Thursday, April 27, 2017

Good Day for Europe: French elections

“Isn’t it funny that all these people who pretend to be En Marche (“On the Move”) take a metro?” said a metro driver of the line number 12 in the Porte de Versailles station in Paris on Sunday night. On 23 April 2017, the leader of En Marche! Emmanuel Macron who spurred 8 million 657 thousand (24%) voters won the first round. Those people who instead of marching took a line number 12 where heading to a celebration rally where 39-year-old former minister of economy delivered a speech. His campaign team’s tireless door-knocking and leaflet-stuffing have paid off.

What does the victory of Emmanuel Macron in a first round mean for the EU and France?
The outcomes are remarkable in several respects. For Europe, Macron’s victory shows that being openly pro-European does not automatically mean a downfall. Even though only 38% of the French people had a positive view about the European Union in Spring 2016, being in the EU is more important than leaving it. It gives optimism and hope that the EU project is still appealing. Additionally, it’s a test case in Europe for whether a liberal Western democracy can prevent nationalist populism from spreading across the region. Emmanuel Macron wants to reinforce the Franco-German vehicle of the EU, and we can expect, if we like it or not in V4, that the two speed Europe would become a reality.  

For France, this election means a political earthquake that will bring a break-up of the French two party system. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, created in 1958, neither mainstream political party has entered the run-off for the presidency. However, the legislative election in June will show whether the change is thorough or sketchy. Even in Spain which had a huge indignados movement, the break-up of the two-party system was only partial. The opinion polls that favoured the new parties such as “Ciudadanos” or “Podemos” were not compatible with the results in the elections which meant that the two traditional Spanish parties have still a majority in the Parliament, and Mariano Rajoy, leader of a conservative Popular Party (PP) was re-elected as Prime Minister in 2016.

Secondly, this election shows that there is an appetite for change in France but also that they will leave France divided. The voters chose two rival world views for the runoff and the race is close. Emmanuel Macron resembles openness, economic reforms in order to “unblock” the French economy and support the transatlantic alliance. Marine Le Pen is all the contrary. She vows to hold a referendum on taking France out of the European Union, and thus the euro; to close the borders to immigration and to introduce protectionist trade barriers.

Finally, democracy is vibrant in France and the people go for it. French people complain but also mobilise themselves. They take the future of their country into their own hands. The high turnout of 78,69% in the first round is the best example (to compare with 80,42% in 2012).

Who has the better chance to win the second round?
We should not ask if but how much Emmanuel Macron would win the runoff. Given the fact that the voters from the centre-right and left want to keep Marine Le Pen out, whatever their reservations, they will vote for Mr. Macron in the second round. This was a case in 2002 when the left-wing voters followed Jacques Chirac, thanks to which he won with over 82% against Jean-Marie Le Pen. Polls taken before first-round voting consistently suggested that Emmanuel Macron would beat Ms. Le Pen by some 20 points in a head-to-head contest. It means that Mr. Macron will have much less than Mr. Chirac 15 years ago, so Marine Le Pen will have less of the battle.
Kinga Brudzińska
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Abe´s three very different visits

The global world order is under reconstruction, which´s degree is yet unknown. In the global arena Japan plays an important role and wants to continue being a major player with considerable political and economic power.
In the globalized world that is increasingly sliding into multi-polarity, Japan has an opportunity to do just that. Much will, however, depend on the behaviour of other actors, primarily US, Russia, the EU, and China.

Russia is currently accused of being the ultimate global meddler and of attempts to undermine the stability of liberal democracies worldwide. Japan is not vulnerable to these tactics. The structure of Japanese society and politics is in many ways very different from that of European countries or the US. Japan is very homogeneous (culturally, ethnically, linguistically) therefore less exposed to such destabilization. Only less than two per cents of the residents are foreign. The majority of immigrants are coming from other Asian countries using also kanji as writing system, which is a particular advantage when mastering the hardest (in terms of writing) languages and ease the assimilation.
Furthermore, the Japanese media clubs called kisha are controlled by mainstream politicians and used often to influence the public opinions (Beacon Reports). One should also mention that the Japanese electoral system before 2009 was constituted in a way that made new parties almost impossible to emerge. Have been in power for decades, the Liberal Democratic Party has tailored the Japanese electoral system to its own advantage. Hence, it is extremely difficult for any outside power to use marginal domestic political forces or media to destabilize the system. Even if Russia indeed has impact on European and American political scene, Japan is unlikely to be worried about being the next target.
Relations between Russia and Japan are marked by the conflict over the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands, which were annexed by Stalin in the World War II. The disputed four islands serve as a strategic base for Russia. The larger two are the entrance to the Sea of Okhotsk where nuclear submarines of Russia are being based. They are also rich in natural resources. This dispute does not allow the two parties to sign a new peace treaty to substitute the previous one that expired 61 years ago.  Last years, Japan and Russia adopted a new approach towards the dispute over the islands. Meetings between the leaders became more frequent since the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe took office in 2012. Both parties seem to feel the urge for cooperative approach as part of their rebalancing strategy and competition with China. In addition, Russia wishes for more Japanese investments. Most recently president Putin visited Japan in mid-December 2016. Prior to the visit, Putin declared that Russia has no territorial disputes with Japan.
The two-day visit in terms of diplomatic behaviour is an interesting case to study. Abe´s plan of “spa diplomacy” (offer declined by Putin) connected with sumo match and demonstrations of excellence of cuisine was unmet with Putin´s interest. Abe´s attempt for “dog diplomacy” was also refused by Putin: the offer of the male puppy offered by the welcoming delegation to accompany his bitch Yume, the popular akita inu whom he also got from Japan as a thanking gift for the aid Russia provided after the earthquake in 2011. Akita´s as breed are part of the Japanese national pride, therefore the gift was symbolic.
To sum up, despite the push for intensified cooperation, the relations between Russian and Japan are not yet the most amicable ones. The meeting between the two leaders wasn´t ground-breaking, but it was much more than a mere courtesy meeting. The volume of pre-agreed Japanese investments to Russia could be higher. The establishment of special economic zone on the disputed islands is beneficial but the peace treaty is not even in the pipeline. Importantly, both leaders manifested the importance of their good relations which is a promising sign for the future.

The first foreign visitor of the US president Donald Trump was Japan. Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe flied to Florida to Trump´s private golf club in Florida in February. After the retreat, Abe announced that Japan wants to contribute Trump´s success, therefore offered a $450 billion-worth investment which would create 700,000 jobs in the high-tech manufacturing sector. Japan´s shrinking workforce is struggling with shortage of blue-collar workers (who were voters of Trump in the US) therefore this could be a smart move as Japan suffers from labour shortage. Trump on the other hand reassured the commitment to defend all territory under Japanese administration (Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands including). Trump comforted the Japanese by mentioning at the press conference that “US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of piece in the Asia-Pacific region. (…) We are committed to that goal, highly”. He also thanked Japan for hosting US armed forces, emphasized the importance of joint efforts for the sake of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and combat the nuclear missile tests of North Korea. Trump warmly welcomed Shinzo Abe. Their interpersonal relations were described as excellent. The famous crushing handshake of the two leaders was a manifestation of Trump´s commitment to tighten the relations with Japan.
At the same time, however, the inclination of Japanese public towards the US is questionable. According to the Pew Research Center research, 72% of Japanese have a favourable image of the US, 61% thinks that the US plays less important role than a decade ago, 52% thinks that the American influence and power is a threat. The majority of the population believes that Japan should only engage in the affairs of international relations via development aid to other countries.
It is important to remember that in the past few years Japan introduced significant changes to its approach to security and international conflicts. Although the public opposition was massive, the government passed amendments to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution which embedded a very pacifist approach of the society. The Article 9 was revised in 2015 as both Houses of the Japanese Parliament enacted security-related bills which allows military engagement in foreign conflicts. Trump previously accused Japan of “security freeriding”, therefore his announcement was substantial. Japan´s seek for reassurance of the US commitment is legitimate. With growing tensions in the South China Sea and the North Korean missiles tests the US-Japan partnership is crucial for the future of the region.

Japan is considered as a longstanding ally of the EU. Both sides wish for more intense trade relations, which could be accelerated by free trade agreements.
The Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Europe in March 2017. During his four-day tour he visited Germany, Italy, France and Brussels as a preparation for the May´s G7 Summit to be held in Sicily, which´s main topics will be climate change, energy, health, transparency, tax, trade, migration and the developments in Africa and in the Middle East. Last year the G7 Summit was held in Japan. At that time, the agreement over the free trade agreements such as TTIP, TPP, and CETA were on the horizon. Since then the multilateral free trade deal talks were suspended as world leaders, in particularly the US, adopted a more protectionist approach. The EU wishes more intense trade relations with Japan as being one of the longest ally and most mature democracy in the region.
The EU wants to avoid the failure of free trade agreement talks with Japan as it would be a clear sign that the EU failed on its pivot to Asia. The free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea is already existing and both sides enjoys the fruits of it. The EU cannot offer extensive military protection to its allies as not being a military actor. However, the non-military domain of the EU is very important as it is the second largest economy of the world trade relations. Japan takes the third position. The partnership of the two economic giants would prove the globalization can survive without US assistance.
Japan´s ambition to be listed among the great powers is visible. Japan is an important economic player. The US, Russia and the EU turns to Japan with the wish to increase their economic engagement. Discussions regarding free trade agreements are therefore crucial. The Japanese-Russian relations are not prepared yet as there are political limitations. On the other side, with Japanese-US and –EU relations might be at the stage to agree on the terms of free trade agreement. Achieving it would be beneficial for both sides and improve their position on the global market—and the global world order. 

 Alexandra  Tóthová
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Friday, April 21, 2017

Matica Slovenská: Slovak cultural and historical institution spreading alternative facts and particular narratives

(Photo: Youtube chanel of Matica Slovenská)

In recent years it is possible to observe a huge increase of fabricated fact-free visual content on social media and disinformation websites pretending to provide alternative “news”. Such content aims to instigate doubt, fear, anger and distrust in the mainstream media or state administration. However, what do you do when disinformation or alternative facts are spread within a country by its national state-funded institution?

Such thing occurred in Slovakia. Matica Slovenská, the scientific and cultural institution of the Slovak Republic, which is supposed to be upholding Slovak cultural heritage and building national awareness among Slovak citizens living in Slovakia as well as abroad, published a video questioning the development of Slovak nation if particular historical events would not have happened. Those historical events, which were attempted to be justified, were the establishment of the first Slovak State, its collaboration with the Third Reich and deportation of over 75 thousand Slovak citizens to concentration camps and their consequent death.

In the video titled Without March 14 Matica Slovenská attempted to present alternative narratives of historical facts by stating a lot of “what ifs” questions on what would have happened if the first Slovak State, which collaborated with Hitler’s Germany, was not established. The video contains a lot of controversial statements and hypotheses including: “Would have the Slovak nation survived?” or “We, (Matica Slovenská) cannot identify with the interpretation of Slovak history in the years 1918 to 1945, as it was framed and anchored in the process of post-war retribution justice”. 

The Slovak State was established in 1939 and was led by the Hlinka's Slovak People's Party. In 1941 it adopted a "Jewish Code" resembling the Nuremberg Laws, which required, among other things, Jews to wear a yellow armband. The party had also its own militia with para-military units, named Hinka’s Guard, which operated against representatives of minorities – Jew, Czechs, Hungarians or the opposition. The Slovak State, led by a Slovak Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, was also one of the countries to agree to deport its Jews as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Thus, many neo-Nazi groups and far-right extremist political parties, perceive and celebrate the representatives of the first Slovak state as Slovak national heroes and fathers of the Slovak state.

In its video Matica Slovenská, as the scientific and cultural institution of the Slovak Republic, inappropriately relativized the responsibility of the first Slovak State and its leading representatives for the destiny and eventually the death of over 75 thousand Slovak citizens. It incorrectly insinuated and interlinked the establishment of the first Slovak State with the establishment of the Slovak resistance movement against the German troops and the attempt to overthrow the collaborationist Slovak political representatives during the WWII, the Slovak National Uprising. The Slovak National Uprising is perceived as an important event in Slovak history when the Slovak citizens unified and protested against foreign occupation. Matica also attempted to relativize collaboration of Slovak politicians with Nazi Germany and its adoption of “Jewish Code” by declaring that “the life of Slovak Jews would not have been any better” than in Poland or Hungary during the WWII.

The reactions of historians and the representatives of the Ministry of education, which funds Matica Slovenská, on the video were quite critical. While, the leading representatives of this cultural and scientific institution argued that this video is not a historical document, but a production “attempting to provide an alternative point of view or state alternative questions” about historical events, it is highly questionable whether a state-funded institution should be doing so. Deportations of Jewish or Roma minority to concentration camps are historical facts that occurred and do not have alternative interpretations.

While Matica Slovenská eventually took down the video from its website and Youtube channel, many started to question its work and activities. For example in January it published an official statement, in which it  was “appalled by the present activities of some civic organizations and media, who think of themselves at the only interpreters of truth, democracy and dignity”. This criticism was aimed at the activists, think tankers and journalists of so-called “Bratislava’s coffee house”, who are critical of the government, who want more transparency in the public sphere and less corruption and misuse of public funds. While Matica’s statement was the reaction on personal opinions of one famous Slovak actor on both Slovak and foreign politicians, which were in some cases very critical and pejorative, it is possible to observe that Matica Slovenská adopted similar stance and narratives used by pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets. These disinformation outlets are critical of institutions positively depicting Slovak President Andrej Kiska, while they are writing about Vladimir Putin or the Czech President Miloš Zeman in a positive way.

Interestingly, the regular derogatory statements of members of Slovak Parliament and representative of far-right extremist parties do not shock or appal Matica’s representatives. Matica was not even concerned when the member of the Slovak Parliament and representative of extreme right People`s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) insinuated on his Facebook page Holocaust denial. In 2016 the members of LSNS far-right extremist party were even invited to and attended district council meetings of Matica Slovenská.

Furthermore, it is quite interesting that it was Matica Slovenská, which in its article in its Slovak National Newspaper provided an explanation and definition of the derogatory term used for civic organizations and activists – “slniečkari” (shinny happy people). The term and such narrative are actively used by various disinformation outlets in Slovakia, when reporting on how ridiculous and loopy the claims and arguments of activists, media or civic organizations are. Another fun fact, the author of this article frequently publishes his work and opinions on various disinformation outlets as well as in newspaper of Matica Slovenská.  

At the present time, in which disinformation outlets spread distorting and dismaying stories, one would expect the national scientific and cultural institutions to be the source of truth and the well of historical data. However, the narratives and activities of Matica Slovenská only legitimize the narratives used by the extremists and far-right political parties and disinformation outlets. Therefore, state representatives, in particular the Ministry of the Culture, which provides funding to Matica Slovenská, should reconsider the manner and extent of financial support to such institution.  Slovak police are already investigating Matica Slovenská for its controversial video. 

Katarína Klingová
Research Fellow
GLOBSEC Policy Institute