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Archive for: September 2021 - DIGEST UKRAINE

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Berlin is basking in late summer sunshine. Along the banks of the River Spree, residents enjoy the last warm days before the change of season. Germany – and the rest of Europe – are about to witness the end of an era: after 16 years, the sun is setting on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s time in power.  

Germans will head to the polls Sunday (September 26) for the country’s general election. Whichever party emerges with the biggest share of the vote will likely appoint the leader of a coalition government.  

Chancellor Merkel remains hugely popular among German voters, with approval ratings still hovering around 60 percent, a remarkable figure after four terms in office. However, her Christian Democratic Union party is struggling in the election campaign, with the latest opinion polls showing support of around 22 percent. In recent weeks that figure has at times fallen below 20 percent, for the first time since World War II.  

The Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor is 60-year-old Armin Laschet, who is attempting to woo voters with a promise of continuity. “The cohesion of Europe in these difficult times, a climate-neutral industry and strong economy, and a clear course for national security,” he promised voters in the latest TV debate last Sunday.  

Voters may approve the message, but not necessarily the man himself. During a visit to the flood-devastated regions of Germany in July, Laschet was caught on camera laughing during a speech by the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His approval ratings haven’t recovered.  

Instead, the Social Democrats’ (SPD) candidate, Olaf Scholz, is leading in the polls with around 25 percent. He is a former mayor of Hamburg and finance minister in the current coalition government, now favored to succeed Merkel.

“The Social Democrats’ strong position is a surprise,” says Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Freie University in Berlin and an expert on the SPD. “In the last years, they’ve continuously sunk lower in the polls. Many said that this wasn’t just a crisis for the party, but the start of their demise.”

“The poor performance of the Conservatives (CDU) has been to the benefit of the Social Democrats. So really, in a crowd of blind people, Scholz is the one-eyed man, and that makes him the king. He has a stable position in the polls, you could say a good performance as minister, and where he lacks charisma and charm, he makes up for in stability – all aided by the weaknesses of the competition,” Neugebauer told VOA.  

Scholz appeared confident of victory in the latest TV debate Sunday. “Many citizens can see me as the next head of government, the next chancellor… And I make no secret that I would most like to create a (coalition) government together with the Greens,” Scholz said.  

Earlier in the summer, the Green Party had been leading in the polls, and it seemed its 40-year-old leader, Annalena Baerbock, was about to usher in a dramatic change of the political guard in Germany. Support for the Greens, however, has fallen back to around 15 percent, putting them in third place.  

Paula Piechotta, the Green Party candidate for the city of Leipzig, told VOA the party is ready to form a coalition government – but has clear red lines. “Because of the (little) time that is left to actually act successfully on combating climate change, we will not be able to compromise a lot when it comes to climate policies,” Piechotta said.

Smaller parties, including the Free Democrats or the Left party, could be kingmakers in a coalition and will likely demand specific government positions or policies in return.

All three main parties have ruled out working with the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is polling around 10 percent nationally. Support for the AfD is much higher is some regions of the former East Germany, says analyst Neugebauer. “If you go to areas with weaker economic development, a higher rate of unemployment, a low level of education, poor service in particularly rural areas, like health care, schools, transportation, then you have higher support for the AfD than in areas where these problems are not present.”   

So what are issues driving voters? Polls show a clear generational divide – reflected among voters who spoke to VOA. “I think the first important topic for me is for sure, climate change,” said 28-year-old Berlin resident Jun Kinoshita. Thirty-five-year-old voter Corinna Anand agrees. “For me the most important issue is climate change. Climate, education, child care.”

For Dirk Zeller, a 54-year-old voter from the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, money is the biggest worry. “Pensions – that they’re stable. Jobs. Lots of things are more expensive. Gas, electricity. How is that going to continue to develop? Can we afford it, as simple people?”  

Fifty-four-year-old Brigitte, who did not want to give her full name, said social inequality is rising in Germany. “The richest Germans only got richer, even with the coronavirus. Meanwhile, lots of people saw their means of living deteriorate and today, they have bigger problems than before. I don’t see that any of the parties are offering initiatives there,” she told VOA.

Few Germans expect immediate change. Talks to form a coalition government will likely take months and Merkel will remain in charge until the rival parties can agree on her successor.  

Merkel has been seen as a pillar of stability in Europe for almost two decades – and the coming changes in Germany will be felt around the world, says analyst Neugebauer. “Just based on their existing international resumés, none of the candidates can simply step into the role of Ms. Merkel. They will have to grow into the role.”

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Germans are preparing to choose a new leader in elections scheduled September 26 to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down. As Henry Ridgwell reports from Berlin, Merkel has been seen as a pillar of stability in Europe for almost two decades — and the coming changes in Germany will be felt around the world.

Camera: Henry Ridgwell


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Results from Russia’s parliamentary and local elections Sunday have given a boost to the allies of President Vladimir Putin, who will now retain their majority. After denouncing alleged fraud, the Communist Party – the second largest in parliament – called for demonstrations in the Russian capital Monday but few people appeared. Jon Spier narrates this report from the VOA Moscow bureau.

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Turkey’s leaders are closely watching Germany’s elections on September 26th that will mark the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long tenure. For VOA from Istanbul, Dorian Jones reports

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The United States, United Kingdom and Australia on Thursday announced what the Royal Australian Navy describes on its website as an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” known as AUKUS (Australia, U.K. and U.S.). It says Australia will get at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, to be built domestically using American technology.

The use of nuclear-powered Australian submarines in the Indo-Pacific has angered China by threatening to curb its expansion in the same waterways, experts say. 

The three-country security deal came after Australia pulled out of an earlier deal with France for diesel-electric submarines, angering Paris. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian even went as far as to describe Australia’s decision to back out of the deal as a “stab in the back.” On Friday, France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia. 

Analysts point to the partnership as the latest Western effort to vie with China for control over seas that Beijing calls its own despite territorial spats with other Asian governments, including Western allies. One disputed waterway is the resource-rich South China Sea.

Nuclear-powered submarines mean stealthier, faster-moving vessels, while Britain’s participation suggests a wider program and not just another U.S.-led effort targeting China, scholars say. The subs are expected to be ready by 2035.

“Operationally, it should bother the Chinese, because if Australia does get nuclear subs, then it can stay on station in places like the South China Sea or East China Sea for more or less permanent deployments,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Submarines won’t come online right away, he said, but for the first five to 10 years, what is important is “what (the partnership) says about Australia’s posture and willingness to stand up to China and whatever the posture changes are for the U.S.,” Poling said. Washington might eventually increase military rotations and exercises with Canberra, he said.

China’s maritime conflicts 

Beijing claims about 90% of the South China Sea, where it has angered Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines by building artificial islets and passing ships through the contested waters. It vies with Japan over sovereignty in parts of the adjoining East China Sea.

Western countries have taken new notice of their former Cold War foe as the Chinese navy grows rapidly and its ships turn up as far away as Alaska.

AUKUS calls for the sharing of military-related automation, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. Quantum technology can help detect submarines and stealth aircraft. Australia, Britain and the United States have committed to a “comprehensive program of work” over the next 18 months, the Australian navy says.

‘Worst possible contingencies’ 

Nuclear-powered subs based in Australia could reach the South China Sea in a day and stay indefinitely, said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. Alternatively, they might enter the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea or Southwest Pacific, he added.

He said Australia, in pitched political and trade fights with China since 2015, intends to help the United States defend any Chinese movement that’s “inimical” to Australian allies.

“These subs are primarily to boost Australian defenses against a rising China that is challenging not only the U.S. in the region but also all our countries, including Australia, and there is a growing military challenge from China that is very real, and we are preparing for all sorts of worst possible contingencies, including the prospect for a major power war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan some time in this decade,” Davis said.

China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and regularly sends military planes into its airspace. Taiwan’s government, opposed to unification with China, has found growing support from the West.

“Taiwan will have a side (of its population) that cries out, ‘That’s great. England, America and Australia are coming to do a check and balance against China,’ said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

British officials joined the tech-sharing deal as part of their “idea of global Britain” following their departure from the European Union, Poling said. Its participation as a non-Indo-Pacific country angers China particularly, Huang said.

AUKUS follows other Western-spearheaded efforts such as the 16-year-old Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among India, Japan, Australia and the United States. Western-allied countries periodically pass ships through the South China Sea on their own. China normally protests.

Stern words, deeds in China

China calls the AUKUS deal a danger to the Indo-Pacific region. “For the United States, U.K. and Australia to launch nuclear submarine cooperation severely disrupts regional peace and stability, increases the arms buildup race and wrecks the hard work of international disarmament,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday.

Asia’s chief superpower isn’t standing by either. On September 1, China implemented its Revised Maritime Safety Traffic Law to counter foreign ships that pass near its coasts. The law tightens Chinese control over the East and South China seas by giving Beijing power to stop a range of foreign vessels.

“The United States Navy, if it was ordered to conduct a freedom of navigation (operation), that just sets up a confrontation, because how are you going to stop an American warship?” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

China could follow up AUKUS further by restricting additional Australian imports, Davis said. Canberra, however, has already found new foreign markets for its all-important coal and wine because of earlier friction with China.


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The Australian decision to cancel a $66 billion deal to buy 12 French diesel-electric submarines and to purchase instead at least eight more sophisticated nuclear-powered attack boats from Britain and America continues to reverberate with French officials smarting at what they see as a betrayal by London and Washington.


And there are few signs the dispute will abate any time soon.


European Union leaders are rallying behind France in the dispute over the shelving of the multi-billion-dollar French deal and Canberra’s decision to sign up to a trilateral Asia Pacific security pact, known as AUKUS, with the United States and Britain, an alliance notably excluding Paris. 

Speaking after a meeting Monday among EU foreign ministers held in New York on the sidelines of this week’s annual gathering for the United Nations General Assembly, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the foreign ministers “expressed clear solidarity with France.”


Borrell chided Washington and London saying, “More cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation” was needed among Western powers in the Indo-Pacific region where China is the major rising power and is promoting alarm among its neighbors. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN, “One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why.” 


French anger 


Last week France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington — a dramatic demonstration of French anger. And France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has accused U.S. President Joe Biden of continuing the “unilateralism, unpredictability, brutality” of his predecessor Donald Trump, says he does not intend to meet his U.S. counterpart, Antony Blinken, while in New York.


“I myself do not intend to meet the Secretary of State Blinken,” Le Drian told reporters Monday. The French have also been avoiding timetabling a phone conversation between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.


France claims not to have been consulted by Australia about the plan to scupper what the French once branded the “deal of the century;” Australia says it did raise concerns with Paris for months over the contract, which was struck in 2016. Australian politicians have been emphasizing that the French contractors had fallen well behind schedule. “This has been a farce from day one,” Stephen Conroy, a former Australian senator, told Australian broadcaster Sky News. “This was a deal that was destined to fail,” he says.


French officials say they were only informed last week in writing just hours before the announcement by Britain, the US and Australia of an agreement that will see Australia become only the seventh state in the world with a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. 


France’s reliability in question 


While the core Australian decision rested on Canberra’s military assessment of its needs in the Indo-Pacific region, prompting an equipment upgrade, the move to exclude France from the trilateral defense pact, reveals much about Anglo-American suspicions of France’s reliability as a partner, say some former Western foreign and defense ministers and diplomats.

In defense circles in Washington and London, France is often seen as a frenemy, all too ready to grab commercial and diplomatic advantage over the United States and Britain and to exercise an independent mindedness that can make it an unpredictable military ally going back to General Charles De Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw France abruptly from NATO.


Former British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt accused France Tuesday of wanting to have its cake and eat it, having one foot in the U.S.-led alliance while on the other pushing for an alternative French-led European defense alliance and backing an EU investment deal with China which granted better access to Europe’s single market than given to post-Brexit Britain. “France has long believed Europe should build an independent defence capability,” he wrote Tuesday for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. 


An alternative defense arrangement that loosens transatlantic ties with Washington is not conceivable without British backing, he says. The French are “bitterly aware that our central involvement in a new Asian military alliance led by the U.S. makes it much less likely that any European alliance, with or without Britain, would ever be a credible alternative to American leadership,” he says.


Another former British foreign minister, Willam Hague, agrees “the petulant French reaction to the consequent loss of a huge defence contract does little to elicit sympathy.” And he notes in a commentary: “Paris would not have hesitated to do the same the other way round.” But he says that as the AUKUS initiative develops beyond submarines into areas such as artificial intelligence, it should be open for others to join, including Canada and European allies such as France. 


But analyst Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, an international security and risk consultancy firm in London, believes Washington and London should have been much more diplomatic, and instead of blindsiding Paris should have consulted and offered the French a slice of the new deal. “There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing the U.S. and the U.K. to the table, like splitting the contract in three,” he told VOA. 


“It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France since in the past few months France has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region,” he says. “Indeed, back in March China complained about French military activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there,” Guitta said. 



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