Some thoughts to end 2010

By December 31, 2010Atlantic Eye

In Transit, December 31, 2010 – Some have shown courage and resolve. Some have just piddled about. Others are moving very distinctly backwards.

In Germany the health insurance co-payment goes from 14.9% to 15.5% – half paid by the employee and half paid by the employer. In the United States, even the lower rate would make riots the order of the day. Meanwhile, ATMs will list the user fee being charged before the withdrawal, not after. The Federal President, Christian Wulff, whose then opponent Joachim Gauck – a former East German dissident, protestant pastor and man I know – was widely supported by the German public for President (the Germans don’t elect the ceremonial post; it is done by a joint session of the upper and lower house) – now is the most popular politician in the land. The Federal Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg – of noble blood and the second most-popular politician – is doing a superb job. He would be a great Chancellor. His problem – he is from the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU) – the junior partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party (CDU). They had two chances and blew both of them – Franz-Josef Strauss lost in 1980 to the grand Helmut Schmidt and Edmund Stoiber nearly defeated Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in a Thomas E. Dewey moment.

In Russia, the second monkey-trial of former billionaire Michail Chodorkowski ends with a predictably disgraceful result. (Yuri Schmidt, Chodorkowski’s lawyer, was our guest in Prague in the summer.) Chodorkowski and business-partner Platon Lebedev were found guilty of embezzling an impossible amount of gas from their former company. Sentenced to 14 years, Chodorkowski is no different from all other oligarchs – each severely bent rules to make themselves very rich. Chodorkowski however was politically gunned down because he was challenging then-President, now Prime Minister, Putin’s power. Chodorkowski had complained about corruption as his empire grew. He was generally seen as having gone the furthest in cleaning up his then-company Yukos to western standards. Chodokowski is a modern day Refusenik. Our friend and Global Panel Advisory Board Member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss) rightly criticized the state of the judiciary and democracy in Russia. The Cold War should have taught us that you cannot handle the Russians with kid gloves. They will only show you respect if you behave like a barn-yard dog – you have to stand your ground and bite – then they will slowly warm-up to you as an equal.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban – whose conservative party Fidesz won a 2/3rds majority in parliament some months ago – champions a draconian law through parliament creating a National Media and Communications Authority. The Authority can impose heavy fines for vague infractions, including coverage that is unbalanced, or offensive to human dignity or common morals. The law comes into effect on Jan.1, the same day Hungary takes control of the six-month revolving EU Presidency. The law is an outrage, and a page out of the Josef Goebbels handbook. It should be challenged at the EU level and ……DUMPED!

In South Africa, the government took the brave stance of letting millions of illegally-resident Zimbabweans apply for legal status. While severely unpopular among the ANC’s base, it was the right, courageous and humanitarian thing to do. The problem is that the application period expires today, December 31, 2010. Many observers say the visa process has been characterized by intense bureaucracy, corruption, confusion, and overcrowding – “a laborious, humiliating and unfriendly process,” – a Zimbabwean friend in South Africa said to me. The law should be extended.

President Obama finally walked-the-walk. Having been humiliated in November elections – where many friends of mine lost – thank you very much Mr. President – the Start II Agreement passed the Senate; tax cuts were extended; “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – which applied to gay service members – was repealed; the long-overdue 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was passed; and the recess appointment of Norman Eisen as US Ambassador to Prague was finally made. My friend Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) fought with great passion over the last years against petty Senate politics to play a big role in the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the passage of the 9/11 HCA. President Obama should have shown such a commitment to leadership the start of his presidency.

Iraq finally formed a government – but it is tenuous. I wish our friend Amar-al Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council – he and his family returned from exile after Saddam – much energy and blessings. We look forward to hosting you in Prague again.

Iran needs to be seriously beaten into place.

A modern military needs all the men and woman prepared to serve her. Full stop.

Bravo…. Aung San Suu Kyi.

On to the next decade.

(Syndicated Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chair of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He advises governments and companies on global political issues.)