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Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

Zofia Romaszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed during the years of martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a national hero for her human rights activities in the 1980s and is now one of President Andrzej Duda’s advisers. Last week she persuaded him to veto the government’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state (under Communist rule) where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And President Duda actually listened to her.

This came as a complete surprise, because Duda was a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party and is widely seen as a puppet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Monday, however, he rejected new laws giving the justice minister the power to fire judges he doesn’t like – including, potentially, the entire Supreme Court – and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As president I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a statement – or rather, an under-statement – on national television. His action has greatly encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people who have been demonstrating in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sincerity.

Poland is sharply divided between the populists, socially conservative, deeply Catholic, and ultra-nationalist, who form the present government, and the opposition whom they label “the system” or “the elite”. This system allegedly includes both the liberals who led Solidarity’s resistance to Communist rule, and the crypto-Communists who supposedly still exist and are now in league with the liberals.

The whole thing is a paranoid fantasy, but it has a firm hold on many people’s minds in a national culture that wallows in victimhood and self-pity. The Law and Justice government, elected in late 2015 with an absolute majority in parliament, denounces the opposition parties as corrupt traitors under foreign influence, and they in turn mistrust everything the
government says and does – including President Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just playing for time, they think. He’ll get the demonstrators to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly altered version of the laws stripping the judges of their independence. And maybe they are right. Nobody will know for sure until they see the government’s response to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tolerate an undemocratic government in its midst, and the evidence isn’t in yet.

As soon as it won office twenty months ago, the Law and Justice Party turned the state-owned broadcaster, previously politically neutral, into the propaganda arm of the ruling party. It also destroyed the independence of the civil service, replacing the professionals with its own party loyalists. But when it turned on the courts it started for face real push-back from the EU.

The EU is probably the only reason that the former Communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe almost all became democracies. They desperately wanted to be members of the EU as a safeguard against renewed Russian interference in their affairs – and the EU insists that all its members be democratic.

Not only that, but it carefully defines how democratic states should behave, and a basic principle is the separation of powers: the courts must not be under government control. When the Law and Justice Party introduced laws started taking away the judges’ independence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for membership.

Senior EU officials were openly talking about stripping Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Ministers (the closest thing to an EU government) until Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only playing for time and will soon sign quite similar laws, the confrontation will resume – and the EU might even resort to financial measures against Poland.

Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of transfers from the EU budget to poorer member countries: in the budgetary period 2014-2020, it is scheduled to get $96 billion. Some or all of that money might stop coming if Poland were no longer a member in good standing.

The Polish government cannot plausibly threaten to quit the European Union: 75 percent of Poles see EU membership as a vital counter-balance to the looming presence of Russia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them.
But will it?

That is not clear. The EU is not famous for its willingness to take bold action, and it would have to overcome the opposition of Hungary, another ex-Communist EU member that also has an authoritarian government (though a less extreme one). But the EU’s own cohesion would suffer if it did not defend its fundamental values, so if Duda is only fooling there may be a real showdown in a month or two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“As soon…EU”; and “Poland…standing”)

Still Not the Smoking Gun

Like the diligent journalist I am, I went online within minutes of the news that Donald Trump Jr. had put “incriminating” emails about his meeting with Russian lawyer and lobbyist Natalia Veselnitskaya on Twitter. I opened the Washington Post site and there, nestled beteween the paragraphs of their lead story on Trump Jr., was an ad for a box set of “The Walking Dead”. And I thought…

Well, actually, I thought that this stinks to high heaven, but it is still not the “smoking gun”. The dead will continue to walk around for a while yet.

The emails prove that Junior (not a naive youth but a 39-year-old businessman who has frequently done work in Russia) met the Russian lobbyist in the Trump Tower together with Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, then the elder Trump’s campaign manager. They had been told that Veselnitskaya was a “Russian government lawyer”.

The emails also show that Trump Jr. believed Veselnitskaya would “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” That’s what Rob Goldstone, the slippery British music publicist who acted as a go-between, told him.

Trump Jr. (and presumably Kushner and Manafort too) already knew that Vladimir Putin’s regime wanted Donald Trump to win the presidency and was willing to help. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump,” said Goldstone’s initial email, which did not elicit any expression of surprise from Junior and his friends.

Finally, the emails show that the US president’s eldest son was enthusiastic about the idea that he could get some dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians. “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer,” he emailed back to Goldstone.

But the emails do not show what actually happened at the meeting. For that we only have Trump Junior’s word, and as long as the other two men back him up he can say whatever he likes about it.

Trump Junior’s account of what was said at the meeting has changed several times in the past week, but the general impression he is trying to create is that some random weird lady got a meeting with him under false pretences. Then, when they actually met, she just rambled on about Americans adopting Russian orphans.

Maybe she did and maybe she didn’t, but Natalia Veselnitskaya is not some random weird lady. She is a respected Russian lawyer who has been leading a lobbying effort to get American sanctions against various Russian oligarchs who are close to the Kremlin dropped for some years now, and she has close connections to the Kremlin herself.

The meeting in the Trump Tower took place in June, 2016, when the servers of the Democratic National Committee had already been hacked by the Russians (according to the unanimous conclusion of all the US intelligence agencies), but before any of the information gained had been used. But later in the summer, by some strange coincidence, Junior’s hopes for a major Russian strike against Hillary Clinton were miraculously fulfilled.

That happened just before the Democrats held their national convention in late July, when there was a large dump of emails on WikiLeaks showing that the DNC had systematically loaded the dice in favour of Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders.

It didn’t stop Clinton from getting the Democratic presidential nomination, and if the Russians really wanted Trump to win the presidency they should have been backing Clinton. Sanders would probably have given Trump more of a run for his money. But seen from Moscow, sabotaging Hillary Clinton probably looked like a clever move at the time.

So there it all is, and it wouldn’t be enough to impeach Donald Trump even if the Democrats controlled Congress. In fact, the Republicans have majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and Trump wouldn’t be impeached even if he was caught in bed (as they say in Washington) with a live boy or a dead girl.

It isn’t the smoking gun because we will never know what was really said in that meeting. It is very hard to believe that Donald Trump himself didn’t know about the meeting when his three closest political advisers were all there, but his denial will stand unless one of those three men chooses to say otherwise.

Yet he really is a “dead man walking”. It will be a very long walk – the slow death of a thousand little cuts – but the steady drip of minor and major revelations about his Russian links (and other embarrassing topics) will continue. And one day his tax returns will probably be leaked, which could be the final blow.

He won’t be impeached, but he’s not having fun any more, and at some point it will all get too much for him. He will simply resign (he’s in his 70s, so he can just plead ill health) – and we will get President Pence instead.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Trump Junior’s account…herself”)

Silly Buggers

I don’t remember which navy I was in when I first heard the term “silly buggers”, but the meaning was clear. It included some sensible exercises like “man overboard” drills, but the heart and soul of the game was high-speed manoeuvres by ships traveling in close company. These sometimes got quite exciting, because ships don’t have brakes.

Off the coast of Lebanon, in 140 metres of water, is the wreck of the British battleship HMS Victoria, which sank in 1893. It is the world’s only vertical wreck, because its bow is plunged deep in the mud but its stern is only 70 metres below the service – “like a tombstone,” said one of the divers who found it in 2004. And it was “silly buggers” that did for it.

The British Mediterranean fleet was travelling in two parallel lines when Admiral Tryon decided to reverse course – and to make it interesting he ordered the lead ships of each line to make the turn inwards, towards the other line. In theory the two lines of ships should have ended up travelling in the opposite direction, but much closer together.

Unfortunately, they were already too close, and they couldn’t turn tightly enough to avoid hitting each other. The lead battleship of the other line rammed HMS Victoria and all 10,400 tonnes of her sank within a few minutes, carrying the admiral and 357 other officers and men down with her. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you play “silly buggers” and get it wrong.

It’s silly enough when everybody is on the same side. When two different countries start playing “silly buggers” it gets even more dangerous, and that’s where we are right now. On Monday, over the Baltic Sea, a Russian fighter plane flew within one and a half metres of an American reconaissance aircraft’s wingtip. US officials protested, saying it was “unsafe” and criticising the Russian pilot’s “high rate of closure speed and poor control of the aircraft.”

The Russians immediately blamed the American aircaft for making a “provocative” move, but that’s nonsense. The reconnaissance plane was a KC-135, a four-engine aircraft the size of a passenger jet that lumbers along like a freight train. The Russian plane was an SU-27, a nimble state-of-the-art fighter that could fly rings around the American aircraft.

Had the Russian pilot been ordered to get that close? Probably not. Did he intend to scare the Americans? Almost certainly, yes. He probably did misjudge the distance – it’s not worth dying to make your point – but he would have known that he was off the leash.

American reconnaissance flights targeting Russia are perfectly legal so long as they stay over international waters, but they have become much more frequent over both the Baltic and the Black Seas. That is clearly yanking the Russians’ chain, and they duly get worked up about it. More importantly, the Russian pilot would have known what is going on over Syria.

The game over eastern Syria has gone beyond mere “silly buggers”. It’s more like “chicken” now, with the Russians and the Americans pushing each other to see how far they can go. But it’s the Americans who are actually shooting, though they haven’t killed any Russians yet.

Early this month, the US shot down a Russian-made Syrian government drone near the al-Tanf border crossing, between Syria and Iraq. Then on Sunday an American F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air force fighter-bomber near the Islamic State’s besieged capital of Raqqa. The Russians responded by saying that they would track any Western aircraft operating west of the Euphrates River as potential targets.

When US aircraft mistakenly dropped bombs on Syrian government troops last September, killing 62 of them, nobody shot them down. But that was then, and the rules have clearly changed – as was underlined on Monday, when US forces shot down another Syrian government drone near al-Tanf, this time an Iranian-built Shahed 129.

At one level, what’s driving all this is the fact that Islamic State is going under, and the various players are racing to gain control of the parts of eastern Syria that were or still are controlled by the group. US forces are part of that race, and are getting increasingly reckless about how they compete.

At a higher level, this is the result of President Donald Trump’s decision to commit the United States and its forces to the Sunni side in the Sunni-Shia confrontation that links all the local wars together. That defines not only the Syrian government but also its Iranian and Russian supporters as America’s enemies, and the American forces in the region are just responding to that shift.

There is still no clear American vision for the future of the Middle East, let alone a serious strategy for accomplishing it. But meanwhile the games-playing continues and intensifies, and it’s only a matter of time before some Russian or American gets killed by the other side.

Silly buggers.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The Russians…aircraft”; and “Who…129″)

Iran’s Election

The six-week campaign is over, and 55 million Iranians will vote in the first round of the presidential election on Friday. Or rather, most of those 55 million people will vote, but many will not, because there is great disillusionment with President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to improve the economy – and therefore also with the international treaty on curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions that was supposed to bring back prosperity.

Donald Trump (who calls the treaty “one of the worst deals ever signed”) is not alone in seeing it as a failure. Although Rouhani’s main challenger in this election, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, does not formally reject the deal, his whole campaign is focussed on the fact that the end of foreign economic sanctions did not bring Iranians the rapid economic relief that Rouhani had promised

Iran has a big, middle-income economy with a large industralised sector, but largely because of those sanctions it has been in the doldrums for the past decade. Incomes have stagnated or fallen, youth unemployment is 26 percent, and many people have lost faith in Rouhani.

Forty-three per cent of Iranians “strongly approved” of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), as the deal is called, when it was signed two years ago. Now only 21 per cent “strongly approve”. Yet nothing has actually changed with the deal. Rouhani’s problem is that nothing much has changed in the economy either.

The Western partners in the JCPOA, the so-called “Five plus One” (the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union) have been slow to remove the sanctions, mainly because of foot-dragging in Washington – although the US government was quick enough to grant a waiver when Boeing wanted to sign a $16.6 deal to sell 80 passenger aircraft to Iran Air last December.

The bigger problem for Iran is that major international banks have been reluctant to re-engage with Iran because they fear being caught out if the US reneges on the deal and reimposes sanctions. So the Iranian economy continues to bump along the bottom, and a lot of people who voted for Rouhani last time say they will sit this election out.

Ebrahim Raisi is capitalising on this disillusionment by running a populist campaign promising “work and dignity”. He is thought to have the tacit backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the final authority in Iran’s peculiar blend of democracy and theocracy.

Khamenei has not given his public backing to any candidate in this election (there are also two less well-known candidates running for the presidency). It is generally assumed, however, that he supports Raisi, who is best known as one of the four Islamic judges who ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

As a result, Raisi is doing well with his target audiences, the poor, the devout and the ill-educated. If they turn out to vote in large numbers, while more urban, more sophisticated voters express their disappointment with Rouhani’s failure to work miracles by staying home, it is entirely possible that he will beat Rouhani and become the next president.

This would plunge the country’s relations with the West back into the deep freeze, but Raisi says he doesn’t care about that: Iran doesn’t need outside help, and his goal is to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it certainly wouldn’t improve Iran’s prospects for prosperity, or the entire region’s prospects for peace.

Rouhani is trapped between two fires in this election. At home he faces a conservative backlash that condemns his opening to the West and (implicitly) his nuclear deal. And on election day the voters who might come out to support him are likely to hear Donald Trump just across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, spouting anti-Iranian rhetoric to a summit meeting of Arab countries.

It’s not just Trump. Hillary Clinton, while giving the nuclear deal her tepid approval, was just as negative about Iran in general, and Barack Obama regularly recited the misleading mantra about Iran being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism”. As did his predecessors in the US presidency all the way back to Ronald Reagan.

Iran is no worse than many of America’s allies in the region (and better than some) in its treatment of its own citizens. It is no more prone to interfering in its neighbours than they are. Yet it is routinely treated by US administrations of both parties as a rogue state that poses a huge and unique threat to the peace of the Middle East. Why?

Because it defied the United States and got away with it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew Washington’s puppet ruler, the Shah of Iran, and just as in the case of Castro’s revolution in Cuba, the United States has never forgiven it for that crime. Whereas by now Iranians have more or less forgiven the US for the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that destroyed Iranian democracy and gave the Shah supreme power in the first place.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Western…out”)