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Germany: CDU – three in one

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Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will hold an extraordinary congress on April 25 to elect its new chairperson, who is almost certain to lead the party to next year’s federal elections to culminate in the election of the country’s new Chancellor in lieu of Angela Merkel, who has already confirmed that she will not be running again. Meanwhile, judging by the current alignment of political forces in Germany, the CDU remains the main candidate for victory, although not as indisputable as it was a year ago.

The CDU’s decision to look for a new face at the helm was prompted by the resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose handling of last year’s elections in eastern state of Thuringia resulted in an acute political crisis alienating the Christian Democrats’ partners in the ruling coalition (CSU and Social Democrats), and many within the CDU itself.  

In October 2019, the Left party landed a historic victory in elections to the regional assembly (Landtag) in Thuringia, scoring 31 percent of votes. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in second with 23.4 percent, leaving the CDU in third place with just 21.8 percent. The Social Democrats (SPD), the pro-environment Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) garnered five percent, but in the February 5 vote in the Landtag for the head of the regional government, the FDP’s candidate Thomas Kemmerich surged ahead of his main rival, the Left party’s hopeful Bodo Ramelow thanks to the support that the candidate from the FDP and the CDU had received from the AfD as a result of an earlier agreement.

The outcome of the Thuringia vote sent shockwaves through political Germany because up until then the ruling coalition had banned any party-level cooperation with the extreme right. The SPD leadership accused its coalition partners of violating ethical and inter-party standards, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that the local branch of the CDU violated the party’s requirements. At a February 6 press conference while on a visit to South Africa, Angela Merkel said that it was “unforgivable” that a state premier had been elected  expressly because of the support of the far-right AfD, and accused the Thuringia CDU of abandoning the “values and beliefs” of the party.

Resignations followed shortly after, with Thomas Kemmerich saying he would step down on February 8, and already on February 10, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer informed the CDU leadership of her decision to stand down as party leader. The crisis around the elections in Thuringia reportedly came as a shock for Angela Merkel, since Kramp-Karrenbauer was her protégé and was supposed to ensure a seamless power transit within the CDU after Merkel herself resigns in 2021 and after she earlier left the post of CDU leader in October 2018. As for Kramp-Karrenbauer, she did not enjoy the unconditionally support within the CDU. During the CDU congress in December 2018, she was elected its new leader, getting 517 votes, narrowly beating her principal rival, the ex-leader of the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary faction, Friedrich Merz, who trailed closely behind with 482 votes.

Friedrich Merz, who is widely viewed as one of the three (and so far the likeliest) contenders for victory in the 2020 Christian Democratic Union leadership election set to take place during the party’s upcoming extraordinary congress on April 25.  Even though he has recently stayed out of big-time politics focusing on his business interests, Merz still enjoys significant support among the CDU. As to his political views and priorities, they are pretty vague and even contradictory, including when it comes to Russia. On the one hand, he supports President Vladimir Putin’s idea of a single economic space between the European Union and Russia stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, and wants Germany and the EU to “play ball” with Moscow, arguing that without Russia in Europe there can be no long-term stability, and that in the 21st century “there should be more and more points of contact” between partners.

On the other hand, Merz is fully supportive of NATO’s policy of “containing Moscow,” and criticizes Russia’s policy in the Middle East, considering it just one of the “warring sides” in the Syrian conflict. Overall, he believes that “right now Russia is making life very difficult for us.”

Even more critical of Russia is another candidate – a CDU foreign policy expert and the head of the Bundestag foreign relations committee, Norbert Röttgen, who is constantly accusing Russia of “war crimes” it is allegedly committing in Syria, and calling for new sanctions against Moscow. Moreover, while considering France as a key foreign policy partner in Europe, Norbert Röttgen does not share President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to mend fences with Moscow. However, he has the least chances of being elected to the head of the CDU.

The most pragmatic attitude towards Russia in the upcoming elections of the CDU leader is projected by North Rhine-Westphalia’s state premier, Armin Laschet, who still lags behind Merz in polls. Notably, he is going to the polls in tandem with the young Health Minister Jens Spahn, who enjoys a great deal of popularity within the party. Moreover, while Laschet generally shares Angela Merkel’s main domestic and international priorities, Jens Spahn is critical of her alleged departure from “conservative values.”

While supporting the EU’s sanctions on Russia, Armin Laschet would still like to see them lifted as soon as possible if the Minsk process of ending the crisis in eastern Ukraine “starts developing constructively,” and he is generally holding out for a more active search for a way out of the deadlock in relations between Europe and Russia. Moreover, he takes a fairly constructive view even on the issue of the “annexation” of Crimea, arguing that Germany should be able to “look at everything through the eyes of its partner in a dialogue.” He believes that “Russia is necessary to resolve many international issues,” which makes it imperative to jointly look for mutually acceptable solutions, including when it comes to the conflict in Syria. Armin Laschet is against the “demonization” of Russia in German political and public circles and the media, dismissing this criticism as “one-sided,” and the overall picture of the Syrian conflict being projected in Germany as “too superficial.”

Meanwhile, clearly disappointed by the entire background of this whole issue, Angela Merkel herself is trying to stay away from the election of her new successor.

“I won’t interfere in the issue of who will lead the CDU in the future or who will be the candidate for chancellor,” Merkel told a recent news conference. She emphasized that her experience tells her that predecessors should not interfere in such processes, although she does not refuse to “talk” with candidates. Earlier, Bloomberg reported, citing German sources, that Angela Merkel had been too quick (even before the scandal in Thuringia) to “doubt” that her previously tipped successor as CDU leader and candidate for chancellor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, would be up to the job, and therefore, she will take a more cautious position during the current campaign by distancing himself from the pre-election debate.

The ongoing crisis and divisions within the CDU come against the backcloth of even more dramatic collisions in the ranks of its partner in the “Grand Coalition” – the Social Democrats (SPD), whose electoral rating is down to 13 percent – the worst in Germany’s entire post-war history. This may prove fatal for the SPD’s chances of staying in power if, according to the party’s former leader, Sigmar Gabriel, early elections to the Bundestag are held.

According to the US-based publication Project Syndicate, “the crisis in the CDU comes on the heels of the SPD’s own implosion.”

“The SPD will likely be replaced by the resurgent Greens, who have enjoyed a remarkable rally in the polls since the May 2019 European Parliament elections. Over the last year, the duo at the party’s helm – Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck – have increasingly been mooted as potential future leaders of Germany. Habeck currently is the country’s second most popular politician, just behind Merkel. If the CDU’s current crisis persists and the party fails to win the largest share of the vote in the next general election, then the coveted right to nominate the chancellor will most likely fall to the Greens,” Project Syndicate writes.

“A green-black coalition government in which the CDU was the junior partner would be a political first in Germany, and highly unpalatable for the party,” CNBC reporter Carolin Roth warns. 

“With both of Germany’s ruling parties now in turmoil, a quick resolution to the CDU’s leadership crisis is essential. Prolonged paralysis could be highly damaging for both Germany and Europe,” she concludes.

In view of the above, new internal contradictions within the European Union itself look very much likely now that it is losing one of the key drivers of European integration. This, in turn, may prompt European leaders to take an attentive and constructive view of the need to restore interaction with Russia, all the more so if such a signal comes from the new CDU leader.    From our partner International Affairs

Peter Iskenderov, senior research assistant at RAS Slavic Studies Institute, candidate of historical sciences

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Russia-EU break possible but unwanted

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Pressures in relations between Russia and the West have recently become so strained that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the possibility of a complete break in ties.

In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based academic and diplomatic think tank established upon a presidential decree, assessed how real the threat is and what consequences it could lead to.

It is necessary to make it clear what “a possible break with the EU” means – whether cutting relations with individual European countries or with European Union structures, said Kortunov.

“If we talk about EU countries, we shouldn’t forget that they now account for more than 40% of Russia’s trade turnover, they are the main source of investments and technologies that go to Russia. No one is ready to give up on this, and no one will,” he said.

As for structures of the EU bloc, in general, a break would be possible, but it would be both unwanted and unwelcomed, he said.

Kortunov noted that cooperation between Russia and the EU shrank in recent years, and a great many of the structures established to build bilateral ties have been closed.

“For example, in the past, we regularly held EU-Russia summits twice a year – in the first half of the year in Russia, in the second half in the EU presiding country or in Brussels,” he explained.

“Now such summits do not take place. The number of working groups that work in specific areas has decreased.”

Following this logic, breaking or freezing the remaining ties is possible but it is an extremely unwanted scenario because it is impossible to have good relations with European countries – EU members – and not have any relations with the EU itself, Kortunov said.

“A number of important issues lay within the competency of the European Union, including but not limited to trade and scientific and technical cooperation,” he said.

He warned: “Sooner or later, our projects with individual countries will run into unresolved issues at the level of the EU bureaucracy. Therefore, in principle – I repeat once again – a break is possible, but it is extremely unwanted because it is fraught with many negative consequences.”

Cooperation in ‘non-toxic’ areas

The EU is interested in cooperation with Russia as well, as it is a big market and important partner, he added.

Russia also plays an important role in the Middle East, and the situation in the region directly affects life in the EU, so cooperation on regional conflicts is another important part of Russian-EU interaction, said Kortunov.

To defuse the situation, he said, both sides have to exercise caution in their rhetoric.

“It’s one thing for members of parliament to say something critical, and quite another for the decision-makers in the executive branch to do that. The latter should exercise as much restraint as possible,” said Kortunov.

Cooperation in “non-toxic” areas, where Russia and the EU can work together despite political differences without making any difficult concessions, would also contribute to building trust, he said.

“And we need an open discussion with the EU about how we see ourselves in the world in five, 10, maybe more years,” he said.

“We need a strategic dialogue, which is not currently being conducted, at least I do not know that it is being conducted. And then we can gradually correct the relationship.”

Foreign Minister Lavrov said last week that the EU had been breaking bilateral mechanisms established under agreements on partnership and cooperation.

Asked if Russia is heading for a breach with the EU, Lavrov said he believed Moscow would be ready for it, and the country has to become fully economically self-sufficient in case sanctions are imposed in a sphere where they could risk the Russian economy.

From our partner RIAC

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Dara of Jasenovac

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The region that we now call Western Balkans does not remember that the realization of a movie caused many reactions and comments as ” Dara of Jasenovac”. The movie deals with the most painful topic in Serbian history – the genocide that Croats and Bosnian Muslims committed against the Serbian people in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, in the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II.

All Nazi concentration camps after the end of the World War II were preserved to this day, so that the memory of the crimes would not fade. Millions of visitors come to Auschwitz, Dachau and other death camps, and pay their respects to the innocent victims. When in December 2009 from a museum in Auschwitz the “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) sign was stolen, it was a planetary news. The sign was found after less than a month, although broken into three parts, which was again world news.

But few, outside of the Balkans, have heard about the Jasenovac extermination camp in Croatia, which was never liberated, but instead saw roughly 1,000 inmates escape in the hope that at least one of them would live to tell the world about the horrors of being imprisoned by the Croat Nazi-aligned puppet government that was appointed to rule a part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia.

Israeli professor Gideon Greif, an expert on Auschwitz, researched the history of Jasenovac, which resulted in his book Jasenovac: Auschwitz of the Balkans. The Croat-run Jasenovac extermination camp was the size of about 150 football pitches and was established on April 10, 1941, four days after Nazi Germany invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The wartime Independent State of Croatia, or NDH, was a Fascist satellite that was created by Nazi Germany and Hitler’s closest ally, Mussolini’s Italy. Under its leader, Ante Pavelic, the NDH set out to exterminate the Serbs, Jews and Roma who lived in the areas that were under their control – the Jasenovac camp was built to serve this purpose.

What made Jasenovac particularly cruel was the existence of a special camp for children where more than 20,000 Serbian children were brutally murdered. The methods used by the Croat guards to kill and torture the inmates were reportedly so barbaric that even SS chief Heinrich Himmler is believed to have suggested to the Croats that industrial killing, i.e. gas chambers, was a “cleaner way” to liquidate victims so that the guards wouldn’t need to use knives, axes, and other handheld weapons against those that they were sending to their deaths. Menachem Shelah, a historian with the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, wrote in 1990 that “the crimes committed in Jasenovac are among the most terrible in the entire history of humanity.”

Historians have estimated that between 700,000 to 1,000,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. The Nazis, themselves, recorded up to 750,000 deaths. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Croatian government has continually insisted that only 83,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. Croatia’s first post-Yugoslav president, Franjo Tudjman, an unabashed nationalist and the man responsible for restoring the Ustase-era flag as the national symbol of Croatia, insisted until his death in December 1999 that a mere 30,000-40,000 people died while imprisoned at Jasenovac.

The total number of deaths that occurred at Jasenovac may never be known as concerted attempts to suppress the extent of the horrors of the camp continue to this day. This, however, is not a new process. Immediately after World War II, Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, played down the crimes that were committed at Jasenovac as they were seen as a potential threat to the “brotherhood and unity” doctrine of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

“Dara of Jasenovac“ is the first film dedicated to the Nazi Croat camp Jasenovac for mass extermination of Serbs. The decision of the authorities to show the movie “Dara of Jasenovac” simultaneously on the public services of Serbia and Republic of Srpska, as well as on commercial television in Montenegro, was  the right decision in the public interest.

It should be noted that the film Dara from Jasenovac has not only a historical role, but also a geopolitical one. Republic of Srpska has been under pressure since its inception in 1995, with the ultimate goal of abolishing it. There is a whole list of Hollywood films in which Serbs and their struggle in the wars of the 1990s were shown in a negative context. The aim was to show the Serbs as evil and Republic of Srpska as a criminal creation. The ideologues of this theory were the Bosnian Muslim political leaders and the financiers were predominantly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. That is why “Dara of Jasenovac“ has not only historical and artistic value, but also has a geopolitical one.

`We should continue to make films that will show the suffering of the Serbian people throughout history. I think that we will adopt it, not only as a program act, but also as a program of the Government of Republic of Srpska, to treat Serbian victims in the Independent State of Croatia in the right way“, said Serbian member and chairman of the BiH Presidency Milorad Dodik, after the premiere of “Dara of Jasenovac“.  This statement shows that the leading Serbian politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina has strategic thinking, and that is to be commended. All that remains is, that Milorad Dodik should be supported in this plan by other Serbian institutions and especially by the state of Serbia.

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Council of Europe fights for your Right to Know, too

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Authors: Eugene Matos de Lara and Audrey Beaulieu

“People have the right to know what those in power are doing” -Dunja Mijatovic Council of Europe, Commissioner for Human Rights.

Access to information legislation was first seen in 1766 in Sweden, with parliamentary interest to access information held by the King. Finland in 1951, the United States in 1966, and Norwayin 1970 also adopted similar legislation. Today there are 98 states with access laws; of these, more than 50 incorporated in their constitution. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights 2006 and the European Court of Human Rights 2009 both ruled that access to information is a human right, confirmed in July 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a sine qua non of 21st-century democracy.

Global civil society movements have been promoting transparency, with activists and journalists reporting daily on successes in obtaining information and denouncing obstacles and frustrations in the implementation of this right. To this end, the Council of Europe was inspired by pluralistic and democratic ideals for greater European unity, adopted the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents recognising a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities. It brings a minimum standard for the fair processing of requests for access to official documents with the obligation for member states to secure independent review for restricted documents unless with held if the protection of the documents is considered legitimate.

The right to freedom of information

Access to information is a government scrutiny tool. Without it, human rights violations, corruption cases, and anti-democratic practices would never be uncovered. Besides exposing demerits, the policy is also known to improve the quality of public debates while increasing participation in the decision making process. Indeed, transparency of authorities should be regarded as a fundamental precondition for the enjoyment of fundamental rights, as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The policy equips citizens and NGOs with the necessary tool to counter refusal from authorities to provide information. The European Court of Human Rights recognized that withheld documents could be accessed in specific circumstances. In principle, all information should be available, and those upheld can also be accessed, particularly when access to that particular information is crucial for the individual or group to exercise their freedoms unless of course, the information is of national security or of private nature.

Access to information in times of crisis a first line weapon against fake news

The COVID pandemic has enabled us to test access policies and benchmark the effectiveness of the right to know during trivial times, as Dunja Mijatovic mentioned. In fact, having easy access to reliable information protects the population from being misled and misinformed, a first-line weapon dismantling popular fake news and conspiracies. Instead, during COVID, access to information has supported citizens in responding adequately to the crisis. Ultimately, transparency is also a trust-building exercise.

Corruption and environmental issues

Information is a weapon against corruption. The Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) is looking at the specific issue of access to official documents in the context of its Fifth Evaluation Round, which focuses on preventing corruption and promoting integrity in central governments and law enforcement agencies. In about a third of the reports published so far, GRECO has recommended the state to improve access to official documents. In regards to the environment, the United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention, expands the right of access to information on environmental matters thus complementing the Tromsø Convention. Declaring these policies as the primary tools that empower citizens and defenders to protect the environment we live in.

Good models exist

Most Council of Europe member states have adequate mechanisms regarding the right to information. For example, in Estonia, “the Public Information Act provides for broad disclosure of public information” states Mijatovic. Moreover, “in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and several other countries there is an independent oversight body – such as an Information Commissioner – responsible for monitoring and enforcing the right to information, while some other countries entrust Parliamentary Ombudsmen with supervision of the right of access to information”. Finally, “the constitutions of several European countries do indeed guarantee the fundamental right to information.” Nonetheless, there are still in consistent levels of transparency among state institutions or a failure to meet the requirement for proactive disclosure. The entry into force of the Tromso Convention willbe an opportunity to bring back to the table the importance of the right to information and to read just European States practices regarding the enhancement.

Barriers and Challenges

Digitization is still recent, and authorities are not accustomed to dealing openly. There is a sentiment of reservation and caution. Before the advent of the internet, governments enjoyed a level of political efficiency and practical obscurity. Viewing public records required the time and effort of a visit to the records’ physical location and prevented easy access to details of individual files. Openness has made the policy cycle longer, with a more thorough consultation process and debates. The availability of digital documents has caused an unavoidable conflict.

One of the conflicts is a privacy protection and policy safeguards invoked against freedom of information requests. Requirements to provide transparency of activities must be mitigated with national security, individuals’ safety, corporate interests, and citizens’ right to privacy. Finding the right balance is essential to understand how local governments manage the dichotomy between providing open access to their records by maintaining the public’s privacy rights.

Several governments think twice before pursuing transparency policies. Access to information hasn’t been a priority for some of the European States. Mijatovic reported that “filtering of information and delays in responses to freedom of information requests have been observed in several member states”. Although there is a growth in these laws’ popularity, we are always a step behind meeting the supply and demand of information objectives in an era of digitization.

Legal perspectives

Tromso Convention has only been ratified by eleven countries, which are mostly located in Scandinavia (Finland, Norway and Sweden) or in Eastern Europe (Bosnia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldavia and Ukraine). Reading this statement, three questions should come to our minds:

1.    Why not all European states have ratified Tromso Convention?

2.    Why do Scandinavian countries have chosen to ratify the Convention?

3.    Why are most of the Member States from Eastern Europe?

Regarding the first question, the answer resides in the fact that the ones who haven’t taken part in the Convention already have strong national laws protecting freedom of information and don’t need to bother with extra protection and external surveillance. For instance, Germany passed a law in 2005, promoting the unconditional right to access information. Many other European states such as Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France &Poland have similar national law.

Regarding the second question, considering that all Scandinavian countries already have national laws assessing freedom of information, the most likely reason behind their ratification would be symbolic support to the cause or because the Convention’s framework is less restrictive than their national laws.

Finally, concerning the last question, we could suppose that most Eastern countries have an interest in demonstrating themselves as more transparent, more following the rule of law. For example, if we examine Montenegro’s case, we could assume that taking part in the Tromso Convention is a step closer to their accession to the EU in 2025.

As for the reservations that have been made, only Finland, Norway and Sweden have made some noticeable. Regarding Norway, the country declared that “communication with the reigning Family and its Household” will remain private in accordance with Article 3,paragraph 1 of the Convention. This limitation covers something interesting, considering that, as mentioned earlier, access to the data type of legislation was first adopted in order to get access to information held by the King. In parallel, Finland declared that “the provisions of Article 8 of the Convention concerning the review procedure [will] not apply to a decision made by the President of the Republic in response to a request for access to a document. Article 8 provides protection against arbitrary decisions and allows members of the population to assert their right to information. Sweden has made a similarreservation on Article 8 paragraph 1 regarding “decisions taken by the Government, ministers and the Parliamentary Ombudsmen”.

Thoughts towards better implementation

For smoother data access implementation, governments can act on transparency without waiting for legislation through internal bureaucratic policy. These voluntary provisions for openness can be an exercise towards a more organic cultural transformation.

Lengthy debates on open access are entertained by exceptions to access. To be sure, governments have enough legal and political tools to withhold information, regardless of how exemptions have been drafted. Instead, a more productive and efficient process is possible if we concentrate on positive implementation and enforcement, including the procedures for challenges on legal exemptions.

The implementation phase of access laws is challenging due to a lack of leadership motivation, inadequate support for those implementing these requests, especially since they require a long term social and political commitment. To do so, an overall dedication and government bureaucratic cultural shift should take place. Although the implementation of access to information should be included internally in all departments, considering a standardized centralized approach to lead the new regime with authority could send an important message. Record keeping and archiving should be updated to respond to requests with improved information management systems. As such, the goal would be to make a plethora of information immediately and unconditionally available.

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