Signs of Hope for Judicial Reform in Ukraine

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Post-communist Ukraine has long struggled to reform its judicial system and rid itself of pervasive and systematic petty and serious corruption—one of the many poisonous legacies experienced by all post-Soviet states. I recently interviewed Oleksandr Marusiak, an articulate and serious 25-year old from Chernivtsi in western Ukraine, who is part of a new breed of young people being recruited to reform and modernize the country’s police and its policing methods. As he described his on-the-ground experience in the recruiting and training process, I couldn’t help but be hopeful that, despite the continuing problems in Kyiv, some reforms just might be taking hold in the provinces. Here’s why:

MOTYL: How did you apply for and get the job?

MARUSIAK: At the beginning of December 2015, I responded to an online “call for applications” for the post of instructor of patrol police officers. The Chernivtsi Province Department of National Police (a regional agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) was looking for experts in 22 disciplines. Instructors were supposed to have a variety of qualifications, such as teaching experience, strong communication and organizational skills, and the like. The announcement asked that applicants submit their resume to a special electronic address and note their preferred area of instruction. I chose “Defining Criminal Offences and the Bases of Criminal Procedures,” inasmuch as I had received a Master’s degree in criminal law from the Odessa University Law School in 2013.

About a week later, I was invited for an interview with three officials, two from Kyiv (both members of the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program Office in Ukraine—ICITAP), one, a defense attorney, from Chernivtsi. During the interview they asked  about my work experience, teaching methods, and knowledge of the topic. Among the specific questions they asked were: “How would you explain the importance of understanding your subject area to police officers? How does theft differ from robbery? With which crimes must police officers be most familiar?” That same day, they called again and told me I had gotten the job and that I should attend a general methodological training session for instructors.

In all, I attended three such mandatory training sessions. At the first one, several Kyiv instructors who had already worked with police officers shared their experience with us, emphasizing the pedagogical differences between training sessions and university courses (which I had already taught) and highlighting the kinds of problems they encountered in teaching police officers and the solutions they developed. The other two sessions were specialized, focusing on the subjects we had chosen. All of us received electronic versions of all the instructional materials, as well as slides.

MOTYL: Were the training sessions useful? Were the materials presented objectively and professionally?

MARUSIAK: These sessions were useful for me, because I had had no such training before, and it helped me to understand the educational specificities involved in teaching police officers. I also had no complaints about the quality of the materials, as they were logically and clearly presented.

MOTYL: Did you develop your own curriculum?

MARUSIAK: No, it had already been prepared by the ICITAP experts. My class consisted of 11 meetings and an examination. Each session was structured in the following manner. We’d start with a quiz on the previous day’s materials and with an analysis of their answers to the questions. Then we’d move on to a practical analysis of their homework, sometimes as a whole class, sometimes in teams. We’d end by discussing new material, which would then serve as the subject of the next session’s quiz.

MOTYL: Were the students interested? Did they take the course seriously? How many weeks did the course last?

MARUSIAK: The course lasted three weeks. Of course, this is a rather short time for understanding such a complicated subject, but it was enough for the students to get a rudimentary understanding of common criminal offences and legal procedures. Students took the course seriously, as they recognized that their future work directly depended on what they learned. Moreover, they understood that questions of self-defense and the legal liability of police officers are also a matter of criminal law in Ukraine.

MOTYL: How many students did you have and who were they?

MARUSIAK: I taught seven classes of about 30 students per class. In general, they were 21- to 35-years old. Women were about a third. Some students were former employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or advanced law-school students; some were recently demobilized soldiers who had served in eastern Ukraine; some had backgrounds in geography, biology, theology, and computer programming; some had no higher education.

MOTYL: Did they tell you why they had signed up?

MARUSIAK: Many joined because they believed in and wanted to be part of the reforms taking place in Ukraine’s system of law and order. Some confessed they were attracted by the high salary. Many just wanted to try something new.

MOTYL: Did you encounter any corruption in the process?

MARUSIAK: No.

MOTYL: Were you surprised?

MARUSIAK: Somewhat. But there were several anti-corruption safeguards at work. First, we received a high salary, at least compared to what I earned teaching at the university. Second, instructors were provided with the quizzes just before they were supposed to be administered. Third, the students completed the final examination electronically. Fourth, the officer students evaluated our performance at the end of the session. Finally, we instructors also evaluated the officers with respect to their leadership abilities, ability to work in a team, motivation, and so on.

MOTYL: What are your general impressions of this aspect of reform in Ukraine?

MARUSIAK: I liked it. All stages of the educational process were fully transparent and practically focused, and the students were highly motivated. I wish that the next part of police reform in Ukraine would be at least half as successful as this one was.

Will Obama Ignore Human Rights in Talk with Putin?

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On Monday, US President Barack Obama will meet with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. According to the White House, their bilateral agenda will include Afghanistan, Syria, missile defense, counterterrorism, and economic cooperation. No mention, at least so far, has been made of anything relating to democracy and human rights—despite Putin’s unprecedented crackdown, which now includes not only fraudulent elections and media censorship, but also political show trials and state-driven paranoia about “foreign agents,” as the Kremlin is labeling independent NGOs. Several participants of a May 2012 anti-Putin rally in Moscow are in jail for “inciting riots”; Alexei Navalny, a prominent anticorruption campaigner and opposition candidate for Moscow mayor, is on trial; and a third criminal case is reportedly being prepared against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s best-known political prisoner, who has already spent nearly a decade behind bars.“Attempts by some in the West, including in the United States, to adopt a realpolitikapproach and to conduct ‘business as usual’ with the Putin regime contradict the most basic values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s former deputy prime minister, said in Washington last week. “Such policy is also counterproductive, since the Kremlin considers it as a sign of weakness—and, therefore, as an invitation to behave even more aggressively, both at home and abroad.” Nemtsov, a leading figure in Russia’s pro-democracy opposition, who has been at the forefront of the recent anti-Putin protests, was meeting with US policymakers—Democrats and Republicans—to discuss the situation in Russia and urge that democracy issues be an integral part of any US dealings with the Kremlin.

One of the most effective ways to uphold these values, according to Russia’s opposition leader, would be to implement the Magnitsky Act, which prohibits Russian human rights abusers from traveling to, and keeping assets in, the United States, “in full accordance with original intent”—in other words, to expand the sanctions list to include not only low-ranking pointsmen, but also their superiors. “Too many of those responsible for repression and human rights abuses have been let off the hook,” Nemtsov said in his testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referring to the initial sanctions list published in April. “This is a grave strategic error. I hope that it will be corrected in the nearest future.”

“Stalin was a murderer, but he was not corrupt. Putin and his circle are deeply corrupt, and they care about their assets [in the West],” Nemtsov said at another Capitol Hill forum, co-hosted by the Institute of Modern Russia and the Foreign Policy Initiative. “And this is a chance for [the West], because even though Putin might act as if he has unlimited power and unlimited opportunities, that is not true. He only wishes he had that.”

Is Europe with Russia or with Putin?

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The task of restoring democracy and safeguarding human rights in Russia is a task for Russian citizens and no one else. But it would help if our friends and neighbors in Europe stopped, in effect, supporting Vladimir Putin’s regime by lending it international credibility and allowing its crooked officials access to the European banking system. This was the essence of the arguments put forward by a delegation of Russian opposition members—including the author of this blog—invited to address a European Parliament hearing in Brussels earlier this week.

For all his brazen anti-Western rhetoric, Putin would like nothing more than for the elected Western leaders to join him on the Olympic stands in Sochi in four months’ time—a confirmation of his regime’s legitimacy, prestige, and status as an accepted equal on the world stage. Indeed, it is precisely for the reasons of prestige and legitimacy, not sport, that the Sochi Olympics are so important to Vladimir Putin. The message from the Russian participants at the hearing—as well as from the host, Polish MEP Marek Migalski, who initiated the campaign for a political boycott of Putin’s Olympics—was that EU leaders should not pander to the Kremlin, or, at the very least, condition their participation on meaningful reciprocal steps, such as the release of political prisoners.

Another focus of discussion was the urgent need for a European Magnitsky Act, modeled on the 2012 US law that banned Russian officials implicated in corruption and human rights abuses from traveling to and owning assets in America. Those who violate the rights of and steal money from Russian citizens should not be entitled to the privileges and the comfort of the Western world for themselves and their families. The double standard of those who choose to rule in the Soviet style but own homes and bank accounts in the democratic West must come to an end. Only fear of personal consequences, not references to Russia’s international human rights obligations under the Council of Europe and the OSCE, can change the behavior of corrupt and abusive officials—so that next time they would think twice before beating another protester, torturing another prisoner, harassing another journalist, or rigging another election.

Both the call to EU leaders to stay away from Putin’s Olympics and a list of Russian human rights abusers who should be blacklisted from the European Union are expected to be included in the resolution on Russia that will be debated by Europe’s highest legislative body at the end of this year. Its passage will be bad news for the Kremlin—and a welcome sign for all those in Russia who want a European and democratic future for their country.

Putin is Steering Russia to Collapse

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As the new year begins, both Ukraine and Russia are making steady progress. The difference is that, while Ukraine is slowly, and more or less surely, adopting a raft of systemic reforms that will make it a normal Western market democracy, Russia is becoming a failed state. If current trends continue, as they probably will, Russia may even disappear.

That’s not just my conclusion. It’s Dmitri Trenin’s, and Trenin is the director of the prestigious Carnegie Moscow Center and a distinguished Russian analyst who, unlike his former colleague, the anti-Putin firebrand Lilia Shevtsova, has often expressed a soft-line interpretation of the Putin regime and its intentions.

In a recently published commentary, however, Trenin takes off his gloves and compares Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the czarist regime on the eve of World War I. If, writes Trenin, Russia doesn’t develop a new foreign policy and embark on serious internal reform, “the Russian state could share the fate of the Romanov regime in World War I.”

That is, Russia could collapse. In effect, Trenin is comparing Putin to Romanov Russia’s last czar, the hapless Nicholas II, and arguing that he has failed—completely.

Here’s Trenin:

The political conflict between Russia and the United States is fundamental. There may be moments when tension eases and cooperation is possible, but there are no obvious options for strategic compromise. Moreover, Russia has entered a phase of mutual estrangement with a large part of Europe; and it has, for the foreseeable future, acquired a hostile Ukraine on its border, whose new foundation for nation-building is based on hostility to Russia. Finally, Russia has been sucked into the permanent theater of conflict that is the Middle East. …

In its recent history, Russia has sought to embrace one of two competing overarching foreign policy concepts—but both have shattered. … Both concepts—we can call them Plan A and Plan B—came into jeopardy in the first half of the 2010s, and were ultimately torpedoed by the Ukraine crisis.

So what should Russia do?

The key strategic objective must be to develop a new Russian foreign policy concept—a kind of Plan C. This concept should be based on a balanced understanding of both Russia’s need for self-sufficiency and its necessary engagement with the rest of the world.…

Yet all this is not the main thing.… Russians should turn their minds back to 1914, when amid a clash of world powers the old Russian regime came crashing down. If it wants to escape the fate the reform-averse Romanovs endured in World War I, the current ruling elite needs to prioritize domestic change and carry out a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s institutions….

Russia’s current political and economic order, if it persists, will sooner or later doom it to a tragic failure as a state.

And there you have it. Unless it changes fundamentally, Russia will fail as a state. Which is to say that Putin has, within a few short years, managed to transform a stable polity into a failing state. How? Above all, by means of an ill-advised, criminal invasion of Ukraine. What was supposed to be a quick, glorious, little war has become a disaster—for Russia. Give the man another year or two and his current grade of C will, as Russia collapses and chaos envelopes its unfortunate population, become an F.

Trenin is being coy when he says that “Russia” got itself into trouble. Although Russia may fail as a state, it’s Putin, the man Steven Lee Myers calls the “new tsar,” who has failed as a leader and pushed Russia to the brink of disaster.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be a worse leader than deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Yet Russia’s leader has done just that.

Have Chinese Agents Abducted Hong Kong Publisher, Book Sellers?

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The case of five missing Hong Kong residents connected to a Hong Kong publisher and bookshop took a strange turn Monday when the wife of one of the missing individuals withdrew her request for police assistance. Choi Ka Ping said she had heard from her husband that day and no longer needed help.

The police, however, said they would continue the investigation into the disappearance of the husband, Lee Bo.

The first to disappear was Gui Minhai, owner of Mighty Current, a publishing house that since 2012 has released about 80 books highly critical of China’s Communist Party. The last known contact from him was an e-mail message sent on October 15 to a printer from the Thai resort of Pattaya.

A few weeks later, on November 5, three of Gui’s colleagues were reported to have vanished while in Shenzhen, across the border in what people in Hong Kong call “the mainland.” The missing are: Lui Bo, the general manager of Mighty Current; Cheung Jiping, Mighty Current’s business manager; and Lam Wing-kei, the manager of Causeway Bay Books, a shop partially owned by Mighty Current. The store, opened in 1994, has been popular with Chinese tourists looking for political books unavailable in China.

And most recently, on December 30, Lee Bo, a shareholder in Causeway Bay Books, also disappeared. He was last seen near Mighty Current’s warehouse in an outlying district of Hong Kong. Ms. Choi reported him missing January 1.

Ms. Choi said her husband had called her the night he went missing. “He said he will not be coming back anytime soon,” Choi told a cable station. “He said he was assisting an investigation. I asked him if it was about the previous cases, he said yes.”

Lee phoned Choi again, on Saturday, January 2. During that conversation she heard a voice in the background say “there would be no problem if you cooperate.” Lee spoke to her in Putonghua, the national language of China, not Cantonese, the dialect of Hong Kong. Ms. Choi said his choice of language was unusual.

Tellingly, the caller ID of the phone Lee used showed the call was made from Shenzhen. If Lee in fact called from China, there is good reason to believe he was abducted. Hong Kong authorities report that there is no immigration record of Lee leaving Hong Kong. Lee did not take his home-return permit, which he would have needed to enter the mainland.

Indeed, the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday that Lee’s wife thought Chinese agents had abducted him.

On the same day Lee faxed a handwritten letter to his bookstore. “I had to handle the issue concerned urgently and cannot let outsiders know it,” he wrote. He also said he “returned to mainland my own way and am working with the concerned parties in an investigation which may take a while.” Lee also noted: “I am now very good and everything is normal.”

Nothing about this case is “normal.” On Monday, in this whirlwind of activity, Ms. Choi said she no longer required police assistance to resolve the sudden and mysterious disappearance of her husband. What happened?  Her husband’s fax seems highly likely to have been sent under duress. In all probability, the Chinese convinced Ms. Choi that she would see her husband sooner if she cooperated.

Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic of China, but mainland law enforcement personnel have no jurisdiction in that city. That hasn’t stopped Chinese agents from engaging in covert activity in Hong Kong, which began when the British Union Jack was lowered over Hong Kong and China’s five-star flag replaced it in 1997. For years Hong Kong people remained silent about these violations of their autonomy. As Chinese espionage has become bolder and more visible, however, residents began talking. Kidnapping two people connected to a high-profile business, after all, marks a new arrogance and an increased threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Beijing’s ongoing efforts to smother Hong Kong’s haven status have prompted a response. In the Mighty Current matter, there have been, for instance, demonstrations outside Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong over the missing residents on Sunday and Monday. The matter has consumed Hong Kong’s media in the past week.

In the end, Beijing has the power to do whatever it wants—the city’s political establishment represents China and not the people of Hong Kong and the People’s Liberation Army has a large garrison there—but Chinese officials are having an increasingly difficult time controlling popular backlash.

Xi Jinping, who has handled the Hong Kong portfolio for the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee in recent years, has apparently chosen to confront rather than charm the city’s population. There is, for Beijing, likely to be a price.

North Africa Exports Rape Culture to Germany

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Last week, roughly 200 women in Cologne, Germany, reported that they were sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve in a public square by a mob of more than a thousand Arab men.

That number exploded this week. More than 600 women now claim they were assaulted, molested, robbed and even raped, and reports are coming in not only from Cologne but also from elsewhere in Germany and even elsewhere in Europe.

Europeans and especially Germans are furious, of course, not only at the perps but also at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for accepting a million refugees from Syria. That’s a staggering number. It’s as if the United States had accepted four million refugees all in one go, which is roughly the population of my home state of Oregon.

At least the United States has a long history of successfully integrating immigrants, including Arab immigrants. According to data from Cornell University, two-thirds of American Muslims earn more than 50,000 dollars a year, and a fourth earn more than 100,000 dollars a year. That’s hardly the profile of a failed immigrant group.

Europe, though, has a much harder time with this sort of thing, and Germany is in an uproar. Protests are breaking out everywhere, with demonstrators yelling “deport them” and carrying signs that say “Rapefugees not welcome” in English.

The culprits are mostly Arabs, and Merkel’s refugee policy is predictably collapsing as a result, but the rapefest in Cologne was not imported from Syria. It mostly comes from North Africa.

Women have fewer rights in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else in the world with the single exception of Afghanistan, and they’re abused far more often over there than anywhere in the West, but they aren’t routinely assaulted by hundreds of men in unruly mobs all at once anywhere except Egypt.

Many years ago in Cairo I struck up a conversation with an Australian woman at a restaurant who was traveling around on break from her job at the Ministry of Defense.

“This is the absolute worst place for a woman to travel alone,” she said. “Men harass me constantly. They hiss, stare, and make kissy noises.”

I told her what one of my Syrian friends once said to my wife, that if she ever goes there she should carry a spare shoe in her purse. If any man gives her trouble and she whacks him with the bottom of the shoe, a mob will chase him down and kick his ass.

The Australian woman laughed. “Syria is wonderful, though. I mean, it’s much more oppressive than Egypt. But it’s also more modern. No man ever bothered me there. No men bothered me in Lebanon, either. I was surprised. Lebanese and Syrian men are more respectful even than European men.”

I can’t know from personal experience what it’s like to walk around as a woman in the Middle East or North Africa, but I’ve spent more than a decade of my life on and off in that part of the world and have had conversations with more than a thousand people, men and women alike. Women are unanimous here: Harassment in North Africa ranges from annoying to unspeakable while it’s virtually non-existent in Lebanon and Syria. I don’t know why. That’s just how it is.

“The worst part is that Egyptian men won’t back down when I tell them to leave me alone,” the Australian woman in Cairo added.

The Cologne police department says most of the offenders come from North Africa rather than Syria, which is exactly what we should expect.

“In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights,” Mona Eltahawy writes in her book,Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. “More than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment, and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women. A 2013 UN survey reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women experience street sexual harassment. Men grope and sexually assault us, and yet we are blamed for it because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong thing.”

Sexual assault in public is so pervasive in Egypt that the authorities ban men from some cars on the subway so women can get to work in the morning without being mauled.

Foreign women get it in Egypt, too, most infamously when CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally assaulted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the night the Egyptian army removed Hosni Mubarak from power. An enormous mob surrounded her, stripped her naked, sexually assaulted her and damn near killed her.

“I didn’t even know that they were beating me with flagpoles and sticks and things,” she later said in an interview on 60 Minutes. “Because the sexual assault was all I could feel, their hands raping me over and over and over again. They were trying to tear off chunks of my scalp…not trying to pull out my hair, holding big wads of it literally trying to tear my scalp off my skull.”

She thought they were going to kill her. They probably would have if she hadn’t been rescued by Egyptian women who themselves have suffered plenty at the rough hands of their neighbors.

The same thing happened to British journalist Natasha Smith the following year, and she wrote about it in excruciating detail on her blog.

In a split second, everything changed. Men had been groping me for a while, but suddenly, something shifted. I found myself being dragged from my male friend, groped all over, with increasing force and aggression. I screamed. I could see what was happening and I saw that I was powerless to stop it. I couldn’t believe I had got into this situation.

My friend did everything he could to hold onto me. But hundreds of men were dragging me away, kicking and screaming. I was pushed onto a small platform as the crowd surged, where I was hunched over, determined to protect my camera. But it was no use. My camera was snatched from my grasp. My rucksack was torn from my back – it was so crowded that I didn’t even feel it. The mob stumbled off the platform – I twisted my ankle.

Men began to rip off my clothes. I was stripped naked. Their insatiable appetite to hurt me heightened. These men, hundreds of them, had turned from humans to animals.

Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way. So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.

Germany has announced that it’s changing the law to make it far easier to swiftly deport migrant criminals. Most of those involved in Cologne are apparently not Syrian refugees, but they can still be sent back to wherever it is they come from if they are not citizens.

Those who are seeking asylum from Syria and think it’s okay to rape and molest women in Europe’s most generous host country may soon find themselves deported post-haste back to where they belong—to the war zone.

China’s Economy Slides, Stocks Tumble, Capital Takes Flight

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Stocks around the world have generally tumbled this month, but last Tuesday was a bright spot as equity markets surged. Then, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics reported its first estimate of China’s gross domestic product for 2015.

The official agency pegged last year’s growth at 6.9 percent. The percentage increase, roughly in line with analyst expectations, was the lowest in 25 years.

So why does a dour report trigger optimism among stock investors? Investors nowbelieve the Chinese central government will step up stimulus to restart growth, which has been falling since 2011. Furthermore, there is a hope that state entities and government-backed funds in China—the so-called “National Team”—will begin a new round of buying in China’s two share markets. Both developments are considered good for Chinese stocks.

And what is good for stocks in China is often thought to be good for stocks everywhere else.

The only trouble with this optimistic narrative is that the Chinese government can no longer create GDP. Six reductions in benchmark interest rates since November 2014 and five reductions in the reserve requirement ratio since last February have had no noticeable effect. Monetary stimulus, therefore, appears to be tapped out. Large increases in fiscal spending—especially at the end of last year—have also not halted declining growth.

The fundamental problem? A lack of demand for money.

You can see this for yourself if you go to the Pudong district of Shanghai. There, you will find, in an out-of-the-way location, the Shanghai Pentagonal Mart, a shopping mall in the same shape—and containing almost as much floor space—as the Pentagon. The Chinese building, however, has been virtually emptysince it was completed in 2009.

The Pentagonal Mart—not the largest building in China by any means—cost more than $200 million, and someone has to pick up the tab. That’s hard to do when there are virtually no tenants and no rental income.

China has massive empty development projects across the country, and eventually the debt incurred to build them has to be paid back. Analysts like to say that Beijing has the world’s largest foreign currency reserves and so it does not have to worry. That’s sloppy thinking because the central government can’t just give borrowers the nation’s cash and, in any event, borrowers do not need dollars, euros, pounds, or yen. They need renminbi.

As history shows, local currency crises are always harder to resolve than foreign currency ones, and now China appears certain to be on the edge of a domestic downturn. Some, such as Jonathan Anderson of Emerging Advisors Group, think Beijing has a half-decade to sort things out, but others are not so sure. “They absolutely have no room left for further debt accumulation,” said Rodney Jones of advisory firm Wigram Capital to the Financial Times this week. “The problem is unsustainable growth and continued rapid accumulation of debt, leverage, and credit.”

Who’s right? The Chinese are giving us a hint. They are taking cash out of their country as if there is no tomorrow. Maybe, for them, there isn’t.

The Rush for Moldovan Citizenship

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Moldova is not the kind of country people move to. In fact, at a recent conference on global demographics at the University of Oxford, a CIS expert pointed to the small republic between Romania and Ukraine as a particular concern, pointing out that it’s been hemorrhaging population to Russia for more than a decade. What’s a country to do when residents decide they don’t want to live there?

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But, a high-ranking European diplomat tells me, in the past 18 months 74,000 people have applied for Moldovan citizenship. That’s not 74,000 births; it’s 74,000 foreigners who’ve decided they want to become Moldovans. What’s suddenly making Moldova so attractive does, perhaps sadly, has little to do with the almost–Black Sea nation itself and a lot to do with the European Union. In November 2013, the EU concluded that Moldova was fulfilling a set of requirements in areas such as human rights and the rule of law, and granted its citizens the right to visa-free travel to its member states.

And with that, the citizenship applications started coming in, and not just from anywhere, but from Transnistria. The breakaway republic loyal to Russia is located on what Moldova considers Moldovan territory, and ever since Transnistria broke away relations between the parties have been frozen, not to say freezing, with no movement in either direction regarding Transnistria’s status. But Transnistrians themselves apparently have a clear idea of what they want. Those 74,000 amount to a fifth of the republic’s citizens. If the trend continues, Transnistria will soon have lost its citizens to Moldova, courtesy of an EU visa regime.

 

Europe’s Northern Group

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Under ordinary circumstances, the Northern Group would hardly be headline news. The association of northern European countries holds regular ministerial meetings, strategic meetings, and expert-level meetings, but so do many other intergovernmental outfits. Lately, though, Russian analysts have beenwatching this very vanilla-sounding Nordic association carefully.

That’s because while its member states may consider themselves very peaceful indeed, the five-year-old Northern Group is a military alliance. Take a look at the group’s members: Britain, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic states, the Baltic states. Only two countries in this 11-strong congregation are not NATO members: Sweden and Finland. And there they are, collaborating with their northern neighbors on defense issues and participating in talks held by the Northern Group’s NATO members.

“The Northern Group provides a key platform to help shape and deliver Europe’s and NATO’s response to the security implications of Russia’s indefensible actions in Ukraine and whose incursions of European air and sea space have increased,” Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said ahead of the group’s meeting in November last year, at which point annual air incursions into the members’ territory had reached 100—three times as many as during all of 2013. Not bad for an alliance conceived by then Defense Secretary Liam Fox essentially to keep Britain engaged with its NATO allies.

Sure, the Northern Group is hardly essential to its members who also belong to NATO. It’s a complement, not an alternative, said Norwegian State Secretary Roger Ingebrigtsen at an earlier meeting. But for Sweden and Finland, who are still vacillating about NATO membership, it provides a convenient partial solution that, handily enough, doesn’t require a major political debate. Though Finland’s new government has said that it will conduct a study on NATO membership, the step in no way indicates that Finland will eventually apply to become a member. Besides, it would have to join with Sweden, whose government has not embarked on a similar fact-finding mission, though in April it announced that it wants to strengthen cooperation with NATO. Even if the pair would apply for NATO membership, it would be a long process before they formally joined.

By contrast, Sweden and Finland are already full members of the Northern Group. That’s good news as far as their defense capabilities are concerned, one might argue. But it’s no surprise that Russian officials suspect the group of really being a mini-NATO. And the Russian military correctly judges that in a crisis situation, NATO would come to Sweden and Finland’s aid.

Are US Tanks Headed for Poland?

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What to do when one feels frightened of the big boys next door but knows that the rules prevent setting up a little fort to make oneself feel safer? Back in 1997, as we all know, NATO promised Russia that it wouldn’t build military bases in the former Warsaw Pact states that had chosen to join it. NATO will “carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces,” the so-called NATO Founding Act reads.

So what to do if you are, let’s say, Poland and feel concerned about growing Russian aggression? The Poles, I understand, are in the process of developing a very smart proposal that they’ll present to the United States. In the Polish plan, American military equipment would be stored in Polish military facilities, paid for by Poland. It would be an American presence, but without humans and without the Americans footing the bill. It would, in other words, not be a military base of the kind the United States maintains in Germany or Italy. But the American equipment on Polish soil would form some sort of guarantee to the Poles that the Americans are committed to their security.

NATO, of course, already provides soldiers and planes to the Baltic states in permanent rotation. And soon, perhaps a parking garage for American tanks in Poland? Sneaky, it may seem. But taking Crimea was sneaky, too, and if there’s anything that has characterized Poles for the past couple of centuries it’s their almost resurrection-like abilities in the face of formidable adversaries.