Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Young Greeks in crisis, in a post crisis country.
Over 427,000 people left Greece since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, marking the third wave of mass emigration in the 20th and 21st centuries. (Greek Reporter)
The country experiences a wave of mass emigration. The experience of expatriates may be a key to learn best practices from other countries.
Many of the emigrants are young and well educated, resulting in a brain-drain for the Greek society and economy that ultimately is bad news for the country. 
A lot of these job opportunity seekers, migrate to other EU member states with stronger economies which offer more opportunity to develop their careers. Yet some of them have found themselves in a peculiar situation. The Greek community in Ireland is growing, despite the difficulties that the Irish economy went through during the past years.
It is estimated that the number of Greeks in the country has doubled - if not tripled, over the period that followed both the Greek and the Irish bail-outs programmes. Partially because Ireland was the first country to exit the EU/IMF monitoring program, there are many other factors that despite all flaws, make the Irish economy more competitive than the Greek. 
Apart from the obvious advantages of the English language, its strong ties with the USA and strategic location close to most major European economies, plus of course the much-debated corporate taxation system, Ireland has established a more business-friendly economy.

"In 5 working days, you can set up your business"
Giorgos Stamopoulos is originally from the city of Patra in Greece. He moved to Ireland about 5 years ago, where he started working in various jobs in customer service and the IT industry. But 4 months ago, he decided with his partners to open “Eat-Greek,” a takeaway restaurant in Dublin. Back home, he used to run his own business in the frozen meats trade, but as the economic crisis took over the country, it was hard to make any profit. “People just did not have the money to make any payments,” he describes.
His new business venture in Ireland is doing very well so far. Overall Giorgos is very impressed and satisfied with the way business is conducted in the country.
“It is very easy to get a license and open a shop in this country, as the license is being issued on the property rather on the individual owner, like in Greece,”  he says.
There is less paperwork or red-tape and dealing with the banks or the local authorities is very much straight-forward,” Giorgos continues. 
“Back in Greece opening your own business takes too much time and money, as there are a lot of parties involved; from solicitors to public servants, the owner of the premises, the business partners,” he describes.
In addition, taxation is made easy in Ireland and everything is streamlined to do business faster and with less effort.
The working conditions are better too. There is far more meritocracy in Irish businesses and if you work hard you will succeed, according to Giorgos. Adam Kritidis moved to Dublin around 22 years ago, from his hometown of Edessa. He is also a business owner in Ireland, although for much longer than Giorgos.  He opened his first restaurant 16 years ago, and since then he has co-owned to another 8 restaurants in Dublin. 
Adam also points out Ireland’s “business-friendly” mentality. “In 5 working days, you can set up your business and additionally, 7 days are required for opening a bank account for it,” he states. That is something that Greece is still lacking behind, hindering naturally much of its business and economic development.

"There is a better work culture" 
People that arrived more recently in Ireland, have noticed major differences between the two countries.
Theodoros Zioutos came to Dublin in 2015, while already being married with two children. He arrived on his own, while his family stayed back in Greece for a while. They were reunited once he settled into his new home. He is a sound engineer, a profession he has been doing since 1995 in Greece. With 20 years of experience, Theodoros decided to resettle in Ireland, as he saw his working rights being scrapped in a country disintegrating under a deep economic crisis.
“I felt that I had no career prospects anymore, while I was seeking to find a financially safer and stable environment to raise my two kids,” he describes. 
“In Ireland, working experience is being rewarded and acts as a bonus when seeking employment. There is a better work culture, with staff getting lunch breaks and receiving the necessary rest between shifts,” Theodoros continues.
He adds that health and safety issues are being taken seriously, there is a meritocracy and adequate training is always being given. “Overall there is far more professionalism in an Irish workplace, than in Greece,” he adds.
Theodoros thinks that Greece could follow Ireland’s example in many ways. This includes a better organization and prioritization, less red tape and a more transparent taxation system. In short, streamlining the state’s institutions and their functions.

"I need to work fewer hours to make ends meet"  

His quality of life has improved since he moved to Ireland. “I need to work fewer hours to make ends meet, thus I can spend more time with my family, which is important,” he says.
Under the current economic climate, Theodoros does not consider returning to Greece. Yet because of the uncertainty that exists in Europe due to Brexit, he does not exclude moving on to another EU country. There are some things though that some new arrivals from Greece find harder to adopt, although in general, their experiences remain positive.
Matina Velonaki is originally from Athens in Greece. She studied English Literature and prior to her moving to Ireland, she worked as an English teacher. She was also working freelance as a translator but unfortunately, she was not making enough money from either job. Her income in Greece during the crisis was amounting to about 50 € a week.
Matina visited Dublin in 2009 and stayed in the country for one year for studies. After two years back in Greece, she returned to Ireland to find a job. She settled in the city of Cork where she started working in a Greek-speaking, customer service industry related job.
Matina feels that working conditions in Ireland are far better than Greece overall, but she also came across various working conditions, some that she was unfamiliar with, in her home country.

"Bogus Contracts" 
“I have never heard of the so-called “bogus contracts” that several multinational companies offer their workers,”
 she explains. 
“Working with no sick leave, demanding working conditions, flexible hours with the minimum wage, plus no worker’s benefits, is something I was not aware that existed in Ireland,” she describes.
During her career, she experienced lack of job security in some multinational companies and in addition, very tough competition among Greeks. She believes that because of the hardships back home, several Greek workers in Ireland have become extra competitive to maintain these jobs.
She plans to remain in Ireland for the long term, but preferably move to Dublin. She got used to the way things work here, although she misses her home country occasionally.

Lessons for Europe

These examples showcase a different work culture that Greece and other EU member states could consider in order to make their economies more competitive.
Not all of them might be applicable to other places in Europe, however examining and debating on them could offer valuable insights on how to reform the way we conduct and attract business, copy the beneficial parts, avoid the mistakes. Thus, expatriate communities could prove to be the best source of experience and knowledge on such issues. I wonder how could their voices be heard, both by their adopted and native countries, to create a constant database of shared apprehension on how to conduct business across Europe.

(Originally written for One Europe by me in 2017)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The world community must step in to stop the war in Syria...And that excludes USA, Russia, Britain and France!
On Friday the 13th of April, USA, France and Britain have finally bombarded Syria, despite Russian threats and objections. The move comes months after the alleged poisoning of the Skripals in the UK, plus an overall build-up of tensions between the West and Russia.

Accusations and counter-accusations, denying, lying and propaganda from both sides and their media, have done very little to help end the war, which been raging for 7 years now. After an estimated death toll of 400,000 people, plus a country in absolute ruin, the international community still hasn't managed to stop this bloodshed.

I won't even bother taking sides or put the blame on who started it, which side is right or wrong, or justify the involvement of either Russia or USA, France and Britain in this conflict. Their participation was alleged to help end this war, but it is obvious that either side is really interested in this.

Both want to protect their own interests in the region, or the interests of their allies, like Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are also involved in this messy conflict.

The point is that the time is ticking and by now, the world has lost and failed a whole generation of Syrians. We have let a country to be destroyed, consumed by geopolitics, foreign and internal interests, greed, power mongering and petty religious and ethnic politics in the Middle East.

On top of that, we deny this generation protection or help, we stigmatize them and we close the doors to them. We have failed them again and again and any civilized human being would be ashamed of its kind right now.

The Western allies had no authority to bombard Syria, no mandate by their own parliaments nor the UN and the international community. They just did so to make a point to Russia, which similarly did not have a UN support either to take action in Syria.

One can, of course, blame Russia for its involvement in this conflict, however, how can the West have the nerve to accuse the Russians of their actions, since they have done the same if not worse in the past? They lied about the true reasons behind their involvement in the destabilization of most of the region's countries, yet now they disagree and point the finger when Russia is taking action.

Still, it was the West which initially opened the bag of Aeolus, by its constant meddling and siding with the Saudi's or the Israelis and their interests in the region.  So it is futile to even enter into a conversation about the reasons that led to this war.

That comes to little help or consolation to the Syrians, which right now they need to get their country back. And it is becoming obvious that this isn't anywhere in the near future.

The only solution is if other nations, like China, India, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden or any other of the neutral and influential countries in this world, step up and stand against both Western and Russian interests, or those of their allies in the region, putting an end to this conflict.

It is becoming obvious that the UN in its current form is paralyzed and useless. It is only a reflection of the world's division between the West and everyone who is challenging its hegemony, thus constituting the necessity for its urgent reformation.

Under its present arrangement, no conflict that falls under the interests of the USA, its allies or their enemies can ever be resolved or peace to be re-established, unless of course as the Russians have put it, the Americans step in and impose it by military force, acting like the police of this planet. In the past, the US even ignored in numerous cases the UN's decision and invaded countries anyway.

This has to change. We need new players around the globe, to challenge and change the current status-quo, for the sake of the future generations. There should be an active involvement of diplomats that are impartial from either side's interests, independent, to step in and solve conflicts such as this, by discussing and mediating with the two conflicting sides, not the foreign powers which have interests in the region.

That is why we need a multi-polar world now more than ever, new blocks and countries to become more active and vocal, limiting the power and its abuse by the established leading "first world" nations or those who oppose them.

What we are witnessing is only the beginning, a new cold war between two old hostile blocks that have nearly ruined the world in the past. We can not let them do it again in our generation.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Protests against water charges in Ireland, 2015.
For the first five years of the euro-zone economic crisis, the attention of the media and European public was focused on Greece. Every development, strike, protest, fault or scandal was reported by most major media organizations in the continent.
So much that people almost forget that this crisis was not confined in Greece only. It has affected most countries in Europe, especially those in the eurozone. Yet while we have had a detailed portrayal or all events in Greece, we rarely had any information on how other countries are responding to austerity.
In 2015, Ireland has seen an unprecedented amount of its citizens, joining anti-austerity protests. What triggered the demonstrations was the introduction of water charges, which are part of the austerity policies that Ireland had to adopt, under its bailout plan.
Various anti-austerity, Left-wing platforms or community groups, have joined and initiated the protests, which started about a year ago. They were all driven by an “austerity fatigue”, plus a growing feeling of injustice, where people were called to bail-out financial institutions.
The protests came to the fore of public attention, with a protest of around 100,000 people in Dublin on 11 October last year. People across the country were involved, from all backgrounds. The latest one took place on August the 29th, in which some 80,000 people participated.
For someone that does not live in Ireland, a protest against water charges may seem odd. Every nation in Europe has already introduced water bills decades ago. In addition, Irish people will enjoy the cheapest charges in Europe for water. So why do they protest?
The water charges debate is not anything new in the country. It has been going on for decades and in fact in the past, water charges were introduced and then abolished by previous governments.
The situation was always a complex one, with local authorities and the elected government of each given period engaging in negotiations, leading to various agreements.
From introducing council service charges or “double taxation” as some named them, to payments through local government funds, governments tried to come up with solutions.
One Irish political figure, who is extremely vocal on the issue, is Paul Murphy. The former Member of the European Parliament is now a TD for the Anti-Austerity Alliance in the Dail (Irish Parliament).
Paul explains that there has never been a separate charge for water in Ireland; it has been paid through general central taxation. He believes that its use should be remitted through progressive taxation like income, wealth and corporation tax, rather than regressive indirect taxes like water charges.
“Charges like these will penalize those who have the least the most, whereas those who have the most would barely feel the charge,” he says.
“The Irish public is also opposed to the charges, because they think they are a precursor to making water a commodity and then privatizing their water infrastructure,” Paul describes.
He adds that people are involved heavily in the protests, because they have had seven years of vicious austerity. Which amounted to €31 billion of extra cuts and taxes, thus the timing of the introduction of the charges is bad.
“The government announced a recovery that few experience, plus they wanted to continue with austerity in the form of these water charges. The accumulated anger over the course of the crisis, exploded on this issue,” Paul notes.
The protests have been enormously successful so far, being the biggest social movement in decades. They forced the government to make significant concessions, delaying the charge and reducing it significantly, trying to convince people to pay it.
“Most importantly, the movement has succeeded in having 57% of people refuse to pay the water charges, despite months of propaganda and scaremongering,” explains Paul.
Left-wing groups, including the Anti-Austerity Alliance are heavily involved, but it has also created a whole new activist layer in a society of thousands of people.
“The political elite are scared of the anti-water charges movement. They thought they had gotten through the crisis without major social movements and political radicalization. Now they face both on this issue.” Paul describes.
“Their response has been an unprecedented level of state repression. People are arrested daily for protesting against water meters,” he notes.
The largest demonstrations have seen up to 200,000 protesters joining in a series of regional initiatives. Over 50% of them according to surveys have never been involved in protests before.
Although there are not active links with other movements across Europe, there is a widespread sentiment of solidarity with other working people across Europe. For example, during the anti-water charges protests, many of the protesters were holding Greek flags.
“In Ireland just as in Greece and Spain, the traditional establishment parties have been significantly undermined. There is a rise in support for left-wing and socialist parties like the Anti-Austerity Alliance,” says Paul.
But why Ireland has escaped the focus of the European media, regarding such protests? “The defeat of the Syriza government, under the pressure of incredible and undemocratic bullying by the EU, is used by the Right in Ireland to undermine the Left” he explains.
“There is a big lie surrounding Ireland; that it is the success story of austerity and that people accepted it. The Irish government and the European authorities are complicit in this, each for their own purpose,” Paul describes.
“For the Irish government, it means a pat on the back by the EU Commission. For the EU authorities, it provides a stick to beat the people of Greece with, showing that supposedly austerity works,” he adds.
“The movement around water charges explodes that lie and doesn’t fit with the narrative that is shared by the establishments across Europe. That is why what is happening in Ireland, is not largely reported,” Paul concludes.
Ireland had a general election within the next eight months after the protests and with widespread non-payment, the water charges were a key issue which heavily influenced the outcome. There was be immense pressure on the next government, to abolish water charges and Irish Water.

Eventually, the government was defeated and IRISH WATER has begun repaying customers on their water charges from Monday 20 November 2017. President Michael D Higgins signed the Water Services Bill 2017 into law, clearing the way for water charges to be repaid. (The Journal)
This article was written originally by me in 2015 and was exclusively published for OneEurope. Now I have decided to include it and republish it on my own blog. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Why closer relations between Europe and Russia could be beneficial.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, recently raised the prospect of action against Russia as a reaction to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The UK government has blamed the poisoning on Russia.

Speaking in Brussels, he said his Government would consider whether to expel Russian diplomats in Dublin over the coming days in solidarity with the UK’s retaliatory response. (Irish Times)

At least 10 other EU nations, expressed the same intentions, in support towards the United Kingdom. Member states understood to be preparing to oust diplomats include France, Germany, Poland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Denmark. (The Guardian)

In response, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused the UK of trying to make “the crisis with Russia as deep as possible”. In London they “are feverishly trying to force allies to take confrontational steps”, he told reporters on a visit to Hanoi. (The Guardian).

It seems that the Cold War mentality together with "Russophobia," hasn't left Europe yet. And although our continent is right to be wary of any foreign intervention and meddling, we must also remember that not just Russia, but even our ally the USA was spying on EU and our governments a few years back.

Understandably, Western societies have more to fear after the Putin's administration treatment of Ukraine and Georgia, which were both a mistake. If he is willing to invade its neighbors in order to protect the Russian communities or interests there, then the Russians must understand how other former Soviet states that now joined the EU and their allies, feel towards their leadership.

The problem here is, that we are in reality in steep competition with an increasingly confident and ambitious Russia and that understandably poses certain challenges for Europe. Although it shouldn't if Europe realizes that its strength should be its unity and coordination against all "foreign meddlers," allied or not. 

However, in the case of Russia, Europe insists on maintaining a very awkward relationship. We are in competition with other powers too, like China, India or even the USA itself, yet we haven't developed such hostility towards them. One will naturally think, that we haven't had such attacks by any of the other blocks, like that from Russia. But do we know for certain that it was them? We only have the UK government claims after all.

An administration who convinced us in the past about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, in order to invade and destabilize the region, while nothing was found after all. It was a lie and an excuse to proceed with the US plans in the Middle East. Not that Russia is not capable of doing something like this, it has done so before. Yet we should keep an open mind, about the real motives from either side. 

European and American attitudes towards Russia were always aiming to keep them out of our continent. And not just that. We always wanted to prevent them from developing again as a power, trying to keep them down, blaming them for everything and portray them as the boogeyman from the East that wants to destroy our societies. 

In reality, we have much more in common with Russia, than many other countries in the world. The Russian Federation is a union of many regions, that span across Eurasia, comprised of a variety of ethnic and religious groups. Overall, about 160 ethnicities reside in its territory.

They have managed to deal with a problem that Europe is facing increasingly too, that of how to integrate such large and diverse populations. They have been doing it for far longer than us, although their methods are very different and often not compatible with our values.

While Europe is choosing a more open and liberal approach, Russia, on the other hand, was always more authoritarian. Historically they did better with a strong leader, an authority figure like a Tsar or a Soviet ruler to unite them, than referendums and a more open democratic process. 

Yet they have succeeded in certain challenges far better than us, so Europe could indeed take a few pages out of their book if it is indeed planning to become more federal. Besides, total freedom and liberalism have their own challenges. How do you stop a region from breaking away, or win a referendum to leave or join the EU? 

If we think about it, Europe has chosen a different yet more difficult route to federalization and it hasn't always been successful. The Catalan referendum and how Spain and the EU have managed it, Brexit and Norway's reluctance to fully commit or join the EU, showcase the challenges that our kind of democracy is facing. 

Russia has opted to create its own unique political reality, that is to a large extend democratic and federal indeed, yet it relies on a strong dominant figure that is its president. They vote for local governments and presidents, in addition to the central one and the country's president.

Yet their participation in the federal or presidential elections, is much higher than the European Parliament elections. In Europe, we are still trying to figure out if we need a president, or which of our many existing ones will take this role; the EU Commission, Council or Parliament president? And although to us seems totally illegitimate the way Vladimir Putin is dominating the country's politics for two decades, the majority of Russians do feel that he is very appropriate to lead the country to a new era of influencing the world.

Russia has solved in its own unique way, its presidential role problem as well as many others. Oil-rich regions like that of the Tatarstan Republic, are financially supporting Russia's less prosperous regions. Just like it happens in EU, yet without all the populism, discontent and quarreling that we witness between the European states. Russian states enjoy fiscal union, something that Europe cannot agree on. 

Financial support and transfers from rich nations to the new poorer ones, is always a thorny issue in EU and a reason why Brexit happened; or why countries like Norway or Switzerland chose to stay outside the block. Europeans always argue about who pays what and how much. In contrast, the Russian republics are more inclined to find a consensus. 

In most regions, like this of Tatarstan's capital Kazan, they have managed to integrate two large religious groups, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, to live side by side peacefully. Something that Europe could also take a closer look at, since it is increasingly becoming more diverse on religious grounds. 

Yet the most astonishing achievement of the Russian Federation that could be applied in Europe, is the motivation, inclusion and mobilization of its youth. The Young Guards of Russia, may be Putin's United Russia's youth political branch, but it has become the backbone of the country's civil society. 

They are well supported and financed by the government, organized and able to collaborate with politicians, both from their own country and abroad, influencing their decisions. They are also able to lobby, organize events, invite and work with foreign NGOs and diplomats, in order to promote their country's interests or develop their skills and promote their careers.

Any young person can become a member of the Young Guards, but it is not compulsory to stay or become a member of the party. This is a platform that young people can explore their political identity, network and become active members of their country's civil society. 

Something that Europe has failed to achieve collectively. Even Erasmus, our continent's most important youth program, was considered for abolishment when the economic crisis hit our member states. We need to realize the importance of youth involvement in the European project. Instead, we still believe that encouraging their active participation in the European institutions through education or civic platforms, is EU propaganda, brainwashing, and indoctrination.

If we want to create a pan-European civil society, we have to target Europe's youth and include them, give them the same opportunities and financial support as Russia is offering its own. Young people are the future after all and as things stand, Europe's youth has become increasingly apathetic towards the continent's politics, national or collective European.

In addition to all the above, Russia is reaching out to all emerging regions of the world, indiscriminately. While Europe and America prefer to impose sanctions against any country that does not fill their political, social or financial criteria and standards, Russia is not bothered by all that.

During my stay in Russia for the country's Presidential Elections in March, I've met diplomats and delegates from all over the world; Africa, Nepal, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Europe. Not just the political leadership of the country, but also its youth organizations, are reaching out and trying to reinforce the importance of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group as a global player, to counterpart Western dominance in the world. 

And while America chooses to withdraw and scorns nations such as Mexico, Russia is reaching out and is attracting young politicians and diplomats from this country and beyond. If America prefers to build walls and does not want to engage with Mexico, then its youth has found another country to aspire for future cooperation and support. How can this be any good for American politics?

Outside the city of Kazan, I  have visited Innopolis (from the word innovation and the Greek polis, which means city), a brand new settlement and notably the country's smallest municipality, that has big ambitions. It wants to become the Russian Silicon Valley, to compete but also cooperate with those of America and Europe. Its inhabitants work on IT development and many of the country's online platforms are increasingly based there.

It is evident that Russia thinks big and wants to become a major player in the globe, leaving behind its old image of a reclusive, closed society. I have experienced a great amount of hospitality, ambition and keenness to showcase all that this country has to offer, by nobody else but its own youth. 

They want to reach out and rebuild their country's image, not as a backwater has-been super-power, but a nation that is dynamic and able to attract investments inwards. Young Russians do not always understand the bad press their country is receiving abroad, especially in Western counties. They read two totally different reports about the events that happen in their country.

In reality, the truth stands somewhere in the middle. Things are not as bad as we in the West portray them, even though Russia is indeed facing certain challenges. We are just threatened by Russia's increasing assertiveness and want to keep it out of our affairs. 

Yet we should really change our attitude towards our neighbor. If we cooperate with them, we could achieve much more than by being constantly at each other's throats. We could learn a few things from them on youth engagement and empowerment, while we could teach them not to be afraid of a more liberal approach to social issues and politics.

But this won't be achieved with constant sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats. That will be reached by closer ties and collaboration. Although one would wonder if that is what our leadership really wants, or it has a different agenda.

Albeit we eventually clash over the in-between nations like Ukraine, on which block they will join or belong to, the decision will ultimately be their own and all we have to do is offer a better deal than Russia. But that will come once we sort our own backyard first, rather trying to throw stones at our neighbor's. 

In the future, we will live in a more multipolar world, one which Western monopolies will diminish. Even Africa is building its very own single market and free trade agreement, considering a single currency too. If they are successful in their goals, they will create a far larger market in the world, with more than a billion people, mostly young. 

Other big "players" like Russia, India and China, are rushing to increase their influence in Africa, plus across the world. Can Europe still think that others must play by its own rules in order to collaborate, stick strictly to the Euro-Atlantic alliance, or exclude countries like Russia because they pose a threat or competition? 

Monday, March 26, 2018

What do the Russian Presidential Elections in March 2018, mean for Europe.,_2018
On Sunday the 18th of March, voters throughout the Russian Federation rallied to elect their president. As it was expected, Vladimir Putin won these elections, with a whopping 76% of the votes.

While the West was caught up in the Sergei Skripal poisoning case a week before the elections, or the alleged rigging of the voting procedure by government officials after, Putin managed to win yet again.

Despite all efforts from outside and within the country, Russian people seem to have found a figure who as they believe, is the best man to promote Russia's interests abroad. Resulting of course, in his reign in the country for nearly two decades.

We need to understand and accept that Russia is not a Western-style democracy, thus we can not expect them to act like one by force. When we apply sanctions, or ridicule and criticise their country, we only reinforce their support for the establishment.

Something that was indeed confirmed by Andrei Kondrashov, Putin's campaign spokesman. “Turnout is higher than we expected, by about 8-10 percent, for which we must say thanks to Great Britain,” he stated. (Financial Times)

One would indeed wonder why would Putin proceed with an attack on foreign soil, just before the presidential elections, since it would obviously result in further sanctions by Britain and its allies, plus a serious diplomatic incident.

If his administration's aim was to mobilize their voters in this way, then Britain mistakenly just helped them achieve this by over-reacting. Or perhaps the attack was instigated by Mr. Putin's enemies, either within Russia or abroad in an effort to stop him from gaining power once more. Then again, they achieved quite the opposite of what they aimed.

I was in Russia during the elections and observed the process in the city of Kazan, in the Tatarstan Republic. Prior to the elections I also visited Moscow, where I spoke with some locals about their view of the events and expectations for the outcome.

The city of Kazan and the Republic of Tatarstan as a whole, were always voting traditionally for the United Russia party. Consequently, Putin is very popular there despite this time running as an independent, in order to avoid legal impediments that could stand in the way of his nomination or election. Therefore it was expected that he would win in this state.

However, the overall Russian public rushed in support of Putin, only partially disappointed about Europe's stance towards their country. "Over 20 million Russians were killed for European freedom from fascism during WW2," some stated, expressing their discontent about their country's image in the rest of the continent.

The issues they were truly voting for, had nothing to do with Britain or any of the Western democracies' actions. They were electing the next president of their country, with the main focus on his government, the choice of the next prime minister, the boosting of the Russian economy and strengthening of the county's role in the world.

A major factor was also the outcome in Crimea, which many saw it as a second secession from Ukraine referendum, that could lead to its full incorporation into Russia. If Putin is elected there, that could signal the Crimean people's wish to be part of Russia for good.

It was the first presidential elections in the region and thus of specific interest to the Russian people. In the end, the participation in the elections there exceeded the 71% mark, with 92.15% voting for Putin. Sealing naturally the Crimea's fate, according to Russia at least.

From my experience, the elections in Kazan were orderly and organized. There are two cameras in every voting station, which record all day during the voting and the counting process. In the stations, there was a very communal sense and atmosphere, with markets or fairs being organized selling local products at lower prices, in order to motivate voters to attend.

In each station, there were observers from every political party in Russia, plus many independent ones that traditionally volunteer for the elections. You could also see some foreign observers, usually from other former Soviet republics. Everybody was calm and friendly, with music often also added in order to create a very positive and joyful atmosphere.

However the next day of the elections and the announcement of Putin's victory, western media were reporting images from a widespread rigging of the process. One, of course, could be baffled how would people attempt to place some extra votes in the ballot box, while knowing that there are cameras recording and that they are live on the government's website broadcasting the process.

It doesn't make sense if you are a Putin supporter to do this deliberately, when you want to give your support for him and his cause. Or perhaps those who were caught wanted to rig the voting process on purpose, in an effort to discredit it? We will never know. However in Kazan things were pretty smooth although understandably, that does not mean that they were so all over Russia.

The people I conversed with in Moscow for instance, did not deny that these occurrences are common, but according to them they only happen to about 1% of the electoral centers. Yet somehow these cases are uploaded on national social media and picked by international news agencies, giving a very distorted image about the elections in Russia.

Perhaps trying to grasp this opportunity and explain how Putin wins every time. Well, what I witnessed is pure admiration and adoration for him by many ordinary Russians, since what they see in him is the restoration of the country's prestige.

Additionally, the country's political mentality differs greatly from the Western one. This is a nation that was a super-power for most of its time, plus it was always inclined to favor a more authoritarian establishment, than a fully democratic.

It is a vast state, comprised of numerous regions, inhabited by many ethnic groups of different religion and race. In order to give this diverse populous nation unity, you need either an authoritarian regime or a very strong central government in order to keep it together.

From its Tsardom to the Communism and Soviet era, Russia opted for authoritarianism so that it could keep all these different populations in order and give them a sense of unity and belonging. It is by no chance that Putin's party is called "United Russia" and it is very popular in the country.

Russia suffered a humiliation with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which saw it losing a large number of its former territories. And one thing that Russians wish to see above all is unity, security plus stability in the remainder of their territories and the relaunching of Russia's influence in the world.

And it is not necessarily by recapturing the old territories, rather by reaching out to new allies and promoting its influence with trade and networking. Russia is a keen supporter of the BRICS group of countries, intensively collaborating with nations that the West views as problematic, of poor economic development or not democratic.

Their need for unity and prevention of another region breaking or slipping away from their sphere of influence, is the main reason why some absurd actions are taken or laws adopted. In order to accommodate all ethnic groups or communities, of which some are ultra-conservative, the Russian establishment does not hesitate to implement legislation that does not comply with western mentality.

Like the Anti-Gay Propaganda Law, or the restriction of the freedom of the press and the Kremlin's critics. Absolute liberalism can pose a challenge, in a diverse nation that is still recovering from major economic, political and social changes that it went through during the past few decades. And I don't think that Russia is totally prepared for such thing just yet.

One example is, of course, that of Alexei Navalny, the Russian lawyer who openly challenges Putin and his government on corruption and the lack of freedom of speech. Some westerners hoped that he could make a difference in these elections, yet he was barred from participating in these elections, after he was detained in Moscow facing a number of charges.

In reality, I doubt that he could have a real impact, although he could have brought down Putin's percentage a bit. According to the Kremlin, he is a populist, no different than the Five Star Movement in Italy, or numerous others across Europe. And like most of these rising political movements, his aim is to gather support and gain power and legitimacy, by criticising the establishment.

However, Russia is not Italy or any other European country. Proof of that is the support for Putin in these elections, despite what happened to Navalny and even if all of his claims were true. Imagine if the Italian government jailed Beppe Grillo or barred him from participating in the elections, I doubt that the Italian public would vote afterwards so overwhelmingly for the establishment parties.

Navalny maybe fighting the good cause, or he may indeed be a populist and opportunist, but the West cannot rely on him to bring down or expose the Russian establishment and Putin, or change Russia overnight. The support for him before the elections was low, only polling at about 2% of the intended votes.

He is simply not too convincing or popular to have any real impact on the Russian electorate just yet, although any effort to expose corruption should be applauded. Additionally, many Russians see their country as a counterpart factor to America's dominance in the globe.

They view Putin as the only person that can help their country achieve this, that is why he is so popular among them and in fact, so unpopular in the West. Because he shows total disregard towards Western agendas or interests, often challenging them.

In addition, Russia is keen to keep western meddling media or governments away from their affairs, practically not caring about what they write or say about the country. And why should it? Europe and America often did the same, by starting wars in the Middle East despite the United Nations' objection, or interfering in elections, referendums, country dissolutions and everything else that we accuse Russia of.

We are indeed entering in a new form of a cold war, but this time it is different. It is not just Russia, but many other regions that are competing with us for dominance and a greater say in the world's economy and politics. That is not something that should scare us, as long as we have our house in order and establish a strong, united European continent. It could lead to a more equal world, rather the imbalanced one we have at the moment.

However, the more we maintain a rift with Russia, the more we give power to Putin or others like him in the country. In reality, this struggle is a power game between America and the Russians for world dominance. Due to our ideological fraternity with the USA, we stand with them yet we forget that we are the ones which have borders with Russia and many of our states, used to be under their sphere of influence.

It is not in our interests to be constantly following America in its foreign policy, while keeping the Russians outside. By closely cooperating with them, it doesn't mean that we are becoming their subordinates, rather realizing the changes that are taking place on the world stage. We are entering a multi-polar world and we should be "playing" with all parties, most importantly those who we share borders with and depend upon for our energy needs.

Vladimir Putin will stay in power for another six years and he will continue to expand his country's influence, like any leader should do. Instead of trying to slander him and his government, it would be wiser to see how can we turn Russia into a friendly state. At some stage, even Putin will have to retire from politics, due to an old age. Yet who succeeds him and what attitude will he have towards Europe, will be also of our doing.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Immigration made us who we are; so why are Europeans still afraid of it?
Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán has claimed “Christianity is Europe’s last hope” in his latest escalation of populist rhetoric ahead of April’s elections.

The Prime Minister warned “dark clouds are gathering” as he accused politicians in Brussels, Berlin and Paris of facilitating “the decline of Christian culture and the advance of Islam”.

Speaking at the 20th annual state of the nation, he also outlined government plans to oppose UN and European efforts to make migration acceptable to the world and continue his fight against what he believes is an “Islamisation” of Europe.

He also claimed with mass immigration, especially from Africa, “our worst nightmares can come true. The West falls as it fails to see Europe being overrun.” (The Independent)

Mr. Orban is not the only person in Europe to have such views, yet he is the most vocal head of state and openly calls for what many people in our continent are thinking. Immigration is a very challenging subject, that has polarized European societies for decades. 

It is a phenomenon that alters the fabric or the continent's population and that for many, together with all the challenges and changes it brings, poses a threat; to our traditions, culture, ethnicity, race, religion and in fact, everything we've known until now.

Understandably, many have become skeptical and in combination with badly adopted economic policies and financial troubles, immigrants have become once again scapegoats. It is true that immigration poses certain challenges and requires proper handling, that should be reflected in each country's relative policies.

Many Western European nations have made some mistakes in such legislations, plus often failed to integrate their migrant population to a certain degree. But countries like Hungary have the advantage of learning from their failures and instead of opposing immigration altogether, they can embrace it correctly.

In addition, it is odd that politicians like Orban are more concerned about the "darkening" of Europe, but not for its "greying" or population decline. Most experts agree that our continent and especially its eastern regions, will experience a substantial population drop.

So perhaps instead of using populism to incite hatred towards migrant communities, exploiting the public's fears on the issue for electoral gains, it would be better to come with solutions to turn immigration into a win-win situation. 

Not just Hungary but Europe as a continent, ought to really start creating functioning immigration policies, together with family planning that will include further gender equality roles. For this, we could get inspiration from a non-EU state, Iceland. 

In the small Nordic nation, equal rights start at home. Men and women are entitled to three months parental leave each per child, plus an additional three months to share between them. (Euronews) That is something that could be adopted by most EU states, to help European couples starting and keeping families with ease.

Another point we could work on, is the East-West divide on economic and social terms. The old EU states are more advanced on these spheres, causing an influx of migrants from the new members towards their western counterparts.

That only increases xenophobia in Western Europe, resulting in negative outcomes such as Brexit, but it also contributes to a brain-drain and population decline in the Eastern part of the continent. 

In 2000, Latvia’s population stood at 2.38 million. At the start of this year, it was 1.95 million. No other country has had a more precipitous drop — 18.2 percent according to U.N. statistics. ( Most other Eastern European nations, face similar challenges and population decline.

The EU needs to close the economic disparities in the block and start investing in the East, in order to keep its population there and thriving. Thus, harmonizing the eurozone's economies is crucial for the future. 

But not only that. People do not flee the new EU states solely for economic reasons, but social too. And by having a very conservative political elite, like that in Hungary or Poland, is actually counterproductive for the region's economic and social catch-up with the rest of the continent.

Thus populist leaders such as Orban, might not be the best choice to deal with Hungary's problems in the long term. Besides, it is funny to hear such rhetoric from a country that is located in a region that has been a crossroad and a melting pot of peoples and civilizations for centuries.

Europe has a rich variety of cultures because of immigration. Hungary, in particular, is a mixture of cultures, as well as peoples. Its language is not even Indo-European rather it belongs to the Finno-Ugric and Uralic linguistic family, meaning it originated further afield in Eurasia, rather in Central Europe. 

Each European nation is comprised of numerous ethnic and cultural elements. What would Ireland and Britain be without their Viking heritage? Or Spain and Portugal without their Germanic or Arabic one? Italy without its Greek heritage in the south of the country, or Greece without its Jewish influence from the populations expelled from Spain? 

Recently a team of researchers in Britain, made a shocking discovery. The bones of the oldest near-complete human skeleton ever found in Britain, named as the "Cheddar Man," had its DNA tested, taken from bone powder by drilling a hole through the skull. It showed there was a 76 percent chance that Cheddar Man was of ‘dark to black’ skin tone and having blue eyes. (Daily Mail)

Although the findings cannot be 100 percent accurate, it throws a light on human immigration in the European continent. For millennia, different groups from different regions, found their way into Europe. Recorded migrations come from the Middle East, Africa and Eurasia, all taking place at different times and in waves.

It is almost certain that not all of them belonged to the same race or ethnic group, or even to the same species. It has been known for a while that all populations outside of Africa, have a small percentage of Neaderthal DNA, that has been acquired by modern humans while interbreeding with our cousins. 

So to be so frightened by immigration while all humans are a product of it, ethnologically or culturally is absurd. It is not like we are going to open the borders and "allow everybody in," as many nationalists fear. That would be disastrous both socially and economically. 

Yet if we manage to implement the appropriate policies that will allow the right number and type of immigrants that we need, plus laws that will help European couples across the continent to have families and equal living standards, then immigration could provide solutions for the future.

We should not give in to fear, racism or xenophobia. Europeans have migrated all over the world over the centuries, altering and shaping it. In the future, we should also help to influence a more integrated and interconnected world, by establishing open societies, inclusive and equal for all its inhabitants. 

Eliminating global inequality, would take the pressure off Europe's societies to accept more migrants in. But for this to be achieved, it will take the reformation of most trade deals that our continent has conducted, especially with its former colonial subjects. 

That could be the legacy that our generation of Europeans will leave to the world. It is definitely better than a chauvinist, xenophobic and nationalistic one, sure we have tried this before with disastrous consequences. Perhaps it is time to change our priorities for the future. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

America’s addiction to weapons is contagious.
Recently the world was shocked by yet another school gun attack in the USA. On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Seventeen people were killed and fourteen more were taken to hospitals, making it one of the world's deadliest school massacres. The suspected perpetrator, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was identified by witnesses and arrested shortly afterward.

Since then a huge debate has grabbed the American nation, on the need to reform the laws that secure the right to bear arms in their country. One of the proponents for the right to bear arms is the National Rifle Association and its political wing, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.

The NRA has been described as one of the largest and most powerful political lobby groups in the United States. In America, it is easier to buy a gun than certain kinds of medication, which in Europe and the rest of the world can be sold in any pharmacy.

The lobbies that support the "right" to bear arms are of course trying to protect the interests of a thriving industry. America is investing heavily in arms manufacturing and its substantial military budget. If you invest so much in an industry, your economy depends on it, thus making harder to proceed with necessary changes, when incidents such as these occur. 

Consequently, reforms are very hard to achieve without huge sacrifices: jobs cuts, protests from the newly unemployed and most importantly the "grilling" from the industry elites, that will have their income reduced and their lifelong investment won't be as profitable.

But why should we, in Europe and the rest of the world be bothered about a seemingly internal, political, economic, cultural or social issue of another country? Because America’s addiction to weapons is contagious.

By establishing a very profitable industry and cementing its importance as one of the pillars of US industry, we understand why America is always in a state of war; either with external threats or with internal attack incidents, such as these.

In addition, in order to increase the profits, this industry is always seeking for new customers and markets, both in the US and abroad. So there is absolutely no way that their lobby will accept a change in US policy on the right to bear arms.
It will take a very strong-willed President to clash with this group and do the right thing. And so far, no American leader ever dared to do so. Sadly, the need to sell arms is not just limited to the US internal market.

America is one of the major exporters of weapons to other countries. So war and any hot conflict mean good business for them. And that is why the rest of the world should be bothered about America’s addiction to weapons.

In Greece we have to spend a large proportion of our GDP in importing arms from countries such as the USA, to protect ourselves from Turkey, a NATO ally of ours. Arms industry companies, corrupt Greek and other nations’ politicians, in order to proceed with sales of weapons that often are not needed.

Plus, is it any wonder that America is constantly in a state of war with other regions? If you produce so many weapons and guns and your internal market is not able to absorb all of them, you need to export your "goods." Thus having some regions in a constant state of conflict is crucial, to make sure they are dependent on your exports.

Invading other countries and maintaining a war there is also crucial, in order for one of your biggest industries to make more profits and thus helping your economy to grow. War is a profitable business, for such economic models.
It is poisoning generation after generation, on the necessity of war and weaponry. To achieve this, industries such as film movies, gaming and other entertainment platforms are used to accustom people to violence. 

Just watch any of the Hollywood action films and you will see how many models of guns and other weaponry are being "advertised" subconsciously to the audience. Carrying a gun, is considered so natural in some communities in the US that as a solution to the increasing number of innocent victims shot at schools, is seen to arm the teachers.

If such move is approved, we will have trigger-happy ex-military personnel educating the next generation of America’s youths! The circle of war and violence will never end.

Of course, they could be doing the obvious and ban, or at least limit the number of weapons that are allowed to circulate in the American society. But they just don’t want to accept it. As result, these tragic incidents will continue to happen throughout the US.

Sadly, it is not only the American people that will suffer or be affected, but the rest of us too. Regions such as the Middle East will never see peace and prosperity. Greece will continue to spend millions on weaponry, even if it doesn’t need it. Europe will continue to be at loggerheads with its neighbor Russia, over the establishment of missiles pointing at them. 

America, of course, is not the only country to be blamed. Its European counterparts and NATO allies, have also a fair share of the blame. Countries such as France and the UK are making profits from arms sales in countries that suffer from on-going conflicts.

It is a sad realization, that our civilization accepts the capitalization on human suffering, in order to maintain “economic growth.” Europe needs to step up and change this situation. Firstly it needs to lead by example, then lobby other countries and economic blocks of this world, to limit the production and trade of weapons. And yes, even America.

Our world does not need more weapons, rather people with a vision and the ability to debate and come up with solutions to humanity’s problems. And since most of them derive from violence, injustice, crime and conflict, using weapons to solve them is as absurd as employing a thief to protect your money.