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Spring Is Here: 2014

It was a strange winter. The Americans kept it all, leaving us Europeans with the floods and the flu. A nice man from Scotland bought winter tires I no longer had any need for. It took four days for the tires to get from London to Perth but at least we could both observe their progress from one depot to another on a tracking app. Then it did not snow all winter and I felt like a cheat.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, despite the lack of snow, were a great success. Many people had feared about security and did not go, but it all went off without a hitch, thanks undoubtedly to the vast numbers of security personnel on the spot. Now that the games are over, they have apparently moved to Crimea.

NATO's 90s Expansion Enlarged Zone of Stability

Fifteen years ago, on March 12, 1999, in Independence, Missouri, the first three post-communist countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, joined the Atlantic Alliance. Three years later they were joined by Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

At the time, the idea of NATO enlargement found not only many supporters but quite a few detractors. Some felt the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were not ready, politically and economically, to join and contribute to the allied operations. Some were concerned about the costs of enlargement at a time when most member countries started drawing the peace dividend. Most, however, feared antagonizing Russia at a time it was struggling on its way to democracy and market economy.

Selling Citizenship

Citizenship status has been a prized commodity since the days of the Roman Empire, which used it, among other things, as an instrument of foreign policy, offering certain categories of people (mostly free men) in its newly colonized lands the status of a citizen, albeit in various degrees and with various limitations. Then as now the value of the citizenship status was considerable, opening the way to reside, to marry, to vote, and be voted for, to enter into commercial contracts and to enjoy the full protection of the Roman law.

Nonetheless, it was not just all roses. The status of a citizen entailed also considerable obligations, first and foremost to serve in the legions of the empire, sometimes for decades, and to pay taxes in exchange for the services it provided. These two instruments created a strong bond between the state and the government—generally the citizens benefitted when the state prospered and vice versa.

Ariel Sharon (1928–2014)

It speaks volumes that Ariel Sharon, whose name rarely if ever appeared in any context without the word “controversy” or “controversial” nearby, was in his own country most often referred to by his few close friends and numerous foes alike by the familial “Arik,” reducing him from the grand lion of “Ariel” to human proportions. Without any doubt this was meant to signify that what he represented, good and bad, both in generous proportions, was inseparable from the existence and history of Israel, a country, which he indefatigably served.

Creating 'Independent Arab and Jewish States'

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet...

Diplomacy is inherently ill-equipped to handle identity. It excels at obfuscating issues, deals in constructive ambiguities, and fudges sharp divisions. Its product, when it succeeds, is invariably some kind of a document that no one is happy with but everybody can live with. Identity, on the other hand, requires clarity, which serves to reaffirm the image people have of themselves and their position in the world. Identity without clarity is no good because instead of reaffirming, it reinforces doubts about the image people have of themselves, and even more so, about the image other people have of them.

For the Love of Europe's Children

Should anyone doubt the continuing relevance of biological ties, it is enough to pick up any newspaper and read the gruesome stories of court battles revolving around the custody of children, babies even, nay babies yet unborn. There is little else that provokes the same passions, heroic and self-denying in some people, selfish and destructive in others, among otherwise perfectly normal adults.

Looking at the (mostly) bloodless atrocities committed in the name of the helpless little ’uns, it is no wonder that most modern states intervene in such situations as guardians of the rights of the children and of their best interests. The position that children are exclusively the property of their parents is antiquated and indefensible in a society that recognizes that everyone, including babies, is endowed with certain rights, which are irreducible to the rights of others, parents notwithstanding.

Which Ukraine?

The fallout from the failed attempt to conclude an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine last weekend is as radioactive as the Chernobyl plant. Between the diplomatic hangover and the frustration of tens of thousands of Western-leaning Ukrainians nobody’s eager to accept the blame for the fiasco. President Viktor Yanukovych vowed to continue the negotiations with Brussels and immediately demonstrated his commitment by leaving for China. There are reciprocal vague noises in some European capitals about the continuing determination to embrace Ukraine in further rounds of negotiations.

The pretension suits Yanukovych just fine, since it might help to dilute and attenuate the genuine anger of many Ukrainians over his decision, but to give it any credence would be walking into a fool’s paradise. The truth is there may have never been much to negotiate about with the current Ukrainian president. To argue otherwise is to believe that if the stingy Europeans and the miserly IMF could have sweetened the deal a little, Yanukovych would have kindly signed off on the dotted line.

Is Time on Iran's Side?

Diplomacy, unlike sex, lends itself poorly to sensationalism. The agreement with Iran reached by the foreign ministers of six countries (or, in the diplomatic jargon, P5+1, the European Union being not quite a country and not quite a union) in Geneva at 3 a.m. on Sunday is neither a beginning of a new era, a major step forward “to a final, comprehensive solution,” nor a new Munich. It is neither a “historic achievement,” as the White House seems to suggest, nor a “historic mistake,” as Benjamin Netanyahu asserts. It is something in between, too transient to be historic. It is hard to read the agreement as anything but a stopgap measure, an expression of a stalemate between the real but cunning determination of the Iranian theocracy to make itself, its ideology, and its designs abroad immune to any external threat and the equally real but half-hearted desire of the West to prevent this from happening. Other things staying equal, six months hence the agreement will bring us to roughly the same spot where we are now, except that other things have a tendency of not staying the same.

Lost EU-Ukraine Deal: Blessing in Disguise?

Many people today profess shock over the Ukrainian rejection to sign an association agreement with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius next week. Others, including this writer, are shocked that anyone should be shocked. Going back over the many rounds of negotiations, talks, incentives, and cajoling, it is patently clear that the Ukraine has never committed to conclude a deal with the EU but was rather playing a clever game to raise the bids from both of its suitors, one to the East and one to the West. At the end of the day, it is hard to even blame President Yanukovych for employing this time-tested strategy of unscrupulous brides and merger specialists.

Mistaking Foreign Friends for Foes

What has the United States ever done to the Czech Republic?

Spring Springs Eternal. Again.

The cat had been slumbering around the house for months, with only brief pauses for food, drink, and getting rubbed behind the ears. Three days ago he got up, stuck his nose out the door in the freezing rain, snorted disgustedly, and went back to sleep.

The talk of this year’s exhibition season in London is the British Museum’s Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, which features some amazingly voluptuous, 30,000-year-old Moravian ladies. It shows that to have a modern mind, you first have to be cool. Global warming won’t help.

Putin Won't Go Quietly - If at All

A specter is haunting Russia—the specter of a revolution. That much is clear. The tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people braving sub-zero temperatures in the street clearly attest to an unprecedented popular discontent and a clear wish for a more democratic and less corrupt country.

Because of the scope and force of the protest, the obituaries for Prime Minister (and once and future President) Vladimir Putin, and for “Putinism,” have started to crop up right and left. The argument is that even a “sovereign” democracy cannot survive if the majority wish for a change. It is, we hear, not a question of if—but only of when—Putin decides to pack up and go.

Irrespective of what one would like to see happen, this kind of reasoning seems to be premature at best. It is promoted by many of the same starry-eyed people who welcomed Putin in 2000 as the best thing since the invention of vodka, as an organizer and modernizer who would overcome the chaos of Yeltsin years and usher Russia into the 21st century.

In Memory of Christopher Hitchens

We were friends, then we were great friends, then we were not so great friends, and we ended up as friends again. I suspect that this story of my relationship with Christopher Hitchens, a writer gifted and prodigal in equal measure who died last week, was not entirely unique. Few people who have met him were left untouched by the encounter or remained indifferent to his life and work. His talent to fascinate and charm people was equaled only by his gift to infuriate. He was one of the few writers who somehow managed to be totally absorbed in his own work and yet totally present to the world around him. To friends, he was always generous with his time, his table, his liquor, and, mostly, his loyalty. To enemies, he was a scourge, persistent and vengeful, taking no prisoners. Enemies he had aplenty, and he never tired of finding new ones. Friends he had many, though the inner circle remained small and largely constant.

Vaclav Havel (1936–2011)

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

— W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939)

Being, Consciousness, and the Future of Europe

The eurozone is going to the wire in its struggle to preserve the euro. Although some criticize it for taking too much time, it is encouraging to see that it seems to have finally found the will to defend itself against a looming economic disaster stemming from the potential collapse of its common currency.

That radical steps toward a fiscal union are needed if the euro is to be preserved few would deny. It is another question, though, whether such steps should be seen as strengthening the political unity of Europe. It seems obvious to some that the two march hand in hand, but what seems obvious is in itself no guarantee of truth. Some critical reasoning seems to be in order.

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