Dec 13th 2007
Organise, cooperate, develop—and watch out
RUSSIA longs to join the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club mainly comprised of old rich countries that is anxiously trying to expand and stay relevant as the global economy’s centre of gravity shifts south and east.
Earlier this month Poland dropped its objection to Russia, and the OECD agreed to start negotiations. Now the question is whether Russia will manage to raise its standards to the required levels of transparency and good government. If it fails to do so, will the OECD will turn a blind eye, or will the accession talks fizzle out?
Russia first applied to join in 1996, when it was a basket case. Now it is a huge, if not altogether healthy, economy, with GDP over a trillion dollars. That alone is no ticket to membership: China and India are not OECD members, though the organisation is establishing other ties with them.
Since the end of the Cold War, the OECD has been a club strictly for democracies, either rich or nearly so. Now talks have opened with four other countries—Chile, Estonia, Israel and Slovenia—that easily meet that definition, and will likely join pretty quickly. Russia is a different question altogether, both on the demanding technical details of the “roadmap” to meeting OECD standards and on the broader question of “like-mindedness”.
The issue is divisive. Russia’s backers—chiefly Germany and France—prize engagement over the finer points of OECD integrity. Other countries, including but not only Sweden, Britain and America, are more dubious.
Such sceptics note the effects of Russia’s behaviour in other multilateral organisations: it has crippled the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, turning a once-lively democracy-promotion organisation into a sterile talking shop. It has discredited the Council of Europe, which is meant to be the continent’s human rights guardian.
Russia throws its weight around in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (though even that body flinched when it turned out last week that its partner in a planned venture-capital fund was in fact a Kremlin-sponsored corporate raider). Optimism (or wishful thinking) brought Russia into the then G-7 in 1998. Few would argue in retrospect that this was a wise move.
If Russia joins the OECD while making only pretend reforms, the problem is severe: predatory state activity and other forms of lawless capitalism are certainly not confined to Russia. Once the OECD loses its bark and bite, the developed world will be without its best watchdog on issues of global importance, including money laundering, bribery, corporate governance and reform of bureaucracy.
Will it happen? The OECD operates on the basis of consensus, so all 30 members will need to be satisfied that Russia has truly changed. In theory, that’s a big safeguard. But political pressure, particularly when exercised through big countries, has a way of flattening even the rockiest mountains.
A common Kremlin tactic is to escalate discussion of practical issues to a higher level where political or commercial considerations trump everything else. When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France congratulated Vladimir Putin on his party’s supposed victory at the polls, he demolished the already feeble common EU position criticising the blatant shortcomings of Russia’s parliamentary election. That the French auto manufacturer Renault clinched a juicy deal in Russia later that week was doubtless pure coincidence.
The danger is that Russia’s membership negotiations become politicised too. Objective, practical questions of shortcomings, remedies and evidence may become agenda items to be horse-traded elsewhere. So OECD members will need to stay focussed and resolute when considering Russia’s application. Alas, these aren’t words that leap to mind concerning the West’s approach to the Kremlin so far.
Monday, December 17, 2007
Friday, December 07, 2007
Down with democracy
Dec 6th 2007From Economist.com
A democratic vote is necessary, but not sufficient
WHAT could be more democratic than an election that reflects the majority’s will? Opinion polls consistently give Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, an approval rating above 80%. So his party’s thumping election victory on December 2nd simply shows that Russia is being governed as its people wish. If the rest of the world doesn’t like it, then the rest of the world had better mind its own business.
Actually, it shouldn’t. Democracy is a slippery concept. It has become a hooray-word, with lots of loosely defined positive associations, but it is worth remembering that it used to be a boo-word, with lots of negative ones.
For most of the 19th century it was a synonym for mob rule (for which the lovely but little-used “ochlocracy” would be an even more precise term). Democracy as a term came into fashion during the 1930s, as a counterpoint to the then fashionable autocratic regimes in most of continental Europe. Since then it has become stretched and debased, almost to the point of uselessness.
The trouble with democracy is that the vote in itself means so little. Everything depends on who is allowed to vote, who selects the candidates or drafts the question, and what happens in the years, months, weeks and days beforehand. That raises harder questions about the rule of law, public-spiritedness, and the strength of fair-minded, disinterested institutions.
The Soviet Union held a referendum in March 1991 asking (some) voters “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?”
Was that a “democratic” vote? The drafters of the question certainly thought so. But the Baltic states regarded it as a fix: their peoples had already voted for parliaments that were trying to regain independence from the Kremlin as soon as possible. Yet their decisions in turn were termed illegitimate by the men in Moscow.
Particularly when coupled with ethnic self-determination, “democracy” can be a recipe for disaster, in which multi-ethnic countries splinter into smaller and smaller units, with tempers fraying and the danger of violence growing. Kosovo has voted clearly for independence from Serbia. But if that claim rests solely on popular will, why should not the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo themselves vote to secede? And if that were allowed, what about the Serb regions of Bosnia, which was so painfully re-stitched into a multi-ethnic country again at Dayton?
Popular will is important but not enough. An entity that secedes must be viable, either by joining another country, or making a legitimate go of independence. Historical context matters too: Kosovo’s claim to statehood is strengthened by its history as a constituent province of the old Yugoslavia, and even more so by the fact that its people suffered a near-genocidal attack by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Belgrade.
Even more important is a willingness to accommodate the outside world’s scruples and standards. Hostility towards ethnic minorities, for example, undermines the case for independence. Until the breakaway states of the Caucasus (Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh) are willing to offer a safe and attractive life to refugees returning from Georgia and Azerbaijan, they will find little support.
In guaranteeing good government, “democracy” is the wrong tool: a hammer in place of a screwdriver. The unpleasant paradox is that the countries that most need strong institutions and a law-based state are the ones least likely to have them. So Russia’s election result may look like a thumping democratic mandate, but it is merely a rigged plebiscite that confirms the continued rule of junta of ex-spooks.
Monday, December 03, 2007
November 30th 2007
Bottle-scarred Economist correspondent Edward Lucas breakfasts on plum brandy, lunches on balsams and dines on bison-grass vodka, but draws the line at a side-dish of Hungarian lung stew ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
The ex-communist world has a deserved reputation as a culinary wasteland (see box, below right), but the drinks are something else. Travellers to Prague find that the "real" Budweiser from Ceske Budejovice (no relation to its rice-based American counterpart) makes even the national dish of dumplings in gravy go down without protest. Winemaking has been transformed since the Soviet era—when bottles had to be inspected for wasps and snails, the former merely a nuisance, the latter stomach-turning (at least for foreigners).
But the real treat is the hard stuff. Every country from the Baltic to the Black sea has a national tipple, usually served in both industrialised and home-made versions. In Romania, tuica (also spelled tzuika, tsuika, tsuica, or tzuica) is the traditional start to any meal. It is made with plums, and bears a startling resemblence to the sljivovica of neighbouring Serbia. Both drinks are part of a delightful family of fruit brandies popular from the far corners of the Balkans up to modern Poland (an area that bears a coincidental resemblance to the Ottoman empire in Europe at its height). For the adventurous, visnjevaca (sour cherry) dunjevaca (quince) and smokvovaca (fig) are well worth a try. You may find these in shops, but you are better off finding a peasant farmer somewhere in what used to be Yugoslavia.
Westerners may think that hard liquor is for after dinner, but these drinks are usually apertifs. To help you digest, the best drink in the region is Unicum. Anyone who likes Italy's Fernet Branca, or German's Underberg, will feel that they have graduated into elysium when they try it. The flavours are an intense mix of liquorice, ginger, coriander and cinnamon (that's guesswork: the recipe is secret). It brings tranquility to even the most overburdened stomach. Latvia's balsams is a close rival—and a neck ahead for those who like its flexibility. It has a stronger tinge of burnt oranges; Latvians put it in their coffee or in fruit salad. With Champagne (or any old sparkling wine) it creates a terrific cocktail.
Any offer of absinthe  in eastern Europe, by contrast, should be shunned as firmly as any suggestion of a return to the planned economy or the one-party state.
Having accustomed your liver to the demands of life in "new Europe", it is time to move north. Poland and Russia tussle for the right to be the "real" home of vodka (an argument that the Swedes and Finns regard with bemused disdain: how can anybody take these Slavic squabbles seriously?). Having sorted out the national question, the serious drinker has to decide between vodkas made with different feedstuffs (barley, rye, wheat and so forth). The nasty stuff produced in western Europe is made from farm surplus products, disgracefully subsidised by the taxpayer. The cheapest of all is synthetic alcohol, produced in factories by a chemical process. If you think all vodka tastes the same, just try drinking a cheap one.
If your palate finds little difference amid the clear vodkas, you can ring the changes with the flavoured kind (for example with chili peppers, ginger, fruit, vanilla, chocolate or cinnamon). Best of all-in your correspondent's view-is Zubrowka, a Polish (or Belarussian) rye vodka flavoured with bison grass, a stalk of which can be found in the bottle.
Sadly, the scent of newly mown hay that makes Zubrowka so seductive comes from the presence (in tiny quantities) of coumarin, a toxin that can be legally used in perfumes, but is prohibited for use in foodstuffs in America. The version sold in America now is coumarin-free.
On the whole, though, the names of vodkas vary more than the contents. Lithuania used to have one called "Dar po viena" (roughly "Let's have another one"). Romania, astonishingly, has a vodka called "Stalinskaya"; Russia's favourite Stolichnaya (Capital) brand, disgracefully, uses Soviet kitsch in its advertisements, including pictures of the murderous founder of Soviet communism, Vladimir Lenin, who is described as a "visionary". That is something to discuss over a Zubrowka or six.
(Edward Lucas is deputy international editor, and correspondent for central and eastern Europe, at The Economist. His book, "The New Cold War—How the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West ", will be published in February 2008 by Bloomsbury in Britain, and Palgrave in America.)
WILD GREEN FAIRY LIQUID | November 28th 2007
Café window in Wroclaw, Poland, by Decafinata/Flickr 
Edward Lucas of The Economist on a drink that has ruined poets, given rats convulsions, and tastes variously of a mountain meadow in spring or a mouthful of yesterday's toothpaste ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Fittingly for a drink associated with hallucinations, absinthe's story swirls with wild, bewitching myths. Many fans, enthusiastic if ill-informed, believe it is a "liquid joint" that heightens consciousness, unleashes poetic and artistic muses, and in large doses induces at first depravity and finally madness.
That sense of danger heightens the appeal: one Czech brand actually publishes a poster reading "Neurotoxic Absinthe". Even those not who do not share the doomed genius of absinthe-lovers such as Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh can at least feel they are enjoying the same tipple as the talented but tragic. The fact that absinthe is banned in America makes consumers there even keener to buy (or make) the supposedly most potent variants: those containing a high dose of thujone, a chemical extracted from wormwood.
The facts are a little more prosaic. It's true that absinthe was a popular drink in the "belle époque", a glamorous and dissolute period of late-19th-century French history. Alhough popular among the famous (Hemingway, Picasso, Wilde, Degas, Rimbaud and many others) its pull then was among the poor: it was cheap, and strong in alcohol—up to 75% by content.
That aroused the ire of temperance campaigners, particularly in France, where absinthe was finally banned in 1915. In all Europe, it remained legal only in Spain, though it was distilled illegally, but widely, in parts of Switzerland. When it was relegalised in western Europe in the 1990s regulators stipulated that absinthe should contain only 10mg per kg of thujone. That disappointed those enthusiasts wanting to recreate the effects of the original versions. Some were already fans of the brands produced after the collapse of communism by enterprising Czech capitalists, which tend to be marketed on the basis of their high thujone content.
But actually, the claims of such products are as flimsy as the new rule. Analysis of most Czech absinthe shows it contains little or no thujone, whatever the bottle says. Any hallucinations or secondary effects experienced are self-induced or imagined. Secondly, tests on surviving samples of pre-war absinthe show that they contained much less than 10mg/kg. Third, the real effects of thujone are unclear. Ian Hutton, a British absinthe expert with a background in analytical chemistry, says, "There is no evidence that absinthe ever contained the high concentrations of thujone that would have led to detrimental effects or that it has hallucinogenic or mind-altering properties."
Thujone in very large doses causes convulsions in rats. In small doses it may have mild stimulative properties, although these are likely to be masked by the sedative effect of the alcohol. In any case, it does not, contrary to popular belief, mimic the effects of cannabis. And it is widely available elsewhere—in the herb sage, or, more prosaically, in cold remedies such as Vicks Vapour Rub. Not many would-be geniuses make drinks from that.
Connoisseurs such as Mr Hutton, who runs the upmarket absintheonline.com , sniff at the idea of creating the noble drink for such crude purposes. For the real connoisseur, only the finest French and Swiss absinthe, distilled in tiny quantities from hand-picked herbs and flowers, really counts. "Pre-ban absinthe was a delicious, refreshing long drink, with a character like an alpine meadow," says David Nathan-Maister, a British expert. "It wouldn't have had such a meteoric success if it hadn't".
The strongest whiff of the real absintheurs' world comes from sites such as oxygenee.com , or feeverte.com . The latter (named after the green fairy of absinthe legend) rates dozens of absinthes with pedantic attention to their "louche" (the milkiness of the mixture created when water is added), aroma, aftertaste and so forth. The worst, mostly Czech, versions are mercilessly mocked for their lurid colours and lack of anise and fennel—the oils that make absinthe go cloudy.
Yet they are where the money is. Andreas Mielecke, who runs Absinth24.net , another internet shop, notes the paradox: he and other absinthistes want to sell the high-quality product; the big American market wants the most potent variety available, typically the Czech versions which are made by dunking herbs in neat alcohol. "These customers are just interested in the effect, in hallucination" he laments.
That's one difficulty. Another is America's prohibition on absinthe. Some internet customers find their orders confiscated, though this varies by state: Florida and Georgia are particularly tough, California and New York the most liberal, says Mr Mielecke.
The truth is that most modern mass-produced absinthe tastes pretty nasty—somewhere between mouthwash and shampoo. That's hardly surprising, given that it is marketed as a semi-illicit, near-poisonous substance. If it was delicious, the thrill-seeking consumer would feel cheated. Even so, there are other even worse versions. The unscrupulous sell lethal-sounding kits for those wanting to make absinthe at home—typically by soaking a bag of herbs in alcohol, or even adding oil of wormwood, which is truly poisonous in its undistilled form.
The most attractive side of absinthe is probably not the drink itself, but the rituals, culture, and kit associated with it. The pictures are splendid, and the literary references intriguing. The aphorisms are good too: "Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder" said Ernest Dowson, an English poet. Oscar Wilde remarked that it didn't make drunk people into poets, but was good at making poets drunk. Absinthe spoons (used for dribbling water into the glass) are collectors' items. Czechs claim that the "historic" way of preparing absinthe is to burn a sugar-lump in the spoon, sambucca-style. That horrifies the purists—a horror, one suspects, that may just underline their already enjoyable feeling of superiority.
(Edward Lucas is deputy international editor, and correspondent for central and eastern Europe, at The Economist. His book "The New Cold War—How the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West " will be published in February 2008 by Bloomsbury in Britain, and Palgrave in America.)