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The Vatican and the Russian Federation

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Currently the Vatican is the largest and most effective mediator between the various ideological worlds and between the old, great political alliances.

 A system in which the Church operates by mediating both between them and between them and the West.

 This is the case of the Russian Federation, with which the Catholic Church has a special and long-standing  relationship, which started with the mission to the Tsar in 1452 and later continued with a very long story of deep ideological contrast with the Marxist-Leninist State atheism, but also of friendship and support – especially nowadays.

 Full diplomatic relations between the two countries were resumed in 2009, with 178 countries now recognizing the Holy See diplomatically, while in 1978 the Vatican had official diplomatic relations with 84 countries.

 Certainly, the present-day Russia, like the Tsarist and later the Marxist-Leninist one, has an Orthodox Church closely linked, by its very nature, to the political power. Not even Stalin could escape said rule altogether.

 Still today, however, remnants of the past Communist regime can be found not in the mass aesthetics of the current system centred on Vladimir Putin, but in the one focused on some inveterate and deep habits of the population.

 Recently, during a visit paid to the ancient monastery of Valaam, President Putin himself ideologically associated Communism with the Christian tradition.

Still today, many Russians regard Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square as a ” sacred place” while, according to reliable statistics, 51% of Russians still admire Stalin.

 Why the return of Stalin’s myth, and exactly now? Because the “Man of Steel” is seen as an enemy of bureaucracy and “elites” and, above all, as the architect of the Soviet great victory against Nazism. 

This shows to what extent the deep tendencies and trends  of contemporary society and the old ideas about the Second World War mix up in popular myths.

 Probably – as Curzio Malaparte already noted in his book, “The Technique of Revolution”, written in 1931 when he was an Italian diplomat to Warsaw – nowadays Stalin embodies the simple and virile assurance and stability of the Russian peasant, while Trotzky acted nervously and unconfidently, “like a modern European intellectual” -just to put it in Malaparte’s words.

 Moreover, the current Russian relationship with the Catholic Church and the other national autocephalous and autonomous Churches stems directly from Putin’s new strategy of expansion into the so-called “near abroad”.

 Ukraine is, in fact, at the heart of Putin’ strategic project. Without Ukraine no expansion is possible, however along with the Caucasus and Central Asia.

 But one of the centres of Ukrainian power and national identity is the Greek-Catholic Church, which still follows a Byzantine rite and is closely linked to Rome.

After the great repression of 1946, it has been the largest and fastest growing religious community in the world.

 The passion with which the Greek-Catholic Church proposes the Social Doctrine of the Church has long been a very credible substitute for Marxist eschatology or, in any case, for the Soviet social ideas.

Currently, however, the relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow are excellent.

Throughout his papacy, however, Pope Francis has always been proposing dialogue instead of confrontation.

Hence,  while the EU and the USA are increasingly opposed to Putin’s Russia, the Vatican listens carefully and deals effectively with Russia.

 The naive superiority – typical of the weak subjects – with which the EU and the USA deal with the Kremlin will be the sign of a harsh defeat, in Syria as in other parts of the world.

In the sixth visit paid by the Russian leader to the Vatican, Pope Francis spoke with him about various international issues.

 Never – not even during Stalin’s rule – did Russia think that the Vatican diplomacy was uninformed or powerless. Indeed, during the Second World War he used it for the matters concerning Hitler and his demise, as well as to deal with the USA, which had already adapted to the Cold War.

Reportedly the Pope and Putin discussed at length about Syria – where the stance of the Holy See is very far from the empty and ambiguous “democraticism” of the West-and about the whole Middle East and its new set-up, as well as about the status of Jerusalem and finally about the moral decadence of the West and, hence, about a sort of alliance between Putin’s Russia and the Vatican to defend ancient and eternal values.

So far, however, the Pope has paid no visit to Russia. Obviously the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Church would create some understandable problems.

Putin has already had two confidential conversations with Pope Francis, in 2013 and 2015.

 He will be in the Vatican next January, when, an exhibition of Russian art will be inaugurated at the Holy See.

 Foreign Minister Lavrov often has contacts with his counterparts of the Roman Catholic diplomacy, at all levels and constantly.

Here we can find, in essence, the great idea of Pope Francis, his careful and profound opening to the Russian Orthodox Church that counts 150 million believers and has considerable economic power, which has sometimes been used also to rescue public finances.

 In 2016, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met in Cuba and a month later the Pope approved the appointment of Archbishop Celestino Migliore as Apostolic Nuncio to Moscow.

In 2017 he was also conferred the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to Uzbekistan.

 The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin,paid a visit to the Russian Federation from August 20 to 24, 2017, expressly invited by the Russian State and by the highest hierarchies of the Orthodox Church.

It was the first visit of a Vatican Secretary of State after 1989 and after the great, historic visit of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli in 1990, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet regime.

 Cardinal Parolin had some “important and constructive meetings” – as he himself defined them – with President Putin, with Foreign Minister Lavrov, with Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, as well as with some other members of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Later Cardinal Parolin met with Putin in Sochi. Many of the topics discussed during their conversations are still very confidential, but one of them is already known: the issue of Christians in Syria and all the conflicts in the Middle East, considering that the Vatican recognizes the fait accompli, i.e. the Russian Federation as a great decisive power for the destiny of the whole Middle East.

 They also discussed  the status of Christians in the various areas with an Islamic majority – where the Russian Federation already counts very much – and their possible protection.

Russia is already available, while some Western countries not.

 The following day, when Cardinal Parolin met with Foreign Minister Lavrov, they discussed the fight against terrorism and jihadism, as well as the promotion of a stable dialogue between countries and religions, and finally the protection of ethnic, religious and political minorities in all the possible solutions – partial or not-to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Cardinal Parolin and Minister Lavrov also discussed how to put an end to the clashes in Syria, using both the Astana Accords and the Geneva talks. The Vatican accepts both of them.

 Furthermore, the Secretary of State reminded Lavrov and his aides of the urgent need to re-establish contacts and resume talks between the State of Israel and the Palestinian world, as well as to try and solve the strong tensions in Venezuela, where Russia still has a strong power projection.

Also the Catholic Church, however, has undisputed power.

 Cardinal Parolin never discusses in vain and with an abstract and academic tone.

Later the Secretary of State vigorously outlined to the Russian leadership Pope Francis’ pragmatic and rational position on all the issues under discussion.

We can imagine that, with specific reference to Syria, Pope Francis and his Secretary of State want a concrete commitment by Assad – they implicitly recognize – for the protection and support of the population, as well as the return of refugees to Syria.

With specific reference to Libya, Pope Francis wants the conflict to end immediately, through a credible and substantial dialogue between the parties, possibly supported by the Vatican diplomacy and by the Russian Federation itself, which currently backs General Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of Cyrenaica.

As to South Sudan, the Pope wants President Salva Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar to meet and, in fact, a few days later Kiir asked Machar to form a government of national unity.

 One of the many silly conflicts generated by oil and by the carelessness of the most important powers at economic level.

 In addition, Russia seriously supports the Vatican’s efforts in Venezuela to stabilize the local political system peacefully.

Reverting to the Ukrainian issue, with specific reference to the current political and military situation in Ukraine and to the annexation of Crimea, Cardinal Parolin stressed that “international rules shall be fully enforced”.

In fact, the Holy See wants the 2014 Minsk Protocol, which has so far remained dead letter, to be clearly implemented by all parties.

Minister Lavrov clearly appreciated the Vatican support for the Minsk Protocol.

 In short, as can be inferred from the messages of Cardinal  Parolin coming back from his Russian missions and visits, it is good for the West not to neglect and, above all, not to isolate the Russian Federation.

 It would be a fundamental strategic mistake.

Nevertheless, considering this geopolitics based on empty morality and political superficiality, there is not much to hope for in the West.

 Catholics in Russia – the first traditional duty of the Vatican mission there – are very few: 773,000 believers in four dioceses that were established by John Paul II, the Pope  who consecrated Russia to the Sacred Heart of Mary.

 As the Virgin had long wanted in her messages of Fatima.

 The Church of Rome does not proselytize in Russia, but the climate is not yet good for the Roman Catholic Russians.

 And, in this case, the discussions and meetings of Cardinal  Parolin with the leaders of the Orthodox Church were as important as those with Putin and Lavrov.

 Meanwhile, Kirill II suggested the possibility of joint humanitarian operations between the Church of Rome and the Patriarchate of Moscow, especially in the Middle East.

Moreover, the Orthodox Christians will have the relics of Saint Nicholas at their disposal, temporarily transferred from Bari to Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Hence a new phase has begun, characterized by stable and close relations between Russian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, a phase that will certainly not be cancelled in the near future.

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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U.S. President Trump to meet Bulgaria’s Prime Minister at the White House: What to expect?

Iveta Cherneva

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Next Monday, 25 November, President Trump will welcome Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov at the White House for a bilateral meeting.

This is not the first White House visit for Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov who previously met President Obama at the White House in 2012.

The White House press secretary has announced that Trump and Borissov plan to discuss security in the Black Sea region, energy and countering malign influence – all Russia-related topics, as one would expect.

The real reason for the White House treat, however, is Bulgaria’s substantial purchase of US aircraft this year.

In August, Bulgaria bought eight F-16 airplanes from the US for the hefty price of USD 1.2bln. White House meetings with foreign leaders represent special thanks for something a foreign country has done for the United States and the F-16 airplanes purchase seems to be what we are looking at here. The US is a happy seller and Bulgaria is a happy customer.

In the area of energy, Bulgaria is looking towards the US while trying to reach energy diversification and gain independence from Russian natural gas. On this, there is a clear intersection with US interests. Bulgaria agreed in May to purchase natural gas from the US for the first time. Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov met last week with the US Ambassador to Greece to explore the possibility of purchases of American liquid gas down the line.

What is not mentioned by the official White House position is that visa restrictions will be a topic of the meeting, too. The Bulgarian Prime Minister will likely request that President Trump dropped the visa requirements for Bulgarians – an issue the Bulgarian government has been chasing for a while now and something which Bulgarian President Radev had raised with President Trump also on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. Visa restrictions were removed for Polish citizens last month. The Bulgarian Prime Minister will seek the same outcome. On this point, it is unlikely that President Trump would give the green light though.

What we won’t hear about publicly is the issue of the return of ISIS fighters to Europe. No one in Bulgaria really talks about this but one can imagine this is an issue for the US government. Bulgaria doesn’t have a problem with ISIS fighters itself but, as an EU external border country, it is Turkey’s neighbor and the closest to the Middle East EU ground entry point. Last week, Turkey began returning ISIS fighters back to Europe and President Trump has been adamant that European nations with ISIS fighters need to take responsibility for them. Western European EU countries do not want their ISIS fighters back to try them in court or to reintegrate them, which is understandable but also irritating because Europeans have had the unfounded expectation that the US would somehow take care of this. How Bulgaria as an EU country at the crossroads between Turkey, the EU and the US handles that is key. No one in Bulgaria really talks about it, and the various EU, US and Turkish pressures on Bulgaria are not really known, but one can imagine the situation is that of being between a rock and a hard place. So, the return of ISIS fighters is another issue to look out for, although it will not come through in public.

In the past, NATO ally Bulgaria has aided the US with criminal and law enforcement investigations in the areas of terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking. This is another area to look out for.

President Trump’s impeachment is not really a topic in Bulgaria, as no one here seems to be concerned with that. It will be interesting whether Prime Minister Borissov would mention this at all to issue words of support to President Trump. This is something that President Trump would appreciate, although protocol says Prime Minister Borissov would be smart to steer away from impeachment comments.

Direct, to the point and simple words can be expected from President Trump. Prime Minister Borissov, on the other hand, is learning English so the meeting will necessarily have a Bulgarian interpreter. Expect one or two jokes by President Trump about simultaneous Bulgarian interpretation. The meeting will not pass without that.

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EU chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi needs media freedom to do her job

Iveta Cherneva

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Last month, Laura Codruta Kovesi, the former chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate, was officially confirmed as the first ever EU chief prosecutor to head the newly created European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Her team will start work in the end of 2020. 

Kovesi will shake things up. She has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Among the main ones is the silencing and stifling of journalists across Europe, including in Bulgaria. The lack of media freedom will make it exceptionally difficult for Kovesi to do her job and uncover crimes involving EU funding.

As soon as the news hit that Kovesi was to become EU’s top prosecutor, anti-corruption activists across Europe applauded loudly. One could hear the applause also in Bulgaria where we face issues with EU funds misappropriation and theft but also complaints regarding the freedom of the press – a place where Kovesi’s work is much needed.

Defined institutionally, Kovesi’s mandate is “to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud”. The EU’s top prosecutor is tasked with the tough job of going after crimes involving EU money. 

It might sound as a disappointment to many, but Kovesi will not have the institutional competence to address everything that is wrong with a country or a sector. Corruption and fraud are covered by the EU prosecutor’s mandate only as long as they are related to EU funds.

So if Kovesi won’t be a see-it-all, do-it-all messiah, where does this leave media freedom then and why am I talking about it in the context of her job?

Well, bringing to justice crimes related to EU funds is almost impossible without the leads on the ground – work often done by a functioning free media and hard-hitting  investigative journalism that uncovers fishy deals and contracts. It is journalists that sometimes lead the way. Often media investigations chart a course for criminal investigations. The media is a key ally in uncovering crimes involving EU funds. This is particularly true of a service such as the EU’s prosecutor office that will operate from EU headquarters and will rely on leads and allies on the ground.

We can’t expect that an EU service will get all the intricate, hidden local information on its own or through cooperation with the state authorities in question. This is where media and journalists come in. 

Bulgaria – as sad I am to say this – gives a clear illustration of why Kovesi’s job could prove to be especially tough. The country ranks 111th in the world in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters without Borders. 

To illustrate the situation, one should look no further than the current scandal involving the nomination of Bulgaria’s own chief prosecutor and the simultaneous firing of a seasoned journalist who has been critical of the only candidate for Bulgaria’s top prosecutor post.

As reported by Reuters, the national radio journalist Silvia Velikova was fired for allegedly being critical of the work of the deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who has already been selected to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor. Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev vetoed the appointment last week, so now the country is facing judicial uncertainty and protests such as the ones from today. 

Among the reasons why the chief prosecutor’s appointment has been controversial – to say the least – is the sacking of the Bulgarian Radio journalist Silvia Velikova. Her ousting caused protests by Bulgarian journalists which I have been attending, while the capital Sofia saw thousands of protesters marching in the streets against Geshev’s nomination in September, October and now, after the presidential veto.

Where the story gets interesting or horrific – or both – is that as many as four unnamed individuals made phone calls in September to the Director of the National Radio, allegedly asking for the journalist critical of the prosecutor candidate to be fired, or at least to be silenced until Geshev’s selection as chief prosecutor. The journalist Velikova was subsequently fired. She was reinstated to her post after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov spoke in her defence. And the Director of the National Radio was himself fired for stepping over by a media oversight organ.  

In Bulgaria, a persistent complaint is that journalists who ask the inconvenient questions can be removed in a heartbeat, after so much as a phone call. The suspicion remains that shady dealings – not merit – continue to play a significant role in the firings and hirings of Bulgarian journalists.

One should look no further than the stories of investigative journalists Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova. They are both known as hard-hitting investigative journalists that ask the tough questions and uncover corruption and mismanagement. They are both out of job after being pressured to quit a mainstream media. 

Genka Shikerova faced severe intimidation over the years, as her car was set on fire not once but twice, in 2013 and 2014, in relation to her work on Bulgaria’s significant anti-government protests during these years.

Miroluba Benatova, on the other hand, caused massive waves with her recent revelation that she has become a taxi driver – only to surprise foreign tourists about how politically astute and knowledgeable Bulgarian taxi drivers are. “The service in Bulgaria has improved greatly”, told her a German tourist assuming he was being driven by just a regular taxi driver.

So, how is this related to Kovesi?

It is unlikely that by driving a taxi Benatova will be coming across many leads about EU funds theft, to assist Kovesi. Such a waste of talent, and also funds.

The media across Europe has a key role to play in supporting the work of the new EU prosecutor. As long as journalists in countries like Bulgaria lack the freedom to do their jobs, crimes involving EU funding will go uncovered. If Laura Kovesi wants to succeed in her new job, she will have to take context into account and recognize that in many EU states, including Bulgaria, journalists are often not allowed to do their jobs and ask the hard questions. And that’s a shame because Kovesi will not be able to do it alone. 

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Why German car giant Volkswagen should drop Turkey

Iveta Cherneva

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War and aggression are not only questions of ethics and humanitarian disaster. They are bad news for business.

The German car giant Volkwagen whose business model is built on consumer appeal had to stop and pause when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria. A USD 1.4bln Volkswagen investment in a new plant in Turkey is being put on hold by the management, and rightly so.

Unlike business areas more or less immune from consumer pressure – like some financial sectors, for example – car buying is a people thing. It is done by regular people who follow the news and don’t want to stimulate and associate themselves with crimes against humanity and war crimes through their purchases. Investing in a militarily aggressive country simply is bad for an international brand.

As soon as the news hit that Turkey would be starting their military invasion against the Kurds, questions about plans for genocide appeared in the public discourse space. Investing over a billion in such a political climate does not make sense.

By investing into a new plant next to Turkish city Izmir, Volkswagen is not risking security so much. Izmir itself is far removed from Turkey’s southern border — although terrorist attacks in the current environment are generally not out of the question.

The risk question rather lies elsewhere. Business likes stability and predictability. Aggressive economic sanctions which are likely to be imposed on Turkey by the EU and the US would affect many economic and business aspects which the company has to factor in. Two weeks ago the US House of Representatives already voted to impose sanctions on Turkey, which now leaves the Senate to vote on an identical resolution.

Economic sanctions affect negatively the purchasing power of the population. And Volkswagen’s new business would rely greatly on the Turkish client in a market of over 80mln people.

Sanctions also have a psychological “buckle-up” effect on customers in economies “under siege”, whereby clients are less likely to want to splurge on a new car in strenuous times.

Volkswagen is a German but also a European company. Its decision will signal clearly if it lives by the EU values of support for human rights, or it decides to look the other way and put business first.

But is not only about reputational damage, which Volkswagen seems to be concerned with. There are real business counter-arguments which coincide with anti-war concerns.

Dogus Otomotiv, the Turkish distributor of VW vehicles, fell as much as 6.5% in Istanbul trading after the news for the Turkish offensive.

Apart from their effects on the Turkish consumer, economic sanctions will also likely keep Turkey away from international capital markets.

There is also the question of an EU company investing outside the EU, which has raised eyebrows. It is up to the European Commission now to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward after a complaint was filed. Turkey offered the German conglomerate a generous 400mln euro subsidy which is a problem when it comes to the EU rules and regulations on competition.

The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswagen clearly run counter EU rules and the EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.

In a context where Turkey takes care of 4mln refugees — subject to an agreement with the EU — and often threatens the EU that it would “open the gates”, it is not clear if the Commission would muster the guts to say no, however. In that sense, the German company’s own decision to pull from the deal would be welcome because the Commission itself wouldn’t have to pronounce on the issue and risk angering Turkey.

While some commentators do not believe that Volkswagen would scrap altogether the investment and is only delaying the decision, it is worth remembering that the Syria conflict is a complex, multi-player conflict which has gone on for more than 8 years. Turkey’s entry in Syria is unlikely to end in a month. Erdogan has communicated his intention to stay in Syria until the Kurds back down.

In October it was reported that the Turkish forces are already using chemical weapons on the Kurdish population which potentially makes Turkish President Erdogan a war criminal. For a corporate giant like Volkswagen, giving an economic boost for such a state would mean indirectly supporting war crimes.

As Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection with the Syrian Assad forces, this seems to be anything but a slow-down. Turkey has just thrown a whole lot of wood into the fire.

Volkswagen will find itself “monitoring” the situation for a long time. There is a case for making the sustainable business decision to drop the risky deal altogether, soon.

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