Global News Blog
When I called a consultancy company in France specializing in sustainable business practices for a recent story on the Bangladesh garment factory tragedy, the office manager who picked up the phone said afterwards, “Are you looking to perfect your French?”
Embarrassing, yes, but she wasn’t being unkind. In fact, she was offering to connect me with a colleague who wanted to practice his English. She added, “If you need extra help, you can call me for ten minutes per day.”
I didn’t really take the offer seriously, until a few days later – and after my story was written – I thought, “Why not?” I called her, somewhat hesitantly, and asked if it was a good time. It was awkward at first, but it came easily once we realized we both have toddlers the same age. And there it is: my first French friend, a woman I’ve never met, who talks to me on the phone each day, patiently listening to me prattle on and correcting my butchering of French expressions in Email messages. It might be the nicest thing anyone has done for me unsolicited in a long time.
Apart from being where the news is, in contact with the people living through it and shaping it, I believe another crucial thing that foreign correspondents can offer is the tools to dispelling stereotypes. Before I moved here, I wrote a “farewell” letter to Mexico, about my fears that my French neighbors would be nowhere as warm as my Mexican ones. Those ideas were shaped from media coverage, movies, and even French people I know who warned me about everything from the French hating Americans to hating one another.
I’ve only been here for two months. I have a lot more to learn about the people before anecdotes become opinions. But already I can see how my initial notions can be very wrong. And it’s not in the major events or episodes, but the daily living over time.
Take yesterday. I was sizing up the people outside of a new gym class I was about to try: "body attack." I made note that all the women around me, without exception (and I did look at them all), were wearing make-up. Not heavy make-up, but they were made up.
Like some people need coffee in the morning (I need that too) or a nap in the afternoon, I need to belong to a gym. I’d been disappointed by several lame classes previously in France. I tried to withhold judgment until I gave it more time, but inside I was thinking, “Do the French not work out as hard as Americans or the amazing athletes in Mexico with whom I did yoga, cycling, Pilates, and lifting over the past seven years?”
I didn’t have high hopes today.
And then we started warming up, and then we started jumping in the air, and doing planks and pushups, and army exercises – and people were whooping and hollering, and breaking out in dance. There was an obvious camaraderie in the class. And the exuberance was unmatched by any Latino zumba or body combat class I attended (with perhaps the exception of an extraordinarily energetic spin class I once attended in Brazil).
I would have never expected that, judging from the reserve one sees on the streets of Paris. I would have never expected a French mother, working full-time, to talk to a stranger (a journalist, no less, asking invasive questions) every day on the phone. These surprises are sure to stack up over time, until I realize that what I came here thinking is in large part no longer even true.
President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping will meet for at least six hours this weekend in a rare, informal tête-a-tête that some say could reshape the relationship between the two world powers.
Not since 1972, when Nixon went to China, have leaders from China and the US sat down for more than a carefully scripted visit lasting more than an hour or so. And Asia-watchers are hoping this unscripted, two-day Sino-US summit ( allowing for an extended six-hour meeting) will have equally dramatic consequences.
“A second great breakthrough in the relationship has become a Holy Grail,” Orville Schell, head of the Asia Society’s Center for US-China Relations in New York, told the Monitor''s Beijing bureau chief, “Of course it’s hard to do, but that’s their aspiration.”
The Monitor's Peter Ford points out that the second meeting for the two leaders (when Xi was still China's vice president he met with Obama briefly) comes at key time for the US and China:
Strategic trust between the world’s top two economies is at a dangerously low level, worn away recently in a number of ways: Washington has accused Beijing of massive commercial cyberespionage; China is suspicious that President Obama’s military and diplomatic “pivot to Asia” is a bid to contain the Asian giant’s rise; China has pressed territorial claims and clashed with US allies such as Japan and the Philippines.
Still, writes the Monitor's Howard LeFranchi in Washington, not everyone is expecting immediate change, particularly if such urgent issues as cybersecurity are not substantially addressed:
Even though the two leaders are expected to discuss everything from military and corporate cybersecurity to North Korea, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and US-China trade, the summit’s emphasis on building their personal relationship leaves doubters unimpressed.
“If we actually saw a substantial agreement on countering cyberthreats … or saw the Chinese throttle back on territorial claims, that would be significant,” says Dean Cheng, a research fellow in Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
For the rest of the story on the "great new power relationship" between China and the US, click here.
In a classic Soviet-era anecdote, a judge comes out of his courtroom laughing uncontrollably. "What's so funny?" asks a colleague. "I've just heard a hilarious joke!" answers the judge, wiping away tears of laughter. "Well, tell me," insists the colleague. "Are you crazy?" says the judge. "I just sentenced a man to 10 years at hard labor for telling that joke!"
People in Russia may not face the Gulag for cracking wise anymore, and many believe the quality of political jokes has deteriorated since the totalitarian Soviet state – the whip that kept satirists on their toes – expired.
But enough Russians still seem to view the political parade of events as one endless tragicomedy that can only be processed through the medium of humor to keep some semblance of the tradition going.
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President Vladimir Putin's carefully-scripted announcement, together with his wife Lyudmila, that they're ending their 30-year marriage, was one of those moments that seemed to bring the amateur satirists swarming out – nowadays boosted by the electronic megaphones of Twitter, Facebook, and the Russian-language VKontakte.
Within hours of the Putin's TV interview, the jokes and sometimes acerbic one-liners were circulating almost everywhere.
For example: A divorcing couple [clearly invoking the Putins] are asked how they plan to divide the property accumulated during the marriage. "Oh, I don't know," answers the husband. "Probably we'll just draw a line down the Ural Mountains."
The Putins had just come from watching a performance of the ballet Esmeralda (based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in the Kremlin Palace theater when they staged their announcement in the form of a "spontaneous" interview with a state TV journalist. A much-repeated joke on Facebook Friday – which could become a self-fulfilling prophesy – is that Russian slang for "getting divorced" will in future be "going to see Esmeralda."
Another frequently recurring theme riffs on the way Putin served his constitutionally-permitted two terms as president, then stepped aside for Dmitry Medvedev for one term, before returning last year for an unprecedented but legal third term.
"Now Medvedev will marry Lyudmila, but will divorce her after four years, and then Putin will remarry her," is the essence of one viral tweet.
And following the same line of thought, there is this: "Lyudmila has rejected a third term. That's because she respects the constitution."
Some of the jibes are bitter, reflecting the mood of beleaguered urban intellectuals whose aspirations for a more democratic and open political system have been dashed by the hard conservative turn the Kremlin has taken since Putin returned for his third term last year.
"Lyudmila is lucky. She's the only Russian who's managed to get free from Putin," says one tweet. Another rephrases the ubiquitous opposition slogan "Russia Without Putin!" into "Lyudmila without Putin!"
Many of the jokes swirling around the Internet are simply untranslatable, or rely too heavily on inside Russian references to explain to outsiders. As one of Russia's greatest comics, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, once remarked: "I've already made peace with the fact that humor doesn't cross borders. Humor is not an army."
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Jordan’s Press and Publications Law, a September 2012 measure that requires online media to register with the Jordanian government, went into effect this week in a move that brings Jordan in tune with repressive media laws passed across the region after the Arab Spring. Some 263 news sites not in compliance with the law were ordered censored, including popular outlets JO24.net and Amman Net, according to a Human Rights Watch press release.
Jordan's media law is consistent with measures in place elsewhere in the Middle East that target online news outlets, which have throughout the region become hotbeds of dissent and spaces for choreographing challenges to government policies. In a much criticized move in December, Egypt passed a new constitution that granted the state the authority to shut down news outlets in violation of the vague guidelines listed in the document, including compromising national security. Most recently, Qatar — long heralded as a bright spot for media freedom, as home to international news source Al-Jazeera — passed a cybercrime bill in May that threatened shut down news outlets publishing "false news" or stories infringing on "social principles or values."
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Many of the affected Jordanian news organizations had refused to register with the government in protest of what they see as a state overstep into media affairs. Other news sites said that registration had been impossible: the law includes a steep registration fee of $1,400, as well as a requirement that the editor-in-chief of the online news site have been a member of the official Jordanian Journalists’ Syndicate for at least four years, according to The New York Times.
The site closures come about a week after King Abdullah opened the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in the capital, during which he praised the Arab Spring and voiced his support for greater democratization.
"The Arab Spring and its call for human dignity has become the voice of our century,” said Abudllah, in a speech quoted on Al-Arabiya. “This is a reason to stand proud, but we cannot stand still. Reform, democracy and peace are always work in progress.”
Jordan’s media law, which applies to some 400 news sites in the country’s robust online media market, also holds the owner and editor-in-chief of an online media liable for comments or posts that users post to the website. Websites can be fined up to $14,000 for a user comment found to insult the royal family, contradict Arab-Islamic values, incite sectarian strife, or slander public officials, according to the Associated Press.
The law also gives the government unfettered power to shut down both foreign and domestic websites without notice or explanation.
“King Abdullah talked a good game about rights reform at the World Economic Forum just a few days ago, but didn’t wait for the dust to settle before moving to muzzle Jordanian news sites,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“The blocking is not intended to restrict freedoms … but the goal of this action is to organize the work of these websites, protect them, and keep from allowing those from outside the profession to inhabit the label of journalists…,” said the Jordanian government, in a statement quoted by Jordan’s official news agency and translated by Human Rights Watch.
"We will not allow personal attacks against individuals, or attacks against any groups or minorities," Information Minister Mohammed Momani told the Associated Press, referring to some recent incidents in which online media were blamed for inciting religious or social prejudice and inaccurate reporting involving public figures.
Jordan, which had not seen the Arab uprisings that have toppled many heads of state elsewhere in the Middle East in 2011, has received regular criticism from human rights groups for its forceful response to public protests urging political reforms. Its media, while generally freer than press outlets elsewhere in the Middle East, has also been hit with serious setbacks over the last couple years. Last February, blogger Enass Musallam was stabbed in an incident believed to be related to her critical writings on the Jordanian royal family. Later that month, Jordanian journalist Jamal al-Muhtaseb was detained for an article alleging misconduct by the Royal Court. He was released on bail in May.
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Google's secret lab
Google X, the search firm’s secretive research lab, is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – a workshop that needs to be protected from critical eyes – or the technology equivalent of “taking moonshots.” So says Astro Teller, the lab’s director, in the May 22 cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek.
“The world is not limited by IQ. We are all limited by bravery and creativity,” Mr. Teller says. Getting around those limits is made a bit easier by the fact that Google had an R&D budget of $6.8 billion in 2012.
So far Google X has produced a driverless Lexus, capable of cruising unaided on Silicon Valley’s crowded 101 freeway. Another product: Internet-connected eyeglasses dubbed Google Glass. Future projects, Businessweek says, include an airborne turbine that sends electrical power down to a base station and a project to bring Internet access to undeveloped parts of the world. “We are serious ... about making the world a better place,” Teller says.
On being kidnapped in Syria
NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel recounts the harrowing story of being kidnapped with five colleagues while covering the conflict in Syria between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in April’s Vanity Fair.
Shortly after Mr. Engel and his crew crossed into Syria from Turkey, they were captured by 15 heavily armed men who loaded them into a container truck where they were bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Engel says his captors were from “the most ruthless and lethal of Assad’s militias, the shabiha.”
For the next five days, the NBC team was moved constantly, threatened with death, and subjected to psychological torture. On the fifth night, the vehicle in which they were being moved ran into a checkpoint set up by rebels from a Sunni religious group that had been searching for them. In the ensuing gun battle, the journalists escaped.
This riveting tale is a reminder of the risks foreign correspondents take. “Kidnapping is always a threat in this life,” Engel says.
Revitalizing Japan’s economy
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flies, Superman-like, above Tokyo’s skyline on the cover of the May 18-24 issue of The Economist as the magazine probes the action-packed first months of Mr. Abe’s return to an office he left in 2007.
Since being elected in December, Abe announced a three-pronged strategy to kick-start an economy that spent two decades in the doldrums. He rolled out plans for a simulative government spending program worth the equivalent of about $100 billion, installed a more aggressive head of the nation’s central bank, and announced he wanted to have Japan join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move that would require major changes to some of Japan’s most protected industries. The magazine applauds Abe’s activism, which appears aimed, in part, at confronting China’s rising influence. But it notes the danger that “he takes too hard a line, confusing national pride with a destructive and backward-looking nationalism.”
Life as a federal meat inspector
Ted Conover, a professor from New York University, got himself hired as a federal meat inspector and reports on the grisly but illuminating experience in the May issue of Harper’s. It is an important piece of journalism, both for what it reveals about the meat industry and because it is an increasingly rare example of in-depth reporting that took years to arrange and months to conduct. Given the subject matter, it is probably best not to read this article before heading out to a summer barbecue.
Mr. Conover’s kind of immersion reporting is becoming increasingly difficult. The agribusiness industry is fighting undercover reporting and has convinced six states to pass so called ag-gag laws that prohibit unauthorized video recording or taking photographs inside a production facility. Conover, an avowed meat eater, seeks to offer a balanced report and ends the piece talking about his visit to a steak restaurant with a fellow meat plant inspector.
Second wives take on alimony
The practice of paying permanent alimony is under attack across America, Time magazine reports, calling the trend “the biggest change to the way Americans divorce since the 1970’s” when no-fault marriage dissolution become common.
The fight appears to be between two groups of women. Most of the estimated 420,000 people receiving alimony are stay-at-home moms. The charge against alimony is being led by what Time calls “the Second Wives Club.” That term refers to women who usually work outside the home and are tired of seeing their spouse hand over a big chunk of his income to a first wife. Massachusetts has abolished lifetime alimony, and legislation is in the works in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Colorado, among other places.
Critics of alimony say fewer marriages last forever and that women should plan accordingly. They also note that the cost of permanent alimony has gone up because people live longer. Supporters say abolishing alimony is, in effect, telling a couple that neither of them can stay at home and raise their child without risking dire economic circumstances.
Russia has changed its story, yet again, about its intention to fulfill a 3-year old contract to sell "game-changing" S-300 advanced air defense systems to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Now the answer is "no."
In direct contradiction to what top Russian officials were saying just last week, President Vladimir Putin told European Union leaders at a summit in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg Tuesday that Russia has suspended the $900 million contract to supply six batteries and 144 long range, deadly-accurate surface-to-air missiles, in the interests of preserving stability in the turbulent Middle East.
"The S-300 systems are, really, one of the best air defense systems in the world, probably the best," Mr. Putin told the leaders, who included EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
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"We do not want to disturb the balance in the region. The contract was signed several years ago. It has not yet been realized," Russian news media quoted Putin as saying.
Just last month Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Putin at his summer residence in Sochi and begged him not to supply the missiles to Syria. Mr. Netanyahu said the S-300s would threaten planes flying in Israeli airspace, though most experts say the real concern is that the missiles would deeply complicate the ability of Israel, and the US, to intervene in Syria's civil war using air power.
In the wake of the EU's decision last week to drop its arms embargo against Syria, opening the door to arms shipments to the rebels by Britain and France, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov insisted the S-300 sale would go ahead – for exactly the same reason Putin now says it has been halted – to preserve "stability" in the region.
"We believe [S-300 sales] are to a great extent restraining some ‘hot heads’ from considering scenarios in which the conflict may assume an international scale with the participation of outside forces," Mr. Rybakov said.
"We understand all the concerns and signals sent to us from various states. We see that this issue worries many of our partners. We have no reasons to reconsider our position in this sphere," he added.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu went further, telling journalists last week that Russia is now prepared to sell Syria not only "defensive" weapons like the S-300, but "offensive" ones like tactical missiles, tanks, and fighter planes as well.
Mr. Assad put in his own misleading two cent's worth, telling a Lebanese TV station that the Russians had firmly promised to supply him with the S-300s and suggesting that the first shipment of them might have already arrived in Damascus.
Experts say it now appears likely that Putin did, in fact, agree at that May meeting with Netanyahu to suspend S-300 deliveries to Syria. That's not unprecedented: His predecessor Dmitry Medvedev negotiated a secret deal with Netanyahu that led to Russia cutting off S-300 and other major weapons' exports to Iran in 2010.
"When will everybody learn that the main thing is to listen to what Putin says? He is the truth of the last instance in this country," says Alexander Sharavin, director of the independent Institute of Military and Political Analysis in Moscow.
"People can say all sorts of things, and maybe they have their sources, but there is only one person in Russia who can actually decide whether to deliver S-300s to Syria or not. We know this person's name. And he seems to have made his decision quite some time ago," even if he's only informing us of it now, he adds.
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Global interest in the murder trial of Olympian Oscar Pistorius shows no sign of abating, after the double-amputee sprinter arrived for a brief court appearance on Tuesday to be greeted by a barrage of journalists.
Mr. Pistorius shot and killed his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day, and was subsequently released on $103,000 in bail.
Those expecting high drama today however were disappointed as Pistorius appeared in court for only about 15 minutes before the case was postponed until Aug. 19 – to allow the prosecutor more time to prepare.
A spokesperson for the prosecutor told reporters the investigation would be wrapped up by August.
Local newspaper Citypress reported that Thulare warned that the court process should be respected and asked the prosecutor "to look into questions of whether anyone acts or omits to act in such a way that their conduct amounts either to scandalous conduct to court or to outright contempt of court.” (Editor's Note: The story was updated with a fuller quote.)
The case has so far been South Africa's version of the OJ Simpson trial, with a fixation for any news about the man known as the "Blade Runner."
In April, rival Sunday papers broke news that Pistorius had been seen “jolling” – "partying" in local slang – in the Johannesburg up-market suburb of Fourways.
The reports said he was seen with bodyguards, drinking with friends and “flirting” with female patrons.
That led to further arguments on social media and radio about Pistorius, Steenkamp and the killing. A group of fans on twitter calling themselves the “Pistorians” have been consistent in their defense of the athlete against what they say are attacks in the media.
Pistorius' pre-trial shenanigans and the killing itself made headlines again last month when Sky News broadcast what they said were images of the bloody bathroom where Steenkamp was shot.
On Tuesday, local journalist Shandukani Mulaudzi said the Pretoria courthouse was “packed” with over a 100 South African and international journalists waiting for the arrival of Pistorius.
However, only a fraction of those journalists could get access to the courtroom due to a lack of space. The rest had to watch proceedings on a large screen set up outside.
Chinese Internet censors went into overdrive on Tuesday, desperately blacking out any reference to the 24th anniversary of the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, which falls today.
Indeed “today” was one of the banned words on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. If you searched for it, you were told that “according to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, the results cannot be shown.”
Nearly a quarter of a century after a student-led reform movement ended on June 4, 1989, with the military occupation of Tiananmen Square and the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands of people, the whole affair is still taboo in China.
Since the government ruled the demonstrations “counter-revolutionary” no Chinese language newspaper has ever recalled them, no Chinese leader has ever referred to them, and citizens are not allowed to remember them.
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Three activists in the southern city of Guangzhou were locked up last week because they applied for a city permit to hold a Tiananmen memorial march. A group of mothers whose children were killed in the crackdown and who have sought an official reckoning of the event ever since, wrote despairingly to President Xi Jinping last week that “to this day all our efforts have been in vain. We have received not a single response from the government.”
And frankly, this officially imposed amnesia has done the job the government intended it to do.
Political activists and “dissidents” recall the tragic events, of course, and do their best to communicate the fact that they have not forgotten. Like journalist He Gang, who yesterday posted “I remember that year. Passion on fire” on his blog, they find elliptical ways around the censor.
But they are a handful of voices. The vast majority of Chinese citizens pay the occasion no mind, and most people under 35 are not even aware of what 6/4 signifies.
Still, the paranoia that the censors displayed on Tuesday – banning any combination of digits that might add up to 64 or 89 – suggests that the authorities are by no means comfortable in their seats of power.
The mood in China is certainly very different from the 1980s, when the universities and the press were in political and intellectual ferment. Today, the dead weight of ideological orthodoxy stifles any debate about political reform and “democracy” is not a rallying cry for many Chinese citizens.
Instead, they are much more likely to be angry about the way in which their government has failed to take care of practical matters in the headlong rush for economic development. And they are not shy to express that anger.
Recent street protests in the southwestern city of Kunming against a gas factory reflected widespread environmental concerns. Angry comments on the Chinese web today about the locked doors that trapped victims of Monday’s deadly poultry factory fire suggested that corrupt safety inspectors may have played a role.
In the minds of democracy activists, of course, such practical matters are not unrelated to broader philosophical questions. A properly elected government, subject to democratic oversight, might have felt obliged to provide better protection for the country’s environment and its citizens’ lives, for example.
But this is not an argument that resonates with most Chinese citizens. Instead, they look to the authorities to show stronger guidance and control in order to correct society’s shortcomings.
For many liberals, official readiness to reconsider the ruling Communist Party’s harsh judgment of the Tiananmen protests would be a key indicator that the government was ready for political reform. (Get a sense of what the mood was like a year after the protests)
There is little sign of that, however. Rebutting a statement from Washington marking the Tiananmen anniversary, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei insisted that “a clear conclusion has already been made concerning the political turmoil that happened in the late 1980s,” and that “the path we have chosen serves the fundamental interest of the Chinese people.”
That kind of statement, coming on top of a recent crackdown on independent-minded intellectuals, does not bode well for the sort of future some liberals foresaw under new President Xi. The Tiananmen Mothers were blunt in their open letter to the president. After 24 years “our hope is fading,” they wrote, “and despair is drawing near.”
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about China? Take our quiz.
Across swaths of central Europe, thousands have been evacuated as continuous rains and swollen rivers threaten to flood cities and towns, prompting officials to take preventive steps based on experiences from floods in 2002 that caused an estimated $26 billion in damages.
In the Czech Republic, where the 2002 flood killed 17, residents say they are taking no chances. (See this CNN piece here to recall the breadth of that tragedy.) Many parts of the capital, Prague, are under water. The country declared a state of emergency Sunday. Hundreds of soldiers have also been deployed.
The metro, heavily damaged in 2002, has been shut down and anti-flood barriers put up. Metal movable walls were erected across the Vltava river to preserve the historic parts of the capital – a defense system that was also established in the wake of last decade's flooding. In the past ten years, the government has spent an estimated 3 billion koruna ($150 million), according to The Wall Street Journal, to install the system.
Zoo animals have also been moved to higher ground, after the heartbreaking loss of an elephant and other animals trapped in their pens as flood water poured in a decade ago.
The river waters in Prague are half what they were during the massive floods of 2002, which was considered the "flood of the century," the Epoch Times reports, but precautions are still being taken.
“It will take two or three days for all the rivers to crest, so the risk still endures,” Petr Dvorak, a spokesman for the Czech state weather service, told Bloomberg news.
The old part of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Prague sits along the Vltava and its skyline is punctuated by palaces and towers, many of them dating back to the 14th century. One of its most iconic monuments, the Charles Bridge, remained closed Monday because of high waters.
Prague resident Jaroslav Tuma, a gallery owner whose store was six feet under water in 2002 said he is ready to move fast if need be. “I’m more worried now, even though I think the city is better prepared than a decade ago,” he told Bloomberg.
The floods are also affecting Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. In Passau, Germany three rivers flooded the historic part of the town in the southeast part of the country. Rescue operators had to relocate residents with boats as water rises – it’s already at its highest level in 70 years. German chancellor Angela Merkel is reportedly preparing to visit the town tomorrow.
Rain is expected to ease up today, and end by midweek.
To understand the national significance of the protests that have spread through Turkey this weekend, it’s critical to look beyond Istanbul.
The mass demonstrations first took off in the country’s cultural capital when police used tear gas and forcibly broke up a peaceful protest against the demolition of a popular park to make way for a shopping mall. For the rest of Turkey, and presumably those people in Istanbul, the anti-government protest movement that has emerged now has little to do with the park or the mall.
In Antakya, a small city of about a quarter of a million people in the southeastern corner of Turkey, most people rarely go to Istanbul. Located on the opposite end of the country, the city occupies a different ecosystem, with most residents working and visiting other nearby cities, and only going to Istanbul as much as someone in Lincoln, Nebraska might visit New York City. In other words, most people here could care less about urban development plans in Istanbul.
Yet for the past two days hundreds, if not thousands of people have marched through the streets chanting anti-government slogans challenging Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and expressing solidarity with those in Taksim Square, the center of demonstrations in Istanbul.
In discussions about the political situation here in Antakya, the first issue to come up is usually the alleged police brutality in Istanbul that most people say is emblematic of authoritarian behavior.
There’s also much concern about the increasing influence of conservative Islamic politics in the government. Erdogan’s recent remarks that anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic that coincided with laws restricting the sale and marketing of alcohol have prompted much criticism from Turkish people who say he is trying to control their personal lifestyle choices.
The protests in Antakya have yet to reach the same intensity as those seen in Istanbul or Ankara, but they remain unprecedented for this small town. Among those who came out to protest on Sunday, young people tended to dominate the crowd, but sizable numbers of people from all ages participated. All along the march, people lining the road cheered on the protesters and hung off balconies, shouting their support or clapping. Hours after the protest began and the main demonstration had disbursed, people continued driving through the streets honking horns, banging pots, and chanting protest slogans.
While Antakya is far from a bellwether city, the spark set off here by a protest movement on the opposite end of the country is testament that the political challenges now facing Turkey have little to do with a public park and everything to do with major social and political policies.