Jan 29th 2009
An oligarch buys influence for a pound
HOW about this for a thriller plot: an ex-KGB officer in London in the Soviet era returns 20 years later to buy the capital's main newspaper. Trained at the Red Banner Institute to find out secrets and exert influence at the highest levels of the British establishment, he is now part of it.
Such a plot could be said to exemplify the success of the ex-KGB regime now running Russia. In the old days, the best they might have been able to do was to bribe or blackmail an individual journalist, and perhaps plant the odd bit of dezinformatsiya as a result. Now, however, dressed in capitalist clothes, they don’t need to infiltrate the western media: they can buy it outright.
Such worries come to mind amid the takeover of London’s Evening Standard by Aleksandr Lebedev (pictured), an “economics attaché” at the Soviet embassy in London in the late 1980s. He is a retired lieutenant-colonel from the Sluzhba Vneshnei Rozvedki, the successor to the First Chief Directorate of the old KGB. A billionaire thanks to his holdings in Aeroflot and other leading Russian businesses, he has bought the paper for £1: the price of just two copies.
But Mr Lebedev is not one of the steely tycoon-spooks around Vladimir Putin, such as Igor Sechin, the mastermind of Russia’s overseas energy diplomacy. They lurk in the shadows. He courts publicity, and comes across as urbane, amusing and liberal-minded.
Nor is Mr Lebedev a mere tycoon-playboy, cruising the streets of London or the ski-slopes of Switzerland with a musclebound entourage and highly decorative women. He shuns ostentation and is a conspicuous supporter of good causes.
Asked about his KGB past, Mr Lebedev speaks fondly of the English way of life and insists that his job was mainly to monitor the British press, particularly for economic news. The foreign-intelligence service of the KGB, he maintains, had nothing to do with the Gulag and domestic repression.
Indeed, he has a fair claim to be countering that era’s dark legacy in Russia now. He is a co-owner of Novaya Gazeta, which is the most widely read opposition newspaper in Russia. He is an outspoken defender of its brave journalists (one of whom was murdered earlier this month).
In short, if any former KGB officer should be allowed to buy an influential London newspaper, surely it should be him. But whatever Mr Lebedev’s motives now, his business interests in Russia could—at least in theory—make him vulnerable to Kremlin pressure in future. His blithe dismissal of his KGB past does not square with the evidence we have of that organisation from other sources. In the early 1980s, as Mr Lebedev was signing up for the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky, its station chief in London, was already risking his life to warn the West about the true nature of the Soviet system.
The only legal restriction on taking over a newspaper in Britain comes from the last-resort powers vested in the Secretary of State for Business, Peter Mandelson. Just this summer he was enjoying, controversially, the hospitality of Oleg Deripaska, another Russian tycoon (who is unable to visit the United States).
There is no reason to question Lord Mandelson’s integrity (he insists his much-discussed visit to Mr Deripaska’s yacht was entirely personal). But the whole saga shows the way in which Russian business influence has seeped into Western public life. Probably it is all fine. But, just theoretically, suppose it isn’t. Some may be less confident that a Russian-owned Evening Standard will investigate that subject with the fullest possible vigour.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
Jan 29th 2009
From The Economist print edition
America is holding back its planned missile shield in eastern Europe
BELIEVE the hype, and America’s planned missile-defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic risked starting a new cold war. The Russians, claiming that they were intolerably provocative, even threatened to station new short-range missiles in Kaliningrad and to target their existing nuclear warheads at Europe. Many west European countries thought the whole affair epitomised both the Bush administration’s clumsy foreign policy and the destructive paranoia of the ex-communist countries in Europe’s east.
Now things are looking different. Barack Obama criticised the waste of money on “unproven” missile-defence technology during his presidential campaign. At the forthcoming Munich security conference, the Americans are expected to announce a review of the whole scheme. That could take a long time. For their part, the Russians said semi-officially this week that they would halt the planned deployment of the short-range missiles to Kaliningrad (although they are also pressing Belarus to accept new rocket bases).
On the surface, all of this sounds like good news. America hopes that Russia will come to see the missile shield as a joint project against Iran. Poland has removed a sticking-point by saying privately that it is willing to accept “intrusive” Russian monitoring of the base when it is built. Previously it had been twitchy about Russian snooping.
The new administration’s willingness to talk about arms control helps as well. The main treaty dealing with long-range nuclear weapons, Start-1, expires in December. The Bush administration seemed not to care, which stoked the Russians’ feeling that they were being ignored. With a decaying arsenal of nuclear warheads, and a shrinking number of ways of launching them, the Kremlin has a bigger interest in talking about cuts.
So if Russia wants a deal on missile defence, one may be possible. But what if it doesn’t? American officials think the Kremlin’s complaints about the scheme reflected a wish to pick a fight over Western influence in eastern Europe. Contrary to popular myth, the previous administration tried hard (albeit unsuccessfully) to present missile defences as a matter of common interest. Nobody on the Russian side could explain how a handful of interceptor rockets in Poland would hamper a nuclear superpower that can launch weapons from anywhere on the planet.
America is now committed to boosting Poland’s defences. The paradox is that Russia complained loudly about something that did not matter, but by doing so it has got America to do something that does: beef up its security relationship with Poland. This will include more training and equipment (including such sought-after kit as armoured Humvees) as well as high-tech air-defence systems for Warsaw. Even if missile defences are delayed, officials say, these promises will be kept. A big theme for the Obama administration is treating its allies better.
Friday, January 30, 2009
You can see me speaking bad Lithuanian here (about 20 mins into the programme)
Friday, January 23, 2009
Mass murder and the market
From The Economist print edition
Economic reform in Russia was accompanied by millions of early deaths. But it was not the cause
MATCHES and even salt were in short supply as the Soviet empire’s planned economies collapsed two decades ago. But blame was plentiful then and now. Millions of people—chiefly men in late middle age—died earlier than their counterparts in other countries. That drop, of fully five years in male life expectancy between 1991 and 1994, demands explanation. A newly published article in the Lancet, a British medical journal that in recent years has used epidemiological analysis to examine political and social questions, argues that the clear culprit was mass privatisation (distributing vouchers that could be swapped for shares in state-owned enterprises). A statistical analysis, it says, shows that this element of the economic-reform package, nicknamed “shock therapy”, clearly correlates with higher mortality rates.
That, says the Lancet, was a shocking failure. It argues that advocates of free-market economics (it cites an article in this newspaper by the economist Jeffrey Sachs) ignored the human costs of the policies they were promoting. These included unemployment and human misery, leading to early death. In effect, mass privatisation was mass murder. Had Russia adopted more gradual reforms, those lives would have been saved.
In fact the blame game must start at the beginning. Why was the Soviet economy in ruins by 1991? Partly because planned economies don’t work (blame Lenin and Stalin for that). Partly because the gerontocratic leadership of Leonid Brezhnev failed to start reforms in the early 1970s, when gradualism might have had a chance of succeeding. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev initiated perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was all but bust. Worse, by running the printing presses red-hot, his government created a colossal monetary overhang. Russians may have thought that their savings evaporated when prices were liberalised at the start of 1992; in truth, their cash was already worthless.
The second question is the effect of all this on mortality. Soviet public-health statistics show a clear decline from 1965 to the early 1980s, with rising deaths from circulatory diseases (because of poor diet, smoking and, especially, drinking). Mr Gorbachev’s anti-booze campaign—although hugely unpopular—raised life expectancy by fully three years between 1985 and 1987. After 1992 the state monopoly on alcohol (and health checks on its quality) collapsed. As anybody who lived in Russia at the time will recall, the effect was spectacular—and catastrophic. Death rates returned to their long-term trend.
The thorniest question is about economic policy mistakes after 1991. In retrospect, the West failed to prepare for the Soviet collapse. It took too long to recognise that Boris Yeltsin’s first government deserved trust, pressing it too hard on debt repayments and being too stingy with aid. Then it made the opposite mistake, being too trusting and generous when Russia was becoming more hawkish and looting was endemic. Mass privatisation broke the planners’ grip but failed to create the hoped-for shareholder democracy.
Yet the Lancet paper seriously misunderstands both the timing and the effects of economic reform. It states quite wrongly that “Russia fully implemented shock therapy by 1994”. As it happens, in that year life expectancy started rising. But in any case reforms were by then bogged down and advisers such as Mr Sachs had quit in despair. Moreover, mass privatisation had little immediate effect on jobs—or much else. Most Russians exchanged their vouchers for trivial amounts of cash, or even vodka. That may have been marginally bad for their health—but it does not explain the huge jump in the death rate.
Correlation is not causation. Mass privatisation was not the most important or effective part of “shock therapy” and the rise in death rates is out of synch with efforts at economic reform. Furthermore, countries that successfully applied shock therapy, such as Poland, saw improved life expectancy. So did the then Czechoslovakia, which plumped for mass privatisation, albeit not very successfully. Mistakes were made, but Russia’s tragedy was that reform came too slowly, not too fast.
To the barricades
Jan 22nd 2009 | VILNIUS
From The Economist print edition
Economic pain brings political ructions
IN INTENSIVE care but angry: that describes Latvia’s economy after its dramatic rescue by the IMF and other foreign lenders. Now the question is whether the tough conditions imposed by the bail-out are politically tolerable. A riot in Riga, in which more than 40 people (including 14 police officers) were hurt and 106 arrested, suggests there is a bumpy ride ahead.
Latvia, a country of 2.4m that may soon be the sixth-biggest debtor to the IMF, is not alone. Lithuania has pushed through similarly tough wage and spending cuts and tax rises. A protest on January 16th turned violent, with protesters pelting the police with snowballs and stones. After a decade in which breakneck growth made up for political weaknesses, pessimists fear that the post-cold war settlement across eastern Europe may now be at risk.
That settlement rested on three notions. One was that Western-style politics was both trustworthy and efficient, in contrast to the failures of communism. The second was that welfare capitalism and integration into Western markets would produce prosperity. And the third was that joining the European Union would provide a guarantee of economic and political security. All three now look wobbly.
In 2006 Latvia’s economy was still growing by an astonishing 12% a year. One reason was that locally owned banks—comprising some 40% of the financial system—took deposits from foreigners (chiefly Russians) and invested in an increasingly frothy property market. The government not only failed to supervise them properly. It also inflated the bubble by running a loose fiscal policy.
The biggest local bank, Parex, collapsed and has been largely nationalised. Outsiders going through the books are finding much to be glum about. At worst, the Latvian taxpayer faces a bill of up to $3 billion. Even at best the country faces several painful years as it tries to regain competitiveness. Such pain may have been tolerable after 1991 when problems could be blamed on communist times. Nobody knows where public anger will focus now.
The IMF and others believe that the best solution would have been immediate devaluation of the national currency, the lat, accompanied by its replacement by the euro. That would have hurt the many households and businesses that have borrowed in foreign currency. But calculations published by the IMF suggest that the recovery thereafter would have been quicker and steeper.
Yet euroisation has proved impossible. The European Central Bank and the European Commission were unwilling to change their rules. And the overwhelming consensus in Latvia favours keeping the lat’s currency peg. Neither the protesters in Riga nor opposition politicians want a devaluation. Their most controversial demand is for a progressive income tax (Latvia, like its neighbours, has a flat tax).
Ainars Slesers, the transport minister, is suggesting legal action to protect creditors of the Nordic-owned banks that make up most of the rest of the financial system. He blames their irresponsible lending for stoking the boom. Yet it is only foreign banks’ willingness to stump up for their losses that is keeping Latvia afloat. Shares in Nordic banks such as Swedbank and SEB have plunged because of worries about their exposure to bad Baltic loans.
Latvia’s prime minister, Ivars Godmanis, is widely seen as a competent heavyweight. But he depends on powerful political barons such as Mr Slesers to support his governing coalition. The president, Valdis Zatlers, wants a cabinet shuffle to dump discredited figures. Failing that, an early election in the summer looks likely. Yet Latvia’s opposition parties are a motley lot; and no policy mix can now avoid economic pain.
Most other east European EU members are in a better way, at least for now. Estonia was more prudent during the boom, building up net public assets equivalent to 7% of GDP. It can now run an expansionary fiscal policy that offsets the recession, rather than a tight one that aggravates it, as in Latvia and Lithuania. Estonia’s banks are almost all foreign-owned. Even Lithuania’s dodgiest local bank is nothing like as troubled as Parex in Latvia.
Not that the foreign-owned banks are in great shape. Across the region cash-strapped banks are cutting business loans, worsening the downturn. No international or national institution has the authority to deal with banks that take deposits in one country and lend in another, often with managers in a third country and shareholders in a fourth. Neither the IMF nor the ECB is set up to deal with these beasts.
The biggest concern is how far the economic weakness will spread. Poland, the biggest regional economy, has looked fairly safe. The central bank has even cut interest rates sharply, after raising them in 2008. But industrial production is plummeting, with inevitable effects on tax revenues. By the summer the government will have to choose between maintaining a tough fiscal stance (a condition for joining the euro) and easing the pain of recession. At least Poland has a choice. Hungary, the most indebted country in the region, has little option but to tighten its belt further.
Governments normally respond to recession by loosening fiscal policies to preserve jobs and output. But most in eastern Europe cannot do this. Their debts make it hard to borrow more. Currency pegs in the Baltics and Bulgaria that once seemed to offer stability and a smooth path to the euro now put the burden of adjustment wholly on wages and output. The voters, many of whom suffered gas cut-offs in Russia’s gas spat with Ukraine, won’t like it. What will they do? Nobody knows.
Feeling the pinch
Jan 22nd 2009
Uncomfortable echoes of uncomfortable times
“ECONOMIC collapse undermines national security”. Two years ago, when the script for “December Heat”, Estonia’s lavishly produced new historical thriller, was being written, that seemed a theme from the past, not the future. Now it looks uncomfortably prescient—if not yet for Estonia, certainly for its southern Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania.
“December Heat” portrays the failed Bolshevik putsch in Estonia in 1924. Some elements are unlikely to be repeated. Communism then could attract idealists hoping to build a workers’ paradise. It is hard to imagine starry-eyed young Estonians now believing that modern Russia is a new civilisation. The Baltic states are in NATO and the EU.
But other elements are all too topical.
The film shows that economic hardship has discredited the idea of independence in the eyes of many. Children beg on the streets. Public servants are poorly paid. Private business is struggling. People are cold. A few tycoons have done well and are widely disliked for it. All of that sounds pretty familiar.
So does the political backdrop of the early 1920s. The politicians don’t seem to have a grip on the situation. Officials are indecisive and possibly treacherous. And although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are far better guarded than they were then, territorial defence has taken second place to NATO’s overseas commitments. It would require several hundred well-equipped coup plotters, not a few dozen with small arms as in 1924, to seize key buildings in the capital city. But with the right support from outside, it is not impossible.
Similarly, you can no longer take over a country’s international communications simply by sending few toughs with guns into the telegraph exchange and railway station. But as the events of April 2007 showed, a cyber-attack can have roughly the same effect without firing a shot.
This is good material for a lively if rather melodramatic film. Only quick thinking and bravery by the protagonist, the stalwart Tanel Rõuku (played by Sergo Vares), with his nubile and equally valiant wife Anna (played by Liisi Koikson) save the six-year-old Estonian republic from disaster. They are assisted by the true hero of the events, General Ernst Põdder, (a real historical figure, played by Tõnu Kark). He happens across the coup plotters while returning from a late-night drink and leads an impromptu posse to raise the alarm. The final scene, in which the plotters’ telegram “inviting” fraternal assistance from the Soviet troops massed across the border is foiled in mid-sentence, is both exciting and amusing.
The troubling question for today’s audiences is about the differences between then and now. Politics in the 1920s was pretty shambolic in the Baltic states (which is one reason that all three countries, like the rest of central Europe, descended into semi-authoritarian rule in the 1930s). Opinion polls of today’s type didn’t exist, but it is a fair bet that voters then thought as little of their squabbling, incompetent politicians as their current counterparts do. Until recently, a big difference would be the magnet that Euroatlantic integration has provided to all post-communist countries. But divisions in the EU and NATO, and the huge dents that the crisis has left in the “western model” of political freedom and welfare capitalism, mean that this magnet’s pull is now weakening. In Latvia and Lithuania, political protest has spilled over into sporadic violence.
So the big question is about Russia. For all its faults, the ex-KGB regime in the Kremlin now is hardly comparable to the ruthless Bolshevik ideologues of the 1920s. Yet the lingering worry remains. Prosperity made independence seem successful and permanent after 1991. What will economic hardship bring?
Saturday, January 17, 2009
The spy who remained in the cold
Jan 15th 2009
A new film honours a hero of the cold war
WATCHING Daniel Craig, an actor best known as James Bond, playing a Jewish resistance fighter successfully battling the Nazis is an unbeatable combination for film audiences in the western world. “Defiance”, a newly released film about the Bielski partisans, is likely to do well. Some Poles may argue that it does not give a complete picture of their resistance to the country’s double occupation by the Nazis and Soviets. But historical films necessarily tell only one strand of a story.
“Defiance” is a story of a group finding collective courage against impossible odds. Another new film, Polish-made for an international audience, tells a similarly inspiring story, of how one man, in the heart of the Soviet empire’s military machine, was able to make a difference and—perhaps—save the world from a nuclear holocaust. “War Games”, by Dariusz Jablonski, tells the story of Ryszard Kuklinski (pictured), once the West’s top spy behind the iron curtain.
As one of communist Poland’s top military planners, Kuklinski had access to the Warsaw Pact’s most sensitive secrets—including plans for a devastating military onslaught on the West. What his colleagues never suspected was that he had become a fervent anti-communist, who photographed thousands of documents and passed them to the CIA.
His disillusion started in the mid-1960s, and was crystallised by his outrage at the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he helped plan. The film shows his CIA handlers and other American officials giving, for the first time on camera, vivid details of their meetings with Kuklinski. One hardened ex-spook weeps as he recalls his prize agent’s courage.
Kuklinski and his family were smuggled out of Poland shortly before martial law was imposed in 1981. Like many defectors, they lived a twilight life in the West, physically comfortable but emotionally isolated: making friends was risky. If he hoped for speedy vindication once communism collapsed, he was mistaken.
After the evil empire imploded, attitudes to those who had spied for the other side varied. The then-Czechoslovakia said that they were heroes; it invited those western agents who had escaped to return and help set up the new non-communist intelligence service (nobody, it seems, took up the offer). In Estonia, the late Mart Männik, a survivor of the disastrous MI6 post-war operation in the Baltic states, chose not to make himself known to the authorities, fearing retribution from the KGB, which he felt still had plenty of power in the post-occupation republic. His story is well told in a book “Tangled Web”, recently published in English by Grenader, an Estonian publisher.
But the post-communist Polish authorities were shockingly slow to rehabilitate Kuklinski. Many Poles thought he was not a hero, but a traitor who had broken his military oath. Only in September 1997 were charges of espionage dropped; he finally returned to Poland for a visit in 1998.
The film casts a thought-provoking light on that controversy, which the new film is likely to reignite. Lech Walesa’s evasive answers to the question why he as president failed to pardon Kuklinski are striking (he says he was surrounded by ex-communists but does not explain why he couldn’t overrule them).
Also troubling are the mysterious deaths of both his sons in 1994: just a boating mishap and a hit-and-run road accident? Or the belated revenge of his former colleagues? The film cannot answer that. Nor does it answer the question of who tipped off the Soviet authorities that the West had a mole in the Polish military: was it one of the traitors who has since been exposed? Or one who has to this day covered his tracks successfully?
It never stays long
Jan 15th 2009
From The Economist print edition
One survey shows liberty shrivelling; another names the “spoilers”
WHETHER your purpose is to promote freedom, to curb it, or to quibble about its definition, the reports of Freedom House, an American lobby group, make good reading. The new 2009 edition paints a sombre picture of how the world fared during George Bush’s time in office. An initial five years of improvement were followed by a three-year decline—less in 2008 than previously, but still disappointing. Russia’s rigged elections and cowed media attract particular criticism in the gloomy ex-Soviet section. Though Iraq posts a slightly better score, Afghanistan shifts from “partly free” to “not free” in Freedom House’s broad three-category system. The Middle East and north Africa region—the centrepiece of Mr Bush’s efforts to promote freedom—showed little measurable improvement over the previous year.
More widely, the number of “electoral democracies” (those with tolerably free and fair elections) dropped by two, to 119 (thanks to four demotions and two promotions). The general trend was down too, with declines in freedom of expression and association, and a weaker rule of law.
As with most international rankings, headline comparisons and trends are often less interesting than the details and the underlying thinking. Freedom House sticks to measuring the rise and fall of political freedom: it eschews the idea, promoted by outfits like Amnesty International, that economic and social rights matter equally.
Raw country-by-country figures can be misleading: the population-weighted results published by Freedom House are more informative. From that point of view, the failure of the Beijing Olympics to bring any of the promised (or more accurately, hoped-for) changes in China’s policy towards dissent was probably the biggest disappointment of 2008.
A similarly heavyweight annual report from another American outfit, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), takes direct aim at what its director, Kenneth Roth, terms “spoilers”. He writes: “Those conducting the most energetic diplomacy on human rights are likely to reside in such places as Algiers, Cairo or Islamabad, with backing from Beijing and Moscow. The problem is that they are pushing in the wrong direction.” Such countries, he says, “hide behind the principles of sovereignty, non-interference and Southern solidarity, but their real aim is to curb criticism.” He pointedly criticises the stance taken by India and South Africa, which uphold human rights at home but undermine international efforts against regimes such as Burma, Sudan or Zimbabwe.
At least in the eyes of the world, Freedom House and HRW come from slightly different places. The latter is adamant that it accepts no government funding, while the former does get money from the American taxpayer (and is committed to the view that American leadership is a good thing for liberty), though it has a decent track record of criticising the United States and its friends where appropriate.
In any case, the prospect of Barack Obama’s presidency clearly delights HRW, which lambasts the “disastrous Bush years” for torture, secret prisons and “hyper-sovereignty” and hopes that America will now sign up for all kinds of international good causes, from landmine bans to the International Criminal Court. Freedom House is more cautious, praising Mr Bush for his championing of dissidents. It worries that the new administration will prefer improving relations with authoritarian countries to challenging them. Sadly, measuring government beastliness looks like a future-proofed business.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Thorns in the east
Jan 8th 2009
Pipelines, missiles and maybe something worse
GAZA, rather than gas, is likely to be top of the new American administration’s to-do list. If the ex-communist world gets any early attention, it will be in search of Russian help over Iran and in the Middle East, rather than the pressing business of Europe’s energy and military security. If Barack Obama’s top foreign-policy officials pay even a nanosecond of attention to eastern Europe in the first few months of their time in office, it will be to bemoan locals’ inability to deal with their own problems.
Imagine the difference a single-minded and effective push on Nabucco a few years back would have made. If that pipeline, bringing Caspian and Central Asian gas to Europe via Turkey, was seriously underway—perhaps fed by a trans-Caspian gas pipeline, perhaps just with Azeri gas—then the effects of the current Russian-Ukrainian energy spat would have been to accelerate an existing project to early completion, rather than to highlight the shambles.
Now the Kremlin is well-placed to tell the European Union that if it wants to avoid headaches with transit through Ukraine in future, then it had better hurry up and help Russia build its pet pipelines, North Stream and South Stream. These projects, in the Baltic and Black seas respectively, do get round the corrupt and fractious gas transit industry in Ukraine. But they create another problem: strengthening Russia’s ability to play divide-and-rule with European customers. It is hard to see the American administration sparing much time to worry about that.
A renewed push on arms control, conversely, still looks possible. Whereas the Bush administration seemed to regard dominance in strategic nuclear weapons as an end in itself, the signs are that Mr Obama’s advisers see it differently. Russia is already twitchy enough about its decaying nuclear arsenal, and about its failure to make its new submarine-launched missiles work properly. The urgent need now is for talks on a new third START treaty on big nukes, coupled with measures to get Russia back into the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (in which it has suspended its membership) and to preserve the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty. In addition, the new administration is unlikely to share its predecessor’s allergic reaction to any talks about an international legal order in space.
All that may go some way to defusing feelings of paranoia and neglect in the Kremlin. The most dangerous situation for the west is one where Russia feels vulnerable to an American first strike (because of nuclear or space-weapon superiority). Russia’s creaky command and control means that a move to “launch on warning” hugely raises the risk of a false alarm turning into a nuclear war.
That does not mean that America should make big symbolic gestures such as cancelling its planned missile-defence bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Doing that would be a huge snub to its most loyal allies, and stoke fears of American disengagement from Europe. In truth, the new rockets and radar don’t work yet, and the Democratic congress is unlikely to vote money for them in a hurry. That gives plenty of wiggle room over timing, during which America can see if there is any way of getting Russia to share its concerns about rogue-states’ missiles.
The trickiest task will be dealing with an internal political crisis in Russia that leads the Kremlin to seek a distraction abroad, such as undermining the sovereignty of a neighbouring country—Ukraine, Georgia or perhaps even a Baltic state. That is not likely to catch attention in Washington until it happens.
Jan 8th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Are English courts stifling free speech around the world?
SEEN one way, it is nothing short of a scandal. Small non-British news outlets and humble non-British authors (in many cases catering almost wholly to a non-British public) are being sued in English courts by rich, mighty foes. The cost of litigation is so high ($200,000 for starters, and $1m-plus once you get going) that they cannot afford to defend themselves. The plaintiffs often win by default, leaving their victims humiliated and massively in debt.
There is another side to the story, of course. Attempts to collect damages for libel and costs from people outside Britain are rare and often fruitless. Just because someone is rich, or holds a foreign passport, or lives abroad, that does not mean that they should not seek justice in an English court. Sometimes the defendants are global news organisations with a substantial presence in Britain. Sometimes the plaintiffs are dissidents, complaining about libellous attacks on them by state-friendly foreign media; a lawsuit in London may be their only chance of redress.
Yet some cases are still startling.
Two Ukrainian-based news organisations, for example, have been sued in London by Rinat Akhmetov, one of that country’s richest men. One, the Kyiv Post, had barely 100 subscribers in Britain. It hurriedly apologised as part of an undisclosed settlement. Mr Akhmetov then won another judgment, undefended, against Obozrevatel (Observer), a Ukraine-based internet news site that publishes only in Ukrainian, with a negligible number of readers in England. Judgment was given in default and Mr Akhmetov was awarded £50,000 (now $75,000) in damages in June last year. The best-known case is that of Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York-based author. She lost by default in a libel action brought by a litigious Saudi national, Khalid bin Mahfouz, over allegations made in her book “Funding Evil”. It was published in America and available in Britain only via internet booksellers. Since then she has been campaigning hard for a change in the law.
Yet no attempt has been made to collect the £50,000 in costs and damages awarded against Ms Ehrenfeld, says Mr Mahfouz’s lawyer, Laurence Harris. He adds: “It doesn’t appear that we’ve had any chilling effect at all on her free speech.” (Even now, British booksellers are offering second-hand copies of Ms Ehrenfeld’s book over the internet.) Although Ms Ehrenfeld is sometimes portrayed as being unable to come to Britain because of the lawsuit, he says there is no reason why she can’t visit England “unless she is bringing a lot of money with her”. He notes: “We abolished debtors’ prisons some time ago.”
Nonetheless, cases such as these have outraged campaigners for press freedom in both Britain and America, who are trying to change the law in both countries. The states of New York and Illinois have passed laws giving residents the right to go to local courts to have foreign libel judgments declared unenforceable if issued by courts where free-speech standards are lower than in America. Ms Ehrenfeld sought such a ruling in late 2007 in New York state courts but failed; with the new law in place she may try again.
Now the campaign has moved to the American Congress. A bill introduced into the House of Representatives last year by Steve Cohen, a Democrat, sailed through an early vote but stood no chance of becoming law. A much tougher version submitted to the Senate, the Free Speech Protection Act, also gives American-based litigants an additional right to countersue for harassment. The bills have been strongly supported by lobby groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which fear that the protections offered by the First Amendment are being infringed by the unfettered use of libel law in non-American jurisdictions.
Similar concerns are being expressed in Britain. In a debate in the House of Commons last month Denis MacShane, a senior Labour MP, said that “libel tourism” was “an international scandal” and “a major assault on freedom of information”. Lawyers and courts, he said, were “conspiring to shut down the cold light of independent thinking and writing about what some of the richest and most powerful people in the world are up to.” He cited, among others, cases heard in London where a Tunisian had sued a Dubai-based television channel and an Icelandic bank had sued a Danish newspaper.
Mr MacShane also said the Law Society should investigate the actions of two leading British firms that act for foreign litigants, Schillings and Carter-Ruck, implying that they were “actively touting for business”. Neither wished to comment on the record, though both, like other big law firms, have websites promoting their services and highlighting their successes.
British members of a parliamentary committee dealing with the media are now broadening a planned inquiry into privacy law and press regulation. The chairman, John Whittingdale, says the committee has received a large number of submissions from people worried about libel tourism.
These go well beyond the usual media-freedom campaigners. Groups that investigate government misbehaviour say their efforts are now being hampered by English libel law. “London has become a magnet for spurious cases. This is a terrifying prospect to most NGOs because of legal costs alone,” says Dinah PoKemper, general counsel at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. It recently received a complaint from lawyers acting for a foreign national named in a report on an incident of mass murder. “We were required to spend thousands of pounds in defending ourselves against the prospect of a libel suit, when we had full confidence in the accuracy of our report,” she says.
The problem is not just money. Under English libel law, a plaintiff must prove only that material is defamatory; the defendant then has to justify it, usually on grounds of truth or fairness. That places a big burden on human-rights groups that compile reports from confidential informants—usually a necessity when dealing with violent and repressive regimes. People involved in this kind of litigation in Britain say that they have evidence of instances where witnesses have been intimidated by sleuthing and snooping on behalf of the plaintiffs, who may have powerful state backers keen to uncover their opponents’ sources and methods.
A further concern is what Mark Stephens, a London libel lawyer, calls “privacy tourism”, arising out of recent court judgments that have increased protection for celebrities wanting to keep out of the public eye. In December alone he has seen seven threatening letters sent by London law firms to American media and internet sites about photos taken of American citizens in America. “Law firms are trawling their celebrity client base,” he says.
The more controversial and complicated international defamation law becomes, the better for lawyers. The main outcome of the proposed new American law would be still more court cases, with lucratively knotty points of international jurisdiction involved. Prominent Americans with good lawyers may gain some relief, but for news outlets in poor countries it is likely to make little difference. And as Floyd Abrams, an American lawyer and free-speech defender, notes, a book publisher, for example, will still be nervous about an author who has written a “libellous book”.
Mr Stephens, the London lawyer, is taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights, where he hopes to persuade judges that the size of English libel damages is disproportionate. If you get only around £42,000 for losing an eye, why should you get that much or more from someone writing something nasty about you, he asks. But even limiting damages is not enough. For reform to have any effect, it will have to deal with the prohibitive cost of any litigation in London.
What Santa can bring Eastern Europe
Dec 27th 2008
Radek Sikorski for NATO chief
THE reindeer are harnessed, the sledge laden. So what will Santa Claus bring the ex-communist countries for Christmas? Desirable presents are easy to think of. A respite from the economic downturn. A less chauvinist attitude from Russia. A more considerate approach from Germany. Attention from the new American administration. But these belong in the same charming but unrealistic category as a child’s wish-list on which “no school”, “a fairy carriage” and “machine gun” are scrawled in crayon.
Rather more likely—and genuinely desirable—would be the appointment of someone from the once-captive nations to a top international job. Since the collapse of communism, the record on this has been dismal. Russia chaired the G-8 (though most of the countries attending the St Petersburg summit did so while wincing at their host’s behaviour). Slovenia held the European Union’s presidency competently (though close inspection revealed a tight French embrace of the EU’s nominal leadership).
But in terms of the big appointments, such as running the EU Commission and NATO or even the lesser posts such as leading the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development or anything at the United Nations, it is hard to find anyone from eastern Europe who has held anything remotely resembling a top job. The message is: be grateful for your EU commissioners; now shut up.
The new member-states of NATO and the EU feel they have been rather poorly treated in the past year or so. Germany snubbed them at the Bucharest NATO summit. The EU told them they were silly to care about Georgia, imposed a single flimsy sanction on Russia and then was unable to maintain even that.
Much of the responsibility for this lies with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. He has also flirted with the Kremlin’s new scheme for European security. This involves kicking the Americans out, sidelining NATO, and allowing Russia and the big EU countries to stitch things up between them.
In private briefings, French and other west European officials are already undermining the upcoming Czech EU presidency, sneering and jeering at the idea that the dumpling-munching peasants of Bohemia can match the grandeur of France. They also grossly overstate the importance (more accurately: nuisance value) of the abrasive Czech president, Vaclav Klaus. All EU states are equal, Mr Sarkozy concedes. But the bigger ones have “more responsibilities” (and are less equal, George Orwell might have concluded, than others).
Next year, if the Lisbon treaty is ratified, the following jobs will come open: presidents of the EU Commission (an existing post) and the EU Council (a new one), plus EU foreign minister, NATO secretary-general and president of the European parliament. As things stand, the east Europeans will get only the last of these—which is by far the least important.
That is not just unfair. It’s risky. It will alienate the east Europeans and make their political elites feel mutinous. East European countries have plenty of ways to slow down EU decision-making. So far, they have for the most part been at pains to show that they are good Europeans. That cannot be taken for granted.
Here is a possible way out: the NATO top job should go to a heavyweight Atlanticist politician, with expertise in defence policy, from a new member state. That produces a shortlist of roughly two: Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister (and former defence minister) or Sasha Vondra, the Czech deputy prime minister. Poland’s status as a defence heavyweight makes Mr Sikorski’s case the stronger. Let’s hope Santa sees it that way too.
Dec 30th 2008
From The Economist print edition
By Jonathan Fitzgibbons
BEHEADED posthumously, as punishment for his part in the execution of Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s fate after death matches his grippingly controversial life. Was it really his body that was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1658, with jarring pomp and ceremony? Was the same corpse exhumed and mutilated after Charles II came to the throne, ending Britain’s brief experiment with republicanism and military rule? Was it really the Lord Protector’s head that was rammed on a pike in Whitehall, to discourage regicides, only to be blown down in a gale and swiped by a soldier? And was it really that same head, battered and worm-eaten, with an iron spike still rammed through the skull, that became a souvenir, a vulgar curiosity, a treasured relic and was finally in 1960 secretly laid to rest in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where the young Cromwell briefly studied?
Jonathan Fitzgibbons answers these questions ably. The head is indubitably Cromwell’s: though the provenance is a little cloudy in the early 18th century, it beggars belief that a fraudster of that era would be able to fool forensic science many years later. The body was embalmed before it was beheaded; and the skull measurements correspond almost exactly with extant portraits of the Lord Protector.
The interesting historical detective work, and some neat demolition of myths and conspiracy theories, bring Mr Fitzgibbons half-way through a short book. After that comes a potted history of the aftermath of the English civil war, starting with the botched scheming that led the maddeningly duplicitous Charles I to lose not only the military conflict but also his head.
The regime that succeeded him was an uneasy tussle between idealists and a would-be military junta. Cromwell himself, that walking paradox, was neither as austere nor as principled as portrayed in most textbooks. His behaviour was marked by an oddly prankish streak and outbursts of genuine jollity. His refusal of the crown was both his greatest achievement and his biggest mistake. The author sums up his subject’s gravest weakness as “nihilistic overconfidence”. Like so many other revolutionaries, his regime became tyrannical and collapsed when he died.
This work is part of a venture into the book trade by Britain’s National Archives. Unlike stingy private-sector publishers these days, they have indulged in such rarities as a proper index, footnotes, bibliography and colour plates. It is a pity that they seem to have skipped the copy-editing. Cromwell appears chattily as “Oliver”. “May” and “might” are used interchangeably. An Oxford anatomy professor is said to have been “pouring” over documents in 1875 to expose a fake. Britain’s republican hero deserves better.