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Denying the Kremlin a Monopoly on the Airwaves

Since Russia began its adventure in Ukraine in spring of 2014, eastern Europeans have become particularly sensitive to the Russian-controlled media that is allowed to operate freely in their countries. The Kremlin made good use of its media weaponry in Russian-speaking Crimea and Donbas, convincing Crimeans that fascist Kyivans were on their way to slaughter them, and telling the citizens of Donbas about the horrifying abuses that the Ukrainian government was afflicting on children a few miles away.

Flurry of Kiev Assassinations a New Russian Front in Ukraine

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the wild 90’s were back in Kyiv. A recent spate of car bombings, brazen assassinations and attempted murders are reminiscent of the immediate post-Soviet years when politicians, businessmen, and mafiosos grappled with each other—often bloodily—for power in their countries.

Since July 2016, when the Belarusian-turned-Ukrainian investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed by a car bomb detonated in the middle of a Kyiv street, the flood gates have opened. Although Sheremet’s colleagues believe that he was murdered for his journalistic endeavors, most of the deaths that have followed look as though they were orchestrated by Russia as part of their ongoing campaign to destabilize Ukraine.

That the Ukrainian government proved themselves useless in finding Sheremet’s killers and bringing them to justice made it clear to Russia that they too could act similarly and do so without impunity.

Generation Putin Takes to the Streets

There are no official statistics about the actual numbers or demographic makeup of those who joined the June 12 anti-corruption protests around Russia, but the anecdotal evidence of a burgeoning youth movement is strong. High school students who had been rounded up by police sent out pictures of themselves and their friends smiling broadly in paddy wagons. Tweets from reporters dotted around the country noted how many teenagers seemed to have brought their parents to the events, not the other way around.
 
This stands in rather stark contrast to the protest wave that stirred Russia in 2011 and 2012. It was largely, though not wholly, confined to the two major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the participants were from the so-called “creative class” of educated Russians who had benefitted economically from the Putin years but now wanted more participation in their own government.
 

Chairman Kaczynski: Holding Court for Poland’s Leaders

Polish politics have been—to put it mildly—rather contentious as of late. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) was swept into power in 2015 ending eight years of political domination by the classic liberal-oriented Civic Platform Party, and PiS has since governed with a determination to remake the country in its own conservative-populist image.

Not unexpectedly the center-left European Union administrative bodies in Brussels and various rights watchdog groups have expressed concerns over PiS’ various moves, including efforts seen to consolidate power on the Constitutional Court and clamp down on the media.

A Tale of Two Ukrainian Cities

The International Republican Institute (IRI) recently released an excellent poll that surveyed citizens on the state of Ukraine's local and municipal governance. Most polling in Ukraine has focused on national or regional-level issues like attitudes toward NATO and EU membership, or voter preferences in an upcoming election. So IRI's Ukrainian Municipal Survey, now in its third year, is especially useful because it sheds light on the challenges and issues that Ukrainians face in their everyday lives.

The poll shows that the vast majority of Ukrainians believe their country is moving in the wrong direction—the most pessimistic among them live in Ukraine's south and east. These numbers are far lower than they were in 2015 and 2016 and, in short, they indicate that the hope and promise of the Maidan revolution is dwindling if not collapsing.

Domestic Discontent Spreading in Russia and Belarus

Just three years after the Euromaidan uprising prompted Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev for refuge in Moscow, Ukraine has finally begun to make tangible progress in its reform agenda. Yanukovych, who in his two-and-a-half years as president was infamous for stealing the country’s remaining wealth to line his pockets and those of his friends, was drummed from office in large part because of his administration’s rampant corruption.

So perhaps the citizens of Belarus and Russia have taken a cue from their neighbor’s success, though limited, in rooting out the corruption that makes the lives of so many ordinary citizens miserable.

Independent, Liberal Universities Under Attack in Eastern Europe

Independent liberal arts universities in Eastern Europe are under attack. Simultaneously, though perhaps for different reasons, two of the region’s best and most independent post-graduate universities are under the serious threat of closure.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s long running feud with the Hungarian-born financier and billionaire George Soros has culminated in an attempt to shutter Central European University (CEU), the institute Soros founded in Budapest in 1991. Despite international outrage and large marches in the streets of Budapest, the government has moved ahead with a law that seems designed to close CEU.

US Gains Favor in Russian Media, Polls

Nearly three years ago, in the wake of Western governments’ denunciations of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine, Russian approval of the United States and European countries plummeted. In the Russian media, sanctions placed on Russia by both parties were presented as proof of the West’s determination to destroy or ruin Russia.

But since those events, Russians’ approval of the United States and the West have slowly rebounded from the lows they hit at the beginning of the conflict.

People Power Rise Up Against Corruption in Romania

In a world that seems to be awash in bad news, there's a terrific story shaping up in Romania.

The government of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu took office only a month ago, but one of its early decisions brought hundreds of thousands of Romanians to the streets to protest.

Grindeanu, who represents the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was not his party's first choice to be prime minister. After winning 46 percent of the vote in 2016's parliamentary election, PSD formed a governing coalition but was unable to make its leader, Liviu Dragnea, the prime minister. Mr. Dragnea is currently serving a two-year suspended sentence after being convicted of attempting to rig a 2012 vote on whether to impeach the then-president.

This conviction made him ineligible to serve as the country's prime minister, an unusual situation in a country where it is generally assumed that the leader of the winning party will take that post. He is, however, the chairman of Romania’s parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. The first proposed prime minister was rejected by the president for being too much an agent of Dragnea. The second was Grindeanu.

Deconstructing the Conventional and Simplistic Take on Ukraine

To travel through Ukraine is to journey through hundreds of years of history, the remnants of divergent diasporas, forced famines, Nazi and Communist atrocities, and not an insignificant number of now-defunct empires.

In his new book “In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine,” (Deckle Edge, Oct 2016) former Balkan War correspondent Tim Judah tours a modern Ukraine where history keeps returning with a vengeance. After Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and launched an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Judah began reporting from the country, bringing his considerable expertise and critical eye to the only active conflict on the European continent. Writing in 2014 when the war between Ukraine and Russia was at its hottest, his series of vignettes from across Europe’s largest country beautifully tell the story of a country that has finally embarked on a journey of self-discovery after 25 years of independence.

Ukrainians Find Economic Refuge in Poland—For Now

Contrary to its reputation for disliking foreign workers and refugees, Poland has emerged as one of Europe’s largest grantors of residence permits. After Malta and Cyprus, where foreigners can easily purchase residency, Poland is the European Union’s largest issuer of such permits.

Vladimir Putin’s Best Week Ever

Last week, while much of the world was focused on the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US elections, things in Europe and Eurasia took an ominous turn. Even leaving aside the Trump victory, which the Kremlin seems to view with both concern at Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, and glee at his pro-Russia statements, Vladimir Putin had a terrific week.

Estonia, Bulgaria, and Moldova, all underwent political changes that look to be good news for Moscow, while the Kremlin’s influence in international policing matters also got a major boost.

Interpol

Georgia Goes for Ganja

In the midst of election turmoil in the small south Caucasus nation of Georgia, one big change went largely unnoticed. On September 29, Georgia’s Constitutional Court made a ruling that has essentially made the possession and use of marijuana legal in the conservative country.

Tabula reports that the court has “ruled that it was unconstitutional to arrest individuals for purchasing or possession of Marijuana, as there is no risk of danger to other individuals.”

The issue was brought to Georgia’s highest court after a young activist named Beka Tsikarishvili sued the government when he was arrested in 2014 and threatened with up to 14 years in prison. Mr. Tsikarishvili argued that jail sentences for possession of marijuana without the intent to distribute was a violation of his personal dignity.

The State of Play in Transdnistria

The drive from Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, to the breakaway region of Transdnistria takes only about an hour. Transdnistria, which runs like a ribbon between the curved borders of Moldova and Ukraine, takes its name from the fact that most of it—though not all—lies across the Dniester river.

Transdnistria does have a somewhat different modern history than does the rest of Moldova—a much more Soviet one. From 1921-1940, much of the area that is now called Transdnistria was part of the Soviet Union. The so-called Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (officially founded in 1924) was a constituent part of the Ukrainian SSR, and for much of the time had its capital in Tiraspol. So while Transdnistria was Sovietized—and large amounts of Russians and Ukrainians were imported to work in the newly industrialized area—the rest of what we now know as Moldova was part of the Kingdom of Romania.

Dueling Narratives: EU Overreach vs Hungary's Resistance

"Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?" This was the question asked to Hungarians on Sunday's special referendum. It was prompted by an outcry from Hungarians at the throngs of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants that have crossed into their country in the past two years, and President Victor Orbán's disgust at the European Union's plan to distribute refugees amongst all of its member countries regardless of the wishes of the citizenry.

The referendum was Orbán and his ruling Fidesz Party's opportunity to snub their nose at European Union and German leadership on the issue. But things did not go precisely as planned. While the results were as expected—a resounding 98.3 percent said 'No' to the above question—the turnout numbers have proven to be the fly in Orbán's ointment.

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