News from Russia, Greece and France

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on May 8, 2012

RUSSIA – Putin sworn in again as Russia’s president

Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Vladimir Putin (right)

MOSCOW | Vladimir Putin took the oath of office in a brief but regal Kremlin* ceremony on Monday, while on the streets outside thousands of helmeted riot police prevented hundreds of demonstrators from protesting his return to the presidency.

Mr. Putin, 59, has ruled Russia since 2000, first as president and then during the past four years as prime minister. The new, now six-year term will keep him in power until 2018, with the option of running for a fourth term.

“I consider service to the fatherland and our nation to be the meaning of my life,” Mr. Putin said in addressing 3,000 guests in a glittering Kremlin hall.

Despite unprecedented security measures in the center of Moscow, where streets were closed to traffic and passengers prevented from exiting subway stations, at least 1,000 opposition activists tried to protest along the route Mr. Putin’s motorcade took to the Kremlin. Many wore the white ribbons that are the symbol of the anti-Putin protest movement.

The demonstrators, separated into several groups, were met by helmeted riot police. A total of 120 were detained, including opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Mr. Putin’s inauguration came a day after an opposition protest drew more than 20,000 people, fewer than the mass demonstrations in the months that preceded his March election but still a sign that the anger over Mr. Putin’s heavy-handed return to the Kremlin has not faded.

Sunday’s protest turned violent when some demonstrators tried to march toward the Kremlin and riot police beat back the crowds with batons and detained more than 400 people. The use of force after the winter’s peaceful rallies indicates that Mr. Putin may take a harder line toward the protesters now that he is once again president.

After taking the oath of office with his right hand on a red copy of the Russian Constitution…Mr. Putin stated his commitment to democracy.  “We want to live, and we will live, in a democratic country where everyone has the freedom and opportunity to apply their talent and labor, their energy. We want to live, and we will live, in a successful Russia, which is respected in the world as a reliable, open, honest and predictable partner.”

During his time in office, Mr. Putin has overseen dramatic economic growth and restored a sense of national pride after the instability and humiliations that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. He also has retreated from the democratic achievements of the 1990s and imposed a political system that has stifled dissent. …

Mr. Putin has dismissed the Moscow protesters as ungrateful, pampered urbanites and agents of the West. …

Mr. Putin, as promised, began his new presidential term by formally nominating Dmitry Medvedev, [who served as Russia’s president for the past four years as Mr. Putin’s junior partner], as his prime minister. The parliament, where the Kremlin party holds a majority, voted on Medvedev’s nomination Tuesday.

[*The Kremlin is the building that houses the Russian government; the Kremlin refers to the government of Russia in the same way that the White House refers to the Executive Office of the President of the United States and Number 10 Downing Street refers to the Offices of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the British Government.]

FRANCE and GREECE – Sarkozy out in France; ruling parties lose in Greece in backlash over austerity

Newly elected French president, socialist Francois Hollande

PARIS and ATHENS | French and Greek voters delivered a sharp rebuke to their governments in national elections Sunday, raising questions about the viability of the European Union’s austerity program intended to preserve the euro as Europe’s dominant currency.

By a 52 to 48 percent, France elected Francois Hollande as its first Socialist president in 17 years, replacing the right-of-center Nicolas Sarkozy.

In Greece, voters delivered a stinging judgment against the two ruling parties that had supported austerity agreements with the EU, cutting their support by nearly half and raising questions about whether they would be able to assemble a new government. The biggest winners in Greece were the Radical Left coalition, which finished second, and the Golden Dawn party, a neo-fascist group that won parliamentary seats for the first time, with nearly 7 percent of the vote.

How the results will affect Europe’s economic planning remained to be seen. Sarkozy is a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has been the primary proponent of the tough austerity measures that Europe has undertaken over the past two years in an effort to head off a crisis triggered by huge sovereign debt in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Hollande has said he will press Germany to renegotiate the European agreement to enforce budget discipline and add a clause to stimulate stagnant economies and add jobs. He has also promised to raise the minimum wage and lower the retirement age to 60 from 62 for some workers, and to add 60,000 teaching jobs, all policies Sarkozy had opposed. …

Sarkozy, the first top French leader to be denied a second term since 1981, took “full responsibility for the defeat” and told associates that he would quit the leadership of his Union for a Popular Movement political party, which faces elections next month for the National Assembly. It is now the majority party. Those elections will determine whether Hollande will be able to win approval for his program.

In Greece, party workers watched in stunned silence at the headquarters of the right-of-center New Democracy party as the results showed a fall in popular support to 20.5 percent, from 33.5 percent in the 2009 parliamentary elections. A senior party official said it was “like an earthquake.”

Even harder hit was the socialist PASOK party, which has largely dominated Greek politics since 1981 and won only 14 percent of the vote — down almost two-thirds from 44 percent in 2009. …

Under Greek election law, which awards an extra 50 seats to the party with the biggest plurality, New Democracy may be able to form a government with PASOK, to which it was junior partner in an uneasy alliance since November. But it is likely to be a weak coalition and to produce spectacular battles in Parliament — assuming it adheres to its commitments to the EU to raise taxes, fire public workers and reduce wages in exchange for $240 billion in bailouts.

Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democracy, and Evangelos Venizelos, head of PASOK, called Sunday night for a government of national unity, bringing in all parties that want to preserve the euro as Greece’s currency.

(The news briefs above are from wire reports and staff reports posted at WashingtonTimes and BostonHerald.com on May 7th. )

Questions

1. For each of the 3 countries, give the following information:
a) location/the countries that share its borders
b) the religious breakdown of the population
c) the type of government
d) the chief of state (and head of government if different) [If monarch or dictator, since what date has he/she ruled? – include name of heir apparent for monarch]e) the population

[Find the answers at the CIA World FactBook website. For each country, answers can be found under the “Geography” “People” and “Government” headings.  Go to worldatlas.com for a list of continents.]

2. For RUSSIA:
a) list the who, what, where and when of the news item
b) After taking the oath of office, what did President Putin say about democracy?
c) How did President Putin’s view of citizens protesting his election contradict his stated view on democracy?

3. For FRANCE and GREECE:
a) list the who, what, where and when of the news item
b) Why did voters replace their leaders in France and Greece?
c) Read the information on France and Greece’s austerity plans below.  Do you think the voters were right to oust leaders who were attempting to solve the budget crisis through austerity plans?  Explain your answer.  Ask a parent the same question.
d) If you found you had spent more money than you earned/posessed and owed all of your friends money [similar to what has happened in these countries], what would you do personally (eg. borrow more money and continue spending, drastically cut your spending, etc.)?  Explain your answer.


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Background

RUSSIA:

Vladimir Putin:

  • Vladimir Putin (born in 1952) was the second President of the Russian Federation [and was then appointed Prime Minister of Russia by his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev], as well as chairman of United Russia and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Russia and Belarus.
  • Putin was an officer in the KGB (Russian secret police) from 1975-1992.
  • Putin became acting President on December 31, 1999, when president Boris Yeltsin resigned.
  • Putin won the 2000 presidential election and in 2004 he was re-elected for a second term lasting until May 7, 2008.
  • Due to constitutionally mandated term limits, Putin was ineligible to run for a third consecutive presidential term.  [He was eligible to run for president after being out of that office for one term.]
  • A December 2008 law extended…presidential terms from 4 to 6 years [to take effect with the March 2012 election].
  • After the victory of his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in the 2008 presidential elections, Putin was nominated by Medvedev to be Russia’s Prime Minister; Putin took the post on May 8, 2008. (from wikipedia and state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3183.htm#gov)

The Russian government:

  • In the Russian political system established by the 1993 constitution, the president wields considerable executive power.
  • There is no vice president, and the legislative branch is far weaker than the executive.
  • The bicameral legislature consists of the lower house (State Duma) and the upper house (the Federation Council).
  • The president nominates the highest state officials, including the prime minister, who must be approved by the Duma.
  • The president can pass decrees without consent from the Duma.
  • He also is head of the armed forces and of the Security Council. (from state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3183.htm#gov)

Protesters arrested in anti-Putin march:

A protest demonstration by at least 20,000 people the day before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president turned into a battle with police after some protesters tried to split off from the approved protest area and march to the Kremlin.

Club-wielding, helmeted officers seized demonstrators and hauled them to police vehicles, dragging some by the hair.

Among those arrested were three of the leaders of the opposition movement that gained new life over the winter: Sergei Udaltsov, Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov.

Previous protests that occurred after fraud-plagued parliamentary elections in December had been marked by fastidious order. The crowds, sometimes as big as 100,000 or more, had carefully kept to agreed-upon meeting-places and routes, even making a point of thanking police who stood guard in vast numbers but did not interfere.

Sunday’s break in that pattern likely reflected a sense of anger and impotence among protesters upset that Mr. Putin was handily elected to a new term in the Kremlin despite their startling defiance.

Mr. Putin, who imposed a political system that stifled dissent and who dismissed the protesters as callow, pampered youths and Western stooges, was sworn in for a six-year term on Monday, May 7. (from washingtontimes.com)

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GREECE: (adapted from Boston.com)
Austerity has been the main solution across Europe for dealing with the continent’s nearly 3-year-old debt crisis, brought on by too much government spending. But what does it mean for the average European?  Austerity comes in many forms: higher taxes, fewer state benefits [for government employees], more job cuts, working longer until retirement, you name it.  Here’s a look at some of Europe’s austerity pain:

GREECE:
Greece, one of three eurozone nations to need an international bailout, has cut spending on just about everything it can — public sector salaries, pensions, education, health care and defense. As a result, unemployment has soared to over 21 percent, fueling social unrest that has sometimes turned deadly. In the last two years, riots have erupted frequently and the country’s near-daily strikes and demonstrations have shut down schools, airports, train stations, ferries and harmed medical services.

FRANCE:
Over fierce protests, the government has increased the retirement age from 60 to 62, raised the sales tax from 5.5 to 7 percent on non-essential products, cut tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, and cut regional and local government budgets. For the next two years, two state workers have to retire before one is replaced.

What is austerity? (from bbc.co.uk)
Government austerity measures include higher taxes and spending cuts. The aim is to reduce a country’s deficit – the amount it spends every year over and above what it earns.  Following the financial crisis, government debt levels – that is, the sum of all borrowing – rose sharply. With companies, in particular financial institutions, making less money during the ensuing recession, tax revenues fell. Governments were also accused of having spent too much during “the good times” and then came under pressure to spend more on rescuing banks, battered in the wake of the credit crunch.

What is the problem with austerity?
Austerity measures are hugely unpopular with the public, as they typically result in cuts to public services, higher retirement ages and reduced wages and pensions in public sector (government) jobs.

What are the alternatives?
Liberals have argued from the beginning of the crisis that austerity was not inevitable. They say that spending should be targeted at boosting growth. For others it is a question of how savings are made.  Olli Rehn, the EU’s commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, says Europe needs to get the balance right between cutting debt and stimulating growth.  “Fiscal consolidation, while necessary, [needs to be] done in a growth-friendly and differentiated way, in order to strike a balance between necessary fiscal consolidation and concerns for growth,” he says.

What does France’s newly elected socialist President Francois Hollande propose instead?
He campaigned to renegotiate the EU fiscal pact, in which countries signed up to strict budget limits, to put more emphasis on growth.  To stimulate growth in France he has pledged to create 150,000 new jobs [the BBC report does not state how he will do this]. He also said he would introduce two new higher tax rates, implement a new financial transaction tax and increase capital gains taxes on banks. However, some say that this may just be a different kind of austerity – hitting the rich with higher taxes.