Stay off the potash
Feb 18th 2010
Eastern Europe-friendly boycotts are difficult to pull off
VOTING with your wallet is a tempting substitute for real politics. Time was when the British left demonstratively boycotted South African oranges. The same people usually regarded Israel as no better than the apartheid regime. They also ruled out “fascist” Spain and Portugal, and Greece under military dictatorship. Barring the odd shipment from Costa Rica or Cuba, progressive politics was bad for the fruit bowl.
Much the same dilemma now faces those who care about the security of the ex-communist region. In Tallinn last week, your columnist, wining and dining one of the country’s top foreign-policy thinkers, learned a new Estonian phrase: “Palun tooge eesti kraanivett jääga” [Estonian tap water with ice, please]. The only bottled water available at the otherwise admirable Ö restaurant was Vittel or Perrier, both French brands. Paris has just agreed to sell some formidable amphibious-warfare ships to the Russian navy, with potentially dire consequences for the security of the Baltic states. French foodstuffs are encountering a certain froideur across the region as a result.
Finding alternative brands of drinking water is easy (and tap water is better on ecological grounds anyway). Dealing with the wine list is more difficult. Most European wine-producing countries are unsound on security questions: as well as France, the list includes Italy (Berlusconi, Russia's biggest chum in the EU), Germany (the Russia-sponsored Nordstream pipeline) and Austria (almost everything). Georgian, Moldovan, Croatian or Macedonian wines would be ideal but are hard to come by, so new world vineyards have to fill the gap. Champagne creates an even bigger problem. The Crimean labels are rare and usually too sweet. Your columnist likes an English sparkling wine called “Nutty”; his friends and family are unconvinced.
The choice is hardest when it comes to cheese. It is difficult to find anywhere that produces tasty soft cheese and is not subject to unhealthy Russian influence. Even the kind of conspiracy theorist who wears a tinfoil hat to protect his brain from being zapped by Kremlin mind-rays would have to accept that this is a coincidence. But it is certainly an annoying one for Atlanticist cheese lovers.
Penalising weak-kneed European countries is hard enough. It is even more difficult when trying to put pressure on the source of the problem. If you want to boycott Belarussian goods, say, because of that government’s persecution of its Polish minority, you are unlikely to change your lifestyle much, unless you use industrial quantities of potash or need a lot of cheap tractors. Similarly, unless your consumption pattern includes weapons and vodka, giving up Russian goods is easy but pointless.
But the real problem with personalised sanctions regimes is conceptual. For a start, they risk seeming silly. Why punish a hapless French cheese-maker or Italian vineyard for the sins of their governments? The thinking is that plunging export sales might create pressure for a change in foreign policy. But this seldom happens in practice.
For countries like Belarus, a trade boycott is outright counterproductive. The more Belarus trades with the rich industrialised world, the weaker will become the ties binding it to Russia. It may be reasonable to try to take custom away from companies that owe their existence to commercial ties with sleazy politicians. But such bodies tend not to sell anything that a normal consumer in the outside world is likely to buy directly. You may not like the fact that some pennies from your fuel bills eventually trickle into the coffers of Kremlin cronies, but there is not much you can do about it.
The occasional flourish, especially with the wine list, is fine. But systematic sanctions are self-defeating. Trade opens borders and minds; protectionism closes them. That principle is worth fighting for too.
Saturday, February 20, 2010