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The crisis of the Italian ruling class

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No political, decision-making and economic crisis is devoid of cultural and spiritual implications. Moreover, the traits of this new and so-called elite are superficiality; the absolute ignorance of the depth and complexity of problems; the true psychosis and obsession for “communication”, advertising and the often useless presence on the media.

Nevertheless some structural data can be noted in the shift from the First to the Second Republic: the new irrelevance of the Italian strategic position; the total lack of autonomy in the old areas where in the past Italy operated almost undisturbed, such as the Middle East; the aggressive behaviours of those whom it thought were allies and friends both in the Atlantic Alliance and in the European Union.

If, however, currencies do not find a temporary and rational balance and we operate only with fixed rates – as, indeed, happens also with the  European single currency – the adjustments are always and only made with the reduction of the production base.

Italy celebrated the arrival of the Euro by passively and supinely accepting a Lira-Euro exchange rate that was influenced by the previous six months, when the Lira value had been too “high”, and it privatized its main assets at costs often not consistent with values.

Until the year 2000, the amount cashed from privatizations and securitizations totalled 178,019 billion liras, equal to 91 billion euros.

The first element of continuity between the First Republic and the  current phase is the excessive and often irregular funding of the ruling class, that is not matched by an internal meritocratic selection not based on family, clan, political group or faction criteria.

As Ennio Flaiano argued, to frighten a group of Italians just shout the word “merit!”.

Hence, while in the past the political parties acquired resources from companies with regular “withdrawals”, later the large privatizations permitted a single, but much more significant flow of funding.

The Second Republic emerged on the basis of the large distribution of resources to politicians in the Enimont affair, as the First Republic had been based on ENI and its US dollar transactions.

What happened later? Once the great donations were over, the ruling class – as petty swindlers or minor felons – lived on wiles and stratagems, modest transactions and friendships on the fringes of legality.

Furthermore with the Euro you could easily get again into debt, while on the international markets the old Lira had been ending up like the  Argentine Peso.

In is in 1986, however, that Italy came to rank fifth among the G6 countries, thus overtaking also Great Britain by 46 billion liras of additional GDP.

Since the early 1990s, however, Italy has been gradually losing ground vis-à-vis France (-21%), Germany (-29%), Great Britain (-11%), Japan (-27.7%) and the United States (-25.8%).

The other EU Member States used the Indian Summer of the 1990s to make structural reforms, while our politicians wasted time with their self-centred approach.

In 1987 Italy entered the EMS and its GDP rapidly rose from 617 billion  to 1,201 billion US dollars in 1991, with the Lira revaluing by 15.2% against the US Dollar and devaluing by 8.6% against the German Mark.

From 1991 to 1995, however, the Lira devalued by 29.8% against the German Mark and by 32.2% against the US Dollar.

The lack of guidance, understanding and control of the economic system by the ruling class – that is already in a phase of “renewal” – is evident.

Trade and monetary wars? Certainly so. Political leaders who are incompetent and often ignorant? Even more certainly so.

By now, however, the ruins in Italy obstruct the passage.

Nevertheless the dismantling of Italy’s civil society, ruling class and companies began in those years and it is continuing relentlessly.

The destabilization of the political system led to the choice of ignorant Parliamentarians and government leaders, often unable to understand and even decide on the various issues at stake.

Furthermore, the crisis originated in the United States in 2007 – which is not yet over – definitively destroyed the Italian economic and political system.

Since then the Italian economy has shrunk by at least 10% and production has fallen down to the level typical of the previous ten years, while 15% of the industrial capacity has been destroyed.

Also the approximately 200 billion euros of bad debts of the national banking system are a consequence of the crisis.

Against this background, also the rigidity of the labour market and its excessive cost are looming large.

An engine only producing friction and attrition – in an international context where no one has any interest in helping or supporting a friend or an ally.

Another naive or incompetent trait of Italy’s current ruling class is the idea that there can still be political, financial and strategic “White Knights”.

Since the year 2000 Italy’s foreign policy has been a perfect example of masochism.

Between 2000 and 2013 we finally recorded the closing down of 120,000 factories and the loss of one million and 160,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, our politicians think they can grant bonuses or tax exemptions for obvious electoral reasons. What a great idea!

Bonuses are always too expensive, but tax exemptions are a scam: if there is no similar reduction in public spending, the tax favours granted to a  group are paid by another one.

Not to mention public debt, which is approaching 140% of GDP.

There is no point in our politicians resorting to American experts – just to be fashionable – who recommend the sale of public debt securities only to Italians (as in Japan) and the usual “political stability”.

Let us not cherish illusions. Italian investors have not enough money to absorb the whole stock of securities issued, but political stability is impossible, owing to the old and new mass poverty existing in Italy.

Hence, on the one side there is the ruling classes’ old strategy of  selectively buying votes with favours and support; on the other, it is  impossible to keep this pace of electoral spending – even in the short term.

The typical Keynesianism of ignorant or too wise guys.

Furthermore, at a time when the ruling class is structurally weak, we witness an increase of non-transparent mechanisms and the strengthening of the lobby groups, who often draw up laws and influence the debate.

By now, instead of the old political parties, there is an intricacy of balances and power relations that are hardly perceived by voters, but which are now essential to pay for electoral campaigns and create the “image” of candidates.

Moreover, in Italy we are currently faced with a society of rentiers, namely those whose money come from investment rather than work: for the Italian Statistical Institute (ISTAT), the “wealthy” are the “employees” (12.2 million people) and the “silver pensioners” (5.2 million people). Finally there is a “ruling class” with a 70% higher income than the national average, made up of 4.6 million people.

Scarcely productive work, much widespread income from investment rather than work, no market and too much State.

However, the lower middle class and the working class are over. The working class is now fragmented into the wide – and apparently varied – population with temporary, low and insecure income.

The middle class – Italy’s historic axis – is now composed almost exclusively of retirees, while the old “bourgeoisie” is polarized between  the new rich and the future poor.

Just think of how much political ideology is vanishing, while the social classes that have built the modern world disappear and the politicians live their short time of glory by adapting to the most predictable and antiquated fashions and myths of mass communication.

Another essential aspect to note is the vertical drop of the school quality and the loss of value and quality of university degrees – another factor for which the current ruling class shall be held liable.

Hence all the old so-called “social elevators” – education, the now proletarized professions, crafts and specialized activities – do no longer work.

With this ruling class, the “foam” of the 1968 movement has come to power.

Indeed, while the 1968-styled Marxism wanted the “proletarianization” – so that the new poor would make the “revolution” – today we witness  impoverishment and proletarianization without any revolt or rebellion.

Paradoxes of history.

It is worth recalling that since 2012 over 800 entrepreneurs have committed suicide – a case out of four in Italy’s former rich North-East region.

Hence there are two possible options: either the current ruling classes work for the King of Prussia – but they still have to be elected here – or it is real inability, as well as lack of culture and experience.

The issue does not lie in singing the praises of small and sometimes unlikely economic growth in the last year. The indicator of severe material deprivation has grown by 0.4%, while the unemployment rate has decreased very slightly at national level (to 11.7% from the 11.9% of 2015), but it has increased by two tenths in Southern and island regions, thus reaching 19.6%.

In the future we will probably not have a “Mexican” Italy, with a small share of advanced industry, a mass of illegal economic activities and an old network of legal firms which, however, survive with underpaid labor force, deprived of any protection.

Conversely Italy is likely to become a fully deindustrialized nation, with its neighbouring countries taking over the best companies, and a large mass of population surviving on illegal economy or on the service sector.

 It is but a short step from decline to poverty.

And Italy will make this step as its ruling class is unable to control the “value chains” of large German or US productions in the North-East region, nor it knows how to effectively manage the non-tariff protection of the luxury goods it sells well in the world. It does not know the current monetary and geopolitical schemes and plots underway and finally it is  unable to create such a training system as to allow the evolution and technological upgrading we need in a world characterized by fierce global competition.

Hence what can we do to avoid Italy’s evident decline? First and foremost we need to talk about it and later imagine the programme of a new ruling  class.

It is difficult, but not impossible.

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 “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. 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 “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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