A captain faces the storm
Apr 26th 2007 | BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition
Can an ex-communist country reform after joining the European Union?
AGAINST the darkening background of ex-communist politics, President Traian Basescu of Romania was something of a star. He identified bad government and corruption as the biggest obstacles to his country's accession to the European Union, and he forcefully—his foes say ruthlessly—pushed reforms of the justice system and the public services.
Foreigners liked the former sea captain's personal style: a mixture of mischievous humour and straight talk. Romanians liked him too, though his popularity rating has fallen to 41%, down from 49% in March and 57% last November. But most Romanian politicians detest Mr Basescu, finding him confrontational, devious and—perhaps most important—threatening. Last month the coalition that took the country into the EU on January 1st fell apart. Almost the first act of the incoming government was to push through a vote to suspend the president from office. Romanians will vote in a referendum on May 19th on whether to impeach him.
Romania's political theatre has turned positively operatic.
The electoral law is badly drafted. It says that a majority of the electorate must vote for impeachment for the poll to be valid. That is a high bar, so parliament has just changed the rules. Now it will decide what happens if the impeachment fails. Mr Basescu will be lucky to return to his hill-top palace soon.
Mr Basescu has played a strong hand badly. He has been too dependent on the country's powerful security and intelligence services. Too often he has chosen cronies and nonentities as advisers; they have tended to quit after a few months, exhausted and exasperated by his short attention span and frequent changes of mind. His colourful private life has created grist for Romania's active rumour mill.
He has also picked his fights poorly. He quarrelled at once with the new government, obstinately refusing to accept its nominee as foreign minister, Adrian Cioroianu. The parliamentary vote for his impeachment was a striking 322 to 108. Rather than seek compromise, Mr Basescu tends to take to the airwaves. “I will not negotiate,” he said before last week's vote. “I am not that interested in my political comfort. I will not stop talking either.”
Yet for all Mr Basescu's own shortcomings, his adversaries seem a lot worse. The acting president is the speaker of the Senate, Nicolae Vacaroiu. He led the authoritarian ex-communist government that ruled the country, badly, from 1992 to 1996. The new minority government of Liberals and ethnic Hungarians is stuffed with youthful party hacks. It also epitomises everything that has held Romania back. According to the Romanian Academic Society, the country's leading clean-government campaign, seven ministers breach the terms of the “Coalition for a Clean Parliament”, an anti-corruption pact agreed with all main Romanian parties in 2004. Some have dodgy ties to powerful businesses. Another received a colossal book advance from a mysterious source.
Outsiders are nervous about the second-biggest new EU member. The EU is pressing for a new ethics watchdog to be set up. The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, refused to meet Mr Cioroianu this week. A NATO summit planned next year has been shifted, probably to Portugal. Boosted by EU membership, Romania's economy is booming. But its political stock is falling fast.
Friday, April 27, 2007
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Counter-attacking the Kremlin
Support free media in Russia while you still can
THIS week’s Russian Economic Forum in London was a fiasco. The Kremlin signalled its current displeasure with the British government by making all the top Russian participants pull out at short notice.
That is a satisfying come-uppance for the morally myopic businessmen who shun any mention of Russia’s political problems. But it also highlights the Kremlin’s ominous use of commercial clout to influence decisions abroad.
Should Britain allow Boris Berezovsky to keep up his ill-phrased assault on Vladimir Putin’s regime from his Mayfair eyrie—or should he be encouraged to move abroad? Is it really in the public interest for Britain to issue arrest warrants for a couple of well-connected Russians who seem possible culprits in the radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko?
The British business view on these issues is a sorry mixture of pleading and panic: just give the Kremlin what it wants, so that we can get back on the gravy train. It’s the same story all over Europe. During the cold war the capitalists and the freedom fighters were on the same side. Now that alliance is broken, and the cause is muddier.
It is easy to conclude gloomily that the Kremlin has all the cards: oil, gas, money, decisiveness. The West is distracted, easily intimidated, and even more easily bought.
But counter-attack is possible.
Type rest of the post here
New Times is pretty much the only truly independent weekly left in Russia. Its editorial staff includes two of the remaining leading lights of serious Russian journalism: Yevgenia Albats, the country’s best investigative writer; and Raf Shakirov, fired from the editorship of Izvestia, once a top Russian daily, for his coverage of the botched anti-terrorism operation in Beslan. Its website carries footage of the Kremlin’s bully boys beating up opposition demonstrators—pictures that Russian television will scarcely touch.
The magazine is not perfect. Some may find it too wordy, or self-important, or shrill. But at least it is independent: it has no “sponsors”, no “roof”. The publisher, Irena Lesnevskaya, was told by a top Kremlin official that hiring Ms Albats was a “mistake”. Almost any other magazine in Russia would have hurried to correct the “mistake”. Ms Lesnevskaya politely refused.
Sympathetic outsiders who read Russian might consider subscribing. Every little helps. But what New Times really needs is advertisers. And in Russia now, nobody wants to risk incurring the Kremlin’s displeasure. Advertising in New Times would be commercial suicide, Russia’s top business people explain, while insisting that privately they are devoted to the cause of press freedom.
The only people who can help are those who have nothing to lose. It is time for Polish sausagemakers, Georgian wine producers, and Estonian sprat-canners to step forward for their unlikely moment of glory. They have suffered Russia’s spiteful boycotts and bans for months. Diplomacy has got them nowhere. They are mostly now thriving in other markets. So why not hit back, by taking out advertisements in New Times. “Dear Russian customers! We are sorry we can’t sell you our products right now—but please rest assured, we will return to you as soon as better times allow.”
The cost would be tiny relative to the psychological impact. Perhaps the tourist authorities could join in, underlining the welcome that awaits Russian visitors—sometimes to their surprise—in Warsaw, Tallinn and Tbilisi. Even Mr Putin’s Russia won’t touch the freedom to travel, leaving little scope for Kremlin revenge.
Outsiders can’t stop the Kremlin closing the New Times if it wishes. But they can at least help make it a commercial success while it lasts.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
The drunk who rescued Russia
When Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank outside the Russian parliament in August 1991, he saved his country - and the world - from the last gasp of Soviet totalitarian rule.
For that, he deserves our undying gratitude.
It is easy to forget now how perilous was the moment. The chaotic regime of the dithering, waffling Mikhail Gorbachev had been toppled.
Tanks were on the streets of Moscow, backing a bunch of hard-line Communists who wanted to put the clock right back to the ice age, restoring the Soviet empire at home and abroad. Had they succeeded we would have faced a new Cold War - or possibly a very hot one.
Thanks to the bravery of Yeltsin - who died yesterday aged 76 after a history of heart trouble - in leading the resistance to their putsch, their plot failed.
And when Mr Gorbachev returned from his seaside holiday home, where the coup plotters had held him prisoner, he found Mr Yeltsin in charge.
The Soviet Union was to be wound up, he informed Mr Gorbachev brusquely. In its place would be 15 independent states - including the Russian Federation, until then a mere local government body of which Mr Yeltsin had been the president.
Mr Yeltsin moved into the Kremlin to rule over a ruined country. Communism was discredited, but the democrats had yet to gain any political authority.
Nothing worked. Even Western embassies were unable to get dollars from their bank accounts: every cent had been stolen or squandered. Public servants were unpaid.
The shops were empty. Inflation was raging. Savings had become meaningless numbers in a bank: useless amounts of a devalued currency.
Finland and other neighbouring countries were building refugee camps in case hunger drove millions of Russians to flee the country. Total disaster seemed only weeks away.
Against that background, Mr Yeltsin's achievements as the president of Russia are colossal. They dwarf his failures - terrible though they were.
In a few short weeks, his government of young reformers had laid the basis for Russia's economic survival. They freed prices from state control.
Literally the next day, goods started appearing - first in impromptu stalls on the pavements, then in makeshift kiosks, soon after that in shops.
The invisible hand of the market was able to do its work, for the first time since the Revolution. Many people were furious, claiming that the liberalised prices were extortionate.
Mr Yeltsin - no great economist - agreed, dismaying his government. But he did not order a return to Sovietstyle price control. Russian shoppers have never looked back.
The government privatised much of the Russian economy, too. It was hasty and messy.
A small number of ruthless men commandeered vast chunks of industry, ranging from useless factories that produced unsaleable junk to lucrative enterprises that produced vast mineral riches: oil, gas, gold and diamonds.
Some of these early capitalists disappeared without trace. Others became hugely wealthy, and soon turned their wealth into power. The West soon learned to call them the "oligarchs" - from the Greek word meaning "rule by a few".
Many Russians saw this as little more than looting. They were right to feel disgusted.
But Mr Yeltsin and his government knew that the vital task was to break the power of the "red barons" - the Communist factory directors who held huge amounts of both economic and political power.
Only when business was in private hands was there a chance that Russia's future would follow the laws of the market, rather than the political wishes of the old guard.
Now that Russia's economy is fuelled by high oil and gas prices, it is hard to remember how desperate the 1990s were.
Russia was dependent on bailout after bail-out from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the German and Japanese government, and other lenders. Much of it was stolen as soon as it arrived.
The country sank deep into debt, culminating in the default and devaluation of August 1998 - the most critical moment in Russia's post-Communist history, when ordinary Russians found that their savings were wiped out as the rouble plunged in value and the whole banking system teetered on the point of collapse.
"Everything they told us in the Soviet era about Communism was false. But everything they told us about capitalism was true," Russians commented in disgust.
Mr Yeltsin had already given his people plenty of other cause for disgust. He had introduced the virus of vote-rigging into Russia's infant democracy.
A referendum on a new constitution in 1993 was grotesquely flawed. So was his own presidential reelection campaign in 1996, where he trounced the Communist challenger.
Worse, Yeltsin allowed violence to become a political currency. He ordered the army to shell the Russian parliament in 1993, to defeat a bunch of hardline Communist and nationalist deputies who had holed up there.
He unleashed the might of the Russian military on the small breakaway republic of Chechnya, fighting a gruesomely destructive two-year war that ended in a humiliating truce for Russia.
These mistakes were partly the product of bad advice, mainly stemming from his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and her array of cronies. These included manipulative, over-mighty tycoons.
Ordinary Russians were rightly disgusted to see their country run by the president's daughter and her dodgy friends. Mr Yeltsin's own choice of companions was little better: his thuggish bodyguard chief ran a private commercial empire.
Russians were disgusted, too, by their president's shambolic public appearances. During a state visit to Germany, he drunkenly seized the baton from the bemused conductor of a military band and tried to conduct the music himself.
Watching the television reports that mercilessly showed not just that, but also the embarrassed smiles of his German hosts, worsened Russians' fragile self-esteem.
During a stopover in Ireland, en route to America, he was so drunk that his aides were unable to rouse him to meet the Irish dignitaries waiting for him.
That showed a streak of irresponsibility all too characteristic of the Russian approach to life.
Mr Yeltsin was an alcoholic and this led to his quintuple bypass operation in late 1996. Those who knew him well said that he never fully recovered from that.
Mr Yeltsin's gravest mistake, though, was not his tolerance of crooks, but of spooks.
He allowed the KGB to metamorphose into Russia's new security agencies - tantamount to allowing the Gestapo and SS a role in postwar West Germany.
Since that failure to uproot the murderous structures of the past, the agencies of murder, torture and blackmail have entrenched themselves in the heart of the new Russia.
They even managed to get one of their number - Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin - into Mr Yeltsin's own job.
The deal around Mr Putin's rise to power in 1999 marked the nadir of Mr Yeltsin's presidency. He was fearful of impeachment. His inner circle feared for their new private wealth - and their freedom.
They knew that outsiders would subject their business deals and swiftly-obtained riches to the harshest scrutiny.
So the crooks and spooks cooked up a deal. In return for the quiet, unthreatening Mr Putin being made prime minister, and then president, Mr Yeltsin and his family would gain life-long immunity from prosecution.
In retrospect, that seems an appalling mistake. For all his faults, Mr Yeltsin was, at heart, a democrat. He believed passionately in freedom, particularly freedom of the Press, which flowered under his rule as never before or since in Russia.
The sharpest criticism and the most devastating satire could be broadcast - and roused not a squeak of protest from the president.
Even at his weakest and most drunken he would firmly remind his aides that freedom for the media was untouchable. Contrast that to
the recent edict from President Putin that the Russian media was to give at least half of their stories a "positive spin".
Mr Yeltsin's mistakes, and they were many, were ruthlessly attacked by the most powerful media in the land. Mr Putin's mistakes - far more grievous - go all but unmentioned. That, in a nutshell, is the huge and dismal shift between then and now.
Mr Yeltsin's weaknesses and failings are all the more excusable when you consider his background. Given his career in the Communist Party, it is surprising that he understood so much about the workings of a true democracy.
Unlike Mr Putin, a career spy in Russia's foreign intelligence service, Mr Yeltsin had scarcely travelled abroad before taking high office.
Born into a peasant family from the Urals in 1931, Yeltsin's family lived in a one-room wooden hut - his father once spent three years in dictator Stalin's gulag for grumbling at work - and Boris's childhood was blighted when he blew off two fingers on one hand while playing with a live hand grenade.
Despite such setbacks, he went on to graduate as a civil engineer, rising to become a construction manager and joining the Communist Party.
By 1976 he was a local party boss and nine years later, Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, summoned him to Moscow with a mandate to reform the corrupt party system.
But his reputation as a maverick and his growing disenchantment with the old ways led to a swift and final break with the Communist Party when he was sacked from the Central Committee in 1987.
Two years in the political wilderness followed, during which he came to his most fundamental political conclusions.
For Yeltsin did not just believe in free media, he believed in free people. He was convinced that Russians could be democrats just like anyone else.
He wanted them to enjoy the fruits of democracy as far and as fast as possible. And he wanted Russia to be a respected and admired member of the family of free nations, breaking with the Soviet past.
Contrast that with Mr Putin, a man drenched in Soviet-style contempt for the people, and convinced of his own right to manipulate and mislead them. Where Yeltsin sought friends, Putin seeks to instil fear.
Yeltsin denounced the crimes of Stalin; Putin raised a glass to his memory at a public banquet.
Russia-watchers are now waiting in fascination to see how the controlfreaks in the Kremlin will deal with Yeltsin's death. Putin's line is that most of Russia's ills stem from the "chaos" of the 1990s.
Yet as the vice tightens on the remains of Russian democracy, with riot police brutally dispersing opposition demonstrations, and every independent organisation fearing the attention of the secret police, many may miss the anarchic, rough-andready freedoms of the Yeltsin era.
The official line at his funeral will be to highlight Russia's newly acquired financial strength and political stability.
But there is another story to tell too: of Russia's great democratic dreams brought low by the unsuspected weakness of the good, and the unsuspected strength of the bad.
The life of Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin has died. He symbolised post-communist Russia’s greatest strengths—and its weaknesses
BORIS NIKOLAYEVICH YELTSIN helped to destroy the Soviet Union and did much to bring Russia’s democracy into existence. The former construction engineer was not a great builder of institutions; the democracy was flawed. But he had the right instincts. For liberating Russians from the yoke of the one-party state and the planned economy, he deserves immense gratitude. Yet his nepotistic and capricious rule spawned colossal lawlessness and corruption, paving the way for his authoritarian successor, Vladimir Putin.
Born in 1931, Mr Yeltsin was a loyal provincial Communist, bulldozing the Ipatiev house in Sverdlovsk (now, again, Yekaterinburg) where the last tsar’s family was murdered. Promoted to Moscow party chief under Mikhail Gorbachev, he showed a revolutionary popular touch. Communist chieftains shunned the people. Mr Yeltsin mixed with them, sharing their fury about the shortages and indignities of daily life.
In 1987 Mr Gorbachev fired him, after an outburst that included direct criticism of the Soviet leader’s wife, Raisa: even in the burgeoning atmosphere of glasnost [openness], that was still taboo. Mr Yeltsin retreated to the shadows, only to return in 1990 as president of the Russian Federation. Russia’s statehood had been as nominal as those of other Soviet Socialist Republics such as Ukraine or Kazakhstan. But as the Baltic republics started galloping towards freedom, with Mr Yeltsin’s enthusiastic support, that changed. Could the Russian Federation too one day become a proper country?
It soon did. When bumbling Communist party hardliners mounted a coup against the Soviet leadership in 1991, it was Mr Yeltsin, denouncing the putschists while perched on a tank, who symbolised the successful democratic resistance. When Mr Gorbachev returned to Moscow from his seaside captivity, he found Mr Yeltsin in charge. The Russian leader humiliatingly gave his former boss a decree to read out acknowledging the new order.
As the other 14 Soviet republics digested their independence, Mr Yeltsin appointed a short-lived government of young reformers, led by Yegor Gaidar, who unleashed breakneck economic reform on the ruined country. It was deeply unpopular: price liberalisation made evident the destruction of savings under Soviet inflation. Privatisation meant a field day for robber barons. The institutions needed for a properly functioning market economy were pitifully lacking. It was in the Yeltsin era that the world learnt the term “oligarch”, to describe the overmighty tycoons who fused political and economic power.
Yet those reforms worked. Russia has a booming consumer-goods market. The robber barons were a lot better than the “red directors” they replaced, whose thinking and loyalties were still rooted in the Communist-run planned economy.
If the economic reforms now look better than they seemed at the time, his political failures look worse. Shelling Russia’s parliament in 1993, supposedly to dislodge Communist and other hardline deputies who had seized control there, reintroduced the virus of violence into Russian political life. So did the shameful Chechen war of 1994-96, which unleashed the might of the Russian war machine on the small breakaway republic. His rigged victory over the Communist Gennady Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential election spawned a habit of official vote-rigging that has largely destroyed the credibility of Russian elections.
His mistakes were greatest when prompted by his family and their cronies. While keeping the old man topped up with vodka, they hijacked Russia’s political and economic destiny, enriching themselves and discrediting both democracy and capitalism in the eyes of millions of outraged and contemptuous citizens.
All the same, Mr Yeltsin stood for three fundamental principles. He believed in freedom of speech, including freedom of the press, no matter what. He wanted Russia to be friends with the west. And he despised the Communist party and everything it stood for—particularly the KGB. It was a tragedy that he did not dissolve it fully in 1991, when he had the chance. It was an irony that the candidate his family chose as a safe successor, the cautious, little-known ex-KGB man, Mr Putin, should have done so much to reverse his legacy, blaming so many of Russia’s ills on what he calls the “chaos” of the 1990s.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Moldova and Russia
A thaw in the river
From The Economist print edition
A settlement in Transdniestria is bad news for Moldova—and the West
ITS consequences may be disastrous, but a deal on the worst territorial dispute in Europe's poorest country was still too tempting. Moldova, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, has been split ever since a brief civil war in 1992. Its industrialised part—a strip of land to the east of the Dniester river—maintains an unrecognised independence, propped up by Russia's cheap gas and its contingent of “peacekeepers”.
Transdniestria, as it is called, is a black hole. It makes weapons, ranging from cheap submachineguns to high-tech missile parts. The customers are unknown. It also has lucratively porous borders: one common scam is to smuggle American chicken-meat in and out of Ukraine's protected home market, at a profit of some €700 ($950) per tonne.
Previous attempts to broker a peace deal have got nowhere. Transdniestria's rulers have close ties with business-minded counterparts in Ukraine, Russia and even in Moldova proper. And Russia is unwilling to give up a sliver of its former empire. Last year it imposed a punishing embargo on Moldovan wine. But now Moldova is shifting its position. Last week President Vladimir Voronin set out a new approach that suits the Kremlin—but will dismay Moldova's friends in the West.
In a declaration to be signed jointly with the Transdniestrian leader, Igor Smirnov, Moldova will for the first time recognise Transdniestria's government and leadership as legitimate entities. Voters on both sides will elect a new Moldovan parliament. Transdniestria will keep its Supreme Soviet and have top deputy ministers in the national government. By 2009 Russia's troops will be replaced by unarmed international monitors.
American and European Union diplomats found out about all this only when Vladimir Socor, a Munich-based analyst, published a leaked version last week. Now officials in Washington, DC, and Brussels are urgently seeking clarification. They hope it is an idea, not a real plan, but they fear the worst. Even unencumbered by Transdniestria, Moldova's economy has been lacklustre. Of its 4.4m people, at least 400,000 have emigrated; the country survives on their remittances. A dose of Transdniestrian politics is likely only to strengthen all the darkest forces in Moldovan public life.
And what guarantee is there that the deal will stick? “Russia tends to take agreements as the basis not for implementation, but for further negotiation,” says one cross official. The Kremlin has twice ignored previous deadlines for withdrawing troops. Suppose that, in a year's time, it finds pressing reasons for staying on?
A third question concerns the Transdniestrian KGB. Closely linked to Moscow, it is run by Vladimir Antufeyev, who was involved in a failed Soviet crackdown in the Baltic states in 1990. Many think it is he, not Mr Smirnov, who runs the show. The Moldovan minister for Transdniestria, Vasile Sova, insists Mr Antufeyev and his pals must leave. Will they?
But the biggest puzzle is the timing. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, may have convinced Mr Voronin, a naïve ex-baker, that the moment was ripe for a deal. Russia may have wanted a quick fix to contrast with the wrangles at the United Nations over the future of Kosovo, Serbia's breakaway province. Yet if the Kremlin was in such a rush, why was it Moldova that had to make concessions?
Crony capitalism could be triumphing over other differences. A top Moldovan politician's scrap-metal business sells mainly to a steel mill in Transdniestria. The son of another has a chain of fast-food restaurants that operates in the separatists' capital, Tiraspol. In theory, cash from the West should counteract any pull from the east: foreign donors have pledged more than $1.2 billion to Moldova in the next three years. But much of this depends on reforms that the country's lethargic and corrupt administration is loth to embrace.
It will be hard for outsiders to block the deal; they may not even bother to try. If they did, they might be called wreckers, given that both sides want it. Yet Mr Voronin's plan means that Russia has, for once, trumped the West. Who might be next?
The autocrat at the table
Heads of state: a user's guide
A SOCIAL engagement with an east European head of state is not something to engage in lightly. In some countries, you may find the top man willing to meet over a meal or a drink. But others are so hedged around with protocol that only long-standing and intimate friends can hope to get through the surrounding fortifications of aides, flaks, bodyguards and cronies.
And in some cases there may be little point in trying to do so. Sparkling conversation and stimulating views are not what leaps to mind when Hungary’s president, László Sólyom, is mentioned.
Visiting Lech Kaczynski of Poland is great fun if you have a good knowledge of Gdansk opposition politics in the early 1970s; conversation on other topics is more limited, and can be alarming. Slovakia’s president, Ivan Gasparovic, has interesting contrarian views on Serbia, but not much else.
Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine finds it hard to get up in the morning, so avoid any suggestion of a power breakfast, and notoriously wayward when it comes to timekeeping (your columnist once waited 11 hours). So accept lunch, but plan for dinner.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia is punctual, but has a queenly manner that many might find insufferable in a country ten (or one hundred) times bigger. With a bit of luck, you may get a few glimpses of the charming and brainy Canadian professor who lives under the carapace of protocol.
Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, by contrast, is exactly the same whether you have known him for ten minutes or 20 years: abrasive, forceful, well-informed and magnificently dismissive of views other than his own. If you have a Nobel prize for economics, he may give your views a marginally more polite hearing. Otherwise, thicken your skin.
Janez Drnovsek of Slovenia, by contrast, is a dreamy, mystical fellow; he would seem more at home running an alternative bookshop, perhaps with a sideline in healing crystals and aromatic oils. A cup of herb tea and a light lentil salad will accompany your discussion of world peace and the healing properties of mountains.
At his dacha outside Moscow, Vladimir Putin of Russia hosts regular meetings for a charmed circle of well-disposed and well-connected outsiders. They are not exactly informal, but they do display his formidable self-confidence in dealing with any question you like to throw at him over a period of many hours; many western politicians would lack the stamina to do that. Even the most hardheaded visitors have been known to succumb to his highly professional persuasive talents.
Stop me if you've heard this one before
Transdniestria’s president, Igor Smirnov, should be described as “head of statelet”, not head of state: his breakaway region is not recognised by the outside world. But despite a peppery manner, and behind a cloud of smoke from his beloved Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, he has a surprisingly sharp sense of fun. Just try to stay off politics.
The ideal evening would probably start with President Traian Basescu of Romania (pictured, left) and a beer in one of the Bucharest bars that he likes to frequent. The former sea-captain’s salty humour is hard to resist: he must have run a happy ship. His views—mostly—are sensible: anti-corruption, pro-American. Next would come dinner with Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. His public face is now, wisely, bland, but in private his views are as incisive and entertaining as ever. Then time for one of the late-night pow-wows for which Toomas Hendrik Ilves is famous. Estonia’s bow-tie clad head of state will still be in full flow as you stagger off for a few hours sleep, wishing you hadn't arranged a breakfast meeting for later that morning.
Friday, April 13, 2007
Poland and the second world war
From The Economist print edition
Whose version of history should prevail at Auschwitz?
COMPARED with the other horrors of Auschwitz, questions of nationality might seem secondary. But they rankle. Russia wants to describe as “Soviet citizens” the hundreds of thousands of people killed there who came from such places as eastern Poland and Lithuania. During the camp's existence, these were part of the Soviet Union. Poles find the wording infuriating: the Hitler-Stalin carve-up of eastern Europe was a crime, not a mere historical backdrop.
Russia closed its exhibition at Auschwitz in 2003, to update it. But the Polish authorities will not let it reopen unless it changes its terminology. Russia is furious. A Russian politician, Konstantin Kosachev, accused Poland of wanting to “rewrite history”. A Russian Jewish leader called the move “blasphemous”. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz inmate who was also twice Poland's foreign minister, and who chairs the museum's international council, accuses Russia of “sheer arrogance”.
Attempts to exploit Auschwitz are hardly new. Under communism, the museum there oozed Soviet propaganda, obscuring the fact that most of the million-plus murdered in the camp were Jews. Poles are twitchy when outsiders call it a “Polish death camp” and neglect to mention that it was built and run by the country's Nazi occupiers.
A somewhat similar row is brewing in Estonia, where the government wants to move a Soviet-era war memorial from the centre of Tallinn to a war cemetery. The figure of a bronze soldier is seen as a heroic liberator by many locals with Russian ancestry. But to many Estonians the “unknown rapist” symbolises only the switch between a Nazi occupation and an even more brutal Soviet one.
Russia's relations with its former satellites are not uniformly bad: it has just signed a border treaty with Latvia and its ties with Hungary are positively chummy. But relations with Poland are icy. Last year the Poles vetoed the start of talks on a new EU-Russian co-operation agreement, because of a year-long Russian embargo on Polish meat exports, imposed seemingly out of spite. That issue is now sure to overshadow next month's EU-Russia summit.
Yet squabbles about sausages may be patched up more easily than rows about the past. Under Vladimir Putin, the Soviet version of history has become part of Russia's own story. The idea that anyone might not have wished to be a “Soviet citizen” seems baffling and rather ungrateful. The Poles find Russian nostalgia for the Soviet empire not just baffling, but worrying.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Georgia gets a rocket
Beware Russian gunships that pass in the night
WAS it a stunt, a signal or a test? A month after helicopters launched a night-time rocket attack on government buildings in Georgia’s Kodori gorge, nobody knows. As so often in post-Soviet imperial politics, the big picture is clear, but the details are mysterious.
The big picture is that Georgia is trying to re-establish control over two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have claimed independence with Russian backing.
In Abkhazia, Georgia has replaced the bandits who were running the Kodori gorge, a remote upland district, with a normal (by Georgian standards) civilian administration.
In South Ossetia, the Georgian authorities have set up a local government in a village that has always been under Georgian control. This new outfit is run by prominent South Ossetian political figures who have fallen out with the imported Kremlin stooges in charge of the separatist administration.
The aim is to make Georgia a magnet, attracting back minorities repelled by the swaggering ethno-nationalism of the early 1990s. Fast growth and some institutional reform already make Georgia look pretty good, if no showcase, when measured against Russia’s troubled periphery across the Caucasus mountains. Russia's attempts at sanctions and harassment have not brought Georgia to its knees; rather, they have strengthened its self-confidence and encouraged its integration with the West.
An ambitious Abkhaz or Ossetian thus faces an interesting choice: Russia’s gas-fired crony capitalism, with all the problems of the north Caucasus neighbourhood thrown in; or Georgia, and its path of European and Atlantic integration. Neither is hugely attractive right now, but it is hard to see the Russian option getting more compelling, whereas Georgia’s future is looking increasingly bright.
So much for the big picture. Russia is losing out, with a bad grace, to an upstart former satellite. But what about the helicopters? Predictably, the Kremlin line is that Georgia attacked itself to gain sympathy. But in truth the culprits can only have been Russian. Who else in the region has the military capability to launch precision airstrikes at night?
The raid might have been a prelude to an attack aimed at regaining control over the Kodori gorge. But no ground troops followed it up. Most likely it was an attempt to provoke Mikheil Saakashvili, the volatile Georgian president, into an ill-judged retaliation. If so, it failed. Since some American-inspired arm-twisting last year, Mr Saaskashvili’s public utterances have been exemplary.
Just possibly, the attack was nothing to do with local politics, but one Kremlin faction signalling to another that it has the capability to start a war if thwarted. If so, that’s bad news for Russia’s neighbours, who have long feared such stunts in the run-up to Russia's presidential election next year. Maybe the attackers expected more impact: it was pure chance that all the buildings were unoccupied. Nobody was killed, or even hurt. Perhaps they will be, next time.
In theory, the attack should be investigated by the United Nations Observer Misson in Georgia, which tries to keep an eye on what Russia calls its “peace-keeping” force in Abkhazia (given its bias, others call it piece-keeping). The UN mission’s quadripartite fact-finding group—of Georgians, Russians and Abkhaz, under a UN chairman—has convened, but produced only a vague press release.
This week talks started in New York on the extension of the mission’s mandate. Nobody is expecting Russia to be called harshly to account. The mission will stay supine and useless, as its response to the Kodori raid shows. A Kremlin victory, then, in one sense. But the upshot is that Georgian diplomats have never had such a sympathetic hearing, nor Russia a more sceptical one.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Anna Politkovskaya review
A slice of death
Apr 4th 2007
From The Economist print edition
A Russian Diary
By Anna Politkovskaya
BEFORE she was murdered, Anna Politkovskaya was one of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critics. On October 7th 2006, when she was shot by a contract killer in the stairwell of her home, she became the best-known victim of the Russia he has created.
Not that there is any proof that the Russian authorities ordered her shooting: indeed the Kremlin line is that it was a cynical move by Mr Putin's enemies abroad. Others believe that the murder was ordered by one of the factions in Chechnya, whose brutality and larceny she passionately chronicled.
Ms Politkovskaya's diaries are both gripping and flawed. Her great gift is for telling with unsentimental sympathy the stories of people caught up in the Russian state's mincing machines: the relatives of those who disappear to torture and death in Chechnya; the Russian veterans of the conflict, neglected and unemployably traumatised; the drunken, decaying squalor of life in the Russian boondocks.
She also captures the political atmosphere of modern Russia, including the obfuscation and pomposity, the shameless mendacity, the hopeless squabbles and wishful thinking of the opposition. Her two central characters are Mr Putin himself, whose cloyingly insincere public utterances and occasional mistakes she describes with savage glee; and Ramzan Kadyrov, a thuggish and volatile pro-Kremlin Chechen warlord (now the republic's president), whom she describes repeatedly—and bravely—as a “lunatic”.
But her judgments are so sweeping and harsh that the fair-minded reader may flinch a bit. Is it really fair to compare Mr Putin with Stalin? The war in Chechnya does have awful similarities to Stalin's campaigns against Baltic and Ukrainian partisans after 1945, but has not so far been accompanied by wholesale deportations to Siberia. Ms Politkovskaya's biggest struggle was with indifference, not censorship. She was kept off the air, her articles published in a small-circulation weekly. But in the truly totalitarian state in which she grew up, such articles would not have appeared at all, and circulating even blurred carbon copies would have risked the gulag.
Yet overstatement, like inconsistency, is a diarist's privilege. Read with the volume turned down a notch, the book is a valuable, if unhappy, account of the last years of her life. It is worth reading just for her report on the terrorist seizure of a school in Beslan, the extraordinarily bungled and bloody military operation that ended it and the cynical official cover-up that continues to this day.
Anyone hoping to learn about Ms Politkovskaya as a person, though, will be disappointed. Her life outside journalism and politics does not feature, even as a backdrop. That is a welcome contrast to the self-important style of many lesser journalists' books about great events. If Ms Politkovskaya experienced discomfort, amusement or boredom, she did not bother to write it down: it was her subjects' story that mattered, not hers.
A good biographer may one day plug that gap. But nothing will fill the void left by her murder.
A Russian Diary
By Anna Politkovskaya
Harvill Secker; 272 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Random House next month
Buy it at
Poland and its past
Apr 4th 2007 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
The cure for ex-communist sleaze in Poland may be worse than the disease
SLEAZE was endemic among the ex-communists who ran Poland until 2005, say the moral zealots now in charge. They have backing from a surprising source: Jozef Oleksy, an ex-communist who was, in the 1990s, prime minister, interior minister and parliamentary speaker. A leaked recording of his boozy three-hour lunch with one of Poland's richest businessmen, Aleksander Gudzowaty, contains detailed allegations about top ex-communists' financial shenanigans.
All those mentioned deny everything. Aleksander Kwasniewski, president between 1995 and 2005 and still the left's most popular politician, calls Mr Oleksy an “utter cretin” and “traitor”. Mr Oleksy has grovelled in vain to his former colleagues, complaining that the tapes were doctored in the hope of sowing dissension on the left and of scuppering Mr Kwasniewski's return to domestic politics.
Recorded by Mr Gudzowaty's security staff, the tapes seem to have reached the media via the justice ministry and the security services. Mr Gudzowaty, Poland's fifth-richest man, has not explained how they got out. Some think he is currying favour with the powers-that-be: Law and Justice, the centre-right party founded by Lech Kaczynski (president) and his twin brother Jaroslaw (prime minister).
The Kaczynskis loathe this sort of thing. They like to stand above all for clean government. Their own probity is unquestioned. But their record is tainted, not least by the antics of two coalition allies. One of these is a bunch of farmers with dodgy business ties; the other is a bunch of homophobes who flirt with anti-Semitism.
Worse, the government has created a paranoid atmosphere, in which secret material is close to becoming a political currency. Government critics complain of being bugged: hard to prove, but a fear rarely expressed since the collapse of communism. The justice ministry seems heavy-handed and too fond of publicity. Some say it is being misused for political ends.
The Kaczynskis want to drive the old regime's cronies out of their powerful jobs. But they have often brought in their own chums, rather than apolitical experts. In a tussle over the sale of Poland's largest insurer, they replaced the firm's boss with a candidate who lacks the usual qualifications. The head of the country's largest oil company has been replaced by an inexperienced friend of the president's.
The biggest row is about the government's “lustration” law, which beefs up the vetting of anybody who ever co-operated with the communist-era secret services. The aim is to uproot the uklad, a supposed network of communist-era spies and their allies in business and the public services that the Kaczynskis blame for all of Poland's wrong turnings since 1989.
Screening public figures for connections to the old regime is common in eastern Europe, but the new law has unparalleled scope. Leading academics and journalists have threatened civil disobedience. The institute that looks after the secret-service archives is concerned that it will be unable to certify the purity of as many as 700,000 people within the time limit stipulated by the law.
Critics say that screening laws, however well-meant, tend to hit collaborators—perhaps coerced at the time and remorseful now—more than perpetrators. Heavy vetting is a cumbersome way of dealing with the uklad. A better one would be to make the economy more open, so that connections ceased to matter. Jan Winiecki, a professor and critic of communist economics, calls the law “unacceptable on both moral and legal grounds” and says it “puts its authors beyond the pale of Western civilisation”. The final version proposed by the president is vague, lacking a clear definition of collaboration.
If the publication of the tapes was a bid to destroy the ex-communists' party, it has backfired. Wojciech Olejniczak, the party's 32-year-old leader, has strengthened his position against the old guard after Mr Oleksy's remarks. Polls show that Mr Kwasniewski remains popular. The Kaczynskis are creating monstrous difficulties for small fry. But they are not catching big fish, such as the tycoons who have prospered so mysteriously in recent years.
The least bad government in eastern Europe
ESTONIA'S new government may well be the least bad in eastern Europe. But that’s a modest claim. The serious competition is at the other end of the scale, where Poland currently has the edge for incompetence, the Czech Republic for feebleness and Romania for fractiousness. It’s a pretty bleak picture, the more so with Russia flexing its muscles next door.
By the standards of the neighbourhood even the outgoing Estonian government was adequate. It was stable and reasonably efficient thanks to the canniness of the prime minister, Andrus Ansip. The economy rocketed ahead.
But stability came at the cost of progress. Estonia’s famed innovative edge was blunted. Corruption started creeping up, especially in some ministries and municipalities controlled by his coalition partners. On vital issues such as education and e-government, reform largely stalled.
Mr Ansip’s new coalition should be a boost, not a brake. The main partner is a conservative grouping led by Mart Laar, a visionary former prime minister. Another partner is the social-democratic party to which Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the country’s formidable president, used to belong.
Talks to form the coalition, following an election last month, proved surprisingly difficult. Mr Ansip ruled out the appointment of Mr Laar as foreign minister, calling him too strong-willed. The truth is that Mr Ansip was jealous.
Mr Laar belongs high in Europe's pantheon of post-communist heroes, alongside Poland’s Leszek Balcerowicz. His shock therapy in 1992 gave Estonia free trade, sound money, privatisation and flat taxes, all in less than two years.
Mr Ansip is a likeable fellow with a pleasantly sardonic turn of phrase. He was a decent mayor of Tartu and he is still an impressive athlete. But he is no Mart Laar.
Mr Ansip: no to Swedish models
Sweden’s inexperienced prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, handled a similar challenge more gutsily. He too had the option of appointing a vastly better-known predecessor, Carl Bildt, as his foreign minister—and he did so. That was good for Sweden, and it made Mr Reinfeldt look big. Mr Ansip stands diminished. Still, Mr Laar remains in parliament and as party leader. His time—in Tallinn, or perhaps in Brussels—will come again.
The new coalition, alone in eastern Europe, has a parliamentary majority, clean and effective ministers, and a largely sensible programme. Mr Ansip has no excuse now: he should aim to have the best government not merely in eastern Europe, but on the whole continent.
He faces some big tests. One is to clean up the mess left in the ministries (notably interior and environment) run by the outgoing coalition partners. Tallinn’s municipal finances and management need a stable-clean. Letting Estonia’s boom cool safely will be tricky too, especially if promised tax cuts make the red-hot economy even hotter.
The government’s most immediate challenge, though, will be defusing a pre-election row that Mr Ansip started over a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn. Supposedly, the monument has to be moved because it serves as focus for pro-Russian demonstrations against Estonia and because it inflames hardline Estonian nationalists.
Predictably, Russia portrays the planned move as pure vindictiveness, a sign of resurgent Nazi sympathies and of ingratitude towards Soviet sacrifices. Bungled diplomacy has left Estonia’s allies surprised, baffled—and silent.
The plan is not to tear down the memorial, but to move it, and any bodies on the site, to the more suitable surroundings of a war cemetery. Portrayed like that, it may be more palatable. But it will still be a hard sell: just the sort of challenge Mr Laar would have relished, given the chance.