Aug 24th 2006
From The Economist print edition
A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler
By Jason Roberts
HarperCollins; 400 pages; $26.95.
Simon & Schuster; �12.99
Buy it at
LIEUTENANT James Holman was already a remarkably good naval officer
when he went blind in 1811, at the age of 25. What he did after that
was extraordinary. In an age when blindness usually meant a life of
passive gratitude at best, and beggary at worst, Holman became an
international traveller. He journeyed alone, with very little money,
trusting to his natural gift for friendship.
Holman observed acutely what he found, by ear, touch and smell. Using
a clever device, a noctograph (carbon paper on a rigid wooden frame),
he wrote it down. His descriptive powers were so good that, at the
height of his fame, he was Britain's best-known travel writer. Holman
journeyed across Russia to Siberia and back, visiting Africa, India,
China, Australia and Latin America and a lot of Europe too. Locomotion
was by sailing ship, horse and foot�and by those means he covered
250,000 miles (400,000km), according to Jason Roberts, who has
unearthed his story.
The author paints a convincing and well-researched picture of Holman's
early life as an apothecary's son in Exeter, his stellar naval career,
his growing ill-health, and the bleak prospects that awaited him as
his vision dimmed. The descriptions of the gruesome medical treatments
then available for disorders of the eye are stomach-turning.
He also pieces together the details of Holman's travels, using his
published works and the observations of others. Holman's first long
trip, to Russia, is particularly well drawn: disgusting meals,
bureaucratic barriers and a charming English widow in Irkutsk, a town
boiling with money in a way that is reminiscent of Russia today. He
makes an interesting link between Holman's trick of banging a stick to
gain an aural picture of his location and other similar techniques
being developed to help people use their ears as their eyes.
What Mr Roberts does not manage to do is portray his subject
completely convincingly. He says, frequently, that Holman was a
charming conversationalist, an able linguist, a great ladies' man,
resourceful and uncomplaining. But what of the vices? Was Holman,
perhaps, a bit garrulous? Or self-important? That would certainly help
explain the remarkable eclipse of his career in later life.
Some of this, no doubt, can be ascribed to prejudice, and to jealousy.
Mr Roberts makes a lot of that, perhaps too much. What seems atrocious
now, of course, was the way of the world then. But the end result, for
all the excellent detective work and atmospherics, is a touch
unsatisfying. Disabled people may be heroes, but they are not
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Disinformation flows along the Dniestr river
By Edward Lucas
On 17 September a non-country will be holding a non-vote. The non-country is Transdniestria, a strip of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine.
The non-vote is a poll about its future – by some counts the 11th since the Transdniestria authorities declared independence from Moldova proper in 1990. But no credible outsiders will observe it. The outcome is not in doubt.
It is also a non-vote because the question is oddly phrased. Voters are asked to support either the leadership’s current line, of independence leading to ‘association’ with the Russian federation, or to rejoin Moldova. That is not a mandate for real talks about the future, but a rejection of them. It’s the same old dreary story of posturing and deadlock.
What is new, however, is the energetic efforts by the Trandsniestrian authorities to make their case in English, online. When I last visited the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol, back in 2001, it was an internet-free zone.
Now that’s changed. There’s tiraspoltimes.com (published by an elusive Irishman), pridnestrovie.net, visitpmr.com and transdniestria.com. They are well-written – mostly by native-speakers of English – well-designed, and well-targetted at outsiders whose sympathy with the underdog might lead them to support a self-declared state struggling against the disdain of the international community.
What puzzles me, though, is who is behind this. Earlier this summer, in two articles for The Economist, I raised some questions about another outfit supporting Transdniestria, the self-described International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS). This had published a heavily-footnoted report, in grand lawyerly style, about the legal basis for Transdniestrian independence. This report was cited by the sites above, and others in Russia, as a sign that western opinion was coming round to the Transdniestrian viewpoint.
Trouble was, the ICDISS had no phone number, address, legal status – and no identifiable funding, history or personnel. The distinguished international lawyers cited as sources disclaimed any involvement. Its excuses (provided only by email) were threadbare. Every trail that might prove its prior existence goes cold, or looks alarmingly like an outright forgery.
At first I thought I smelled a Kremlin disinformation campaign. But on closer examination that seemed too flattering. The steely professionals of the Yasenevo ‘sanatorium’ (as the Russian Foreign Intelligence headquarters in southern Moscow is nicknamed) would be ashamed of such amateurish efforts, so easily exposed by a few clicks of a journalist’s mouse. The fingerprints were of cowboys, not colonels.
It seems more likely that the ICDISS is a bunch of lightweight opportunists in Washington DC, paid for by tycoons and goons in Transdniestria, perhaps with the encouragement of sympathisers in Moscow. The same money probably pays for the other websites, and also subsidises ‘Breakthrough’, a local youth movement that apes similar pro-Kremlin efforts in Russia. Coincidentally or not, similar stunts are being pulled in the Caucasus and the Baltics.
Fake think-tanks, spurious reports and manufactured protest movements were common currency for both sides in the old Cold War; now they are popping up in the new one. Unprecedented money, effort and brainpower are now going into pro-Russian mischief-making in Europe’s backyard, to general indifference.
Whether you see it as merely entertaining, or outright sinister, the information war disguises hard questions for both sides. Once the European Union admits Romania, the question of what to do with next-door Moldova – and therefore of Transdniestria – cannot be dodged. And what does Russia really want? So far, it has maintained Transdniestria as a lucrative irritant.
But ambiguity has its limits. Transdniestria wants to become another Kaliningrad. Does the Kremlin want that? And if not, what?
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Communicating the Skype way
From The Economist print edition
Sten Tamkivi, the Estonian manager of Skype, is helping to change the face of telephony
LIKE most people doing important jobs in Estonia, Sten Tamkivi is alarmingly young. He is 28—practically a greybeard in a country that once had a 27-year-old foreign minister. And like many Estonians, he is reticent and modest. Asked for his job title, he looks apologetic. “I think I am director of operations,” he says. “We're not that big on titles.” Most people in his shoes would be boasting. Mr Tamkivi runs Skype, one of the software world's most subversive and fastest-growing businesses.
Founded by a Swede, Niklas Zennström, a Dane, Janus Friis, and a group of Estonian programmers, Skype's proprietary, voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) software allows its 113m registered users to call each other free of charge. The company makes money, on the other hand, when its customers place calls to traditional telephones—but these are still extremely cheap. Skype and other VOIP companies threaten to undermine incumbent operators' pricing structures and gradually to wipe out the traditional, high-margin telephone business.
Late last year, Skype's founders sold their share in the business to eBay, an auction and trading website based in California, for $2.5 billion, plus another $1.5 billion if Skype hits certain performance targets. Meg Whitman, chief executive of eBay, recently said that she expects Skype to bring in revenues of $200m in 2006 (though the firm is not yet profitable). Mr Zennström is Skype's chief executive and its public face, but he leaves day-to-day operations and developing the firm's software to Mr Tamkivi and his team, and Skype's research and development division is based in Estonia.
Like its product, the company's culture seems to be based on long-distance communication. Indeed, the most important internal business tool is Skype itself, particularly its instant-messaging system, Skype Chat. Its first advantage, says Mr Tamkivi, is “presence data”. You can signal whether you are out, busy, reachable elsewhere or free—and all your colleagues can see. An unanswered e-mail, by comparison, tells you almost nothing. If required, you can add a video-conference or phone call at the click of a mouse. Of particular value is the fact that Skype chats are not only encrypted but work only between people who trust each other—the best possible defence against spam. And chats allow lots of people—sometimes 50 Skype staff, Mr Tamkivi says—to communicate with each other, “for minutes or for years”. The chat history is instantly accessible to all participants: “try to achieve that with a long e-mail thread,” he says.
Here is a snatch of Skype chat where Mr Tamkivi and two colleagues are discussing a future presentation:
13:37:48 Alex Kazim says: Ott, especially need you to look at the slide where I try to explain how VOIP works. This is like me trying to explain quantum
13:41:28 Sten Tamkivi says: try the electron: VOIP can be viewed as a particle or wave at any point in time.
13:41:57 Alex Kazim says: hehe
13:42:41 Sten Tamkivi says: for added abstraction and analyst awe, describe it as a thought or a smell
13:45:03 Alex Kazim says: it's a state of mind. A veritable Tao of VOIP
13:46:07 Ott in Tallinn says: uh, you're not holding back :) by the way—according to our brandbook—Words we do not like—VOIP, Internet Telephony etc :)
13:47:03 Sten Tamkivi says: according to the same book, words we do like: share, baboon...
It is hard to imagine such informality (or healthy dislike of jargon) surviving in many boardrooms. Skype's programmers—there are around 150 of them in total, from all corners of the world, with an average age of just under 28—are a formidable bunch, but the company tries hard to seem as ungeeky as possible to its users. Skypenauts like Mr Tamkivi don't want their ingenious software to be technically fascinating—they don't even release the source code. They just want it to be very easy to use.
And it is. The people who police company networks, indeed, worry that their computers and bandwidth are being hijacked into handling Skype's calls. Like Google's Gmail, a powerful and well designed e-mail service that people often prefer to their company's own system (to the chagrin of IT managers), Skype may prove too attractive to squash. Mr Tamkivi's next big project is to move Skype beyond computers, onto gadgets that people carry in their pockets. The first Skype-capable mobile phones have come on the market; some handheld computers run it too. Another plan is to have Skype on a memory stick.
Mr Tamkivi founded his first software business at the age of 18, and he dropped out of university after a year—he says he still wishes he had a better grasp of economics. Although born in a country occupied by the Soviet Union, he barely remembers communism; it was already collapsing when he was 10. He is determined that Estonia, which is already a power in European information technology (albeit a tiny one) should make a success of capitalism. He has spoken out repeatedly against the government's xenophobic visa rules, which make it hard to hire programmers from India and China. And he wants to get the education system to sponsor foreign academics to teach computer-related disciplines at Estonia's universities. The country's programming talent pool is heavily over-fished, not just by Skype but by other software companies that appreciate its nonhierarchical, open-minded and direct business environment.
Mr Tamkivi wants to preserve Skype's original culture as the company grows under eBay's wing. Estonian companies have done well elsewhere in the Baltic states, but no Estonian-run firm has ever been as international in its staff, outlook and activities. It is not surprising, perhaps, that Mr Tamkivi's Skype chat status is so often set to “do not disturb”.
Friday, August 11, 2006
The glories of food
From The Economist print edition
Books and food don't always mix well
HOWEVER enthusiastic and knowledgeable their authors may be, books about food are rarely as palatable as the meals they describe. Accounts of other people's eating lose a lot in the telling, while kitchen horror stories may be gripping, but fail to satisfy.
Bill Buford's “Heat” is a glorious exception. The author is a world-class wordsmith: a writer on the New Yorker and before that the founding editor of Britain's best fiction periodical, Granta. He is also a keen but (by his own admission) “fundamentally clueless” amateur cook. He lacks a sense for time and quantities; he can't plan. The food that he inflicts on his friends is burnt or raw or both.
Perhaps, he thinks, spending a bit of time with professional cooks might help. Someone less obsessive might start off taking a few cookery courses, or working in a gently paced kitchen with some indulgent tutors. Not Mr Buford. He starts off as a “kitchen slave”, the lowest of the low, in one of New York's best Italian restaurants. It helps, a bit, that it is owned by a friend, Mario Batali.
And that's what gives this book its depth. It's not just about food, and cooking, but about the culture and history that surround them, and a journey into a world where managing words comes a poor second to skills with flavours. Mr Buford also has a biographer's gift of bringing characters to life. From the humble slicers and dicers who dream one day of running their own place, to titanic personalities such as Marco Pierre White, a volatile London restaurateur, Mr Buford fills his book with people as pungent and spicy as the food. Mr White's spectacularly chaotic life is matched only by the gargantuan appetites of his New York counterpart, and one-time student, Mr Batali, who rejoices in the motto: “Wretched excess is just barely enough”.
What starts as a journalist's jape turns into a sometimes disquieting mission. Mr Buford's desire to understand the lore of meat, for instance, leads him to decamp with his long-suffering wife to a dingy Italian hill town where a temperamental butcher will sometimes (if he likes you) sell you the best meat in Italy. In the end, though, Mr Buford's book deserves to be a bestseller, and his fans will be pleased that his culinary odyssey has only begun; he finishes the book consumed by curiosity about French cooking.
Mr Buford's uninhibited joie de manger is in stark contrast to the leaden prose and patronising tone of David Kamp's history of American gastronomy. The sort of person who reads restaurant guides for fun, and sees food as a branch of fashion, may enjoy his interminable account of chefs, restaurants, dishes and fads. The diligence of the research is certainly striking: if everyone mentioned in the book buys a copy, it will do well. But for the general reader, the onslaught of names is overpowering. And whereas Mr Buford's asides are uproarious, Mr Kamp's are tiresomely cutesy.
It is a relief to turn to Warren Belasco's ingenious analysis of the way in which optimists and pessimists alike use food to illustrate their vision of the future. Malthusians think we will starve. Cornucopianists believe an age of plenty is just round the corner. One lot say food is getting cheaper and better than ever. The other insist that it is increasingly less nutritious and environmentally unsustainable to produce. As well as science fiction, he mines journalism, advertising and political propaganda for examples of false predictions, ranging from the amusing (dog-sized cows in every garden, according to Reader's Digest in 1955) to the outright foolish, all handled with a welcome mix of scepticism and tolerance.
Mr Belasco concludes by suggesting that forecasts need demystifying. “We need to be more savvy about the rhetorical conventions, false dichotomies, inappropriate analogies, questionable assumptions and dubious calculations that keep cropping up whenever the future is discussed.” Second helpings of that, please.
Screening Poland's past
We've got a little list
From The Economist print edition
Cleaning up Poland's communist past is a messy business
SLEAZE, pervasive and corrosive, is either the biggest problem in Poland, or a myth created by paranoid bigots. For the centre-right government, spies old and new, with their deep connections to the communist past and crooked business chums, must be rooted out of public life. For much of the country's elite, that sounds dangerously like a witch-hunt.
Poland has largely dodged the issue of collaboration with the old secret police. That reflects the way in which Polish communism crumbled in the summer of 1989—by negotiation, and not abruptly. Later that year, in countries such as the then Czechoslovakia and East Germany, communism simply collapsed. In those places, screening was tough initially but, as a result, the issue has gone away.
Under Poland's current, limited, law, only around 27,000 holders of senior public office are subject to vetting. They must sign a statement that they never co-operated with the communist secret police; this is then checked—as far as possible—with the huge intelligence archives now run by the Institute of National Remembrance, known in Polish as the IPN.
Not everything in the IPN files is true—and many things that are true are not in them. Their selective use is poisonous, destroying careers and lives. Last year Bronislaw Wildstein, a prominent journalist then working at the IPN, leaked an unofficial list of up to 240,000 names contained in its files. This gave no indication of whether those cited were victims of the regime's surveillance or collaborators in it.
The case of Zyta Gilowska, finance minister until June, highlights the system's flaws. A secret police file seemed to incriminate her, so she was fired from the government. But once she ceased to be a public figure, the vetting court said it was unable to hear her case, or even tell her what she was accused of. She has now appealed, looks likely to be found innocent, and may even return to the government.
For Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twins who are respectively Poland's president and prime minister, reforming all this borders on an obsession. The governing coalition is pushing through parliament a new law on vetting that will screen up to 500,000 people for contacts with communist-era secret services. Depending on how it is interpreted, the new law will include most civil servants, teachers, academics and managers of state firms. The IPN will take over from the court.
But the new bill has some big drawbacks. One is that it is poorly drafted. It seems not to distinguish between those who were contacted by the secret police but declined to co-operate, and those who collaborated actively. In effect, that creates a presumption of guilt. People risk losing their jobs if they cannot prove their innocence of a charge based on elderly files, peppered with forgeries and exaggerations. Another worry is that vetting may reveal snooped data on juicy but irrelevant matters such as personal gossip.
The lower house of parliament has hurriedly passed the new bill; the upper chamber is likely to amend it, to try to protect victims of totalitarianism from suffering twice. According to Jan Olszewski, a former opposition activist and prime minister, the parliamentary deputies who drafted the bill were mostly too young to have had much contact with communist rule. Senators, on the other hand, are older, and include more ex-dissidents who understand the dilemmas and contradictions of life under totalitarianism. Bogdan Borusewicz, the leader of the upper house and a founder of the Solidarity trade union that toppled communism, suggests starting from scratch: correcting the lower house's bill, he says, would be like “changing a cow into a horse”.
Whether bovine or equine, the bill is belated. Exposing communist-era collaboration might have been useful in the 1990s. But nowadays the corruption and abuse of power that have flourished in the post-communist era are a bigger issue.
To tackle that problem, the government has set up a powerful new anti-corruption agency. It is also screening all 2,000-odd officers of the WSI, the military intelligence service. This is the biggest bugbear: a lawless, unreformed communist-era bureaucracy, the government says, that has escaped all political control.
This week the deadline expired for WSI officers to confess to past misdeeds, including leaking secrets, hindering criminal proceedings, using violence, illegally influencing the authorities or having unauthorised contacts with businessmen or journalists. Once checked and absolved, their authors may then join the new military intelligence services to be formed on October 1st. Some worry that this is all too quick, too politicised, and may disrupt Poland's military security.
Cleaning up public life in Poland is a fine aim. Having waited so long, it would be a pity not to do it properly.
Slovakia's odd coalition
Iffy and whiffy
Aug 10th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Slovakia's new government is neither mad nor bad. That's mildly reassuring
Get article background
NIGHTMARES in ex-communist politics feature populist, racist and authoritarian parties. So Slovakia's new coalition government, consisting of all three, promised sweat-drenched nights for liberal-minded Slovaks and outsiders alike. But not all bad dreams come true.
A prime bogeyman for outsiders and liberal-minded Slovaks is Jan Slota, the leader of the radical right-wing Slovak National Party. He is known for his intemperate remarks about the country's Roma (Gypsy) and Hungarian minorities. The former, he said, were a problem best approached with a “long whip in a small yard”. He once said he would like to flatten the Hungarian capital, Budapest, with a tank. His convivial lifestyle attracts attention too (he explained an anti-Hungarian remark by pleading drunkenness).
But he has been sidelined. His party, which polled 11.7% and won 20 seats in the 150-member parliament, has just three ministers, none of them important.
A second creature of the night is Vladimir Meciar. As prime minister until 1998, he made Slovakia a pariah in western eyes, and a paradise for goons and gangsters. But, like Mr Slota, Mr Meciar is not in the government. His party won 15 seats and has two ministers, neither in big jobs. Top posts in the police and the security services, magnets for power-hungry Meciarites, have gone to neutral candidates.
The third spectre is the economic populism of Smer (Direction), the main coalition party. Its leader, Robert Fico, is now prime minister. He used to talk about ending Slovakia's flat tax, stoking welfare spending and intervening more in the economy. But the government programme launched last week offered only vague and watered-down versions of these plans.
Higher spending, chiefly on education, health and pensions, plus lower VAT on some items may cost 40 billion koruna ($1.5 billion), according to the Bratislava office of ING, a bank. “Millionaires”, as the government calls those earning more than €1,300 ($1,670) a month, may pay more income tax. The net result will be a higher budget deficit, at least 2.2% of GDP by the year-end. But the government insists Slovakia will adopt the euro in January 2009.
Given the cost of propping up the koruna as the government wobbled into place, joining the common currency soon seems wise. After blowing more than €3 billion on backing the currency, the central bank last week raised interest rates by 50 basis points. Any more rude shocks would have left Slovakia looking vulnerable.
Slower privatisation, softer policies and fiddlier taxes may be regrettable in a country noted until recently for its radical reforms. But they do not spell doom. The bigger worry is competence. Few in the government have held office before. The finance minister, Jan Pociatek, is a notable lightweight, best-known as a restaurateur with a penchant for flashy motorcycles. In the parliamentary debate last week on the government programme, he repeatedly declined opposition invitations to elaborate on the spending plans.
A lacklustre team of ministers means that Mr Fico's strong personality will dominate the government. It is reassuring that he wants to keep Slovakia in Europe's political and economic mainstream. But making public finances shipshape for the euro while keeping his supporters and coalition partners happy will be hard.
Thursday, August 03, 2006
How to disguise, inflate and disappear on the internet
TRACKING down the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS) which seems to be a front organisation for a Kremlin-backed rogue statelet called Transdniestria (see article), is easy at first, then very difficult.
The first port of call is, of course, icdiss.org. This is nicely designed and eloquently written. At first sight, it looks like just what it claims to be—the product of some seasoned foreign-policy wonks who want to get their hands dirty in helping new countries to get on their feet. But all the details are strikingly vague.
The website’s registration can be found at srsplus.com. Googling those details shows no trace on the internet for the “Robinson Corbett-Smith” who registered the site on January 14th this year. The address given is a hotel. The phone number is incomplete. A reverse IP search reveals that the site is hosted in Riga, Latvia, along with 850-odd others, mostly relatively innocent such as rapegod.com, but also pridnestrovie.net and visitpmr.com which are propaganda sites for Transdniestria. These sites acknowledge help from the ICDISS.
A Lexis-Nexis search for the ICDISS, in all languages and media going back 20 years, produces not a single entry. None of the people supposedly working for it—Joseph Connolly, Megan Stephenson or William Wood—appear in any plausible foreign-policy context in internet searches. A Wikipedia entry is authoritative but vague. It refers to a foreign-policy blog, diplomadic.blogspot.com, which it implies has connections to the ICDISS. But this has been largely defunct, and contains no mention of the organisation.
The Wikipedia entry’s history shows that some unkind person has tried to change it, to say that the ICDISS is based not in Washington, DC but in the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol, and is made up not of 60 diplomats and specialists, but four officers of the ministry of state security there.
The original author of the entry, who works under the name of Liliana Dioguardi, has changed it back to the more flattering version. So who’s she? Someone of that name, apparently an Italian-based Venezuelan émigré, has contributed in Spanish to an internet discussion in 2004. But her mobile is disconnected and her landline doesn’t answer. An e-mail brings no response.
Further investigation of the ICDISS website reveals several different versions of a controversial document on Transdniestrian independence, which has been published in the Russian media, supposedly authored by eminent Western jurists. The Russian version is subtly different in its attribution, saying that the report is “based on” their work. The English version says it “draws from research by a number of noted attorneys, in particular the following:” Later versions drop all the attributions—presumably after complaints from the individuals concerned (which have been seen by The Economist).
The report is supposedly based on a conference held at the Beacon Hotel in Washington in April. The hotel says it has no trace of such a booking.
Meanwhile, an e-mail to the ICDISS has produced a response, apparently from Ms Stephenson. She has been interviewed in the Tiraspol Times, an online magazine produced (again, expertly but mysteriously) in support of the authorities there.
But whereas that interview is forceful and forthcoming, Ms Stephenson is polite but elusive when dealing with The Economist. A list of questions includes:
1) Who funds you?
2) Where are you based?
3) Who are your trustees?
4) What is your tax status?
5) What are your publications?
6) Was your April 2006 conference on PMR (the Russian acronym for Transdniestria) public? If so, who attended it?
7) Who are your staff?
8) Why does your website not give a physical address or phone number?
9) Why is your website registered in Mexico?
In response, she says merely: “We tend to shy away from publicity, in part because it may hurt our access and work but—more importantly—because it is potentially damaging to our collaborators in the countries where we work to affect [sic] changes.” Repeated requests bring a few more details. The ICDISS was active in trying to topple Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, she says. Some of their people are still in jail there.
That chimes, faintly, with Ms Dioguardi’s involvement on their Wikipedia entry. But there is no other trace of ICDISS involvement in Venezuela on the internet, barring a single line, in faint, tiny type, at the bottom of the home pages in English and Spanish on militaresdemocraticos.com. The report’s author, Mr Wood, supposedly a Mexico-based lawyer and former United Nations bureaucrat, is on holiday in Guatemala and uncontactable. The hotel bill for the mysterious Beacon hotel conference is in the New York office of Mr Connolly, supposedly the director of the ICDISS steering committee. He declines to fax a copy, instead making veiled threats of legal action.
It is possible that ICDISS is a genuine but publicity-shy outfit that was involved, quixotically or self-interestedly, in trying to topple Mr Chávez, and now, for whatever reason, is promoting Transdniestria. If so, it would be very easy for Ms Stephenson to prove her bona fides, for example by giving a phone number for some reputable person or organisation that could vouch for her organisation. Despite repeated requests over several days, this doesn’t happen.
Old and new information tricks
From The Economist print edition
Cold-war propaganda wars return
Lenin's Transdniestrian headquarters
SOVIET propagandists were experts in the art of disinformation: planting specious stories in obscure corners of the media, claiming, for example, that the CIA invented AIDS. Now Russia's interests are once again being promoted by information sources that look plausible, at least until you look closely at their antecedents.
Take, for example, the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS), a grand-sounding outfit that says it works on “result-oriented nation-building for new and emerging states”. It produced a report in July supporting international recognition for Transdniestria, a breakaway region of Moldova that has had Russian support and Western disapproval since a brief civil war in 1992.
Slickly produced and heavily footnoted, the report was publicised in Russia and Transdniestria as evidence that influential outside opinion was conceding the case for independence. That would be in sharp contrast to all Western governments' policy to date, which has been trying, rather ineffectually, to reunite Transdniestria with Moldova.
The report says it is based on the work of a bunch of well-known international lawyers, including a serving State Department official, and academics from Stanford, Oxford and Harvard. It implies they attended a conference at the Beacon Hotel in Washington, DC, in April 2006.
The truth is rather different. For a start, the Beacon Hotel has no record of any such conference. None of the supposed outside experts attended it. Those contacted crossly denied involvement, though one, a doctoral student, says he did offer some advice. The ICDISS has now removed the names from the report.
That is puzzling enough. But the ICDISS is even odder. It has no address and no telephone number. Although its website, and an entry on a write-it-yourself encyclopedia, Wikipedia, claim that it was founded in 1999, there is no trace of its activities, or of its supposed staff members, in news databases or the internet before January this year. Since then, it seems to be solely involved in promoting Transdniestria. It claims to be based in America, but does not appear to be a charity there.
Its website is registered at a hotel address in Mexico, with a phone that does not answer, and operated from a server in Latvia. And that is positively illuminating compared with the report's other supposed publisher, the Euro-Atlantic Joint Forum Contact Group, which seems to have no existence other than its logo.
The report itself is written in professional legalese, peppered with Latin phrases and confident references to precedent. But some bits read awkwardly, with mistakes (telephone “centrals” rather than “exchanges”) often made by Russians writing in English.
Reached by e-mail, the ICDISS programme director, identifying herself as Megan Stephenson, declined to talk on the telephone, or to give details of ICDISS financing, staff, headquarters or other activities. The group wished to keep a low profile because of its previous involvement in protests in Venezuela, which had led to the arrests of its activists, she explained. A sentence on a dormant Venezuelan opposition website does acknowledge help from the ICDISS, although how, when and where is not clear. “If you wish to reach for the somewhat strained conclusion that our little group of volunteers is a Kremlin front, then so be it, but I again state clearly for the record that this is not the case,” insists Ms Stephenson.
The Transdniestria report is oddly similar to a recently published English-language “psychiatric assessment” of the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili. This claims, falsely, to be endorsed by Western hospitals and research institutes. It portrays the Georgian leader (a Russian bugbear) as a paranoid hot-head.
One plausible conclusion is that the Kremlin is engaged in a new push to support Transdniestria and three similar statelets, as a response to the likely acceptance later this year of independence for Kosovo, a province of Serbia mostly populated by ethnic Albanians. Victor Yasmann, an analyst in Prague, predicts that Russia will invite the four to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russian-led talking shop. That would be a half-way house to their full independence, a gain for the Kremlin and a setback for the West.
Certainly Moldova, poor, weak, divided and neglected like no other ex-communist country, seems to be hotting up. Transdniestrian politicians have blamed Moldovan provocateurs for a bomb attack on a bus in Tiraspol, the capital, that killed eight people on July 6th. Transdniestria will hold another referendum on independence on September 17th. Western countries will not recognise it, but Russia may.
In Moldova proper, the Gagauz minority (Orthodox by religion, Turkish by ethnicity), which is strongly pro-Russian, is restive. It may demand independence too. The economy is reeling from a Russian embargo on its main export, wine—which is also imposed on Georgia. Transdniestria's economy, based on arms, steel and trade (critics say smuggling) is thriving.
Faced with all this, some in Moldova despair of an independent future. Better, perhaps, to abandon dreams of joining a cold-hearted Europe, and fall in with Russia's wishes: a neutral and federal Moldova, with a special status for the Russian language. Others ponder dumping Transdniestria and rejoining kindred Romania, from which they were separated by Stalin in 1940. That idea seemed outlandish, until it was floated last month, with seeming seriousness, by Romania's president Traian Basescu.
Such thoughts are a distraction, argues Andrei Popov, at a think-tank in Moldova. The real task should be to reform the country's dismal justice system, local government and investment climate. Enviability is the best way to stability, not fretting over the means of failure.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
I am writing a piece for this week’s Economist about an outfit called the ICDISS (International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty). It has published, together with an organisation called the Euro-Atlantic Joint Forum Contact Group, an “academic” treatise about Transdniestria’s claim to independence.
This document cites a bunch of well-known international lawyers as sources. Those I have contacted say they have had nothing to do with it. The document has been gleefully quoted by various Russian and Transdniestrian officials as “proof” that top western lawyers are backing their claim.
The ICDISS has no published or traceable phone number or address. The website is registered in Mexico city, but the address turns out to be a hotel. The phone number doesn’t work. It shares a server in Latvia with several pro-Transdniestrian sites (and many hundreds of quite innocent ones). It claims to have had a conference in April at the Beacon hotel in Washington—which can find no trace of such a booking.
The ICDISS declines to say who funds it, where it is based, who works for it, when it was founded, or what else it does. There are three people associated with it. Megan R Stephenson (program director). William (Bill) Wood, supposedly a lawyer and former UN staffer, and Joseph Connolly, plus Mary Rose Edwards. Someone claiming to be Ms Stephenson replies, politely but very evasively, to my emails. Lexis-Nexus and Google searches turn up no trace of the ICDISS in any other context, except, rather mysteriously, on one page of a dormant anti-Chavez website, and in a blog entry by someone called Gladys Haines.
There may be a completely innocent explanation for all this, and the last thing I want to do is attack an innocent but publicity-shy outfit for being a Kremlin front, when in fact it is nothing of the kind.
So I would be grateful for any help that readers of this blog can offer. Has anyone heard of the ICDISS in any other context? Or of Ms Stephenson (this link here is her only published comment, and shows her picture)
or Mr Wood (who is supposedly in Guatemala and uncontactable) ?
My deadline is tomorrow evening so I need to know as soon as possible.
Please do not cross-post this or write about it until in other media until Thursday evening when the story comes out.
Many thanks, and good hunting!