RT, Sputnik and Russia’s new theory of war

Jim Rutenberg reports: One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.

By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit. [Continue reading…]

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Merkel offers German role in Iran-style nuclear talks with North Korea

Reuters reports: German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a newspaper she would be prepared to become involved in a diplomatic initiative to end the North Korean nuclear and missiles program, and suggested the Iran nuclear talks could be a model.

South Korea on Saturday braced for a possible further missile test by North Korea as it marked its founding anniversary, just days after its sixth and largest nuclear test rattled global financial markets and further escalated tensions in the region.

“If our participation in talks is desired, I will immediately say yes,” Merkel told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in an interview to be published on Sunday. [Continue reading…]

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The Merkel effect

Emily Schultheis reports: On August 12, German Chancellor Angela Merkel kicked off her reelection campaign in the west German city of Dortmund. Fresh from a three-week vacation in the Italian Alps, she joked that she’d neglected to mention that the election wasn’t yet over and done with. “I almost forgot to say that the election isn’t already decided,” she said. “And of course, we need every vote.”

With the way this campaign is going, Merkel could be forgiven for nearly forgetting that crucial piece of information. After expectations that this year’s campaign would be Germany’s most contentious one in years, the final weeks of the election have felt decidedly devoid of drama—enough so that the Wall Street Journal’s headline in a recent story about the campaign declared succinctly: “Wow, it’s Boring.”

But still, the fact that Merkel could make so casual a comment barely a month before election day is a sign of how much the political outlook has shifted even in the last six months—and how secure her position has become. A confluence of several factors, from her opponent’s stumbles to an improving outlook for refugees, have converged to Merkel’s benefit, seemingly making her reelection an all-but-foregone conclusion.

2017 was expected to be Merkel’s toughest campaign yet: to start, it’s the year when Europe’s far-right populist parties, including the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), have sought to showcase their electoral strength amid a growing backlash against globalization and Europe’s refugee crisis. When Merkel announced her reelection bid last December, she did so battered by more than a year of tough criticism over her open-door policy toward refugees, and facing a certain degree of voter fatigue after hitting her 12th year in office. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ad agency boosts Germany’s right-wing populist AfD

Der Spiegel reports: For several days now, many Facebook and Twitter users in Germany have been confronted with a disturbing image on their profile pages: It shows bloody tire tracks running across the screen, reminiscent of the ones left by Islamic State terrorists in several European cities. It is accompanied by the slogan: “The tracks left by the world chancellor in Europe.”

Angela Merkel as a terrorist — that’s the motif that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has chosen to launch the internet portion of its campaign leading up to national parliamentary elections on Sept. 24. The right-wing populists plan to spend a large part of their 3-million-euro budget on similar publicity offenses. The party is planning a digital campaign that may well be more drastic and aggressive than anything German voters have ever seen.

The party’s election posters, designed by advertising professional and prize-winning scandal author Thor Kunkel, have already stood out from those of other parties. One shows the belly of a pregnant white woman with the slogan, “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves,” a reference to the party’s rejection of immigrants in the country. Yet another shows a piglet with the words: “Islam? It doesn’t fit in with our cuisine.” Finally, the one getting perhaps the most attention states, “Burkas? We prefer bikinis.”

But now the AfD, which has always been an internet-savvy party that likes to use the medium to bypass the mainstream media and communicate its messages directly to its fans, has had enough of dead-tree media. It intends to rely heavily on the web as it enters the last, intense phase of the campaign.

To assist in its efforts, the party has tapped Kunkel’s contacts to engage the services of advertising professionals in the United States with experience on the right-wing spectrum. The party is working together with the Texas-based agency Harris Media, which recently presented its plans to the AfD’s national committee. With its provocative and aggressive campaigns, the agency has already contributed to the success of a number of controversial politicians. In Britain, it worked with the anti-EU UKIP party; in Israel, it worked with the governing Likud party; and in the United States, news agency Bloomberg has dubbed company founder Vincent Harris “the man who invented the Republican internet.” [Continue reading…]

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What to do with Confederate monuments: Seven lessons from Germany

Yuliya Komska writes: The overdue momentum to remove various Confederate symbols, especially some 1,500 statues, from their perches has picked up across the country in the wake of right-wing violence in Charlottesville. In Gainesville, Fla., Durham, N.C., and Baltimore, the toppling has already begun. In some cases, state or local authorities have driven the process. In others, activists have seized the initiative to speed things up.

Yet despite the growing consensus that the “dangerous totems” (as Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings has dubbed them) must go, there is no agreement about the monuments’ fates. Ideas range from traceless destruction to warehouse storage to museum display. Some propose, to quieter applause, to keep the objects in place, accompanied by appropriate labeling.

In the cacophony of opinions, few observers and participants seem bothered by the lack of a coherent, thought-out strategy for disposing of the Confederacy’s visible traces while preserving evidence of this vitally important chapter of our past.

They should be. Not out of concern for the preposterous right-wing lament about the erasure of history, but because the task at hand is to purge the imagery in a way that guards against amnesia while also transforming the statues from celebratory monuments into objective evidence. [Continue reading…]

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What Germany can teach the U.S. about remembering an ugly past without glorifying it

Fred Kaplan writes: President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday that he’s “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments”—thus furnishing further proof that he knows nothing about history or culture or beauty, much less the reason why monuments are built in the first place.

As many have pointed out, the statues of Confederate officers that scar the cities of the South (and too many spots in the North as well) were erected not in the immediate wake of the Civil War but rather decades later, during the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, as a show of force—from the rulers to the ruled—that the old guard, though defeated in battle, was still in charge.

Trump and all those who find his appeals to historical preservation persuasive should go to Berlin, a city of vast and multiple horrors throughout its history, yet also a city that is facing those horrors head-on, unflinchingly. The city memorializes not its discarded leaders but rather their victims. And instead of mounting old warlords on pedestals (there is nothing “beautiful” about a man on horseback, whether Confederate, Nazi, or Communist), the city displays the full record of their crimes against humanity. [Continue reading…]

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‘Donald Trump brought me here today’: Counterprotesters rout neo-Nazi rally in Berlin

The Washington Post reports: “There is only one side — the good side,” cried Eva Kese, mustering a smile as she fought back tears. “Your hate has no place here.”

Kese, 30, stood Saturday facing a crowd of about 500 neo-Nazis. They were gathered on the outskirts of the German capital to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Rudolf Hess, a deputy to Adolf Hitler. The demonstration marked another, more recent anniversary: one week since a march by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Virginia left one counterprotester dead.

Kese held up a sign with a hand-drawn pink heart to the neo-Nazis, who countered with a giant banner of their own, reading, “I regret nothing.”

Choosing her words carefully, she repeated: “There is only one side.”

President Trump, she said, had drawn her to the streets of the German capital to counter the demonstration. She was incensed by his reaction to the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, in which he blamed “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump handed Putin a stunning victory

Molly K McKew writes: President Donald Trump needed to accomplish two things this week during his visits to Poland and the G-20 Summit in Hamburg. First, he needed to reassure America’s allies that he was committed to collective defense and the core set of values and principles that bind us together. Second, he needed to demonstrate that he understands that the greatest threat to that alliance, those values, and our security is the Kremlin.

Trump delivered neither of these. In very concrete terms, through speech and action, the president signaled a willingness to align the United States with Vladimir Putin’s worldview, and took steps to advance this realignment. He endorsed, nearly in its totality, the narrative the Russian leader has worked so meticulously to construct.

The readout of Trump’s lengthy meeting with Putin included several key points. First, the United States will “move on” from election hacking issues with no accountability or consequences for Russia; in fact, the U.S. will form a “framework” with Russia to cooperate on cybersecurity issues, evaluating weaknesses and assessing potential responses jointly. Second, the two presidents agreed not to meddle in “each other’s” domestic affairs—equating American activities to promote democracy with Russian aggression aimed at undermining it, in an incalculable PR victory for the Kremlin. Third, the announced, limited cease-fire in Syria will be a new basis for cooperation between the U.S. and Russia; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went so far as to say that the Russian approach in Syria—yielding mass civilian casualties, catastrophic displacement, untold destruction and erased borders—may be “more right” than that of the United States.

Each of these points represents a significant victory for Putin. Each of them will weaken U.S. tools for defending its interests and security from the country that defines itself as America’s “primary adversary.” Trump has ceded the battle space—physical, virtual, moral—to the Kremlin. And the president is going to tell us this is a “win.” [Continue reading…]

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Once dominant, the United States finds itself isolated at G-20

Trump was shunted to the far left and placed under Emmanuel Macron’s close supervision.

The New York Times reports: For years the United States was the dominant force and set the agenda at the annual gathering of the leaders of the world’s largest economies.

But on Friday, when President Trump met with 19 other leaders at the Group of 20 conference, he found the United States isolated on everything from trade to climate change, and faced with the prospect of the group’s issuing a statement on Saturday that lays bare how the United States stands alone.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the host of the meeting, opened it by acknowledging the differences between the United States and the rest of the countries. While “compromise can only be found if we accommodate each other’s views,” she said, “we can also say, we differ.”

Ms. Merkel also pointed out that most of the countries supported the Paris accord on climate change, while Mr. Trump has abandoned it. “It will be very interesting to see how we formulate the communiqué tomorrow and make clear that, of course, there are different opinions in this area because the United States of America regrettably” wants to withdraw from the pact, she said.

Mr. Trump seemed to relish his isolation. For him, the critical moment of Friday was his long meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, which seemed to mark the reset in relations that Mr. Trump has been desiring for some time. It also provided Mr. Putin the respect and importance he has long demanded as a global partner to Washington.

Where previous American leaders saw their power as a benevolent force, and were intent on spreading prosperity through open markets and multilateral cooperation, Mr. Trump has portrayed himself as a nationalist, a unilateralist and a protectionist, eager to save American jobs.

What recent events have underscored, though — and especially at the G-20 — is that no nation is today large or powerful enough to impose rules on everyone else. In advancing his views, Mr. Trump has alienated allies and made the United States seem like its own private island. [Continue reading…]

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Angela Merkel uses eyes and hands to try and convince Putin that North Korea fired an ICBM

The determination that North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week is based on the extrapolation of its range if aimed on a standard trajectory rather than the very steep trajectory of its actual launch, as illustrated below:


In conversation with Vladamir Putin today, Angela Merkel appears to have had difficulty in pressing home the argument as her eyes tracked the steep trajectory of the missile:


Then she resorted to hand motions:

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America in retreat, Europe en marche

Sylvie Kauffmann writes: As British conservatives licked their wounds a week ago, and French voters were electing hundreds of rookies to Parliament to strengthen the hand of President Emmanuel Macron, Ukrainians at last had a reason to celebrate — and they did, partying by the thousands in Kiev. For them, June 11 was the dawn of the long-awaited era of visa-free travel to Europe. One local magazine called it “Ukraine’s Berlin Wall moment.”

This event, little noticed in the midst of so many political upheavals, is a fresh sign that Europe is moving forward. Giving some 45 million Ukrainians the right to travel freely through the 26 countries of the Schengen area is something of an achievement at a time when, across the European Union, the word “immigration” sounds like a recipe for electoral disaster.

Don’t expect European Union leaders to boast about it; that is not something they are good at. Yet a new mood is taking hold in Brussels and other European capitals these days, a wind of hope and optimism rarely felt in the last two decades.

After so many existential crises, believers in the European Union are suddenly waking up to realize that the reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. The eurozone has not collapsed. Britain’s exit, which shocked and destabilized the union a year ago, is now perceived as an opportunity for the 27 remaining members to regroup. [Continue reading…]

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Outside Britain, the mood in the EU is on the upswing

Natalie Nougayrède writes: That Helmut Kohl, the man who oversaw the reunification of Germany and was for so long a giant on the European stage, should die on the eve of negotiations leading to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU seems symbolic. The former German chancellor made the best of the extraordinary circumstances and public mood that followed the collapse of communism and the opening up of eastern Europe.

Today’s European leaders are, by contrast, confronted with an especially adverse set of circumstances. Trump, Putin, Erdoğan, terrorism, unprecedented flows of migration, unemployment, the rise of populism and, of course, Brexit. But, just as Kohl and his French contemporary François Mitterrand relaunched the European project in the early 1990s, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are, as Britain prepares to leave, readying their ambitions and vision for the continent.

At stake is no less than Europe’s role in defending liberal democratic values and a rules-based international order at a time when – as one former Obama administration official put it to me recently – Trump’s America is “missing in action and the UK is disappearing into oblivion”. The words may be harsh, but they underscore that Britain’s central weakness lies not only in its internal political confusion – but also with a dangerous ignorance of what its European neighbours are setting their sights on.

The Franco-German engine is not focusing on Brexit but rather on consolidating the 60-year-old European project through further integration and cooperation. At the heart of this stands an emerging Macron-Merkel deal, intended to act as Europe’s new powerhouse. On 15 May, the French and German leaders met and spoke of a new “roadmap” for the EU. The thinking goes like this: in the next two to three years, as France carries out structural economic reforms to boost its credibility, Germany will step up much-needed European financial solidarity and investment mechanisms, and embrace a new role on foreign policy, security and defence. [Continue reading…]

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Angela Merkel hopes to forge an international alliance against Trump

Der Spiegel reports: Many had thought that Trump could be controlled once he entered the White House, that the office of the presidency would bring him to reason. Berlin had placed its hopes in the moderating influence of his advisers and that there would be a sharp learning curve. Now that Trump has actually lived up to his threat to leave the climate deal, it is clear that if such a learning curve exists, it points downward.

The chancellor was long reluctant to make the rift visible. For Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, the alliance with the U.S. was always more than political calculation, it reflected her deepest political convictions. Now, she has — to a certain extent, at least — terminated the trans-Atlantic friendship with Trump’s America.

In doing so, the German chancellor has become Trump’s adversary on the international stage. And Merkel has accepted the challenge when it comes to trade policy and the quarrel over NATO finances. Now, she has done so as well on an issue that is near and dear to her heart: combating climate change.

Merkel’s aim is that of creating an alliance against Trump. If she can’t convince the U.S. president, her approach will be that of trying to isolate him. In Taormina, it was six countries against one. Should Trump not reverse course, she is hoping that the G-20 in Hamburg in July will end 19:1. Whether she will be successful is unclear.

Trump has identified Germany as his primary adversary. Since his inauguration in January, he has criticized no country — with the exception of North Korea and Iran — as vehemently as he has Germany. The country is “bad, very bad,” he said in Brussels last week. Behind closed doors at the NATO summit, Trump went after Germany, saying there were large and prosperous countries that were not living up to their alliance obligations.

And he wants to break Germany’s economic power. The trade deficit with Germany, he recently tweeted, is “very bad for U.S. This will change.”

Merkel’s verdict following Trump’s visit to Europe could hardly be worse. There has never been an open break with America since the end of World War II; the alienation between Germany and the U.S. has never been so large as it is today. When Merkel’s predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, refused to provide German backing for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, his rebuff was limited to just one single issue. It was an extreme test of the trans-Atlantic relationship, to be sure, but in contrast to today, it was not a quarrel that called into question commonly held values like free trade, minority rights, press freedoms, the rule of law — and climate policies. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump’s triumph of stupidity

Der Spiegel reports: Until the very end, they tried behind closed doors to get him to change his mind. For the umpteenth time, they presented all the arguments — the humanitarian ones, the geopolitical ones and, of course, the economic ones. They listed the advantages for the economy and for American companies. They explained how limited the hardships would be.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the last one to speak, according to the secret minutes taken last Friday afternoon in the luxurious conference hotel in the Sicilian town of Taormina — meeting notes that DER SPIEGEL has been given access to. Leaders of the world’s seven most powerful economies were gathered around the table and the issues under discussion were the global economy and sustainable development.

The newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, went first. It makes sense that the Frenchman would defend the international treaty that bears the name of France’s capital: The Paris Agreement. “Climate change is real and it affects the poorest countries,” Macron said.

Then, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded the U.S. president how successful the fight against the ozone hole had been and how it had been possible to convince industry leaders to reduce emissions of the harmful gas.

Finally, it was Merkel’s turn. Renewable energies, said the chancellor, present significant economic opportunities. “If the world’s largest economic power were to pull out, the field would be left to the Chinese,” she warned. Xi Jinping is clever, she added, and would take advantage of the vacuum it created. Even the Saudis were preparing for the post-oil era, she continued, and saving energy is also a worthwhile goal for the economy for many other reasons, not just because of climate change.

But Donald Trump remained unconvinced. No matter how trenchant the argument presented by the increasingly frustrated group of world leaders, none of them had an effect. “For me,” the U.S. president said, “it’s easier to stay in than step out.” But environmental constraints were costing the American economy jobs, he said. And that was the only thing that mattered. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

At that point, it was clear to the rest of those seated around the table that they had lost him. Resigned, Macron admitted defeat. “Now China leads,” he said.

Still, it is likely that none of the G-7 heads of state and government expected the primitive brutality Trump would stoop to when announcing his withdrawal from the international community. Surrounded by sycophants in the Rose Garden at the White House, he didn’t just proclaim his withdrawal from the climate agreement, he sowed the seeds of international conflict. His speech was a break from centuries of Enlightenment and rationality. The president presented his political statement as a nationalist manifesto of the most imbecilic variety. It couldn’t have been any worse. [Continue reading…]

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French president calls on Putin to protect gay Chechens

CNN reports: French president Emmanuel Macron says he has urged Vladimir Putin to ensure that the rights of LGBT people are protected following allegations of a crackdown on gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

The Russian president was in France for talks with Macron, two weeks after his election victory. Macron’s call comes after widespread reports of a brutal campaign by the authorities against gay men in Chechnya, including allegations of torture and murder.

“I emphasized to President Putin…how important it is for France to respect all people, all minorities,” Macron said during a news conference with the Russian leader.

“We spoke about the cases of LGBT people in Chechnya… I told President Putin what France is expecting regarding this issue, and we agreed to regularly check on this subject.”

Macron added that President Putin told him he had started a number of initiatives with regard to the Chechen LGBT community. Previously, Putin said he would talk to the prosecutor general and interior minister regarding an investigation.

The French president has added his voice to that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, also during a recent meeting with Putin, asked the Russian president to guarantee the rights of minorities in Chechnya. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: When they emerged from talks, which went on for almost an hour longer than scheduled, Macron said they had had a “frank exchange” and both men stressed they had agreed on the need to move forward on divisive issues such as Syria and Ukraine.

But at a joint news conference after their talks, ill-feeling came to the surface over past allegations made by Macron’s camp that state-funded Russian news outlets had sought to destabilise his campaign.

With Putin alongside him, Macron repeated the accusation in a reply to a journalist’s question, saying: “During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign.

“They behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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102 villagers, 750 refugees, one grand experiment

Ben Mauk writes: There is no cinema in Sumte. There are no general stores, no pubs, gyms, cafes, markets, schools, doctors, florists, auto shops or libraries. There are no playgrounds. Some roads are paved, but others scarcely distinguish themselves from the scrub grass and swampy tractor trails surrounding each house – modest plots that grade into the farmland and medieval forests of Lower Saxony. There is no meeting hall. All is private and premodern.

One day in October, after a thousand years of evening gloom, a work crew arrives and lines the main avenue with LED street lamps. The lights are a concession to the villagers – all 102 of them – from their political masters in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, who manage Sumte’s affairs and must report to their own masters in Hanover, the state capital of Lower Saxony, who in turn must report to their masters in Berlin, who send emissaries to Brussels, which might as well be Bolivia, so impossibly distant do the villagers find that black hole of tax euros and goodwill.

It’s this vague chain of command that most alienates the people of Sumte. They are pensioners and housepainters. They are farmers, subsistence and commercial. They are carpenters, clerks and commuters who cross the River Elbe by ferry every morning, driving to jobs in Lüneberg or Hamburg, 90 minutes away. More than a few are out of work. Nobody tells them anything.

Which is not to suggest anyone here is unaware of what’s going on in the world in 2015. The people of Sumte are not hicks (or hinterwälder, as the Germans say). Word has reached Dirk Hammer, the bicycle repairman, and Walter Luck, the apiarist, about the capsizing trawlers, the panic in Lampedusa. They watch the nightly news. They’ve heard of this crisis. And they wonder where these people – more than a million of them – are headed. The streetlights, a long-standing request now mysteriously granted, make them suspicious.

Only Reinhard Schlemmer watches the workmen and knows for sure. A grizzled figure with a wild nest of silver hair, Schlemmer was once an officer in the East German army. These days he sells painting supplies out of the detached shed behind his house, a nominal business that mostly serves as an excuse to chat with neighbours. He may have lately fallen into the role of odd old man on the margins – the unreformed communist with his cans of primer – but he was Sumte’s mayor when the border came down, a decorated party member, and his bearing still suggests something of the phrase “pillar of the community”.

After reunification, as farming collectives dissolved and unemployment rose, Schlemmer came up with a shrewd plan to save Sumte from extinction. He convinced a rich businessman in Hanover to invest in the construction of a huge complex on its outskirts, a private village-within-the-village where East German women would train to become caseworkers for a debt-collection agency.

The plan worked. The office opened in 1994 and for almost 20 years, the agency provided jobs for 250 women from Sumte and neighbouring towns in Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg, becoming the area’s largest employer. But the 2008 financial crisis razed the debt market, and in 2012 the agency, now called Apontas, decided to consolidate its operations in Hanover. A few women moved with them. The rest lost their jobs. The complex has stood empty ever since.

Now Schlemmer thinks back to the moonless night a month ago when he was out in his yard, looking across the weedy lot at the blackness where the darkened Apontas buildings eclipsed a wedge of stars. He thought of that pitiful infant body lying in the Turkish surf. “All the children out in the dirt,” he remembers thinking. “And all of our halls standing empty.” He asked himself: what is to be done?

It’s an oddly warm October morning when Grit Richter, sitting in her modest mayoral office in Amt Neuhaus, gets a phone call from the interior ministry in Hanover. An administrator explains to her that Sumte will receive 1,000 asylum seekers starting at the end of the month, to be housed in the Apontas office complex. Richter isn’t sure she’s heard correctly. Yes, the administrator says, they know that Sumte is small. They also know that the complex is empty and disused. But the village has something that no other town in the area can boast: 21,000 square feet of dry shelter. Her options, she’s told, are to say “yes” or “yes”.

She hangs up. Like a lot of Germans, Richter is sceptical, pragmatic, stolid. Not much escapes her when it comes to the 4,700 constituents living in border hamlets from Stiepelse to Wehnigen, but she can’t keep track of everything. She doesn’t yet know that Reinhard Schlemmer has been busy making phone calls of his own, offering up the Apontas complex and setting this new idea in motion. [Continue reading…]

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Bank that lent $300m to Trump linked to Russian money laundering scam

The Guardian reports: The German bank that loaned $300m (£260m) to Donald Trump played a prominent role in a money laundering scandal run by Russian criminals with ties to the Kremlin, the Guardian can reveal.

Deutsche Bank is one of dozens of western financial institutions that processed at least $20bn – and possibly more – in money of “criminal origin” from Russia.

The scheme, dubbed “the Global Laundromat”, ran from 2010 to 2014.

Law enforcement agencies are investigating how a group of politically well-connected Russians were able to use UK-registered companies to launder billions of dollars in cash. The companies made fictitious loans to each other, underwritten by Russian businesses. [Continue reading…]

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