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UK PM Theresa May removes Minister Priti Patel over secret talks with Israel

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Theresa May is facing a second cabinet reshuffle in a week, as she comes under pressure to say what the Foreign Office knew of Indian origin Priti Patel’s visit to Israel.  Ms Patel resigned as international development secretary on Wednesday after holding a series of unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials.

In a letter to the PM, she said she had lacked “transparency and openness”. However, Labour has called on Mrs May to reveal as to when government officials knew about the undisclosed meetings. Ms Patel admitted unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials had “lacked transparency”.

Priti Patel has resigned as international development secretary following controversy over her meetings with Israeli officials.  The BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent, James Landale, explains how a family holiday went terribly wrong for her.

The row began last week, when the BBC revealed Ms Patel arranged a number of private meetings with business and political figures during a family holiday to Israel in August. After the visit, she asked her officials to look into whether Britain could support humanitarian operations conducted by the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights area. But Foreign Office officials strongly advised against this as the need for humanitarian aid was greater elsewhere and giving aid to the military broke aid rules, BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale said.

Ms Patel resigned having been told by the prime minister to return from an official trip in Africa and report to Downing Street. It is the second cabinet resignation in the space of seven days, after Sir Michael Fallon quit as defence secretary last week. He was replaced by Gavin Williamson, as Mrs May adjusted her government team.

Ms Patel, who has served as the Tory MP for Witham in Essex since 2010, was formally reprimanded in Downing Street on Monday. She was asked to give details about the meetings, which were not sanctioned by the Foreign Office, and to correct information she initially gave when details of the meetings were published. It later emerged that she had held two further meetings in September with Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan in Westminster and Israeli foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York – again without government officials present.

Ms Patel’s difficulties began last week, when the BBC revealed she had arranged a number of meetings with business and political figures during a family holiday to Israel in August, without telling Downing Street or the Foreign Office. It later emerged that after Ms Patel’s visit to Israel, she asked her officials to look into whether Britain could support humanitarian operations conducted by the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights area.

A replacement for Ms Patel, who was a key figure in the Vote Leave campaign, was expected to be announced on Thursday, with a lot of attention on whether or not it goes to a Brexiteer.

Penny Mordaunt has been promoted to the cabinet as the new International Development Secretary, following the resignation of Priti Patel. Like Ms Patel, Ms Mordaunt was among Conservatives who backed Leave during the EU Referendum campaign. The former work and pensions minister, 44, has now left Downing Street and arrived at her new department.

It was the second cabinet resignation in a week. Last week Gavin Williamson replaced Sir Michael Fallon as defence secretary, after he quit saying his conduct had “fallen short” of the required standards after allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Ms Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North, is a Royal Navy reservist and was appointed as the first female minister for the Armed Forces in 2015. It had been thought she was in the running to replace Sir Michael last week. She did not comment as she arrived at the Department for International Development on Thursday afternoon.

First elected to the Commons in 2010 she had been minister for disabled people in the Department for Work and Pensions until her promotion. She is also known for appearing on the reality TV programme Splash! in 2014.

As International Development Secretary she will be in charge of the UK’s £13bn foreign aid budget.Ms Mordaunt would be a popular appointment within the party. She would keep the balance within the cabinet when it came to Brexit – in terms of the numbers of ministers who supported Leave or Remain during the referendum – as well as preserving the gender balance, an issue which Theresa May was concerned about.

Former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale told the BBC: “I think it’s a good appointment. Penny is somebody who has a lot of experience, she has worked in an international department before – as armed forces minister, I have no doubt she will do an excellent job.”  Her Labour shadow Kate Osamor congratulated Ms Mordaunt on her appointment and said she “faces an immediate challenge of restoring integrity to British international development policy after the actions of Priti Patel”.

That means she must unequivocally commit to the spirit, as well as the letter, of Britain’s pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international development, and face down those in her party who want to merge DFID into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Asked if Ms Patel had been foolish or had made a concerted attempt at freelance foreign policy, the BBC’s James Landale said: “I think it’s pretty clear that the view within the government is there was an attempt to try to shape British policy within the Middle East.”

Labor Party has now called on the government to set out what Foreign Office officials knew of the meetings. Writing to PM Mrs May, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said: “I have been informed that while she was in Israel, Ms Patel met officials from the British consulate general Jerusalem, but that the fact of this meeting has not been made public,” he wrote. “If this were the case, then it would surely be impossible to sustain the claim that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not aware of Ms Patel’s presence in Israel.” He added: “The existence of such a meeting or meetings would call into question the official account of Ms Patel’s behavior, and the purpose of her visit.”

Middle East minister Alistair Burt told MPs on Tuesday that Foreign Office officials in Israel were made aware of Ms Patel’s visit on 24 August and it was likely that her meetings had taken place beforehand.

Ms Patel was accused of breaching the ministerial code – which sets out the standards of conduct expected of government ministers. In her resignation letter, Ms Patel said: “While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated. “I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the government for what has happened and offer my resignation.”

In her reply, Mrs May said: ”As you know the UK and Israel are close allies, and it is right that we should work closely together. But that must be done formally, and through official channels. ”That is why, when we met on Monday I was glad to accept your apology and welcomed your clarification about your trip to Israel over the summer.  “Now that further details have come to light it is right you have decided to resign.”

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested disgruntled Remainers could be behind the leak that led to the downfall of Ms Patel, who is a prominent Brexiteer. He said that some people were “still very bitter” about the referendum result and “inevitably that colors their behavior”.

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The right to affordable housing: Europe’s neglected duty

Dunja Mijatovic

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Increasingly making the headlines, the scarcity of affordable housing in Europe is a serious and growing problem that pushes an ever-larger number of people into housing insecurity and homelessness. Unless governments in Europe step in to take decisive measures to turn back the tide, this crisis will continue to intensify and increase existing inequalities, exclusion, and segregation.

Housing is in short supply in Europe today, in spite of increasing demand. In many countries, the overall level of housing construction is lower now than in previous decades, contributing to structural shortages which are especially acute in large cities. This scarcity of housing is pushing up rents as well as prices, which in most European countries surpass the increase in wages. These trends cause many people to gradually be “priced out” of certain neighbourhoods and force them to accept homes of substandard quality or to move to areas where they face poorer prospects of finding work within a reasonable distance, decent education, quality healthcare, and other basic social needs.

Affordable housing: whose problem?

According to the European Committee of Social Rights, housing is affordable if the household can afford to pay initial costs, rent and other related costs, like utility bills and charges, on a long-term basis, while still being able to maintain a minimum standard of living. Meeting this challenge is an uphill struggle for many Europeans today as the cost of housing consumes the lion’s share of their household budgets. Frequently, this results in the so-called housing cost overburden, which arises when more than 40% of one’s disposable income is spent on housing. For instance, this affects around two out of five people in Greece, one in five in Bulgaria, and one in six in Denmark and Germany.

Although the problem concerns many people across Europe, high housing costs have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty and those at risk of poverty, including the “working poor”. The numbers are telling. A report on housing inequality, published by the Council of Europe Development Bank in 2017, showed that the housing cost was an excessive burden for nearly a third of the lowest earners in the EU/EEA area.

Between 2007 and 2017, the average housing cost overburden rate among poor households increased in the majority of European Union countries. The highest figures in 2017 stood at 90% in Greece, 75% in Denmark and 50% in Bulgaria. Among the EU’s youngest citizens living below the poverty line in 2017, 42% on average were overburdened by the cost of housing; this ratio reached 63% in the Netherlands, 84% in Denmark and 91% in Greece. A similarly discouraging picture appears outside the EU: a 2017 UN study found the cost of housing in Armenia to be unaffordable for most citizens. In the same year, Ukraine’s capital Kyiv was ranked second least affordable in Bloomberg’s Global City Housing Cost Index.

The availability and quality of housing is a closely related problem. In Armenia, according to UNECE, the 2011 census reported 16,000 people (2% of all households) to live in structures unfit for housing, like metal shipping containers. Also according to UNECE, in Ukraine in 2011 more than one million households were in need of housing while the average waiting time for social housing was estimated to exceed 100 years, and 20 years in Russia. Eighty thousand households have been reported to lack long-term housing solutions in North Macedonia.

Social housing: outsourced and underfinanced

As a result of the shortage of affordable housing, the social housing sector in Europe is coming under pressure. While there is no single formula for getting social housing policies right, state responses to rising demand have so far been to withdraw and to shift the burden to the local government, private sector, housing associations and non-profit organisations. In 2017, overall spending by governments on social housing represented only 0.66% of the European GDP and continued to fall. In many countries, the emphasis has been placed on increasing housing allowances. We need fresh ideas in this area. A new toolkit published by the European Housing Solutions Platform outlines 50 out-of-the-box solutions making use of social housing, the private rental sector, and integrated approaches to overcome financial and political barriers within European housing systems.

Rising homelessness and forced evictions

As observed by my predecessor in the 2013 Issue Paper on safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis, the 2008 crisis and growing unemployment led to a sharp increase in evictions and rising homelessness in many European countries. While tenant protection laws often serve as a safety net, overall they do not seem to effectively tackle the problem. The 2017 and 2018 annual overviews, published by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) and Fondation Abbé Pierre, found evidence of rising homelessnessin all the EU/EEA countries surveyed except Finland and Norway. The decline in homelessness experienced in these two countries was attributed to the implementation of long-term strategies of successful cooperation between the state, local authorities and local stakeholders, and approaching homelessness from the perspective of a human rights violation.

Increasing homelessness has been observed to particularly affect migrants, young people, women, families, and children.The 2018 FEANTSA report noted that children are becoming the largest group of people in emergency shelters. In 2015, children accounted for one-third of Ireland’s entire homeless population; from 2014 to 2017, their number rose by 276%. In the UK, the number of homeless children in temporary accommodation reportedly rose by 40% in the same period. In Russia, although the available figures appear to vary greatly, one rough estimate put the number of homeless children in 2010 at hundreds of thousands, while other reports hint that this number might be even higher. During her 2015 visit to Serbia, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing touched upon the risk of homelessness and exclusion that weak protections for renters and no access to social housing meant for certain vulnerable groups, including young people.

State responses to rising homelessness have often been characterised by a short-sighted, punitive approach, in a misguided attempt to move the problem out of public sight. My predecessor’s visit to Hungary in 2014 shed light on the national and local government bans on “sleeping rough” on pain of fines, which were imposed on more than a thousand people, and in some cases led to the imprisonment of those unable to pay. Similar bans were observed during his 2015 visit to Norway. More recently, in the UK, press reports found that as overall numbers of rough sleepers continued to rise, in some localities homeless people were banned from town centres and fined.

European institutions have intervened in some cases related to forced evictions. The European Court of Human Rights has notably balanced interests of landlords against the need to secure accommodation for the less well-off, and on some occasions has acted as a last resort for families threatened with imminent eviction. The European Committee of Social Rights has in several decisions identified the safeguards that must apply when evictions do take place: respecting the dignity of persons; no evictions at night or during the winter; taking measures to re-house or financially assist the persons concerned. The case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, for its part, has empowered domestic judges to suspend or annul evictions if the rights of occupants have not been respected, for instance in the context of abusive mortgages. While these interventions offer helpful guarantees, states should prevent such emergencies affecting families and children, among others, from occurring in the first place.

The way forward

In a poignant introduction to her January 2018 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, noted that “[w]e are at a critical moment. Globally, housing conditions are fraught. Homelessness is on the rise, including in affluent countries; forced evictions continue unabated; (…) and housing in many cities is simply unaffordable even for the middle class”.

We should pay close attention to her call. We need to fully grasp the extent and urgency of the problem in Europe with regard to housing, one of the most basic human needs. As demonstrated above, this is an issue which affects the population at large and contributes to a growing sense of uncertainty and precariousness. Leaving it unaddressed leaves our societies vulnerable to increased social tensions.

States’ obligations towards the full realisation of the right to housing must go beyond providing emergency and individual solutions. There is an urgent need for genuine political commitment to adopting sustainable, long-term and inclusive solutions, in line with the UN 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goal of providing adequate, secure and affordable housing to all by 2030. Housing is not simply a commodity, but a human right. It should move to the top of the political agenda in Europe.

First, member States which have not yet done so should promptly accept to be bound by Article 31 of the revised European Social Charter (RESC) dealing withthe right to housing. Of the 34 member States which ratified the Charter, so far only 10 have accepted its Article 31 while 4 more have accepted to be bound only by some parts of that provision.

Second, States should adopt and implement sustainable national housing strategies with clear targets to end homelessness, harnessing to the maximum extent the available resources, establishing credible and independent mechanisms for monitoring progress, and paying close attention to their impact.

Third, States should step up investing in social and affordable housing in view of eradicating the housing cost overburden, particularly among disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

Fourth, States should urgently adopt long-term measures to prevent and eradicate homelessness, in particular among children and other disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. In adopting and implementing such measures, states should involve all stakeholders and be guided by respect for the human dignity of homeless persons and the realisation that homelessness is a violation of human rights.

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UK-US relations: Challenges ahead

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The past few days have been witness, to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and his inclination towards scrapping JCPOA altogether.

Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA

In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British PM, Boris Johnson stated, that the JCPOA, could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson:

‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead’.

Johnson’s remarks came a day after UK, Germany and France had issued a joint statement, stating that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive.UK Germany and France had also said, that they were keen to ensure, that the nuclear non -proliferation regime is kept intact, and Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.

Earlier, in a telephonic conversation, last week, with the UK PM, US President Donald Trump, had told Johnson, that the deal was ‘foolish’, and other signatories should also walk out of it.

During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be the first interview with the media, after the victory of the Conservative Party in the recent general elections. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others.

Johnson also made the point, that the current deal, had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded to the point, that this was one of the key reasons, why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.

Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal

UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated, that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact.

Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, the British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated, that US support for UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.

Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks

US President, Donald Trump’s response, to Johnson’s suggestion, regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable, and welcomed the British PM’s proposal.

In the meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in an aggressive address, on January 15, 2020,  where he lashed out at the EU and UK, said, that all Trump knew, was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.

UK-US relations

Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said, that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US, with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out, that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.

This brings us, to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of UK, from the EU by January 31, 2020. There are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of US President Donald Trump, has already stated, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal. Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC) expressed these views while speaking to BBC.

US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same

Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Boris Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new Trade Deal after Brexit.

At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a path breaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit. It has been argued, that while the Conservative lobby, in the US-UK, which has been in favor of  bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries, which are fervently opposed to such an idea.

It also remains to be seen, whether the Trump Administration is serious, about imposing conditionalities on UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.

Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei

Apart from the Iran issue, one issue which could act as an impediment to further consolidating economic and strategic relations between US and UK could be use of equipment of Chinese tech giant, Huawei, by UK for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks. 

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May had stated, that non-core technology of 5G were acceptable, while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues including — Jeremy Hunt, then Foreign secretary, Sajid Javid, then Home Secretary (now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson, then Defense Secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, then international development secretary — had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.

Johnson’s approach towards Huawei

In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated, that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US are the other members of this network, apart from the US). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said, that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.

Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues

It is not just UK, but other allies like India which would be closely watching Trumps approach on crucial geo-political issues. For instance, while earlier US had stated, that it would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 Missiles from Russia (India and Russia had signed an agreement in October 2018 during Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s . Only recently, a State Department Spokesman while commenting on the waiver to India stated that there was no blanket waiver from the side of the US Administration. Of course later, the State Department Spokesperson did clarify, that US views these issues on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between UK and US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946) there are numerous challenges.

There is a tendency, to oversimplify bilateral relationships to personal chemistry of leaders, and ideological inclinations as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely, to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (differences over crucial geo-political and economic issues as discussed above). In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, Japan which have already born the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transaction approach towards complex geo-political issues.

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Why Warsaw denies historical facts about World War II

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Polish boy in the ruins of Warsaw September 1939. Julien Bryan caption of the image from 1958. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The painful and conflicting reaction on the part of Warsaw following President Vladimir Putin’s statement that Poland bears partial responsibility for inciting the Second World War can be explained not only by following the policy adopted by post-Socialist Poland as an ideological weapon.

The practical implementation of historical policy is the responsibility of the Polish Institute of National Memory (PINM), which followed the Polish Foreign Ministry in voicing a protest against the well-grounded accusations against Poland. What is behind Warsaw’s denial of historical facts?

In recent years PINM has built a weighty and largely unrealistic ideology of Poland making numerous sacrifices in the years of the Second World War. This ideology is currently used to shape Warsaw’s foreign policy. The geographical and historical position of Poland, located between Germany and the Russian Empire / Soviet Union / Russian Federation, is the subject of many works by the founders  of “Polish geopolitics” and political publicists (Adolf Bochensky, Vladislav Gizbert-Studnitsky, Stanislav Tsat-Matskevich, etc.).

Warsaw uses the idea of its special relations with Berlin and Moscow to secure the intransient unilateral right to represent the interests of collective West, thereby  remaining in the diplomatic game. Relying on the fictional cult of its sacrifice, Poland sort of emphasizes what it sees as the political insight in its relations with Germany and Russia. What for?

The role of a World War II victim makes it easier for Poland to claim its share of influence in the post-Soviet space than if it was a culprit. Poland’s debate about the causes and circumstances of World War II has nothing to do with official statements compared to historical facts – it’s a kind of struggle for its international status, which Poland can strengthen only by narrowing the world-wide tragedy of World War II to the level of its own national tragedy the blame for which is put on the Soviet Union in connection with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And the political game does not end here.

“… Polish attempts to strike at the foundations of the national and historical identity of the Russian Federation are an element of aggression in the symbolic sphere – this is how Moscow can interpret them. Tolerance and stamina demonstrated by the Russian Federation in the face of provocative moves taken by the incumbent Polish leadership are truly impressive,” – said Andrzej Walicki, a leading Polish expert on Russia.

Not long ago, there appeared US Congress Resolution No. 447, which is relative to the role of Poland in World War II. This draft law empowers victims of the Holocaust to claim compensation for property they lost during the war on the territory of Poland and enables the U.S. State Department to support non-governmental organizations involved in the restitution of lost Jewish property. Naturally, Warsaw is not happy about the decision, which it sees as a precedent that will require the Poles to compensate the Jews for property damage. In addition to financial problems (the total value of property subject to Resolution   No. 447 is $ 230 billion), this measure by the US Congress, if implemented, will entail the same ideological problems making Poland one of the culprits of World War II. The amendments to the PINM law adopted in Poland on January 26, 2018 envisage punishment for claiming that the Poles assisted in the Holocaust. They thus aim to suppress a possible wave of accusations and prohibit any attempts to compare the past acts of Poland with crimes of the Third Reich.

Both Res. No. 447 and the amendments to the PINM Law have a moral aspect to reckon with. Warsaw is fully aware that the position of Poland in Central and Eastern Europe and its image in the world depend on this issue. Despite Poland’s long-standing pro-American policy in Europe, the ruling Law and Justice Party (LJP) has pronounced Res. 447 a mechanism of political pressure from Washington to secure certain concessions from Warsaw.

The law had a certain impact on domestic politics, triggering criticism of the LJP from opposition parties. The rating of the Law and Justice Party was saved thanks to a powerful informational counterattack performed by the PINM, which was aimed at the Polish consumer in the first place.

What Warsaw fears most is that random discussions about Poland’s involvement in the fueling of World War II will turn into a systematic long-term information campaign in which Res. No. 447 and facts from the past, so unwelcome for Poland, will complement each other.

Ideologically, the Polish political history is far from flawless and is in an active phase due to lack of information influence from the outside. Under certain circumstances, it can be assumed that the discourse over the Second World War may form an ideological configuration disadvantageous for Warsaw. And this is what causes such a controversial and cynical reaction from Warsaw.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova says that by adopting a resolution on Germany and the USSR sharing responsibility for the outbreak of the war, the Polish Sejm demonstrates how ideology is put above the truth. Zakharova also made it clear that the truth was recorded in the documents of the Nuremberg Tribunal. If the Polish Sejm doubts the decisions of the tribunal, she said, they must make a statement to this effect. In this case, it will be considered an attempt to review the results of the Second World War.

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