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UKRAINE

Boring to ‘historic’: the awakening of Germany’s Olaf Scholz

Often described as predictable and "robotic", Chancellor Olaf Scholz has become emboldened since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, smashing policy taboos to steer Germany into "a new era" that could reshape its role on the world stage.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) gives a special address to parliament on the Ukraine crisis. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Just a few weeks ago, German media were openly asking “where is Scholz?”, slamming the Social Democrat’s perceived lack of leadership on pressing issues like the coronavirus pandemic and worsening Ukraine crisis.

But Moscow’s attack on Ukraine last week has jolted the chancellor into action, culminating in what commentators have called a “historic” speech on Sunday.

Scholz, who has only been in office three months, spoke with uncharacteristic clarity when he unveiled a slew of defence and foreign policy shifts that promise to upend Germany’s decades-long reluctance to raising its military profile.

“The Ukraine crisis has changed the chancellor. And now he’s changing our country,” the top-selling Bild daily wrote.

Addressing an emergency parliamentary session, Scholz told the nation that “we are now in a new era”.

In a country haunted by post-war guilt, Scholz assured Germans that they were “on the right side of history” as Ukraine’s allies.

Among the headline-grabbing announcements was a pledge to earmark 100 billion euros ($113 billion) this year alone to modernise the chronically underfunded the army, called the Bundeswehr.

Scholz also said that Europe’s biggest economy would commit to spending more than two percent of Germany’s gross domestic product on defence annually, surpassing even NATO’s target.

His coalition government had earlier already reversed a ban on sending weapons to Ukraine, and halted the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia.

Olaf Scholz

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) gives an urgent address in parliament on Ukraine. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

The move came as a relief to the United States and European partners, who had begun to question Berlin’s resolve in standing up to Moscow.

Some observers have speculated that it was perhaps no coincidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin timed his invasion after the departure of veteran chancellor Angela Merkel.

He had built a working relationship with her based on mutual respect and a shared history of living in ex-communist East Germany.

But if he sensed weakness in Berlin while the new government found its footing, his radical actions appear to have galvanised not just Scholz, but the nation.

More than 100,000 people took to the streets in Berlin at the weekend to protest against Russia’s invasion.

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES: Over 100,000 march for Ukraine in German capital

Surprises

Der Spiegel weekly, which once described Scholz as “the embodiment of boredom in politics”, praised the chancellor for displaying “the leadership that had been missing in recent weeks”.

“Scholz, who is often rhetorically vague, has left no doubt about his determination,” Spiegel wrote.

But Scholz has surprised observers before.

As Merkel’s finance minister, he suspended Germany’s cherished debt brake to unleash a “bazooka” in pandemic aid, and crossed a previous red line by backing a European Union recovery package partially funded by joint borrowing.

He also came from behind to win last year’s general election, staying true to his boring-but-reliable persona while avoiding the gaffes that brought down rivals from the Green party and from Merkel’s conservative camp.

He now heads Germany’s first-ever three-way coalition, consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the pro-business FDP.

Scholz’s policy reversals mark a turning point for his centre-left SPD, which has historically championed close ties with Russia.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the Ukraine crisis could impact Germany

‘Naive’

Russia’s war-mongering is a “rude awakening” that has forced the SPD “to throw decades-old convictions overboard”, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine daily wrote.

Scholz has also distanced himself from former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose close friendship with Putin and Russian business dealings have become an embarrassment to the party.

At the same time, Scholz’s new path marks a sharp break with the commerce-driven pragmatism of the Merkel years in dealing with Russia.

Merkel’s emphasis on trade and dialogue with an increasingly belligerent Moscow during her four terms in office will now be seen in a different light, political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP. 

“We will no longer praise her negotiating skills, but ask whether she and her government were too naive about Putin,” she said.

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

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UKRAINE

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
 
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
 
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
 
 
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant
“Sentimentai”.

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.

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