Berlin, Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw

October 12 - 23, 2019

Jessica Dugandzic


The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, during the Festival of Lights

The Los Angeles World Affairs Council and Town Hall recently returned from a tour through Eastern Europe. The region is no stranger to conflicts, power struggles and territorial disputes, and more recently, a growing uneasiness about its chosen direction of governance – In Germany, a strong country driving the direction of the EU, in Hungary a leader challenging academic freedoms and resisting the invectives of the governing body in Brussels, and in Poland, a place known for centuries of being occupied by one group or another, fervently clinging to their sense of national identity and sovereignty while economic challenges, dynamic populations and a looming Russian presence makes doing so a complex, and often criticized, endeavor.

We started out in Berlin, where the discussions naturally touched on the history of the Third Reich, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and what the future holds for the country which is both Europe’s largest economy, and also the unnamed but widely recognized core of the EU. Our meetings included a visit to the US Embassy in Berlin, where the strength of US-German relations were highlighted, while noting struggles with Germany’s unwillingness to build up their military defenses and equipment, noting that their history has made many nations concerned about having a well-armed Germany again. That history shapes much of their modern policy, and with the presence of monuments and memorials throughout the city, it’s not something citizens or legislators could forget. The speakers at the US Embassy noted that German service members don’t get the same support that those serving in the US get, and when asked to send ships to Hormuz or the South China Sea, Germany didn’t have them. While both Obama and Trump pushed Germany to reach the 2% GDP contribution to NATO, it’s worth noting several x-factors specific to Germany in terms of their support that couldn’t be discounted, including 24/7 access to bases in the area, “Reforger” exercises to show Russia our capabilities, and after 9/11, they immediately sent German forces to our US bases to protect them, knowing we were going to war, and remained for 3 years, and yet, never asked for a penny.

At the US Embassy in Berlin

With the events looming between Turkey and Syria, we met with Sinem Adar, an expert on the Turkish diaspora in Germany, who discussed the dynamics of the immigrant populations she studies. She described the way that politicians have activated the Turkish diaspora through outreach at universities, through television, and by promoting a sentiment of protecting Muslim rights and support of a Muslim diaspora abroad. Turks are able to vote in the Turkish elections and participation went from about 18% in 2012 to 50% in 2018. The support by 3rd and 4th Generation Turks of the Erdogan government, and the separate neighborhoods they live in, make many Germans question whether they are integrated. Additionally, the perceived support for the recent invasion by Turkey into Syria, where the German government and others were against it, also splinters the sense of them aligning with German interests. However, Dr. Adar stated that in her opinion, the invasion in Syria by Turkey would have happened regardless of the actions of President Trump. She foresees Russia negotiating between Syria and Turkey, if they hadn’t already reached an agreement before the conflict began.

Meeting with Dr. Matthias Heider, CDU, Member of the Bundestag

We also met with Dr. Matthias Heider of the reigning Christian Democratic Union party, and Georg Pazderski from the opposition party, the Alternative for Deutschland, which was founded in 2015. Both provided insight on the domestic challenges and priorities of Germany and their specific constituencies. Dr. Heider described the challenges in creating laws to fairly and equitably handle the 2 million migrants that have entered Germany since 2015. He noted that it had created pressure on their infrastructure and changes in politics and the economy, and that many immigrants still feel strong ties to their countries and cultures, which often run counter to the liberal and more democratic German system. Paderski’s party has taken a strong anti-immigrant stance noting the difficulties created for Germans. He believes that social services, which are very generous in Germany and likely create pull factors for migration, should be prioritized for Germans and not immigrants. Heider, who heads a committee on energy, described Germany’s goal to get away from nuclear energy and brown coal, and increase the energy storage capacity to be able to accommodate the needs of Germans. However, this creates more reliance on Russian energy. Pazderski noted that 300-400 thousand Germans can’t pay their power bills and moving away from nuclear and coal would likely exacerbate this problem as energy costs increase about 5.5% per year. Heider noted “People from the right movement declare France issues or German issues should be top priority, but that’s not the way. We need a European approach.” But Pazderski thinks that under Merkel’s rule, the ruling party moved further and further left, no longer representing conservatives or moderates, and prioritizing immigrants over poorer Germans. Sentiment towards the AfD in media has been notably critical, but both the AfD and the Greens are the political parties in Germany seeing the most growth.


Continuing on to Budapest, we arrived just following the Mayoral election, where the party of Victor Orban had lost 8 big cities, including Budapest. At the Embassy in Budapest, we met with Ambassador Cornstein, who described his priorities upon arriving in Hungary – Retain the Central European University here, sign a Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and Hungary, resolve issues between Ukraine and Hungary, and encourage Energy Diversification in Hungary away from Russia. Both Cornstein, and those we met at the Central European University, described a strong distrust and dislike by Prime Minister Orban of the Soros funded institution in Budapest, where Orban believes that academics are focused on anti-government agendas, and that in particular, Soros is seeking to undermine his authority. Soros invested $500M into the university 30 years ago, which provides graduate degrees for students from nearly 100 different countries, creating a dynamic educational resource in the city, and with their ouster, an indication that academic freedom and research are being quelled in the country. As it became more clear that Orban would be unwilling to see Soros and CEU in a less antagonistic light, despite the university and the US doing what they could to adhere to the country’s demands for the university, Cornstein pivoted towards his focus on the US-Hungarian defense agreement, which he says “is good for Hungary. Very good for the US given Hungary’s location.” No other details could be given. On the subject of anti-Semitism in Hungary, he noted that it exists like in many other places around the world, but stated that there is no better friend to Israel, after the US, than Hungary, and that at the UN, Hungary always backs Israel.

Meeting with Ferenc Kumin, Deputy State Secretary for the Development of European and American Relations

During our meeting with Ferenc Kumin at the Foreign Ministry, he described that over the last decade, there was a cooling period between US and Hungarian relations, noting an avoidance of high level meetings under Obama. A year ago, the Hungarian Foreign Minister finally visited DC, and then Secretary Pompeo visited Budapest this past February. Because of the Defense Cooperation Agreement signed recently, US troops have a high level of access to move around Hungary, and they had to give up Constitutional terms, as their Parliament is not voting on US Movements. He noted that having such cooperation with a superpower like the US is incredibly important. They have started working to bring back Hungarians who have overstayed their Visas or entered the US illegally, in order to maintain the country’s Visa waiver status, and have also started working at the state level with Indiana, West Virginia and Texas for foreign investment and energy. He noted that German premium brands don’t want you to know that those products are manufactured in Hungary, where they produce engines for Bentleys and Lamborghinis, and produce smaller Audis and Mercedes. On the recent election, he described how the extreme right and the extreme left came together to counter Orban, and he wonders how things will work for them at their town halls. With the leader of the party being from the far left, and the Deputy Mayor being from the Jobbick party (far right), it’s still to be seen how things will work. “They are like water and fire.” Because of their history under the Soviet Union, much of their energy infrastructure is still reliant on Russia, and the recently purchased new nuclear reactors from Russia to replace their aging ones, which provide about 50% of the energy to the country. The reactors are what they know, and it makes keeping the power on easier, but it puts them at a negotiating disadvantage as Russia can easily use their control of the grid as an “energy weapon” to shut down the country if they choose. Additionally, when Hungary needed funds to develop the reactors, a generous loan was offered by Russia, with accountability of the funds being “extremely lax” meaning pay-offs and bribes were likely a part of the decision. They are seeking to use more Liquid Natural Gas, but it remains unviable without access to ports.

Fisherman's Bastion, St. Matthias Church, Budapest

Speaking with the Pro-Rector and others at the Central European University, it was noted that “something changed in the last 2 – 3 years. Things have been darker with this new government.” When the university was initially set to be removed from Hungary under the Lex Agreement, 80 thousand Hungarians marched in the streets in protest. In fact, the recently elected Mayor of Budapest also supports the university and hopes to keep them in Budapest. The plan is to retain the facilities, which house the Open Society Archives and tech labs which don’t fall under the Lex Agreement, in the hopes that they may be able to return in the future. For now, they are in a two year draw down period while they move students and faculty to Vienna, who take a two hour train ride to participate in courses between the two campuses. “It will break up families, cause a brain drain from Hungary. We can’t understand why the Hungarian government would do this.”

Memorial for the Victims of German Occupation, Budapest

During our city tour, we visited a recently built monument “The Memorial for the Victims of German Occupation” which depicts an eagle of the Third Reich attacking the angel Gabriel, a symbol of Hungary. When the monument was proposed, shortly before the election, it was rejected by the Hungarians, and the government paused the project. However, after the election and victory of the Orban party, the monument was built, and created an outpouring of resentment as it seemed that the government was trying to rewrite history and eliminate their involvement in World War II, where only 60 Nazis arrived, but over 400K Hungarian Jews were shipped off in 57 days, most of whom ended up at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. The question was how such a massive and horrific endeavor could have been possible without Hungarian cooperation to assist them. So today’s Hungarian citizens erected a counter monument, with photos, stories and belongings of Hungarian Jews surrounding the monument, in order to see their history, and their country’s role in it, depicted honestly and critically.


This idea of historical revision was also present in a different way in Poland, where we met with Jonathan Ornstein at the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow, which was established by Prince Charles. His Centre has seen a dramatic increase in Polish citizens learning of their Jewish Heritage and approaching the Centre for guidance on how to reconnect with their culture. Many of them learned about their Jewish lineage from aging grandparents, items in a hidden attic or closet, or from doing a Google search after realizing a family story didn’t quite explain their history. He described a thriving Jewish population in Krakow, where the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter is being revitalized, synagogues are well attended but not guarded, and non-Jewish Poles are volunteering to serve Shabbat dinner at the Center. “The Polish government is seen as far right, but economically they are populist. The government is not anti-Semitic. However, on issues related to LGBT, women’s issues, reproductive rights, they are off the charts.” On climate change/pollution – “Poland, with their coal, is Beijing level. Many of the most polluting cities are in Poland.” On September 19th, Krakow banned the use of wood and coal in the hopes of improving air quality. On immigration – “In Poland, if you’re unemployed or homeless, you don’t really get a lot, so refugees and migrants don’t really come here.” From the Polish perspective, they “look at Germany and France and all their crime and issues. Why would we invite that to our country?”

LAWACTH Members Betty and Jane with Jessica,
learning how to make Pierogis in Krakow

Krakow is home to Brainly, a social learning app, that now has 150 million users worldwide. Initially started to provide online tutoring services to Polish students, the app expanded and gamified learning interactions between students, teachers, and experts in markets all over the world. The ratio of engineers in Poland is the highest per capita in the world, making it a growing tech hub. In a more uniquely Polish way, we attended dinner with Marta Bradshaw, founder of Eataway, an app that helps travelers find local chefs hosting dinners in their homes while they travel. We enjoyed a homemade meal, and learned to make Pierogis, while she described how apps were available for accommodations and transportation, but not food. “They say B & B, but there’s no B” Marta said, and described how she and her husband decided to launch the app, and now have 2000 chefs around the world providing home cooked meals and local flavors to travelers, a nice break from the crowded and impersonal tourist options found most places.


In Warsaw, we met with the Warsaw head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Piotr Buras. He described the way that the Polish government has dominated state-run channels, which are often the only media those in rural areas can access, and are controlling the messaging about domestic issues and the party platform. “We don’t have oligarchs, but we have these very strong state-owned enterprises.” He described how Poland had a very strong economy before, but the distribution to the people was not even, and the liberals neglected this need. Piotr described that the Law and Justice party or PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) had offered very generous social policies to families and increased minimum wage, policies that were about the dignity of the people of Poland while entrenching themselves more and more with Polish institutions. “It’s become less liberal, but also with less rule of law, lacking checks and balances.” Another example is the merging of the Minister of Justice and the Prosecutor General, meaning that the Polish government is stacking the courts. They describe it as a desire to oust Communist hold-overs and to get rid of inefficiency, but it’s made it hard for citizens of the EU to trust the Polish judiciary.

Meeting with Maciej Lang, Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland

During our meeting with Undersecretary of State Maciej Lang, he described a very strong desire for the US and Poland to cooperate to counter Russia. “Russia is weaker than the Soviet Union, but they are strong not from their own strength, but from our weakness. We have our hands tied by our values. They have no values.” He noted that Putin didn’t say the breakup of Communism was bad, but the break-up of the Soviet Union, and that Russia wants to continue to expand the Russian Empire and can’t exist as a nation state. On China, he noted that some see Chinese expansion as just about business, since they don’t use military force, but they often create “loan traps” where generous loans that likely can’t be paid back become bargaining chips for country’s resources. “The problem is we don’t know their intentions. They are not a democracy.” He also described the North Stream 2 pipeline, which would route oil to Europe from Russia, bypassing transit hubs like Belarus and Ukraine, which eliminates any leverage those nations may have previously had for blocking or providing transportation for Russia. So Poland is looking to the US and Qatar for their energy needs and hope to be free of Russian energy reliance very soon.

At the US Embassy in Warsaw, we met with B. Bix Aliu, the Deputy Chief of Missions, and several of his colleagues, to describe US-Polish relations. Poland has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, helped in part by direct foreign investment from the US which has sent $43b here since 1990, from companies including Phillip Morris, Whirlpool, Cisco System and Procter & Gamble. The Embassy has focused lately on helping draft a Restitution Law to see repayment to those who had property taken from them, not only during WWII, but also under Soviet occupation. This has been a difficult proposition as nearly 90% of Warsaw was decimated at the end of WWII, but currently any attempt at restitution leads to a long and expensive court battle. The other recent issue has been maintaining Freedom of Speech, since the government attempted to punish those who alluded to Polish involvement and support in World War II. The Poles were adamant about obliterating the phrase “Polish Concentration Camps” as they felt this meant Polish run camps, and not just those located in Poland. There was concern that those who were trying to educate the public about the Holocaust would feel their speech was suppressed. The law was backed away from, and there have been more active measures to educate the public on Poland’s role in WWII, rather than the suppression of speech. But there are still hints of historical revisionism at play, eliminating the bad actors in their history, and blocking museum directors and educators because they won’t follow the revisionist objective.

Visiting the US Embassy in Warsaw, with DCM Aliu and colleagues

DCM Aliu stated “We have to work with the government the Poles legitimately, democratically elected. With the good relationship between the US and Poland, the Embassy feels like they can give the current government honest feedback.” The belief is that stronger cooperation with the EU is good, and dissension only helps Russia. The Poles helped to fight for our independence, and we helped them to gain theirs. Aliu concluded, “We’re not just allies, we’re family.”

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A special thank you to Savannah, photo journalist, pierogi connoisseur, Turkish outcast, smuggler of hard-boiled eggs, protector of our sleepy babies, and all around great gal.

The World Affairs Council Travel Program offers members the chance to learn about the world's cultures and countries by experiencing them first-hand and hearing from guest lecturers familiar with the history, culture, and current conditions in the countries they visit.

We aim to make our tours both informative and enjoyable, by including special access to local experts and political leaders who give private briefings and unique behind-the-scenes insights. Having Council members travel together means that you will have the chance to meet globally-minded people from your area, who can share this experience with you during and after your travels.


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