lee Drutman, a political scientist, argues in The Atlantic that America has become the rigid two-party system its founders feared.

The authors of America’s Constitution wanted to make it impossible for a partisan majority to ever unite and take control of the government, which they could then use to oppress the minority.

The fragile consent of the governed would break down, and violence and authoritarianism would follow. This was how previous republics had fallen into civil wars and the Framers were intent on learning from history, not repeating its mistakes.

They separated powers across competing institutions to prevent any one faction from dominating others. But they did not plan for the emergence of political parties, let alone just two parties. Read more “America’s Rigid Two-Party System Is What Its Founders Feared”

Trump’s Presence Will Be Felt When Merkel and Putin Meet

Vladimir Putin Angela Merkel
Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel attend a conference in Moscow, November 16, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

German chancellor Angela Merkel is traveling to Moscow on Saturday, officially to discuss the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, as well as the tension between Iran and the United States, with Vladimir Putin.

Hanging over the meeting will their countries’ deteriorating relations with the United States. Read more “Trump’s Presence Will Be Felt When Merkel and Putin Meet”

Russian-Ukrainian Gas Deal is a Trilateral Victory

Vladimir Putin Emmanuel Macron Angela Merkel Volodymyr Zelensky
Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Volodymyr Zelensky, the leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine, attend a summit in Paris, December 9, 2019 (Bundesregierung)

Russia and Ukraine have agreed to secure the flow of natural gas to Europe for the next five years. A deal between the two countries satisfies the economic needs of all three parties involved. Russia guarantees the export of its gas, Ukraine continues to benefit financially from transiting the gas, and the EU receives a steady supply of gas for the immediate future.

Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, will pipe 65 billion cubic metres of gas into Europe in 2020. The amount will fall to 40 billion over the next four years. The agreement mentions the possibility of extending the contract by another ten years upon maturity.

Ukraine will receive up to $7 billion in transit fees, which would be around 5 percent of its national budget.

An agreement has not (yet) been reached on direct gas supplies to Ukraine. For the time being, it only stands to benefit financially.

Naftogaz, the Ukrainian gas company, will also receive $2.9 billion from Gazprom in overdue transit payments following an arbitration court ruling in Sweden. In return, Ukraine has agreed to drop $12.2 billion in additional legal claims. Read more “Russian-Ukrainian Gas Deal is a Trilateral Victory”

Erdoğan-Putin Deal Tests Russian, Turkish Influence in Libya

Vladimir Putin Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey meet in Saint Petersburg, August 9, 2016 (Kremlin)

Days after sending military aid to prop up the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has done a deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to halt the fighting in Libya.

Russian mercenaries fight on the side of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls the bulk of the country, including its oil industry.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also support Haftar, who has reportedly received Chinese-made drones and Russian-made air defenses from the UAE.

The Arab states see Haftar as a bulwark against Islamist influences, including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of the Tripoli government. Egypt’s generals overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in their country with the backing of most Arab monarchs in 2013.

It is unclear what, if any, effect the Erdoğan-Putin deal will have. Artillery and missile strikes were reported on the outskirts of Tripoli in the early hours of Thursday. The promised ceasefire could be a test of Turkey’s and Russia’s influence on their proxies in Libya. Read more “Erdoğan-Putin Deal Tests Russian, Turkish Influence in Libya”