Monday, September 29, 2014

Gloomy election discussions

As we are coming to the end of the last serious conference season before the next General Election (those extras, like the winter conference or the spring conference are unnecessary extras and of little importance) everyone outside UKIP seems to be rather gloomy.

The choice, one must admit, is not particularly scintillating but it is my opinion that as things stand Labour has no chances of winning the election. Their own particular conference and the farce of the Leader's Speech, billed for 80 minutes but lasting for only just over 60 because two of the most important subjects were simply not mentioned though they were clearly there in the text handed out to the media, did not exactly inspire any one except those so committed to the party that casting their vote for anyone else would be like walking barefoot on broken glass.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are deemed by the media to have had a bad week-end because of losing Mark Reckless and because of the Brooks Newmark scandal. Until this story broke I had not heard of Brooks Newmark but the biggest scandal of all, in my opinion, is that we have such a thing as a Minister for Civil Society. What on earth is that?

On the other hand, I was pleasantly suprised to hear that the Mirror's sting operation (whose author, a free-lance hack has, as of this moment, not revealed his name) had been directed at several young Conservative MPs and only one was foolish enough to fall for it, the aforementioned former Minister for Civil Society. It is good to know that the others had enough brains or just an instinct for self-preservation to steer clear of the whole fracas. That, of course, leaves us with the unfortunate young women, whose body parts were used to create the fictional twitter character without their permission and the fact that other newspapers, such as the Sun are virtuously explaining that the idea had been offered to them but they turned their noses up. Also, we have the first case to come before the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and it does not involve a Murdoch newspaper. How they must be laughing.

Will any of this really help the Labour Party whose opinion poll results are nowhere near good enough to predict a victory next May? Somehow, I doubt it. There is far too much talk about "New Old Labour", which anyone with any kind of political memory will know to have been unelectable. Ed Miliband is seen as far too left-wing but also incompetent in the simplest political acts like delivering a speech at a party conference. It is particularly unfortunate that his flub should have come so soon after Gordon Brown's highly praised performance in Scotland towards the end of the referendum campaign.

We do, of course, have another "New Old Labour Party" now and that is UKIP who clearly intends to compete for that limited and ever decreasing vote.

Incidentally, the Boss and I discussed Patrick O'Flynn's speech that outlined those preposterous economic policies including the one about raising VAT on "luxury goods". Setting aside the obvious question as to what is defined as "luxury goods" and the obvious comment that a good many people from working class background like to be able to buy them, one cannot help asking why UKIP should be so supportive of VAT, an EU tax that is open to a great deal of fraud and is not particularly useful for the economy. Why not call for its abolition (and if you cannot do that within the EU well you know what we ought to do) and for competitive local sales tax? I seem to recall that the present UKIP parliamentary candidate for Clacton co-authored a book some years ago with one, Daniel Hannan, in which that was one of the policies outlined. One wonders how he felt having to applaud the economic spokesman of his new party who was making it quite clear that neither he nor the party were interested in any serious radical ideas.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

As UKIP moves left it acquires another right-wing Tory MP

Honestly, I was not going to blog about the UKIP (or any other party) conference but I did note that some of their policies meant that they have now morphed from the Conservative Party circa 1955 to the Labour Party circa 1955: big government, high taxation, do not touch the NHS, slap higher VAT on so-called luxury goods, tighten planning laws, introduce protectionism and appease Russia (that's Labour post Ernie Bevin). Apparently, this is done from the entirely non-politician-like idealistic principles of trying to grab some Labour voters who might be dissatisfied with no longer having the Labour Party their grandparents voted for. Of course, a good many people whose parents and grandparents voted for that old version of the Labour Party then proceeded to vote for Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Party because they no longer knew their place in life but UKIP seems to have forgotten that.

Yet it is not left-wing socialists who are joining UKIP (well, not any high-profile ones) but supposedly right-wing Tories. Mark Reckless, another well-known liberal (in the real sense of the word), free-mareketeer, small government, low taxation etc etc politician has just announced that he is joining UKIP and is stepping down as an MP for Rochester and Stroud (a seat that, I am told, had been stitched up for him previously, though I am not sure what that means exactly).

In May Mr Reckless proclaimed joyfully that the party now felt reasonably happy about things and was calling for an IN/OUT referendum (which, supposedly, is Conservative Party policy) and calling on Mr Farage to "to declare his hand: is he ready to thwart Tory candidates who will deliver a referendum, and instead allow a Brussels-loving Labour Party to rule?". To rephrase slightly the Weill/Anderson September Song:
But it's a long, long while from May to September.
I assume that all notions of local democracy and open primaries will once again be jettisoned and the local UKIP association will be forced to fall into line and select Mark Reckless as their candidate. Then we shall see.

What exactly will he and what exactly does Douglas Carswell campaign on: higher taxes, tighter planning laws, appeasement of Russia, fear of foreigners taking jobs? None of that sits well with their previous political pronouncements. Perhaps, they have simply changed their minds on every political issue (apart from wanting to be MPs) and this seemed the simplest way or making it clear to the electorate.

As of this moment the Boss has not commented on Mr Reckless and his behaviour (everyone has cracked that joke so I am not going to). As soon as he does I shall add a link.

UPDATE: The Boss has spoken and he is unimpressed.

Friday, September 26, 2014

News from Poland

Should we care about a government reshuffle in Poland? I am afraid so, because, as I never tire of saying, their Ministers are part of our real government.

As we know, Donald Tusk is no longer the Prime Minister of Poland, having been elevated to the supremely high position of President of the Council of Ministers. Naturally, that meant a few changes in the Polish government, with Ewa Kopacz as the new Prime Minister and Radek Sikorski, who did not become the EU's Common Foreign Policy High Panjandrum, stepping down (whether by choice or otherwise) as Poland's Foreign Minister as well.

His successor is Grzegorz Schetyna, a 51-year-old former interior minister who recently headed the parliamentary commission for foreign affairs, who is expected "to be conciliatory and soft spoken, in contrast with Sikorski, known for some internationally controversial remarks", which is a roundabout way of saying that Mr Sikorski (no relation to the war-time general and leader of the Polish government in exile until his questionable death) was caught on a mike he had forgotten to check, using language that was a long way from diplomatic.

The Economist, which has a soft spot for Mr Sikorski, is not happy about the choice:
POLAND'S outgoing foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, is a polyglot foreign-policy wonk who helped lead his country to its heftiest international presence in centuries. Grzegorz Schetyna is a party insider who has evinced little interest in international relations, and who, according to his mother, learned his English from the foreign basketball players on a team he used to help run in his native Silesia. But it was Mr Schetyna who was picked to replaced Mr Sikorski as foreign minister on Friday, when Ewa Kopacz, Poland's new prime minister, presented her cabinet (pictured). At a time when Russia is threatening neighbouring Ukraine, even Mr Schetyna's mother, Danuta, says her son was reluctant to take the job.
While I find it a little odd that the Economist, formerly a heavy-weight publication, should bother to interview the new Foreign Minister's mother but, it is a little hard to work out what the new Prime Minister's thinking is.

The Economist provides a fairly rational explanation, which involves the need to balance internal party forces (as well as getting the difficult Mr Sikorski under control).
In taking over the prime minister's job, Mrs Kopacz has had to ensure Mr Schetyna and other party bosses accept her leadership. She has taken care to put other barons besides Mr Schetyna into senior posts, which allows her to act as an arbiter among party factions and to cement her position. Mr Schetyna has already pulled in his horns. He had earlier called for an internal party vote as soon as possible to determine Civic Platform's leader, but now has fallen into line, allowing the vote to be delayed until after next year's parliamentary elections.
In the meantime, Mr Sikorski is being kicked upstairs. He has been given the second most important position on the Polish political scene, though this is not particularly well known internationally: he is to be the Speaker in the Sejm (Parliament), having been accepted as such by the Sejm with 232 votes for, 143 against and 62 abstentions.

I noticed some rumours on Twitter that he is expected to make the Sejm more powerful vis-á-vis the government, taking, as his role model, the British Parliament. Given the recent track record of that venerable institution and, particularly, of the House of Commons, Mr Sikorski will not have to work terribly hard to emulate it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

And here we are again

This week-end saw a wave of protests in Russia against the war with Ukraine and some support for them in the West. I shall blog about it in due course and about the fact that President Putin with his Chekists seem unexpectedly nervous. I am not sure that the news of him signing a "decree restoring the title "Dzerzhinsky Division" to an elite police unit that was previously named after the founder of the Bolshevik secret police" is a sign of defiance or just whistling in the dark. Interesting, nonetheless, but hardly surprising. Perhaps, he, a mid-ranking KGB/FSB officer would like to see himself as a latter day version of Iron Felix.

Meanwhile, President Obama has announced new airstrikes against the "Islamic State" in Syria and the war in the Middle East that he was going to end successfully as it had been entirely President Bush's fault is spiralling out of anybody's control.

Also meanwhile, and unsurprisingly given the situation in eastern Europe, Poland is buying missiles from the US. I have no doubt our Nige will be wagging his finger at them any minute now and telling them that they should stop annoying the Bear. Or some such foolishness.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The news from Ukraine is a little unclear

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament (yes, dear readers, it was elected) has passed two pieces of legislation, as EUObserver reports.

Firstly
Ukraine has granted semi-autonomy and amnesty to pro-Russia rebels, the same day as ratifying a strategic EU treaty.

Its parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed the rebel laws in a closed session on Tuesday (16 September) by 277 and 287 votes out of 450, respectively, a pro-Western MP, Andriy Shevchenko, said on Twitter.

They give the separatist strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, east Ukraine, limited self-rule, or “special status”, for the next three years.

The rebels will be allowed to create their own police forces and to build closer relations with Russian regions, with local elections in December to lend weight to the separatist leaders.
This has caused a certain amount of discontent among some MPs. As Yuliya Tymoshenko, whose party voted against the laws said, they "legalize terrorism and the occupation of Ukraine". Then again, the reality of the situation is that, no matter what we hear from the Russian media and the people who get their information from it, there are something like 3,000 Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. This is not enough to invade the rest of the country or, even, establish Russian rule in the east but it is enough to prevent Ukraine from re-establishing its rule there.

Radio Free Europe covers much the same ground though it prefers to concentrate on the fact that it is the rebels who hold the territory in dispute. As we have seen in the last few months, the rebels were defeated by the Ukrainian army but something happened to push them back. One wonders whether that something is related to the appearance of body bags in Russian towns where families had not been informed where their sons had been sent to fight. (More of that in another posting.)
The Verkhovna Rada on September 16 passed a law giving parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions broader autonomy for a three-year period, seeking to end a deadly conflict with pro-Russian separatists and keep the country of 45 million in one piece.

The law allows local authorities to set up their own police forces and name judges and prosecutors. It provides for snap elections on December 7 to establish new councils in certain districts of the region known broadly as the Donbas.

The broad-ranging political legislation also guarantees the right for Russian to be spoken in state institutions, and allows local authorities to strengthen relations with neighboring regions of Russia.

It promises to help restore damaged infrastructure and to provide social and economic assistance to areas particularly hard-hit by the conflict, which has killed more than 3,000 people since April.

A separate law passed in the same closed-door hearing grants amnesty to participants in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces, excluding those who have committed "serious crimes."
Secondly, the Verkhovna Rada as well as the Toy Parliament ratified the EU-Ukraine Trade Accord, as both news stories make clear. However, let us not forget that it is not a particularly meaningful ratification as the two sides have already agreed to postpone its implementation for another year. (That I have already blogged about.)

Moving on to another post-Soviet state, we have some worrying reports from Moldova (worrying but not surprising for those of us who have followed what President Putin is up to). Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor is the best source of news about that whole area and its daily e-mails, which are a long way ahead of the blog itself, are to be recommended to anyone who really wants to know what is going on.

This was one of the items in yesterday's e-mail:
Chisinau Says Pro-Moscow Provocations Ahead

Mihai Balan, director of Moldova’s Intelligence and Security Service (SIS), says the organization has evidence that Moscow is planning to stage provocations in his country in the coming weeks, in advance of the Moldovan November parliamentary elections. Russia will utilize not only traditional sources of Transnistria in the north and Gagauzia in the southeast, he argues, but Moscow also intends to put in play “hundreds of NGOs [non-governmental organizations]” and political parties that receive financing and direction from the Russian government. The goals of these actions, he says, are to sow confusion and split Moldova apart (inforesist.org, September 10).

According to Balan, “the country’s leadership is receiving information in a timely fashion about the situation in the country and in the region.” But he said that “citizens, too, must be vigilant and not fall victim to provocations by those forces that do not wish good for our country. Unfortunately, the number of such provocateurs is greater than those who love the Republic of Moldova.” Nonetheless, he pledged that “if not today, then tomorrow, those responsible will answer before the law.”

To counter this growing threat, Balan said that Chisinau has stepped up control measures concerning visitors to Moldova, “in the first instance at the Chisinau airport,” in the hopes of blocking an influx of activists who might be used to stir up trouble. Some suspicious individuals have already been detained and then sent back to their country of origin, the security services chief noted.

Three things about Balan’s statement are significant. First, while he said that Transnistria and Gagauzia remain problems, his remarks suggest that Chisinau is now more worried about groups within the Moldovan population that Moscow is organizing to challenge the existing regime. Almost all Western analysis has focused on one or the other of these neuralgic problems rather than on divisions real or promoted by Moscow within Moldovan society. Balan’s comments suggest that it is time to refocus attention there, while not neglecting the ways in which Moscow can exploit either Tiraspol or Komrat.

Second, his remarks call attention to a calendar that few outside Moldova have appeared to pay attention to: the approaching parliamentary campaign in which ethnic tensions are likely to run high in any case. If Moscow is focusing on this, then the probability that it will organize provocations in Moldova will increase with each passing week before the vote. Electoral campaigns are typically the time when emotions are most raw and when demagogues can play on them to destabilize the situation. Putin has been particularly sensitive in his planning to the timing of his actions, and it is almost certain that the Kremlin—even if not the West—is focusing on this calendar.

And third, Balan’s tone was distinctly pessimistic, suggesting that he and others in the Moldovan government are worried that such provocations may have their intended effect; typically, government officials and especially those in the security agencies exude confidence. Granted, it is of course possible that the security chief is seeking more funding for the SIS and increased support of other kinds by playing up a conflict that few have paid attention to up to now and one that, within Moldova, only his organization is ready to deal with.

That emotions and even fears of such Russian actions in Moldova are running high is suggested by the statements of several other Moldovan leaders. In particular, Mihai Gimpu, the leader of the Liberal Party of Moldova, which favors ending that country’s neutrality and pursuing membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), says he fears that “first Russia will swallow Ukraine and then eat us for dessert.” He continued, “We are a small country of three million residents and with a weak economy that rests on tomatoes and carrots. Would we be able to survive if Putin goes further? Of course, not” (regnum.ru, September 5).

The concerns Bilan has expressed and the emotional tone of Gimpu’s remarks mean that there is almost certainly going to be trouble ahead in Moldova. That danger is something Western officials must take into consideration, not only with respect to Moldova, but also in their planning for Ukraine. If the situation in Ukraine deteriorates or even continues at its current level, there will be an increasingly serious chance that Moscow will make a move in Moldova, which, in turn, could additionally destabilize Romania and, indeed, a good portion of the Balkans. And to the extent a scenario like this occurs, Hungary almost certainly would become involved as well—a reminder that once again, as a century ago, some small thing in the Balkans could trigger a much bigger conflagration for Europe and the world.
I must admit that given several possible scenarios, Eurasia Daily Monitor tends to take the most pessimistic one but that is no bad thing in the circumstances. One needs to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Undoubtedly, if things go badly wrong with Moldova we shall get the usual suspects to whom we can now add a large number of eurosceptics and the leadership (at least) of UKIP telling us to leave that nice Mr Putin alone and, anyway, it is all the West's fault.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Not only Sweden

This article (whose understanding of what is and what is not far right is sadly inadequate) in the Wall Street Journal [behind a paywall but you can find it directly through Google] reminds us that on the same day as the Swedish Democrats got their near 13 per cent the Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) won more than 10 per cent of the vote in two state in the east of the country.

This is the nearest we come to some kind of an explanation:
Behind the erosion of support for mainstream parties is the failure of Europe's leaders to resolve the region's economic woes. Much of Europe remains in a deep economic funk. Popular frustration over high youth unemployment and cuts to welfare and education spending, meanwhile, has benefited the parties out of the mainstream.

"Politics is about alternatives and the populists are formulating the alternative, from Scotland to France," says Ulrike Guerot, a political scientist with the Open Society Initiative for Europe in Berlin.

Though local issues tend to dominate the parties' political agendas, party leaders are united by a deep skepticism of the Brussels-based EU, which they accuse of hijacking their national sovereignty.

"All these right-wing populist parties are united through an anti-EU agenda because they view the EU as kind of a centralist power," said Ruth Wodak, a professor at Lancaster University in the U.K. who is publishing a book on the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe.
Really, who are these strange people who view the EU as kind of a centralist power? Come to think of it, why is a populist party necessarily bad and extreme right-wing? Is it because the left, who, as I recall, were very strong on appealing to the masses, cannot gather any kind of a popular support?

Here is the Wall Street Journal article [see above] about the German elections:
The party won 12% of the vote in the state of Brandenburg and 10.6% in Thuringia, according to preliminary results. Two weeks ago, the AfD won its first seats in state parliament during elections in Saxony when it garnered nearly 10% of the vote. It narrowly missed winning seats in the national elections last year.
It is true that the turn-out was low (around 50 per cent) and that always favours smaller parties. Nevertheless, refusing to acknowledge that parties whose programme is not all that shocking though outside the establishment political discussion, does not bode well. After all, neither of these parties is voicing support for President Putin, unlike, for example the Dear Leader (re-elected unopposed for another term and, probably, for life) of UKIP.

Fun for those who follow the news on the Russian media

This is rather a Soviet story though it does have the flavour of just ordinary corruption such as the one we have been seeing in President Putin's Russia on a very large scale.

In the dear old USSR (still late and unlamented except by President Putin and his Chekists) people who achieved anything in, let us say, sport or literature or any other field, were "elected" to the national or the federal (one gets a little tired of all those quotation marks) Supreme Soviets. Alexander Tvardovsky, of whom I wrote recently, describes in all seriousness in his diaries one such "election campaign" that, oddly enough, resulted in an overwhelming victory for him.

This habit was replicated in the People's Democracies (is that where UKIP got its recent slogans from?). Members of the famous Hungarian football team, for instance, were not just officers in the People's Army but deputies in the People's Parliament.

One wonders whether people who keep telling us that we ought to have politicians who have achieved things in other walks of life first would like to emulate that habit though, I must warn them, all these things are so much easier if there is nobody to oppose you in the election. (Mind you, I suspect that Major Puskás would have been elected in a free and fair contest as well.)

Now we find out that Alina Kabayeva, a former Olympic gymnast and President Putin's supposed girl-friend, has been an MP for his United Russia party. Just to remind us of the dear old days:
Kabayeva spent more than six years as an MP, one of many high-achievers in the sports and entertainment fields to represent Putin's United Russia party, before announcing on Monday she was stepping down from parliament to take up control of the media holding.
For that is what Ms Kabayeva going to do: take up controlling position in the National Media Group, which "owns 25% of Channel One, Russia's main state-controlled television channel, and also owns stakes in other channels and newspapers, including a majority share of the influential Izvestia daily. The group is controlled by Yuri Kovalchuk, a longstanding friend of Putin who was sanctioned by the US earlier this year due to his closeness to the Russian president".
A spokeswoman for the group confirmed Kabayeva's appointment but did not give details about when she would start, or what qualifications she had for the role. She previously hosted a television chat show but is not thought to have any experience in media management.
Undoubtedly, this should be welcomed by all those people in the West, many of them in the Eurosceptic community (whatever that might be these days) who prefer to take their news from the Russian state controlled media.