Moscow To Beijing To DC, When Strongmen Take Charge

Putin and his Akita guard dog
Putin and his Akita guard dog
Benjamin Witte

PARIS — Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer with black belts in multiple martial arts, has the skill and know-how to kill a man with his bare hands. He also has a big scary dog, as a pair of Japanese journalists were reminded before interviewing Putin on Wednesday.

The journalists "grimaced" and "stood there frozen" when Putin brought in Yume, his four-year-old Akita, who barked at the frightened visitors, CNN reported. With cameras rolling, the powerful president then led the large animal through a series of tricks. "You were right to take caution," Putin later told the Japanese men. "Yume is a no-nonsense dog … She is being a guard dog."

The Russian leader's alpha-male antics contrast sharply with the measured, soft-spoken approach cultivated by his outgoing U.S. counterpart, President Barack Obama. Of course Obama is about to be replaced by Donald Trump — a blustery billionaire with his own unabashed tough-guy vibe minus the karate chops. And then there's the imposing Xi Jinping, who is also accumulating the kind of personal power in China that hasn't been seen since the 1970s.

The three strongmen have little time or interest, it would seem, in normal checks and balances. And they prefer "deal-making" to diplomacy, Alain Frachon of the French daily Le Monde argued in a recent article. That could include agreements among themselves whereby each leader recognizes and respects the other's sphere of influence. Trump said as much during his campaign for the presidency, suggesting, for example, that he won't interfere with Putin's plans for the Crimean Peninsula.

Writing in Russian daily Kommersant, Sergei Strokan and Maksim Yusin say the view in Moscow is that Trump (like Putin) is ultimately as much of a "pragmatist" as a strongman.

Still, as history has shown, the balance-of-power act can be a tricky one to maintain. Take the most horrific spot on the world map at the moment: Aleppo. With Putin's backing, the forces of Syria's own strongman, Bashar al-Assad, have taken back full control of the country's largest city and historic economic capital. Putin didn't bat an eye in the face of widespread reports of widespread civilian casualties in Aleppo.

But, as Georges Malbrunot writes in another French daily, Le Figaro, the Putin-Assad axis has its limits: Now that the so-called "useful Syria" is back under regime control, Putin (who has other hot spots to worry about) may want to push for negotiations and an end to the conflict and possibly to Assad's rule. The Syrian leader instead appears eager to reconquer all the territory he's lost, up to the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Whether a shift in the Russian-Syrian alliance means more or less bloodshed remains to be seen. Strongmen at odds or strongmen in cahoots — which is worse?

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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