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A third of Poland is covered by ‘LGBT-free zones.’ What it’s like to be trapped inside one

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Karolina Duzniak and her fiancee Ola Głowacka drive away from Kozy.

Kozy, Poland (CNN) — Karolina Duzniak has lived in the drowsy, tree-dotted Polish village of Kozy for 26 years. But she doesn’t feel herself until she gets into her car each morning, shuts the door and drives away.

“I prefer big cities,” she says, reflecting on her daily journey to work in nearby Bielsko-Biala, an industrial urban sprawl near the border with the Czech Republic. “I come back home and I feel bad. It’s not me.

“All the time I hide something.”

Duzniak is a confident, amicable career coach with a partner of 10 years, but she has good reason to hide one important aspect of her personality. She is gay, and gay people are not welcome in Kozy. An official document reminds them of that.

Last year, the surrounding Bielsko county — which includes Kozy and dozens of other towns and villages, but not Bielsko-Biala — passed a resolution supporting “traditional family values” and rejecting the LGBT community for “undermining the concept of a family model.”

“We encourage young people to start families which are by their essence a natural environment for self-realization,” the text reads. Families “shaped by the centuries-old heritage of Christianity,” and which are “so important for the comprehensive development of our homeland.”

The region is not an exception. In little over a year, hundreds of regions across Poland — covering about a third of the country, and more than 10 million citizens — have transformed themselves, overnight, into so-called “LGBT-free zones.”

Duzniak, left, and Głowacka hope to marry in Poland, but the country currently prohibits any kind of formal same-sex unions.

These areas, where opposition to LGBT “ideology” is symbolically written into law at state and local levels, have put Poland on a collision course with the European Union and forced sister cities, allies and watchdogs across the continent to recoil in condemnation. Local laws have been contested, and some communities that introduced such legislation have seen their EU funding blocked.

But the impact is felt most painfully — and daily — by the gay, lesbian and transgender Poles who live in towns that would prefer they simply weren’t there.

“I’m more stressed. For the first time in my life I’m very, very scared,” Duzniak says, reflecting on the resolution as she walks CNN around her hometown with her girlfriend Ola Głowacka.

Kozy — which translates as “Goats” — claims to be Poland’s most populous village. It is a slumbering place with a neat, well-maintained park, several churches and an 18th century palace that once welcomed local nobility and now serves as a cultural center and library.

But Duzniak tries not to talk about her partner when she’s in her hometown. “People would talk behind our back,” she says. “It’s strange for them. It’s something terrible. It’s unnormal, unnatural. They say that, sometimes.” Things are easier in Bielsko-Biala, where Głowacka lives, and where anti-LGBT intolerance has not been adopted in law.

Instead, the affection between the two is noticeable only in their glances, half-smiles and the engagement that they keep well-hidden when walking through Kozy. While they briefly hug when they meet each other, they would never — ever — hold hands.

“Of course not!” Duzniak says with a dismissive laugh, as if the concept were so outlandish as to not warrant a thought. “It’s not possible here,” adds Głowacka.

Poland is a country still steeped in Catholic custom and fiercely, reflexively defensive of its national tradition. Around nine in 10 Poles identify as Roman Catholics, and about 40% attend Sunday mass weekly.

A family arrives to Sunday mass at a Catholic church in Istebna. Poland is staunchly Catholic, and nearly half of Poles attend church weekly.

Parts of its particularly conservative, rural regions to the southeast have never embraced LGBT people; but now, homophobic rhetoric is uttered by the state and preached in churches, and hostility on the streets is boiling over.

During a reelection campaign partially dominated by the issue earlier this year, incumbent President Andrzej Duda — a staunch ally of US President Donald Trump — warned of an LGBT “ideology” more dangerous to Poland than communism. The governing party’s powerful leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has claimed LGBT people “threaten the Polish state.” Its new education minister said last year that “these people are not equal to normal people.” And last year, Krakow’s archbishop bemoaned that the country was under siege from a “rainbow plague.”

“The church tells (worshippers) we are dangerous,” says Głowacka. The couple say that a few years ago, “people would just ignore us.” But not anymore; the surge of anti-LGBT rhetoric from governing officials has been met by a number of high-profile acts of violence at LGBT events, pro-government media frequently parrots the populist government, and Poland has now become the worst EU country for LGBT people in Europe according to continental watchdog ILGA-Europe.

When a massive EU study earlier this year found that LGBT+ people on the continent generally feel safer than they did five years ago, Poland was the glaring exception; two-thirds of gay, lesbian and transgender Poles said intolerance and acts of violence against them had increased, while four in five said they avoid certain places for fear of being assaulted — the highest rate in Europe.

And last year, a pro-government magazine was met with an angry backlash after handing out “LGBT-free” stickers to readers — allowing them to mimic their lawmakers by proclaiming that their homes, vehicles or businesses welcome only heterosexual people.

“My mum all the time asks me, are you OK? Are you with Ola?” Duzniak says. “All the time, she rings or texts,” worried about her daughter’s safety.

“I love this country. I was born here,” Duzniak says as she wears her engagement ring around Kozy. “It’s very important to me that if we have a wedding, if we get married and she is my wife, that it is respected by the law of this country.”

The couple have avoided the worst, for now. But neither Duzniak or Głowacka, who wear engagement rings despite the fact that same-sex marriage and civil partnerships are illegal in Poland, can avoid the daily stress of being who they are.

“It’s like I’m just less human than the other people,” says Głowacka. “They can hold hands, they have children. Just because they’re like they are, they are better. But why?”

“A lot of people know me,” adds Duzniak, referring to her neighbors in the village of 12,000 people. “I’ll never tell them (that I’m gay),” she says. “But I know that they know.”

‘John Paul II wouldn’t approve’

Homophobia exists not just on many of Poland’s streets, but in the closed-door council meetings where the freedom of LGBT people is debated; and where a visceral, deep-rooted and alarmingly casual sentiment is laid bare.

In Swidnik, a small town near the Ukrainian border, councilors painted gays and lesbians as “radical people striving for a cultural revolution,” accusing them of wishing to “attack freedom of speech (and) the innocence of children.” In Nowa Sarzyna, another eastern town, homosexuality was labelled “contrary to the laws of nature” and a violation of “human dignity.” And in the Lublin province, a sprawling area of eastern Poland home to more than 2 million citizens, LGBT rights campaigners were condemned by local lawmakers for seeking “the annihilation of values shaped by the Catholic church.”

It is from these debates, and amid a relentless eruption of anti-LGBT rhetoric from the country’s populist government and religious leaders, that the local laws emerge.

The country’s pursuit of intolerant, anti-LGBT legislation decorated as a defense of traditional values has also spurred comparisons with Russia, a typically unwelcome connection to draw in Poland; Moscow’s 2013 law banning LGBT “propaganda” relied on many of the same arguments, and fostered a similar global outcry.

But unlike Russia, where the international community has little sway, Poland has been thrust into a battle with Brussels over the legislation. At least six towns have lost EU funding over their adoption of “LGBT-free” bills. In the face of such global condemnation, the ruling Law and Justice Party has furiously rejected the “LGBT-free” characterization; when US presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned the regions last month, one Polish lawmaker retorted angrily that it was an LGBT activist who had used the label, and that he would stand trial for doing so.

The Polish government did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment for this story.

“Nationalism and Catholicism are very connected in Poland,” explains Tomek Zuber, a young gay man living in Czechowice-Dziedzice — a larger town just a few miles from Kozy that also lies within the wider “LGBT-free zone” of Bielsko.

Tomek Zuber sits in the center of Czechowice-Dziedzice. In the past year, he has come out, attended his first Pride parade, and suffered his first experience with homophobia.

At a square in the town center, a statue of Pope John Paul II looks upon the church Zuber used to attend as a schoolboy. The late Pope, an icon who evokes almost sacred adoration among many older Poles, wears a shy smile on his face, his arms outstretched as if he were about to embrace passersby in a hug. The pontiff was born just a few towns to the east, and is revered for giving Poles hope during the era of martial law — but his staunch opposition to homosexuality widened the chasm between many LGBT people and the church.

“His words are used for not giving LGBT people rights,” Zuber says. “‘John Paul II wouldn’t approve,’” he adds, imitating the admonitions of conservative Poles.

Those lessons are learned from an early age. At school in nearby Katowice, Zuber said his principal issued a warning to all students before their final-year prom: “No drinking, no smoking (and) no same-sex dancing.” He and his classmates rallied against the rule and, with the help of some of their parents, got it overturned.

“I had a phase where I was a really Catholic and spiritual person,” Zuber says. “But in the end … the Catholic church doesn’t seem to me like it’s true to most of the teachings they claim to follow.”

A statue of Pope John Paul II greets passersby in Czechowice-Dziedzice.

Zuber’s former church, which he attended as a child and a teenager.

The “LGBT-free zone” he lives in is a regular reminder. “The zones themselves don’t have any legal power, they’re mostly symbolic,” he notes. No signs go up overnight; no businesses become immediately empowered to refuse custom. “(But) it encourages the opposite-minded people to speak out against us, and be more active.”

Just two weeks before meeting with CNN, Zuber said he overheard an elderly lady say she was disgusted by his rainbow tote bag.

“It increases the fear,” he says.

What drives so many regions to adopt a bill that sends fear through many of their residents? “The interest of communities (is) not to protect romantic, emotional relationships, but the relationships that are fruitful,” Nikodem Bernaciak, an attorney whose firm wrote a template for an “LGBT-free” resolution that has since been adopted by dozens of Polish towns, tells CNN in a phone interview. His group, the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, is despised among many Polish LGBT activists for its prominent role in driving the national backlash against LGBT rights.

A child on a scooter rides past the Bielsko council building, where the resolution to create an “LGBT-free zone” was drawn up.

“Informal relationships are not as strong as marriage, so the state chooses the kind of relationship that is more helpful.”

“The family needs to be protected against all kinds of threats,” Bernaciak says, explaining the basis of his group’s resolution. He argues that its wording is “positive” and does not mention LGBT people specifically, which critics say is merely an attempt to evade legal challenges.

Others, like the Bielsko region, choose instead to write their own resolutions that more directly single out those campaigning for equal rights for LGBT people. The Bielsko council refused multiple requests to comment on their reasoning for passing the bill, telling CNN they do not discuss the resolutions they enact.

But the message to LGBT people in Poland has been clear. “The Polish government used to use immigrants and the migration crisis as their scapegoat,” says Mathias Wasik, director of programs at the New York and London-based LGBT+ monitoring organization All Out — one of many human rights groups watching Poland from abroad. “Now, they’ve found the LGBT+ community as the next scapegoat.”

“The rhetoric they’re hearing from the government, from the pro-government media, from the church — all of that shows them, you don’t belong here.”

People gather at the Katowice Pride event on September 5.

‘He told us we were pedophiles’

For a few hours on one gloriously sunny recent Saturday, the scene in Katowice resembles any other European city.

In the bustling and more liberal southern location, rainbow flags flutter underneath a baby-blue sky. Revelers from the region, including Zuber, have gathered for the city’s third annual Pride parade.

The event hardly rivals events in London, Madrid or Berlin. Authorities estimate 200 people are present — and the crowd is dwarfed by 700 police officers, some in riot gear, who tightly surround the festivities.

But the parade provides comfort. “It gives this feeling of living in a normal city, in a normal country, where we don’t have nationalists wanting us to be gone,” Zuber says, after marching past the school in which he came to terms with his sexuality — and which tried to ban him from dancing with another man.

Zuber marches past his former school, where he says his principal tried to ban same-sex dancing during prom.

Dominika Danska came to the event with her mother, young sister and 11-year-old brother. “We want to show him that LGBT people are normal,” she explains.

Hours earlier, she was on a train with a dozen others, travelling to Pride from “LGBT-free zones” around Bielsko-Biala. As the train approached Katowice, many changed into their Pride attire. Their rainbow socks, flags and T-shirts with slogans emerged from plain bags. Pins were attached. One young couple went to the bathroom to put makeup on, a move that would be unthinkable back at home. Few attendees wanted to risk boarding the carriage in rainbow colors.

But even before arriving at the parade’s starting point, the group was reminded of the daily dangers they face. A car pulled over, and the driver shouted “F**k faggots” out of the window.

It’s the first insult of many. “He told us we were pedophiles. He told me not to smile or he’d take my flag,” Danska says. Moments later, a man walks past, shouting and theatrically pulling his children in the opposite direction as if to protect them from the group. An elderly lady weighs in, telling the group to go away.

From left: Dominika Danska rides the train home from the Pride parade with her mother, Agata; brother, Szymon; and sister, Gosia.

“Two people love each other and they call them pedophiles just because they are different,” Danska’s mother says. “This is hard. It’s hard.”

Pride parades have taken on a tangible tension in Poland since violence at Bialystok last year, where an event was overrun by nationalists throwing rocks and bottles.

“I feel bad in Poland,” says David Kufel, an 18-year-old attendee at the event. “The President says I am not human.

“I have one friend who was kicked out of his home because he was gay. I don’t want to live in this country,” he says. “I just don’t want to have to fight all the time, just when I go out of my house.”

People watch from balconies as the Pride parade moves through Katowice.

David Kufel wears his rainbow socks to the Katowice Pride march.

Even in Poland’s larger cities, the antipathy is never far away. At one counter-protest near the parade, anti-LGBT activists set up a makeshift stall to gather signatures for a petition against LGBT events. They brought a big speaker that plays long homophobic monologues denouncing the LGBT community as “deviant” and “dangerous.” Many of those passing by stop to sign the petition. At times, a line forms.

“In Poland, we have a civil war between LGBT and normal, conservative people,” says Grzegorz Frejno, the 23-year-old who co-organized the protest with his wife. “We want to stop Pride parades.”

“We don’t want our kids to see that, to see the naked people on the street,” his wife Anna adds, gesturing towards a small group of clothed revelers doing the macarena nearby. She refers to LGBT activists as coming from “the dark side,” and says their petition has garnered 5,000 signatures in one afternoon, far outnumbering those celebrating at the event.

Anna Frejno and her husband Grzegorz Frejno, right, gather signatures for their petition.

Patryk Grabowiecki signed the petition to ban Pride marches.

Marchers are reflected in a police shield during the Pride parade. An estimated 700 officers packed Katowice during the event.

Several of those who came to support the anti-LGBT gathering told CNN they identify as Polish nationalists. Some wear high black boots and T-shirts adorned with slogans written in Fraktur, the old German typeface favored by Eastern European far-right groups. A few complained about “Antifa” infiltrating Poland’s streets among the protesters.

“I am disturbed. For them, anti-conception and abortion are the same thing. They are talking about murdering people,” says Patryk Grabowiecki, a tall man with a shaven head, wearing suspenders and black boots with white laces — classic identifiers of Eastern European far-right nationalism.

The gaggle of petitioners briefly and bitterly engage with Pride marchers, before police intervene. Danska wearily says that engaging with the opposition is “pointless.”

“Of course I wouldn’t like for someone to try to hurt me, to beat me. But I am prepared for that — I have this pepper spray,” she says, displaying an item she keeps as a last resort. “I don’t want to use it.”

Anti- and pro-LGBT demonstrators confront one another following the Pride march in Katowice. Violence at previous events across Poland have made Pride parades tense encounters in the country.

‘We are the public enemy’

A day later, under a drab grey sky, locals in the southern village of Istebna filter into Sunday mass.

The village, surrounded by mountains and walking distance from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is home to just over 5,000 people. But since its “LGBT-free” status was deemed unconstitutional and annulled by a local court in July, the dozy town has been thrust into the heart of Poland’s battle over gay rights.

The court found that claims the zones target an LGBT “ideology” — and not LGBT people themselves — turn “a blind eye to reality.” The designation “harms LGBT people and strengthens their sense of threat,” it said.

Campaigners were overjoyed by the ruling. But activists in Istebna are already working to regain the “LGBT-free” label, and Sunday morning is an ideal time to rally support.

A family of parishioners make their way to Sunday mass in Istebna.

Jan Legierski stands outside the church, where he collects petitions to turn Istebna back into an “LGBT-free zone.”

“People here are against the (LGBT) ideology,” says Jan Legierski. He spends hours standing in the drizzle outside the church collecting signatures, lobbying for the court’s decision to be reversed.

“I don’t want this to affect my grandchildren,” he says, insisting that “children and future generations are not indoctrinated, and that they are not depraved.”

The church hosted four back-to-back packed masses that morning. Nearly everyone attending — older people, youngsters, children — signed the documents. Legierski started the small-scale movement with around a dozen friends, inspired by the resolutions being passed across the country.

Parishioners crowd around a table outside the church to sign Legierski’s petition.

The battle ongoing in Istebna, and countless towns like it, is rapidly pushing Poland into a geopolitical quagmire.

“There is no place for LGBTI-free zones in the EU or anywhere else,” Helena Dalli, the European Commissioner for Equality, tells CNN. Dalli has rejected town-twinning applications and pulled EU funding for a number of regions that pursued the designation, while Poland has been publicly condemned by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“The claimed ‘LGBTI ideology’ that these charters supposedly address is only a veil to mask the underlying discrimination,” Dalli says. “Poland joined the European Union on a voluntary basis and must now respect the EU treaties and fundamental rights.”

“I’m in favor of normal families,” says Jerzy, a 71-year-old worshipper who signed the petition, arguing that the “LGBT-free” designation makes him feel safer. He declined to give his last name.

But inside the Istebna clergy house, deputy priest Grzegorz Strządała defends his town’s sentiment. “There are certain communities, societies, groups on this planet who try to impose a different way of thinking, which is in conflict with natural law,” he says, telling CNN he is comfortable with his parishioners supporting the petition outside. He says the organizers can count on his support.

“Jesus loved everybody, and this has not changed,” he adds. “However, sometimes people use certain words for certain supposedly Christian concepts, but really they’re talking about something completely different.

“The words love, acceptance, dignity, freedom — these words in the context of scripture have a particular meaning. In dialogue with LGBT people, we used the same words, but we mean something totally different.”

Deputy priest Grzegorz Strządała in the clergy house in Istebna.

Strządała’s comments reveal the glaring chasm between LGBT Poles and many of their staunchly Catholic compatriots — an abyss so wide, it can feel as if they’re speaking different languages.

Activists, including Bartosz Staszewski — arguably Poland’s most prominent LGBT rights campaigner — are determined to bridge that gap. Staszewski’s long-running attempt to highlight “LGBT-free zones” by plastering warning signs around every applicable region has drawn national attention, and made him the target of anti-LGBT organizations. Staszewski, along with other LGBT activists in Poland, is facing legal action over his demonstrations.

“This is a witch hunt, where we are the victims,” Staszewski tells CNN. “We are second-category citizens. It’s never happened before — we were simply not the subject. And now we are the subject, we are the public enemy.

“They all are against us.”

Istebna’s rolling hills and houses lie draped in fog.

Homophobic legislation and resolutions have forced many Poles to make a choice: leave town or stay quiet.

But the wave of resolutions has inspired many more to join Staszewski and find their voices. Zuber, Duzniak and Głowacka count themselves among those newfound activists, ordinary Poles for whom merely existing is an act of defiance.

“To be honest, I can move to a bigger town,” Głowacka says. “But there are many people who are younger, and cannot just move out from their families, and parents, and school.

“I think we have a job to do here.”

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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To compete with China and Russia, America needs a new era of multilateralism

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With Election Day looming, American progressives yearn for an about-face from President Trump’s foreign policy — perhaps nowhere more so than when it comes to US multilateralism.

Multilateralism — working with other countries both through large international institutions and looser coalitions toward common goals — has been a pillar of American foreign policy since World War II.

From the creation of the United Nations and NATO to President George W. Bush’s Iraq War “coalition of the willing” and President Barack Obama’s negotiations alongside Russia and China on the Iran nuclear deal, America has rarely operated alone.

But Donald Trump changed all that.

The Trump administration’s approach truly has been America First equals America Alone. Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He’s in the process of exiting the World Health Organization (WHO). He’s repeatedly questioned the value of NATO and mused about withdrawing from it.

Yet, amid calls to reprioritize “international cooperation, not competition,” progressive aspirations cannot paper over the real geopolitical frictions that will persist post-Trump. Just as conservative efforts to desert multilateral institutions are self-defeating, so too is the belief that international cooperation will blossom after November 3.

American progressives should seek to reengage in multilateral institutions, from the WHO to the UN. But they cannot forget that those institutions remain competitive zones where democracies must defend their values against authoritarian rivals.

Multilateral cooperation has never seemed more urgent — or more lacking

Covid-19 is only the latest instance in which the Trump administration is truculently set against the world, not just withdrawing from the WHO but also refusing to join the Covax initiative, a historic, global multilateral effort to ensure that all countries, rich and poor, will have access to a novel coronavirus vaccine if and when one or more become available.

Amid the pandemic-induced economic crisis, congressional Republicans seek to dismantle the World Trade Organization (WTO), all while a trade war batters American consumers and farmers. The last of the major US-Russia nuclear arms control agreements teeters on the verge of collapse, and both North Korea and Iran continue to improve and expand their nuclear and missile programs.

Given this bevy of undoubtedly self-injurious policies, it is understandable that some progressives are calling on a potential Biden administration to undertake a “fundamental re-envisioning of the United States’ role in the world,” emphasizing international cooperation.

But a desire for the United States to rejoin international institutions and agreements should not be synonymous with a belief that global cooperation will define a post-Trump world.

That belief naively and recklessly ignores a stark reality that has become all too apparent in recent years: Multilateral institutions have become one of the primary battlegrounds where the unfolding international clash of systems between democratic and authoritarian regimes is being waged.

Authoritarian countries like China and Russia know this fact well and are skilled at manipulating and exploiting international institutions to serve their own ends. The United States used to understand this fact, too, once upon a time, but it seems to have forgotten it lately.

It’s time for America to remember. It’s time for America to start using these institutions to punch back.

Hope that shared threats will outweigh geopolitical divides is not new

An American belief that international organizations could “help depoliticize controversial issues by treating these as neutral, technical challenges” underlaid the building of global institutions following World War II.

More recently, the early Obama administration viewed the “challenges of a new century” — countering violent extremism, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, economic growth, and pandemic disease — as common ground around which international stakeholders would rally.

In both instances, however, cooperative visions foundered on the shoals of geopolitical differences.

Neither in 1949 nor in 2009 could shared “problems without passports” outweigh the equally immediate threat posed by liberal, democratic norms to authoritarian regimes. As the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright has written, a resurgence in geopolitical rivalry was “rooted in a clash of social models — a free world and a neo-authoritarian world — that directly affects how people live.”

That clash stemmed not only from traditional military frictions, but even more basically from the threat that open, democratic societies pose to the stability of authoritarian regimes.

Increasingly, those authoritarian regimes are striking back. Senator Elizabeth Warren has described a “belligerent and resurgent” Russia and a China that has now “weaponized its economy,” both of which seek to undermine open, democratic societies. Similarly, Sen. Bernie Sanders has outlined a future contested between “a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” and “a movement toward strengthening democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.”

Consequently, while dangers like Covid-19 threaten everyone, differences between democratic and authoritarian regimes can yield contrasting responses. Take, for instance, something as basic as using technology like smartphones and apps to aid in contact tracing in the fight against Covid-19. As Vox’s Dylan Scott explains:

In the United States and across the world, smartphone applications are seen as a promising option to automate some of the work that health workers have traditionally been asked to do. Namely, they could silently track which people we’ve been in contact with, and if one of those people tests positive for Covid-19, our phone would send us a notification letting us know about our potential exposure.

But the data collection needed to do this quickly becomes entangled in concerns surrounding “digital authoritarianism,” where illiberal regimes employ such tools to “surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations” alike. The Chinese Communist Party’s use of this public health crisis to expand the scope of its surveillance and control shows that even when the world can agree on a common challenge, solutions may diverge based on a regime’s values.

Thus, even amid areas of international cooperation, a degree of vigilance is required to defend democratic interests. By no means is cooperation entirely foreclosed — which is why the Trump administration’s rejection of the Covax initiative is misguided. Nonetheless, democracies should not mistakenly believe that unalloyed cooperation in the face of every shared challenge advances their interests.

How to stand and compete from within …

While the United States cannot be starry-eyed about multilateral engagement, it also can’t afford to be cavalier as to its value — as Republican leaders increasingly are.

Not only does the United States confront a true peer competitor in China, making allies more necessary than ever, but the key domains of that competition — from trade and investment flows to advanced technologies and communications infrastructure — are already deeply enmeshed in multilateral institutions.

Authoritarian leaders understand this emerging dynamic.

Russia, long skilled in multilateral diplomacy, has amplified its efforts to shape international institutions, as President Vladimir Putin declares “the liberal idea” has “outlived its purpose.” Likewise, China, in seeking “reform of the global governance system,” looks to realign the world to better support the CCP’s illiberal rule at home — including its persistent surveillance of its citizens and the internment and forced “reeducation” of Uighur minorities.

Thus, rather than use cooperative mechanisms like Interpol for the intended purpose of catching criminals, Russia and China have focused on abusing the system to pursue political dissidents. Authoritarian leaders do not hesitate to twist international institutions to defend illiberal behavior beyond their own borders, such as the Russian head of the UN Counterterrorism Office striving to legitimate Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

As Beijing and Moscow lead the charge to redefine global norms, democracies must meet that challenge. From privacy rules for artificial intelligence to norms for combating transnational corruption, international standards set abroad will not remain overseas.

As the 2020 Hong Kong National Security law demonstrates, if authoritarian actions at the national level can reach into democracies around the world, so will global rules set by illiberal states. Consequently, the United States and like-minded partners must compete in international institutions to defend the values that underpin open societies.

That competitive posture does not necessitate withdrawal from international organizations, as some conservatives have preached. As Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute recently argued, “it is a ridiculous solipsism…to believe that if we stop participating in international cooperation and institutions that that cooperation stops happening.”

Instead of shifting the locus of competition to more advantageous ground, by withdrawing from these institutions, the United States merely cedes influence in the very arenas where the essential debates are occurring. Rather than isolating authoritarians to increase democratic states’ leverage, the United States is cutting itself off from the partners it needs.

So long as more universal forums, such as the UN International Telecommunications Agency, are where relevant standards are set, then active participation is called for. Abandonment only opens space for authoritarian powers to press their agendas.

This is perhaps nowhere clearer than the juxtaposition of the sidelining of Taiwan in the WHO against the March 2020 election for head of the obscure, but important, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Despite Taiwan’s robust performance in managing Covid-19 — with only seven deaths thus far — Beijing has continued to block Taipei’s participation in WHO meetings, hampering sharing from that success. The Trump administration’s response? Only to throw up its hands and complain about China’s influence as it heads for the WHO’s door.

Conversely, in the March election to lead WIPO, the UN organization charged with protecting intellectual property, the United States chose to show up and take a stand. Recognizing the impact of Chinese-based intellectual property theft and cyberespionage, the Trump administration, in a rare moment of diplomatic engagement, rallied a near 2-1 vote in favor of the US-supported candidate against the Chinese alternative.

The message is clear: The United States leaning into a coordinated diplomatic push can make all the difference.

… and from without

Simultaneously, continuing to participate in universal institutions like the UN or WTO does not preclude pursuing new multilateral innovations to better defend democratic societies.

A decade ago, proposals for a “concert of democracies” or a “global NATO” stalled. Mistrust in the wake of George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq coupled with a fear that being seen to push the expansion of Western-style democracy would alienate rising powers from India to Brazil, scuttling such efforts. Why needlessly stir the pot in a world where cooperation on shared transnational threats seemed critical and the march of liberal democracy appeared inevitable?

However, the current international landscape differs vastly from then. New institutions to enhance democratic societies’ defensive coordination may have seemed unnecessary a decade ago but should be seen in a different light today, when authoritarian regimes pose a real challenge to the liberal model.

Thus, today’s version — what Edward Fishman of the Atlantic Council and Siddharth Mohandas of the Center for a New American Security have called “councils of democracies” — would aim to protect democracy at home, rather than justify its forcible expansion abroad. In doing so, the United States and its democratic partners should neither pull up the drawbridge from universal bodies that include authoritarian actors nor remain beholden to those institutions, as they constrain democracies’ ability to better cooperate in their own defense.

Fortunately, US Cold War strategy offers lessons on managing that balance. Importing a Cold War strategy lock, stock, and barrel for current challenges would undoubtedly be mistaken. Nevertheless, that history reveals democracies are not forced to choose between more universal organizations like the UN and more values-based ones like NATO. Rather, working at times through narrower groups grounded in a shared belief in liberalism and democracy can enhance the position of open societies in those larger bodies.

For instance, instead of being caught between abandoning the WTO — a folly few other states would join in — and continuing to struggle along with the system’s real limitations and abuses, the United States could work outside the system to build leverage within it.

Here, as Jake Sullivan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Kurt Campbell of the Asia Group have outlined, a forum convening democratic states to build shared norms and standards on 21st-century economic issues — digital tax, data privacy rules, etc. — could be “layered over the WTO system.”

Such a combination would not only create a space to build the norms that democratic societies need for managing 21st-century governance challenges, but also maximize their leverage within the WTO to raise standards across a global economy.

At the same time, democracies should work in values-based coalitions to promote democratic security in increasingly strategic areas of international finance, advanced technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, and battling transnational corruption. To protect democratic ideals, there will be times when it is necessary to exclude those who would seek to undermine them.

Today’s threats and circumstances may not require a global expansion of a formal alliance like NATO. Nonetheless, deepening ties between democratic societies will be essential on issues from sharing best practices on countering disinformation to maintaining information systems that appreciate values of transparency, accountability, and respect for individual privacy.

Here, the United Kingdom is an example of an early mover on what’s possible. Against rising concerns over cybersecurity and espionage from Chinese 5G leader Huawei, London has begun exploring a potential democracies-only grouping to better secure 5G communications technology, alongside other national security supply chains.

5G is only one illustration of a range of issues at the intersection of advanced technologies and the evolving digital economy where democracies must set the international rules if they are to maintain values such as privacy and free speech for their own citizens.

Thus, steps such as closer transatlantic coordination on investment security — reviewing foreign purchasers and investors in US or European companies — and export controls for new technologies emerge as essential in maintaining a lead in tomorrow’s technologies, in order to shape their use around liberal principles.

Fundamentally, as democracies increasingly compete with an economically powerful China and revanchist Russia, their best defense rests in recognizing that not only are democracies more competitive together, but that a gap in the armor in one is likely a gap for all.

A contest that cannot be wished away

In only four years, President Trump has left the United States embattled on nearly every front. An urge to trumpet international cooperation as a departure from his administration’s ceaseless antagonism is understandable.

However, in considering a world post-Trump, progressives must separate his disastrous policies from the structural reality of a growing clash between open and authoritarian societies — a contest that cannot be wished away.

Democracies must reengage multilaterally, but without losing sight that shared challenges do not necessarily beget shared solutions. Good-faith efforts at cooperation must be tempered by vigilance against authoritarian leaders who will not hesitate to use multilateral institutions to roll back and undermine liberal values in order to “make the world safe” for authoritarianism.

Given that reality, assertive measures are necessary to close ranks with other like-minded partners to defend democratic values in a more interconnected, but more contested, world. A post-Trump foreign policy may open the door for the pursuit of progressive goals; but they will have to be fought for abroad as much as at home.

Will Moreland is a foreign policy analyst focusing on US alliances and multilateralism. Previously, he served as an associate fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy. Find him on Twitter at @MorelandBW.


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