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Vatican, Moscow & China: A New Global Religious and Spiritual Hegemony

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The record is substantially positive. This is how Cardinal Parolin has summarized the results of his recent visit to the Russian Federation.Firstly, there is the Russian Catholic community to protect,  with 300 parishes and 270 priests – mostly non-Russians, but Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukrainians – as well as an Archbishop of Moscow, namely the Italian Paolo Pezzi, coming from the movement of “Communion and Liberation”, who is an expert in Russian political, cultural and religious issues.

A brilliant prelate to be supported, having a profound knowledge of Russian issues and Orthodox theology.

It is worth recalling that Pope Francis shook hand with Patriarch Kirill in the first historic meeting held in Havana last year between the two highest representatives of the 1054 schism.

An action that was favourably viewed by the United States and supported by the whole Cuban people.

This is a diplomatic success of which the Pope will soon take advantage.

Finally, Pope Francis is no longer very interested in the Eastern schism and in its doctrinal, theological and strategic connotation.

If anything, Pope Francis is interested in a new alliance between Russia, the Catholic Church of Rome and, in the future, China, so as to put an end to the Western Church’s  geopolitical dependence on the Euro-American West.

As explicitly stated, the Pope no longer wants to only be the spokesman of Western civilization, which is now dechristianized.

As Cardinal Parolin himself has recalled, he is the first High Representative of the Catholic Church to visit  Moscow after the Crimean War.

This is an essential political and symbolic aspect to mark the distance between the Vatican and the Atlantic axis between Western Europe and the United States.

With Foreign Minister Lavrov, whom Cardinal Secretary of State met in Moscow, a clear agreement was reached quickly: the Russian forces’ de facto protection of all religious minorities in the Middle East.

And to think that, in this case, the United States have even come to blame Russia for “penalizing” the so-called moderate jihadists that NATO and the United States keep on training in Syria and in other parts of the world.

Therefore the Vatican explicitly views the Kremlin’s pro-Assad policy favourably, together with the Syrian Christian community – in all its various forms – that continues to live in Syria and the Middle East, protected by Russia and   Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites much more than by the “moderate” jihad that, since the time of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, is still at the core of US operations in that region.

Considering the current condition of Catholics in Russia, there was some foreseeable friction between Minister Lavrov and Cardinal Parolin.

Apart from the practical freedom to profess the Catholic faith, one of the issue at stake is the ownership of churches and palaces of the Russian Catholic Church, confiscated by the Soviet regime and never returned to the legitimate owners after the USSR collapse in spite of the favourable court judgments for the Church of Rome in Russia.

Catholics in Russia are few – approximately 800,000, accounting for 0.5% of the total population. Nevertheless, the true strategic aim is not the number, but the quality of the Vatican and Russian joint strategic actions: the goal is exactly Pope Francis’ visit to Russia.

It would be the seal of a Catholic Church that – as at the time of Pope John Paul II – anticipates and overcomes the end of the Cold War, thus envisaging a link between the Vatican and the emerging powers of the Eurasian Heartland, which is now the alternative to a weak and dangerous strategic link between the Vatican and the consumerist and scientist atheism currently in power in the Euro-American West.

It is now clear that Pope Francis does not like this West at all: a universe without God that is heading for a quick, ethical and anthropological cupio dissolvi.

In fact, the Pope prefers the areas of the world in which the Catholic Church can still serve as “field hospital” and operate in a cultural universe in which religion, even the non-Catholic one, is respected.

Better a Confucian than a naive European atheist, only believing in science (he/she does not know) and in the freedom of instincts.

Here Cardinal Parolin’s and the Pope’s ideas are on the same wavelength as those of Patriarch Kirill, who wants fewer links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian State, as well as a spiritual status not far from the Kremlin, but autonomous from Putin’s line of politique d’abord (politics, first of all).

A system envisaging Patriarch Kirill as the world leader of the Orthodox Church and Pope Francis as the world  inevitable leader of Catholicism, designed to build – also   after the agreement with the Chinese government – a sort of new global religious and spiritual hegemony, outside the subjection to Westernism for the Vatican, and lateral to the Russian strategic interest for Patriarch Kirill.

The central political factor of this new geo-religious system is the Ukrainian question.

The extraordinary fundraising campaign launched by Pope Francis for Ukraine, which has been operating since 2014, has had positive impact on the Russian Orthodox Church and the whole community of believers. The success has been great (1 million and 230 thousand euros have been collected) and it has proved that the Vatican – even in the charitable and universalistic dimension characterizing it – does not think in the same way as the Western powers currently operating in the Ukrainian theater of operations.

While the West currently operates in the war-stricken regions with an inept internationalism, the Vatican of Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis is still based on the traditional and unsurpassed “law of nations” (ius gentium) – and on a reasonable and never sectarian respect for nationality, ethnicity, borders and legitimate States.

Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Parolin’s law is, first and foremost, humanitarian law: agreements between the parties, wherever possible; immediate release of prisoners, a theme that alone can break through the political situation; truce and cease-fire are all actions that the Vatican is putting in place to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

And possibly solve also the tension in Syria where, since 2011, the two million Catholic believers have fallen to one only.

In Iraq, Christians have currently fallen from 300,000 to  200,000.

In Syria a real “war against Christians” is being waged – as recently stated by Jacques Benhan Hindo, the Syrian-Catholic Archbishop of Hassakè-Nisibi, the diocese in which Raqqa is located – while the YPG Kurds behave very badly with the various Christian churches still present there.

It can be easily foreseen that these Kurds will be abandoned by the United States as soon as it has exploited  them fully and all the way.

Daesh-Isis is supported by Turkey and the United States, while the Christian communities are protected – within the limits of their areas and fields of competence – by the Russian soldiers and Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

In such a situation, certainly Pope Francis’ Church cannot fully work, but it can certainly unite the basic religious and ethnic communities and make them act as parties in the future negotiations.

An operation that could more easily take place in Ukraine.

In fact, if Syria is broken up – as is increasingly likely – the Shiite axis between Bashar al-Assad’s area and Iran – which was at the origin of the Sunni and jihadist war against the Syrian Baathist regime – will be strengthened,  while Russia will become the true strategic player in the region, with the United States relegated to the rank of mere counterparts of Qatar (funding Al Nusra) and Saudi Arabia (funding Isis-Daesh).

Hence the Christian traditions are being eradicated in Syria and in rest of the Middle East with a view to fostering the final clash between Shiites and Sunnis – a clash that the Vatican does not want and will do its utmost, with Russia and China, to avoid.

A clash between Shiites and Sunnis – “a piecemeal World War Three”, just to use Pope Francis’ expression – in which Westerners side with the Sunnis, thus preparing other years of blood and destruction for them and for the Middle East.

As already happened with Cuba, in the new world context it will be the Vatican to bring the United States and Russia closer at the right time.

Possibly with a new agreement for the Middle East, as is said in the Vatican Secretary of State’s office.

This will exactly be the purpose of Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Parolin’s “geopolitics of mercy”.

With a tough statement made in September 2013 the Pope condemned the United States for wanting to overthrow Assad with  missiles, but there is another point of agreement between Putin and the Pope, namely the defense of the traditional family.

The Kremlin leader has repeatedly condemned the Western “nihilistic drift”, as well as the obsessive and philosophically unreasonable confidence in Reason. On the media both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin often repeat the old statement made by former Pope Benedict XVI whereby “the worst enemy of the West is the West itself”.

Furthermore, the schism could be doctrinally overcome with a statement – that Patriarch Kirill had already suggested – in which it is accepted that the Pope, the Patriarch of Rome, is the protos among the Patriarchs of the other  Churches – on the basis of the document discussed in 2008 on the island of Crete, regarding the history and identity of the Churches before and after the Great Schism.

This is another theme that will soon come to its natural fulfillment in the diplomatic practice of mercy established by Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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Europe

From Davos to Munich

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An overview of the views and attitudes of European officials during the Davos and Munich Conference and their comparison with each other suggests that the security, economic, and political concerns of European countries have not only not diminished but are increasing.

During the World Economic Summit in Davos, the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France both gave a significant warning about the return of nationalism and populism to Europe. This warning has been sent in a time when Far-Right movements in Europe have been able to gain unbelievable power and even seek to conquer a majority of parliaments and form governments.

In her speech, Angela Merkel emphasized that the twentieth century’s mistake shouldn’t be repeated. By this, the German Chancellor meant the tendency of European countries to nationalism. Although the German Chancellor warning was serious and necessary, the warning seems to be a little late. Perhaps it would have been better if the warning was forwarded after the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, and subsequently, more practical and deterrent measures were designed. However, Merkel and other European leaders ignored the representation of over a hundred right-wing extremist in the European Parliament in 2014 and merely saw it as a kind of social excitement.

This social excitement has now become a “political demand” in the West. The dissatisfaction of European citizens with their governments has caused them to explicitly demand the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe. The recent victories of right wing extremists in Austria, Germany and…, isn’t merely the result of the nationalist movement success in introducing its principles and manifestos. But it is also a result of the failure of the “European moderation” policy to resolve social, security and economic problems in the Eurozone and the European Union. In such a situation, European citizens find that the solutions offered by the moderate left parties didn’t work in removing the existing crises in Europe. Obviously, in this situation “crossing the traditional parties” would become a general demand in the West. Under such circumstances, Merkel’s and other European leaders’ warnings about the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe simply means the inability of the Eurozone authorities in preventing the Right-extremism in the West.

These concerns remain at the Munich Security Conference. As Reuters reported, The defense ministers of Germany and France pledged to redouble their military and foreign policy cooperation efforts on Friday, inviting other European countries to participate if they felt ready to do so.
In a speech to the Munich Security Conference, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said Europe’s countries would not be able to respond nimbly enough to global challenges if they were stymied by the need to decide joint foreign policy approaches unanimously.

“Europe has to up its pace in the face of global challenges from terrorism, poverty and climate change,” she said. “Those who want to must be able to advance without being blocked by individual countries.”

Her French counterpart Florence Parly said any such deepened cooperation would be complementary to the NATO alliance, which itself was based on the principle that members contributed differently depending on their capacities.

“The reality has always been that some countries are by choice more integrated and more able to act than others,” she said.

The push comes as Germany’s political class reluctantly concedes it must play a larger security role to match its economic pre-eminence in Europe, amid concerns that the European Union is unable to respond effectively to security concerns beyond its eastern and southern borders.

But in their deal for another four years of a “grand coalition” government, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats have agreed to boost spending on the armed forces after years of post-Cold War decline.

The deal, which must still be ratified by the Social Democrat membership, comes as Germany reluctantly takes on the role of the continent’s pre-eminent political power-broker, a role generations of post-war politicians have shied away from.

Days after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated President Donald Trump’s demand that European countries spend more on their militaries, Von der Leyen pledged to spend more on its military and the United Nations, but called in return for other countries not to turn away from mulitlateralism.

The pledges come as the EU seeks a new basis on which to cooperate with Britain, traditionally one of the continent’s leading security players, after its vote to leave the EU.

Earlier on Friday, the leaders of the three countries’ security services said close security cooperation in areas like terrorism, illegal migration, proliferation and cyber attacks, must continue after Britain’s departure.

“Cooperation between European intelligence agencies combined with the values of liberal democracy is indispensable, especially against a background of diverse foreign and security challenges,” they said.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect

Alina Toporas

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This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.

What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?   

An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.

In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.   

Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?  

Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.

Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.

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Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?

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Photo by Mateo Avila Chinchilla on Unsplash

In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.

According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”

It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.

Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.

Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.

The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.

To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.

The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.

This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”

Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.

Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?

Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.

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