Loss of Control: What Moderates Get Wrong About Migration

Hungary migrants
Red Cross workers provide first aid to migrants in Hungary, September 4, 2015 (IFRC/Stephen Ryan)

Immigration into Europe and the United States is down, yet the far right continues to monopolize the debate.

The EU faced a one-time surge in asylum applications from Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians in 2015-16 as well as four years of high numbers of mostly African migrants (PDF) trying to reach Italy by boat. The numbers are down, yet the far-right League is the most popular party in Italy.

In the United States, asylum applications from Central American countries plagued by violence are up, but Mexican immigration is down. Donald Trump nevertheless won the 2016 election on a virulently anti-immigrant platform.

Fake news and media echo chambers are part of the problem. It is difficult to expose voters to the facts when they can find “alternative facts” just a click away. But this does not fully explain the appeal of the populist message. The bigger problem is that moderates do not have a coherent migration policy to fix systems that are obviously broken. As a result, they do not have a strong story to tell. Read more “Loss of Control: What Moderates Get Wrong About Migration”

Moldova’s President of Smoke and Mirrors

Moldova’s new president is no friend of liberal democracy. Igor Dodon, who came to power in December, enjoys basking in the glow of Vladimir Putin and his entourage.

In the 2014 elections, Dodon posed as a statesman negotiating with the Russian president on behalf of Moldovan guest workers. He has sided with the Orthodox Church against EU-inspired anti-discrimination laws. He rejected his country’s association agreement with the bloc that came with a free trade deal. Last year, he said in an interview he intended to run Moldova like Putin. And, predictably, his first official trip as president took him to Moscow, where Dodon again promoted the idea that Moldova should move closer to Russia, not Europe.

Dodon cannot run his country like Putin. As Moldova’s first directly-elected president, he has more popular legitimacy than his predecessors. But his role is still pretty limited within the country’s parliamentary system.

The president does have the right to call a referendum, which may be dangerous. But there is a pro-European majority in parliament and Moldova has a government that, in contrast to the president, has declared itself in favor of European integration. Dodon himself has admitted that the president cannot withdraw Moldova from the association agreement.

So, all is fine? Well, not quite. Read more “Moldova’s President of Smoke and Mirrors”

Baltic States Have Most to Fear from Trump Victory

For Eastern Europe and the Baltic states in particular, a Donald Trump presidency could be disastrous. The Republican has created doubt about whether or not the United States would honor NATO’s collective defense clause, Article 5, under his leadership.

Hillary Clinton, the likely winner on Tuesday, will have to ease Eastern European anxieties while at the same time supporting a genuine European defense policy that is based on a considerable hike in budgets. Read more “Baltic States Have Most to Fear from Trump Victory”

Putin Dismisses Confidant in Russian Elite Shakeup

Sergei Ivanov’s dismissal as Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff this week is the most important change in the upper echelon of Russia’s political elite since Putin returned to the presidency four years ago. Ivanov was the longest-serving head of the Presidential Administration in post-Soviet Russia. He has now been appointed to the largely powerless position of presidential representative for ecology and transportation. This is certainly a demotion.

But that does not mean this was an abrupt change or a purge.

Two weeks ago, Putin’s replacement of four governors and several other high-ranking cadres was dubbed an empowerment of people with a background in the security services, the so-called siloviki.

Now Ivanov, the highest-ranking silovik, has been dismissed and replaced by a diplomat. Read more “Putin Dismisses Confidant in Russian Elite Shakeup”

British Vote to Leave: A Victory for Putinist Pseudo-Politics

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin looks out a window in Budapest, Hungary, February 17, 2015 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

As I see it, the Brexit vote signaled the worrying deterioration of political discourse in the West.

While it would obviously be a mistake to blame it on Vladimir Putin, I am pretty sure that the Russian president rejoices in the result, not in the least because it is the first triumph of the sort of postmodern pseudo-politics that is hallmarked by his name and that aims to create a world where facts are irrelevant, truth is non-existent and where semblance and suspicion define the acts of a political community. I’d call it Putinism but it has different faces, variants and names throughout the world — from Viktor Orbán to Nigel Farage to Donald Trump.

This pseudo-politics is a challenge that the EU has not found an answer to. Britain’s vote to leave had much to do with appalling leadership from both the Conservative and the Labour Party, neither of which made a positive argument for remain.

When the prevailing sentiment is uncertainty — justified or not — arguing for the status quo without a compelling “story” is close to impossible. And this is what the EU has become for too many (although not, as we’ve seen from the example of young Britons outraged by the vote, all): the status quo rather than a project or a vision. Jean-Claude Juncker promised to make the EU more political exactly with the purpose of improving this situation and he has certainly failed.

Comrades in Arms

Viktor Orbán Vladimir Putin
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17, 2016 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Sometimes in politics everything is exactly what it looks like.

This was the case when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, visited Moscow last week, extended a gas contract with Russia and told the Russian president that the period when the EU automatically extended sanctions against Russia was “behind us.”

The moment of honesty came when Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán got to compliment each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies. “We value greatly the efforts made to resolve this problem [of Middle Eastern refugees],” said Orbán, adding, “We wish you great success in your international initiatives.” Putin then said, “Our people has sympathy for the position taken by the Hungarian government” on the refugee crisis.

And yes, in a perverse way, the two policies do indeed work very well together — that is, to suit the needs of the two leaders: Russia’s intervention in Syria aggravated the war and the refugee crisis. Which, in turn, strengthened Orbán’s position in Hungary and in Europe. Which, in turn, helped far-right parties and Putin allies and weakened the EU.

This unspoken but existing alliance, ultimately, against the EU and against the solution of a refugee crisis that benefits them both, was behind the chumminess that the Hungarian prime minister and the Russian president showed in Moscow.

The Russian pro-government press could hardly hide its joy over the visit. Izvestia wrote about a meeting of “not only partners, but friends on principles,” noting that Orbán was the first foreign leader whom Putin met in the new working building at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence. But calling Orbán and Putin friends is an exaggeration. Just as Orbán himself declared last year, Putin “is not a man who has a known personality,” which largely rules out making friends with fellow leaders. Even on principles. Read more “Comrades in Arms”

Battles and Breaks

While the world was looking at the Russian military campaign in Syria, Russia may have scored a victory in Europe: the government of Valeriu Streleț in Moldova was toppled by a vote of no confidence initiated by pro-Russian parties in the Chișinău parliament. Meanwhile, opposition protesters clashed with police in Montenegro’s capital and the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, visited Moscow. It seemed as if Russia had been on a winning streak. But in reality, Vladimir Putin has too many battles to fight and his own strategy — if there is one — put him under pressure. In fact, Russia is winning only where it does not have to have a strategy.

On 29 October, the government of Moldova had to resign after a successful vote of no-confidence in the parliament. It did not come as a surprise. The country had been in a turmoil since May, when a report by the Kroll company about the “heist of the century,” a scheme that resulted in the theft of $1 billion, one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP was made public. The report accused Ilan Shor, a 28 year-old banker, of orchestrating the theft.

But clearly, it needed more than that: it needed connivance by Moldova’s political elite and institutions. Read more “Battles and Breaks”

The Psychology of Loose Wheels

How annoyed would you feel if you had to make an utter fool of yourself, day after day, for benefits that are gradually decreasing? Probably about as annoyed as Sergei Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, did when he recently mumbled expletives into his microphone in the middle of a press conference. Little does it matter if the text that caused Lavrov’s outrage came from an assistant, a family member or Vladimir Putin himself. The head of a country’s diplomatic corps is not supposed to lose it like this.

Or take Vladimir Yakunin, a Putin confidant and former head of Russian Railways who unexpectedly resigned last week to become the representative of Kaliningrad in the Russian parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, a position that comes with a lot less influence and money. Was he the victim of a struggle inside the elite? Was he replaced, as Leonid Bershidsky suggested, because desperate times call for efficient managers rather than kleptocrats? Has he taken a different career direction?

Again, this is not what really matters. What matters is that visibly, the power engine of the Putin era — material benefits in exchange for unwavering political loyalty — is failing. And not only inside Russia. Read more “The Psychology of Loose Wheels”