I am too embarrassed to repost this piece in full but it contains a vivid if highly-coloured account of what I was up to in 1989, written in the Daily Mail's trade-mark style.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
I am too embarrassed to repost this piece in full but it contains a vivid if highly-coloured account of what I was up to in 1989, written in the Daily Mail's trade-mark style.
The Estonian exception
Oct 29th 2009 | RIGA AND TALLINN
From The Economist print edition
Estonia gets a boost, but worries persist about its Baltic neighbours
SMUGNESS is Estonians’ least attractive feature, at least in the eyes of their Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania. A surprise endorsement by the International Monetary Fund of Estonia’s plans to join the euro in 2011, coupled with gloom about the other two countries, will only make that worse.
All three Baltic states are facing double-digit economic declines in GDP this year, following the collapse of credit bubbles created by reckless lending and spending. Many outsiders have wondered if the three countries can maintain their fixed exchange rates, which peg the national currencies to the euro. A currency or banking collapse in the Baltic would spook markets elsewhere in the region, threatening wobbly economies such as Hungary’s.
So for the past year the focus has been on averting disaster. Plunging tax revenues made the chances of any Baltic states meeting the criteria for joining the euro look slim. In Latvia, for example, the government is struggling to keep next year’s budget deficit down to 8.5% (see chart)—a condition for the continuation of a €7.5 billion ($11 billion) IMF-led bail-out package. To join the euro, the deficit must be sustainably below 3%.
But it now looks as if, barring upsets, Estonia by the middle of next year will have met all the criteria for joining the euro. Inflation is low; government debt is negligible (indeed the country still has net public assets) and next year’s budget sets a deficit of 2.95%. That is thanks, the IMF says, to Estonia’s thrifty habits in public finances. The government has cut spending hard and early. It sped through modernisation projects financed by the European Union. This acted as an economic stimulus. Latvia and Lithuania have found it much harder to follow the same path. Lithuania has dodgy banks and spiralling debts; Latvia has lost credibility among outsiders because of its failure earlier this year to cut spending as promised.
For safety’s sake, the IMF still wants Estonia to raise and broaden taxes a little. Car-owners, for example, pay no car or road tax. But Andrus Ansip, the prime minister, already feels vindicated. He says the prospect of euro adoption will boost investors’ confidence and speed the country’s recovery.
Attention now shifts back to Latvia, where the IMF and EU are holding up a new budget, due to be passed on October 28th. They worry that the precarious governing coalition lacks political will, and that the crisis is unfairly hitting the poor. They want Latvia to dump its flat tax for a more progressive system. But Latvia says higher taxes would discourage entrepreneurs and that chaos in the state revenue office means that the higher rates would bring in little extra cash. No reason to feel smug there.
Oct 29th 2009 | RIGA AND TALLINN
From The Economist print edition
Jitters in eastern Europe over Russia’s military manoeuvres
SCAREMONGERING is where defence-planning and politics overlap. Big military exercises in western Russia and Belarus, which finished earlier this month, were based on the following improbable scenario: ethnic Poles in western Belarus rise up and “terrorists” from Lithuania attack the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. More than 10,000 troops from Russia and Belarus countered them, reinforcing Kaliningrad from the sea and sending special forces behind the enemy lines. Three NATO–like brigades, one visiting, one Estonian and one Latvian, then invaded western Russia, where they were successfully rebuffed by the elite Pskov-based 76th air assault division, reinforced by a motorised rifle brigade.
Military exercises need a notional enemy and, from Russia’s point of view, NATO is the obvious choice. Because the alliance has expanded to Russia’s borders, taking in a dozen ex-communist members over strenuous protests from the Kremlin, it is all the more desirable to send a strong signal. What is more, Western countries have been urging (and helping) Russia’s military forces to become more professional. That requires practice drills.
The main aim of the Russian exercises may indeed have been to measure progress on military reform, particularly the creation of more Western-style autonomous brigades. And, plainly, Russia is neither willing nor able to fight a real war with NATO. Yet the war-games look alarming to neighbours. They recall that the war in Georgia in August 2008 followed many years of exercises, and they point out that NATO has no formal contingency plans to defend its vulnerable Baltic members. Nor has the alliance held land drills on the territory of any of its new members. Indeed, until two years ago NATO’s threat assessments explicitly discounted the idea of conflict with Russia.
Russia faces many security problems within its borders, and its armed forces are still rusty. It is hard to see why preparing for an implausible armed attack from the West should be a priority; these days America and its allies have little time to rehearse big-war manoeuvres because their soldiers are too busy fighting, or training to fight, insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, the idea of Lithuanian-based “terrorists” invading Russia is risible.
Western military analysts have noted Russia’s use of destroyers and landing craft from the Black Sea and Northern Fleets to back up its feeble Baltic-based naval forces. They also noted the deployment of Russia’s most advanced S-400 air defence system in Belarus and a parallel drill conducted by the Strategic Rocket Forces, the guardians of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal. “The scope of the exercises, the weaponry used, the troops involved and the scenarios rehearsed all indicate unequivocally that Russia is actually rehearsing a full-scale conventional strategic military operation against a conventional opponent,” says a report by Kaarel Kaas, an analyst at an Estonian security think-tank, the International Centre for Defence Studies.
Dividing the exercise into a northern war-game (called Ladoga) and a southern one (Zapad-09) brought each below the 13,000-troop threshold at which Russia is obliged to invite outside observers. Some neighbouring countries were not able to monitor the manoeuvres (Lithuania, with a handful of observers in Belarus, was an exception). That does not build confidence.
From what outsiders can gather, the performance of Russian forces was patchy. A joint Belarusian-Russian headquarters worked poorly. Drones—a big feature of Western armies—seem to have been used mainly for show. Moving large numbers of troops and equipment around, a weakness during Russia’s war in Georgia, took too long.
Polish, Baltic and other officials will meet in Warsaw shortly to discuss the significance of the exercises. NATO will assess them next month. America certainly took careful notes: the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, visited Estonia. NATO warplanes mounted a modest air exercise. A planned exercise in the Baltic states next year is likely to be beefed up, perhaps with the involvement of part of NATO’s new mobile Response Force.
Russia’s armed forces may be ramshackle, but many European members of NATO are in poor shape too. The alliance’s ability to defend the Baltic states depends almost wholly on American involvement. NATO hawks complain that members such as Germany and Italy are blocking attempts to draw up formal contingency plans for all its members—something that President Barack Obama has demanded. The doves retort that NATO’s Article 5, which says that an attack on one member is an attack on the whole alliance, is deterrent enough; new members who question its worth are hurting their own cause.
Yet easterners are raising their voices in talks about NATO’s new “strategic concept”, a document to define its purpose that will be adopted next year. With NATO focused mostly on the fighting in Afghanistan, they want a clear statement that old-fashioned collective defence of NATO territory is still a priority. Only that, they say, will convince their voters that, with Russia flexing its muscles nearby, sending troops to Afghanistan is worth it.
Oct 29th 2009
Slovaks, Hungarians and missing data
THE row is over but the problems remain. Amid an outcry from neighbouring Hungary, and discreet pressure from other outsiders, Slovakia’s government has backed away, for the moment, from implementing its badly drafted and intrusive-sounding new language law.
Despite the backdown, hopes that membership of the European Union and NATO would bring a permanent end to central Europe’s tribal conflicts and historical grudges now look over-optimistic. It would be good if all concerned—the Slovak government, Hungarians in Slovakia and Hungary’s political parties—paused for reflection about the troubling issues that divide them. But the economic crisis, and the likely victory of the tough-talking Viktor Orban and his right-of-centre Fidesz party in Hungary’s parliamentary elections next year, are among the reasons for expecting another flare-up sooner rather than later.
A short list of Hungarian grievances would go like this. Since 1992 the new Slovak state has made its largest linguistic minority feel like outsiders. Native Slovak-speakers increasingly dominate the upper reaches of government; the handful of Magyarphones in the diplomatic service has been purged (from ten ambassadors to one, for example). The parts of southern Slovakia where Hungarians tend to live have missed out on foreign investment and have the worst public services. Bilingualism is declining: few mother-tongue Slovaks learn Hungarian; Hungarian-language schools teach Slovak remarkably badly. The rise of the Slovak National Party has made anti-Hungarian racism alarmingly acceptable in public life.
Slovak grievances read rather differently. Hungary has a conceptual problem in accepting that Slovakia is a real country. Public figures there stir up Slovakia’s Hungarians with reheated historical wrongs. The number of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia is exaggerated: many of them are in fact Gypsies (Roma). All citizens of Slovakia are equal before the law and talk of discrimination is absurd. All efforts to pamper the Hungarians just make them complain all the more, in an annoying and disloyal way. If Hungarian-speakers really do not feel at home in Slovakia then they can leave.
To an outsider, the striking thing is the prevalence of assertion and the absence of facts. How many people in Slovakia are really “ethnic Hungarians” as opposed to, say, Hungarian-speaking Roma, or native Slovak-speakers with Hungarian surnames, or the products of mixed marriages who do not regard themselves as being fully in one camp or the other? Are those who self-identify as ethnic Hungarians better or worse paid, housed or educated than other population groups? Is this changing over time? Is bilingualism declining? How many go to Hungary for higher education? How do their fortunes compare to Slovak universities’ alumni? What are the statistics on mixed marriages, migration, and life expectancy? And how do all these compare to the comparable population groups in Hungary proper, and to Hungarians living in other places such as Transylvania in Romania or the Vojvodina province of Serbia?
Nobody seems to be collecting this data, either in official statistics or in academic surveys. Lessons could be learned from Britain’s diplomatic service, which makes a big effort to attract applicants from a wide range of class, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and monitors how successful this has been. But Slovak officials react with shock at the idea that monitoring the composition of the civil service could help settle arguments about prejudice. “It would not be politically correct” says a senior government spokesman.
That seems a rather lazy and complacent approach. Consequently, without even the elementary information to know what is right and what to do, the two sides remain entrenched in their silos of ignorance, making myths, and sooner or later, mischief.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
TWEAK history a bit. Imagine that in 1940 Hitler and Stalin divide Britain between them. Both occupying powers behave abominably but in different ways. After a rigged election, Scotland is declared part of the Soviet Union. Stalin imposes a one-party state and planned economy with a terrifying secret-police apparatus, liquidating normal life and decapitating the country. Tens of thousands of people—lawyers, teachers, businessmen, priests, journalists, and even philatelists—are woken in the small hours, given ten minutes to pack and then deported to slave labour camps in northern Norway. Few ever return. South of the border, the Nazi military dictatorship rounds up England’s Jews, supported by local anti-Semitic collaborators. Industry is commandeered by the Nazi war machine. Anti-Nazi activity is lethal; thousands are shipped off to work as forced labourers. Others, disgracefully, even volunteer as concentration-camp guards and for auxiliary police battalions in the hope of gaining privileges or settling scores. Life is dire, but for most of the non-Jewish population it is much less awful than in the Scottish Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1941 Hitler attacks Stalin. As the Red Army flees Scotland, Jews suffer terrible pogroms. Many Scots blame them, quite unfairly, for being allied with the communists. (In fact, though many Scottish communists are indeed Jewish, Jews feature prominently among the “bourgeois elements” deported to Norway). Many Jews die of starvation or typhus in the Glasgow ghetto. Most are gassed in death camps, some on British soil, some further afield. As the Nazis start losing the war they conscript thousands of teenagers into a “British legion” of the Waffen-SS. About one-third of this unit are volunteers, desperate to stave off another Soviet occupation at least for long enough for their families to escape to neutral Ireland. Some have ardently helped the Nazis. Despite last-ditch resistance, Soviet power is restored in Britain by 1944, with implacable vengeance. A doomed underground army fights on (its last partisan is killed only in 1975). Britain regains its freedom only when the evil empire collapses. Digesting that historical trauma would take time. Britons’ views of their country’s SS troops would probably be rather ambiguous: few would call them heroes, but few would condemn them outright either. Many British people might focus more on their own suffering than that of the all-but vanished Jewish population. Outsiders would do well not to jump to conclusions. Stereotypes linking the Holocaust in Britain to “endemic anti-Semitism” before the war would clearly be ludicrously simplistic. Amid the current row about the Conservative Party’s new alliance with Poland’s socially conservative Law and Justice party and Latvia’s nationalist Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, British commentators would do well to bear some history in mind. Fatherland and Freedom (which has roots in the anti-Soviet dissident movement) says Latvian SS veterans have the right to pensions and public gatherings. Yet Jon Snow, a British television presenter, misleadingly dubbed the party “neo-Fascist”. Also on the same programme, he failed to challenge a British comedian, Stephen Fry, who deplored Poland’s history of “right-wing Catholicism”, terming it “deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history, and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on”. Mr Fry is entitled to criticise Poland’s record on gay rights and the Tories’ choice of friends. But it is horribly unfair to mention Auschwitz (a death camp run by German Nazis in an occupied country) in the same breath. The million-plus Poles, both Gentile and Jewish, who perished there deserve better. And commentators from Britain, which escaped the war unoccupied, should try approaching other countries’ wartime history with more humility and less self-satisfaction.
It looks simpler from across the Channel
TWEAK history a bit. Imagine that in 1940 Hitler and Stalin divide Britain between them. Both occupying powers behave abominably but in different ways. After a rigged election, Scotland is declared part of the Soviet Union. Stalin imposes a one-party state and planned economy with a terrifying secret-police apparatus, liquidating normal life and decapitating the country. Tens of thousands of people—lawyers, teachers, businessmen, priests, journalists, and even philatelists—are woken in the small hours, given ten minutes to pack and then deported to slave labour camps in northern Norway. Few ever return.
South of the border, the Nazi military dictatorship rounds up England’s Jews, supported by local anti-Semitic collaborators. Industry is commandeered by the Nazi war machine. Anti-Nazi activity is lethal; thousands are shipped off to work as forced labourers. Others, disgracefully, even volunteer as concentration-camp guards and for auxiliary police battalions in the hope of gaining privileges or settling scores. Life is dire, but for most of the non-Jewish population it is much less awful than in the Scottish Soviet Socialist Republic.
In 1941 Hitler attacks Stalin. As the Red Army flees Scotland, Jews suffer terrible pogroms. Many Scots blame them, quite unfairly, for being allied with the communists. (In fact, though many Scottish communists are indeed Jewish, Jews feature prominently among the “bourgeois elements” deported to Norway). Many Jews die of starvation or typhus in the Glasgow ghetto. Most are gassed in death camps, some on British soil, some further afield.
As the Nazis start losing the war they conscript thousands of teenagers into a “British legion” of the Waffen-SS. About one-third of this unit are volunteers, desperate to stave off another Soviet occupation at least for long enough for their families to escape to neutral Ireland. Some have ardently helped the Nazis. Despite last-ditch resistance, Soviet power is restored in Britain by 1944, with implacable vengeance. A doomed underground army fights on (its last partisan is killed only in 1975). Britain regains its freedom only when the evil empire collapses.
Digesting that historical trauma would take time. Britons’ views of their country’s SS troops would probably be rather ambiguous: few would call them heroes, but few would condemn them outright either. Many British people might focus more on their own suffering than that of the all-but vanished Jewish population. Outsiders would do well not to jump to conclusions. Stereotypes linking the Holocaust in Britain to “endemic anti-Semitism” before the war would clearly be ludicrously simplistic.
Amid the current row about the Conservative Party’s new alliance with Poland’s socially conservative Law and Justice party and Latvia’s nationalist Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, British commentators would do well to bear some history in mind. Fatherland and Freedom (which has roots in the anti-Soviet dissident movement) says Latvian SS veterans have the right to pensions and public gatherings. Yet Jon Snow, a British television presenter, misleadingly dubbed the party “neo-Fascist”. Also on the same programme, he failed to challenge a British comedian, Stephen Fry, who deplored Poland’s history of “right-wing Catholicism”, terming it “deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history, and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on”.
Mr Fry is entitled to criticise Poland’s record on gay rights and the Tories’ choice of friends. But it is horribly unfair to mention Auschwitz (a death camp run by German Nazis in an occupied country) in the same breath. The million-plus Poles, both Gentile and Jewish, who perished there deserve better. And commentators from Britain, which escaped the war unoccupied, should try approaching other countries’ wartime history with more humility and less self-satisfaction.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Thursday, October 08, 2009
Old rows, new book
Oct 8th 2009
Albania and Macedonia quibble over an encyclopaedia
IT IS normally hard to get excited about encyclopaedias. Indeed, in the internet age, it is quite hard to sell them at all. But in Macedonia, a new national encyclopaedia has sparked a row worthy of the 19th century, with furious denunciations, forced resignations, hurried political intervention and appeals to outsiders to join in the condemnation of insulting entries.
The row underlines Macedonia’s still-fragile national identity. Here is a non-exclusive list of possible views. One is that Macedonia does not exist at all. It is simply a bit of Bulgaria, amputated by the rise of post-war Yugoslavia and then hijacked by self-interested local politicians (some Romanian nationalists see Moldova the same way). Those who think they are Macedonians are “ethno-politically disorientated” Bulgarians.
From another point of view, the country’s existence is not in doubt, but the name is an insult to Greece. Hardline Hellenes think that the “Skopjans” are cheeky Slavs trying to hijack the name of Macedonia, which was, is and will always be an inalienable part of Greece.
Another view comes from Albania, Macedonia’s western neighbour. From an Albanian nationalist point of view, Macedonia is not a state, but a compromise, and perhaps only a temporary one. A much-abused ethnic Albanian minority has finally managed, partly by force of arms and partly thanks to international pressure, to gain some constitutional rights, which must be defended vigilantly.
But what about the majority ethnic grouping in this country of 2m people? That is where the encyclopaedia comes in. Published by the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, it trod hard on some sensitive toes. For a start, it asserted that the Albanians were relative newcomers to the territory, settling it only in the 16th century. From an Albanian point of view, that is exactly the wrong way round: it was the Slavs who are the newcomers, and who should behave themselves in the company of their hosts. Worse, the encyclopaedia also referred to the Albanians as “highlanders”. That, apparently, is an insult.
Another entry describes Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, as a war-crimes suspect. Many may query the methods he and his fighters used, but he has never been indicted, and he now heads the junior party in the country’s coalition government. Amid student demonstrations and other protests, Albania’s prime minister, Sali Berisha, called the book “absurd and unacceptable” and complained about “identity based on the forgery of history.”
The encyclopaedia is now being hastily rewritten. But it would be nice to think that some of the energy on display could be directed toward bigger issues. One is sorting out the name dispute with Greece. The new centre-left government in Athens may soften the Greek insistence that its northern neighbour drop “Macedonia” before joining international organisations. Macedonia could clear up a couple of troubling human-rights cases, such as that of Spaska Mitrova, a young mother who has lost custody of her two-year-old daughter, in a dispute with strong political overtones (she identifies herself as Bulgarian, and says Macedonians have ill-treated her in retaliation). From the Albanian side, Mr Berisha could be more careful in describing all of his compatriots as members of “one nation”.
Silly rows about encyclopaedia entries are not just distracting. They also damage outside perceptions of the region and thus its chances of integration into the rest of Europe. The sensible response to a bad book is to yawn, or to produce a competitor. And by complaining so loudly, critics have given the encyclopaedia publicity that most booksellers could only dream of.
Oct 7th 2009
Bad news from Latvia raises fears of contagion across eastern Europe
THE patient emerges from intensive care, hurls the medicine at the doctors and bites his blood donor. That may be an unfair characterisation of the recent news from crisis-stricken Latvia, but it is pretty much how outsiders see it. The prime minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, is refusing to make the spending cuts mandated by international lenders and has floated a new law that would partially expropriate foreign banks’ loan books.
It would be worrying enough if the European Union’s weakest economy defaults, devalues or implodes. But what scares outsiders more is the effect of Latvia’s latest wobble on other ex-communist economies, which until this week seemed to be surviving the financial crisis with less trouble than some had feared.
In recent weeks, the news from Latvia had seemed mildly encouraging, after a year during which the country has been kept afloat thanks to an $11.1 billion international bail-out. The breakneck decline has slowed: the economy is expected to contract by 17.5% this year, but by only 3% in 2010 and to return to growth in 2011, according to a forecast by SEB, a Swedish bank (and big lender to Latvia). The current account, which showed a yawning deficit of 1.42 billion lats ($3 billion) in the first seven months of last year has been transformed to show a 581m lats surplus in the same period of 2009.
The main outstanding issue is next year’s budget deficit. International lenders had softened the target to a mere 8.5% of GDP; the government still had to push through spending cuts of 500m lats to meet this.
But this week Mr Dombrovskis startled outsiders by saying that cuts of only 225m lats would be necessary. He has pencilled in a further 100m lats in better tax revenues—counting, apparently, on a faster economic recovery than anyone expects. The hesitation has brought stern warnings. Sweden’s finance minister, Anders Borg, said outsiders’ patience was “limited”—his country is due to provide SKr10 billion ($1.45 billion) in a loan tranche in early 2010. The EU’s monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, has publicly rebuked the government too. Mr Dombrovskis has now backtracked, saying that if the cuts are necessary, they will be made.
But doubts remain. Mr Dombrovskis lacks the authority to push tough measures through parliament and his public wobble could be seen as an attempt to summon up another burst of international pressure on the government to do the right thing. If so, it is risky.
The same could be said about another of Mr Dombrovskis’s moves—calling for a draft law that would restructure domestic assets of foreign banks. Borrowers would be liable only for the collateral value of their loan (eg, a house bought with a mortgage) rather than the whole amount. Banks would also be unable to evict defaulters from their homes without rehousing them. A fall in property prices of over 50% has sent Latvia’s private-sector debts to foreigners ballooning. They will need restructuring eventually. But this proposal looks unworkable, clumsy and damaging. Shares in Nordic banks, which have been the biggest private-sector lenders to Latvia, dipped on the news.
If Latvia fails, with a strike by international lenders prompting a debt crisis or a bank run, the spotlight then turns to the neighbouring Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania. They are not in the same political mess, but both have also pegged their currencies to the euro and are facing huge and painful adjustments. Some wonder if the EU might accelerate its recognition of Estonia’s impressive progress in sorting out public finances by giving it early approval of its plans to join the euro in 2011. But where would that leave Lithuania, which is nowhere near balancing its books and borrowing expensively from private lenders instead of turning to the IMF?
An even bigger question involves the future co-operation between the IMF and EU. They worked together closely during the emergency rescue of Latvia in December. Now ties are strained: the IMF thinks Latvia should devalue its currency. EU officials are determined that it should not, for fear of the wider effect on ex-communist countries that are trying to join the euro zone. That has led the EU to squeeze the IMF into accepting softer conditions on Latvia than it would have wished for. For all those involved, in Brussels, Washington, DC, and Riga, patience is running out.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Succumb and deliver
Oct 1st 2009
From The Economist print edition
Extradition laws are getting tougher and tighter. But they remain messy, even if your name is not Polanski
IT IS a fair bet that if a humble Polish immigrant called, say, Pawel Romanski had skipped bail after pleading guilty to raping a 13-year-old in Los Angeles 30 years ago, fleeing to France would have done him little good, and his fate, however unfair, would never have become a cause célèbre. Most of the time, international extradition is a boring business involving a lot of dull form-filling, after which wrongdoers are taken back to face justice.
But add a dose of celebrity, a dash of politics, and sharply clashing cultural attitudes, and things change. Swiss police arrested the film director Roman Polanski (pictured above) on September 26th, fulfilling an American arrest warrant issued in 1978. In that year Mr Polanski fled the country to avoid sentencing by a Los Angeles judge. Arrested for rape, he had agreed to a plea bargain in which he admitted unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old. A French-born Pole, Mr Polanski has dual citizenship, thus benefiting from France’s restrictive extradition laws. He has since travelled in Europe, but never returned to the United States.
His arrest has sparked a diplomatic rumpus. The French and Polish foreign ministers jointly asked America for clemency—though their governments later distanced themselves from these calls. Film-industry luminaries such as Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar and Martin Scorsese are supporting a petition calling for his immediate release. For Mr Polanski’s fans, the extradition decision is vindictive and sinister. His whereabouts were no secret: he was invited to Switzerland to receive an award at the Zurich film festival. Some suspect that the wily Swiss set a trap, hoping to placate America, which has been cracking down hard on Swiss tax shelters. Certainly Mr Polanski had travelled to the country many times in the past, without incident. Why had the American court only now sought to enforce the warrant?
Others, especially in America, see the issue differently. By jumping bail, Mr Polanski cocked a snook at American justice. The passage of time if anything aggravates that. So did his attempts (without showing up in person) to have a Los Angeles court dismiss the case late last year, and his successful lawsuit in London against an American magazine. (He gave evidence by videolink). The witness statement given by Mr Polanski’s victim still makes harrowing reading (though she has long since settled with him in a civil-law suit, and has supported his efforts to close the case). Justice would be ill-served if fame mitigated any crime, especially one like rape.
Mr Polanski’s case is one of several high-profile and highly politicised extraditions now in court. America is also trying to extradite Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, from Thailand. Russia is trying to extradite Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a mobile-phone tycoon, from Britain on charges of extortion and kidnapping. He says his life is in danger if he is returned. Britain has previously refused to extradite other Russians, including a former Kremlin insider, Boris Berezovsky, on the ground that they cannot expect a fair trial in Russia.
Politics plays a big role in extradition. Some countries—France, Russia and Israel are examples—rarely or never extradite their own citizens (though they will send back foreigners). Diplomatic clout decides which countries conclude treaties with others, and on what terms. Exact reciprocity is rare. The fourth amendment to America’s constitution requires proof of “probable cause” for an arrest. But for America to extradite someone from Britain the level of proof is rather lower: information (not evidence) that provides a “reasonable basis to believe that the person committed…the offence for which extradition is sought”. Many find that imbalance galling.
The biggest flaw in extradition is not politics, however, but the treatment of those who lack Mr Polanski’s wealth and connections. As extradition becomes speedier and procedures tighter, the risk of miscarriages of justice rises, and in a way that the humble and innocent may find difficult to resist. A report to the British House of Commons this year highlighted the case of an elderly British citizen called Derek Bond, who was arrested, at gunpoint, in February 2003 while on holiday in South Africa. After being held for three weeks, it turned out that the American extradition request was based on a fraudster who had stolen Mr Bond’s identity.
A second concern is deeds that count as crimes in one country but not another. In October 2008 an Australian Holocaust-denier, Gerald Fredrick Töben, was arrested at Heathrow Airport while flying from America to Dubai. Germany wanted his extradition for publishing anti-Semitic material on his website. (An English court freed him after a month.) Free-speech defenders worry that in other cases vaguely worded laws against “xenophobia” could be used to extradite the controversial and eccentric, as well as the obnoxious.
The third worry is that rules on legal aid, interpreting, bail and the like vary widely between countries. That makes gaining justice in a foreign court dauntingly difficult. Such worries are particularly acute in the EU, where the “European arrest warrant”, a fast-track procedure agreed in 2002, has removed many of the bureaucratic barriers to speedy extradition—but also some of the safeguards. Charlotte Powell, a London-based barrister and chair of the Extradition Lawyers’ Association, notes that the desire to harmonise procedural rules has outstripped the harmonisation of substantive elements.
Moreover, the grounds on which a court may refuse extradition still vary sharply country by country. If a crime took place several years ago, notes Ms Powell, a Greek court may regard it as time-barred and decline to extradite, even though other EU countries would count it as still prosecutable. Another difference concerns what lawyers call “specialty”: making sure the person is prosecuted only for the crime the extradition order cites. Some countries’ courts are finicky about this. Others see warrants as small hooks to catch big fish.
Criminal-justice authorities understandably want their reach to be global. But they make mistakes. Standing trial in your own country is likely to give you a better chance of dealing with such errors than if you are hauled into court abroad—assuming, of course, that you come from a law-governed and civilised country.
Oct 1st 2009
Will the Free Democrats quell east Europe's fears?
EASTERN EUROPE owes a huge debt to the Germans. By showing that capitalism worked better than planned economies, West Germany helped win the cold war. East Germans kept trying to escape, forcing the Soviet-backed regime to build the Berlin Wall, destroying communism’s claim to be popular. East German people-power brought that wall down and tore up Stalin’s map of post-war Europe by demanding unification. In the 1990s Germany forced expansion onto the European Union’s agenda and then made it happen (and paid for it, German taxpayers would add sourly). And to this day, Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a template for other countries wanting to come to terms with their past.
All the odder, therefore, that Germany is not more popular in the east. The burgeoning trade and political ties between Berlin and Moscow have spooked the countries in between. Germany and Russia are planning a condominium, just like 70 years ago, the worriers say. An opinion poll last year showing that a substantial majority of Germans would oppose the military defence of the Baltic states if they were attacked further stoked those fears. The countries between Russia and Germany feel squeezed—all the more so now that America is distracted, NATO divided, and Britain out of the game.
Germans find that sort of talk rather hurtful, especially when it is laced with crude references to the Nazi past. Some Polish politicians have made a speciality of that. The result is a vicious circle. German policymakers see the easterners as ungrateful and mad, so concentrate more on the profitable business of selling things to Russia. The easterners see a game being played over their heads, and get even crosser.
Until this weekend, the easterners had a point. Even the best German diplomats could not conceal the fact that Germany’s economic relationship with Russia to some extent trumped the security fears of the nominal allies in the east. German scepticism about NATO expansion was well-known. Even the departure of the Russia-loving Gerhard Schröder, who after leaving the chancellery went to work for a German-Russian gas pipeline, made little difference. Angela Merkel might have the right instincts, the Poles and others reckoned, but she was constrained by the grand coalition with Mr Schröder’s old party, the Social Democrats.
This weekend’s election offers a glimmer of light. The Social Democrats are out and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) are in. Their leader, Guido Westerwelle (pictured at right, above), is likely to be Germany’s new foreign minister. Although a foreign-policy novice, one of his few notable campaigns was against Mr Schröder’s business dealings. The ex-chancellor fought a lengthy legal battle to gain an injunction preventing Mr Westerwelle from repeating allegations of improper conduct.
It would be premature for the east Europeans to pin much hope on Mr Westerwelle. Even in the days of his FDP predecessor, the legendary Hans-Dietrich Genscher, it was the federal chancellery, not the foreign ministry, that largely decided Germany’s foreign policy. Freed from the baleful influence of the Social Democrats, Mrs Merkel may be tougher with Russia on some issues. But Germany’s business lobby is the biggest supporter of the “Russia First” policy. And conservatives in Mrs Merkel’s CDU/CSU have the closest ties to German industry.
What could make a difference is having a solidly pro-nuclear German government. If Germany makes serious plans to extend the lives of its nuclear power stations, it reduces the country’s dependence on imported Russian gas—the cornerstone of the “special relationship” between Berlin and Moscow. Perhaps countries such as Poland, which love whinging about energy security but have been slow in doing anything practical, may then get round to following Germany’s example. Just don’t expect gratitude.