The German government was quick to accuse Moscow of using a poisonous substance (“chemical weapon”) against Alexei Navalny, which resulted in additional sanctions being imposed on Russia, and the completion of Nord Stream 2 called into question. However, inconsistencies in Berlin’s version have raised doubts about the credibility of accusations brought against Russia among several deputies of the Bundestag and the parliamentary faction of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is in opposition to the policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government.
The government’s 76 answers to MPs’ queries raised even more questions
In their foreword to the government’s answers, the deputies provided the following timeline of events: on August 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny fell violently sick while on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny was rushed to a hospital and put in a coma. Subsequent tests confirmed the doctors’ initial diagnosis about the natural causes of the patient’s condition. On August 22, Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment at Berlin’s Charité hospital. During a news conference held at the clinic two days later, on August 24, it was announced that Alexei Navalny had been poisoned.
Additional studies at a German military toxicology lab, and a little later (September 5 and 6) also in France and Sweden, confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned allegedly with a substance from the “Novichok” group of nerve agents.
“We have high expectations of the Russian government to solve this serious crime,” Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on September 6, adding that “if the [Russian] government has nothing to do with the attack, then it is in its own interest to back this up with facts.”
Moscow has argued, however, that it is unable to conduct a comprehensive investigation and open a criminal case as long as the German government keeps withholding the data necessary for such a probe. Since doctors in Omsk did not find any poisonous substances in Navalny’s body, Russia has no grounds for opening a criminal case, and a pre-investigation check is being completed by the transport department of the Interior Ministry in the Siberian Federal District.
On September 17, 2020 (almost a month later), Navalny’s team announced that he had been poisoned in his hotel room in Tomsk after drinking from a bottle of water, which he could have taken to Berlin. However, during the next four weeks it was believed that “Novichok” had most likely been added to the tea that Navalny drank at the airport in Tomsk.
The German MPs also pointed to “confirmed facts that “Novichok” is available not only to the state, but to private individuals as well. It has been proven that already in the mid-1990s, some criminal groups in various countries possessed nerve agents from the “Novichok” group. In January 1997, The Washington Times quoted a US chemical weapons expert as providing detailed information on the various poisons of the “Novichok” family. And in 2018, the US Army admitted to producing different versions “Novichok.”
Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, England, said that the “owner” of the toxin would be hard to find. He added that while in the case of the Skripals’ poisoning his laboratory was able to find traces of “Novichok,” the involvement of government agencies in the poisoning was “presumptive” and the “owner” could not be established.
The Bundestag deputies believe that not only Germany and Russia, but Europe as a whole would benefit from finding the truth about Navalny’s poisoning, and that there are questions that Germany, just like Russia, has to answer.
The questions asked were intended to clarify:
- to what extent the German government is following the terms of the OPCW Convention, under which “states are obliged to give each other legal assistance and to act vigorously to clarify various issues through exchange of information and bilateral consultations,”
- how the identified trace amounts of degradation products of a chemical compound resembling a cholinesterase inhibitor got into the body of Navalny in Russia, and not later,
- to clarify the biomaterials whose samples were taken for analysis, so that they can be compared with similar ones taken in Russia, and establish a specific formula for the identified inhibitor biomarkers in order to determine the country of origin of the synthesized chemical agent.
The deputies’ concerns are fairly understandable, because answers to the above questions can either prove or disprove the legitimacy of the German government’s accusations against the Russian authorities. The answers were simply shocking:
I. Legal assistance. The German government confirmed that it had received four requests for legal assistance from the Russian Federation in the preliminary investigation of Navalny’s case, which the government sent to the relevant authorities for further processing after the initial verification (response 26). The federal government kept mum about the government’s failure to provide any clear response to these requests for a whole three months;
– despite the significance of Navalny’s case, Berlin explained the 8-day delay in accepting the August 27, 2020 request by the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office for the provision of legal assistance from the German Ministry of Justice by the need to conduct a standard procedure for verifying compliance with legal norms, thus failing to provide any substantive answer (answer No. 28);
– Russia’s request for legal assistance, dated September 11, 2020, which included a permission for Russian investigators to come to Germany and meet with Alexei Navalny or with German doctors and experts, went equally unanswered (replies 26 and 29);
– all of Moscow’s requests for cooperation between the German and Russian chemical laboratories to compare the results of the obtained analyzes, were also rejected on the grounds that since the Russian authorities have their own biomaterials of Alexei Navalny, they can study them themselves (answers 22, 40 and 67 );
– the German government did not exchange information with the Russian doctors who had provided first aid to Navalny (answer 9).
II. Method and place of the alleged poisoning. It turned out that, according to its own admission, the German government, has no reliable information about the fundamental facts of the use of chemical weapons, namely:
– about the subsequent discovery of similar symptoms in the medical personnel who accompanied Navalny on the plane (Question: Were the accompanying persons examined for possible poisoning, given that there should have been traces of “Novichok” on Navalny’s body?) (answers 4, 6);
– about the methods of delivery and the persons who delivered the victim’s personal effects with traces of “Novichok” and the bottle of water, allegedly poisoned with “Novichok” (answers 5, 15, 16, 38);
– about the initial condition (liquid or powder) of the applied substance (answer 41);
– about the reason why the expert opinion of Navalny’s attending physician was not made public during the September 24 news conference at the Charité clinic, where the fact of Navalny’s poisoning was announced (answer 21);
– about how the poisonous substance got into Alexei Navalny’s body: via the respiratory tract, skin or orally (answer 36);
– about why the long delay between Navalny’s alleged contact with “Novichok” in the hotel and its onset on the plane, while a chemical warfare agent is designed to instantly destroy enemy manpower (answer 67);
III. Biomaterial research. When asked directly about the nature of the biomaterials tested: blood, urine, samples from a bottle of water, or otherwise, the German government describes them as just “biomedical materials” (answers 47 and 48);
– the German government explains its refusal to disclose the composition of the discovered compound “Novichok” by the allegedly “high risk of information leakage” (answer 75), although even Wikipedia provides the structural formula and a method of synthesizing this toxic substance. We believe that the “risk of information leakage” boils down to the fact that disclosure of the composition of the found substance can reveal to specialists its country of origin, since chemical laboratories in different countries are able to determine this.
Failing to get any answers to leading questions, the MPs decided to put their questions “head-on” (questions 55-69), and, as a result, learned the following:
– traces of “Novichok” could only be found on a bottle of water, but not in Navalny’s body;
– the poison was on the bottle, not in the water, because otherwise, Alexei Navalny would not have survived;
– Alexei Navalny was in contact with the poisoned bottle while already on the plane flying from Omsk to Berlin. Maria Pevchikh was on the same plane and she carried the bottle onboard. Still, she was never interrogated in Germany;
– no fingerprints were taken from the bottle, which could prove that Navalny had touched it;
– the bottle of water was listed as the (alleged) source of poisoning only four weeks after the (alleged) poisoning.
The German federal government had no answers to these questions either. As a result, the most obvious version was not verified, and charges were immediately brought against the Russian authorities.
Here we’ll try to consider different versions of what happened, based on the known facts and the answers provided by the German government.
Let’s start with the most implausible one, which is still being actively forced on the ordinary people in the West: “the dictator Putin is challenging the democratic countries by demonstrably using banned weapons of mass destruction against the opposition leader.” This immediately brings to mind the defamatory campaigns waged against Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad, accusing the former of being ready to use, and the latter of using chemical weapons. In both cases, the Western media portrayed these two leaders as “merciless” and even “crazy,” capable of acting against their own personal interests and the interests of their countries. In February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presented “evidence” of Iraq’s alleged WMD programs to the UN Security Council, while knowing full well that it was a lie. The same with the shameless staging of “mass chlorine poisoning” in Syria to name just a few…
By using the same defamatory tactic against the Russian leader, the collective West may be looking for “justification” for a possible pushback, including a motion to deprive Russia of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
This version has too many pitfalls, however. Why should Putin want to raise a scandal exactly when the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was all but over?; why allow Navalny’s evacuation to Germany, even though there were enough legal grounds to the contrary amid a pandemic and an ongoing criminal case against Navalny (over insulting a WWII veteran)? And why keep sending requests for cooperation in the investigation of the incident?
Germany’s refusal to cooperate and clarify the circumstances, which the lawmakers pointed to in their questions, is apparently an attempt by the government to present to the public only one handpicked version of what happened. Indeed, this version could be immediately disputed by a) the absence of Navalny’s fingerprints on the bottle of water containing a poisonous substance that was allegedly found in Navalny’s hotel room in Tomsk; b) comparison of test results in Russia and Germany; c) disclosure of the formula of the detected poisonous substance. This is obviously why the German government failed to do this.
Another thing that German officials remain silent about is how Navalny learned about the alleged mining of the Omsk airport before the plane landed there, while he was already on his hospital bed at Charité. The Russian Interior Ministry hadn’t released the information about the false alarm that could have prevented the plane’s emergency landing in Omsk and provision of medical assistance to Navalny. According to the Ministry, the anonymous message about the bomb came via an online mail service, whose servers are in Germany. The German authorities still refused to help identify the owner of the email address from where the warning about the bomb allegedly ticking at Omsk airport had come.
According to another version, Navalny’s poisoning was organized by certain elements in Russia’s ruling elite and the oligarchy, unhappy about Putin’s performance and seeking to discredit him in the West. That what had remained of the “Novichok” that was used to kill the banker Ivan Kivelidi in the 1990s, could have now been used to poison the Skripals and Navalny.
However, according to Western sources, NATO countries have also been able to synthesize or had access to “Novichok”’s analogues. In a joint report , the German newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and public broadcasters NDR and WDR said, citing their sources, that the country’s intelligence agency BND had obtained a sample of the “Novichok” nerve agent from a Russian scientist. The sample was analyzed in Sweden, and the chemical formula was then passed on to the German government and the military. The BND declined to comment on the report, which said that the BND informed the US and British intelligence agencies about that and small quantities of the poison were later produced in several NATO countries to test Western defenses, test equipment and antidotes.
During the 1990s, US specialists were working in Uzbekistan to scrap the production facilities of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GNIIOKhT), where the nerve agent “Novichok” was produced and tested in Soviet times. This means that the Americans also had access to the technology used in the production of this agent, The New York Times wrote in 1999. The same is reported by Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. Therefore, representatives of the intelligence agencies, trying hard to give Russia a bad name in the world, should by no means be excluded from the list of possible poisoners. To rule this out, the German government should have provided substantive answers to the questions posed by the Bundestag deputies. Otherwise, one gets the impression that what is being kept under wraps is precisely what can shed light on the whole situation, and Berlin’s reluctance to cooperate with Russian law enforcement agencies smacks of a deliberate provocation.
Finally, the most trivial explanation cannot be discarded either: what if Navalny really fell sick on the plane, necessitating an emergency landing and hospitalization? He is put in a coma and medical tests reveal no traces of any poisonous substances. Meanwhile, the Western special services spring into action and decide to use this opportunity to discredit Russia: they arrange for taking Navalny out to Germany in order to find any traces of “Novichok” (exactly the type of poison they need to demonize the Russian regime). To do this, they order Maria Pevchikh, who, most likely (or “highly likely”) is associated with Western intelligence, to take out from Navalny’s hotel room some evidence of poisoning. Unsuspicious of this, (although it should have been after the Skripals’ affair), Russia agrees to the evacuation. During the flight or upon arrival in Germany, they mark a bottle of water, clothes and some biomaterials (which for some reason are hidden) with small amounts of a cholinesterase inhibitor, pointing to the presence of a new analogue of a poisonous substance from the “Novichok” group.
At the same time, as follows from the federal government’s answers to the questions from Bundestag deputies about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, without knowing for sure that the bottle of water was actually used by Navalny and that the biomaterials and their analysis are identical to the samples taken in Russia, the German government continues to blame the Russian leadership for poisoning the opposition activist.
Small wonder that the German government does not respond or gives formal replies to four requests from the Russian Prosecutor’s Office, refuses to cooperate and disclose the formula of the discovered inhibitor under the ridiculous pretext that: “given the high risks of information leakage, the Federal Government did not disclose any details about the substance used” (answer to question 75). While accusing Russia of a deliberate crime, the German government is actually hiding evidence from the alleged “criminal” under the pretext that learning about the “murder weapon” he might want to use it again. If Germany fears that this weapon could be used by other countries and entities, then the transfer of related information can be made extremely confidential. If you really want to get at the truth, you have to exchange information, including of the analyzes of the composition of biomaterials, since, according to Article IX of the OPCW Convention, the participating States “shall consult and cooperate, directly among themselves … on any matter which may be raised relating to the object and purpose, or the implementation of the provisions, of this Convention … States Parties should, whenever possible, first make every effort to clarify and resolve, through exchange of information and consultations among themselves, any matter which may cause doubt about compliance with this Convention … A State Party which receives a request from another State Party for clarification of any matter which the requesting State Party believes causes such a doubt or concern shall provide the requesting State Party as soon as possible, but in any case not later than 10 days after the request, with information sufficient to answer the doubt or concern raised along with an explanation of how the information provided resolves the matter.”
How the US and Britain opposed the inclusion of “Novichok” in the OPCW Convention
During the 1990s and 2000s, the United States and Britain made sure that a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, and their alleged predecessors, was not put on the list of substances banned by the OPCW Convention.
In the autumn of 2018, the US and Netherlands proposed to include in the Convention only two families of toxic substances from the “Novichok” group. Russia then proposed to add five such chemicals to the list, but the Western countries rejected the initiative.
In September 2019, Russia came up with a revised proposal where the 5th group of chemicals objected to by the United States and its allies was no longer mentioned.
As a result, the parties reached a compromise and in November 2019, the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention approved the proposals put forward by Russia and the “troika” of Western countries to include four hazardous chemicals of the “Novichok” family on the Convention’s list. However, the substance used in Navalny’s alleged poisoning was notably missing from the amended list.
List 1 of the Convention, which now includes “Novichok,” features chemicals that can be used in the production of chemical weapons or constitute a weapon per se. According to the Convention, a country that produces more than 100 grams of such substances a year must declare it to the OPCW. In addition, a state is allowed to have maximum one ton of such substances. This list includes mustard gas and ricin, among others.
Almost simultaneously with the inclusion in the Convention’s list of chemical compounds of the “Novichok” family, articles by Western scientists about the synthesis and research of this group’s substance began to appear in the press. For example, an article by Steven Harvey provides data on obtaining (using independently developed methods) preparations of the “Novichok” group (A230, A232 and A234) of very high purity (over 95%). This means that the West had been actively developing chemical warfare agents before, albeit secretly. This explains why the United States and Britain rejected the idea of adding to the list a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, before including the five chemicals of the “Novichok” group.
This conclusion is also confirmed by the former Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who was the first to announce the creation of a new chemical warfare agent. In a recent interview with “Echo of Moscow” radio , he said that “a team in England and another one in the United States analyzed the hydrolysis of these “Novichoks,” which is thousands of times slower than that of all the known organophosphate toxic substances. This means that its traces remain in the human body for a very long time and do not disappear – that’s my conclusion.” In other words, it is possible to subject a person to a deliberately small non-lethal dose of such a substance, being fully confident that even three weeks later biomarkers indicating the use of “Novichok” will be detected, just like in the cases of the Skripals and Navalny. Those who planned both operations did not intend to kill, but only to embed material evidence to discredit Russia.
They will certainly try to deny this and say that Russian experts could have synthesized and reveal such properties in some analogue of “Novichok,” and use it for criminal ends.
Theoretically, such a version can’t be ruled out, but it should be considered on an equal basis with others. To identify the real organizers of these incidents, we need to work together and find answers to the questions asked by the German MPs, compare the results of Navalny’s analyzes taken in Russia and Germany, and reveal the formulas of poisonous substances found in the biomaterials of the Skripals and Navalny. Germany, just like the UK before it, refuses to cooperate in such an investigation, which could mean that they have something to hide. As they say in Russia, “No one shouts ‘thief!’ louder the thief himself.”
Opponents stick to a completely opposite version, however, arguing that the reason why neither case ended in death is because the Russian “spooks” used a minimum amount of the substance to make sure that its residue in the victims’ bodies could not be determined after a while. They also say that because the physical and chemical properties of the chemical substance were not taken into account, they erred with the dose and, as a result, the victims remained alive and the markers were found. This version holds no water, because if they wanted to hide the murder weapon, then why use an untested substance again, instead of some tried-and-true one harking back to the Medici era, or arrange an accident, just like they have occasionally done also in the West? Moreover, why let the patient be urgently taken out to Germany (the flight that would take Navalny to Berlin was delayed by several hours, but not because it was being held up by Moscow, but because the German pilots had to rest)?
Germany’s accusations against Russia over the alleged poisoning of Navalny, as well as Britain’s over the Skripals’ poisoning rest on the assumption that “Novichoks” could have allegedly been produced only at certain military facilities to be found only in Russia. However, this is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. In his 1995 article, and later in a book that came out in the US in 2008, Vil Mirzayanov revealed “Novichok”’s chemical formula. In the book, Mirzayanov wrote that “chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version “Novichok-5” are common organophosphorus compounds that can be produced at commercial chemical plants making fertilizers, pesticides, etc.”
Czech President Milos Zeman admitted that in 2017, Czech chemists synthesized compounds of the “Novichok” family of nerve agents.
From a scientific standpoint, no laboratory, be it the Bundeswehr in Germany or Porton Down in the UK, is able to identify chemical compounds as analogues of the “Novichok” family if it has no compound of the same class available. They can determine that it fits Mirzayanov’s formula, but since he published the formula 20 years ago, this can by no means serve as proof of its Russian origin – just the opposite. If Porton Down can synthesize this chemical agent, so can many others, and not only in Russia. Moreover, as the same Mirzayanov said in his recent interview with Echo of Moscow: “Not a single substance, including “Novichok,” is 100% pure … chromatography mass spectrometry can be used to analyze the semi-products from which the final substance is obtained to determine the country and laboratory of origin of this toxic substance.”
The refusal by Germany and Britain to provide their samples of “Novichok” and to perform a comparative analysis of biomedical samples taken from the victims is evidence of their fear that this would point a finger at laboratories that could have actually synthesized the said chemical agents.
From our partner International Affairs
A Muscular U.S. Foreign Policy and Changing Alliances
Imagine a country rich in fossil fuels and another nearby that is Europe’s premier industrial power in dire need of those resources — is that a match made in heaven?
Not according to Joe Biden who quashed it as if it was a match made in hell. Biden was so much against any such rapprochement that to end all prospects of a deal, he ordered the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines. Two out of four lines were severely damaged, about 50 meters of them and Russia chose not to conduct repairs. Instead,it is pumping its gas up through Turkey.
So far, Russia has not responded to this act of war but a leader can not afford to lose face domestically or internationally, and one may not be surprised if an American facility or ship suffers an adverse event in the future.
In the meantime, Russia has become fast friends with China — the latter having its own bone to pick with Biden. China, a growing industrial giant, has almost insatiable energy needs and Russia stands ready to supply them. An informal deal has been agreed upon with a formal signing ceremony on March 20, 2023.
So who won this fracas? Russia gets to export its gas anyway and China, already generating the world’s highest GDP on a purchasing-power-parity basis, has guaranteed itself an energy source.
Of course there is Ukraine where Biden (like the US in Vietnam) is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian. Despite a valiant resistance, they are not winning, for Russia continues to solidify its hold on Ukraine’s east, most recently by taking Soledar and capturing parts of the transport hub Bakhmut itself.
And then there is Saudi Arabia: hitherto a staunch U.S. ally, it is now extending a hand of friendship to Iran, which its previous king used to call the snake in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia is keenly aware of the vassal-like manner in which the U.S. has treated Germany, its ally with the largest economy in Europe, over its desire to buy cheap gas from Russia. The deal was nixed and observers estimate it cost Germany a couple of points of GDP growth. Such a loss in the U.S. would translate to almost zero growth.
India used to be a neutral country between the great powers. In fact, its first leader after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in the non-aligned movement. It is now being tugged towards the US.
The latest tug is ICET or the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies. Its purpose is to find ways to engage through “innovation bridges” over the key areas of focus. This coordination between the two countries is to cover industry, academia and government.
On the other hand, India’s arch rival Pakistan used to be in the US orbit for decades. Now it is virtually a Chinese client state even though for a time, particularly during the Afghan war, it was a source of much help for the US.
Such are the vagaries of alignments in a multi-polar world, particularly when under pressure from major powers.
Adoption of the controversial pension reform bill in France
On Thursday, 16th March 2023, the senate adopted the pension reform bill with 193 senators voting for the project and 114 senators voting against it. A few hours later, after many meetings of key figures of the government and the Renaissance party –the governing party – , it was decided that the National Assembly was not going to vote for the bill but rather the government would use the famous 49.3, an article of the 1958 constitution which allows the prime minister to have a bill adopted into law without a vote. The Senate and the National Assembly – through a joint committee – had agreed on a compromise text of the bill the day before the crucial vote in the Parliament. The project was so important to President Macron that he threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if the project did not go through. Some analysts saw this threat as way of inducing members of the National Assembly to adopt the project rather than put into jeopardy their political careers. Politicians like Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, a staunch republican, claims members of the National Assembly had to vote the bill because they should be convinced that it is the best thing to do right now for a sustainable pension system in France.
When President Macron was elected in 2017, he pledged to change the pension system in France for he believed that it was unjust and that it would be difficult to sponsor it in the years to come since more people will be going into retirement. It is believed that those aged 65 will be more than the under 20 come the year 2030. Macron did not carry out the reform in his first term in office after meeting with different resistance like the one of the Gilets Jaunes; he probably feared it may cost him the second term. Once the first term was over, he was most probably determined to carry on simply because he is not scared to lose, his second term being the last one. The pension reform has been heavily contested, with polls in February 2023 suggesting that 65% of the French people are against it.
The reform moves the retirement age from 62 to 64 years. The change will be carried out progressively with 3 months added each year to make it two years in total in 2030. To have fully contributed to the retirement insurance one will have worked 43 years. People working in relatively hard industries like the police, firefighters, garbage collection will still be able to retire early. However, those who entered the career late like those who had long studies will have to work until 67 years. Disabled people could still go on retirement at the age of 55 while those who have suffered disability along the way could retire at the age of 60.
With the new bill having become a law, those who will have a complete career (43 years) will not receive less than 85% of minimum wage (i.e. 1200 Euros gross salary). Furthermore, the government believes it will be able to save 17.7 billion Euros by 2030 with the new pension system. According to the government, increasing the retirement age was the fairer way than increasing taxes especially that people are believed to live longer than in the past.
The left parties (La France Insoumise LFI, Les Socialistes, Europe Ecologie-les Verts) have made it difficult for the bill discussion especially in the National Assembly by proposing thousands of amendments to delay the voting process and even derail it. This is probably why the government feared to lose the vote and decided to invoke 49.3. The government doesn’t have the outright majority and has had to rely on the right party (les Républicains LR) to have the reform bill voted in the Senate but some of Renaissance members of the National Assembly were reluctant to vote for the bill and some LR members had said they would abstain, leaving the ruling party with no other choice than to use 49.3. The Prime Minister suggested that “the reform is necessary” and she was taking responsibility by invoking 49.3.
The reform bill was so unpopular that there have been protests for months spearheaded by the Union of workers who mobilized workers across many industries (i.e. energy, transport) and public institutions (e.g. education). Millions of people have been on the street, a reminiscence of 1968, when students spearheaded strikes in which 10 million of people took to the street to make request which resulted, inter alia, in the 35% increase of minimum wage. The objective of protestors against pension reform bill had been to make the government withdraw the entire project because they believe it is unjust to ask people to work two years more, considering that their career is long enough. President Macron seemed not interested to receive the Unions and had no intention to withdraw the project.
As a result of strikes, the city of Paris and some other cities in France have seen the bins fill up along the streets and residents are said to hold their noses as they pass by. For some this is not the image to show to the world for a city that is hosting Olympic games in 2024 let alone for health reasons but for others this is the price to pay for the actions of a government that does not hid the voices of the people. Transport on the road as well as in the air has been heavily disrupted. Those who don’t participate in strikes are generally said to support the actions of the protesters. However, it is unclear if they will keep supporting them if the movement lasts long.
Using 49.3 always comes with the risk that the opposition would present a censure motion, in which the government itself runs the risk of being forced to resign and the text of the bill being rejected if the censure motion is adopted. Before the Prime Minister announced that the government had chosen to use 49.3 to adopt the pension reform bill, she was not allowed to speak for a few minutes. Ivan Rioufol, a journalist at CNews believes that this moment is not just a big moment for the 5th Republic but also a historical moment. For now, the government has triumphed and one of the most contested reforms of French modern politics has become a law– at least if the censure motion does not bring down the government and along with it, the newly-adopted law.
Nonetheless, despite the bill being adopted into law by the Senate and through 49.3, unions have vowed to keep protesting until the law is suspended. In a recent BFMTV poll, 62% French people would want the strikes to continue if the bill passes. Now that it has passed, it is not clear whether the resistance will make the government change anything. Neither is it clear whether the movement itself will be able to resist long since the longer workers strike the more money they lose from the salary. With the inflation and conditions of life that have been hard due to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine it will be hard to sustain the strikes. What is clear is that the repercussions of this reform will linger on for many years to come. One anonymous political scientist even claimed that this could open the narrow door to the extreme right to come into power.
Building bridges between Ukrainian and EU researchers
With its eye on the eventual reconstruction of Ukraine, Europe is helping academics from the country get their lives back on track.
By Andrew Dunne
Regis Nibaruta remembers the night of 24 February 2022 like no other. After months of speculation about rising tensions with Russia, at 3am his phone rang. It was a fellow electrical engineer also based at the Dnipro National University of Railway Transport in Ukraine and part of the same EU training programme.
‘Have you seen the news?’ the colleague asked. ‘We’re under attack.’
Rush to safety
Before long, with the industrial city of Dnipro a target of heavy Russian bombardment, reality dawned.
‘We were terrified,’ Nibaruta said. ‘I didn’t know what to do or where to go, but I knew I had to get away.’
The war started on a Thursday. By Saturday, with just his passport and laptop as luggage, he was at the Dnipro railway station along with thousands of others hoping to board a train to reach the border.
Roll forward 12 months and 35-year-old Nibaruta, originally from Burundi, is safe, settled and reunited with European colleagues at the University of Twente in the Netherlands that helped to orchestrate his escape. There he’s conducting research that could improve future net-zero transport systems and one day be instrumental in rebuilding Ukraine’s own infrastructure too.
The EU-funded project that he is a part of is called the European Training network in collaboration with Ukraine for electrical Transport, or ETUT. The initiative brings together three universities: Twente, Dnipro and Nottingham in the UK. Led by Professors Frank Leferink and Gert Rietveld, both electrical-engineering specialists, it aims to harness expertise in power electronics and electromagnetic compatibility.
‘The main engineering challenge in the development of a more sustainable, greener electrical transport system lies in the development of compact, highly-efficient and safe electrical power systems that deliver the necessary energy to charge electric vehicles or supply trains,’ said Rietveld.
Through ETUT, which is funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme, the team is developing new ways to meet these power demands.
One is through the development of electronics that allow energy to flow in both directions, a feature that could become a key component in electric trains.
When a train brakes, it creates heat and ordinarily this energy is lost. With this new ‘‘bi-directional’’ approach, braking energy can be recovered and fed back into the power grid, increasing capacity. Some of the first bi-directional railway supply systems are currently being installed and tested in Europe.
In other ways too ETUT is enabling new collaborations.
Nibaruta shares an office with 31-year-old Ivan Struzho, who is originally from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol now occupied by Russia but who was already in the Netherlands when the war broke out.
Whereas Nibaruta’s research focuses on improving battery technologies, Struzho’s looks at electromagnetic interference. Together, the two are exploring how to help reduce the electrical ‘‘disturbances’’ that can be caused by power systems and lead to equipment failure or accidents.
The project’s main goal, however, is to train and inspire the next generation of electronic engineers to develop the transport technologies needed for a zero-carbon world. Even though some of the team including Nibaruta have left Ukraine, the Dnipro National University of Railway Transport is still an active partner in ETUT.
Professor Vladimir Havryliuk, head of department at the university, supervises the project’s work remotely. For him, ETUT has provided a lifeline during these past 12 months in enabling research to continue.
‘The project allows me to maintain my activity in the field and has been a powerful motivational incentive for all university staff and students as it opens up new horizons in study and further work,’ he said.
Awards and returns
Another major initiative improving links between the Ukrainian and EU research communities is the MSCA4Ukraine project to help displaced researchers from Ukraine.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, the European Commission announced that MSCA4Ukraine – with a budget of €25 million – would help more than 120 Ukrainian academics pursue their work in safety over the next two years.
The researchers, whose fields include life sciences, chemistry, engineering and humanities, are hosted by organisations across Europe and supported in their research until they can return home.
The project is being implemented by Scholars at Risk Europe (SAR Europe), based at Maynooth University in Ireland, in partnership with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany and the European University Association. SAR Europe Director Sinead O’Gorman says it will have a significant impact in building bridges among researchers and bring long-term benefits for the EU and Ukraine.
Focus is also on helping the Ukrainian researchers maintain connections with colleagues and institutions in Ukraine. In particular, researchers will have the option to undertake a secondment to an institution in Ukraine when it is safe to do so.
‘Our hope is that, by including these kinds of measures and linkages, the scheme will help researchers re-establish themselves more easily in Ukraine when the time comes,’ said O’Gorman. ‘This will contribute to the scheme’s wider goal of sustaining the Ukrainian academic and research sector in the face of the Russian Federation’s invasion and preventing permanent ‘‘brain drain’’.’
For both MSCA4Ukraine and ETUT, the idea is that supporting Ukrainian researchers now will ensure academic work advances and enable many to return to Ukraine one day to put their skills to use in rebuilding the war-torn country.
Struzho, who is still in regular contact with family that has remained in Mariupol, expresses hope.
‘My city has been destroyed,’ he said. ‘If this project could help in the rebuilding of Ukraine’s infrastructure in the future, that would be very good. I really hope I can use my knowledge to contribute in some part.’
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