Holland Beyond the Crowds

Europe

If you attempt to stand still in the streets of Amsterdam for longer than 5 seconds, you will be whisked away by the throngs of tourists and locals converging on narrow cobblestone streets. Wander onto the slightly less congested bike lanes, and you’ll become a hit and run victim by one of the law abiding bikers.

Holland’s beauty is provocatively on display for all to see. And that’s not a reference to the infamous red light district, but rather a testament to precise canal planning and unique building architecture. With so much refinement on display, it’s hard to look beyond into the tiny infinite instances that make a trip to Holland unique. This photo essay is my attempt to see beyond the typical and find the quintessential Dutch culture during my stay.

These are by no means all inclusive, just a reflection of my personal experience:

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Italy’s New Fearless Leader

Europe
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Italy’s new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has some big shoes to fill, and even bigger problems to fix. Sworn into office this weekend, he inherits a slow party coalition, a government plagued by corruption, and an economy stuck in recession.

Italy’s youngest Prime Minister since Benito Mussolini, Renzi faces the lowest drop in GDP at almost 10%  since the financial crisis 6 years ago. That’s higher than any other substantial economy.On top of that, Italy’s income per head is at it’s lowest point since before it joined the European Union currency in 1999.

Renzi has chosen to combat these massive problems with even larger promises for reform. He promises to enact a new employment law in March, to streamline Italy’s administration in April, and to overhaul the tax system in May.

Leader of Italy’s Center-Left Democratic Party, Renzi’s route to power was a bit unorthodox. Enrico Letta was the party’s original leader and choice candidate for Prime Minister, but Renzi knifed Letta in the back and stole the spotlight by speaking out against him. In doing so he was nicknamed “Il Rottamatore”, or the Scrapper, by the Center-Left.

The negative repercussions of this coup have yet to materialize, but many Italians are unhappy with Renzi’s crafty move. and the Center-Left party itself is uneasy with his direct disobedience of their wishes.

No matter the effect this may have on his ratings, Renzi is a force to be reckoned with. Hands down Italy’s most popular politician today, he stands the best chance at uniting the people with the government again. But with no former experience in Parliament, he may not know how to do so. His only previous political experience is his term as Florence’s mayor.

Renzi claims his rookie experience as a virtue, saying he has had no part in the corrupt politics that surrounded his predecessor, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He certainly has taken a different approach to the office, choosing a cabinet made up half of woman and all low profile figures.

He’s also received a lot of attention from Europe’s leaders as well. Before even being elected Prime Minister, Renzi met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her request.

Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair endorsed Renzi issuing a statement saying, “Matteo has the dynamism, creativity, and toughness to succeed.”

Hopefully, Renzi can harness his charisma and power to face down the $2.75 trillion Italy has amassed in government debt. His ambition may be the missing stimulus Italy’s predecessors lacked.

The Ukrainian Protests: Where It All Began

Europe
Photo Credit: Blu-News via Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Blu-News via Creative Commons

Most people have a basic understanding of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and  North Africa, but the most recent uprising in Ukraine comes as a surprise to some.

As the situation continues to unfold, it’s important to keep in mind where it came from.

So why is an Eastern European country experiencing protests that resemble the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Libya?

  • Distrust of President Viktor Yanukovych
  • Disagreement with Yanukovych’s rejection of a free trade deal with the European Union
  • Disapproval of economic bailout deal struck with Russia

Out with the old, in with the older? 

Elected to office in 2010, Yanukovych was no stranger to the presidential race. He was a candidate and in the controversial 2004 election. Ukraine requires the winner of a presidential election to win 50% of the vote. No candidate accomplished this, and therefore the two highest scoring candidates continued onto a second round of elections.

Yanukovych won the second round, but his opponent opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko disputed the conclusion, claiming Yanukovych supporters rigged the election. The result was a peaceful protest, the Orange Revolution, calling for a re-election.

The Ukraine Supreme Court agreed to this, and the final winner of the 2004 election was Viktor Yushchenko.

The former prime minster Yanukovych did not give up, however. In the 2010 election he beat out political rival Yulia Tymoshenko by 3%. Ukrainians claimed Yanukovych supporters used everything from voter intimidation to refusing absentee ballots to stop Tymoshenko supporters once again, but this time there was no re-election.

A failing economy led by an former communist and criminal is an easy target for any opposition. Many were uneasy with Yanukovych’s ties to Russia in the first place. That unease rose exponentially when he jailed his former opponent, Tymoshenko, for a clear case of political retribution.

Compounded with these previous offenses, Yanukovych’s backing out of a deal with the European Union catalyzed the protests raging in Independence Square.

Denial of the EU

In November 2013 Yanukovych walked away from the final stages of a free trade agreement with the EU.

A country split between two languages (Ukrainian and Russian), half the nation revolted. The Ukrainian speaking west had seen this deal as preliminary steps towards joining the European Union.

Yanukovych claimed the deal with the European Union would have destroyed the economy, triggered Russian trade restrictions, and exposed Ukraine to dangerous competition. He promised to pursue the European Union at a later date, which most people wrote off as a false statement to pacify the West.

Instead, he signed a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Strengthening Ties To Russia

Yanukovych angered his people once again when he signed a $15 billion economic bailout deal with Russia. The deal also included a discount on natural gas, cutting the original price of $400 to $268.50 per cubic meter.

Ukraine and Russia share much more than a border. Ukraine’s ties to Russia date back to the 9th century, during the Russian Empire. The affiliation carried over into the Soviet Empire, and today the countries are bonded by energy. Ukrainian pipelines provide transit for Russian natural gas to the European Union.

Putin also claims to offer Ukraine a “Customs Union”, which he hopes will become the Eurasian Union by 2015. Currently made up of Russia, Kazakstan, and Belarus, it looks an awful lot like the Soviet Union.

Naturally, the United States opposes this political coalition and therefore has thrust its support behind the protesters in Independence Square.

No matter the outcome, Ukraine’s position in the international arena remains a pawn between the West and Russia.

Highlights of 2014 Munich Security Conference

Americas, Asia, Europe, Middle East & North Africa, Regions

John Kerry, Ban Ki-Moon

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) greeted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (left) before the 50th Munich Security Conference. Credit: AP Photo

Yesterday concluded the 50th annual Munich Security Conference in Germany. The Conference is a 3 day global platform used to discuss international security policy. A grueling and intensive 72 hours later, our world’s foremost policy makers walked away with these highlighted accomplishments and discussions:

International Cyber Security:

  • Prompted by the recent NSA security breaches, a debate on cyber security ensued. Participants agreed that a common effort for improvement must be implemented.

Peace in Southeastern Europe:

  • After 220 hours of dialogue, Kosovo and Serbia achieved a peace agreement.

More of the Same in Syria:

  • A discussion led by UN Envoy to the Middle East Brahimi on the Syrian Civil War revealed disappointment with the Assad regime, but no progress with Geneva II.
  • Prince Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia accused Assad of genocide and the West (except France) of ignoring the Syrian people.
  • The debate concluded that the UN Security Council needed to increase its’ efforts and countermeasures.

Progress in Iran:

  • U.S. Senator Chris Murphy says the U.S. Senate will not vote on a new round of U.S. sanctions.
  • Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif says they should reopen human rights talks with the European Union.
  • Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel stand by disarmament deal with Iran.

U.S. Perspective:

U.S. officials who attended the conference used the platform to push their support for the Obama administration and certain agenda items.

Kerry’s speech called for the investment in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), a trade investment agreement meant to promote economic growth in the United States and the European Union. T-TIP aims to open EU markets, strengthen rules-based investment, eliminate all tariffs, and promote global competitiveness.

Kerry spoke in support of the chemical weapons deal with Syria, the arms deal with Iran, and the Israel-Palestine peace talks. He also voiced support for Ukraine’s protests, but pledged no U.S. involvement.

Hagel led with what he labeled a successful operation in Afghanistan, followed by support of the French in the Central African Republic. He also spoke on military partnerships with countries such as the U.K. and Spain, and echoed Kerry’s call for a transatlantic renaissance.

Hagel concluded with a defense of the U.S. shrinking defense budget, and a promise to further U.S. influence by working with international allies.

Quotes from Kerry at Conference:

“I was recently in Korea and reminded that 10 of the 15 countries that used to receive aid from the United States of America as recently as in the last 10 years are today donor countries. Think about that: 10 of the 15 and the others are on their way to being donor countries.”

“What we need in 2014 is a transatlantic renaissance, a new burst of energy and commitment and investment in the three roots of our strength: our economic prosperity, our shared security, and the common values that sustain us.”

“If we’re ambitious enough, T-TIP will do for our shared prosperity what NATO has done for our shared security, recognizing that our security has always been built on the notion of our shared prosperity.”

“Nowhere is the fight for a democratic European future more important today than in Ukraine. While there are unsavory elements in the streets in any chaotic situation, the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe and a prosperous country, and they are fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations.”

Quotes from Hagel at Conference:

“In reviewing U.S. defense priorities tempered by our fiscal realities, it’s clear that our military must place an even greater strategic emphasis on working with our allies and partners around the world. That will be a key theme of the Department of Defense’s upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review which will articulate our defense strategy in a changing security and fiscal environment.”

“All of us must work closely together with African nations in helping them build their security forces and institutions. A more collaborative approach to global security challenges will require more defense establishments to cooperate not just on the operational level, but on the strategic level as well.

Despite fiscal constraints, the budget that we will release next month fully protects our investment in European missile defense. Our commitment to Europe is unwavering. Our values and our interests remain aligned. Both principle and pragmatism secure our transatlantic bonds.”

“I would venture to say the United States is more present doing more things in more places today than maybe ever before. How we’re doing it is differently, and it’s what I talked about, what John talked about – capacity-building for our partners, working closer with our partners, being able to do more as we are more creative with these initiatives.”