Bring ’em back home – French retreat early

This week, France began pulling approximately 2,100 combat troops out of Afghanistan in a surprising early retreat. NATO expected France’s full commitment until 2014. “Today is the end of our forward operations. By the end of the year, we will have 1,500 French troops remaining in Afghanistan in non-combat operations,” said Lt. Col Guillaume Leroy (Reuters Nov. 20, 2012). Those non-combat jobs include supply logistics as well as training operations for Afghanistan’s army, which is scheduled to take control of its country’s situation in 2014, after NATO troops make their way out.

Francois Hollande defeated French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a presidential runoff in 2012 and promised to help dig France, and Europe, out of a weak economy (CNN Wire May 6, 2012). Exiting the fight is a solution for a floundering French economy, not to mention a classically defeatist French military move.

But perhaps the United States under President Obama should follow suit. It might help the US economy.

Here are some compelling comments from a Baltimore Sun talk forum thread (posted Dec. 9th, 2012):

 Today, 04:47 PM
Omaha BeachMember Join Date: Jan 2009Posts: 2,744


Originally Posted by demopublicanBush and Powell’s wars have been a huge drain on the world’s economy and have cost far too many lives.

Ah Bush has not been President for four years. Obama has not only continued the US presence there but drastically increased troop numbers. How long does he, have to be President before Afghanistan becomes, his war?


 Today, 05:46 PM
AttackPlanRMember Join Date: Jul 2004Location: CRM114Posts: 17,563

Now if we could just follow the French’s lead.

Taliban government gone? Check
Osamma bin Laden gone? Check.

Though I suppose we’ll be out of there just like were out of Germany, Japan, Korea and Iraq.

The announcement of early French withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan brings to my mind another United States initiative that needs closure due to serious moral and financial questionability: Gitmo.  President Obama, now in his fifth year as Commander in Chief, still has not closed Guantanamo Bay Prison – an issue he campaigned on in 2008. Why not? No doubt the politics of fear are complex and shadowy, but a careful plan for evacuating all of the prisoners was never completed by the bureaucratic task force established to review such a process.

“…Obama’s executive order to close Guantánamo was undone by the burdensome bureaucracy of the task force, which sought to sort each captive’s Bush-era file. Each detainee’s case file contained competing and often contradictory assessments from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, the Department of Justice, and myriad other offices, bogging down the review process. Time ran out before the task force could settle on a master plan to move the detainees out of Guantánamo in time for Obama’s one-year deadline….  Meanwhile, the detention center enters its eleventh year on January 11 [2012]. Guantánamo is arguably the most expensive prison camp on earth, with a staff of 1,850 U.S. troops and civilians managing a compound that contains 171 captives, at a cost of $800,000 a year per detainee. Of those 171 prisoners, just six are facing Pentagon tribunals that may start a year from now after pretrial hearings and discovery. Guantánamo today is the place that Obama cannot close. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Carol Rosenberg, a reporter for The Miami Herald who covers the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

Even though President Obama does not want to be seen as being soft on terrorism he should still close Guantanamo Bay Prison. It would be a major step and graceful beginning to winding down wartime activity in Afghanistan. Furthermore, if President Obama takes the cue from its NATO counterpart France to withdraw sooner, I might be the first time an American President has taken political cues from France since the US’s founding fathers did so in the late 1700s.

Demystifying French: Strikes, L’Exception Culturelle, and Patriotism

My last blog, France surrenders to Neo-classicism, was written in a tone which mocked the stuffy resistance many French citizens have against an increasingly modern style which is encroaching upon art and architecture in French cities. A pervasive notion, the average Frenchman is a staunch supporter of defending a distinctly French cultural identity that conveys only the most classic elements. To this end, the French are willing to constantly revolt, often taking to the streets en masse to protest unpatriotic top-down political decisions and business decisions, as well as any undesirable international influence. In this blog I aim to connect some major (and very French) concepts –  l’exception culturelle, the emphasis on France’s social model, their views on what public services should be, and their sense of entitlement to irrevocable benefits – which underlie the average Frenchman’s motivation to demonstrate against change in the way they do. In the process, I hope to demystify some things that Americans find odd about French politics and culture.

Background:  Participants in the 1789 French Revolution violently discarded the long-standing and often-abusive French monarchy, and made liberty something to proclaim from the rooftops.

This set the precedent which encourages the French today to be coup d’etat-crazy, capturing the state when necessary to defend human rights. The social and political commentator Montesquieu precipitated the Frech Revolution in the mid-1700s after he articulated “separation of powers” and insisted on a careful balance that would not threaten the freedom of the people. James Madison and the United States Constitution’s founding fathers adopted this principle, so Americans relate to it as it is an inherent part of effective democracy.

L’exception culturelle francaise, the French cultural exception, was developed through democratic France’s formative years to describe “resistance to the perceived effacement of French culture and criticism of supposedly foreign intrusions within that culture” (definition from a 2006 UCLA conference that was held about the topic). Some examples of outrage over public defiance of this cultural principle in modern art and architecture are detailed in my earlier blog post, entitled “France surrenders to Neo-classicism.” L’exception culturelle francaise of has pervaded French cultural output since the 1789 Revolution, as witnessed in numerous episodes of loud public outcry and subsequent government policymaking that effectively “kept it in the family” whenever concerns arose pertaining to dilution of the French arts by foreign influence. But how strongly the concept influences French business output is apparent in the high degree of sensitivity to nationalism displayed by French businesses in making trans-national decisions in today’s increasingly globalized market, so that the Frenchness of production is not diminished.

The concept of l’exception culturelle francaise is thus deeply patriotic, and is relatable to Americans’ outrage over things like corporate outsourcing of labor, and to the government bailout of financially irresponsible institutions. In France, players who don’t keep it French risk domestic backlash and revolutionary peril, the threat of which is apparently greater than that leveraged in America, as with the recent and failed Occupy Wall Street movement. It should be noted here that one source of anti-American sentiment originates from the general French disapproval of American hegemony (where Federal Law trumps State Law). That being said, Americans should appreciate the regularity of French riots and strikes as they preserve ideals of nationalism and democracy, like in the history of America, and they prevent the phasing out and replacement of quality domestic market goods and services with cheaper foreign ones.

Lastly, it is important to recognize the idyllic motivation with which the protesting Frenchman goes about exercising their voice. To illustrate the motivations on an individual level, I present three related concepts which are not as prevalent in America as in France – 1) the French social model, 2) the French view on public services, and 3) their idea of irrevocable benefits.

1)     The “modèle social français” is such that basically everybody on the political Left as well as many on the political Right are accustomed to free or moderately-priced public services like healthcare, education, a higher compensation for unemployed people, a minimum income for all, and some prices depending on income, as with utilities, school, public transport, swimming pools, and others. The French generally think it is more important to protect the weakest than to encourage the strongest, which sets them apart from the often isolating American concept of self-sufficiency, individualism, and the American Dream.

“Although very questionable now, this issue was decisive in the 2005 referendum on Europe: millions [in France] voted NO to protect the French society against what they considered a threat to the ‘modèle social’ by ‘the heartless Anglo-Saxon market economy’” ( It is notable that the French pay significantly higher taxes than Americans so that public services are maintained.

2)     French who defend public services believe that state-owned or state-run services should not try to maximize profits but should maximize the quantity or quality of service provided.

This is unlike the American corporation which, defined as a person, displays characteristics of a psychopath. French service standards are largely upheld according to the satisfaction of end-users, not just by beneficiaries of monetary investment.

3)     The concept of avantages acquis, irrevocable benefits, maintains that once any kind of advantage has been granted, it is considered unthinkable to suppress it, whatever the circumstances and the situation. “Reducing salaries or increasing labor time may happen but is extremely rare in France and it raises huge controversies; there is almost no example of workers accepting cuts in wages and unions refuse to sign any agreement of this kind: they prefer unemployment and the protection of the State” (

The powerful leverage of a workers strike is thus more immediately acknowledged and workers are not expected to make concessions. Ergo, labor unions are not as strategically necessary to resolving labor issues in France as they are in the United States.


The effect of these prevailing concepts is this: the French conduct labor strikes out of conservative principles and the voice of the people is usually acknowledged by the government or the respective French business. Resolution or revolution is the French way, as opposed to common coercion and placation practiced by American businesses. French people commonly support their fellow citizens in protest, and they are not led to immediate opposition from polarizing political parties, like in America. The most common illustration of French support and fellowship is seen during frequent transportation strikes in France, when average people have to walk to their workplaces yet still genuinely support the labor strikes.

Resolution of issues has to maintain a distinct Frenchness in style, not subjugate citizens or dilute the culture, and at a minimum maintain the status quo…or else there will be a riot. When national pride causes French workers to forego formal negotiation processes, the democratic voice of the people is best exercised by force. Understanding these ideas at the core of French culture can help to demystify many French cultural and political viewpoints which may differ from America.

The joke is found in the French paradox in business: “How do they manage to be the fourth or fifth economy in the world given the way they work and strike?” When French people are on the job, they’re really on it.

“It’s Houdini, not Thatcher,” wrote The Economist magazine in May, 1989, in reference to early attempts at a joint-European market. “France is spectacularly good at saying NON…. but behind the scene, more quietly and with no discernible romance, France can and does say OUI. In Germany and Scandinavia, change happens after considerable debate and lengthy analysis. In France by contrast, it tends to be convulsive and born of conflict: one violent leap backward followed by two surreptitious steps forward.”

Divorced Homemakers Catch a Break

NOTE: This blog was originally published on December 6, 2012. It was revised for greater distinction between personal opinion and fact.

German divorcées of long-term marriages are given some flexibility on support payments that come with ending a union due to upcoming law provisions.

Newly developed legislation will be proposed to the Bundestag lower house of parliament to adjust divorce maintenance payments to accommodate married homemakers.

An article titled “Divorce Deals Should Factor in Marriage Length” from The Local states that post-divorce payments may be recalculated for stay-at-home spouses who likely have little to no income, depending on how long the marriage lasted. The provision intends to save housewives or husbands from taking on unmanageable fees from alimony, child support, and their own living costs after relying on their spouse for so long.

The idea of such a law seems reasonable and fair at face value, but I found it riddled with too much uncertainty to actually be effective.

For one, the lawmakers defending this provision seem biased to women facing divorce. The quotes in the article referenced complications that only housewives or stay-at-home moms might face. There seemed to be little to no concern for men in the same situation, aside from the author of the article, who makes effort to include the Mr. Moms out there.

Ute Granold, a legal expert for the Conservative Union parliamentary fraction told Welt am Sonntag newspaper, “We want [to make sure] that married women who got married a long time ago don’t fall into an abyss in case of a divorce.”

To add to that, “Bavarian state Justice Minister Beate Merk told the paper she wanted the new law to include a provision for divorced mothers with one or more children under 15 to clarify that they would not be expected to work full-time,” reads the article.

A sense of favoritism for the female partner seems apparent and this just doesn’t set well with me. From what I can tell, preferential treatment will be shown to women and mother divorcées when adjusting the maintenance payments in court. Judges may not take as much pity on a stay-at-home husband.

Of course, as a woman, I can see why there is less emphasis being placed on the male counterparts, but I am no proponent of double standards. If the law declares to uphold a “fair balance of interests,” then it should address and acknowledge both parties involved.

In the US, the basic guidelines for determining maintenance payments are: the standard of living established during the marriage, the length of marriage, the ability of the lesser-income spouse to support him or herself (and children, if applicable), and the conduct of both during the relationship. This comes from examining several states’ divorce laws, including my own state. Missouri’s Revised Statutes were last modified August 2012.

Now I’d assume the actual wording of the German divorce law is gender neutral, but when the officials upholding the law are so defensive of female homemakers, it makes me question their integrity.

Aside from the female bias, there’s the obvious question of “how long is long enough?” On what guidelines is the divorce system basing the length of time a couple is married? And on that note, why does the longevity of the relationship matter? If a newlywed abandons his/her job and livelihood to move for a new job their partner just got, and things don’t pan out after two years, why can’t the law apply to him/her as well?

These questions won’t likely be answered until the law is actually presented. I admit the this new legislation has hints of usefulness, but there are simply too many loose ends and uncertainties surrounding the issue for it to be immediately effective.

Comments to the article seem indifferent to the provisions as well—some in approval, and others in discontent.

Comments left by readers of The Local


Buzzed in the Bio Lab

Note: This blog was originally published on December 5, 2012. It was revised on December 9, 2012.

Buzzed in the Bio Lab— German Students Brew Caffeinated Beer

German biology students have concocted a beverage to accompany that hangover from a “Thirsty Thursday” night and keep you sharp for class the next day.

According to an article from The Local, a website for Europe’s latest news and events, reports that 19 scholars from Munich Technical University’s Centre of Life and Food Sciences—Weihenstephan will present a variety of caffeinated beers to a panel of experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

The group experimented with yeast and food engineering to produce several extraordinary caffeine spiked beers, including: lemon-flavored, sweetened, and even one supposed to battle cancer. The brews are reportedly non-addictive and said to curb the drowsy feeling typically experienced after consuming beer. Attending class a little buzzed, but competent, might be a near reality for the day drinking college student.

German students creating caffeinated beer in lab, taken from The Local news site

The students made it to the final round of MIT’s Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, which would suggest that they’ve got quite a grasp on the benefits and risks of caffeinated beer, right? I’d like to think so, but research in recent years suggests otherwise.

A report out of Boston University’s School of Public Health states “there appears to be little or no protective benefit from the addition of caffeine to alcohol, with respect to the safe execution of activities that require sustained attention with rapid, accurate decisions.” This is no surprise considering the distribution and sale of certain caffeinated alcohols, like Four Loko, was banned in several states for a short time pending its reformulation to exclude caffeine.

The German biologists readily disclosed the advantages, as well as the hazards, in consuming their beers, which they haven’t even taste-tested for themselves yet. “There could be nasty micro-organisms in it, or the caffeine content could be far too high,” explained Volker Morath, one of the scientists on the team. “If it turns out to be potable, the group plans to make a batch of lemon-flavored and caffeinated beer for their own consumption,” reads the article.

Lemon-flavored or not, I’ve never been much of a beer drinker and I stray away from caffeinated beverages (coffee, dark sodas, etc.), so best of luck to those of you who might venture into this territory. With variations of caffeinated beer already on the market, I suppose the Bostonians at BU and MIT will have to battle it out over the uncertainty of such a drink.

Could America Collapse Like the USSR

There was no doubt Americans were split over the November Presidential election, but one Russian writer believes this is exactly how some Russians wanted it.  Following the election Republicans, Tea Party members, and other anti-Obama supporters signed petitions to secede from the United States. More than 500,000 people signed the secession movement from nearly every state.  Many Russians who still are sour about the Soviet Union collapse in the 1990’s would like to see the same from the U.S.A.

Even some public figures in Russia are jumping on board to see America separate. One TV personality, Maxim Shevchenko, wanted Russia to give grants to the “separatists” leaders.

A former Russian national security analyst wrote a book in 2008 about the collapse of America.  He argued the states would collapse into six parts by 2010. He was wrong, but argues if the United States does collapse Russia would get Alaska back and become a world superpower again, causing many Russians to root against America.

Comment on Russia’s Misery Loves U.S. Company

This comment on the article depicts how America relates to the USSR.  Brezhnev (Obama) was Russia’s General Secretary equivalent to America’s president until 1982.  He expanded the military and made Russia a world power, but ignored huge economic problems at home.  Gorbachev (The next president) came into a mess and was unable to save it.  He was the USSR’s General Secretary when it collapsed in 1991. Yeltsin (Possibly Jeb Bush) came to try and save the day. His transition to a free market economy and failed social programs ended up putting most of the wealth in Russia into the hands of a few people now called oligarchs.

That scenario definitely does not look good for the U.S.A, but many Russians forget that if America collapses so does the entire world economy.  This commenter did not.

Comments on Russia’s Misery Loves U.S. Company

Bottom line is we are all in this together.  The world has become smaller and more interconnected than ever before.  When one country fails, Greece, we all fail.

I know people who shared the sentiment of the people who signed the secession petitions and for the first time since the civil war I can see where they are coming from.  Washington is broke and is going to take a lot to fix, if its not past that point already, but having other countries root against the U.S. will definitely not help.



Olympic Games Displace Russians

The slogan and logo are set, but now the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are trying to prepare the infrastructure and venues needed for the games. This task is proving to be more challenging than previously expected and is causing as many as 1,5000 Russians to be evicted from their homes in some cases with no compensation. This blatant mistreatment of people is causing many to take to social media to voice their concerns.

One Facebook group was made called “No Sochi 2014.”  As of today there are 5,600 members and many members of the group live in the Sochi area. Here are some comments on a post of a news article talking about the forced evictions.


Comments from Facebook group “No Sochi 2014.”

The Human Rights Watch sent letters dating back until 2009 to the Sochi Olympic Committee calling for better treatment of the Russia people. It has documented countless families losing their homes. Here is an excerpt from one story it told.

                        “Aleksei Kravets, 39, has been living in a three-story home he built himself in Sochi on the shore of the Black Sea for nine years, together with his thirteen-year-old son. The Sochi authorities claim that Kravets has no right to compensation for the house and are threatening to evict the family and demolish the home in the coming days. Guards on the road construction site have threatened Kravets with beatings and destruction of his property.”

Alexei Kravets in front of his home on the Black Sea in Sochi.
Credit: Mikhail Mordasov, Sochinskie Novosti

Kravets has paid property taxes to the Russian government the entire time while living inthe home.  His story is like countless other Russians, who like Kravets, are left helpless against the Russian government and Olympic committee.

So how is this happening?

During Soviet Russia land deeds and property records were not kept up to date.  Kravets got his piece of land in the 60’s from his parents and just went on like a normal person. He improved his home, paid his taxes, and raised a son. In 2003 and 2010 Kravets tried to privatize or legalize his home.  Both attempts failed. In 2011 Kravets had his house assessed to make sure it was up to the local building codes and it was. In May 2012 Kravets requested local authorities to legally recognize his house, but his property rights were refused.

Kravet’s home is destroyed to make way for new road for Olympic games.
Credit: 2012 Mikhail Mordasov

Like so many other Russian families Kravets was forced to watch his house be destroyed. Currently there are 180 cases in court concerning wrongful evictions. Most of these cases are dealing with improper compensation.

This problem of not having enough room to build the infrastructure for the Olympic games is not unique to Russia. China displaced 1.5 million people to make way for the 2008 games. London evicted people as well for the 2012 games.

Currently Brazil is preparing for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics and like its predecessors are evicting people from their homes.  Brazil is clearing out a slum area and is evicting around 170,000 people.

I believe these evictions are a result of poor planning by the host countries and the International Olympic Committee.  The host countries need to have a more realistic understanding of the amount of space and resources needed to hold such large sporting events.  The stories coming out of Brazil and Russia are tragic and will continue unless the IOC and host countries change the way they do business.

I think the IOC should start to examine possible Olympic cities more carefully and really investigate if the city has the resources to provide a safe environment for the games.  Construction and planning for the 2018 games in South Korea should be in place to displace as few Koreans as possible.  I hope the evictions of good citizens factors into the IOC’s decision where to hold the 2020 summer Olympics.

The Sochi games will be here before we know it and more than likely all the infrastructure and venues will be complete and unfortunately these evictions will be forgot about when the games start….


In the valleys outside Bern, Swiss caviar business beats to underground power

Pure Swiss Alpine caviar

Caviar is one of those delicacies that demands an acquired a taste for immense flavors – mostly salt and fish.

It also demands a high amount of careful preparation and care of the Siberian sturgeon which bear the elite’s favorite side dish until harvesting. Most of the world gets its caviar imported from the Black and Caspian Seas in the heart of Eastern Europe, making the price stay above $3,000 a kilogram and well out of reach of the average cook.

This year is different for Swiss who want a piece of the caviar action, but close to home.  The sustainable-focued business Tropenhaus Frutigen nestled in the quiet glacial Loetschberg valley in Switzerland is entering the caviar market with a unique power source that turned a construction blunder into black gold.

No not oil. The gold is the minuscule fish eggs which are some of the most highly regarded delicacies in the world. Connoisseurs of the fishy delights can commonly be found shopping for CAVIAR SPOONS made of the chemically inert material mother of pearl to eat their eggs with so as not to taint their snack with other flavors. That’s how highly valued the fragile flavor of the caviar is!

The power is geothermal! Tropenhaus uses the steam to turn efficient turbine generators for lights and pumps and ventilation, but the real value of the hot springs is the naturally warmed water which allows the sturgeons to eat and grow all year long. This can be real benefit when your fish, like a whiskey or wine, needs to mature no less than 6 years before it can be harvested and sold. Now the waiting is over, and the fish are nearly ready to come out of the water.

An employee of the Tropenhaus Frutigen, a company using geothermal energy from the Loetschberg rail tunnel to produce exotic fruit, sturgeon meat and caviar, holds a Siberian sturgeon he caught from a breeding pool in the Alpine village of Frutigen. ©

Tropenhaus Frutigen has been growing bananas, papaya, mangos both outdoors and in greenhouses thanks to temperatures reaching 60˚ C  since starting in 2002. But Tropenhaus and their precious pisces are ready for shifting their main focus of production to caviar from Siberian sturgeon. Since the wild Beluga sturgeon fished from the Caspian Sea was outlawed by Russia, Iran and Turkey as early as 2000, some great innovations have come along. With great food theres always a silver lining.


Or importation.


Aquaculture has grown all over the world to support people’s demands for fresh fish products with the wild stock of animals more depleted every year, and possibly without recovery. With Tropenhaus-Frutigen expecting to produce 2 tons of caviar and 45 tons of sturgeon meat a year by Christmas 2014, the need to harm wild fish will be tremendously reduced. Elena Kuznetsov, head of Media Relations at Tropenhause-Frutigen, also says the Swiss crop will taste much better than wild caught sturgeon because the fellows in Bern carefully monitor the fish’s habitat for the perfect hygienic conditions

However, Tropenhaus-Frutigen is a fairly expensive business to operate and that includes the free hot water. The project cost $30 million dollars to start up and another $10 million in bank loans to stay open until the sturgeon have matured. There is a lot of hope for the fish farming business to take pressure off of the wild species says David Morgan, who heads the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, referred to as CITES, which strictly regulates the world’s sturgeon trade.

The practice of farm producing caviar has already been taken up in many European countries since the 1970s, but few operations in the world match the green footprint Tropenhaus-Frutigen leaves behind. Additionally, the immense start up costs that CITES imposes can drive prices for farmed caviar well above wild caught varieties in less developed nations. This creates a loop hole for black market Beluga caviar that is unregulated in health, quality, and quotas making the job of protecting the endangered fish more difficult.

Morgan also warns that a shift in caviar production to mainly farms could reduce the value of wild sturgeon world wide and reduce current efforts to keep their natural habitat in the Caspian clean of shipping and civilian pollution.

Having never tried the real deal caviar myself, I know that many chefs curse when they are using Salmon roe as an alternative because buying imported caviar is just out of the question. Can America make a go at sustainable and cheap caviar in North America? Though the possibility is proven and the technology exists, along with the power source in many Northern states, Americans have lagged behind the world in incentivizing green energy projects.

For now, Switzerland continues to be the destination for the extremely rich who have expensive tastes, to enjoy the finest delicacies at a fraction of the cost to the environment.

Icaria: Greek Paradise in Turmoil

If you search any popular social media outlets for posts on Greece, you’ll likely be met with two very conflicting themes: Greece as an idyllic paradise and Greece as a country consumed by political and economic turmoil. Pictures of sunbathing tourists stand in stark contrast to images of violent riots. It’s difficult to imagine these separate worlds exist in the same country, but the content on Twitter and Tumblr suggest otherwise.

On the Greek island of Icaria, off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, the chaos of the mainland is intruding on what would otherwise be an idyllic paradise.

Agios Kirikos, Icaria

Agios Kirykos, capital of Icaria, used under Creative Commons licensing.  

Icaria is home to some 10,000 Greek Nationals. According to Dan Buettner, a researcher with National Geographic and AARP, Icaria has the world’s highest percentage of 90-year-olds, with nearly one in every three individuals surviving into their nineties. Icarians also have a 20 percent lower rate of cancer, a 50 percent lower rate of heart disease and almost no dementia. This island is largely (and historically) self-sufficient, but it has been a part of Greece since 1912.

Long a disputed territory because of its advantageous positioning in valuable fishing waters, Icaria broke free of the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and signed a 100-year treaty with Athens granting Greece political control over the island. The treaty expires this year and many residents of the island are none-too-eager to remain in the hands of debt-addled Greece.

According to an article published in an Italian newspaper in July, the people of Icaria do not wish to extend their Greek status. Rather, they are interested in pursuing a contractual relationship with another European country with less debt and a more stable political system. A local politician has suggested Austria as a potential suitor for Icaria. 83 percent of Austrians, when polled by an Austrian daily paper, were in favor of annexation (and of increased access to picturesque Aegean beaches).

The Greek government, as you might expect, is none too keen on this idea of Icarian annexation. When news of the desire for annexation emerged back in July, the Greek Embassy in Vienna released a press release rife with hostility, asserting that “Icaria is an inseparable part of Greek territory, and there is no expiring agreement between the Greek government and the island” and that the Treaty of Lausanne from 1923 “confirms that the islands of the East Aegean, including Icaria, belong to Greece.”

For an island that prides itself on the health and self-sufficiency of its people, I can only imagine that being dragged down or held back by Greece’s debt crisis is vexing at best. While I am certainly no expert in Greek treaties and in no position to question the veracity of the Greek Embassy’s claims about Icaria’s right to annexation, I certainly don’t blame the people of Icaria for wanting to try something different.

Golden Dawn Sees No Rainbows

Homosexuality, a common thing in ancient Greece, is starting to see a rise in homophobia in present day Greece. This is partially due to the Golden Dawn Party (a topic covered by Erin Gregory, one of EuroKulture’s writers. Articles on the party can  be found here and here), though homosexuality has never been fully accepted. In the early 2000’s a television station in Greece was fined 100,000 Euros for displaying two men kissing. The party, recently elected into the Greek parliament, has been feeding off the fears of Greeks to further their political power.

“Over the last year there is a clear increase in antigay attacks. The perpetrators now act in seeming impunity and although we are not always able to name them as members of the Golden Dawn, their attacks follow the same patterns of the Golden Dawn’s attacks against migrants. These people hate migrants, gays, foreigners, women. They hate everyone” – Andrea Gilber, Spokesperson of Athens Pride.

The attacks, mirroring early Nazi attacks on the ‘socially undesirable’ in Germany, are stating to creep into the areas that gay community members used to feel safe. One of these events happened as recently as November when 12 men dressed in all black, claiming to represent the Golden Dawn party, attacked people distribution anti-hate fliers.  This took place in an area of Gazi, known for it’s gay friendly atmosphere.

Greek supporter of homosexuality waves a rainbow flag

As member of the homosexual community, these events are terrifying. Driving people to have zero display of public affection, I can only imagine the constant cloud of fear covering daily life. While LGBTQ laws occupy employment policies, not helpful with a 25% unemployment rate, no laws protecting civilians from hate crimes and attacks exist. I think this lack of law plays a part in the ‘we represent the Golden Dawn party’ attacks.

Attacks climbed to an average of two per month, but this fact comes from reported attacks only. Most go unreported out of fear of further discrimination and hate. In a recent EU survey, 46% have said that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals face discrimination, at the same time, 46% said that they never do. Disclaimer: this was the same as the last time the survey was conducted 3 years ago.

Above: Reactions to recent rise of Greek homophobia

One attack, made on Stefanos Agelastos, happened while walking a friend to the bus stop. Two men on motorcycles pulled up and asked if they were gay, Stefanos replied that he was, his friend was not, but both were attacked. Stefanos managed to get his phone and call the cops, though the incident was just reported and the attackers were never caught. “People just ignored what was happening. Only a shop keeper from Pakistan and a drug user who was wandering in the street came to help”. Was it the fear of association with the ‘undesirable’ that drove people to not help or were they in support of the attack?

In a county where legalization of gay marriage and acceptance of homosexuals is on the rise, ‘difficult’ does not begin to describe how it feels for me to read this and not feel a surge of anger. <Insert VERY long rant about how homosexuality should be accepted here. You don’t want to read a rant.>.

Two questions come from this post for me, what does this mean for homosexuality in the surrounding countries and Europe as a whole? Does this ‘feeding off fear’ have enough of a foot hold in Greek society to give the Golden Dawn party enough power to start a new Nazi era?


Macho Medvedev and his PR Failure

On Nov. 24, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev posted an entry on his video blog entitled Road safety determines the quality of life, and together we can make it better. It seems pretty harmless, right? According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “It quickly turned into a PR disaster. ”

The video was an honest attempt to combat road safety in Russia, which has recently received negative media attention. Medvedev seems to have gone about this the wrong way, though. While some people were attentive enough to criticize the content of the video, others were caught up in the phony macho style in which it was conveyed. The video resembled a scene from a movie…only with bad reviews.

Take a look for yourself.

Okay, so the first 25 seconds were probably the cheesiest (at least for someone who doesn’t speak Russian). You kind of have to wonder what Medvedev was thinking when he rolled up in a shiny, luxurious  BMW X5 SUV – which is made by a German car company – sporting a black leather jacket and staring his audience dead in the eye.

Alexander Minkin, a writer at the Russian newspaper MKRU, compared it to a car commercial. He noted the spotless park in the background and impeccably clean car with a leather interior. Expecting the BMW slogan to come next, he instead got a message about road safety. A Russian blogger by the name of red star also called the video an advertisement for BMW.

One Russian YouTuber spliced together driving scenes to make his own spoof of the video. He set it to music from Bimmer, a Russian movie where a black BMW place an essential role, and included footage of Medvedev losing control of a parked vehicle in 2011 (Telegraph).

Not only was the video worth a good critique, but many people interpreted Medvedev’s proposal to fine up to 500,000 Rubles (approximately $16,000) for drunk driving as a proposal to fine this exorbitantly for minor driving violations like running a red light.

From this misinterpretation, he got many negative responses like this one from Russian billionaire and politician Mikhail Prokhorov. In a blog post, Prokhorov criticized Medvedev for not knowing how much half a million Rubles was for a typical Russian citizen. Instead, he said there ought to be improved roads in Russia and jailing for drunk drivers. He said that higher fines on driving misdemeanors would lead to increased police corruption.

To clarify, Medvedev had to post this tweet saying that the high fines he was proposing were only to be imposed on drunk drivers:

Although Prokhorov’s blog post was written based on unclarified information, he brought to light many issues with traffic crimes and accidents that Medvedev wasn’t addressing. He also echoed the perception that Medvedev was above the common people of Russia.

This billboard was put up by a Russian activist in Moscow protesting the lack of delivery on more stringent drunk driving penalties by the government. (Image from the blog MetroDream by Russos)

Medvedev’s proposal came among increased focus on drunk driving in Russia. In addition to proposing increased fines on drunk drivers, Medvedev has also ordered the government to draft legislation to raise the penalty for causing death while driving drunk from five years in prison to 15 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).

The photo to the right expresses the feelings of many Russians. It shows a fake Health Ministry billboard ad that was put up by an activist in October. It says, “We’re tired of warnings. Stop [expletive] drunk driving.” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

Medvedev is working to combat drunk driving, but if he wants to be taken seriously by the Russian people, he will have to rethink his public image. His road safety video blog was a PR failure to say the least. It’s probably time for Medvedev to drop the macho man image he was attempting. It doesn’t work as well for him as it does for Vladimir Putin (the current Russian president).


Putin: President, Athlete or Superhero?

In the eyes of many, Vladimir Putin is a complete badass.

Vladimir Putin

In Russia, sports are very popular to all ages, but as I have made clear in my previous posts, Russia’s view on popularity is distinct from others. From Formula 1 racing to chess boxing (yes, it really exists), it seems Russian’s desire for adrenaline is unlike all counterparts.

Chess Boxing in Russia

This need for adrenaline seems to be present in Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin as he enjoys hang gliding, sky diving and scuba diving.  Putin has played a major role in the development of sports in Russia. In 2007, Putin made a fully fluent English speech that resulted in a successful bid for Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.  He aided Russia in earning the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the first time.  Currently very popular online and through social media, Putin has been seen doing outlandish acts to promote sports and a healthy way of life to Russians.

Unlike the U.S.A. in my opinion, Russia has a greater appreciation for sports outside of the most popular ones (football, basketball, baseball and soccer).  Maybe this is because Putin leads by example.  Putin participates in alpine skiing, formula 1 racing and big game hunting, and at the same time,  people enjoy watching him.  Much like President Obama has been reported playing basketball with the University of North Carolina among other places, Putin competes, just at a more adventurous level.  Recently,

Adorned in white overalls – to resemble a bird – Vladimir Putin spent some of Wednesday leading in a different capacity, heading a flock of crane birds in flight from a hang glider. The stunt already has the Russian blogosphere alight. –

Such stunts have become a trademark of Vladimir Putin since he first became President in 2000. He once shot a rare tiger with a stun dart before putting a tracking device on him, and two years ago shot a whale with an arrow containing a tracking device from a crossbow. –

Putin flies with rare cranes 

In February 2011, Vladimir Putin promised to learn to skate well enough to play hockey. He started training with Alexei Kasatonov, a famous hockey player, and just two months later Putin was a confident skater. Recently Putin played in an event featuring Russian Legends of hockey against an amattuer team that Putin played with.

You read that correctly. Putin took the ice for an amateur hockey team that was squaring off in an exhibition game against a group of some of Russia’s biggest hockey legends. The match took place literally hours after Putin was sworn in. The fact Putin played in a hockey game might be surprising as is. The fact Putin set up the game-tying goal and scored the game-winning goal in a shootout is remarkable. –Bloguin

Vladimir Putin plays hockey vs. Russia’s Legends

At the age of 60, there are backlashes from Putin’s actions on the ice.  Recently reports have surfaced that:

Russia’s sky-diving, wolf-hunting, horseback riding president has suffered a “sports injury,” according to his spokesman, but some Kremlin watchers insist something more serious is afoot. – The Atlantic Wire

The injury is often talked about in the twitter world as well as people are concerned about the health of Putin, and how this lifestyle effects the President.

Twitter voices concerns on Putin’s health.

The fact that Putin leads the charge by playing sports and living a healthy life surely plays a role in the promotion of athletics, but how big of a role is uncertain. I think it would be exciting to see Barrack Obama strap on a helmet and pads and take part in the NFL Pro bowl, but I don’t ever see that happening.  I doubt it would be viewed  highly by Americans if our President was spending time shooting tigers and whales, but I personally would enjoy watching him do it, especially if it would promote young people to go out and be adventurous.