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.

Sweden voted more or less as predicted ....

.... though I understand that the bien pensants of that country are in shock. Well, they should have read this blog. The obvious conclusion we can draw from the results is that nobody has won.
Results show Stefan Lofven's opposition party is set to return to power, but with no clear parliamentary majority.

They give the centre-left bloc 43.7%, ahead of 39.3% for Fredrik Reinfeldt's centre-right ruling coalition. The far-right Sweden Democrats were at 13%.

Mr Reinfeldt admitted defeat and later handed in his resignation letter.

He also confirmed that he would step down as leader of the conservative Moderate Party.

Earlier on Monday, Stefan Lofven spoke briefly to Swedish media as he left his home in central Stockholm.
There will be a coalition, of course, but it is not clear who will be in it. The one thing we do know is that the party described as "far right" by our own media as well, the Swedish Democrats, will not be in it, with Mr Lofven rather snootily explaining that 87 per cent did not vote for them. Of course, on that basis, he ought not to be the Prime Minister either as rather a large proportion of the electorate even of those who turned out, did not vote for his party.

Luckily, this blog has its own Swedish correspondent, who sent us this information:
Although the opinion polls had foretold a massive left-green majority for months, ousting the centre-right government, the last couple of polls had indicated that neither side would gain a majority and the Swedish Democrats would hold the balance of power in the new parliament. This came to be, though there were some interesting surprises:

1) The winners, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party in total increased by 0.1% (and that's before the last postal votes are counted, so it may be ±0 in the end). Thus, the left didn't increase one iota from the catastrophic results of 2010.

2) The Feminist party managed to gain 3.1% (mainly votes from Stockholm and the university towns). This was not enough to get a seat in the parliament (4.0% needed). The votes were gained from previous non-voters and from the Left party and the Greens. However, even if we add the Fi votes to the other votes of the left it barely makes 47%. Gone are the days when the Swedish political landscape was dominated by the parties from the left. So much for the political winds blowing from the left.

3) All the parties making up the government received a hiding, mostly the Moderates (Cons), but still their 23,2% would have counted as a very good result prior to the last two elections.

4) And the winners were the Swedish Democrats with 12,9%. The Swedish commentariat is dumbfounded. Sooo much!!! And true, not a single opinion poll had put the SD above 10.5% (and that was only one or two among many), but in reality there was no need to be surprised. The betting companies had even odds for about 12.5%, so one wonders why it was so much harder for the polling companies to get it right.

As I wrote last, all the other parties refuse to cooperate with the Swedish Democrats, which given the other political, ideological and personal hang-ups will probably mean that Sweden will enter either a Belgian period (no government) or an Italian period (many governments).
Well, well. Swedish politics may well turn out to be quite interesting in the next few months. If it ends up with no government for any length of time the argument for governments being an absolute necessity will be considerably weakened.

Saddened but not surprised

It is an indication of my recent preoccupations that I have not noticed that one of the blogs I have found most useful in the anti-EU fight, Autonomous Mind, has decided to leave the battle field. This is very bad news, indeed, even though it is several months old. Autonomous Mind produced some excellent and detailed analyses of events and of legal aspects of the European project. One can but hope that the blog will stay up there for a little while so we can all continue to raid its archives for our own purposes.

On the other hand, I am not surprised by the decision as it is explained in the last posting:
The simple fact is that, having fallen out of love with politics some time ago, I have now decided that I no longer wish to continue my stand for the things I believe in. This isn’t because of any change of view on my part; rather it is because too many people who claim to share my objectives exhibit staggering ignorance of history and facts, incredible stupidity, intolerance of others and unswerving belief in conspiracy theories that do not stand up to even basic factual scrutiny.

I fear that despite the best efforts of some great people, those I have referred to above will undermine any chance of us achieving British independence from the EU or the implementation of real democracy for the British people. I hope they do not hobble the efforts of good people to change this country for the better, but the risk is significant.

A visit to Twitter, the comment threads of the Telegraph, or on Breitbart London, reveals a particularly vicious, xenophobic and deluded collection of people who not only repel the very people the anti EU side needs to win over, but has now repelled me too. I just don’t want to be associated with such people. I don’t want to have to engage with them, or even challenge what they say. They nauseate me and now I just can’t be bothered. There are plenty of other things I can devote my time to where I don’t have to come into contact with their unique brand of bile and false assertions which mark them out as effectively nasty and unhinged individuals.
Let's just say that my preoccupations and reluctance to blog have had something to do with very similar depressed thoughts. I have, on occasion, written about it as well. For the time being I intend to go on blogging and even blogging about the EU and related matters. But, to quote, a splendid musical: I'm reviewing the situation.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What a difference a day makes

Alas no, I am not writing about the opinion polls on the Scottish referendum, which have been yo-yoing quite alarmingly, thus giving the opportunity every two-bit politician, activist and media hack to pontificate. No, this is about another messy situation that may not be more important in the long run (who can predict such things?) but is of greater immediate interest and worry to all except the dedicated appeasers of Russia, of whom there are too many both on the left and the right. For a while it looked like the trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine, which intensified Russia's efforts to destabilize Ukraine, will, after all, come into existence. (With all its faults it was never going to be a substitute for close relations between Russia and Ukraine as that would have been impossible. Russian actions in grabbing Crimea and fighting a war in eastern Ukraine have ensured Ukrainian hatred for the idea of a close Russian agreement. Given President Putin's preference for the sledgehammer as a method of diplomacy there seems to be no solution to the mess that has been thus created.) On September 12 it was announced that
Ukraine leader Petro Porosenko has said the European Parliament and the Ukrainian assembly, the Verkhovna Rada, will on 16 September jointly ratify the EU-Ukraine free trade pact. Ukraine's foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin will also meet with EU and Russian delegates in Brussels on Friday to discuss implementation of the treaty.
Come September 13 (that, is today) and the story has changed somewhat.
Ukraine and the EU are to delay the entry into life of a landmark free trade treaty for more than one year due to Russian concerns.

The trade pact was originally to enter into force on 1 November.

But following meetings between European Commission trade chief Karl De Gucht, Ukraine’s foreign minister, and Russia’s economy minister in Brussels on Friday (12 September) it will now be implemented on 31 December 2015.

Defending the deal, De Gucht told press it means Russia will not impose trade restrictions on Ukraine in the next 15 months.
One does not have to read between the lines or indulge in the arcane pseudo-science of Kremlinology (how that word takes me back to my youth!) to understand what happened: they all met on Friday (that's yesterday) and the Russians once again threatened to impose trade sanctions on Ukraine that would undermine its fragile economy just as its .... ahem .... aid convoys to eastern Ukraine are anxious to destroy its fragile political structure. Upon which, the EU capitulated. This will, no doubt, be greeted with joy among the appeasers in the various eurosceptic circles.

Judging by the EUObserver summary there seems to be some confusion around the EU decision with, quite possibly, a break-down in communication between the various offices that are supposedly negotiating and making decisions, such as they are.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Kremlin (where are those Kremlinologists when one needs them?) has announced [in Russian but Mr Google will translate] that although there has been a big price rise in Russia on basic foodstuffs this had nothing to do with the counter-sanctions against Western imports. These price rises were happening, anyway, said Andrey Belousov, one of President Putin's assistants. He also explained that the sanctions imposed on Western imports were not really counter-sanctions, anyway, but were motivated by concern for the Russian consumers' health and, sometimes, for Russian products, though it is not quite clear which of the sanctions were motivated by which concerns. At least, neither he nor the others in President Putin's staff will go short of wine, no matter what sanctions or counter-sanctions Russia might decide to impose.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Odd news from Hungary

A couple of years ago I was on a visit to Budapest and, naturally enough, discussed the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, with people who have known him for some time. At least one person expressed the view that he is not quite sane. I did not pay much attention to that and, to be fair, neither have the people of Hungary, who have re-elected his party Fidesz with a spectacular majority.

Nevertheless, one begins to wonder what exactly goes on in his head. I have not yet read the notorious speech in which he announced his intention to make Hungary into an illiberal country and until I do so I cannot comment on what he meant by that. The notion that you can be in the EU and be illiberal does not shock me particularly as several member states and, above all, the European Union itself, are just that. No reason why Hungary should not be that, except for the fact that illiberal regimes in that country did not achieve anything good and tended to leave the country in a worse state than before.

His apparent ambition to imitate Russia and Turkey (I really need to read that speech) also flies in the face of everything that many Hungarians value about themselves. Both those countries have  been conquerors of the Hungarian land and neither is considered to be anything but a backward state.

It seems that the Fidesz government is serious in its intentions to emulate President Putin's and has already designated various NGOs that receive foreign money as being "foreign agents". For a government and a party that is obsessed with extirpating what they see as the Communist past that particular expression is an odd one to use. Have they forgotten what Laszlo Rajk and his co-defendants were accused of? Have they forgotten the trials of other political and social organizations that preceded the Rajk trial?

Perhaps they have. Perhaps their knowledge of recent Hungarian history is not quite as good as they sometimes pretend. In any case, the Hungarian police (who must still have some officers trained in the Soviet Union) have been raiding foreign NGOs, in this case Norwegian ones, on very spurious excuses, and confiscating everything they can lay their hands on.
Hungarian police on Monday (9 September) raided the offices of Norway-backed NGOs Okotars and Demnet, escalating the government’s campaign against civil society.

Norway reacted by saying the moves were "unacceptable" and represent "harassment" of civil organisations.

A large number of police and investigators raided the offices, taking laptops, copying documents, and forbidding staff from making phone calls, local media reported.

Police said the action was taken because the NGOs were suspected of embezzlement and unauthorised financial activities. It follows similar raids on NGOs in June.

On Monday evening, several hundred people demonstrated in Budapest in protest.

The Hungarian government has accused the Oslo-backed NGOs of secretly channelling money to political opposition groups and in June ordered an investigation. Fifty-eight NGOs were called into question and ordered to hand over documents related to the projects.

The NGOs raided on Monday were in charge of distributing money from Norway Grants, an agreement between the EU and Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein on funding projects in less developed EU countries which, among other things, strengthen civil rights groups and transparency.

The NGOs deny having any links to political parties. Funded groups include Transparency International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the investigative journalism portal, atlatszo.hu.
It is entirely possible that what the Hungarian authorities object to is being called a less developed EU country (should that not be a member state?) and one can sympathize with that. Is a police raid and confiscation of laptops quite the way to go about it? Oh and what happened to the notion that East European countries would become mature democracies when they join the European Union?