Arbitrary and Unlimited Power, Thrown Away

The monarch’s job is to continue arbitrary and unlimited power, and hand most of it over to government. In 2003, Blair used this to declare war on Iraq without prior parliamentary approval, in 1992, John Major used this power to cover up Britain’s arms trade with Iraq, and in 1984, Thatcher used it to prevent civil servants from joining/forming trade unions.

English: H.M. King George VI and Queen Elizabe...

H.M. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the Senate Chamber giving Royal Assent to Bills, Ottawa, Canada.

The Queen has formal powers too, such as the power to dissolve/dismiss government, withhold royal assent on certain bills, and to appoint Prime Ministers. Even though they haven’t been used in Britain for a while, they were used against democracy (with great backlash) in Australia to dismiss the 1975 government, and in 2008 to prorogue the Canadian government (and undemocratically prevent a vote of no confidence) for several weeks.

It is true that Elizabeth isn’t exactly controversial, but monarchism ends up choosing people by chance, and there’s a danger people like Charles could abuse it. Additionally, her being above the fray of politics is pointless, when she ends up being the government’s puppet. This is where the equality of opportunity argument comes in (and yes you can think it baseless in comparison to the white millionaires club), it’s not good enough for me to just say that the current head of state gives birth to the next one; I think such a position should be earnt.

German Election 2013

Edit 2: Merkel won by landslide. Her speech:

“Heute wird gefeiert – morgen wird gearbeitet.” (Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work).

Edit: Merkel set to win - http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/merkel-wins-third-term-in-general-election-exit-polls-suggest-a-923755.html

Background reading/in-depth articles.

Live blogs (in English):

Infographic - http://wahl.tagesschau.de/wahlen/2013-09-22-BT-DE/wahlmonitor/index.shtml (in German but you’ll be able to figure it out anyway.

The True Cost of the Olympics in Middle-income Countries

OK, so I’m going to be talking about the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but all’s fair when the title is already a bit long. People often call investment in Olympic events a waste of money, something seen across all countries – from London to Athens. This is a fair call to make when these events are simply one-off, and the infrastructure built is used once and twice maybe.

Photo via Raul Pacheco-Vega

Photo of Sochi terrain model from http://www.flickr.com/photos/rolexpv/

Would it be fair to say the same thing of the Sochi Olympics when there is a lot of talk that Sochi will become a major resort? Spending the money now, rather than later, on infrastructure, is a good idea. It is clear that Russia is woefully underdeveloped, and it would take a lot of money to bring it up to date. When there are areas that Russia wants to showcase, it will spend the money in the interests of long-term use, which is why poorer countries can sometimes pay more for these big events.

However, through the eyes of a well-developed and richer country, this can be confusing. Some of the reporting, which is often more than secondhand, on Sochi, is misleading. For example (from The Guardian ):

One should also have sedatives close to hand while reviewing the figures. Russia has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and is barely making an effort to hide it. For instance, one of the Sochi 2014 Olympic projects – a 50 km road – costs nearly $8bn

This specific road being a supposed example of corruption in building for the Olympics, has been debunked (which is silly because it’s not actually hard to find examples of corruption in Russia):

The only problem with looking at Russia through this failed state prism, without bothering to corroborate sources, is that in no sense can the Adler-Krasnaya Polyana route be described as just a “roadway” . Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!

In places like Vancouver or the US, infrastructure and development are already present, if a country like Russia wants to showcase a remote city in a country with crumbling and poorly maintained infrastructure, they’re going to have to spend more.

How we see Russia

Daniel Treisman, an ‘area studies’ scholar on Russia, wrote of two methods that people use to write about Russia.

The first approach is to focus on the country’s dark side, to present Russia as a land of deformity. … From sixteenth century European travelogues, one learns that Russian peasants at that time were drunks, idolaters, and sodomites. Seventheeth century travellers report that the country’s northern forests were a breeding ground for witches. Then come the famous denunciations of the Marquis de Custine, along with the jeremiads of Chaadaev – a homegrown convert to the idiom – who, just as Pushkin was publishing Eugene Onevin , chastised Russia for failing to contribute anything to human civilisation. Russia, he charged, was a “blank” page in the intellectual order,” which existed only to “teach the world some great lesson.” Much journalism and historical writing shares this preoccupation with the country’s dismal side.

… Most of the sinister features that upset the critics are, sadly, typical of countries at similar levels of economic development. Russia is unique, but in the way that Belgium, Argentina, and Malaysia are unique – no more, no less.

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled “Russia takes a step backwards”

The second approach is:

to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic. Russia, it is said, is unique and unknowable. It hides its secrets from social scientists and statisticians. … Its roads are Möbius strips; its parallel lines cross many times. Such talk usually progresses to speculation about the Russian soul, itself conceived as a jumble of contradictions. Russians, wrote the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev,a re Dionysian yet ascetic, violent yet gentle, ritualistic yet hungry for truth: “In the Russian soul there is a sort of immensity, a vagueness, a predilection for the infinite, such as is suggested by the great plain of Russia.” In short, an easy place to get lost.

Whilst mystification and vilification are no way to study a country, Treisman goes on to say:

a generation of work by social scientists from both Russia and the West has shown that the country’s economic and politics are perfectly susceptible to careful observation, measurement, and reasoned interpretation. The apparently chaotic surfaces of political and economic life often turn out to conceal quite intelligible patterns that are in many ways similar to those found elsewhere.

Furthermore, there are patterns of foreign policy that are reasonably unique to Russia. The obsession with the ‘near abroad’ (bordering countries that were former parts of the Soviet Union/Russian empire) and ‘great power’ status, as well as Russia’s independence from foreign powers are obvious, and there have been attempts within the field to explain them as political narratives/myths unique to a country’s identity.

Orientalism in the Polish Borderlands Culture

The “Borderlands” are a region to the East of Poland with a longstanding mythology in Polish discourse. Being at different points in history part of the Polish state, they are a central place of political confrontation and national identity. The very term hints that they are part of Poland, albeit not in the centre. Speaking vaguely, they can form a part of ‘Greater’ Poland, constituting the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which I have written about already .

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Looking further into the word, it symbolises an ‘Otherness’ of the area’s inhabitants, who are defined only in their peripheral location from the Polish centre, which lowers their position in Poland. They are also ‘orientalised’, made exotic and uncommon to the Polish norm.

In 1996, at the ‘Borderlands Conference’ in Warsaw, Ryszard Kiersnowski slammed the then Polish Pope for talking about Lithuanians of Polish origin, but not about repressed Poles. Using the word “Borderlands”, Kiernowski isolated these Poles from Lithuania as their homeland. Kiernowski’s views are not an anomaly, and according to many who talk about the “Borderlands”, they are to be exclusively Polish. At around the same time as the conference in Warsaw, the Catholics of Przemyśl (a multi faith city), closed the doors of one of their churches, when their highest Earthly superior within their belief, attempted to hand the shrine to Ukrainian Catholics for the sake of good relations.

In many post-Soviet countries, there has been an idealisation of the past. In Russia for example, the pomp and grandeur of the former Russian Empire, together with its emblems and the might of the Orthodox Church, has seen a strong revival. In Poland, however, a cult has been formed around the lost lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and ‘greater’ Poland in general.

Many of those within the “Borderlands” react strongly against the Polish discourse, and it can easily be seen as a Polish Orientalism. Polish views on the Borderlands , exclude those who do not identify as Polish but who live in the Borderlands, such as Ukrainians, Ashkenazis, Belarusians, Lithuanians, etc. In this respect:

Orientalism was more susceptible to the influences of the culture that had created it than to the supposed aims of its research, also created by the West; hence its history shows both cohesion and clear connections with the culture dominating in its surroundings. [Said 2003, 57, also see 56].

In summary, the concept of the Borderlands in Poland is harmful to outsiders, and bears many similarities to colonial discourse. The assumption of the Ukrainian borderlands as pastoral, idyllic, and backwards (implicitly inferior), creates many problems and prejudices (Beauvois 2005, 8-13), and is a barrier to better neighbourly relations. As Said says, “culture [is] regarded as politically and even historically innocent; in my opinion exactly the opposite is true …” [Said 2003, 63].

Mapping Eastern Europe, a Postcolonial Narrative?

The EURASIA PROJECT , formally unveiled two years ago by Vladimir Putin, can be described as ‘essentialist’ in postcolonial terms. Essentialism is the practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. In a previous post I spoke about the alterity assigned to those in the post-Soviet space by its outsiders:

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe … is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Eurasianism as a contemporary foreign policy concept has been around since at least Gorbachev’s “New Thinking”, speaking as an alternative for those who see Russia as having a special place in world politics. As Russia is not imbued in a disadvantaging colonial power relationship, it was able to create a ‘grand narrative’ surrounding itself and the near abroad. A grand narrative, or ‘metanarrative’, claims to be a truth concerning the way the world works, and creates a story that explains and merges local or native narratives.

English: Ethnic map of the European part of th...

Ethnic map of the European part of the Russian Empire

Whilst Eurasia can be a simple geographic term, it can also imply a lot of political meanings and ‘truths’, referring to the historical and ‘legitimate’ influence over the territory of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet sucessor. The term encompasses widely different ethnicities and cultural groups, from Karelians and Chukchis to Moldovans, Chechnyans, and Tatars. The unifying narrative, enforced through colonial education of the ‘Slav’, the ‘Soviet’, or ‘Eurasian’, has only a Greater Russia as a common denominator.

The resurgence of these narratives can reflect hidden political threats and the new capabilities of certain groups. The alterity (state of being different) given by the pro and anti West that divides all these different ethnicities and countries domestically, unites them as a whole with an identity crisis. Eurasianism gives the new Russia historical legitimacy in its quest for regional influence, and discursively unites key actors within the post-Soviet space. Furthermore, it discursively neglects the pro-Europe within its near abroad, nurturing instead a pro-Russian elite.

Weak Estimate of EU GDP by Eurostat

So, the statistics for GDP in the EU and Euro area were released not long ago. The EU is down by 0.1% from last year, and the Euro area down by 0.2%. This seems to go against efforts made by many EU governments to shore up their economies, something that contrasts with signs of growth in America. However, the EU does still remain the world’s largest economy, and there is no reason to think that this part of a downward trajectory and not merely a blip.

Euro & US GDP growth rate

Euro & US GDP growth rate

The London stock exchange went up by 2.6% this morning, and posted a 5% rise in income for the year. However, French stocks, for example were lower, following bad news in the first quarter. European shares were up by 0.04 percent, for the FTSEurofirst 300. The eurozone is still in a good position, as ”Inflows remain strong, with so much liquidity from the central banks. Investors are buying every dip” (David Thebault from Global Equities).

The GDP for the EU & euro area last year was €12.89 trillion (US$16.56 trillion). Germany led the way with over 20% of the EU’s GDP, and is sure to resume a leadership this year,  even with the new results.

GDP provides an easy comparison for economic activity, as the measurement has largely been standardised, and its adoption is across the board. It’s  important to think about how much meaning these results really have though, as Frank Shostak, writing for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, claimed that GDP was far too ‘abstract’ with no link to reality:

The GDP framework cannot tell us whether final goods and services that were produced during a particular period of time are a reflection of real wealth expansion, or a reflection of capital consumption.
For instance, if a government embarks on the building of a pyramid, which adds absolutely nothing to the well-being of individuals, the GDP framework will regard this as economic growth. In reality, however, the building of the pyramid will divert real funding from wealth-generating activities, thereby stifling the production of wealth.

Because the GDP framework completely disregards the intermediate stages of production, it can be of little help in the assessment of boom-bust cycles. It is little wonder then that mainstream economists are forced to conclude that recessions are a response to a sudden fall in consumer spending. Consequently, it is quite logical within the GDP framework to advocate loose monetary policies to revive the “economy.”

Source - Flash estimate for the first quarter of 2013

The BBC sets the agenda on the Royal family (Republic)

Please note that I didn’t write this, but am reposting it from the campaign for a British Republic ( http://www.republic.org.uk/updates/?p=907 ). The headline is: ‘ BBC accused of blocking embarrassing royal stories

The BBC has been accused of operating a deliberate policy of ignoring or underplaying news stories that could embarrass the monarchy, while giving significant coverage to pro-royal “puff pieces”.

In the last six months the BBC, which employs a “royal liaison officer” to ensure good relations with Buckingham Palace, has overlooked a number of potentially damaging stories about the monarchy – despite extensive coverage in other national media outlets. These include:

Duchy of Cornwall accused of tax avoidance
Covered by: The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, Financial Times, The Daily Express
BBC coverage: none

Royal finances to be investigated by public accounts committee
Covered by: The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Sunday Express
BBC coverage: none

Prince Charles uses intestate cash to fund own lobby groups and old public school
Covered by: The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express
BBC coverage: none

A number of other stories – including the public accounts committee’s demand for the government to justify Prince Charles’s tax exemptions, revelations about the “royal veto” and the Queen’s £6m pay rise – received only fleeting coverage, despite being given high prominence by other media outlets.

In that time, however, the activities of the royal family – and in particular Prince Charles – have been covered in considerable detail by the BBC. Headlines on the corporation’s website over the previous six months include:

  • Prince Charles visits community shop
  • Charles and Camilla take Tube ride
  • Prince Charles: ‘I’m feeling very old’
  • Royal baby prompts green concern for Prince Charles
  • Prince Charles calls for more compassion in NHS
  • Prince Charles revives horse logging on Balmoral estate
  • Prince Charles urges ‘harmony with nature’
  • Prince Charles ‘worried’ for rural communities
  • Prince Charles visits Northampton shoe factory
  • Prince Charles visits Middleport Pottery factory

The BBC has also just announced a “Coronation celebration season” which aims to “bring the nation together this summer by allowing everyone to join in with the Coronation celebrations”.

Republic’s chief executive Graham Smith said: “When you look at the royal stories that the BBC covers and the ones it ignores, it’s difficult not to conclude that the corporation is at pains not to embarrass the royals. It will often send more than one reporter to a staged PR event, yet manages to overlook some really important public interest stories that licence fee payers have a right to know about.”

“Many of the stories the BBC has covered have all the hallmarks of PR puff pieces orchestrated by the palace press office – which the corporation seems eager to cover without the slightest concern for journalistic integrity.”

“If the BBC has the time and resources to report that Prince Andrew uses an iPad, then it can report on controversies surrounding the royal finances or Prince Charles’s political meddling.”

“The BBC is supposed to be independent, impartial and honest, but it seems to have been entirely co-opted into the royal PR machine. That’s why we’ll be protesting at Broadcasting House on Saturday – and why we’ll keep putting pressure on the BBC to cover the monarchy objectively.”

Gun Deaths? A Loaded Question

As a European, it can be too easy to chide the US for its obsession of guns. The caricature of a gun-toting, murdering, ‘hick’ is one that is all too acceptable in the UK and abroad. Most often accepted as proof of this, is the ratio of gun deaths per capita versus the amount of guns, as shown below.

Gun deaths vs ownership

Gun deaths vs ownership

However, some of the largest amount of gun deaths come from suicides. So what does it look like without that? Gun homicides plotted against gun ownership is shown below.

Gun homicides vs gun ownership in the OECD.

Gun homicides vs gun ownership in the OECD.

The above chart helps calm the debate a bit, at least among OECD countries. The chart below shows a trend in gun homicides, that the most common signifier isn’t actually the rate of gun ownership, but of course gang violence and even wars.

Note: I mainly sit on the fence for this issue, but this is a repost of Mark Reid’s graphs here, which I think are important to the debate http://mark.reid.name/blog/gun-deaths-vs-gun-ownership.html

Poland & the Postcolonial

Poland has, for hundreds of years, been surrounded and conquered by its neighbours. Recent history up until the very late 20th century has been no better, with Soviet-imposed massacres and brutal repression. Colonialism has evidently been a great part of Polish history, being a land between great powers, yet there is a reluctance in postcolonial literature to include colonial presence in Eastern Europe.

Yet some have recognised Ireland as a postcolonial country, with Eastern Europe as an unknown:

only one European country has thus far been exempted from the binary ‘First World-Third World’ model now governing post-colonial studies. This is Ireland which is, as Seamus Deane remarks, ‘the only Western European country that has both an early and a late colonial experience’ [...] Deane is careful to distinguish here between East and West; [which] remains terra incognita in recent theory. [Cavanagh 2003, 63-64].

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe (and Poland, which Cavanagh references), is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Colonialism, as well as cultural and geopolitical dominance, have played large roles in Eastern Europe. Numerous states have attempted (and at times succeeded in) exercising full or partial control over other countries, others have even occupied with settlers, and it is certainly not rare for there to be a system of economic exploitation. It is not that this has been confined to the history books either, Soviet presence being the greatest example, but also the aims of different groups during periods of ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

‘Outside’ influences such as that of the Turks in South-Eastern Europe, or that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are underreported in postcolonial studies. German cultural dominance imposed in Poland, for example, still holds sway over local elections even (see below).

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish railway infrastructure.

Polish railway infrastructure.

However, this is not to say that Poland was always the oppressed. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was a force to be reckoned with, and whilst it didn’t quite have the same level of brute as other European powers it still made efforts to assimilate other cultures and civilisations. This is also not to say, that colonisation of Poland, and colonisation outside of Europe are in any way equal. The point of this post is to highlight how postcolonial studies can overlook colonial discourse and events purely because of current affairs.

To further confuse those who delve deeper, there are also efforts to rehabilitate Eastern Europe away from the “Other”. The Economist states that the term has “connotations of “poverty, marginalisation, and weirdness” which is for most states there, “anything but.”  Membership in Schengen, the EU, NATO, and the reemergence of Russia in world politics as an ally of the West all play to the narrative that Europe is no longer divided. A video that plays with the concept of Eastern Europe, and attempts to think up new terms,

Cavanagh , C., 2003, Postkolonialna Polska. Bia ł a plama na mapie współ czesnej teorii, ”Teksty Drugie”, No. 64; 18-19. Quotations taken from other sites, which in turn quoted Cavanagh’s English version.

Republican Principles in 18th c. Britain

233 years and 4 days ago, John Dunning MP successfully moved a motion that stoutly attempted to make firm Parliament’s sovereignty.

This was a key stage in Britain’s democratic and republican growth, the motion stated that:

“the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”

& that

“it is competent to this house to examine into and correct abuses in the expenditure of the civil list revenues, as well as in every other branch of the public revenue, whenever it shall appear expedient to the wisdom of the house so to do”

Edmund Burke may have best described the ‘Crown’ in this context as a system of patronage and undemocratic secrecy that continually threatened to undermine the people-power of Parliament. Dunning my also have seen it this way, as the ‘Crown’ was acquiring a worrying amount of executive powers that would bypass Parliament in political decisions. This was in conjunction with the unpopular monarch, George III, who continually attempted to exercise undue influence on the democratic process.

Dunning is a lesson to modern British and foreign republicans, who all too often focus on one aspect of a state’s constitution and ignore other abuses of power. In Britain for example, there are still threats to republican values that are not through the monarchy or the Crown but in Parliament itself. The motion was successful, despite the 18th century Parliament being in many cases unrepresentative and simply corrupt. If a historical and weak Parliament could create such a bill as this, it is not hard to believe that the same may yet happen in modern times.

‘Right to be forgotten’ is not worth fighting for

Following very real concerns created by governments attempting to violate basic internet privacy, some of which were stopped by the EU itself, when the British government seeks to opt out of EU rights for internet users people understandably become worried. In fact, headlines created quite emotional reactions:

daman345 : The UK ought to f**k off on this one. That sounds like an important right to have in the online world.

oldtymer : What do you expect from this government? They will always put the interests of the huge corporate user before the rights of their citizens.

ryebonfire : Why on earth should the MoJ oppose this? Given that there should be sensible exceptions for State records, everyone has a right to the privacy of their personal data.

Others went as far to call it Orwellian, but is it scaremongering or yet another authoritarian policy on part of the government? For one thing, the idea of a ‘right to be forgotten’ is simply impractical.

The concept will either be overbearing or in actual fact promise very little. Richard Allan, a regional Facebook director for policy, said:

“we have concerns about about the workability and consequences of a mechanism where organisations start sending each other instructions about data that needs to be removed. Our worry is that it will take up resources and won’t be effective.”

Simply put, if an embarrassing picture is put online and spread to multiple sites it becomes both impossible to track and near infinitely time consuming to request takedowns. According to some sources, the law could cost the UK over £400m a year in total according to justice minister Lord McNally .

There are some parallels between this and copyright takedown, sites like Youtube have to cooperate with laws on copyright but lack the resources/incentive to do effectively, hence, they have automated systems that delete/block videos or accounts after a certain amount of requested takedowns. This automated system can be combatted if your personal details are filled in claiming ownership of your own video, but due to this can also be abused to silence those taking controversial stances who fear letting their personal information become public ( see here , for example). It is not unreasonable to suggest that the same kind of ‘doxxing’ could happen with any of these new proposed laws.

Lech Walesa the Homophobe – Reactionary Revolutionary

It seems the more you learn about the great heroes, the more you see their own personal demons. The West’s Eastern favourites, from Yeltsin to Saakashvili, are human too – with all the ugliness that comes with that.

Lech Walesa, a progressive democrat, activist, President from humble beginnings, and Nobel prize winner, made controversial and shocking comments about homosexuals this year:

They have to know that they are a minority and must adjust to smaller things. And not rise to the greatest heights … spoiling things for the others and taking from the majority, … I don’t agree to this and I will never agree to it. A minority should not impose itself on the majority.

Monika Olejnik stated that he had “disgraced the Nobel Prize.” However, it is not completely without warning that Walesa holds these views, though Poland is slowly becoming more progressive it is entirely possible that Walesa is stuck in the past. Gdansk, his hometown, is extremely conservative in this respect (albeit a wonderful place to visit as the author has). Adam Bielan, a conservative MEP, was surprised that “only now we are noticing that Walesa is not in control of what he says and that [his views are not] politically correct.”

A majority of Walesa’s countrymen oppose gay marriage, and at a campaign rally at the turn of the century he was quoted as implying that gay people need medical treatment. However, in a landmark election two years ago, Poland’s first transexual representative (Anna Grodska) and first openly gay representative (Robert Biedron) were elected.

It seems that Poland is changing, and Lech Walesa is no longer the revolutionary, but just another reactionary.

Vince Cable on Austerity in Britain

Balance of risks

Contrary to the rhetoric around economic policy, the real disagreements have had little to do with ideology or economic theory. The government has happily deployed Keynesian techniques where feasible – as in its counter-cyclical fiscal policy. It has been sufficiently pragmatic to allow the fiscal consolidation to drift from four years to seven. The question throughout has been how to maintain the confidence of creditors when the government is having to borrow at historically exceptional levels, without killing confidence in the economy in so doing through too harsh an approach.

When the government was formed it was in the context of febrile markets and worries about sovereign risk, at that stage in Greece, but with the potential for contagion. There was good reason to worry that the UK, as the country arguably most damaged by the banking crisis and with the largest fiscal deficit in the G20, could lose the confidence of creditors without a credible plan for deficit reduction including an early demonstration of commitment.

Almost three years later, the question is whether the balance of risks has changed. The IMF argued last May that the risk of losing market confidence as a result of a more relaxed approach to fiscal policy – particularly the financing of more capital investment by borrowing – may have diminished relative to the risk of public finances deteriorating as a consequence of continued lack of growth.

On the balance of risks, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. There is no theoretically correct solution: rather, a matter of judgement – which incorporates a political assessment of which risk is the least palatable. There is a body of opinion arguing that the risks to the economy of sticking to existing plans are greater than the risks stemming from significantly increased and sustained public investment targeted at those areas of the economy where there are severe impediments to growth (housing; skills; infrastructure; innovation). But this is also too crude and binary a characterisation of the position; the government has carried out considerable policy reform in these areas, not least in my own department, the fruits of which take a while to mature. The balance of risks remains a matter of judgement.

[ Source ]

Footnote: Poland now dependent on immigrants.

Poland: visa and stamps

Poland: visa and stamps (Photo credit: Sem Paradeiro)

According to a report by the Energy Europe foundation (PL), Poland is now dependent on immigration to maintain its economy and demographics. Over 244,000 workers came to Poland from other areas of Eastern Europe, mainly from Ukraine, to work last year. The report states that 5,200,000 must come to Poland by 2050 and stay there if the country is to avoid depopulation and a demographic disaster.

Following the drain of skilled workers to the UK and other countries, Poland has had to rein in its workforce and attempt to lure more people to the country. Prof. Krystyna Iglicka, an expert demographer, said about immigrants:

We need them but we don’t know how to keep them for good.

Poland’s laws on immigrations are highly influenced by the EU’s freedom of movement for citizens and employees, and is relatively simple and easy for EU citizens. Aside from notable exceptions (such as the right of return), other nationals have to obtain a visa and a work permit before coming to the country.

How Populism in Russia is finally tackling Corruption

For many years, corruption has been a normal part of life in the post-Soviet Russia. Oligarchs would bribe ministers for government contracts, ministers would bribe judges, and those who could afford it would bribe the government officials on the street. That might have changed after Yeltsin stood down, but in relation to the other crises at the time (economy, Chechnya, etc.) it has been less than satisfactory.

Putin’s approval ratings up until 2008. Compare with today – http://www.levada.ru/indeksy

Having a popularity rating around 70% or more meant there was little to gain in tackling a resistant and toxic problem. A booming economy too, meant that the money lost through bribery and corruption was ‘affordable’. However, both the high rating by the public and seemingly endless boom were not to last. We can see now how the Russian state is being influenced by 1) a weaker economy, and 2) a more demanding populace.

The Active Citizen

The current ruling party, United Russia, has been increasingly viewed by the oppositionist blogger Alexei Navalny’s term – the “party of crooks and thieves”. Amid unexpected mass demonstrations, and a stronger opposition holding the Kremlin to account, President Vladimir Putin was forced to genuinely take the corruption problem head-on.

Last December, Medvedev outlined three conditions needed to be able to fight corruption effectively:

  1. Political Will (of the leadership)
  2. Political Demand (of the constituents)
  3. Legislative Foundation

Since then, the Kremlin (or at least enthusiastic minorities within) have been slowly building upon these three preconditions.

Political will has been encouraged, and in some instances, coerced. The former Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was sacked and put under investigation after it was alleged that he had sold ministry assets for his own benefit. One of the previous ‘rules’ of Russian politics was that if you were in Putin’s circle and stayed loyal, then you could expect at least the same. Serdyukov was loyal, but corrupt, does this imply a new principle in Moscow? Putin claimed that he removed Serdyukov to foster ”conditions for an objective investigation”.

There has been a strong and active citizen involved in anti-corruption too. The recent citizen journalism that exposed Vladimir Pekhtin and his undeclared assets was a catalyst that led more to go, and will have unforeseeable consequences in the Duma. Two similar legislators, Lomakin and Tolstopyatov, rapidly followed suit . More lower house representatives will apparently be affected soon , and word is that it will affect the upper house too . Olga Kryshtanovskaya remarked that:

A certain section of the elite is in a state of obvious confusion. People do not understand what is happening. They doubt whether they can exist within this system. Some are leaving. Some are being dismissed …

Along with this, Russia has acted upon its less than favourable judiciary , and enacted stronger legislation. Membership in the OECD’s anti-bribery convention proved a moment where there was no turning back, either the current political elite solves this or they fall with it.

The Austerity Alternative

The government currently loses hundreds of billions of dollars every year due to corruption or ‘grafting’. Since the economic crisis, growth has slowed to a modest 2.2% at last view.

Stronger legislation since mid-2012 has enabled senior officials such as the CEO of the state electricity firm MRSK, ex-ministers such as Yelena Skrynnik, and high profile government contractors such as Yury Urlichich, to be held to account in front of the law.

In 2012, the government stopped altogether state-owned companies to subcontract other companies where the ownership was not known. State officials and representatives have been forced to declare incomes, interests, and assets.

However, most importantly, arrests have been made, it seems for all the media hype there is actually something important going on here.

Related articles

Russian Foreign Relations: Norway

Historically, relations between the Soviet Union (of which Russia was a ‘successor state’) and Norway were at times more than cold. Territorial and environmental disputes, as well as a high-profile treason case all contributed to an uncooperative relationship. Tensions meant that the Soviet Union and Norway generally kept a distance.

Whilst there are still longstanding issues today, many of the issues inhibiting cooperation and a closer relationship have been resolved.

Foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov (L) of Russia and Jonas Gahr Store (R) of Norway

Foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov (L) of Russia and Jonas Gahr Store (R) of Norway

As Political Deficit has stated on more than one occasion ( 1 , 2 , etc.) , Putin and Russia are not uncompromising ideologues as they are at times painted to be – but firm pragmatists (or realists in IR terms). As Mark Adomanis of Forbes said:

Putin cares about the bottom line … if you look at how he’s actually conducted foreign policy it’s surprisingly defensive and reactive. More than that, he’s actually been pretty effective.

In short, modern Russian relations should be good with Norway as long as Norway doesn’t threaten Russian power – economic or otherwise. This works as a theory, and in real life.

In 2006, Norway was said to want an equidistant border between the two countries – following a ‘median line principle’. This was its stance since at least the 1970s, something that fell on deaf ears with the Soviets. Finally, in April 2010, a deal was made following over four decades of disagreement . Lavrov remarked that the treaty:

opens way for broader cooperation of our countries in the energy sphere. Besides oil and gas searching, now, there will be possibilities of cooperation in other spheres, including navigation and transport.”

United Press International reported that Putin would personally prefer Norwegian companies to other companies to work in Russia. This marks a positive view of Norway within Russia as a professional and wealthy country to do business with. The Russian military is also keen to partake in exercises with its Norwegian counterpart – something unthinkable a few decades ago.

As a conclusion, , Russia’s resurgence and non-confrontational leadership has enabled it to make stronger connections across Europe and solve the problems it faces in countries such as Norway with relative ease.

This post was made with the help of http://www.randomcountry.com/random.php

Vladimir Putin , having been recently named possibly the most powerful person on the planet by the American Foreign Policy magazine, could well have been a puzzling choice for some. However, for many FP buffs or Russia watchers, the reality was already known. In Russia, Putin can command a lot of support through many channels lacking in other, more powerful, countries. So too can he act without restraint from the EU, a strong constitution, or a coalition in government.

However, there were alternatives to choose from, and the choice is still certainly up for debate.

Christine Lagarde , the world’s loan shark, in the unusual position of being incredibly influential in many different places around the world. It is up to her and the IMF as to how influential she will be, as an intervention in Europe or elsewhere would mean big news.

The man behind China, Xi Jinping , could have a huge effect on the world if he decides to push ahead with meaningful reform. As with Lagarde, Jinping’s influence on 2013 is mostly up to him. China isn’t in an existential state, but  with the lowest annual GDP rate in 10 years and tempers steeply rising over what would perhaps previously be considered inane, reform might be just what is needed to keep China on track. Jinping made strong words already this year, but are they simply rhetoric?

The new leader, Jinping (L) and the old, Hu Jintao (R)

The new leader, Jinping (L) and the old, Hu Jintao (R)

Barack Obama is someone nobody can leave out of a ‘most powerful/influential’ list. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia group said “Even at a time when Washington is focused almost entirely on Washington, the elected leader of the world’s most powerful and influential country carries a lot of water.” Obama will try to keep out of anything too drastic for now, as domestic problems are key.

Around 20 years ago, Angela Merkel was an unknown player in German politics. However, in Helmut Kohl’s fourth and fifth cabinets, she would gain notoriety and influence. Being Kohl’s protégé, she has been solidly committed to the Eurozone as a simple step up from German reunification. However, her commitment is seen as overly harsh in certain countries and is having to play a delicate balance between domestic support, foreign distaste, and an unwillingness to compromise by certain country’s leaders in the same way that was done at the start of the crisis.

Merkel (L) and Kohl (R)

Merkel (L), and Kohl (R).

It must be said that none of the above have the same power that Putin does. True it is to say that some are at the head of stronger economies, militaries, and can hold much more influence across the world than Russia as a whole might. Nonetheless, none of them have such power concentrated in one representative.

Whilst the modern Russia is a democracy, and the President today has nowhere near the amount of freedom as the former Soviet Premier had, Putin has inherited a position that does not have to seek consensus in order to exert power. Andrew Rahr, research director of the German-Russian forum, had this to say of Putin:

It is not official propaganda that cultivates the image of Putin as a strong leader, at least not primarily. Following the shocks of the 1990s, Russians above all wanted social guarantees, a stable economy and a strong and independent foreign policy. Putin managed to deliver on these priorities.

Competence in Russian politics is undervalued by foreign media, and Putin has shown much competency. How does this make him the world’s most powerful player though? It doesn’t, at least on its own. High approval ratings, a strong and resurgent Russia, adept political manoeuvring, and consolidated political power and alliances all make Putin the prime candidate.

Unlike other Western politicians, Putin has a comfortable majority in the polls. Unlike the current status quo, Russia has yet much more potential to gain. Unlike leaders like Jinping, Putin has proved himself comfortable with pragmatic friendships and political alliances. Unlike those who lead the powerful countries in the West, the Russian president has historically had much more constitutional power and is not at the perils of Congress/Brussels.

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin’s dacha

Putin, using the BRICS , has made it no secret his ideal of a new multipolar world order. Economic crisis striking the richest countries, and the comparative ease that the BRICS have shook it off, have furthered this goal somewhat. Last year, intervention in Syria was prevented, America was not pleased.

This year, it will take more than  vetoes for the new Russia to surge, but it is doable. The coming months will highlight a discussion on the urgent need of reform in the Federation, and how this affects its potential.

Forget 2011, there is a real threat to democracy in Russia in 2013

In 2011, there were protests concerning alleged election fraud by United Russia – which is now in government. Whilst it is near impossible to suggest that in a country such as Russia (that has only recently had comparatively free and fair elections) is completely clean of fraud, the exit polls (and  predictions by sociologists) showed a very small margin of error – let alone a sign that the election itself was rigged.

On Wednesday, it was announced that there would be an overhaul of the current system. Buried beneath the news of Depardieu’s defection, the new bill will change Russian elections from a system to a combination of proportional and majoritarian systems. Did you hear of any protests?

Putin & Medvedev (with the UR logo in the background)

Putin & Medvedev (with the UR logo in the background). Putin’s new bill is likely to benefit incumbents heavily.

There is a very clear comparison for this to show what will change, as Russia had this system up unti 2003 until the current administration changed it for more proportional elections. Back in 2003, United Russia won nearly half of seats available – even though it only got 38% and 24% in the proportional and majoritarian elections respectively. Whilst the system isn’t undemocratic in itself, this is perhaps a tactic of a ruling party that worries its days are numbered. Whether you agree with that or not, even most who agree with their policies would think such a move dishonest at the least.

The new system will also, somewhat ironically, lower the amount of complaints against electoral fraud whilst doing little about it compared to other recent bills concerning elections (that tended to have the opposite effect). This is because fraud, or accusing those of fraud, will only be worth it if your party wins that seat as results count only as wins/losses.

A funny concept too, is the fact that whilst many in the West have suggested that it was too hard to form a party in Russia, the New York Times now suggests that it was too easy – saying:

Mr. Putin, in a speech to the Russian Parliament last month, described the proposed change as a continuation of liberalization efforts that began last year with an easing of restrictions on creating political parties. Critics of that process say it is now too easy to form a party, effectively splintering the opposition like a shattered pane of glass.”

Comments & Curios III

The American NGO, operating in North Korea

For once, good news about North Korea.

The story of an Arizona rancher who moved to the most oppressive country on earth — and is attempting to reconcile two countries that have been enemies for decades.

Iran files a lawsuit against Russia

Dmitry Gorenburg warns that this might backfire, but others speculate that this might be an unavoidable consequence of Russia seeing more profit by selling to countries aligned to Israel and America – who would oppose any business with Iran.

Protestants now no longer the majority in N. Ireland

This might give some context to the Protestants who feel that the Catholics are gaining more control, despite the DUP currently leading Stormont.

The proportion of Protestants in Northern Ireland has fallen below 50 percent for the first time, census figures showed on Tuesday, raising the prospect that the growing numbers of Catholics could upset a fragile political balance.