Sep 27th 2007 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
The ruling party is faring well in the election campaign. That is worrying
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A CIRCUS, a farce, a tragedy, or a thriller with an increasingly sinister plot: depending where you stand, Polish politics can look like any or all of these. After a year of fractious coalition government with two unsavoury small parties, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) faces a fresh election on October 21st. And, despite its patchy record, it looks likely to win.
It is easy to depict PiS as a bunch of provincial incompetents, obsessed by historical grievances and ignorant of the modern world. Strong economic growth has disguised Poland's soggy public finances, lousy bureaucracy, bad roads and inadequate schools. PiS has so far done little to remedy these. The PiS leader and prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and his twin brother Lech, who is president, have also masterminded a resentful and unpredictable foreign policy that reduces even friendly European countries to despair.
The biggest worry is the blurring of lines between politics and public institutions. It is odd that a partisan political appointee, Antoni Macierewicz, runs the military counter-intelligence service; odder still that he is standing for parliament. “Macierewicz can spend the morning in the office reading transcripts of our conversations, and the afternoon at PiS campaign headquarters telling them what we are up to,” says an opposition leader, as he scribbles down a point, safe from the bugs he says are in his home.
Nerves are also jangling at the zealous behaviour of the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro. His fondness for announcing investigations and arrests at press conferences, and his enthusiasm for setting his prosecutors on to political opponents, suggest that he has little regard for the separation of powers or for due process.
PiS supporters strongly contest all this. The climate of fear is created by a hysterical media, not the government, says Adam Bielan, a party strategist. PiS won the 2005 election by promising to uproot the uklad, a network of ex-spies, corrupt businessmen and political insiders who have dominated Poland since 1989. Mr Ziobro's public toughness is changing the climate; the howls of protest are self-interested, and a sign that the anti-corruption offensive is working. A stronger electoral mandate will let PiS finish the job.
He has a point. Sleaze had become pervasive in Poland. The intelligence services had often escaped political oversight in previous years, and their veterans have an alarming knack of finding profitable business niches. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski has yet to prove that the uklad is as sinister as he claims. An investigation by Mr Macierewicz into the now disbanded military-intelligence service, the WSI, produced only an inconclusive preliminary report. An update is now promised.
Moreover, the cure prescribed by PiS could be worse than the disease. Poland needs strong, politically neutral institutions and a more open and deregulated economy. Purging suspect officials only to replace them with party placemen is not going to deliver these. Nor will political misuse of the intelligence services make them any cleaner. Witch-hunts can create paralysis in government, leaving nobody willing to take a decision, for fear of being accused of corruption if it goes wrong.
Claims that Polish democracy is in danger are overdone. But PiS has not calmed such fears with a partisan approach to public broadcasting. The government seems also to have used bureaucratic harassment to get a privately owned television channel to sack its star presenter, Tomasz Lis, who was a trenchant critic. Mr Lis is moving his show to the internet.
Optimists hope that, if PiS wins, it will calm down and concentrate on the mundane business of government. But its mix of revisionist history, contempt for the constitution and equation of opposition with treason carries a nasty whiff of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. Jaroslaw Kaczynski finds comparisons with the Russian president absurd and insulting. But he could do more to avoid them being drawn.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Why eastern Europe needs Hollywood
“KATYN”, the new film by Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s best-known director, should leave you shaken and sleepless. It is worth seeing just for the scene in which the senate of Cracow University is arrested en masse by the Nazi occupiers, as well as for as the almost unbearably realistic execution scenes in which Soviet murder squads kill 22,000 captured officers, and also for the way it portrays the attempts by the communist lie machine in post-war Poland to cover up the truth.
Yet for all its passion and authenticity, the film is disappointingly muddled, and too narrowly focussed on a Polish audience. Popular culture demands a strong and simple story line to make reality convincing to the jaded sensibilities of a modern international audience. Mr Wajda fails that test: he uses too many characters, and too much detail distracts the viewer from the central message. What is really needed is a film with the broad sweep of “Schindler’s List” that will explain the full horror of Soviet dictatorship both during and after the war.
The lack of archival footage is a problem. It is all to easy to see films showing the Nazi concentration camps, while even still pictures of the Gulag are scarce and grainy. That need not be a snag for those with the budgets to stage re-enactments. This is what Mr Wajda has done with “Katyn”. Now a plethora of other stories cry out for the same treatment.
First should be the Kengir uprising of 1954. After Stalin’s death, a huge prison camp in Soviet Kazakhstan revolted and maintained an astonishing six weeks of freedom from May 16th to June 25th. The camp’s inmates—mainly Ukrainians, with a sprinkling of Balts and Russians—outfaced and out-organised the bureaucrats and goons who ran the camp, until in the end they fell victim to a full-scale military assault. Almost unknown in the West until Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s account in the “Gulag Archipelago” the Kengir rebels deserve to be remembered and honoured for their Masada-like courage, ingenuity and solidarity.
Andrzej Wajda, director of “Katyn”
Second should be the deportations to Siberia from the Baltic states and elsewhere in eastern Europe. “Collect your things!” barks the arresting NKVD officer in the Wajda film to a woman and child whose only “crime” is to be the family of a Polish officer—who by then is already dead in a ditch in a forest near Smolensk. Such hurried packing in the middle of the night, followed by a cattle-truck to Siberia, was the fate of tens of thousands of people across the Soviet-occupied territories of eastern Europe in a few June days in 1941. Those few that returned came home not as heroes but as released criminals, living on the fringes of Soviet society.
Third should be the “Forest brothers” of the Baltic states and western Ukraine, as well as the Polish “Home Army”. They maintained a doomed struggle against the Soviet occupiers in some cases until the late 1950s. The last Estonian partisan, August Sabbe, survived until 1978. Betrayed by traitors in Britain’s MI6 in the late 1940s, their story makes Rambo’s adventures in Indochina seem like Disney-style pap.
Perhaps most gripping of all is the story of Witold Pilecki, a Polish intelligence officer who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to find out what was happening there. When he escaped and reported to the Allies what he had discovered, they said he was exaggerating. After the war, he was captured by the communist authorities and executed in 1948.
If the screenwriters get going, the West’s historical understanding will belatedly gain some balance. But do bring plenty of handkerchiefs.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Name them and remember
Sep 20th 2007
Commemorating communism's victims
IMAGINE two walls, each 120km (75 miles) long, set at right angles and tapering to a height of three metres. They are covered in names, each inscribed in letters 1.35 cm (0.53 inches) high. That is how big a monument to the 100m victims of communism would be if it were designed on the scale of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, which commemorates the nearly 60,000 American military personnel who died in that war.
Nothing of the kind exists. The American capital’s monument to the victims of communism is a modest bronze statue. Determined travellers in Russia may find the Mask of Sorrow in Magadan, or a small monument in the Komi capital, Syktyvkar; both commemorate the millions who died in the Gulag. Bucharest has a rather kitschy monument to those who died in the “uprising” (perhaps more accurately described as a coup) against Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's long-time dictator, in December 1989.
Museums in Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest, among other places, do a good job of reminding people of the historical background to communist rule and the details of daily life, as well as the terror that enforced it. The Vilnius museum—in the former KGB headquarters—has the names of executed resistance fighters carved in the stone panels outside. A Bulgarian history project is collecting fascinating memories from both victims and perpetrators.
Now Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has come out with a challenge to his country: to commemorate by name all Estonian victims of communism. “Unfortunately, we still do not know the names of all the victims…. Our job is to find out and chisel them in stone. By name.”
He was speaking on one of the many forgotten anniversaries of the 20th century: of the shortlived government of Otto Tief, which tried to re-establish the Estonian republic for a few days in September 1944 in the wake of the German retreat. Some of its members escaped to Sweden and formed a government-in-exile that lasted until 1992; the rest were arrested by the Soviet forces and killed, deported or otherwise punished. Arnold Susi, the education minister, befriended Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag. The symbolic importance was huge: it disproves the Stalinist version of history that the Baltic states were “liberated” in 1944. But few in Estonia, let alone outside, remember their names.
The issue is trickier than it sounds. Who are the “victims” of communism? Is it those sentenced to death by a communist court? Certainly, but not only them. What about those post-war resistance fighters in Poland, the Baltic states, Romania and elsewhere who died on the battlefield against the occupiers? And restricting it to those who died from bullets or the noose seems too narrow: what about those who starved or froze to death while being deported? They need to be listed too.
But it also would be unfair to exclude those who survived. Maybe it should be all victims of the Gulag. But what about those who suffered other kinds of repression, such as incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, or interrogation under torture?
Even trickier is that not all victims were unquestioned heroes. Would the Russian memorial include Andrei Shkuro and Pyotr Krasnov, both Cossack generals who opposed communism but collaborated with Hitler? Never Soviet citizens, they were handed over by the British at the end of the war and executed. And if it includes them, what about General Andrei Vlasov, a Soviet general who switched sides to fight with the Nazis?
In trying to commemorate the victims of the 20th century, each country would find different answers to these questions. And in doing so, each may also find greater understanding for the suffering of its neighbours.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Worse than useless
The OSCE lets Russia off the hook
CALLING it a whitewash would be unfair. At least white looks clean and crisp. What the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has produced on Russia’s recent attack on Georgia is a greywash, a pile of slime and sludge that conceals the truth.
Georgia says that on August 6th a Russian warplane fired a missile over its territory, apparently aimed at a new NATO-compatible radar station. Georgia has produced documents that seem to show the plane entering its airspace, and the remains of the missile (which failed to explode, having apparently been launched prematurely).
Russia says the whole thing was a stunt staged by the Georgians.
An OSCE inquiry headed by Miomir Zuzul, a former foreign minister of Croatia, compared the accounts of the incident. If it had come up with convincing reasons to believe the Russian version, and ignore the Swedish, Polish and other experts brought in by Georgia, that would have been interesting. The published version of events in ex-communist countries often conceals as much as it reveals.
But it seems to have made no attempt to compare the evidence or assess the arguments. It came to the ringing conclusion that given the conflicting stories, it was “difficult to know what happened”. Russia was jubilant, saying that it had been exonerated by the report and renewing its propaganda attack on the Georgians.
The next row will be about election monitoring, a particular Russian bugbear. The Kremlin has long tried to neuter the OSCE’s Warsaw-based vote-watchers, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, pronounced, aptly enough, “Oh, dear”).
Missile? What missile?
That body would be likely to give Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections in December a poor scorecard: the Kremlin has tweaked the electoral rules to hamper independent candidates and “real” opposition parties; the media is likely to favour only the pro-presidential parties and the “tame” opposition; police harassment of opposition public meetings and campaigns is already a scandal; and Russia’s history of ballot-rigging long predates Vladimir Putin’s presidency.
To forestall this, Russia has asked the OSCE for details about election monitoring it has carried out in Western countries, such as the America and Turkey. As the answer will be “very little” the Kremlin can then smile broadly and say that the same treatment will suit it nicely.
That is a good debating point: the difficulties that Kurdish politicians face in Turkey are shameful, as are the shortcomings of America’s electoral system (gerrymandering, campaign finance excesses, dirty tricks, astroturfing and of course the ghastly botched presidential count in Florida in 2000).
The right response to this would be to welcome extensive monitoring of Western elections, including tough criticism of shortcomings. Russians might try to use this to make propaganda, but no matter. Good points will strengthen the case for reform. Bad ones can be discussed and rebutted.
Unlike fascist kleptocracies masquerading as parliamentary republics, true democracies do not need to fear criticism. Such a stance will be an excellent basis for insisting for vigorous monitoring of elections in the east, where the shortcomings are hugely more serious.
Though that would be the right tactic, it will not necessarily be an effective one. The sad truth is that Russia’s tactics within the OSCE have made that body almost useless. It works on the basis of unanimity, so a Kremlin veto can block its funding or other activities. In short: without Russian consent it cannot work. But Russia’s restrictions make its work useless—or worse than useless, as Georgia’s plight illustrates.
Yet Russia’s victory in hobbling the OSCE is ultimately self-defeating: the main result is to give more clout to NATO. Is that what the Kremlin really wants?
Hurrah for labour shortages
Sep 6th 2007
To keep farm workers, pay them better
“LABOUR shortage” is one of the most nonsensical phrases ever coined. Real shortages happen outside the market economy: armies run short of ammunition; sailing ships may lack wind. But with six billion people on the planet, labour is not in short supply. What “labour shortage” means is that employers can’t find workers with the right skills at a price they like. Similar shortages are reported of Rembrandts, lobsters and nice houses in London.
Nonetheless, the news that British farmers are complaining of a “labour shortage” is excellent news. For the past five years, eastern European workers have been pouring into Britain—perhaps as many as a million Poles, and hundreds of thousands of other nationalities, legal and illegal. The result has been a triumph of European integration. The diligent new arrivals have boosted economic growth in Britain, and many have gained money and know-how to help rebuild home countries ruined by communism.
That supply seemed inexhaustible. But it wasn’t. Most economies of eastern Europe are now booming, so pay and conditions at home are improving. The “discount” on staying put and the premium on going abroad have both shrunk.
Secondly, the new Europeans are realising that tedious and monotonous agricultural work is not the only way into life in Britain. Waitressing at a country pub is a better job than picking strawberries in the surrounding fields: you improve your English, don’t get dirty, and meet nicer people. Figures published last month showed 41% of registered workers from the eight eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 applying to work in administration, business or management, compared with 25% three years ago. The hospitality industry accounted for 19% and agriculture only 11%.
The solution for British farmers is simple: compete. They need to offer their seasonal workers better pay, living accommodation and other treatment. As Marina Lewycka’s new novel “Two Caravans” illustrates so poignantly and amusingly, the bottom end of the agricultural labour market is a cesspit of scams, abuse and squalor. Workers are paid below the minimum wage, overcharged for cramped and dirty accommodation, ripped off for bogus “agency fees” and transport costs.
The farmers are not the worst culprits. The “gangmasters”—as the small employment agencies specialising in casual work for foreigners are known—have an even worse reputation. A Cornish gangmaster, Baltic Work Team, lost its licence last month after it left 40 Bulgarian workers unpaid for more than a month, threatened to send them home if they did not pay a £100 “deposit” and threatened them if they complained.
Such sharp practice may indeed shave a couple of pennies off the cost of a punnet of strawberries. But if the result is that workers simply stay away, the market is sending a useful signal: the rip-off merchants’ business model is unsustainable.
The farming lobby wants the government to ease the “shortage” next year by bringing in thousands more workers from Ukraine under a special scheme in which a temporary work visa comes tied to a particular job. That, the farmers explain, gives them “certainty” that their workers won’t bunk off half way through the harvest.
That is an odd argument: the best way of encouraging workers to stay put and work hard is to treat them properly, not to use schemes more reminiscent of the imperial days of bonded labour and coolies. Britain and other EU countries should allow Ukrainians to compete in the western labour markets—but as full-fledged participants, not as a reservoir of uncomplaining low-paid workers for a noisy, influential but actually peripheral bit of the economy.
A curious change at the Kremlin
Sep 12th 2007
Vladimir Putin picks the little-known Viktor Zubkov to be Russia's new prime minister
HE WAS colourless and weightless, at least politically speaking. That made Mikhail Fradkov an ideal prime minister in the Kremlin’s eyes. The exact reasons for his resignation on Wednesday September 12th and replacement by a little-known tax official, Viktor Zubkov, are unclear; so far the Russian proverb, nyet faktov, tolko versii (there are no facts, only theories) is an apt one. But it is almost certainly connected with the wrangles and plots about March 2nd 2008, when Vladimir Putin must, according to the Russian constitution, step down at the end of his second term as president.
Mr Fradkov said he was resigning to give Mr Putin “full freedom of decision including staff decisions”; most observers reckon that the president had that already. Mr Putin said that he wanted a “structure of power…that better corresponds to the pre-election period and prepares the country for the period after the presidential election”. He then nominated Mr Zubkov, the little-known head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, to take over as the new prime minister, according to the speaker of the Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Mr Zubkov is an odd choice. Along with most of the other people running Russia, he is from St Petersburg. But unlike many of them, his career shows no obvious traces of work in the security and intelligence services. The 65-year-old worked as a collective farm boss in the 1970s and then as a Communist Party apparatchik. He was Mr Putin’s deputy in the St Petersburg municipal foreign affairs department in the early 1990s; after that he became a senior official in the tax inspectorate, at the heart of relations between officialdom and Russia’s rumbustious new business class.
Either of the two “first deputy prime ministers” in the government might have expected to get the job. Russian newspapers were confident that Sergei Ivanov, a hawkish ex-spy and former defence minister who is also a former colleague of Mr Putin’s from his KGB days, would be elevated. He is still a leading candidate to take over the more important job of president next year. Of late he has frequently appeared in public with the president. Dmitri Medvedev, another potential candidate, was seen (or at least portrayed) as a pragmatic and more liberal-minded figure.
The resignation comes at the start of a new season in Russia’s stage-managed politics. Campaigning is just beginning for elections to the Duma in December. These look set to bring a resounding win for Mr Putin’s “United Russia”, with secondary roles for the tame opposition parties. Real opponents of Mr Putin will find it hard to get on the ballot, and even more difficult to get elected. They receive little coverage in the main electronic media and face tough new registration rules that make it hard for small parties, independent candidates and electoral coalitions to take part.
Few Russians seem to mind: Mr Putin’s approval rating is over 80%. Many Russians say they want to vote for him again in March and hope he will continue in prominent public life. Some think that he may stay on, and that any designated successor is just camouflage. But the favourite theory is that he will become the powerful head of Russia’s Security Council, in tandem with the new president. The trusted Mr Zubkov could make a suitable figurehead for that job.
So might Mr Fradkov, who is otherwise unlikely to prove more than a footnote in Russian political history. His career, involving a posting in the economics section of the Soviet embassy in Delhi in the 1970s, suggests service in the KGB. After the collapse of communism he specialised in foreign trade, and served briefly as Russia’s ambassador to the European Union; in contrast to some of his predecessors in that job, he spoke two foreign languages—Spanish and English. His appointment in March 2004 as prime minister, replacing the heavyweight Mikhail Kasyanov, was then as much of a surprise as Mr Zubkov’s promotion is now.
Mr Kasyanov is now an opposition politician who convincingly contrasts the reforms of his period in office, such as the introduction of Russia’s highly successful flat tax, with the distinct lack of them thereafter. Mr Fradkov did manage to stay neutral between the rival clans of ex-spooks who dominate Russian politics. But he left his mark on little else. That may be Mr Zubkov’s fate too.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
A walk on the dark side
These badhats may have bought your bank account
ACCORDING to VeriSign, one of the world’s largest internet security companies, RBN, an internet company based in Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, is “the baddest of the bad”. In a report seen by The Economist, VeriSign’s investigators unpick an extraordinary story of blatant cybercrime that implies high-level political backing.
In one sense, RBN (Russian Business Network) does not exist. It has no legal identity; it is not registered as a company; its senior figures are anonymous, known only by their nicknames. Its web sites are registered at anonymous addresses with dummy e-mails. It does not advertise for customers. Those who want to use its services contact it via internet messaging services and pay with anonymous electronic cash.
But the menace it poses certainly exists. “RBN is a for-hire service catering to large-scale criminal operations,” says the report. It hosts cybercriminals, ranging from spammers to phishers, bot-herders and all manner of other fraudsters and wrongdoers from the venal to the vicious. Just one big scam, called Rock Phish (where gullible internet users were tricked into entering personal financial information such as bank account details) made $150m last year, VeriSign estimates.
Plenty of other internet companies sail close to the wind—hosting unregulated online gambling for example. But according to a VeriSign investigator, “the difference is that RBN is solely criminal”. The pricing depends on the level of complaints. A discreet organisation pays little; one that attracts a lot of unwelcome attention, forcing RBN to take expensive countermeasures, has to pay more.
Despite the attention it is receiving from Western law enforcement agencies, RBN is not on the run. Its users are becoming more sophisticated, moving for example from simple phishing (using fake e-mails) to malware known as “trojans” that sit inside a victim’s computer collecting passwords and other sensitive information and sending them to their criminal masters.
A favourite trick is to by-pass the security settings of a victim's browser by means of an extra piece of content injected into a legitimate website. An unwary user enters his password or account number into what looks like the usual box on his log-in page, and within minutes a programme such as Corpse’s Nuclear Grabber, OrderGun and Haxdoor has passed it to a criminal who can empty his bank account. When VeriSign managed to hack into the RBN computer running the scam, it found accumulated data representing 30,000 such infections. “Every major trojan in the last year links to RBN” says a VeriSign sleuth.
RBN even fights back. In October 2006, the National Bank of Australia took active measures against Rock Phish, both directly and via a national anti-phishing group to which the bank’s security director belonged. RBN-based cybercriminals replied by crashing the bank’s home-page for three days.
What can be done? VeriSign has tracked down the physical location of RBN’s servers. But Western law enforcement officers have so far tried in vain to get their Russian counterparts to pursue the investigation vigorously. “RBN feel they are strongly politically protected. They pay a huge amount of people. They know they are being watched. They cover their tracks,” says VeriSign. The head of RBN goes under the internet alias “Flyman”; his uncle is thought to be a senior St Petersburg politician. Repeated e-mails to RBN’s purported contact addresses asking for comment have gone unanswered.
Companies can simply block access to any site registered at an RBN IP address. But that will not help most victims, such as those who receive infected e-mails. VeriSign says only strong political pressure on Russia will make the criminal justice system there deal with this glaring example of cyber-illegality.