Comrades, come rally
Oct 26th 2006 | JOHANNESBURG, NEW DELHI AND ROME
From The Economist print edition
Fifty years after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising, communism is thriving
HISTORY is perhaps on their side after all. At their annual conference next month, delegates from 70-odd Communist parties will be in a buoyant mood. Memories of Soviet crimes are fading, America's stock is falling and the injustices of global capitalism make an increasingly easy target. Communists always had good songs. Their political tunes of justice and solidarity may still sound hollow to some, but they now resonate more widely.
The comrades' label has become remarkably elastic. Some retain both a monopoly of power and a belief in socialism (eg, Cuba); some are dictatorial, but enthusiastic capitalists (China, Vietnam). Those that had a monopoly of power but lost it sometimes stay true to old beliefs (like the Czech party). Others have kept the name but dumped everything else (Moldova's Communists, uniquely for eastern Europe, regained power through the ballot box, promised to create another Cuba, and then turned pro-Europe and anti-Kremlin).
Another group spent much of their lives as the persecuted opposition to an undemocratic regime, and retain an aura of heroism as they operate out in the open (South Africa, Iraq). Lastly come those who have simply won a share of power in an established democracy (Italy, India).
Without a Soviet Union to act as ideological enforcer, the communist tribe is more scattered than ever, and differences matter much less. Boundaries that were once stark are now fuzzy. India's once-warring Communist parties are now electoral allies and coalition partners. Babis Angourakis, the international officer of Greece's party, the KKE, says that origins are no longer an issue: any party “still fighting for a socialist transformation of society and defending the proletarian revolution described by Marx, Engels and Lenin” is welcome at the annual gatherings that his party launched in 1998. Eurocommunists can rub shoulders with Stalinists who would once have called them traitors; even different brands of Maoists turn up, ranging from the Chinese party to former admirers of Albania's Enver Hoxha.
Friendship has its limits. Nepal's Maoists, who have taken power in large parts of the country after a lengthy rebellion, have little to do with their nominal mentors in China. They will not be present at this year's get-together; other parties view their armed struggle with distaste.
One difficulty is which model to defend. Almost all communists praise Cuba, the last outpost of what was once the Soviet empire. But North Korea's bizarre mixture of personality cult and paranoia is a harder sell: most defend it as a victim of American imperialism; only a small minority insist that it is a workers' paradise. The world's biggest communist country, China, looks like the sort of society Marx criticised, not the one that he wanted to create. Libero Della Piana, the national organiser of America's Communist Party, says dryly that the Chinese enthusiasm for profit “is a source of discussion in the world movement”.
But the biggest problem, history, is no longer such a vote-loser. Many who lived in their shadow may regard the hammer and sickle as akin to the swastika, but elsewhere communism prompts not revulsion but an attractive frisson of naughtiness. It is a good way of annoying conservatives, Atlanticists and plutocrats. European communists such as Mr Angourakis are cock-a-hoop about their success in blunting an attempt by the centre-right parties in the European Parliament last year to equate communism with Nazism.
No more tradition's chains shall bind us
In much of the former Soviet empire, relabelled former communists plus their intelligence officers and other henchmen hold power. The Hungarian prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, infuriates his anti-communist opponents (who boycotted this week's official commemoration of the 1956 uprising) with his close family ties to the old Soviet-installed regime. Nobody else seems to care.
Reuters Give me that old-time religion
Some of that hold on power is fuelled by communist slush funds adeptly recycled into capitalist business. Hundreds of millions of dollars of such money have been flooding into Romania and Bulgaria as they prepare to join the European Union. “They're not stupid, these guys”, says one Balkan security official. “They got the money out to Austria before they lost power. And now they are sure that it will be a safe investment here, they are bringing it back again.”
The most spectacular example of the erosion of the anti-communist taboo is in Italy, historically the home of the most powerful communists in an advanced economy. No fewer than three parties with communist roots are part of Romano Prodi's left-of-centre government. Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's president, and Massimo D'Alema, the foreign minister, were both leading members of the old Italian Communist Party.
Its Eurocommunist members mostly re-emerged as the Democrats of the Left, the biggest party in Mr Prodi's coalition. But two groups of hardliners are also in the government. Communist Refoundation, the bigger of the two, got its best result for years in the parliamentary election in April, 7.2% in the election to the Senate, giving it 27 seats out of 315. Its leader, Fausto Bertinotti, is a strikingly patrician figure (a habitual feature of Italian proletarianism). He successfully appealed to a generally leftist constituency of pacifists, anti-globalisers and gay and lesbian campaigners. The party's most flamboyant lawmaker is a transvestite actor and singer. All very different from the puritan spirit of traditional communism.
The Refounded Communists have muscles to flex. Mr Bertinotti took from the Democrats of the Left the speakership of the lower house, a post that brings prestige and influence over the parliamentary timetable. Italy's tax-and-spend budget shows his influence, as does the halt to privatisation, which would have hurt his core constituency of public-sector employees.
In South Africa, by contrast, leading members of the Communist Party have turned into stern fiscal conservatives in the African National Congress-led government. But the rank and file, often active in the trade-union movement, is blocking labour-market reform, and chafing at an orthodox economic policy that it sees as too harsh on the poor and unemployed. The party is threatening to stand on its own in future elections, an option that would look more realistic if the ANC were to split.
India's two Communist parties are more powerful and more contradictory. Both use communist symbolism, but in practice support the mixed economy and rule of law. Their nationwide appeal means that they are an important electoral force at national level; their block of 50-odd seats forms a key part of the governing coalition led by the Congress party. They also run three states: Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal. This latter state has been ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for 29 years, with a remarkable mixture of strong party discipline and ruthless electoral tactics. Traditional left-wing policies such as land reform have now been supplemented under the state's chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, by a keen search for foreign investment, and support for privatisation—ideas that the party shuns at a national level.
Solid pragmatism in south Asia does little to excite the comrades in the wider world. Mr Angourakis reserves his greatest enthusiasm for the onward march of radical leftism in South America. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, once a hardline leader of the Soviet-backed Sandinista regime, is the favourite in the presidential election on November 5th. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez calls himself a “21st century socialist” but is adored by communists round the world, and returns the favour with subsidies for Cuba and comrades elsewhere in Latin America, especially Nicaragua.
Mr Angourakis says prospects are at their brightest since the “collapse” of 1991. The fate of hundreds of millions of people has worsened since the “counter-revolution” of that year, he says. Now the failure of “imperialist wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq creates new opportunities.
Hang on—the Iraqi and Afghan Communist parties were among the most determined foes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban respectively; America's invasion has put the Iraqi Communists in government. But on another point, most communists are clear; they eschew any alliance with jihadism or Islamic fundamentalism. Such opportunism, says one true believer disdainfully, is only for Trotskyists.
Cold war survivors
Let each stand in his place
Oct 26th 2006 | PRAGUE
From The Economist print edition
Some cold war skeletons are in surprisingly good health
MOST cold war institutions shrivelled in the 1990s, along with their superpower backing. The big communist front outfits that fought propaganda wars, awash with cash and stuffed with spies, have fizzled away in a mixture of apathy and swindles. This week's court-enforced auction of a hulking concrete pile in the heart of Prague belonging to one of them, the International Union of Students, was halted amid squabbles among its dozens of creditors.
On the other side of the barricades, the World Anti-Communist League changed its name and retreated to Taiwan, where it now, oddly, pursues cross-straits ties with “Mainland China”. The Captive Nations' Committee, which united émigré stalwarts, has all but folded, though the White House still dedicates a week in July to countries enslaved by communism. America slashed the budget for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Library shelves emptied of anti-communist tomes: Questions of Peace and Socialism ceased publication; so did Problems of Communism.
But RFE/RL continues trenchant coverage of Russia, and has launched new services in Arabic and Persian. Meanwhile solidnet.org, a website that co-ordinates the orthodox communist parties' international ties, may not be the Comintern, but it offers a pungent foretaste of a get-together in Lisbon next week: “Dangers and Potentialities of the International Situation, the Imperialist Strategy and the Energy Issue, the People's Struggle and the Experience of Latin America, the Prospect of Socialism.”
Friday, October 27, 2006
Hungarian history laid bare on the square
By Edward Lucas
This week the world commemorated the failed uprising of 1956, when Soviet tanks crushed Imre Nagy’s brief and brave attempt to make Hungary neutral and democratic. Before the commemoration, the smell was partly of that year, partly of 1989 and partly of something unpleasantly.
Hungary’s government wanted the event to be a solemn bipartisan commemoration of a national tragedy. But the square outside the parliament in Budapest, when I visited last week – before it was cleared by police – was occupied by a month-old tent village of protesters, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. He has admitted on a leaked tape that his government had systematically lied and done nothing.
There’s a tempting single narrative here. Gyurcsány’s government – mostly ex-Communists – is a direct descendant of the Soviet collaborationist regime. They have turned power into wealth, and wealth back into power again. They have ruined the country and betrayed democracy. How dare they claim any part of the spirit of 1956? Just as in 1989, people power will topple the bad guys and restore democracy. So wave the flags, sing the good old songs and weep a patriotic tear for the suffering Magyar homeland.
But it is a lot more complicated. For a start, Imre Nagy was a Communist. Had it not been for 1948, when the Communist police state took full power, there would have been no need for the heroics of 1956. I sympathise with that. Those persecuted since the start have always looked askance at born-again
allies like former Communists-turned Social Democrats whose disillusionment with the dictatorship of the proletariat coincides so neatly with the end of their own careers.
Yet Nagy behaved heroically and paid for it with his life. In 1988 I went to Hungary to lay flowers on his grave – he had just been reburied with full honours. My friends in the dissident movement, including a sharp-tongued young man called Viktor Orban, were scornful: “Why lay flowers on a Communist’s grave?”
There’s another complication too. Gyurcsány’s critics mourn another mutilation, geographic not political: Hungary lost huge territories such as Transylvania after the First World War. Its traditional coat of arms illustrates this well. St Stephen’s crown and modern Hungary’s emblem are just one part of a shield patchworked with the symbols of places that are now in Croatia, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia.
“I’m not sure that my Slovak friends would like that badge,” I remarked mildly, buying one from a nice old man. He
looked at me coldly. “They were never a proper country, not once in their history.” Did he really believe Hungary would regain its lost territories? “First we get rid of Gyurcsány,” he replied.
Other stalls were selling seamier material, ranging from ultranationalist emblems to anti-Jewish books and a translation of the ludicrous Holocaust-denial fantasy Did Six Million Really Die? I wondered why the beefy, close-cropped security guys who guarded the tent village couldn’t tell the hate-peddlers to shut up shop.
Were I Hungarian, I would find it a hard choice: sleazy chancers inside the parliament; nutcases and thugs outside.
The answer is to respect history, not to exploit it. I recently came across a simple, fascinating project called “I lived Socialism”. It publishes memories – anyone’s memories – of that era on a website. Anyone can write in. Sadly, it’s confined to Bulgaria, so far. It would be a worthy memorial to 1956 if Hungarians set up something similar. What this anniversary, like so many others, really embodies is the complexity of the captive nations’ history. That demands reflection, tolerance and humility, not brash certainty.
Oct 25th 2006
From The Economist Global Agenda
Serious economic woes and more than a month of protests in the capital, Budapest, are polarising politics in Hungary. But the government is not yet wobbling
PLANNED as a solemn celebration of national reconciliation, the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s failed uprising against Soviet rule has turned into a bitter farce, the victim of the country’s savagely polarised politics. After tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon had cleared anti-government protesters from the streets, the official ceremonies went ahead with a glaring lack of public participation. Some 167 people have been injured in this week’s violence including one member of parliament from the main opposition party, Fidesz, and 17 policemen.
“Imagine an American president celebrating the Fourth of July in front of the Capitol with a spattering of foreign guests and a few handpicked kids on bikes in a parody of a parade, with a solitary fire truck for good measure and no ordinary citizens closer than a mile,” says Katharine Cornell Gorka, who runs a conservative think-tank in Budapest.
Hungary’s protesters do not just regard this week’s ceremonies as farcical. They also accuse the authorities of using the police to break up peaceful demonstrations, and of manipulating the country’s far-right fringe to discredit the mainstream opposition. Public broadcasters, they say, collude in this.
The opposition’s chief hate figure is the prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, a self-professed Blairite who leads Hungary’s former Communist Party. A leaked tape revealed him admitting, in an obscenity-peppered speech, that his government had systematically lied about the country’s parlous public finances to win the parliamentary elections in April, and that it had done nothing to reform them before or since.
Hungary’s public-sector deficit, the government now admits, is a staggering 10% of GDP. It proposes swingeing tax rises and spending cuts. The opposition wants a referendum on the austerity measures, the resignation of Mr Gyurcsany, and a non-party government for the next two years.
But Mr Gyurcsany shows no sign of budging. His coalition government easily won a vote of confidence in parliament earlier this month. His own party shows no sign of wobbling; its minority coalition partners, the liberals, are still on board too and support the spending cuts. On Tuesday October 24th Mr Gyurcsany told parliament that the opposition has failed to accept that it lost April's election. The government’s line is that the opposition is exploiting the country’s most evocative anniversary by cynically encouraging riots.
With some justice. The first demonstration a month ago ended in the seizure of the public-television building. A small thuggish ultra-nationalist element has been highly visible—particularly in the tent city that the protesters pitched outside the parliament building, before it was forcibly cleared by police on Monday. Some statements by leading opposition figures do seem to show a lack of confidence in parliamentary democracy. The leader of the Fidesz parliamentary group, Tibor Navracics, said this week that “Constitutional tools are useless, including parliament, if the government is unwilling to talk about our proposals.”
The protesters hope that the questionable police tactics this week will stoke their support. They plan to resume their daily demonstrations outside the parliament building, and to set up a new, formally-registered movement to press their demand for a change of government. That, they think, will eventually persuade the governing coalition to dump Mr Gyurcsany. “Sooner or later the prime minister’s party must see that it is impossible to go through with the needed changes if there is such a lack of confidence,” says Kinga Gal, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament.
Confidence is certainly in short supply. Mr Gyurcsany’s close family connections with the former regime infuriate staunch anti-communists. But the Fidesz leader, Viktor Orban, has proved an equally divisive figure, enthusiastically adopting opportunist and populist politics, and alienating centrist voters by his flirtation with the nationalist fringe. If Hungary’s opposition is really to get rid of Mr Gyurcsany, it may need to dump its own leader first.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
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A (short) Baltic history lesson for Georgia
By Edward Lucas
Russia’s mixture of economic, political and covert-action pressure on Georgia reminds me of another stormy and scary period, in the Baltic states in the 1990s, that changed history completely.
When I lived in the Baltics in the early 1990s, we used to pooh-pooh the prospect of NATO membership. The obstacles seemed insurmountable: Soviet occupation soldiers who wouldn’t go home; disputed borders with Russia; the expense; the gulf between NATO standards and those of the flimsy and ill-run Baltic home guards – and most of all the deafening lack of enthusiasm from the west.
But just as Russia’s economic sanctions shunted Baltic foreign trade westwards, its insistence that letting the Balts join NATO was “impermissible” (a favourite Kremlin word) was the strongest proof that membership of the alliance was not just desirable, but necessary. Russia neatly backed that up with footdragging on the withdrawal of the Russian military, refusal to recognise the Baltic states’ legal continuity from the pre-war period and endless huffing and puffing about the language and citizenship laws. It all made local support for NATO soar: when you scare people, they buy more insurance.
After a bit, the west came round, too. The Baltic states are still effectively indefensible; two of them (Estonia and Latvia) still lack border treaties with Russia. Yet, rather like the even less defensible West Berlin during the Cold War, they have gained a symbolic importance that means we cannot abandon them. Or so I hope.
As an illustration, just imagine how different history would have been if the Kremlin line in the 1990s had been: “Sure, go ahead and join NATO if you want. We wouldn’t dream of interfering and we want excellent relations with NATO ourselves anyway. Of course we will pull our troops out as soon as we can…and we will be delighted to sign border agreements as soon as possible, recognising your historical continuity.”
That message would have destroyed the case for NATO expansion overnight.
I doubt any of the ex-communist countries would have wanted to join and I doubt NATO would have wanted to have them anyway.
Now Russia is making the same mistake with Georgia. NATO’s appetite for expanding to the eastern shores of the Black Sea is mostly minimal. The alliance is dreadfully overstretched anyway and the last thing it needs militarily is another small poor country which needs a lot and (pipelines apart) offers little.
But Russia’s determination to see Georgia as part of a ‘near abroad’ over which it wields a geopolitical veto is creating the mood – already in Georgia and soon I hope in the west – in which the opposite will happen.
It is not just because bullying goes down badly. Russia has signally failed to show the benefits of being an ally. Every country that teams up with Russia ends up regretting it. Nobody in the Kremlin seems to have bothered to think about loyal little Armenia, savagely hit by the sanctions against Georgia. In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko calls Putin “worse than Stalin” and is putting out feelers to the west. Cheap gas sounds nice initially – but it always comes at a high price.
The stubborn attractiveness of the ‘Euro-Atlantic orientation’ is striking given that it survives both the hideously botched occupation of Iraq and extraordinarily selfish agricultural protectionism. It must surely give the Kremlin foreign policy thinkers pause for thought that for all its faults NATO has a queue of real countries eager to join it, whereas only a handful of puppet states such as Transdniestria want to go in the other direction.
Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Why the West needs to stand by Georgia
If Russia is allowed to continue bullying its neighbour, its neo-imperialist appetite will spread to our front door
“A FARAWAY COUNTRY of which we know nothing.” Neville Chamberlain may have been unfair to Czechoslovakia when he dismissed it so casually in 1938. But it is all too true of the countries on the fringe of Europe that now find themselves the front lines in the new cold war: Georgia and Moldova.
Not for them the stag parties that now infest the old centres of Prague and Riga; not for them the eager amateur property speculators who are buying up derelict cottages in Bulgaria and Bohemia. These countries really are off the beaten track; they are not waving but drowning — and if they go down, the security of the rest of Europe will be affected hugely.
It is a measure of how far our expectations of Russia have dropped that the timing and extent of sanctions imposed against Georgia last week have gone largely unremarked. It is worth remembering that Russian spies have been trying to plot a coup in Georgia for more than a year. Several such attempts have been foiled, and Georgia’s Western-trained spycatchers have in the past quietly made them personae non gratae.
The Georgian Government has asked the Kremlin politely and repeatedly to stop its mischiefmaking, to no avail. Finally, Georgia arrested a bunch of spies, officers in Russia’s fearsome military intelligence service, and deported them publicly. That provoked Russia into a hysterical denunciation of its pint-sized southern neighbour — and the cutting of air, land and banking links, even after the spooks had been released to go home.
Oddly, the Russian criticism of Georgia, though taken straight out of the Soviet agitprop textbook, has found sympathetic echoes in the West. How dare a small country on Russia’s borders dream of freedom, democracy and security? John Humphrys, in a remarkably abrasive Today programme interview, lambasted Mr Saakashvili for wanting to leave Russia’s geopolitical orbit, as if this was an act of pure caprice.
The disinformation war is raging in a way not seen since Soviet times. The Kremlin has hired top Western PR companies to get its message across. Strange websites have sprouted, purporting to be neutral Western thinktanks, but with a clear pro-Kremlin agenda, and a mystifying lack of real-world credentials.
All that may be a nuisance for small countries on Russia’s fringe, but why should we worry in Britain? The first reason is that small defeats now mean bigger ones later. Russia’s petrocrats are determined to stem and reverse their country’s geopolitical retreat. If they can derail Mr Saakashvili, it sends a powerful signal elsewhere. If Georgia falls, then others will be next. Russia’s hold over Ukraine will strengthen. Moldova, the weakest country in Europe, will buckle too. Then the shadow will stretch over the poorly governed and demoralised ex-communists of Central Europe and the Baltics. That will bring Russian neo-imperialism to our front door.
Secondly, Georgia is the only way of bringing the oil and gas riches of Central Asia to world markets that does not go through Russia. A pioneering oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan on the southern Turkish coast goes through Georgia. There is — literally — no other way to break the stranglehold that Russia has on our energy supplies.
The battle for energy security has been raging for some time, largely unnoticed in Western Europe. Russia has been winning. The European Union’s dream of a common energy policy, in which its 25 members would bargain together with suppliers to get lower prices and better terms, is in tatters. First the big countries — Germany and Italy — struck bilateral deals with Russia. Now the small ones, such as Hungary and Austria, are doing the same.
Sometimes they have no choice: Russian companies have such big stakes in their energy supply and distribution companies that an independent policy is impossible.
Such business ties are an easy way to inject vulnerable political systems with large dollops of Russian cash, through donations to political parties, lucrative directorships and generous sponsorship of events. It can be even more blatant. “We wanted to set up a working group to discuss energy security,” a senior official from a small East European country told me recently. “We invited our national gas company but they said they couldn’t come, because the ‘eastern shareholder’ would not like it.”
Georgia is an easy target. It is poor, and has a history of spectacular ill-government. Two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are controlled by pro-Moscow separatists, a legacy of Georgia’s bungled and authoritarian ethnic policies of the early 1990s. But now it is changing. The economy is booming; Western advisers are awestruck by the speed and vigour of the Georgian Government’s reform drive.
The crunch will come later this year, when the West will reluctantly recognise that Kosovo is no longer a province of Serbia, as it once was, but a more or less independent country. That will infuriate not only Serbia, but also its patron, Russia. And Russia will argue, forcefully and with some logic, that if a discontented ethnic minority in Kosovo is allowed to break away and gain independence from Serbia, why should not other breakaway regions follow suit? Like a malevolent Blue Peter presenter, it will say “and here are three that I made earlier”, producing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Transdniestria in Moldova, as candidates for “independence” (meaning further incorporation into Russia).
Names like Abkhazia may sound unfamiliar, but the Sudetenland, and before that Sarajevo, once sounded preposterously far away and unimportant to Western ears.
It is not too late to stop the slide to disaster. The West must stand by Georgia, while emphasising the need for continued reform, good government and a peaceable solution to the problems of separatism. It must say that the door to the European Union, and Nato, is open to any country that meets the necessary standards of reform and military competence. And it must make clear to Russia that our support for Georgia is not just geopolitical arm wrestling, but a response to the clearly expressed choice of a country that wants the security and freedom that Russia, in the democratic years of the 1990s, once wanted too.
Edward Lucas is Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist
Russia’s bright star and clouded facts
By Edward Lucas
The murder of my friend Anna Politkovskaya, a gutsy Russian journalist who exposed the abominable mistreatment of the civilian population during the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya, has brought not just rage and sorrow, but also put western attitudes to Russia into sharp focus. Most of the reaction has been rather predictable: “Heinous crime…press freedom…black day in Russian history…perpetrators must be punished.”
That rather annoys me. People are so willing to praise Anna when she is dead, yet they were so deaf to her doom-laden warnings when she was alive. When I discussed Russia with her, we always came to the same conclusion: the outside world just wasn’t interested in bad news about Putin and his thuggish, kleptocratic sidekicks, because it would be bad for business.
What annoys me even more though is the ‘hurrah chorus’. The pack of sleazeballs, useful idiots and nutters who insist that everything in Russia is not just profitable but lovely too are now claiming that Anna’s murder was just one of those things. After all, don’t journalists get killed in other countries? Nobody’s perfect. Why pick on Russia?
Take, for example, a slick Russia-related email service called Quick Takes. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in Russia and the neighbourhood, although I disagree with every word in it. Its publisher, Mike Averko, describes himself as a “New-York based independent foreign policy analyst”.
Here’s what he had to say about Anna’s death. I have corrected one spelling mistake, but otherwise it’s verbatim:
“There has been a rush to judgment by many in a manner reflective of an ongoing hypocritically applied set of standards.
“In addition to the slain Denver area talk radio host Alan Berg (killed by a right-wing extremist), there’ve been the experiences of Victor Riesel and Yuri Brohkin. Riesel was a not so smooth investigative reporter, who was blinded after writing a series of critical articles about organized crime. Brohkin was a Soviet Jewish émigré journalist who was found murdered. A police investigation ruled Brohkin’s death to be possibly linked with his ties to the so-called Russian mafia.
“Politkovskaya’s murder re-ignites an ongoing theme of a supposed lack of press freedom in Russia. Previous QTs note what views are understood to be worthy for employment at Anglo-American mass media outlets. Politkovskaya’s flaws as a journalist have been covered up in conjunction with that understated censorship.”
To someone who doesn’t know America, that might sound like a reasonable bit of context. Victor Riesel was indeed blinded, probably in retaliation for his trenchant journalism. What Averko doesn’t mention was that this happened in 1956. Yuri Brokhin, a colourful Russian émigré, was murdered, perhaps because of his writing. But it was in 1982. Alan Berg was a provocative talkshow host murdered by neo-Nazis – in 1984. None of them remotely matches Anna in importance or stature.
This oddly forgetful approach to important facts may undermine in some eyes Averko’s argument about “censorship” in “Anglo-American mass media”. Citing “Politkovskaya’s flaws as a journalist”, right now sounds a bit tasteless to me. True, she wasn’t perfect. She never claimed to be. I hope it is not really necessary to point out that over-detailed writing and overly sweeping generalisations are flimsy grounds for a death sentence.
It may have been the clouded skies of Russia’s miserably bribed and bullied media that made Anna seem such a bright star. But whose fault is that? Were I Russian, I would be mourning one of my country’s greatest modern martyrs, not spitting on her grave.
# Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Oct 12th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, was shot dead on October 7th, aged 48
SHE was brave beyond belief, reporting a gruesome war and a creeping dictatorship with a sharp pen and steel nerves. It may be a chilling coincidence that Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Vladimir Putin's birthday, but her friends and supporters are in little doubt that her dogged, gloomy reporting of the sinister turn Russia has taken under what she called his “bloody” leadership was what led to her body being dumped in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.
Miss Politkovskaya's journalism was distinctive. Not for her the waffly, fawning and self-satisfied essays of the Moscow commentariat, nor the pervasive well-paid advertorials. Austere and a touch obsessive, she reported from the wrecked villages and shattered towns of Chechnya, talking to those on all sides and none, with endless patience and gritty determination.
She neither sentimentalised the Chechen rebels nor demonised the Russian conscripts—ill-armed, ill-fed and ill-led—who have crushed the Chechens' half-baked independence. She talked to soldiers' mothers trying to find their sons' corpses in military morgues where mangled bodies lay unnamed and unclaimed—the result of the Russian army's unique mixture of callousness and incompetence. And she talked to Chechens whose friends and relatives had disappeared into the notorious “filtration camps” to suffer torture, mutilation, rape and death.
Few journalists, from any country, did that. The second Chechen war, which started in 1999 and still fizzles on now, made that mountainous sliver of territory in the northern Caucasus the most dangerous place on the planet for a journalist. Most Moscow-based reporters went seldom, if at all, and then only in daylight and well-guarded. Ms Politkovskaya was unfazed, making around 50 trips there, often for days at a time.
Ordinary Chechens, and many Russians, adored her. Piles of post and incessant phone calls came, some offering information, more often wanting her help. Could she intercede with a kidnapper? Trace a loved one? She always tried, she said, to do what she could.
She loathed the warlords who had misruled Chechnya during its brief spells of semi-independence; the Islamic extremists who exploited the conflict; the Russian goons and generals, and their local collaborators. She despised the Chechen leaders installed by Russia: they looted reconstruction money, she said, using torture and kidnapping as a weapon. She was due to file a story on this the day she died.
The worst effect of the Chechen wars, she reckoned, was on Russia itself. Her reporting from all over her native country made her see it in what many regarded as an unfairly bleak light. Mr Putin's regime was utterly brutal and corrupt, she would say in her soft, matter-of-fact voice. He represented the worst demons of the Soviet past, revived in modern form. Hundreds had died to bring him to power, and that was just a foretaste of the fascism and war that was to come. Now her pessimism seems less extreme.
A duty to tell
Mr Putin, condemning her murder four days late, said she had “minimal influence”. Yet Miss Politkovskaya was often threatened with death. Once Russian special forces held her captive and threatened to leave her dead body in a ditch. She talked them out of it. In 2001, she fled briefly to Austria after a particularly vivid death threat scared not her, but her editors at Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few remaining independent papers. In 2004, on her way to the siege of a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where she hoped to mediate between the Chechen hostage-takers and the Russian army, she was poisoned and nearly died.
This time there was no mistake. She was shot in the body and the head. A pistol was left by her side—the blatant hallmark of a contract killing. She was well aware that the authorities might have her murdered, but in conversation she would brush this aside, saying that her sources were in much more danger than she was. Journalists had a duty to report on the subject that mattered, she said, just as singers had to sing and doctors had to heal.
Much of her life mirrored the changes in her country. She was born in New York, the child of Soviet diplomats. That gilded upbringing gave her access to a world of ideas and knowledge denied to most Soviet citizens. Her university dissertation was on Marina Tsvetaeva, a poet then in deep official disfavour. She had good jobs too, first on Izvestia, the government paper, then on Aeroflot's in-flight magazine.
Having discovered democracy and the free press as Soviet power collapsed, her faith was uncompromising and sometimes uncomfortable. Nor was she always easy company. A fondness for both sweeping statements and intricate details sometimes made conversation heavy-going. She was both disorganised and single-minded; that could be unnerving, too. But she enjoyed life. She often said that with a KGB officer as president, the least you could do was to smile sometimes, to show the difference between him and you.
It would be nice to think that Russians will find her example inspiring. Sadly, they may conclude that brave work on hot topics is a bad idea.
Europe's fraying fringe
Oct 12th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Time to worry about the governments of eastern Europe—especially with Russia in the wings
BAD, weak, timid government in Europe is, sadly, nothing new. And few outsiders are in a position to preach to the countries of the east, which have so wrenchingly changed since the collapse of communism, and are now the continent's fastest-growing part. But their continued growth needs more reform, and that, crucially, depends on better government.
Travel the ex-communist region between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas, and, sadly, you will not find one united, modernising government. Instead, there is sleaze and racism in Slovakia's government, eccentricity and petulant incompetence in Poland, an admission of blatant lying by Hungary's prime minister, and no government at all in the Czech Republic. Throughout the region, communist dictatorship has all too often given way to incompetence and corruption, not the yearned-for freedom and the rule of law.
Decades of totalitarian rule damaged the way people in power think and behave; and the harm has not been repaired. Getting into the European Union and NATO transformed parts of national life in the new member states, but left swathes untouched, particularly bits run by the state. Schools and universities, for example, are vital for the shift to an economy driven by brainpower instead of cheap labour, but they remain state-run, rigid and mediocre.
Eastern Europe's remarkable political failure (see article) matters not just because of economics. Weak, deceitful, clownish, boorish, squabbling, thuggish and corrupt politicians in the east risk destroying the flagging enthusiasm of west European voters for further enlargement of the EU. Yet the “European perspective”, as the bureaucrats call the chance of membership, is the one thing tugging the bruised and battered countries of ex-Yugoslavia towards peace and co-operation. Without it, conflicts will flare up unchecked, at best local, at worst turning into wider conflagrations.
Heavyweights in the wrong ring
The ex-communist countries still have some heavyweight politicians and officials—but they are not in power. Some are on the lecture circuit. Others have gone to well-paid but peripheral jobs in Brussels. They stand out there, but would be even better heading home to sort out the mess. Toomas Hendrick Ilves, vice-chair of the European Parliament's foreign-affairs committee, has just run successfully for president of his native Estonia. Others should follow his example.
If better leaders would help, so would better role models. Central European countries have tended, consciously or not, to look to Austria, and so politicised their civil services and encouraged cosy links between business and government. (The Baltic states, by contrast, have looked to the more open, transparent Nordic countries, such as Finland—with spectacular results.) And Western Europe could do more. The mean-minded protectionism aimed at the ex-communist countries has undermined belief in the fairness and neutrality of European rules. Why can rich countries' banks move capital freely throughout the single market, when poor countries' plumbers and dentists may not sell their services where they like?
It is tempting to argue for patience. A middle class is developing; minds are opening; piecemeal reforms are continuing; the division of the continent is healing. The latest shenanigans may be unpleasant, but are they not just teething pains in young democracies?
Perhaps. But now there is another factor: Russia. The past week has seen more signs of Russia's slide into state-sponsored gangsterism (see article). Whether as a direct result of this or not, Russia's best-known independent journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered on October 7th (see article).
Russian menace and muscle change the geopolitical rules for the Soviet Union's former satellites, both those sheltered by the EU and NATO and those outside. In one sense Russia is still weak: its state institutions are bloated and incompetent; its population is collapsing, its economy woefully dependent on natural resources. But it increasingly has the ability to create mayhem in what the Kremlin terms the “near abroad”.
Russian oil-and-gas companies have bought up large chunks of energy industries in eastern Europe and are trying to buy more. When Russia seemed weak and friendly, that was a minor worry. Now it is a big one. Business footholds can soon become political bridgeheads, which coupled with weak politics creates a vulnerability to Russian influence-peddling and mischief-making. A new cold war? Not yet. But eastern Europe's drift and complacency have never been riskier.
Copyright © 2006 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.
Central and eastern Europe
Shadows at Europe's heart
Oct 12th 2006 | BRATISLAVA, BUDAPEST, PRAGUE AND WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
The ex-communist countries have been an economic success—but risk becoming political failures
MANY countries would love to have the problems of the EU-8, the eight once-captive nations that joined the European Union in 2004. Sheltered by NATO and locked into the legal architecture of civilised Europe, they are flourishing in a way that seemed hardly possible when they leapt to freedom in 1989. Their economic growth is enviable: Estonia's is a breakneck 12%.
But a more disturbing picture, of livid discontent, declining competitiveness, sleaze and subversion, is lately more prominent. That overshadows not just the fate of the 73m-odd people in the EU-8, and the 30m in Romania and Bulgaria who will join the EU at the year's end. It could dash, disastrously, the EU's already flagging enthusiasm for expansion.
It is tempting to ignore post-communist politics. The countries are mostly small, the names of the politicians as unfamiliar to the outside eye as the differences between their parties. Sides switch, and coats are turned, with bewildering rapidity. Is the ruling People's Party, re-elected in October 8th's election in Latvia, rightwing or leftwing compared with the New Era, which may join it in coalition? Why is the party led by King Simeon of Bulgaria in coalition with the (not very) ex-communists, whose forebears exiled him and murdered his followers? Which Kaczynski twin is president of Poland? Is it the less batty one who is prime minister? Without a patient guide and a large glass of plum brandy, it all seems too intricate and unimportant.
So here is one striking fact. Not a single country of the EU-8 has a strong reformist government. Minority or caretaker governments run the Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania. Estonia and Slovenia have administrations that are stable but do little. In Slovakia, a new coalition government unites the sleaziest and nastiest parties in the country. Hungary's government is wobbling after the prime minister admitted systematic lying.
In the past three months, the politics of central Europe have turned turbulent. The biggest failure has been in Poland, the most important ex-communist country in the EU. The main governing party, Law and Justice, has ruled for 11 months in a series of shaky coalitions.
It is quarrelsome at home and abroad. Its two leading figures, the twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are respectively president and prime minister. They have repeatedly insulted Germany—which did more than any other country to get the EU to overlook Poland's manifest political and economic weaknesses in the run-up to membership. Now phone calls are not returned, meetings cancelled, cheap historical jibes commonplace. On the flimsiest evidence, Poland's rulers seem determined to believe that Germany is revanchist and hostile.
Sticking up for national self-interest is no crime. Like any other member state, Poland has every right to haggle with the EU. But the tone is amateurish and counterproductive. The former president, the ex-communist Alexander Kwasniewski, made Poland a trusted Western ally and sounding board, notably in Ukraine. The Kaczynskis sneered, with some justice, at his communist past, glitzy lifestyle and chummy ties with businessmen of all descriptions. But they have turned the diplomatic powerhouse they inherited into a laughing-stock.
There have been unnecessary fights at home too, chiefly with the central bank. Its governor, the peppery Leszek Balcerowicz, may be no loss to diplomacy, but he epitomises the radical economic reform and financial stringency that lies behind Poland's hearty economic growth. Law and Justice is also mystifyingly estranged from its potential coalition allies, the liberal-conservative Civic Platform. No political differences divide them, only a series of petty feuds that should have long ago been buried in pursuit of power.
Unsurprisingly, the government's record is rather thin. It has set up a large and perhaps overmighty anti-corruption unit. Much energy has gone on reform of the military-intelligence service, the WSI, which was certainly a rum outfit. But for many Poles, the issue pales in contrast to other problems. Signally, the government has failed in the fiddly but vital task of applying for and administering the €60 billion ($75 billion) that Poland is due to receive from the EU from 2007 to 2013.
That money—contrary to what some Polish politicians seem to think—does not come free. It is doled out only to properly drawn-up projects, where the home country is sharing at least a bit of the cost, and with audited results. Money misspent one year is clawed back the next. So far only the smallest and best-run countries, Estonia and Slovenia, have learned what to do.
The Kaczynskis' one real advantage was a reputation for integrity. Like many ex-dissidents in power, they made up in honesty and patriotism what they lacked in political savvy or experience. But a new scandal has dented that. Covertly recorded videos showed their party's representatives trying to win over a deputy from the Self-Defence party. “You want a senior position? We've got lots,” says a prime ministerial envoy. He also offers to “sort out” the deputy's legal problems.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski is again trying to put a new coalition together. Early elections are still possible. It is hard to see any strong and sensible government emerging.
The wages of lies
In Hungary, the government has also seen its credibility collapsing—though it arguably had less to start with. Whereas Poland's politics are buffered by strong growth and fairly sound finances, Hungary's are aggravated by the consequences of five years of spendthrift rule.
The prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, was caught on tape telling party colleagues that his government, re-elected in June this year, had lied, screwed up and done nothing. That led to an eruption of public anger, and big losses in local elections this month. Mr Gyurcsany hung on—but this weekend another tape leaked, on which his local government minister, Monika Lamperth, can be heard assuring party chieftains that planned spending cuts will spare Socialist-controlled regions.
The opposition, led by the mercurial and opportunistic Viktor Orban, is little better. Its election campaign was as nonsensical and populist as the slippery ex-communists it affects to despise. Mr Orban and his colleagues seem to have a worryingly soft spot for the racists and ultra-nationalists who took part, sometimes violently, in last month's demonstrations.
Yet Hungary is crying out for good government. Once the reform star of the post-communist world, it is awash with debt, with a government deficit now revealed to be over 10% of GDP—by far the highest in Europe, and more than twice what the government was admitting at the time of the election. Amid the smell of cooked books, foreign investors' confidence has shrivelled. A run on the Hungarian currency, the forint, would mean default and devaluation: a national humiliation, and a disaster for the millions of Hungarians who have borrowed euros and Swiss francs to pay for houses and consumer durables.
The story is little better in the Czech Republic, where an election in June produced a result tied between a conservative-green coalition and the leftist opposition. That has brought four months of political deadlock. A right-of-centre caretaker government failed to gain a confidence vote last week, starting a new round of bickering and arm-twisting. Tomas Lebeda, a political scientist in Prague, says this may go on for a year. Meanwhile no one is even thinking about reforms to the country's creaking pension system. Next year's budget may not be passed on time.
The squabbling takes place against a background of worrying misuse of the security and intelligence services for political advantage. Just days before the general election in June, Colonel Jan Kubice, a senior crime-fighter, presented to a (supposedly) closed session of parliament a report claiming that members of the governing Social Democrat party had been interfering in investigations of organised crime. It also contained gossipy accounts of alleged sexual misdeeds. This leaked to the press, apparently thanks to conservative deputies. Wiretaps in a subsequent leak investigation have prompted even fiercer rows.
All that seems benign compared with next-door Slovakia, where a majority government of racists, populists and authoritarians is beginning to undo the work of the past eight years. Under the rule of the authoritarian populist, Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia had become a playground for crooks and spooks. The government that ousted him in 1998 flattened tax rates, liberalised the labour market, and won billions of dollars of foreign investment.
Elections in June produced an ambiguous result. A reformist coalition was possible, but instead the largest party, Smer, a populist outfit calling itself social democrat, teamed up with Mr Meciar's party and the outright racists of the Slovak National Party. On paper, the government seems committed to free-market policies. In practice, it sounds muddled—and clumsy. At a foreign investors' conference there last month, a senior government figure, Peter Ziga, addressed a roomful of bewildered foreign executives in Slovak, without translation. Worse, public institutions are again being politicised.
There are some slivers of good news. Lithuania's minority government is proving tough-minded and competent. In the presidential election in Estonia, the electoral college, by a perilous single vote, chose Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a brainy and eloquent American-educated émigré, over a candidate backed by an unscrupulous populist party closely tied to Russia.
Voting with their feet
If post-communist countries cannot raise living standards to western levels, and improve radically the quality of their public services, more people will vote with their feet. Since barriers to movement within Europe were largely lifted in 2004, more than 2m have headed west. Most don't want to emigrate permanently. But almost all complain that as workers and as citizens, they feel poorly treated at home, ill-paid, and frustrated by economies where connections matter more than talent.
For all the strides made in past years, the sad truth is that no ex-communist country has fully reformed its public administration. Voters may be richer, but they also feel cheated and put upon by bossy bureaucrats and snooty politicians. The optimism of 1989 seems sadly distant.
The danger now is that even the bravura economic performance of the past few years may fizzle. Russia and Ukraine offer great supplies of cheap labour, not much farther away. Romania and Bulgaria make the EU-8 look expensive. Emigration tightens the labour market still more.
So brainpower in the service industries, rather than cheap, nimble fingers in manufacturing, should be the new wellspring of wealth-creation. But education systems are rigid and rife with cheating. Most universities are disgracefully old-fashioned and introverted, run by self-interested bureaucracies, mediocre to their roots. Research and development spending is under 1% of GDP—worse even than the puny 2% average of western Europe.
If competitiveness is one worry, financial stability is another. The World Bank said recently that fragmented and populist governments were not only hampering reform but “complicating fiscal and macroeconomic stabilisation”. Bloated public administration makes most ex-communist governments chronically spendthrift. So far, booming tax revenues disguise the problem; that could change all too quickly.
None of the seven ex-communist states outside the euro (Slovenia squeaked in and will adopt it on January 1st) is likely to join this decade. Yet small open economies cannot have an independent monetary policy (indeed, several have currency boards) and are vulnerable to external shocks and speculative attacks.
Discontent and populism may now form a vicious circle, both causing economic failure and worsening it. Ivan Krastev, a Sofia-based political scientist, believes that a political model based on clear ideological differences, mass memberships and strong party loyalties may have once worked well in “old Europe” but has signally failed to transplant to “new Europe”. The gulf between the political elites and the people is growing, and it is hard to see what will bridge it.
If global financial markets tighten, the extraordinary willingness of foreign savers to finance the consumers and bureaucrats of post-communist Europe could shrivel almost overnight. That vulnerability is now matched, dangerously, by unlovability. Western countries might be prepared to bail out their eastern neighbours, financially or politically, when they are seen as valiant, fast-reforming success stories. When run by incompetent and prickly populists, it may prove to be another story altogether.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
A suspicious death in Russia
Oct 8th 2006
From The Economist Global Agenda
Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, was shot dead on Saturday October 7th, aged 48
SHE was brave beyond belief, Anna Politkovskaya, reporting a gruesome war and a creeping dictatorship with a sharp pen and steel nerves. It may be a chilling coincidence that she was murdered on President Vladimir Putin’s birthday, but her friends and supporters are in little doubt that her dogged, gloomy reporting of the sinister turn Russia has taken under what she called his “bloody” leadership was what led to her murder in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.
Ms Politkovskaya’s journalism was distinctive. Not for her the waffly, fawning and self-satisfied essays of the Moscow commentariat. Nor the well-paid advertorial now so pervasive as to be barely noticeable. She reported from the wrecked villages and shattered towns of Chechnya, talking to those on all sides and none, with endless patience and gritty determination.
She did not sentimentalise the Chechen rebels, nor did she demonise the Russian conscripts—ill-armed, ill-fed, and ill-led—who have crushed the Chechens’ half-baked independence. She talked to soldiers’ mothers trying to find their sons’ corpses in military morgues where mangled bodies lay unnamed and unclaimed—the result of the Russian army’s unique mixture of callousness and incompetence. And she talked to Chechens whose friends and relatives had disappeared into the notorious “filtration camps” to suffer torture, mutilation, rape and death.
Few journalists, from any country, did that. The second Chechen war, which started in 1999 and still fizzles on now, made that mountainous sliver of territory in the northern Caucasus the most dangerous place on the planet for a journalist. Most Moscow-based reporters went seldom, if at all, and then only in daylight and well-guarded. Ms Politkovskaya was unfazed, making around 50 trips there, often for days at a time.
Chechens, and many Russians, adored her. Piles of post and incessant phone calls came, sometimes from people wanting to give her information, more often from those wanting her help. Could she intercede with a kidnapper? Trace a loved one? She always tried, she said, to do what she could.
She loathed those responsible for the war: the warlords who had misruled Chechnya during its brief spells of semi-independence, the Islamic extremists who exploited the conflict, the Russian goons and generals, and their local collaborators. She particularly despised the Chechen government installed by Russia, for what she termed their massive looting of reconstruction money, backed up by kidnapping.
The worst effect of the Chechen wars, she reckoned, was the corrosion of Russia itself. Her reporting from all over Russia made her see her native country in what many regarded as an unfairly bleak light. Mr Putin’s regime was utterly brutal and corrupt, she would say in her soft, matter-of-fact voice. He represented the worst demons of the Soviet past, revived in modern form. Hundreds had died to bring him to power, and that was just a foretaste of the fascism and war that was to come.
The latest twists in Russia’s vindictive fury towards Georgia for wanting to join Nato make her pessimism seem less extreme. Russians with Georgian surnames are now experiencing the some of the sort of retribution from officialdom that their Chechen counterparts have suffered for the past ten years.
Ms Politkovskaya suffered death threats aplenty. On more than one occasion, Russian special forces threatened to rape and kill her, leaving her body in a ditch. Each time she talked them out of it. In 2001, she fled to Austria after receiving a direct warning to leave Russia or else. In 2004, on her way to the siege of a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where she hoped to mediate between the Chechen hostage-takers and the Russian military, she was poisoned, and nearly died.
But whoever got into her lift on Saturday October 7th was a professional, intending not to warn her, but to end the problem she presented. She was shot once in the body, once in the head; the pistol was a Makarov, the assassin’s favourite. It was left by her side: in that trade, weapons are used only once.
She was well aware that her murder would be a logical reaction from the authorities. In conversations with your obituarist, she brushed this aside, saying that her sources were in much more danger than she was. Journalists had a duty to report on the subject that mattered, she said no matter what—just as singers had to sing and doctors had to heal.
Ms Politkovskaya’s approachability did not mean that she was easy company. Her fondness for both sweeping statements and for the intricate details of the stories she covered sometimes made conversation heavy-going. She was both disorganised and single-minded; that could be unnerving too.
But she will go down as a martyr, in the beleaguered causes of free speech and public spirit. It would be nice to think that Russians will find her example inspiring. Sadly, they may well conclude that speaking out on unpopular topics is best avoided.
From The Economist print edition
SANCTIMONIOUS drivel dressed up as political philosophy. That, put crudely, is how many people regard pacifism. Non-violence may be a good way of tweaking the conscience of a liberal society, but it is a hopeless way of confronting tyrants, aggressors and madmen.
Mark Kurlansky, in his erudite and eloquent book, tries to put the other side. War is horrible, mostly fought for visibly bad reasons. Even ostensibly just wars do more harm than good. In short, violence invariably leads to more violence. Why not try pacifism instead?
Peace-loving and saintly thinkers, leaders and martyrs of past ages are indeed inspiring. Leo Tolstoy, Confucius and Mahatma Gandhi make predictable appearances, as do some other figures, whose stories are rescued from undeserved obscurity. And many wars' imperfect or disastrous outcomes are overlooked in the histories written by the victors. The author pokes some interesting holes in both America's civil war and its struggle against the British.
But he stretches credulity when he tries to weave it all together. The great world religions have pacifist strands—but that is only part of the picture. Jesus said “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Muhammad fought 19 military campaigns.
The most irritating aspect of the book, however, is not its content, or its logical lapses, but its tone. Mr Kurlansky implies that the opposite of a pacifist is a warmonger. If you do not believe (as he does) that the success of Danish non-violent resistance to Nazism shows that the second world war was the wrong way to defeat Hitler, then you are not just wrong, you are bloodthirsty, ignorant and stupid.
He blithely ignores the third position of the reluctant warrior, who takes up arms only when all else has failed, sombrely aware of the ghastly mess that will ensue. Yet it is in that part of the moral spectrum that the deepest thought can be found.
The Dalai Lama's foreword is rather better than the book. “Whenever conflicts and disagreements arise, our first reaction”, he writes, should be “to ask ourselves how we can solve them through dialogue and discussion rather than through force.” Amen to that: force should never be the unthinking first resort. But in a sinful world it may have to be the last one.
Cold war, hot tempers
From The Economist Global Agenda
Relations between Russia and Georgia turn frosty
IS THIS just a spat between a big prickly country and its tiresome little neighbour, or a sinister new twist in Russia’s relations with its former empire? That question is in sharp focus after Russia’s announcement on Friday October 6th that it is deporting 130 Georgians.
The news follows President Vladimir Putin’s instruction to all state agencies to tighten controls on illegal Georgian migrants and businesses. Along with the cutting of transport, banking and postal links, this is part of a strong Russian reaction to Georgia’s arrest and expulsion of four military officers who were accused of spying.
Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has become something of a hate figure in Russia. Western-educated, short-tempered and uncompromising, he is determined to move his country fast towards membership of first NATO and then the European Union. He also wants to restore Georgian control over two separatist enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both places claim to be independent states, and have close economic and political links with Russia.
Mr Saakashvili’s fear is that developments far away in the Balkans could permanently stymie his hopes of glueing his country back together again. If, as seems likely, Kosovo gains independence at the end of the year, despite the objections of Serbia (to which it nominally belongs), why should not Abkhazia and South Ossetia expect the same treatment?
The west has encouraged Mr Saakashvili’s hopes of a permanent shift for his country, by agreeing to accelerate Georgia’s progress towards NATO. It is strongly discouraging him from sabre-rattling over the breakaway enclaves. But Georgia protests that its latest move, publicly expelling spies who were (it says) flagrantly plotting against the government, was done only as a last resort. Previous expulsions and protests were quiet and diplomatic, but had no effect.
Georgians seem to back their president’s stance, at least for now. Early results from local elections showed a convincing victory over the opposition. Some outsiders worry that Mr Saakashvili’s peppery and autocratic style is not good for Georgian democracy, let alone its diplomacy. These criticisms have been stoked by vitriolic attacks from Russian media and politicians, accusing him of Stalinist tendencies. A plausible-looking and widely-circulated psychiatric analysis, ostensibly produced by leading Western mental-health institutions, pronounced him demented; this proved, unsurprisingly, to be a fake. His supporters denounce all this as Kremlin dirty tricks, and note that the government, particularly the prime minister, Zurab Nogaideli, is much less flammable.
Russia’s economic sanctions will knock up to 1.5 percentage points off Georgia’s rate of economic growth, according to the economics minister, Kakha Bendukidze. But experience in the Baltic states suggests that Russian economic sanctions against rebellious former satellites often have a perverse effect, stimulating trade with the West and underlining the dangers of dependence on the huge and tempting Russian market.
That will provide little comfort for the 1m or so Georgians who live and work in Russia, often illegally. Even those with solid legal status may be affected by the tough new stance: overlapping and contradictory laws, and a centuries-old tradition of official bloody-mindedness, mean that once a suspect is in the authorities’ sights, a crime can easily be found.
Conversely, with a well-placed friend, and the right sum of money, official displeasure is seldom as bad in practice as it may seem in theory. The likelihood is that the crackdown on Georgian traders and migrants will mean more bribes and inconvenience, rather than wholesale deportation.
The biggest victim of the spat may be Russia. Georgia, a member of the World Trade Organisation, has said that it will block Russia’s application until economic sanctions are dropped. Having tried to polish its international reputation during its presidency of the G8, Russia is now losing it, particularly where being neighbourly, lawful and level-headed are concerned. And the vitriolic, near-racist tone of the public discussion of Georgian migrant workers does little to assuage fears about Russia’s future political direction.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Grim eastern politics put into context
By Edward Lucas
What makes the EU’s new member states different?
Old democracies have extremists nostalgic for their countries’ unpleasant past (Jörg Haider), or shameless rabble-rousers (Jean-Marie Le Pen). There are sleazeballs galore; public trust in politicians is sinking, as is turnout in elections.
So why should anyone be worried in particular about the political mess in eastern Europe, where in the eight new member states of the EU, governments are at best do-nothing coalitions (Estonia and Slovenia) and at worst chaotic (Czech Republic) or outright revolting (Slovakia)?
My hunch is that the difference is less in the politics than in the context. Somewhere like Italy can afford (or more accurately, has been able to afford) weak government, because other institutions, including private and non-profit ones, make up for the state’s deficiencies. But in the post-communist world, there is both an urgent need to catch up and much less public-spiritedness and do-goodery to fill the gap left by an incompetent state.
I posed the question at a conference in Bratislava last week, called ‘Visegrad Elections: Domestic Impact and European Consequences’, organised by IVO, one of Slovakia’s several excellent think-tanks. My fellow-participants, all natives of the region, quickly pointed out other big differences.
Nasty parties are accepted in power. The rhetoric of Slovak nationalists about Hungarians, for example, or of the League of Polish Families about homosexuals, is tolerated by the governing coalitions of which they are part in a way that would be quite unimaginable farther west, where some taboos about open prejudice in public life still hold.
Post-communist countries also tend to compound all the worst features of political life in western Europe: politics is not just polarised, but also weak and corrupt. Vitriolic certainty rules: disagree with Poland’s government and you risk being called an agent of the Ukÿad (establishment). In the minds of those currently holding power that is a sinister mix of business, intelligence, politics and spookery. It may well be true in some cases, but such a catch-all explanation is impossible to falsify, and therefore risks being overused.
The media, outside Poland, is mostly dire: flimsy and biased. Serious journalism is marginal, sensationalism rules. Journalists routinely reflect the views of their papers’ ‘sponsors’. Nobody seems to mind. That’s quite different from even small western countries, where there is a plethora of serious media, both print and electronic, for anyone who wants to read it.
A final difference is historical prickliness. Despite all the progress of the past 15 years, there is a still a regrettable readiness to reach for history as a weapon. No Dutch or French politician would casually remind Germany about the Third Reich in order to make a political point.
All this is depressing. But there are two big pluses. The post-Communist countries are still highly adaptable. They dumped the planned economy in a couple of years. Then to meet the requirements of EU membership they drastically reformed the rickety DIY systems of politics and economics that sprouted in the early 1990s. No western country has gone through such a wrenching change since, perhaps, Britain in the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher.
Second, there is still a wellspring of idealism. A Czech diplomat at the conference said that he had found it hard to keep his temper when west European colleagues asked, with genuine puzzlement, why his country kept fussing about Cuba. It wholly escaped them that only 16 years ago Czechs had political prisoners, travel bans and censorship. In the most important struggle, of memory against forgetting, the east still beats the west by far.