Browsing articles in "Europe and Russia"
Feb 22, 2014

The Sun Still Shines

From left to right, Hans Scholl, Sophia Scholl, and Christoph Probst, members of the anti-Nazi resistance movement the White Rose (from Jewish Virtual Library).

From left to right, Hans Scholl, Sophia Scholl, and Christoph Probst, members of the anti-Nazi resistance movement the White Rose (from Jewish Virtual Library).

On February 18, 1943, Sophia Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst were detained in the main campus of Munich University, where they were all students, while distributing the sixth leaflet of their intellectual resistance group, the White Rose, against Hitler and the Nazi regime. On February 22, they were trialed by Roland Freisler, head of the infamous extra-constitutional People’s Court, for treason and other relatively minor crimes (such as the hoarding of paper, ink, and post stamps, scarce materials during war time). In a matter of hours they were found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed. Over the course of the following months, other members of the group followed the same fate. In this way, Nazi authorities expected to wipe out any trail of this organization. For the remainder of the war, they were successful. But for the records of history, they completely failed.

The White Rose is one of the very few known organized resistances against Hitler and the Nazis that had a civilian origin and that opposed the regime because of its inherent political abhorrence, as opposed to the somewhat less uncommon actions of the military against the Führer for his bad war decisions. Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell began writing their pamphlets in the summer of 1942 complaining about the passivity of the Germans against the “irresponsible clique of sovereigns” who governed over the country. Citing Schiller, Goethe, the Bible, other German classics, and imbued with a Christian (from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant perspectives) notion about the responsibility of humans to live up to the expected dignity of thinking beings, they continued composing pamphlets. In them they point out the falseness and evilness of Hitler and called Germans to sabotage the regime to end with the pointless war and to bring freedom back to the nation. While the inception of the resistance and its initial activities were the responsibility of Scholl and Schmorell, the pair quickly expanded to a group in the need of inputs to write the leaflets (paper, ink, and ideas), copy them, and distribute them (mailing them to selected people throughout Germany and leaving them in public places).

In their leaflets, the White Rose members expected (in a number of times, they urge) Germans to rise up against Hitler. Yet that did not happen. After its first three members were arrested and executed, the rest of the group thought that such news could instigate a revolt of students. Yet it did not. It took the invasion of the Red Army and the physical destruction of Germany to end with the National Socialist rule.

In an interview in her old years, Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge commented that it was not until long after the war that she realized that she was born the same year as Sophia Scholl, one of the members of the White Rose. Not only that; she shamefully noticed that at 22, in 1943, the same year in which Junge began working with Hitler, Scholl had been executed for her ideas of freedom and dignity. Polls of public opinion in Germany during and after the war have shown that Junge’s obliviousness of the situation in her country was not unique to her, and that the task the White Rose set to itself, of waking up the consciousness of its fellow citizens, was very hard to accomplish.

Seventy years after the events, the White Rose speaks of the enormous load its members took when they decided to shake the consciousness of Germans and retrieve their dignity and freedom. The weight of the load comes not only from the size of the task, the mobilization of a whole country, or from the fact that it was them, and not anyone else, who took that responsibility without anyone but their conscience asking for it, but because of the price that was implicit in this work and which they paid, their lives. That they fought to keep all their operations undercover suggests that they were quite aware of the cost of their liberalizing attempt. Anyhow, they did not care and carried on. Before and after the White Rose, even in this very moment when protests around the world have a rising death toll, citizens have decided to sacrifice everything they have for what they think is a better life for their countries. Many times they are not able to see the changes such sacrifices bring about, and in other occasions they may be futile. Yet, the mere fact that someone is willing to make them indicates that, as Sophia Scholl reportedly said while walking to the guillotine, the sun still shines.

Feb 11, 2014

Sochi 2014

International Olympic President Thomas Bach with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games (from The Guardian)

International Olympic President Thomas Bach with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games (from The Guardian)

Last Friday, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games opened in the Russian town of Sochi. The celebration of a major sports event such as the Olympics or the soccer World Cup offer a unique opportunity for the world to look inside the host country because of the unusually large media attention it receives before and during the contests. Or, from other perspective, these events offer the chance for local authorities to show a new face to the world.

In the previous months there was a vast array of critiques to the hosts of the Olympic Games, implicitly questioning their integrity. Three were the lines of criticism. The first one was related to limits to freedom of expression, which clash with Olympic ideals of peace and brotherhood. The exemplary cases were members of the punk band Pussy Riot and businessman Mijail Khodorovsky, who were imprisoned some years ago in relation to protests or actions against President Vladimir Putin. They received high international media attention, and were labeled as unjustified, excessive, or mere political revenges. Weeks prior to the Olympics, the people involved was released. This action could have been interpreted as part of an “Olympic Truce”, coming to terms with political opponents within the Olympic spirit. Yet, there are fears that political controls might resume once competitions are over, plus the fact that many other detainees for political motives whose stories are not well known abroad remain in jail.

Second, there are security concerns. Sochi is relatively close to the Caucasus, scenario of large-scale and long-lasting ethnic conflicts. Worries were reaffirmed with bomb attacks to the public transportation system in the north of the country in the weeks leading to the Olympics. Some interpreted these acts as a sign that the government was not going to be able to provide sufficient security during the competitions. However, since decades ago, terrorism has been a major item in the agenda of the organizers of these competitions, and host countries usually invest a substantial part of their budget in security. Yet, at least in this occasion security controls might be playing against the image of the games. The relative absence of public in the venues during the first days of events has been attributed to tight revisions of attendants, similar to those found in international airports. Because of the long time it takes to go through these checkpoints, contests are over before people can make it to their seats.

Third, there is an almost universal critique against Russia’s treatment of homosexuals, again opposite to what Olympic values would dictate. Putin and the organizers have tried to explain that they do not repress gays and lesbians, but that they prohibit the “publicity” of such preferences. Several companies and national delegations of athletes have shown their rejection to the Russian government’s posture by displaying the colors of the homosexual movement flag in their logos or uniform, or by threatening to boycott the Games by not participating in them. Organizers responded by saying that the anti-homosexuality regulations would not be applicable in the premises of the Olympic Village. But, as in the limits to opposition to Putin, it is expected that once the event is over regulations on this subject are fully resumed.

Notwithstanding those concerns, it could be thought that they would be erased the minute the event started with its festive environment and an expected good organization. On the contrary, international journalists and some athletes have documented several problems. Most of them are not directly related to the organizing committee, as they are found in hotels, where water is dirty, restrooms are inadequate, or employees are rude. Plus, the fact persists that these are the most expensive Olympic Games in history at USD$51 billion. It has been argued that most of this money went to build practically from scratch all the infrastructure necessary to adapt a beach resort to host winter sports competitions. The reported feel of “simplicity” or austerity has generated suspicions of corruption.

Practically none of the critiques surrounding Russia in occasion of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was new. And also it is very questionable the extent to which the government was interested in showing a new face to the world. Although problems of attacks to plurality, corruption, and security are well documented in Russia, authorities did not try to conceal or nuance them. Possibly they knew it would be futile because they are already well divulged. In the face of such information, authorities feel confident and secure in their position. If any, that could be the message and image they wanted to share: Russia and its government are strong, and there is no sound reason to believe it should be different anytime in the near future.

Feb 6, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Carlos Moedas in Georgetown

The Politics and Economics of an Adjustment Program – The Case of Portugal

By Carlos Moedas
Secretary of State to the Prime Minister of Portugal

Carlos Moedas is an engineer, economist, banker and politician who is currently the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister of Portugal. In this capacity he oversees ESAME, the agency created to implement and control the program of structural reforms to which Portugal agreed to pursue with the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Friday February 7, 2014
McGhee Library
3rd floor of the ICC
Georgetown University

  Organized by: Department of Government; BMW Center for German & European Studies; MA in Democracy & Governance ; Luso-American Development Foundation


Jan 17, 2014

Cuba and the European Union – Moving Ahead

This week the European Union announced the decision to begin the process of ending with its “common position” of suspending relations with Cuba. Proposed in 1996 by then Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, the objective was to create some pressure on the island to foster democratic change. After twenty years of this policy and apparently much more for pragmatic reasons than for having achieved, even partially, its goal, the tentative date to normalize relations is 2015.

The EU common position is a rare tool in European foreign relations. Within its framework, all EU members adopt a single stance in relation to a specific issue or country. Common positions have been notably used for Congo, Zimbabwe (both of which have ended), and Cuba. Somewhat similar to the embargo imposed by the US, the EU common position had diplomatic and economic components. On the one hand, there wereare no bilateral agreements which would serve as a framework for any kind of relation between Cuba and the EU or its individual members. On the other hand, investment and business opportunities practically came to a halt.

Since some years ago, members of the EU (among those Spain) noticed the ineffectiveness of the agreement. They relied on a number of arguments. First, aside from Cuba, the EU common position was only used for Al-Qaeda. For some European foreign ministers, it was inadequate or exaggerated to place in the same category a Communist country and a terrorist organization. Second, they witnessed some, albeit arguably superficial and selected, changes in the island. The replacement of Fidel Castro by his brother Raúl as the president of the country, the relaxation of some controls (such as those related to international travel, for instance), and the release of more than seventy prisoners identified by the EU as political were taken as symbols that some things were occurring in Cuba. They are clearly far away from a full respect to the human rights of Cubans and from the openings that are conductive to a democratization, but they were enough for some to assess that the situation was not the same when the common position began. Thirdly, there were some instances in which the common position was ignored. For example, the release of political prisoners took place after a dialogue between Spain and Cuba, which should not have taken place because the policy did not allow for bilateral dialogues of any kind. As well, there were reports about visits between members of the Cuban and European Catholic Churches, which, again, were prohibited under the common position.

Spain successfully pushed for an ending of the economic embargo against Cuba in 2003 (its negotiation token was the release of the political prisoners). Ten years later, the Spanish newspaper El País mentions that the EU is the first foreign investor in Cuba, and that the EU is Cuba’s second foreign trade partner, after Venezuela. So, there was a material benefit to extract from finishing with the economic component of the common position. With the elimination of the diplomatic part, agreements could be reached between the two parts to improve their economic relations.

However, there are some caveats to ending with the European policy. For instance, Poland and the Czech Republic have notoriously insisted on the inclusion of a human rights observation clause in any bilateral agreement with Cuba, still to be negotiated. It remains an open question how the Cuban government reacts to this and, eventually, how it will be enforced. Additionally, members of the Cuban opposition have requested the EU to have a broader vision of its relation with Cuba. Blogger Yoani Sánchez criticized that in his visit to Cuba last week, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans had meetings only with government representatives and not with the dissidence, who have many human rights and democracy projects that also need assistance from Europe.

The ending of the EU common position towards Cuba can be taken as an example of pragmatic foreign policy. Although its maintenance could have had some relevance in the discourse and in ethics (democracies not having relations with a non-democratic regime), the EU came to terms with the reality that the common position was not serving its objectives and that ending with it could yield material benefits. The European experience can thus be added to the list of cases of embargoes failing to promote democracy or which were surpassed by another set of goals.

Jan 14, 2014

Human rights, solution, and peace

Protestors in Bilbao showing their support for ETA members (from ABC).

Protestors in Bilbao showing their support for ETA members (from ABC).

Last Saturday, a massive manifestation took place in the streets of the Basque city of Bilbao. Under the motto of “human rights, solution, and peace”, citizens marched in support of detainees related to the terrorist group ETA. They wanted to show their despise to the government because of its continuation of detentions, what they say is an inadequate response to the organization’s announcement of disbandment. The rage against national authorities increased when a federal judge cancelled the authorization for the march given by one of his colleagues, alleging that one of the organizers was the group Herrira, whose activities were suspended last year due to supposed links to ETA. How can justice be done at the same time for ETA members and victims?

In principle, the answer should not be that difficult. Following a due process of law, criminals are expected to receive a prison sentence according to the rules dictated in a penal code. Spain, unlike other states undergoing similar justice processes (such as Guatemala, where the former president Efraín Ríos Montt went through a trial for genocide against thousands of indigenous people during his rule in the 1980’s; although he was found guilty, the inconsistency of the court’s actions suggested to some that it was nothing but a show), enjoys a reliable judicial system. There would be little reason to doubt that the process of law will be respected. The problem, however, seems to lie in the attitudes of the government in relation to ETA members (from the point of view of ETA members, relatives and some Basque politicians) and in the expectations of ETA detainees and their supporters (from the point of view of ETA victims and their relatives).

On the one hand, ETA members and their relatives argue that the government is not contributing to the reconstruction of peace but, on the contrary, maintains a punitive attitude. Since 2011 and in the course of the previous months, ETA members have rejected violence for good and announced the dismembering of the organization. Thus, they comment they expect to forge a new Basque country by institutional means. Their expressed desire to have many of their “exiled” members (accused of several crimes in Spain) and to reintegrate into normal life implies a suggestion to have a fresh start. Nonetheless, they complain that their farewell to arms and their commitment to institutions has been met by more detentions, some of which viewed as unjustified (last Wednesday four intermediaries between ETA detainees and other free members of the organization were arrested; this detention was the trigger for the demonstrations of this Saturday), and by human rights abuses against those arrested (like putting in different jails members of a same ETA cell, preventing a coordinated defense, or not allowing detainees to enjoy prison-term reductions or other benefits in jail). From this perspective, the government is not observing a due process.

On the other hand, the Spanish government wants terrorists and their collaborators to pay for the crimes they committed, regardless of their new spoken allegiance to institutions. Not surprisingly, authorities receive large pressure from ETA victims and their families to ensure that those offenses are not left unpunished. Furthermore, calls for peace and reintegration have been made rather from the ETA side, without much, if any, echo or enthusiasm from the government (although parties related to ETA or to local nationalism enjoy substantial influence in Basque politics). From this point of view, terrorism is a gross crime and its perpetrators or facilitators must receive a penalty.

It could be said that both parties are partially right: the government must refrain itself from strange treatment of ETA detainees (such as their “dispersion” through different jails) and ETA members must realize that arguments requesting any kind of amnesty are not sound. Although the government could improve its attitudes towards detainees, it is very unlikely that ETA supporters will change their views. If justice for ones (ETA victims) is understood as offenses for others (ETA members, or vice versa), some resentments will remain and the episode of the terrorist group will not be definitely closed.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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