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The Terrifying Implications of India’s Elections for People and the Planet

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 12:10pm

(Photo: Al Jazeera English / Flickr)

In a sweeping victory, the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi has returned to power in India’s elections. It’s a profoundly disturbing development.

The most pressing concern about the BJP government is its systematic persecution of India’s minorities, particularly Muslims.

A cloud of suspicion still hangs over Modi himself for his role in instigating, or at least tacitly endorsing, massacres of Muslims as chief minister in his home state of Gujarat. Modi failed to use the state law enforcement machinery to stop the 2002 pogrom, and systematically covered up the inaction.

Not unexpectedly, the Modi and the BJP’s ascent to national power in 2014 has had terrifying consequences for Muslims nationwide since then. Brutal mob killings of Muslims and Dalits (Hindus who are low in the caste hierarchy) in the name of “cow protection” have become common in India.

Hindus consider cows sacred, and most observant Hindus don’t eat beef — which, as a personal religious or dietary choice, is fine. But some states in the nominally secular country have legislated Hindu religious beliefs by banning the slaughter of cows and the sale and consumption of beef. Worse still, mobs of vigilante “cow protectors” have murdered Muslims suspected of killing cows or consuming beef. Dalits belonging to castes who have historically performed the work of disposing of dead animals have been murdered as well.

None of this should be surprising for a government and political party that have emerged from what many historians call a fascist movement that was inspired by European fascism of the 1920s and 30s — ties that they’ve never convincingly repudiated.

What’s even less known about the Modi government outside India is its abysmal environmental record. Under BJP rule, India’s ranking in the Environmental Performance Index — an assessment of countries’ performance on indicators of environmental health and ecosystem protection — has fallen to 177 (out of 180 countries examined), compared to 155 in 2014 under the prior government.

Making a Bad Problem Worse

India’s prior governments have not had a stellar environmental record, but things have become dramatically worse under Modi.

A major focus of environmental struggle in India is around displacement of Adivasis (indigenous peoples) and rural farming communities from their traditional lands to make way for dams, mining, power plants, and other industrial infrastructure. These projects poison air and water, and are for the benefit of corporate interests. The people who are forcibly displaced almost always end up worse off than they were. And when they protest, they are often met with repression, which is sometimes justified using “national security” and “terrorism” as a pretext.

None of this started under the BJP. But they’ve not been content to merely continue the worst policies of prior governments — they’ve actively made things worse.

Since 1988, India’s forest policy paid lip service to protecting indigenous communities and ecosystems (even though it often didn’t work out that way in practice). In 2018, the BJP government proposed a policy change that eliminated language recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, shifting the emphasis to facilitating growth of the timber industry.

The proposed policy change takes away control over decisions on forest projects from local communities, drawing condemnation from the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). The policy change has not been adopted yet, and hopefully social movements in India will be able to kill it before it gives sanction to the corporate plunder of indigenous lands.

Equally disturbing is the Modi government’s willful conflation of indigenous-led environmental protest with “terrorism” — another cynical ploy to serve corporate interests. It’s bad enough when any government does this. But it’s particularly chilling when it’s done by a government run by a party that’s credibly tied to fascism.

While indigenous peoples and other rural populations have borne the brunt of the Indian state’s environmental recklessness, urban populations aren’t faring much better. Half of the 50 most polluted cities worldwide are in India, and the Delhi metropolitan area, the nation’s capital, holds the dubious distinction of being the most polluted metro in the world (with Delhi and five key suburbs all in the top 12 polluted cities).

These pollution levels have severe health effects, particularly on children from poor families who often suffer from malnutrition and lack of adequate medical care to begin with. According to a 2017 study, there are an estimated 1.24 million deaths from air pollution in India annually.

Once again, the BJP government didn’t create India’s pollution problem. But they have not only failed to act, but also downplayed the seriousness of the situation to deflect attention from their inaction.

High-level corruption fuels many of these abuses. For instance, billionaire Gautam Adani, a native of Modi’s home state of Gujarat, enjoys close personal ties with Modi and has been a vocal political supporter. His company has in turn been a beneficiary of questionable land giveaways and other subsidies and waivers of regulations in Gujarat. Adani Group has a terrible environmental record, harming traditional fishing communities, indigenous peoples, and ecosystems from Gujarat to Australia.

A Global Contagion

This is just a microcosm of the horrific environmental and human rights record that the BJP government has accumulated in five short years. For those of us in the U.S. (and otherwise outside India’s borders), it’s important to remember that what happens in India doesn’t stay in India. On the most obvious level, India’s emissions of particulate matter and other pollutants can affect neighboring countries, and its emissions of greenhouse gases are bound to affect the whole world.

But there’s more to the story. India is the second most populous country in the world, with the seventh highest GDP in current dollars. Multinational corporations see India as an important market for consumer goods and an important source of goods and services. Today India enjoys the tenth highest foreign direct investment inflow of any country.

Consequently, media and politicians who support a corporate agenda are willing to turn a blind eye to the horrors of the Modi government.

Case in point: an egregiously bad New York Times op-ed (penned by an Obama administration insider) that completely ignores the Modi government’s terrible human rights abuses and celebrates its economic “reforms” — code for deregulation in the service of business. (In all fairness to the New York Times, they also published an editorial that tells truths about how the BJP has peddled hate and misinformation to win.)

The support for the Modi government in the service of global capital extends all the way to the top of political leadership in the U.S — and not only to President Trump, who shares Modi’s anti-Muslim animus. President Obama personally wrote a nauseating puff piece about Modi in Time as part of the magazine’s 100 Most Influential People series.

The Fascist Internationale

What this points to is the disturbing reality that resistance to the dangerous BJP agenda in India and worldwide will have to contend with a similarly widespread coalition of fascists and capitalists, including from parts of the “liberal” end of the political spectrum.

Indeed, the Modi government in India is part of an emerging worldwide wave of authoritarian ethnonationalist governments — in the U.S., Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, and elsewhere. If we are to contain and counteract this trend, our global narrative and global resistance to these regimes must include India as one of its focal points.

Fortunately, the social movements of oppressed peoples in India — Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, LGBTQ communities, women, farming and fishing communities, and others — are diverse, vibrant, and strong. As internationalist progressives, we owe it to them to provide our solidarity and support in what’s sure to be a hard struggle for the foreseeable future.

The post The Terrifying Implications of India’s Elections for People and the Planet appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Pardoning War Criminals Is a Monstrous Way to Honor Memorial Day

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 2:03pm

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How are you spending Memorial Day? Ordinary people may attend parades, host cookouts, or take the long weekend to visit loved ones.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, may pardon a few war criminals.

The president recently requested the files of several accused and convicted U.S. war criminals, a possible step toward expedited pardons for individuals who’ve done unspeakable things.

There’s SEAL chief Edward Gallagher, who senselessly shot to death a teenage girl and an elderly man in Iraq. Gallagher also brutally stabbed a wounded 15-year-old to death — and then posed for photos with the body, which he texted to friends.

Trump also requested the files of Nicholas Slatten, a Blackwater contractor convicted of shooting dozens of Iraqi civilians in the notorious 2007 Nisour Square massacre, and of Mathew Golsteyn, who confessed to murdering an unarmed Afghan captive U.S. soldiers had released.

Trump has already pardoned Michael Behenna, who took an unarmed Iraqi captive into the desert, stripped him naked, and shot him in the head and chest. Behenna was supposed to be returning the man to his home village.

The president may present these pardons as a show of patriotism — his own Rambo-worshiping way of “supporting the troops.” But several veterans have objected, pointing out that many soldiers do their best to uphold the laws of war even under considerable stress.

“They should treat the civilians as they would neighbors,” combat veteran Waitman Wade Beorn recalled telling his platoon in Iraq, arguing that the cues commanders set make all the difference. Beorn, a Holocaust scholar, warned that one could draw some dark (if inexact) parallels between Trump’s cues and Hitler’s.

During the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, he wrote, “soldiers were literally told that they would not be tried for behavior that would be a crime anywhere else in Europe.” Similarly, “when Trump champions war criminals as brave patriots … he seems to push for a climate that condones unethical and criminal behavior.”

Gary Solis, a retired military judge and Vietnam veteran, complained Trump was undermining the entire military justice system. “These are all extremely complicated cases that have gone through a careful system of consideration. A freewheeling pardon undermines that whole system.”

That’s likely the point. The truth is that Trump is pandering to the most atavistic segment of his base. It echoes the Vietnam years, when war supporters turned William Calley, convicted for his role in butchering hundreds of villagers at My Lai, into a folk hero.

Today, Gallagher’s cause is celebrated on “Fox and Friends,”  the president’s favorite TV show, and Trump has praised Gallagher “in honor of his past service.”

Trump’s recent moves are plainly calibrated to encourage war crimes, not prosecute them. But glorifying serial killer-type behavior most service members would find appalling is a strange way to honor them —  particularly when some have taken enormous risks to stop massacres like these.

For instance, seven of Gallagher’s own men reported him repeatedly, even after being warned by superiors it would hurt their careers. Behenna’s fellow soldiers, apparently disturbed by his behavior, testified against him as well. At My Lai, Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson landed his chopper in between marauding U.S. troops and cowering civilians, training his guns on his own comrades and forcing an end to the massacre.

Honoring these heroes would be more fitting, particularly in the present climate. Recent reports have documented alarming rates of U.S.-inflicted civilian casualties in Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. In the latter case, Trump’s extremist national security adviser John Bolton made brutish threats to get the International Criminal Court to back off investigating U.S. abuses.

Meanwhile, egged on by Bolton, Trump is considering sending 120,000 or more troops into another purposeless bloodbath in the Middle East. And he’s made no plans to fill the 45,000 or so vacant VA jobs backlogging veterans’ health care.

Under these circumstances, do we suppose the troops — or loved ones who’ve lost them — will take a few pardons for war criminals as a compliment? I don’t know. But the real lesson may be that the worst war criminals wear suits, not fatigues.

Happy Memorial Day.

The post Pardoning War Criminals Is a Monstrous Way to Honor Memorial Day appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Peter Certo is the editorial manager of the Institute for Policy Studies and the editor of Foreign Policy In Focus.

Foreign Aid That Costs an Arm and a Leg — Literally

Wed, 05/22/2019 - 2:57pm

Palestinian amputees break their Ramadan fast at a community center in Rafah, which was destroyed by Israeli warplanes. (Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Shutterstock)

My friend Andrew Rubin is an amputee. He’s lost his right hand, lower arm, right foot, and lower leg.

He used to be an avid runner and cyclist. He can’t do much of that anymore, although his walking is getting much better. Soon he might be able to run with his artificial leg.

Andrew is incredibly lucky.

The medical catastrophe that left his hand and foot so terribly damaged didn’t kill him. But when his limbs never healed even after a decade, he decided to undergo the amputations. It was his choice, and it was made much easier because he knew what lay ahead: the most advanced artificial limbs ever imagined. The kids call him Bionic Man now.

Andrew is lucky for another reason: He doesn’t live in Gaza.

According to the United Nations, 1,700 young Gazans are facing amputation, mainly of their legs, in the next two years. They’re among the 7,000 unarmed Palestinians in Gaza shot by Israeli snipers over the last year.

Since last spring, thousands of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Gaza have poured out of their teeming refugee camps and houses every Friday to join nonviolent protests, demanding an end to the siege that’s destroying their lives, and the right to return to the homes Israel displaced them from.

Even though they were nonviolent, they were met by Israeli snipers from the beginning. Children, journalists, and medics were targeted too.

International law prohibits using live fire against unarmed civilians unless the police or soldiers are in imminent danger of death. That’s not the case in Gaza. A UN investigation of 189 killings during the first nine months of the protests found that Israeli forces may have committed war crimes.

More than 220 Palestinians have been killed so far. Stunningly, more than 29,000 have been wounded —  including those 7,000 by live fire. So far, 120 have had to endure amputations — including 20 children.

Anyplace else, their limbs might’ve been saved.

But Gaza has been under Israeli military siege for more than 10 years. Hospitals are massively under-equipped, many of them seriously damaged by Israeli bombing. The delicate surgery needed to save shattered bones is virtually impossible there, and the surgeons have no access to the most up-to-date methods.

Andrew had a choice about his amputations. Gazans don’t.

The UN needs $20 million to fill the immediate health funding gap in Gaza. Otherwise, those 1,700 young Gazans face the catastrophic loss of arms and legs, or risk dying of infection. They’ll have virtually no access to the advanced artificial hands, legs, and feet that my friend Andrew uses.

Unfortunately, U.S. taxpayers are funding this madness.

Every year, we send $3.8 billion directly to the Israeli military — no strings attached — and American companies make the tear gas and other weapons that Israel deploys against demonstrators. Washington makes sure that no Israeli officials, political or military, are ever held accountable at the United Nations for potential war crimes.

Crueler still, the Trump administration has cut off funding for the very UN refugee agency that staffs health clinics in Gaza, even as it funds the Israeli military that’s filling them with gunshot victims.

The protests, overwhelmingly nonviolent, continue — and the killing has continued too, week after week. Meanwhile, there are so many disabled kids in Gaza now that the beleaguered territory is setting up special sports leagues for them.

Israel needs to call off its snipers, lift the siege of Gaza, and stop violating the human and political rights of Palestinians. And until they do, American taxpayers need to close their checkbook.

The post Foreign Aid That Costs an Arm and a Leg — Literally appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Middle East expert Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Russia’s Election Meddling Is Despicable, But Don’t Forget Our Own

Wed, 05/22/2019 - 2:41pm

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In this country, reactions to the Mueller report have been all-American beyond belief.

Let’s face it, when it comes to election meddling, it’s been me, me, me, 24/7 here. Yes, in some fashion some set of Russians meddled in the last election campaign, whether it was, as Jared Kushner improbably claimed, “a couple of Facebook ads” or, as the Mueller report described it, “the Russian government interfer[ing]… in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

But let me mention just a few of the things that we didn’t learn from the Mueller report.

We didn’t learn that Russian agents appeared at Republican Party headquarters in 2016 with millions of dollars in donations to influence the coming election. (Oops, my mistake! That was CIA agents in the Italian election of 1948!)

We didn’t learn that a Russian intelligence agency in combination with Chinese intelligence, aided by a major Chinese oil company, overthrew an elected U.S. president and installed Donald Trump in the White House as their autocrat of choice. (Oops, my mistake again! That was the CIA, dispatched by an American president, and British intelligence, with the help of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later BP. In 1953, they overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, the elected prime minister of Iran, and installed the young Shah as an autocratic ruler, the very first — but hardly the last — time the CIA successfully ousted a foreign government.)

We didn’t learn that key advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin were in close touch with rogue elements of the U.S. military preparing to stage a coup d’état in Washington, kill President Barack Obama in a direct assault on the White House, and put the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in office. (Sorry, again my slip-up and full apologies! That was President Richard Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger in contact with Chilean military officers who, on September 11, 1973 — the first 9/11 — staged an armed uprising during which Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of that country, died and army commander-in-chief Augusto Pinochet took power.)

We didn’t learn that, at the behest of Vladimir Putin, Russian secret service agents engaged in a series of plots to poison or in some other fashion assassinate Barack Obama during his presidency and, in the end, had at least a modest hand in encouraging those who did kill him after he left office. (Oh, wait, I was confused on that one, too. I was actually thinking about the plots, as the 1960s began, to do in Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.)

Nor, for that matter, did we learn that the Russian military launched a regime-change-style invasion of this country to unseat an American president and get rid of our weapons of mass destruction and then occupied the country for years after installing Donald Trump in power. (Sorry one more time! What I actually had in mind before I got so muddled up was the decision of the top officials of President George W. Bush’s administration, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to launch a “regime-change” invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on fraudulent claims that Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, and install a government of their choice in Baghdad.)

No, none of that happened here. Still, even though most Americans might find it hard to believe, we weren’t exactly the first country to have an election meddled with by an intrusive foreign power with an agenda all its own! And really, my examples above just begin an endless list of events the Mueller report didn’t mention, ones that most Americans no longer know anything about or we wouldn’t have acted as if the Russian election intervention of 2016 stood essentially alone in history.

I don’t, however, want that to sound like blame. After all, if you lived in the United States in these years and didn’t already know the secret history of American intervention and regime change across the globe from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union, you could be forgiven for thinking that never had anyone done anything quite so dastardly as did the Putin regime in attempting to hack and alter the results of an American election.

In the media, that Russian intervention has (with the rarest of exceptions) been covered as if it were an event unique in history. Admittedly, whatever the Russians did do in 2016 to lend a hand to Donald Trump, they didn’t plan a coup d’état; it wasn’t an assassination attempt; and it wasn’t, in the normal sense, what has come to be known as “regime change.”

A World of Chaos Without End

Let’s start with one thing that should have been (but wasn’t) obvious since the first reports on Russian meddling in the election campaign of 2016 began to appear. Historically speaking, such a plan fits well with a classic Russian tradition. As scholar Dov Levin discovered in studying “partisan election interventions” from 1946 to 2000, the Russians — or the Soviet Union until 1991 — engaged in a staggering 36 of them globally.

If, however, you jumped to the conclusion that such an impressive cumulative figure gave the Russians the world’s record for election meddling, think again. In fact, it left them languishing in a distant second place when it came to interfering in other countries’ elections over more than four decades. The United States took the crown with, by Levin’s count, a distinctly imperial 81 interventions! (USA! USA!)

Put another way, the two Cold War superpowers together meddled in approximately “one of every nine competitive elections” in that era in at least 60 countries covering every part of the planet but Oceania. Moreover, only seven of them were in the same election in the same country at the same time.

And elections are but one part of a story of meddling on a scale that has been historically remarkable. In her book Covert Regime Change, Lindsey O’Rourke notes that between 1947 and 1989, a span of nine Cold War-era American administrations, the least number of “U.S.-backed regime-change attempts” per president was three (Gerald Ford’s administration), the most 30 (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s). Harry Truman’s administration came in second with 21, Lyndon Johnson’s third with 19, Ronald Reagan’s fourth with 16, John F. Kennedy’s fifth with 15, and Richard Nixon’s sixth with 10.

And keep in mind that, while such numbers remain unprecedented, despite a number of short-term successes from Iran to Guatemala, this was not generally a notable record of success in remaking the world in the image Washington desired. Many of those regime-change attempts, especially against countries in the Soviet bloc, failed dismally. Others created chaos or regimes that not only did their citizens little good but didn’t end up doing much for Washington either. Still, that didn’t stop one administration after another from trying, which is why the numbers remain mind-boggling.

And then the Soviet Union imploded and there was but a “sole” superpower left on Planet Earth. Its leaders had no doubt that its ultimate moment had come and it was to be no less than “the end of history”! The planet was obviously Washington’s for the taking. No more need for subterfuge, subtle election meddling, secret support for dissidents, or even covert regime change, not when the only opposition to an American planet was a few weak “rogue states” (think: the “axis of evil,” also known as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), a desperately weakened and impoverished but still nuclear-armed Russia, and a modestly rising future power in Asia.

And then, of course, came 9/11, that staggering act of blowback — in part from one of the great “successes” of CIA covert action in the Cold War, the decisive defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan thanks to the funding and arming of a set of extremist Islamist militants, a war in which a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden gained a certain modest reputation. On that day in 2001, the last superpower, the one exceptional nation, became the planet’s greatest victim and all hell was let loose (just as bin Laden hoped it would be).

In response, in a world without other superpowers, the country with, as one president proudly put it, “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” no longer needed to meddle secretly (or at least in a fashion that allowed for “plausible deniability”). With the invasion of Afghanistan that October, open regime change became the order of the day. Iraq would come in 2003, Libya in 2011. The U.S. Air Force and the CIA’s drones would bomb and missile at least seven countries across the Greater Middle East and North Africa repeatedly in the years to come, helping reduce great cities to rubble, uprooting and displacing massive numbers of people, creating failed states galore, and setting in motion forces that, from Pakistan to Syria, Yemen to Niger, would in turn unsettle a significant part of the planet.

And, of course, it would all prove to be a militarized failure of the first order. And yet, with a potential new conflict ramping up in Iran and the U.S. still fighting in Afghanistan almost 18 years later, America’s wars show little sign of winding down. Only recently, for instance, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff assured a group of senators that the American military would “need to maintain a counterterrorism presence as long as an insurgency continues in Afghanistan,” which should be considered the very definition of a forever war. Think of it as a world of chaos without end and now consider again that Russian meddling in an American election.

Exceptional Meddling

By the way, whatever the Russians did in 2016 (or may do in the future to American or other elections) is deplorable and should be denounced, no matter how slapdash it might have been. After all, as Dov Levin discovered, it doesn’t necessarily take much to affect the result of an election in another country. Here’s his conclusion for election meddling in the Cold War era:

“I find that an electoral intervention in favor of one of the sides contesting [an] election has a statistically significant effect, increasing its vote share by about 3%. Such an effect can have major ‘real life’ implications. For example, such a swing in the vote share from the winner to the loser in the 14 U.S. presidential elections occurring since 1960 would have been sufficient to change the identity of the winner in seven of these elections.”

As we all know, a 3 percent shift in the 2016 election in several states would have made a staggering difference. After all, as the Washington Post reported, in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by “0.2, 0.7, and 0.8 percentage points, respectively — and by 10,704, 46,765, and 22,177 votes. Those three wins gave him 46 electoral votes; if Clinton had done one point better in each state, she’d have won the electoral vote, too.”

So the issue isn’t faintly whether Russian electoral meddling was despicable or not. The issue is that it’s been covered here, like so much else has in this century, as yet another case of American exceptionalism (but never narcissism). As on 9/11 — forget that first 9/11 in Chile — we eternally stand alone in our experiences because, by definition, we are the special ones, the ones who matter.

In the case of election meddling, however, this country just joined a moiling crowd of the interfered with — and largely by us. It was a classic case of getting a taste of one’s own medicine and not liking it one bit. It should have taught us a lesson about our own global behavior since World War II. Instead, it’s simply continued us on a path of exceptional meddling that will prove someday to have been one of the great follies in history.

The post Russia’s Election Meddling Is Despicable, But Don’t Forget Our Own appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Russia and the Future of Europe

Wed, 05/22/2019 - 2:19pm

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Europe is gearing up for much-anticipated elections this week to the European parliament. Austria, however, now has to deal with a very unexpected snap election — thanks to a drunk politician, a Russian honeypot, and a leaked video. This scandal currently rocking Austria may ultimately play a decisive role in the European elections as well.

Heinz-Christian Strache was once the ambitious, successful leader of the Freedom Party in Austria. In 2017, on the heels of a strong third-place showing in the legislative elections, he led his far-right-wing populist party, which had been founded by former Nazis, into a coalition government with the more conventionally right-wing People’s Party. Sebastian Kurz, the young leader of the People’s Party, became chancellor. Strache became the vice-chancellor.

On Sunday, Strache stepped down after a seven-hour video went public of his discussions with a young Russian woman in which he promised government contracts in exchange for campaign funding. The meeting took place two years ago, before the elections that elevated Strache and his party, and it was apparently a sting operation. The woman wasn’t who she said she was (the niece of a Russian oligarch), and cameras in the villa in Ibiza where the meeting took place captured all the action.

The Austrian government is now in shambles. On Monday, Austria’s president fired one of Strache’s fellow party members, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl. The defense minister and the rest of the Freedom Party cabinet members resigned in protest.

The timing of the video’s release is curious. If it had come out before the Austrian elections two years ago, it would have nipped the Freedom Party’s electoral chances in the bud. Now it has emerged just on the eve of the European Parliament elections, which could damage the prospects of Europe’s populist right.

No one has come forward to claim authorship of the video. It was reportedly offered to several German media outlets over the last few months, but no one bought it. The set-up has all the hallmarks of Russian kompromat — the beautiful woman, the vodka, the video proof. It might make sense for the Russians to arrange and record such a meeting — in order to have something to hold over a future Austrian politician. But it makes no sense for them to turn around and release it right now.

After all, Strache has been reliably pro-Russian. Before the 2017 election, he went to Moscow to broker a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. The Freedom Party pledged to mediate an arrangement with newly elected U.S. president Donald Trump to ease economic sanctions against Russia.

Since 2017, Russia has made considerable headway in improving ties with Austria. The most visible symbol of this new relationship was Vladimir Putin dancing with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at her wedding last summer. The bride bowed at the end of the dance, as if to a visiting king. Unlike many other EU countries, Austria didn’t expel any Russian diplomats after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in March 2018. The two countries have signed energy deals, and Kurz promised to pursue a “step by step” reduction of sanctions against Russia when Austria occupied the EU’s rotating presidency last fall.

But not everything was hunky-dory between the two countries. In November, Austria outed a retired senior military officer as a Russian spy, prompting Kniessl to cancel a planned trip to Moscow. And neither Austria nor the EU has altered its stance on sanctions. In fact, in mid-March, the EU – along with the United States and Canada – imposed yet more sanctions on Russia connected to its “continued aggression in Ukraine.”

Russian officials have denied any connection to the video, falling back on their usual excuse: it was a provocation. But if the sting operators were indeed Russians, rather than some European intelligence outfit, perhaps the Kremlin was sending a warning to its allies in Europe that friendship comes with benefits — or else.

Russia’s European Friends

The Freedom Party is not the only European far-right movement to cultivate ties with the Kremlin, or the only one to get into trouble over those ties. Italy’s right-wing League negotiated a deal with United Russia similar to the one that Strache inked, which should have been scandalous enough.

But then, in February, an Italian magazine published allegations that Russia offered the party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Mario Salvini — who was on a trip to Moscow last year — a kickback arrangement involving sales of Russian diesel and funds diverted into the League’s election coffers. Salvini is a big Putin admirer — nce, at the European parliament, he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face — and he wants sanctions against Russia eliminated. However, he has denied the allegations.

But Strache and Salvini are pikers when compared to Putin’s friend in Budapest. It might seem like a losing political strategy for a Hungarian to align with the Kremlin, given the country’s experience as a Soviet satellite during the Cold War and the Soviet invasion of 1956. But Prime Minister Viktor Orban has imported Putin’s version of “illiberal democracy” and put a distinctly Hungarian spin on it with his control of the media and his confrontations with Brussels.

Orban has bent over backwards to help Putin. He awarded Russia a no-bid contract to modernize Hungary’s nuclear power plant (only two words are necessary to show why that was a bad idea: corruption and Chernobyl). He has criticized the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia. He has welcomed Russian individuals with high-level ties to live in Hungary and even permitted a Russian bank of shadowy provenance to set up in Budapest.

Hungarian law enforcement worked with the United States to nab two suspected Russian arms dealers only for Orban to decide to extradite the suspects — not to the United States, but back to Russia!

Then there’s Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic. Like Orban, Zeman is virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Islam. Like Orban, he has managed to erase some part of the stigma once attached to Moscow, in this case for its suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Like Orban, he wants to make sure that his country benefits from Russia’s energy supplies. But there are other, more subterranean economic reasons for his tilt toward Moscow, like the business interests of top advisors like Martin Nejedly. 

Not all far-right parties in Europe are enamored of Putin. Poland’s Law and Justice Party has stayed out of any potential pro-Russian alliances because of the country’s long-standing suspicion of Russian motives. The Estonian far right is equally wary, and some of their compatriots further to the west share these concerns. “We are very concerned about Russian aggression,” says Anders Vistisen, of the Danish People’s party. “A wounded bear is dangerous.”

As with the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, the Kremlin knows that a little money and disinformation can go a long way. The point of its electoral interventions in Europe is not necessarily to put any one person or party into office. Rather, it is to undermine confidence in the liberal elite and liberal institutions.

Most importantly, Putin wants to weaken the European Union. The Kremlin would prefer not to deal with a European bloc, which is more economically and militarily powerful than Russia, and instead negotiate bilaterally with European countries. The EU supports sanctions against Russia. It broadcasts a siren song to states like Ukraine on Russia’s borders. It embodies precisely the kind of free-thinking liberalism that Putin abhors.

But the Kremlin will go even further than social media trolling and opaque financial dealings to influence European politics. It even will go as far as regime change.

The Case of Montenegro

Earlier this month, a court in Montenegro handed down guilty verdicts for 14 people involved in a coup attempt back in 2016. Two of the 14 are alleged Russian intelligence officers. According to The Washington Post:

The verdict said the group planned to take over the parliament in Montenegro on election day — Oct. 16, 2016 — assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership in the Adriatic Sea nation.

The Russians were tried in absentia. They’d helped coordinate the coup from their perch in Serbia. The Serbian government, also closely aligned with Moscow, allowed the two to return to Russia before law enforcement could catch up with them. One of the convicted Russians, Eduard Shishmakov, had been the deputy military attache in Warsaw before being kicked out of the country for spying.

Montenegro went ahead and joined NATO in 2017, which was also part of its bid to enhance its chances of joining the European Union. Djukanovic remains prime minister. He’s the fellow that Trump nearly elbowed in the face in an awkward group gathering at the 2018 NATO summit. The president also went out of his way to disparage Montenegro when, in response to a Tucker Carlson question, he called the Montenegrins “very aggressive people.” He added, “They may get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” It’s instructive to reinterpret Trump’s words and actions in light of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 coup attempt.

Montenegro is only one of the points of entry for Russia in its attempts to influence the course of events in the Balkans. The Kremlin also tried to upend the deal between Macedonia and Greece that finally, after several decades of acrimony, ended the dispute over what to name the former Yugoslav republic. Now known as North Macedonia, the country will become a member of NATO by year’s end.

In a more traditional bid for geopolitical influence, Putin has strengthened ties with Serbia’s authoritarian leader Aleksandar Vucic and ramped up Russian efforts as the mediator of last resort in the longstanding dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. This conflict is a win-win for Putin. A continued standoff over Kosovo’s independence makes the EU look impotent and binds Belgrade and Moscow even closer. But the Kremlin can also use any deal that provides Kosovo with international legitimacy as a precedent for its own efforts to gain recognition for Russian-aligned breakaway regions in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The Problem of Russian Interference

After he was inaugurated as president, Trump told Bill O’Reilly — in response to a question about Putin being a “killer” — “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

It’s true that the United States has been involved in numerous coups around the world, both successful (Iran) and unsuccessful (Cuba). It’s also true that the United States has attempted to sway innumerable elections through both covert and open means. Trump, who knows so very well about the lack of innocence, is quite right about U.S. complicity in various international crimes.

Progressives should, of course, condemn these U.S. actions over the years. And I’m certainly no fan of an expanding NATO.

But we should also call out Russia as well. And not just because Russia attempted to interfere in U.S. elections, as detailed in the Mueller report. That’s not the worst of it, considering the number of political assassinations that the Kremlin has orchestrated on foreign soil, its involvement in the attempted coup in Montenegro, and its efforts to sway multiple European politicians.

The bottom line is that the Kremlin has backed some of the most noxious reactionaries now operating on the world scene: Viktor Orban, Mario Salvini, Heinz-Christian Strache, Marine Le Pen. Oh, yes, and Trump too.

Russian actions in its near abroad (Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics) have revived NATO from what should have been its deathbed. And if Russia succeeds with its political vision for Europe, say goodbye to the European Union and its bold effort to apply progressive social policies across borders. (Yes, the EU’s economic program has veered off in a neoliberal direction, but that’s something to fight about within the EU framework rather than discarding the framework altogether.)

Putin’s divide-and-conquer strategy has attracted a dyspeptic band of right-wing populists, Euroskeptics, and neo-Nazis, who will likely capture a much larger share in the European parliament elections this week despite the Austrian scandal. But they don’t represent any real alternative to NATO and neo-liberalism. Follow Russia and the path leads back to 1914. Europeans deserve a brighter future, not a catastrophic rewind.

The post Russia and the Future of Europe appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Frostlands.

Life After Deporation

Wed, 05/22/2019 - 12:57pm

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It’s not too far from the center of San Salvador to the house of Liliana. What takes so long is getting through the traffic in the city center. Up a road, into a colonia, and finally to her mother’s house, where she lives with her siblings and their children. Amid the Disney characters on the wall and her nephew in the patio, one youthful element is missing: her own children.

Liliana’s 11-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter live in northern Virginia with their dad.

Liliana had been with them until 2017, working full time and parenting. Yet at her check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in May 2017, she was taken into detention.

Organizations in the Washington, DC metro area that defend immigrant rights — like the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network, Sanctuary DMV, and CASA — launched an intense campaign to halt her deportation. They held press conferences at the ICE field office and the Department of Homeland Security headquarters, directed countless calls and tweets to ICE and elected officials, and obtained the intervention of both of her senators, her congressional representative, and the governor of Virginia.

Despite all the efforts, Liliana was moved to another detention center and then deported to El Salvador.

Life as a “Returnee”

Life for those who have been deported — called “returnees” in El Salvador — is very difficult.

First there is the violence — the same condition that led many migrants to flee for their lives in the first place. Liliana had initially gone to the United States in 2006 after a sexual assault at gunpoint by a gang member. Now back in her former neighborhood, she rarely leaves the house and certainly not at night. Nor are there parties or gatherings on her street, because people know that armed killers can enter.

It’s also extremely hard to find a job. Amid high rates of unemployment in the country, returnees face added challenges. Liliana says she’d need a recommendation from a political figure, which is hard to get having been out of the country. Available jobs are mainly open to those under 25 years old, she says, and to work in a relatively high-paying position — at a call center, for example — she’d need better English skills than she currently has.

Compounding all of this is the stigmatization and discrimination against those who come back after time abroad.

A few images circulate broadly.

First there’s the idea that people who return are violent threats. The Salvadoran media often doesn’t communicate that people are deported from the United States for being without documentation. Instead, it circulates headlines warning that “criminals” have just arrived at the airport. This turns the population against returnees. A related impression also exists that people who aimed to succeed in the United States returned to their country of birth because they had failed.

The second image is that returnees are disconnected from Salvadoran culture. That after years — and sometimes decades — in the United States, they are not adapted to Salvadoran life. This stigmatization further disinclines employers to hire them, adding to their family’s precarious economic condition.

Finally, deportees themselves are living with major emotional challenges. After having been separated from their families, held in detention in the United States, and put on a plane without money or possessions, many arrive disoriented and traumatized. In El Salvador, they often live in isolation in a country they have not been in for years, disconnected from communities and meaningful roles.

And longing to be with their U.S. families.

Civil Society Steps In

Liliana talks to her children every day by video call — making the cyber-visits fun with silly poses and filters — and yet has no hope of living with them until 2022, when her five-year prohibition on re-entering the United States has passed.

Even that transition could be out of reach for many families. The process will cost around $10,000 — in lawyers’ fees and the costs of the application process — a prohibitive amount for Liliana’s family, which is now relying on her husband to parent and support the family economically.

Meanwhile, the Salvadoran government offers few services to returnees. Some independent organizations operate on a small scale. The Alliance of Salvadoran Returnees (ALSARE) trains deportees to organize in their communities, developing leadership skills and connecting with neighbors. It also aims to introduce national policies that would work toward the reintegration of returnees into Salvadoran society — including by providing psychological support, reducing the stigma against them, and promoting human rights for migrant workers in coordination with organizations in Guatemala and Honduras, two other countries that send many migrants to the United States.  

In coordination with international foundations and with the Salvadoran Institute for Migrants (INSAMI), another group — the National Network of Returned Entrepreneurs of El Salvador (RENACERES) — offers programs in mental and physical health, employment, and income generation, as well as a space for migrants to meet each other. It also works on policy advocacy and coordinates with other countries in Central America’s northern triangle. Meanwhile, the Jesuit network provides services and advocacy, and conducts research about migration.

But these limited programs are far from reaching the number of Salvadorans who have returned to the country. The entire situation could get more acute after the expiration of Temporary Protected Status, which covers nearly 200,000 Salvadorans in the United States. Given that 20 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product is from remittances sent from abroad, the unemployment situation will likely get more dire as well.

Don’t Forget the Deported

As someone who participated in Liliana’s deportation defense in the United States, what struck me most during my recent visit was our disconnect with her life in El Salvador. In the age of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Zoom, and Skype, how had we lost touch?

The fight for migrant rights is an international one — as is the life of migrants — and their existence does not end at deportation. Here’s a call for providing ongoing support to the families who have been separated from relatives through deportation, and for ongoing communication with the deportees themselves. They were neighbors, friends, congregants, and contributors to our communities in the United States, and they continue to be our loved ones as far away as they may be.  

The separation of families personified by Liliana’s case — but experienced by so many others — should move us to redouble our efforts to prevent deportations. So that people like Liliana, her husband, and her children do not live for years without beloved relatives.

To support Liliana’s expenses to return to her children in Virginia, you can contribute to her GoFundMe account. And to get involved in deportation defense and advocate for legislation to protect immigrants in the United States, you can contact organizations in your geographic area that support immigrant justice.

The post Life After Deporation appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Julia Paley is the Director of Immigration Justice at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.