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Continuing Executions in North Korea

General Hyon Yong Chol, North Korea’s defense minister, was executed at a military academy near Pyongyang “around” April 30th, at least according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

Some analysts contend the NIS report is implausible, but, whether it is accurate or not, there has been an evident acceleration in the pace of executions. The deaths suggest to others that the Kim family regime is no longer stable.

There are experts who believe Hyon is still alive. He was featured in a documentary aired by North Korean state media on May 14th. Normally, the airing would be proof the NIS report was false. As Sue Chang of the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch site explains, “That Hyon was not edited out of that production raised eyebrows in light of the regime’s habit of expunging officials from public materials once the officials have been eliminated.”

Germany Must Lead in Europe

Nothing could be more unlike the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas than Munich’s remarkably well-ordered condition. The desperate desire of Germans to look away from the death and destruction beyond their eastern border makes sense: War is too disruptive of their near-perfect orderliness to be thinkable, least of all real. Unfortunately for them, Germany has no choice but to play the role of Europe’s “well-meaning hegemon.” The European Union needs leadership, and, as distasteful as seizing the initiative may be to most Germans, who associate hegemony with the disaster of Nazism and World War II, only Germany has the geopolitical resources to be a consistent leader.

The Rush for Moldovan Citizenship

Moldova is not the kind of country people move to. In fact, at a recent conference on global demographics at the University of Oxford, a CIS expert pointed to the small republic between Romania and Ukraine as a particular concern, pointing out that it’s been hemorrhaging population to Russia for more than a decade. What’s a country to do when residents decide they don’t want to live there?

But, a high-ranking European diplomat tells me, in the past 18 months 74,000 people have applied for Moldovan citizenship. That’s not 74,000 births; it’s 74,000 foreigners who’ve decided they want to become Moldovans. What’s suddenly making Moldova so attractive does, perhaps sadly, has little to do with the almost–Black Sea nation itself and a lot to do with the European Union. In November 2013, the EU concluded that Moldova was fulfilling a set of requirements in areas such as human rights and the rule of law, and granted its citizens the right to visa-free travel to its member states.

The Muslim Brotherhood Takes Off its Mask

ISIS is threatening to kill judges and security personnel in Egypt after a Cairo court sentenced former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi to death while, at the same time, what's left of the Muslim Brotherhood is promising a revolution that “exterminates all the oppressors.”

So much for the Muslim Brotherhood being moderate.

Human beings are naturally compelled to violently resist violent repression regardless of their ideology, but the Brotherhood's ostensible moderation was always limited to its strategy. Its members largely refrained from violence because they believed a peaceful path to their radical Islamist utopia may have been open to them. Now that that's off the table, the mask and the gloves have come off.

And that word, “exterminate.” This is not the language of freedom fighters. Thomas Jefferson and Vaclav Havel never threatened to exterminate anyone. This is the language of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Pol Pot. 

Most of the world's Sunni Arab terrorist organizations are spin-offs of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Al Qaeda. ISIS, meanwhile, is a spin-off of Al Qaeda. Hamas in the Gaza Strip isn't even a spin-off. It's the Muslim Brotherhood's Palestinian branch.

The ideologies of all these groups scarcely differ. They all want a Sunni theocracy, and they're all hostile to secularists, minorities, and the West. The differences lie only in their severity, but the Brothers are looking and sounding less moderate by the day, and there's no reason to be the least bit shocked that ISIS views them as their comrades and is threatening revenge on their behalf.

Egypt's young Muslim Brotherhood leaders exiled themselves to Istanbul to get clear the severe government crackdown which has so far killed more than 2,500 and imprisoned more than 16,000. And from there they mounted an insurgency against the regime and the relatively tepid leadership of their own organization.

As Eric Trager and Marina Shalabi write in Foreign Affairs, they “rebelled against the group’s older leaders, blaming them for 'misanalyzing' the political situation leading up to Morsi’s overthrow and then mismanaging the post-Morsi period. They further rejected their leaders’ calls for a patient, long-term struggle against Egypt’s military-backed government. They advocated instead for revolutionary—and violent—tactics to destabilize the government sooner rather than later.”

A few years ago, after the removal of Hosni Mubarak but before the election of Morsi, Western optimists argued that the Brothers were going to change, that the younger generation was more moderate than the dinosaurs, that it was only a matter of time before their less-conservative views dominated the organization.

It's easy, especially in hindsight, to see the fatal flaw in that analysis. Younger generations in the West are often more liberal than their parents and grandparents, at least in some ways. The majority of Republicans in the United States under the age of 30, for instance, support gay marriage. Almost half of Republicans under the age of 50 support gay marriage. Times here are changing.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Egyptian Republican Party. Nor is General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military regime the Democratic Party of Egypt. The only thing Egypt has in common with the United States politically is that it's more or less divided into two partisan camps—those who want a religious dictatorship and those who want a military dictatorship.

This is not new. I noticed it the first time I visited Cairo back in 2005. I met a handful of genuine political liberals at the time, but they were all too keenly aware that the percentage of Egyptians who agreed with them was in the high single digits at best.

You can't have democracy without democrats. And when the overwhelming majority want one kind of dictatorship or another, they're guaranteed to get one kind of dictatorship or another.

Historically, Egyptians haven't been prone to civil war the way the Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese are, but if the Muslim Brotherhood takes the next logical step and actually teams up with ISIS, watch out.

Cameron's Referendum Quandary

Whatever Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron hopes to achieve over the next five years, his second term is going to be tormented by the threat of one referendum and the virtual certainty of another.

Following the Scottish National Party’s strong electoral showing its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has refused to rule out a second independence referendum if the government in London skimps on its proposed devolution package for Scotland. Devolution is British speak for autonomy.

At the same time, Cameron is locked in to the other referendum, in which the British will, before the end of 2017, choose whether they wish to remain in the European Union or to leave it. Since the election two weeks ago, some officials have been telling the media that the EU in-or-out vote could be held as early as 2016, but Cameron is also committed to trying to re-negotiate a new membership agreement with Brussels, and the British will then vote on the outcome.

Was Vladimir Putin Born in Georgia?

The answer, according to a recent article in Germany’s highly respected Die Zeit, is maybe. “It seems,” writes correspondent Steffen Dobbert, that “there is an unspoken, and unproven, secret that is part of [Vladimir Putin’s] biography”:

There are those who are convinced that the Russian president spent the first nine years of his life with a family whose existence he continues to dispute to this day. They also believe he spent the first half of his childhood in Georgia, and not in Russia. They believe that later, as the head of the domestic intelligence agency, Putin changed his life story and denied the existence of his biological mother in order to speed his path to power—and to avoid being seen, during his first Russian election campaign, as an illegitimate child who had grown up in Georgia.

Putin’s possible biological mother is the 89-year-old Vera Putina, “a small, delicate woman, who always wears a headscarf when she leaves the house” in the Georgian village of Metekhi.

Egypt's Former President Sentenced to Death

Former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has been sentenced to death.

His political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not half as “moderate” as its apologists claim. One of his last acts as president was appointing a member of Gamaa Islamiya, a terrorist organization responsible for murdering dozens of tourists in 1997, as the governor of Luxor—the very place where those tourists were massacred.

Few in the West liked or trusted him, and plenty of Egyptians who voted for him suffered spasms of buyer's remorse, but he was nevertheless the first and only freely elected president in the entire history of Egypt.

And now he has been sentenced to death by a court controlled by the nation's military strongman, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi has declared total war on the Brotherhood. The man is not content to simply keep his opponents out of power. He won't tolerate them as a non-violent dissident force. He can't even tolerate the former president drawing breath in a dungeon.

This is Middle Eastern “strong horse” politics at its finest (or worst), but you know what? This sort of thing works until it doesn't. Nothing's stopping Sisi from going full Assad and creating a North African version of Syria's Baath Party regime, but not even a total surveillance police state is enough to put down the armed Sunni Islamist insurrection in Syria, not even with Iran and Hezbollah on side.

It's not hard to see where this is heading. Whatever's left of the Muslim Brotherhood will almost certainly abandon its mostly non-violent strategy to transform Egypt into an Islamic utopia and take up rifles and car bombs.

If you're planning a Nile River cruise or a trip to the pyramids, wait.

UPDATE: Right on schedule, two judges and a prosecutor were just shot and killed.

The Middle East's Nuclear Arms Race is On

President Barack Obama hoped a nuclear deal with Iran would prevent an arms race in the Persian Gulf region, but the Saudis don't trust what's coming any more than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does, and they're no longer shy about saying so. And they promise to match the levels of enrichment capacity the Iranians get to keep.

“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” said Prince Turki bin Faisal, the New York Times reports.

Prince Turki argued that the United States was making a “pivot to Iran” that was ill advised, and that the United States failed to learn from North Korea’s violations of its nuclear deals. “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years,” he said, using the past tense.

The Saudis were never America's best friends in the Arab world. That designation goes to Morocco, which has been a genuine ally for more than 200 years. The American-Saudi alliance was always strictly transactional, and it makes large majorities of people in both countries uncomfortable.

Aside from the fact that the House of Saud can play well with others to a certain extent, at home the regime is only fractionally less draconian than ISIS. Beheadings in Riyadh's “Chop Chop Square” are as ho-hum and routine as speeding tickets on  American freeways.

But whatever. The Saudis no longer feel, or no longer wish to at least say, that they're our best friends. It's common knowledge even in Washington that they oppose the Iranian regime and its nuclear weapons program as stridently as the Israelis do. The fallout in relations was as predictable as it was inevitable.

A democratic Iran would be a natural ally of the United States while the Saudis, with their popularly backed medieval system, are natural enemies. At some point the US will pivot, and the pivot will likely be permanent, but until the clerical regime in Tehran reforms itself out of all recognition or is overthrown from below, we're stuck with the awkward and ailing alliance we have. Let's try not to squander it further.

North Korea's Black Market: Big Enough to Force Reforms?

There is a property boom in Pyongyang, the capital of the destitute Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The boom, in turn, has created an impetus for economic reform.

Apartment prices have skyrocketed 30-fold since the turn of century. The most expensive unit now goes for about a quarter of a million dollars, a large sum in a country where official wages are not even $2 a month.

That, at first glance, is amazing, especially because all property—including every single housing unit in the country—is owned by the state.

As Richard Lloyd Parry of the Australian explains, owners—if they can be called that—do not actually have title. They occupy their apartment after “swapping” residences with “sellers,” who receive compensation for taking less-desirable units in exchange. All transactions are approved by state bureaucrats, who attend to necessary paperwork for under-the-table payments.

At Estonian Air Base, the Roar of Freedom

One might be forgiven for not being familiar with a location called Amari. In fact, until recently there wasn’t much there to be familiar with. After the Soviet armed forces left their air base there, Amari was deserted. But after the local government put some serious money into rebuilding the run-down base, the United States government decided to pitch in with $25 million. Today Amari couldn’t look less like a former Soviet air base.

Raúl Castro’s Papal Publicity Stunt

Cuban dictator Raúl Castro flew to the Vatican, met privately with Pope Francis, and says he’s returning to church.

“I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” he said after the meeting on television. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”

Fat chance.

The man is 83 years old and has been an atheist and a communist since the Season One premiere of Leave it to Beaver. His regime once outlawed religion entirely and to this day has its boot on the neck of the island’s priests.

There’s always a chance, I suppose, that, unlike Christopher Hitchens, he’s changing his heart and mind about God near the end of his life. It’s far more likely, however, that he’s trying to burnish his image abroad now that the United States is normalizing relations.

Even if he goes back to church every Sunday and starts praying in front of the cameras, few will believe he’s sincere. Politicians do this sort of thing all the time. Does anyone seriously believe that America’s Congress critters are even half as churchy in real life as they appear? Raúl is a lower form of life even than they are. He’s only a “politician” when he leaves the island and hobnobs with his betters. At home he helms a police state.

At least he got to see Europe with his own eyes when he flew to the Vatican. Italy is hardly the most high-functioning and prosperous nation in Europe—it looks and feels like Greece or even Egypt compared with Switzerland and Germany—but compared with Cuba it’s Canada.

Cuba’s natural beauty is undeniable, and it’s easy to see Havana’s former grandeur through the rot and decay, but even the refurbished part of the capital in the tourist quarter looks and feels surreal and blank. It’s like a Disneyfied version of Cuba. Clean and well-maintained, to be sure, and pleasant enough on the surface, but there’s no real economy there aside from some token high-end restaurants for tourists that locals can’t afford to eat in on their 20-dollars a month Maximum Wage. 

Some of your friends have been to Cuba, I know, and some of them say it’s great. It can be great if you stay inside the tourist bubble, but leaving that bubble and interacting with the rest of Havana is like getting thumped in the stomach by a cop wielding a truncheon. More than half the capital’s population lives on a ration card and a salary smaller than a child’s allowance in an urban disaster area that looks like it was bombed during a war. 

Rome had to have made an impression on Raúl Castro. He knows what a nation with a market economy looks like, and that’s good. He can’t possibly go home and believe his own propaganda about “socialism,” which in Cuba is actually communism, but he hasn’t believed that nonsense for years anyway. Now that his more-hardline brother Fidel is out of the picture—is he still even alive, or is it Weekend at Bernie’s down there?—Raúl has implemented microcapitalist reforms and will likely continue moving, though perhaps at glacial speed, toward a Latin American version of the Chinese and Vietnamese model.

He should aim for the Chilean model, but he won’t, not even after visiting Europe. Seeing what a properly functioning country looks like and feels like isn’t enough for the power mad. North Korea’s Jim Jong Un went to school in Switzerland. He knows damn well what a civilized country looks like and can’t possibly believe that the prison state he inherited is doing the best it possibly can. He hasn’t been to Seoul, but surely he’s seen pictures on the Internet and can contrast his vibrant neighbor with the soul-crushing totalitarian anthill of Pyongyang. Absolute power, though, corrupts absolutely, and the tyranny of the Kim family probably even creeps out the Castros at this point.

It’s not entirely meaningless that Raúl is telling Westerners what they want to hear. It’s cynical, sure, and it won’t amount to much in the end, but unlike the boy king of the underworld over in Pyongyang, he seems to be tiring of his isolation.

Democracy in Retreat

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and China’s maritime ambitions are just a few of the issues that will make foreign policy a larger issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. As candidates assemble their advisers and get briefed, they should devote some time to considering whether these challenges to US allies and interests are related to a larger phenomenon.

In a recent article for the Journal of Democracy, Robert Kagan traced democracy’s advance and retreat over time, asking whether the triumph or failure of democratic ideals over ideological rivals has to do with “the victory of an idea or the victory of arms?”

Since President Obama took office in 2009, Kagan writes, the US, and Europe, have failed to counteract a worldwide decline in democracy. “Insofar as there is energy in the international system,” Kagan writes, “it comes from the great power autocrats.”

British Elections Postscript

Widely expected to give a muffled and incoherent answer, the British electorate opted instead for a decisive one. When the votes were counted in the 2015 general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had the necessary numbers to govern on his own with a small, but workable majority. As one re-elected Tory member told the BBC Friday morning, “We’re going to have none of the muddle that was predicted.” In an astonishing result that gave fresh meaning to the word unpredictable, there was no hung Parliament, no battle for power.

It’s a result calculated to cause trepidation in Brussels and relief in Washington. Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and the outcome could depend on prior negotiations to change the ground rules of Britain’s relationship with Europe. In the European Commission this is widely seen as the British wanting to remain EU members, but on their own terms: In Cameron’s Conservative Party, the widespread feeling is that Britain needs to regain some of what is perceived as lost British sovereignty to EU community rules.

The Brazilian Shipwreck

Like the captain of a ship that has hit a jagged reef, President Dilma Rousseff is attempting a salvage operation to prevent the breakup and sinking of her political vessel, the populist Workers Party that has been the champion of the left since electoral democracy was restored in Brazil in 1985. The name of the ship in this metaphor is the SS PT, the Brazilian acronym of the Workers Party. The name of the reef is corruption, which has battered Rousseff’s administration. The chief salvage engineer is Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, an advocate of free markets and fiscal stability named in January 2015, whose desperate efforts to save the Brazilian economy have been met by a rebellion of the PT crew against austerity measures. This led to a breakup of the multiparty coalition that has provided PT governments a safe majority in congress since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva first led the PT to power in 2003. These political storms have buffeted Rousseff since her election to a second term in 2014 extended 13 years of PT populist dominance, financed by colossal corruption diverting billions of dollars in public money to finance political payoffs.

The State of Ukraine

The following is an interview with Taras Kuzio, a leading expert on Ukraine and post-communist politics.

***

MOTYL: You’ve just completed a tour of the Ukrainian territories adjoining the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies. What are some of your key conclusions?

KUZIO: Since the Euromaidan Revolution I’ve made six visits to southeastern Ukraine for research on a book on the Donbas (supported by the US-based Ukrainian Studies Fund). My just-completed visit was to Mariupol and Volnovakha, which is on the road to Donetsk and 20 kilometers from the front line. I have also visited Donetsk (during the Euromaidan) as well as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both of which have been controlled by Ukrainian forces since summer 2014. The visit to Mariupol was with four journalists (two from Kharkiv, one from Kyiv, and one from Lutsk). It was funded by the EU through the Association of Polish Journalists and the TeleKrytyka Ukrainian media monitor and coordinated by Yuri Lukanov, president of the Trade Union of Independent Journalists of Ukraine.

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