Eastern Europe

By Gideon Rachman
When a government starts murdering its critics in the streets, it has crossed the line into barbarism. President Vladimir Putin of Russia is fond of accusing the administration in Ukraine of fascism. But it is the aggressive, self-pitying nationalism whipped up by Mr Putin — allied to the persecution and now murder of his domestic opponents — that is truly reminiscent of the politics of Russia and Germany in the 1930s.

Vladimir Putin with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban

In the West, Vladimir Putin is often viewed as something of an international pariah. Shift your perspective, however, and it is quite striking how many international friends, the Russian president has cultivated.

Mr Putin, who enjoys posing bare-chested, is particularly good at making friends with other “strongmen”. His roster of special friends include Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa. This week, Mr Putin has also been demonstrating that he is capable of finding pals even inside the “enemy camp” – the European Union. The EU may have imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, but that has not stopped Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary – and another self-styled strongman – from rolling out the red carpet for Mr Putin. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

A friend of mine from Moscow has a nice way of describing how her fellow citizens view the war in Ukraine. She calls it a “contest between the television and the refrigerator”. The television stirs Russian spirits with a story about a great patriotic struggle against a “fascist” Ukraine and a scheming west. But the refrigerator lowers the spirits, with its increasingly sparse and costly contents.

Within twenty years of the end of the second world war, the same European countries that had been sworn enemies during six years of bloody conflict committed themselves to a future of peace, prosperity and political and economic integration.

Some war crimes suspects slipped the net and avoided the Nuremberg trials, but their elusiveness did not interrupt or discredit the reconciliation process led by West Germany and France.

But two decades on from the wars that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia, it is impossible to make the case that reconciliation and integration are as advanced there as they were in western Europe by the mid-1960s.

The region’s societies, ethnicities and political leaderships remain bitterly at odds over how to assess the war crimes committed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1991 and 1995.

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  • A sea patrol to help cope with a surge in the number of migrants heading for Italy via the southern Mediterranean was launched this month, but at least 100 miles of dangerous water between Lampedusa and Libya will be unpatrolled
  • The apparent murder of 43 students has turned Mexico into a tinderbox of volatile and increasingly violent protests, as scandal fuels a sense of things spinning out of control for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration
  • Ahead of this weekend’s G20 summit, policymakers are competing to describe the global economy in the most apocalyptic terms. Instead they should address big issues like exchange rate management and rising protectionism
  • Mikhail Gorbachev is wrong about a new cold war – unlike Communism, Vladimir Putin’s Russia does not have an alternative ideology to sell. But cold war lessons of patience and resolve should be relearnt, for they add up to deterrence
  • In Venezuela, a crackdown on the black market in regulated goods – which include eggs, powdered milk, detergent and baby diapers – risks alienating some of the poor Venezuelans who were long loyal to President Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez (Washington Post)

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By Gideon Rachman

This weekend America announced that it was sending more troops to Iraq, Russia allegedly sent more troops into Ukraine and President Barack Obama set off for Beijing.

  • Nigeria has risked its credibility by announcing a deal to free 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram before they are released safely
  • Poland’s lossmaking coal industry, once seen as a bulwark against reliance on Russian energy resources, is in dire need of reform
  • A severe drought in São Paulo is not just affecting Brazil’s coffee and sugar crops, it could also play out in Sunday’s presidential election run-off
  • A weakening currency should mean a boost to exports and inflation, but that theory will be put to the test in the eurozone
  • South Korea’s professional video game competitions, known as ‘e-sports’, are so popular they fill stadiums with 40,000 fans cheering on players

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The announcement by Petro Poroshenko that Russia has withdrawn 70 per cent of its troops from Ukraine has prompted both hope and anguished debate in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev – where I am at the moment. The argument now is whether Ukraine should try to cut a peace deal with Moscow.

President Poroshenko is regarded as the chief partisan of the “peace party” in Ukraine. But he has to tread carefully because many Ukrainians would regard cutting a deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia as folly or betrayal – or both. Read more

Rising tensions over war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine, the rising tensions between Russia and the West, Vladimir Putin’s objectives, and how ordinary Russians and Russia’s other neighbouring states see the conflict. Neil Buckley, the FT’s eastern Europe editor and Jack Farchy, Moscow correspondent, join Gideon Rachman.

By Gideon Rachman
The people who prepare President Barack Obama’s national security briefing must be wondering what to put at the top of the pile. Should it be the Russian assault on Ukraine, or the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) in Iraq and Syria? And what items should go just below that?

Leaked tapes of expletive-filled conversations involving senior Polish ministers are extremely embarrassing to the government in Warsaw and to some of its leading figures, such as Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister (above). And that, presumably, is exactly the intention.

Amidst all the uproar, relatively few people seem to be asking who would have the resources and expertise to expertly bug several Warsaw restaurants – over the course of a year – and then the motivation to release the tapes. The obvious answer, based entirely on circumstantial evidence, would be Russia’s intelligence service. Read more

Now that most of the results have come in from the European parliament elections, let’s take a family photograph of Europe’s presidents, chancellors and prime ministers. Who have the broadest smiles on their faces, and who are sobbing into their handkerchiefs?

Among the European Union’s six biggest states – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – the happiest leader must surely be Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier. He won, and won big. Mr Renzi (above) demolished the notion that Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is on an unstoppable roll. He also inflicted an emphatic defeat on Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.

Even though it was not a national election, the youthful Mr Renzi can now claim to have a mandate of sorts for the political, economic and social reforms that he knows are necessary to modernise Italy. This is not to say that he will succeed – the power of entrenched anti-reform interests in Italy is formidable. But maybe he has a better chance than he did 48 hours ago. Read more

 

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during talks in Stralsund, northeastern Germany. (Getty)

Over the weekend, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande met and issued a statement that threatened Russia with new sanctions if it disrupts the Ukrainian presidential election or fails to pull troops back from the border. So far, so resolute.

However, President Hollande’s visit to Germany took place against the background of newspaper headlines that send an embarrassingly different message. France is pressing ahead with its sale of two warships to Russia. Indeed 400 Russian sailors are due to arrive in France on June 1st, for extended training on the Mistral ships. The first of the ships is due to be delivered later this year. Read more

The differing responses to the Ukraine crisis
This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, and Ukraine will top the agenda. Washington has led the way on sanctions, imposing asset freezes and travel bans on dozens of senior Russians and scores of companies, in an attempt to show Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that his interference in Ukraine will bring rising economic costs. The EU on the other hand, seems deeply resistant to tougher economic sanctions, given the much more important ties between Europe and Russia. In this week’s podcast, Ben Hall, world news editor, is joined by Geoff Dyer, Washington correspondent, and Stefan Wagstyl, Berlin bureau chief, to discuss how the two leaders should handle the escalating situation

By Gideon Rachman

Most politicians try to say something uplifting when they take office. Arseniy Yatseniuk took a different approach. Accepting the post of interim prime minister of Ukraine in February, his opening words were: “Welcome to hell.”

Vladimir Putin speaking at a session of the Russian security services board April 7 (Getty)

At one level, what is happening this week in the cities of eastern Ukraine is thoroughly confusing. Ukrainian security forces are trying to recapture government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk that were seized earlier this week by unidentified pro-Russia demonstrators. Who exactly is fighting whom? Who is really in charge in the region?

But at another level, what is going on is very clear. Vladimir Putin is providing an object lesson in how to destroy a state. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
Any western leader negotiating over the fate of smaller countries in central or eastern Europe does so in the shadow of two bitter historical experiences: the Munich agreement of 1938 and the Yalta agreement of 1945. At Munich, the British and the French agreed to Adolf Hitler’s demands for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia – without the participation of the Czech government, which was not represented at the talks. At Yalta, the British and the Americans made a deal with Josef Stalin that, de facto, accepted Soviet domination over postwar Poland and other countries under Russian occupation – again, without the participation of those concerned.

Every armed conflict has its femme fatale, the woman who tantalises men on the home front, or taunts them from behind enemy lines.

In World War Two, think of Betty Grable, the leggy film star whose image graced countless US servicemen’s quarters, or Tokyo Rose, the nickname for the Japanese-American radio presenter later prosecuted as a war criminal. Or Lili Marleen, the fictional soldiers’ siren from the popular song played and sung on both sides of the front.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and apparent designs on eastern Ukraine – a murky tale with few identifiable heroes or villains – has brought the world Natalya Poklonskaya, who has become the fresh and comely face of an ugly and fast-expanding east European war. Read more

Imagine you are the boss of a multinational company with a long-planned meeting with an authoritarian leader of a vital trading partner. Then just before the scheduled get-together, he decides to invade one of his neighbours. What do you do?

That, roughly, was the position of Joe Kaeser, chief executive of Germany’s Siemens, as he decided to go through with a meeting with Vladimir Putin this week at the Russian president’s nineteenth century country residence on the outskirts of Moscow. Read more