Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A modest proposal to businessmen with eyes on Russia and Ukraine

To be accurate, what I intend to write is not even a proposal, more of a suggestion, brought about by my continuing astonishment at the naiveté or stupidity or hopefulness beyond experience of businessmen who still think that they can go into Russia or Ukraine (until recently), buy property, set up a business or open a branch of existing one and get away with it, perhaps to make profits. How many cases of people being bullied, cheated, robbed, reduced to a nervous break-down and having their Russian employees murdered must we witness before people abandon all hope?

Now, don't get me wrong: I do not consider those businessmen to be motivated by charitable impulses. Not only do I not think that they are, I do not think that they should be and I would not trust them if they were, NGOs and large charities not being among my favourite organizations. 

Nor do I think those Western businessmen are particularly honest or honourable themselves and I came across a number of people who saw a chance in the collapse of the Soviet Union for a quick buck or a thousand in the chaos that was around them. But, surely, they have realized by now that the state and its minions in those countries, Vlad and his Chekists as well as Yanukovich and his "family" until recently are more corrupt, more brazen, less scrupulous and can command more power of different kinds than any Western business. 

Curiously enough, the problem of bullying, violent expropriation and nullification or subversion of contracts is greater in Russia and Ukraine than in the Caucasian and Central Asian republics not because these are not corrupt or oppressive but because, as the evidence seems to show, their officials, once bought, stay bought. Not so with the "European" parts of the former Soviet Union (excluding the Baltic states, always an anomaly) who have always been rather contemptuous of their Caucasian and Central Asian brothers and comrades. Perhaps, they should rethink that attitude. 

These thoughts were passing through my head as I was reading Oliver Bullough's recent report, published by Legatum Institute and Institute of Modern Russia, entitled Looting Ukraine: How East and West Teamed up to Steal a Country

I shall write in greater detail about the report, its somewhat emotional title and the presentation of it I went to. In this posting I want to concentrate on one tiny example Mr Bullough cites. Discussing how corruption worked under then President Yanukovich he explains that towards the end "property rights became so loose, and rule of law so weak, that state officials and insiders began, simply, to seize businesses", giving Yanukovich a hefty share of the profits. 

A certain British businessman, here named Bernard Carr, lost an office building to "competitors" who gained access to the land registry. This is his account:
It's basically about who pays the police more. The problem was that the police were being paid by both sides. We were paying the police and so was he. So we went to court and tried to buy our way through the court. The lawyers said if we paid 6,000 euros we would win, but you can't guarantee the other guy won't pay 7,000 euros. And you don't get a refund if you lose, which we did ... I have lost count of the number of times I've been told that if I pay someone a couple of grand a problem would go away, but then not have it go away.
I do not expect anyone to feel particularly sorry for Mr "Carr" or be sympathetic to his plight. It did, however, led me to that suggestion. It is that every businessman who thinks that he can do business in Russia and Ukraine and all he has to do is shell out a few appropriate bribes ought to have the following two lines inscribed on the wall of his office and, perhaps, as a screen-saver on his laptop:

That if once you have paid him the Danegeld,    
You never get rid of the Dane.

Monday, July 21, 2014

This time even the BBC noticed

There is a reasonable argument that this time round Hamas has overplayed its hand. Not that we don't see the usual fanatical and usually quite ignorant anti-Israeli comments but, as this piece on Bloomberg points out, the voices that usually pressurize that country have been mooted somewhat. It also places the blame for this round of fighting firmly on the Hamas leadership, who have stirred up Israeli reprisals without endangering themselves very much. Well, perhaps, the day will come when the Palestinians will finally realize who their real enemy is and go after the leaders.

It seems that Hamas is being blamed by the Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as well. Then there is this curious clip that indicates a certain dissatisfaction with Hamas on the part of Arab states and, above all, leaders. The speaker is the Egyptian journalist, Abdel Bari Atwan. More on the Egyptian media here. There have been other similar pronouncements and a certain lack of enthusiasm for Hamas and its fight.

That has not prevented a number of very violent demonstrations in the West, which degenerated into torchings and riots (a picture from Paris but there are many more) and were accompanied by vicious anti-Semitic and Judaeophobic slogans that invoked positively Hitler and the Holocaust, expressing the wish that it will now be completed by Islamists. (One can't help laughing at the thought of these losers, for what else have the Palestinians been all this time, completing what Hitler did not manage but the intentions and slogans are nasty enough.)

Naturally enough, we have seen many pictures of dead Palestinian children, something that we are used to though some of us have been asking questions about those pictures for some time. Remember Green Helmet Guy? Similar stories were uncovered by other bloggers but these were left severely alone by the MSM though little by little some acknowledged the word Pallywood. Come to think of it, remember the whole saga of Mohammed Al-Dura?

So what of the various pictures of the children and the "innocent civilians" of Gaza? Well, something odd has been happening. As the Blaze points out, no less than the BBC found that a number of them have been recycled from previous wars in Gaza, from Iraq and from another war of which we hear next to nothing from these angry twitters and Facebook posters, and that is the far more ferocious one in Syria.

Here is the BBC's report on the subject. If these people have lost the BBC they are in a bad state.

So let me end this posting with a picture of a singularly unfortunate lady who seems to have been wounded in Syria and in Gaza in precisely the same way, in the company of the same old lady. Some people have no luck. (Ignore the comment the comment on the green strip, which is superfluous in my opinion.)


Why am I not surprised?

Guido Fawkes reports a quote from the recently dismissed former Secretary for the Environment, Owen Paterson:
I received more death threats in a few months at Defra than I ever did as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Not only I can well believe it, Mr Paterson having to contend with DEFRA as well as the Greenie mafia, who are completely unhinged (this does not apply to all people who are concerned with the environment just the soi-disant Green activists), I am not even surprised.

It reminded me of a comment made by one of Mr Paterson's predecessors, though he had a junior role at DEFRA, being at that time already in the House of Lords, made when I was working on a Committee that was looking into the meat industry and how it had been affected by EU and domestic regulations (badly).

The ex-Minister (by this stage) said that, despite his long career in politics, he had not really believed any conspiracy theories until he took on DEFRA, who, in his opinion, was a conspiracy all by itself.

Anniversaries

Before the witching hour strikes I must recall two important events that happened on July 20, one tragic and one very exciting.

Seventy years ago, July 20, 1944 saw the unsuccessful attempt put together by a number of German officers, led by Claus von Stauffenberg to assassinate Hitler and bring the war to an end through negotiations. Whether that would have worked is questionable. Stalin wanted a complete defeat and the Westeren Allies tended to agree with his ideas. But, perhaps, it would have done.

The plot failed and most of the conspirators paid a horrible price. They are now heroes in Germany, which is right and proper and von Stauffenberg's son, Franz-Ludwig Gustav Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, has shown himself to be very sound on the subject of Communists and on some aspects of Germany's membership of the European Union. He, of course, can say that sort of thing.

Forty-five years ago, July 20, 1969 saw the landing Apollo 11 on the moon and a few hours later the first steps taken on it by Neil Armstrong. It was one of those events that all of us around and sentient at the time can remember in detail. And no, I don't want to hear from the conspiracy mongers.

Well, dash it all, I missed the witching hour, after all.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Probably too early for analysis

Why have I not commented on the shooting down (I think we can be certain about that) of the Malaysian airliner MH17? Have I missed the news or something? Well, no, I have not missed the news and have been following it to the best of my ability. It's just that I don't think there is much to say until we have a little more evidence. We do have some, of course, and that tells us that the likelihood is that it was shot down by Russian troops in eastern Ukraine who have been masquerading more or less successfully as separatists. That is the likelihood but there is no certainty.

This intercepted conversation points to some separatist group using Russian arms, stupidly given to them, to shoot down what they thought was a military aircraft, then going slightly wonky when they had to report their sheer idiocy to the superior Russian officer. It is fair to say that the phone call was released by the Ukrainian government yesterday and, so far as I can establish, has not been verified independently.

The separatists have now announced that they will allow investigator to visit the site of the crash, which is a remarkably generous action on their part. (Yes, I am being sarcastic.)

So, in the meantime, there is the constant BBC and Radio Free Europe update, some cautious analysis summarized on Reuters and the streaming coverage on the Wall Street Journal. There are other live reports in the British media as well (and not just the BBC) so somewhere among all that we can all find information as it become available. You can also follow the news on various Kremlin controlled sources such as Russia Today, which has just lost its London correspondent because of her unhappiness in the way the story was covered. What on earth had she been doing until now?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Democracy

I have just read a collection of essays by Adam Michnik, a man I admire enormously: an historian, a dissident who was imprisoned in Poland, a thinker and somebody who, after the fall of Communism, decided not to fall into the trap of becoming a politician but took on the editorship of Gazeta Wyborcza, though he is now a less than active Editor-in-Chief.

Before I get attacked (something that has not happened for a little while about which I am a little peeved) for talking about politics being a trap, let me point out that in my opinion politics is essential and, sadly, politicians are needed but experience tells one that intellectuals, particularly "public" intellectuals make rotten politicians and tend to incline towards personal authoritarianism.

His latest collection is called The Trouble with History and, having been published first in the Gazeta Wyborcza, has now been translated into English. To some extent it is disappointing: the political essays are of great interest but the historic ones, which seem to be an obsessive analysis of Stendhal and his disgust with post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic France made me recall how often I have thought of Central European intellectuals as having a somewhat hysterical way of writing and dishevelled way of thinking.

Nevertheless, I do think that book contributes a good deal to our understanding of East European history in the last few decades and gives one food for thought on the subject of democracy and historic attitudes. As such I do recommend it to people. I should also like to know what Polish reaction was to the essays when they were first published. I can see that a few things Michnic writes may not have gone down particularly well with some of his readers.

Unusually I read the Foreword by James Davison Hunter and John M. Owen IV as well and was very glad I had done. Here are a couple of paragraphs from it that might interest people who do not think that democracy consists of elections and nothing else or that elections somehow create democracy.
... contemporary democratic politics can never be understood as only about the interests and actions of political economy or power alone. The moral and ethical dimension of modern democratic politics is intrinsic: not only impossible to disentangle from the actual actions and procedures of the state, but foundational to any government that calls itself democratic. Freedom, tolerance, hope, and respect for human dignity are not secondary, then but primary. As we witness among democratic revolutionaries everywhere, they matter absolutely. Such ideals have made it possible to endure not only the indignities and suffering impsoed by oppressive powers but also, often enough, the world's indifference to their struggle.

The conditions that make for vibrant democracies are fragile; all the more so in populations divided by wealth, race, ethnicity, religion, language, and tribe. Whatever else might be entailed, they require some minimal understandings of justice that are shared and binding across all differences. This is the foundation of any legitimacy a regime can hope for. But those understandings also have to be credibly and consistently approximated within its political institutions and practices. Without those shared commitments and credible enactments, constitutions will become hollow speech acts, emptied of authority and, in the end, a "parchment barrier" to tyranny. Democracy may retain certain formality, but the authority that underwrites it loses its humanizing constraints, leaving a political machinery capable of the crudest expressions of domination on behalf of some factional interests against others.
These are thoughts to be discussed as are some of Adam Michnic's subsequent ones, to which I shall return in other postings.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A few words about the reshuffle

There is no intention here of writing about the reshuffle, the last big one, we assume, before next year's General Election, at length. At least, not at this stage since a good many of those promoted remain unknown quantities as I said in my interview with the BBC Russian Service yesterday.

As it happens, I have no objections to women politicians being promoted and find it a little surprising that a number of people who firmly assert that people should be promoted entirely on merit then equally firmly dismiss the idea of any woman being so promoted. Suddenly their thinking is all about gender and the fact that no woman could possibly deserve a higher position. This train of thought is very prevalent among eurosceptics; they call it being anti political correctness and I call it being stupid, stubborn and scared.

Some of this misogyny by whatever name you care to call it was caused by the inept way in which the PR was handled. A reshuffle was coming and there were the usual discussions as to who might fall victim to it and who might benefit by it. Some of the speculations turned out to be correct, some not so much. But in addition to the usual speculations there were many stories, inspired, we must assume, by the whizz-kids around the PM, that women will be promoted and the Cabinet will now be full of women. A good many women were, indeed, promoted though not all the predicted ones and some men. The Cabinet now has some women members but the majority remains male and very few of either sex has so far shown that much ability. What a weapon was handed to the misogynists who now assert at length that those who were promoted were so because of their sexual organs not because of their ability. I note, however, that they do not mention any male politicians who have been unfairly kept on the back benches.

Moving on to individuals, I have to admit to an unsurprising to readers of this blog lack of interest in William Hague's fate. From the day he was appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary I thought he was inadequate to the role and the stories circulating about him treating one of the great offices of state as a part-time job did not endear him to me. His statements tended to be rather foolish and superficial, showing no understanding of Britain's position in the world or of the EU and its impositions. Come to think of it, I recall that he showed a complete lack of understanding about the differences between the relationship Britain might have with China and with India. To him they were two developing countries we have to be close to, in order to balance out our "unhealthy" dependence on the US.

Not only is Hague retiring from front-line politics, he intends to leave Parliament altogether next year, preferring to concentrate on his career as, possibly, writer and, definitely, speaker. So much for the great predictions, the first of which was by Margaret Thatcher who, famously, mused about the 16-year old William Hague that he might be the new William Pitt.

His successor, Philip Hammond, hitherto Secretary for Defence is known as a man who once said that he would vote for Britain's exit from the EU if powers were not brought back to Westminster but has also expressed the hope that we should still be there in five years' time. Still, he is known as the most senior eurosceptic in the government now and his successor Michael Fallon is also making noises about this being a eurosceptic government.

So obsessed is our media about the newly promoted female contingent that they do not seem to be able to dig particularly deeply into this nonsensical myth that is being promoted. The Boss, of course, is there, tearing Fallon and the media apart. Matthew Elliott, on the other hand, thinks that the reshuffled Cabinet is good news for eurosceptics (I asked him for his definition but have not had a reply) and shows Cameron responding to the lessons of the European election. So far as I can see there was only one lesson: the majority of this country has no interest in voting for MEPs and does not care who get their snouts into the trough.

I have few opinions about some of the other discarded Ministers and join all those who think Ken Clarke's departure was long overdue. Sadly, I do not think he will disappear from our ken (pun intended) but will be seen and heard frequently on the BBC and other media outlets, proffering his opinions and judgements.

There are two departures (one only partial) that I do have views on and those are of Michael Gove and Owen Paterson, both, incidentally, stronger eurosceptics than any of the present incumbents. Gove has moved on to becoming Chief Whip, which can be described as "a brave decision Prime Minister". I am looking forward to his handling of the various colleagues who had briefed against him as he battled the teachers' unions and the educational establishment.

Paterson, who is one of the few leading politicians (make that very few) who actually understands the European Union and our membership of it, is now on the backbenches. That might not be a bad thing as it will give him the opportunity to speak out more openly than he could even as a rebellious member of the Cabinet.

So much for the silver lining. Now for the clouds: both the Ministers were shunted off in response to a determined campaign by the teachers' unions in one case and the Greenies in the other. This does not reflect well on the Prime Minister and his preparedness to stand by his colleagues if they try to implement policies that are slightly more radical and less acceptable to the soft left establishment than usual. (To be fair, he left Iain Duncan Smith in his place but that might be simply because he does not think Duncan Smith is ever going to implement anything.)

Indeed, there is much rejoicing in Greenie and educational establishment circles. Some of the attacks on Gove and the rejoicing at his departure were so illiterate that I was almost tempted to ask whether the writers were teachers. (This, incidentally, is worth reading on what Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove's successor, should grapple with.)

I noticed on another thread that Elizabeth Truss, the new Secretary for the Environment, whose credentials on this particular subject are not strong enough to feel that she can fight DEFRA and the EU (but then who can? even Owen Paterson found it almost impossible), is already being lambasted by the Greenies for having worked for Shell. Either there is more to the lady than I realized or the Greenies have tasted blood (if I am allowed to use that expression) and are determined to destroy every successive Secretary of State.

Nicky Morgan, too, has fallen foul of the luvvies. Michael Rosen, who has figured on this blog as a figure of fun before, is said to have tweeted his disgust with her because she voted against same sex marriage in Parliament. Whether I agree with Ms Morgan or not, that news and Mr Rosen's disgust made me feel a little better about her: she clearly has some opinions and has not been too afraid to make them clear.

Readers may have noticed that I am producing a carefully argued posting here and not a rant. That is because I do not think this is the worst reshuffle in 25 years or a particularly good one either. It does not, pace Matthew Elliott, do anything much for the eurosceptic wing of the party or the eurosceptic part of the electorate.

My friend, John O'Sullivan, thinks most of it is bad though he quite likes Michael Fallon taking over defence and will benefit UKIP. He may well be right on most points but not that. John keeps hoping UKIP will benefit from something and show its mettle at last - a vain hope in my opinion.

So that leaves the man who is going to Brussels: Lord Hill of Oareford. There had been many suggestions of various MPs who would be "definitely" sent to Brussels but I do not see anything wrong with a member of the House of Lords becoming a Commissioner. No, he is not an elected politician but how does that affect his suitability for the job of a Commissioner? On the whole, his career in the couloirs of politics might give him a better understanding of how to manipulate that of Brussels. Why would a failed though formerly elected politician do any better or be of greater benefit to this country? Was Neil Kinnock better or Leon Brittan?

Had I paid more attention to ConHome I would have realized a couple of weeks ago which way the wind was blowing. On June 26, Lord Hill denied that he would ever be Commissioner, or that his name was even being considered. Now Mark Wallace sums up the pros and cons of the appointment, complains a little about the fact that Lord Hill is not known outside his own circle and, generally, treats the position as if it were an ordinary ministerial one.

I have seen other complaints about Lord Hill being unknown. Was the very well known Neil Kinnock a better choice, I asked, getting no reply. If it is true that he did not want the job then that is something in his favour but what, if anything, he can achieve remains a matter of dispute. After all, if the negotiations for Brexit should begin they will not be conducted by the Commissioner but by the government.

Intriguingly, Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, and a man who is often the unconscious source of hilarity, has announced that MEPs might vote against Lord Hill's appointment because of his "radical anti-European views". Where do these people get their information?

As Steven Swinford says:
His comments surprised Westminster, where Lord Hill is not renowned for his outspoken views but instead praised as a discreet, diplomatic behind-the-scenes fixer.
In fact, completely appropriate to the organization he is being sent to. Plus he looks like somebody out of a Le Carré novel. That'll show them.