Can Leopard Shed French Spots?

Posted on September 15th, 2014 by MAO

As I mentioned previously, the main tone I could detect within the European press in reaction to the announcement last week of the specific personnel and assignments of the new Juncker Commission team (to take office – barring any problems with confirmation before the Parliament – on NOV 1) was along these lines:

Seriously
And with that I thought that the topic was exhausted. Not quite, though: one of the Brussels correspondents of the leading Dutch business daily Het Financiële Dagblad, Ulko Jonker, points out a particular aspect of that “fox guarding henhouses” syndrome that I had not realized, and that is too full of import to be left unmentioned. (Link is behind a paywall with a limited number of articles free per month for non-subscribers.)

Right then, Jonker’s list of EU Commissioner oddities includes:

  • The British commissioner in charge of bringing London to heel with Brussels’ financial regulations;
  • “[T]he Greek who has to carry out migration policy” (Actually, this was very smart: Greece is one of the main EU member-states charged with holding the line against illegal immigrants – principally along its short border with Turkey – so why not put the Greek Commissioner in charge?);
  • “[T]he Hungarian who can explain about citizens’ rights” (Aha, I did note this puzzling paradox in my previous post, it seems at least some elements of the Fourth Estate are taking note of Hungary’s creeping authoritarianism.);
  • “[T]he German illiterate who is responsible for the digital economy” (Harsh, but again this is essentially what I remarked on in that previous post.); and
  • “[T]he Cypriot who will do ‘crisis management'” (That would be Christos Stylianides, of Humanitarian Aid; I don’t get why he would not be up to the job.)

Jonker’s explanation for all this is up top in his lede: “The biggest difference between him and his predecessor José Manuel Barroso is that Jean-Claude Juncker has a sense of humor.”

Frenchman’s Collision Course with France

It’s not always so funny though, because surely the biggest paradox among the new Commissioners is France’s Pierre Moscovici, put in charge of “Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs” – otherwise known as the “budget czar” since Moscovici’s DG is in charge of monitoring member-state budgets to ensure they adhere to the 3%-of-GDP-or-less standard – and to start proceedings for fining the EU government in question when its budget does not. And yes, it is France that looks set to be the greatest offender along these lines, with a projected 4.4% deficit for this year. More »

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Why Can’t They Eat Cake?

Posted on September 13th, 2014 by MAO

You might be aware of the sensational book recently published (SEP 4) in France, written by Valérie Trierweiler. She is the former “First Lady” – except that she and French President François Hollande weren’t married, he has never been married – who was rather unceremoniously booted out last January after Hollande took a fancy to a younger, blonde actress and started departing the Elysée Palace on the sly – and on a scooter – for their assignations. Trierweiler has now shown how she had plenty of dirt to dish on her presidential ex-lover, and the French political scene is still recoiling in shock from her revelations.

But it has been one of those in particular that has struck a special chord among the public. In her words (my translation, as usual):

He [Hollande] has presented himself as the man who doesn’t like the rich. In reality, the president doesn’t like the poor. He may be a man of the Left, but in private he refers to the “toothless ones” [les sans-dents], very proud of his sense of humor.

Lord knows what particular train of thought led Hollande to come up with this particular expression. But perhaps it has a certain historical element: there was a similar term during the French Revolution for the uneducated masses – the rabble, if you like – who made up the vast majority of both the revolutionary mobs and of the French national armies which would go on to conquer most of Europe. That was sans-culottes, or those without culottes which were the sort of silken “knee-breeches” worn in that period by middle-class men and above.

Naturally, Hollande never intended this particular pet phrase of his to get out to the public. But now it has anyway, all thanks to the woman he spurned, and you can bet he is mortified about it. All the more since the phrase has in turn been taken up by that widespread – and growing – segment of the population that has grown tired of both this president and his policies. As we see here:

SansDents
“The Toothless: That’s Now!” it reads at the bottom there. And you’ll notice that the attractive lady at the forefront also seems to be wearing a red revolutionary’s cap from those heady days back at the end of the 18th century when the French aristocracy was being systematically beheaded. You have to hope that that seeming void inside her mouth – although necessary to make the point – was only Photoshopped. More »

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Thoughts on Team Juncker

Posted on September 12th, 2014 by MAO

It happens only once every five years, so I’m willing to describe as a pleasure yesterday’s eye-squinting, fast-research exercise in tweeting out the announced composition of the new EU Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker. A couple of conclusions did come to my mind as a result – conclusions which I think you might find as outside the mainstream.

But first the one proviso that should always be kept in mind on this subject. The US and EU government are of course very different in their structure and their powers, but perhaps it would be useful nonetheless to remind ourselves of the nearest analog in Washington DC to the Commission. It is of course the President’s Cabinet, a collection of administrators appointed (and confirmed) to head executive-branch departments in widely different fields of expertise (Foreign Policy; Agriculture; etc.).

Naturally, it is strongly assumed that those Cabinet secretaries will operate solely with the national interest in mind, and not any interests of the particular state or region that they come from. That is the going assumption for EU Commissioners, as well – yet, incongruously, there a system persists whereby each EU member-state gets one of its own on the Commission! The US counterpart to that – just to show how ridiculous the practice is – would be an insistence that each of the 50 states (and Washington DC, Puerto Rico, etc.) have a representative taking up some function in the President’s cabinet.

It’s supposed to be about expertise and administrative ability, not about where one comes from. Truth be told, it is unlikely that the number of jobs there are to do can really be stretched to equal the number of all member-states: there has to be some degree of duplication and/or “make-work” assignments to artificially inflate the quantity of posts available. (For example, Andrus Ansip, Digital Single Market; Günther Oettinger, Digital Economy). I understand the Brussels powers-that-be are well aware of this consideration, and that they made an effort in connection with the Lisbon Treaty to address it to some degree by introducing a cut-back regime in which it was NOT true that every member-state would be guaranteed a Commissioner. However, I also recall that squelching that was one price Ireland demanded for finally voting the “correct” way in its umpteenth referendum on Lisbon.

1) Right, with that out of the way . . . consider the following, typical of the general tenor of tweets in reaction to yesterday’s announcements:

henhouses
It’s snarky, it’s maybe a bit superficial – but it’s also a clever point. And I would simply like to add to it the name of Tibor Navracsics, the former Hungarian Foreign Minister who has been assigned the portfolio for “Education, Culture, Youth & Citizenship.”

How Hungary gets a Commissioner at all is something beyond my understanding; more to the point, how it is getting €22 billion euros in economic assistance from the EU is really beyond my understanding. For make no mistake, with its almost-total government control over the press and now its assault on NGOS, Hungary currently resembles no other polity so much as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and is heading even beyond that to a final destination which is that of Alexandr Lukashenko’s Belarus. More »

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Giving Charity the Boot

Posted on September 10th, 2014 by MAO

This looked interesting when I ran across it. Schoenen-ophaalacties: OK, the Dutch means “shoe-gathering actions,” but whazzat all about? Whatever it is, now seems to be the time of year for it.

Schoenophaal
The first paragraph after the lead reads:

By now everyone knows about the shoe-actions. [Oh yeah?] You bring an old pair of shoes into the store and get a voucher for a new pair in exchange. The old shoes go from there to a good cause, so it is said.

Interesting! But incomplete: Is this only a Flanders phenomenon? (The “VRT” in “VRT deredactie.be” after all stands for the Flemish radio and TV network.) Surely the voucher one gains in exchange does not cover the entire cost of a pair of new shoes, right?

And then a question on the lips of those who are already familiar with this phenomenon: Is this on the up-and-up? That is, do those old shoes really get passed on to “a good cause,” to people who need them?

As you might expect, in these cynical times: Not always. A reporter from the VRT radio program De Inspecteur (yes, it means what you think, as in “Clouseau”) went investigating. Some of the shoe companies do indeed go on to work with “fair trade” organizations such as Oxfam which pass on the shoes for free to those in need. But quite a few of these shoe companies in effect sell them onward and pocket the profits.

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Alternatives to the Google Colossus

Posted on September 9th, 2014 by MAO

It’s not just the Ukraine that is currently at the EU’s center of attention as officials return to Brussels from their summer breaks (and heads of state cross their paths returning home from there after an unprecedented August European Council summit). There is also a burning pan-European question on the business side, and that is what to do about Google. The issue is front page news on today’s NYT website, which gives a good overview of a surprising widespread “European backlash” against the company (together with a charming picture of the Google StreetView camera in a boat, doing its thing while sailing through one of Amsterdam’s canals).

Perhaps the key figure in that NYT report is that Google’s market-share for search is “close to 90 percent in Europe, excluding Russia” while even in its native USA it is only about 67%. This search omnipresence is the wellspring out of which Google’s on-line dominance originally flowed, and perhaps it’s fair to say that, in view of that 90% figure, Europeans to a great extent brought these problems upon themselves. I mean, it’s been so convenient, it’s right there in the browser – often aided by deals it has struck (e.g. with Firefox) to be default search-engine – and the results are fast and usually useful. Sadly, this 90% figure continues to apply even after last year’s Snowden revelations showed how Google – wittingly or unwittingly – makes up an important part of the ICT infrastructure enabling the US Government to spy on its own citizens and on the rest of the world to an incredible level of intimate detail.

It’s clear that some search-engine diversity is now called for if European authorities are ever going to be able to face down the Internet behemoth convincingly, and Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung is willing to be our guide to the alternate search-engine wilderness.
DuckDuck
The lead to Julia Löffelholz’s article behind the tweet reads

Google and Co. earn billions – with the data of their users as well. Smaller search-engines are trying to establish themselves on the market by doing the exact opposite: They spend their takings or promise anonymous search.

Which are these smaller search-engines?

  • DuckDuckGo: First, consider the duck: the duck you see there at the bottom of the tweet, with the spiffy bow-tie. That’s the mascot of the alternate search-engine DuckDuckGo that, numbers-wise at least, seems to be making the greatest headway into the search space. It was established back in September 2008, and now handles 5 million search-requests per day (Google: 3.5 billion). It’s motto is “The search engine that doesn’t track you,” and it apparently has a feature enabling you to filter out commercial search-results, i.e. those trying to sell you something. Now, it is also based in the US and so within the NSA’s ambit, which might quite reasonably worry some – but as founder Gabriel Weinburg points out in this piece, it stores no user information, so there is no information for the American authorities to subpoena. FWIW it is certainly the favorite search-engine here at EuroSavant; occasions when I have been dissatisfied with the search-results it has returned have been few and far-between. And it doesn’t track me.
  • Ixquick: This alternate search-engine is based in the Netherlands, and handles an even-smaller load of search requests per day. Ixquick does offer the unique feature of enabling its users to go on to visit a page they has found via its search-engine anonymously, i.e. to the visited page it will look as if Ixquick itself is visiting it rather than the actual users. Like DuckDuckGo, Ixquick makes money by running ads along with its search-results – ads which, logically, cannot be too specifically connected to one’s actual interests because nothing is ever known about the user other than the search he is running at the time.
  • Qwant: This one is based in France. The unique thing about Qwant is the way it sorts its results in various columns, labeled “Web,” “News” and “Social.” It can be quite a valuable way to break down in an orderly fashion the search-results it returns; you should go there to try this out at least once.

Then there are the further alternate search-engines discussed in this piece that try to harness search to further the interests of some good cause. There’s Ecosia, “the search engine that devotes 80% of its income to a tree planting program in Brazil” (and economizes further by cutting back on its use of hyphens); or Benefind, that enables you to contribute to a charity of your choice from your search-requests (note: Benefind is in German); or Goodsearch, which basically does the same thing but is based in the US and is in English.

All admirable initiatives, surely. But here a crucial question must be posed: These are surely supposed to be Internet tools in the first place – can they be charitable vehicles at the same time without that somehow impinging on their effectiveness as tools? I doubt that; and surely, in line with the issues raised today in that NYT article, the focus needs to be on developing a search-engine whose effectiveness at least can rival that of Google, while not carrying with it the objectionable baggage the latter has accumulated over the years.

Again, the best candidate (i.e. as endorsed by user-numbers within the alternative search-engine world) would seem to be DuckDuckGo. Do try to find a time to have a quack at it.

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Revealed: Ukraine’s Weapons-Sellers!

Posted on September 8th, 2014 by MAO

This might be considered as the most important “secret” result of that NATO summit at the end of last week that was held at some golf resort in Wales, and the EU Beobachter (“EU Observer”) has picked it up.
5staaten

Yes, in the wake of that summit five states intend to start selling weapons to the Ukraine, and they are: the USA, Poland, France, Italy and Norway. The notable absence on this list is Germany, whose weapons, notably its small arms, are particularly good in comparison to most others, but whose Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, made it clear at that summit that it was not ready to take that step. Understandable: the German government only in the past few weeks decided that it would break precedent and send arms to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, and that decision caused quite a bit of consternation on the German political scene. Merkel was not ready for the same again – not that that was the only reason for German reticence.

What’s really notable about these arms-sellers is just how hush-hush the whole subject is. None of these countries has been willing to announce these upcoming weapons-sales; indeed, all have officially denied they are ready to do so. So who knows? Against that we have – for what it is worth – an announcement yesterday by a close advisor to Ukraine President Poroshenko that these five countries would indeed be supplying his country militarily. That announcement notably appeared on the advisor’s Facebook page.

If we examine that roster, the sales from the US and from Poland are understandable: American weapons manufacturers are seemingly ready to sell anywhere, anytime, while Poland is the state leading the alarm over Ukraine developments. For France and Italy it is a bit harder to understand why they would want to be involved (indeed, the Italians have continually been suspect as too Russia-friendly) – until you realize, as this article states explicitly, that they mainly see this as an opportunity for their native arms industries to make some money. It’s only Norway whose involvement is totally mysterious: its economy doesn’t need the money, and to this point it has not seemed particularly alarmed about what is happening off to the East. Indeed, as a good Scandinavian land, it is supposed to have certain ethical pretensions of not selling war material into an active war-zone. More »

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Wikimisery

Posted on June 10th, 2014 by MAO

Did you know that Wikipedia is in trouble? I wasn’t aware; for example, there has not been an appeal for money appearing there at the top of the Wikipedia page for some time now. And it still seems to get plenty of respect from PR agencies. From today:

WikiPR
Still, it is not the financial front where Wikipedia is encountering problems. Just what is the matter – the “biggest crisis” since its founding – is explained well in a recent piece in Germany’s Die Welt on the occasion of the arrival of a new chief for the Wikimedia Foundation, one Lila Tretikov, a computer scientist who, as her name suggests, comes originally out of Russia. She is said to be particularly motivated to right things at Wikipedia because of the way the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (which occurred when she was just 8) killed so many more people than it should have because of the way information was withheld from those who needed to know it.

Nonetheless, as that Welt article points out in its title, she herself represents what is troubling Wikipedia. As you probably know, the whole institution is set up as a volunteer effort – and the problem is precisely that the number of volunteers (or “authors”) has fallen by a third since 2007. What is more, that author cohort has tended to reduce to a typical, predictable group – namely white, Western, male, and usually expert in technical subjects. (But sometimes in others as well: the article makes its point by noting that the Wikipedia coverage of female pornstars seems to be particularly . . . uh . . . deep and well-organized.) Ms. Tretikov admits to never having written or even edited a Wikipedia article herself – so it is in that sense that she is part of the problem, since it is more participation, particularly on the part of knowledgeable women, that the project so desperately needs.

Unfortunately, that is not the only problem Wikipedia is currently experiencing, as we see here:

Wikiporno
Yes: “Porno!” The linked article is from the German business newspaper Handelsblatt and in fact these troubles only involve the German Wikipedia – for now, at least. There’s a webplatform in Germany for teachers called newsforteachers.de (yes, they use the English); the people there went hunting for pornographic links from Wikipedia and, by George, they found them. Under rubrics like “Piercing”; “Penetration”; and of course much worse than that. Really, if you read the Handelsblatt piece carefully, it does seem that they mainly found this stuff, not in the German Wikipedia itself, but on a related site called Wikimedia Commons. No matter: the president of the German teachers’ professional organization, the Deutscher Lehrverband (DL), is now advising teachers and parents that Wikipedia is to be considered “unsatisfactory” for schoolwork.

Indeed, DL President Josef Kraus is demanding an immediate removal of all pornographic content from Wikipedia and all related sites – which really makes you think that, even to this point, President Kraus has formed for himself but an incomplete picture of what the Internet is all about and how it works. More »

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Adidas and Sports Corruption

Posted on June 9th, 2014 by MAO

Even as the every-fourth-year World Cup football spectacular is set to kick off
in Brazil later this week, there has been a wave of increasing concern about the event’s scheduled host for 2022, the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. This has largely been prompted by the eminent British newspaper The Sunday Times, which has somehow gotten its hands on a treasure-trove of internal e-mails and documents relating to what appears to be the concerted effort spearheaded by the Qatari businessman (and former FIFA vice-president) Mohamed Bin Hammam to buy Qatar the 2022 World Cup outright via the judicious parcelling-out of up to $5 million.

Taking a page from the work of Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald with the NSA documents, The Sunday Times is drawing out its revelations over a period of weeks, rather than dumping all of what it has learned on the public at once. Nonetheless, even what is has revealed so far has prompted some notable reactions. One of the latest was that of one of FIFA’s main World Cup sponsors, SONY, expressing its concern over the Qatar revelations. Then SONY was recently followed in that by the famous German sportswear firm Adidas. (That last link is to a Sunday Times piece – remarkable since usually they are inaccessible behind a paywall.)

But Adidas itself knows quite a bit about corruption in sports – as is apparent from the German business newspaper Handelsblatt with an article it republished from Die Zeit a little less than two weeks ago:

Adidas
That tweet reads “Adidas: The inventor of modern sports corruption,” with a question mark. But it is not really a question; in the article itself that title appears without any question-mark, and writer Oliver Fritsch’s purpose within the seven pages over which the piece is divided is to show how that is the case. As he writes:

“For decades the company has influenced sports-politics decisions such as marketing contracts, tournament expenses and personnel. The company’s methods are controversial. And that just not as of yesterday.”

You can tell that Adidas is a big player at least in the German sporting goods market from the fact that it is the official supplier to both the German National Football Association (and therefore to the national team, which first goes into action in Brazil against Portugal next Monday) and to German football power-house Bayern München. And you can similarly tell that Horst Dassler, son of the company’s founder Adi Dassler, was some kind of evil genius from the fact that he gets his very own chapter in the exposé-book recently written by Thomas Kistner, Fifa Mafia (unfortunately available only in German). More »

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No-Fly List Escapee

Posted on June 5th, 2014 by MAO

Consider that face down in the lower-right.

RIbrahim
Could someone like that ever hurt a fly? Clearly a Muslim female; actually, she’s Prof. Rahinah Ibrahim, 48 years old, an Engineering Ph.D. and no less than Dean of Faculty at her university in Malaysia. As this article from Die Zeit puts it, “[s]he travels to congresses in Rabat, Eindhoven, Beijing, Bangkok, Milan and Kassel. It is only within the USA that she has not been able to fly for years.”

That’s because she has been on the US No-Fly List for years, and that for no good reason. She is supposed to be finally off of it, but there are still lingering doubts about that (see below). This extended Die Zeit piece is all about how she – maybe, probably – managed to be one of the few who finally got themselves off of it. And as Die Zeit writer Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt puts it:

It is an example of the extent to which the USA after September 11, 2001 got carried away in its War on Terror – and how a security apparatus based on secrecy attempts to hide its mistakes, with their serious consequences, from the Public.

This is, after all, a blogpost, so I’ll get right to the essential point: Prof. Ibrahim was guilty of nothing, she was the victim of a Homeland Security bureaucrat checking the wrong box. The momentous result of that was not only a Christmastime visit from FBI officials while she was still studying at Stanford; being placed on the No-Fly List while she was still studying there so that she was briefly placed in detention while trying to fly back home out of San Francisco International Airport; once back in Malaysia, finding herself unable to return to the US to continue her studies; but also a nine-year campaign (costing $4 million in legal expenses) to clear her name and get her off that list.

It’s all scandalous, that someone could be treated this way – she was allowed to look at her rejected visa application at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, only to see it stamped “TERRORIST” – but probably Weidmann-Schmidt’s most painful bit of text is where he describes how:

The [American] government did everything it could to block Rahinah Ibrahim’s process, with claims about state secrets and national security. For years it seemed as if they would succeed.

But they did not. She did get her trial, and after five years, last 15 April a federal judge ruled in Rahinah Ibrahim v. Department of Homeland Security that “Dr. Ibrahim is no threat to the national security of the USA” and that she should be removed from the No-Fly List.

That trial, by the way, was held in secret. Naturally, Prof. Ibrahim was not invited to testify at it personally – she could not enter the US! Rather, when it came time, her deposition (and cross-examination) was taken by video camera from a studio in London. What is more remarkable, though, is how obscure it still remains as an historical phenomenon: searching Google News for “Rahinah Ibrahim” right now yields only a reference to this Die Zeit piece about which I am writing and two others, in English, one from something called the Courthouse News Service, and the other from Al-Jazeera.

Weidmann-Schmidt’s piece does mention that Prof. Ibrahim does not like to speak with the press and was not particularly cooperative with Die Zeit’s inquiries. While perhaps understandable, that is surely not the way to help this case redound to the greater good – only by letting the outrage spread, one feels, will anything ever be done about this. For now, and for the question of why she felt it was worth nine years and $4 million to fight this, we have this from her video testimony:

I don’t want my children to hate America because of what has happened to me, without getting to know the America I have respected.

Well, I had to translate that last passage from the German – meaning that when it comes to that last verb in particular, it is ambiguous whether Prof. Ibrahim meant “the America I have respected [still]” or “the America I respected [but no more].” I’ll let you make your own guess as to her meaning.

(Oh, and Prof. Ibrahim still has not been granted a visa to return to the US. The reason is classified.)

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No Need to Dig Deep

Posted on June 4th, 2014 by MAO

Got a body to dispose of? Maybe even your own – eventually? Then has Antwerp got a deal for you!

Antwerp_grave
Tweedehands graven – yes, that does mean “secondhand graves”! Belgium’s second city is selling off 5,000 grave-plots from its cemeteries – plots for which, of course, those representing their present inhabitants have failed to keep up with the payments. (That’s how it works in Belgium, and the Netherlands as well: you’ve got to have descendents willing to keep paying the charges, for time immemorial! Or at least until the Second Coming.) One can be yours for as little as €1,000 (the initial payment, N.B.), and the 5,000 that are being put up for sale are strictly “of cultural-historical value,” i.e. they are ornamented with some sort of noteworthy sculpture and/or other art-forms. (Not that any of that has anything to do with you or whoever the future inhabitant is going to be!)

Antwerp city officials have even put together a catalogue, it says in this piece from the Dutch news-site Z24. But for me that is not even the most grotesque element of this story; that is rather the advertising campaign the city has also undertaken to move (so to speak) these plots, of which they have sold only 120 so far. Eeeeeeeuuuuuw . . . they have put together a PDF brochure in which Norbert (aged 67) and Dirk (aged 56) hold forth on the joys of arranging for their last resting place among the cultural-historical bargains now on offer. (You can download the PDF here, but of course it is in Dutch.)

antwerpen-graf-te-koop-470x340That’s also Norbert there in the picture, together with the ad campaign’s slogan: “I’ve found my grave here! You too?” Isn’t that just bizarre? It’s the same kind of faux-enthusiastic, “Hey kids, come join us!” approach which, I can tell you, is more commonly seen in the Netherlands in other ad campaigns trying to get people to sort their plastic from their glass garbage.

Neither Norbert nor Dirk gets around to this particular detail, but let me fill you in on another amazing feature!! (“But WAIT! That’s not all!”) of this offer, and I’ll quote from the Z24 piece:

What is remarkable is that buyers of a grave don’t have to remove the earlier deceased [i.e. the previous occupants - yes, it's plural!] per se. They can therefore simply “join the queue” [aanschuiven] with the others in the grave.

Turns out, the WSJ also covers this (in English) here, with some added detail.

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How Easily They Forget

Posted on June 3rd, 2014 by MAO

As you surely will have picked up, President Obama has made a trip over to Poland. He has already arrived in Warsaw, been greeted appropriately by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and held the customary news conference at the presidential palace. He even tried out some Polish to the greeing public on arrival at the airport: dzień dobry or “good day!” – only two words, yes, but harder than you may think.

He comes to Poland at an opportune time given the on-going crisis in Ukraine and Poland’s resulting deep sense of insecurity. The ostensible point of the visit, however, and why it was originally scheduled, is tomorrow, June 4, which is the 25th anniversary of the first post-World War II (partially) free elections in Poland that ushered in a non-Communist government, and that truly constituted the first major crack in the structure of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe that almost completely collapsed by the end of that year.

All Polish newspapers and twitter-feeds are now awash with Obama news. Yet over in a comparatively obscure corner there is also this, from Polska The Times.

Duda
“Duda” is Piotr Duda, current chairman of NSZZ Solidariność – yes, that same “Solidarity” of the 1980s, led then by Lech Wałęsa, that roused the entire nation against the Communist government and even survived a period underground after the imposition of martial law in December, 1981, before emerging again as an important power-broker later that decade.

Duda has written an open letter to the remaining members of Solidarity, which these days is little more than a fairly unimportant political organization. That is in fact the point: no representative from Solidarity has been invited to join Presidents Komorowski and Obama tomorrow at the ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the elections.

[Duda] judged that the omission of [Solidarity] at the ceremonies was entirely a political decision of the current government, in retaliation for its struggle for workers’ and citizens’ rights. “There’s no freedom without solidarity,” he wrote.

The chairman issued a reminder that, just as the greatest triumph of Polish workers was the uprising of the union in 1980, Solidarity’s greatest victory was the elections of 4 June 1989.

There is no mention in this article, but I assume that Lech Wałęsa himself will surely be in attendance tomorrow. While a great subversive leader in subservise times, he turned out to be somewhat of an indifferent Polish president once Poland was truly free (free thanks to his efforts, of course). There have even been rumors of a code-name for him within the old Polish state security “service” (SB), as if he collaborated with the Communist authorities in any meaningful way – obviously a ridiculous idea, given the historical record.

But Wałęsa long ago outgrew his identification with Solidarity – just as in the Czech Republic Václav Havel went on to become President and outgrow his association with the Civic Forum organization which largely guided the “Velvet Revolution” at the end of 1989. For that matter, there’s much less remaining of Civic Forum today than of Solidarity – the latter has fully passed into history, and there’s no one really around (even if still alive, which Havel himself is not) who could even be invited to any ceremonies – such as the 25 anniversaries the Czech Republic will be celebrating come November.

The point, however, is whether there would even be a desire to do so, whether possible or not. There will not be for Civic Forum, I am sure; and there apparently is not for Solidarity. The latter really does show an appalling willingness to ignore history on the part of current Polish authorities. It’s a disturbing obliviousness that finds its further reflection in the national press, in which Duda struggles to find a voice even as one of the two national journalistic pillars – Gazeta Wyborcza, or “election newspaper” – had its origin precisely in those breakthrough, free-ish national polls of 25 years ago.

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Father’s Lament for Conchita

Posted on May 24th, 2014 by MAO

You remember Conchita Wurst? She/he won the Eurovision Song Competition for Austria, held in Copenhagen two weeks ago.

Someone didn’t like that.

Conchita
“A girl with a beard. That is paganism unleashed.” This comes from Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Roman Catholic priest most known in Poland for the Radio Maryja station he founded and runs (yes, “Maryja” as in “The Virgin Maryja”), the voice of ultra-conservative Polish Catholicism: no divorce, no abortion, everything like that. (Still, you can listen to Radio Maryja on tunein if you like, it has 19,000 followers there! Be forwarned: It’s basically exclusively spoken-word in Polish.)

I seriously doubt Father Rydzyk was tuned in to Eurovision back on May 10. The result must have percolated to him slowly, probably further delayed by a wall of sheer incredulity. It’s still interesting to quote the good Father’s reaction here at length:

We must educate people, because look at what’s happening. Good Lord, we must educate people! Because look at what’s happening! This flood of paganism isn’t coming from this country. Really, look, is that normal, that a country-boy makes himself up like a woman, that boy there, I don’t know who he is supposed to be, with a beard, he performs and wins first place in Europe as a singer! Really, like he’s some Pavarotti!

Here Father Rydzyk had to pause: he was live-broadcasting these remarks to an audience in a church via a closed-circuit link, and everyone had started laughing. More »

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“Now Recep – BeHAVE Yourself!”

Posted on May 23rd, 2014 by MAO

A heads-up for whoever is going to be in Cologne tomorrow, things could get interesting.

You might recall how we wrote on these pages about a month ago about German President Joachim Gauck’s visit to Turkey a month ago, and the waves he made there. Well, what goes around, comes around: the Turkish Premier Erdogan is due in Cologne on Saturday:

Erdogan_in_DE
“Cologne visit by Turkish PM: Merkel calls for restraint from Erdogan.” Now, this is no sort of state visit, neither Merkel nor Gauck will be anywhere near him, but rather the sort of sojourn Erdogan likes to make from time to time to go shore up his support among the many citizens of Turkish nationality living in Germany.

Unfortunately, the political situation back in the Motherland has been steadily deteriorating, hurried along by the deaths of 301 workers in the recent Soma mine disaster there and the public’s angry reaction to that. In a newspaper interview earlier in the week, Merkel said Erdogan was of course welcome to come give his speech, but “I insist that he does this on Saturday with a sense of responsibility and sensitivity.”

Sensitivity, however, has rarely proven to be PM Erdogan’s strong suit. Indeed, his people seem not to be approaching the event in a very constructive manner:

RP_ErdoganFall
“Turkey fears a trap for Erdogan in Cologne.” But why? Because the German authorities also approved no less than eight counter-demonstrations in the city on the same day. No wonder the Turks are suspicious: they would simply forbid any such counter-demonstrations, and no doubt were ready to do so during President Gauck’s visit there last month – if anyone had actually applied to hold any.

Cologne streets could turn into quite a scrum on Saturday, but the latter Rheinische Post article at least has published the following almost military-looking map to help you make your way. FYI, the stadium-event where Erdogan will actually be speaking is the one the furthest to the right that says Veranstaltung UETD.

Koln
(For those asking, the title to this post was inspired by the Beatles, who even back in the early 1960s could sing remarkably presciently about world affairs.)

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It’s Euroelection Time!

Posted on May 22nd, 2014 by MAO

Yes, voters in the Netherlands and the UK go to the polls today to elect their Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Looks like it’s been mostly a rainy Thursday in much of the UK – not good for turnout! (More precisely: Only the fanatics can be counted on to make it to the polls, here meaning the anti-EU, Tea Party-like UK Independence Party.) The weather in the Netherlands, in contrast, has been pretty good.

Ireland and the Czech Republic join in tomorrow, while most of the rest of the 28 member-states get this done on Sunday, the 25th. And that’s when you can expect the results, i.e. after the 25th; it’s been reported that the Brussels authorities are at pains not to let the early-voters release their election results early, and so possibly influence the attitudes of later-voters.

Here at €S, as usual, we’ll cover these Euroelections as the spirit moves us – if you’re really interested, your best bet is probably the @EuroSavant Twitter-feed since this is not, of course, a Euroelection-dedicated site.

One that is, is a site called transform! from the European Network for Alternative Thinking and Political Dialogue.

Transorm
Actually, you’ll have the choice there of reading in English (from transform! europe proper), German (from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) or French (from a site called Regards.fr). Those of you with a nose for these things will have detected already that these sites will largely be reporting – again, from Sunday – on the MEP election results from a Left point-of-view, but it is clear that they have a structure in place to provide comprehensive and multi-lingual coverage. They also have a Twitter-feed: @transform_ntwrk.

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Le Pen Fever – It’s Catching!

Posted on May 21st, 2014 by MAO

So what’s your prescription, Doctor? But wait: this is an age-old politician speaking here, and a former French Legionnaire, but not any man of medicine:

LePen

Jean-Marie Le Pen, honorary president of the Front national (FN) and candidate in the European elections for the Southeast district, has some radical ideas for countering “the demographic explosion.” Radical, or infectious: “Monseigneur Ebola can take care of that in three months” is what he let loose with during a discussion on Tuesday, 20 May, before giving a speech [in Marseille].

Nasty! Hey, let’s just let some judiciously-applied epidemics take care of all those immigrants whom we don’t want in France! And the old goat is actually standing as a candidate in the upcoming French MEP election!

Still, I think that the key aspect of this Le Monde piece is that, during these Marseille campaign appearances, Le Pen was accompanied at the podium by his daughter, Marine Le Pen – who happens to head the FN these days, who is running for re-election to her own seat in the European Parliament and who – most importantly – did nothing to disavow her father’s statements!

Let’s face it: Jean-Marie himself is 86, and I’m told people run a higher risk of getting rather dotty at such an age. He’s been kicked upstairs to an “honorary” position at the FN, so that it’s clear he has no policy-making role there anymore. Now yes, the party did put him up as a candidate for an MEP seat, but nonetheless it’s easy to imagine how, with a little political finesse, the organization could dismiss and separate itself from these wild Ebola exclamations.

Maybe they will still do so; the incident happened yesterday, there’s probably still time. But certainly not if they wait until the French start voting on Sunday. In the meantime, the rest of us can only tip our hats in gratitude at the old codger for a timely reminder, just before the elections, of the essence of those various far-right parties from all over Europe who will be trying to get their candidates into the European Parliament in the coming days.

(Thanks to @ajboekestijn, on whose feed – rather than that of @lemondefr – I first caught notice of this.)

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Play Well Together

Posted on May 13th, 2014 by MAO

The deep societal divisions between the two different halves of Belgium have long ceased to be much of a secret. I mean here of course the Dutch-speaking Flemings on the one (North) side and the French-speaking Walloons on the other (South; complicated by the mostly French-speaking Brusselers as third party). This was initially a sore point due to the long dominance of a Walloon elite over the entire country – so that, canonically, French officers issued orders to Fleming soldiers during the First World War that they could not understand. But the fissure was aggravated after World War II when Flanders became the region that was not only more heavily populated but also much more prosperous – and thus contributing more to the common governmental coffers. It’s the “conservative” party (i.e. friendly to business) which nonetheles has set as its goal the eventual secession of Flanders from Belgium – the New Flemish Alliance party – which now dominates the political scene in the North.

With all that intercommunal tension, then, it’s good to see this:

VlamingenWalen
“Flemings and Walloons surprisingly positive about each other.” Good to hear! – although I do also wonder how it would feel to be called a “Walloon”: “You Walloon!”

Flemings and Walloons underestimate the sympathy and overestimate the anger towards each other. That is the result from a multi-university study.

(-snip-)

The negative feelings of the other were always overestimated, as it turned out. “So French-speakers think that the Flemings experience feelings of malice and frustration, while Flemings think that Walloons are frustrated and jealous.”

All very fine, except for one thing: This study was carried out in 2010 and 2011! Now, the leading researcher justifies that in the article by pointing out that that was the period when Belgium was stuck in a particularly grating political crisis. Just to spell it out: From 26 April 2010 to 6 December 2011, a period of 589 days that set the record among developed-world nations, the country was without a proper head-of-government because the kaleidoscope of Belgian political parties (ranged left-to-right by ideology, but also cross-indexed by language) could not agree on how to form a government and choose one.

So it’s true that was an especially exasperating period, and it is good to see that the separate sides of the country did not hate each other as much as everyone assumed. But that was then; this is now. Surveys like that of public attitudes can’t be expected to have much of a shelf-life, before they begin to smell from the rot of past-sell-date.

Why do we see this now, then? It must be for some sort of propaganda purpose. For what it’s worth, it’s in De Standaard, considered to be the paper-of-record (i.e. the “New York Times”) there in Flanders.

But don’t worry: that same head-researcher promises us a new study, timed for “the elections,” by which she certainly means May 25, when Belgians will head to the polls to elect not only their representatives to the European Parliament, but also to the lower house of their own federal parliament, the Chamber of Representatives. (And they will head to the polls: voting is compulsory in Belgium!)

Tell you what: Forget the surveys, show me a new Belgian prime minister being chosen reasonably promptly after the results of that federal election are known, and I will then agree with you that the Flemings and Walloons have learned to get along!

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Fishy Goings-On

Posted on May 12th, 2014 by MAO

You remember that German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to Washington to visit President Obama at the beginning of the month. Just this past Saturday she touched base with another important ally, namely French President François Hollande, by inviting him to her home turf (i.e. the parliamentary constituency she represents) at the historic city of Stralsund in Germany’s far Northwest. But things did not go completely smoothly, as Der Spiegel reports with this rather colloquial tweet. (I certainly don’t know what this means here in its entirety. Butterfahrt?)

Spiegel_fishy
Fass, or “barrel”: that’s what we see Hollande holding up there. It’s a barrel of herring, a proud local product, and the article tells us that everyone who visits Merkel there gets a barrel of fish: George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin (about whom Merkel and Hollande of course had quite a lot to say), everyone.

The thing is, for President Holland they probably should have made an exception and given him, say, a nice Mecklenberg-Vorpommern necktie or something. For those herring are Bismarck brand herring; and anyone who knows anything about 19th-century history knows that “Bismarck” is not a name likely to endear anyone who is French. Hollande gamely posed – as you can see there – but then, as the Spiegel reporter Alexander Demling notes, quickly passed the barrel off to an aide.

The Dutch are also particularly interested in herring matters, and De Volkskrant picked up this story as well:

VK_fishy
This piece raised the obvious question of why Merkel had not gone instead for Hollandse Nieuwe (“Holland’s New”) herring, fished out of the North Sea by the Dutch (starting right around this time of year, in fact), acknowledged to be the very-best (at least by the Dutch) – and also matching well with the French President’s own surname! I guess no one in the Bundeskanzlerin’s office thought of that – or else EU “nationality-blind” procurement regulations do not (yet) apply to the gifts heads-of-state/government give each other.

You would think Merkel would be too canny to allow such a slip-up, in a land where apparently one needs to use certain numbers very carefully to not be accused of being neo-Nazi (h/t Jonathan Turley). Still, if you examine closely the top photo in that Volkskrant article, what you see printed on the barrel itself is “RASMUS.” Could that be “Erasmus“? Now, there’s a scholarly figure out of European Renaissance-period history that neither Merkel nor Hollande should have a problem with!

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Dispatches from the Front (& Behind)

Posted on May 11th, 2014 by MAO

Yes, today was the day for that “referendum” in Eastern Ukraine, while towards the evening there was apparently some shooting incident involving a mob and some soldiers at a place called Krasnoarmiisk. No doubt we’ll all hear about that soon, but just as I write this Twitter is still trying to figure out exactly what went on there.

In the meantime a number of other interesting tweets have passed through the timeline. This from Danish Radio:

Lejesoldater
“German media: American mercenaries in Ukraine.”

We saw this at large scale in Iraq, namely US ex-military goons earning many multiples of their former soldier’s pay while basically doing the same thing – but with much looser rules about when they could fire their guns – out of uniform. It was Blackwater that was premier (although not alone) among companies that provided such services; those folks are clearly so ashamed of what they did there that they changed the company’s name to “Xe Services” in 2009 and then again to “Academi” in 2011! Oh yes, they’re in the higher education business now!

Rather, it’s “Academi” men, around 400 of them, who have been sighted now in Ukraine. That’s according to German sources, including Der Spiegel (in German). It’s said they are being paid by Ukrainian oligarchs (really the only ones around there who have the money); it’s further said that they are even now in support of Ukrainian units engaged against the rebellious town of Slovyansk.

Then there is this, from Die Welt:

T160
“Moscow’s vice-premier: Next time I’ll come with a Tu-160.” For your information, the Tupolev Tu-160 is Russia’s top-of-the-line strategic bomber.

What prompted this sort of outburst? It was emitted by Dimitri Rogozin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister and therefore clearly one of Vladimir Putin’s right-hand men. His mission last Friday, Great Motherland Victory Day, was to fly to Transnistria, the Russian-speaking break-away region of Moldova which is to the west of Ukraine, in fact to pick up a petition and deliver it back to Moscow. (There’s little doubt that the petition had to do with ethnic Russians there pleading for help from Mother Russia and so seeking to open a Ukrainian Western Front. Ever since the region split away from Moldova in 1990 there have been Russian soldiers in place to protect it, and they currently number 1,500.)

If you look at the map, you have to wonder how Rogozin even managed to fly into Tiraspol, that territory’s capital. It’s not really on the coast; you’d have to fly over Ukraine or Moldova or Romania, none of which would be likely to give permission.

Rogozin did make it, even as Romania explicitly denied overflight authorization. That’s what prompted him to tweet about coming back next time in a modern bomber. Nasty words, but check out the Romanian reaction, according to the reporter (no byline; credited to several news agencies):

The [Romanian] Foreign Ministry issued a reminder that Romania is a member of the EU and of NATO. It demanded from Moscow an explanation whether Rogozin’s statement was the official position of the Russian government[!]

Meanwhile, according to this same Die Welt piece, while Rogozin may have made it to Tiraspol, he was thwarted when it came to the Transnistrian petition – somehow the Moldovan authorities had gotten to it first. But how could they do that, without staging their own mini-invasion of Transnistria? The article doesn’t say.

Ah, here’s the explanation, in English, from Thomson Reuters where they report that Rogozin did wind up returning triumphally with the Transnistrian petition after all.

UPDATE: Conveniently, the NYT has come out with a timely reminder-piece about Blackwater in Iraq and what I meant by “much looser rules about when they could fire their guns” – they perpetrated the “My Lai Massacre of Iraq.”

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Feeling Shaky? Join the Euro!

Posted on May 11th, 2014 by MAO

A quick note here on the latest entry on The Economist’s “Eastern approaches” blog entitled “Poland’s foreign policy: A shaky compass.” (Subscription required – well, you do get to look at one article per month for free, make it this one!)

The point here is that Poland’s Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski sees his country’s swift adoption of the euro as a needed response to the turmoil to the East. From the article:

Ditching earlier concerns by former finance minister Jacek Rostowski, Mr Sikorski called for Poland to move rapidly to adopt the euro – the last core European institution to which Warsaw does not yet belong. “The decision about the eventual adoption of the common currency will not have just a financial and economic character, but rather it will be mainly political, dealing with our security,” said Mr Sikorski.

This view has yet to gain much traction. . . . Recent polls show about two-thirds of Poles opposed to joining the euro.

First let me note that Poland has a treaty obligation to join the euro, under terms of its 2004 accession to the European Union. But then let me add that this is an obligation to do so eventually, and that Poland will not be allowed in until its economy and the złoty pass a number of real-world tests – something over which any Polish government will naturally have a great degree of control.

But there is a larger point here, which is the strange continued attraction of the euro to certain (EU and non-EU) countries, even while other member-states regret it and some are indeed seriously suffering under it. That attraction is self-evident in the accession to the euro of Estonia in 2011 and Latvia just this past January 1. And now we have Poland – or at least that country’s Foreign Minister.

Can his assertion really be true that adoption of the euro will help strengthen Polish security? It really seems unlikely. Surely a more profound discussion is to be had concerning under what circumstances Eurozone membership really can benefit a country. It’s possible that such a discussion would sooner be characterized by many economists as a “reminder,” but surely things that we thought we knew along those lines need to be reassessed in light of the terrible track-record since the outbreak of the European sovereign debt crisis in 2009. And soon, please: Lithuania is all set to join its fellow Baltic states in the Eurozone as of January 1 of next year.

Meanwhile, beware of hysterical Polish political discourse. I don’t necessarily mean Mr. Sikorski’s assertions quoted above; I rather mean this from the end of that Economist piece: “[Polish Premier] Mr Tusk on Friday said that some members of the opposition, with their Eurosceptic views, posed a ‘mortal danger to Poland.'”

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Egyptian Leopard Reveals Spots

Posted on May 10th, 2014 by MAO

Our old friend ex-Field Marshal and current Egyptian presidential candidate Abdelfatah Al-Sisi just recently gave a very revealing television interview to leading Egyptian journalists. I found out via a mention on German radio, but it was hard then to find some corresponding printed article about it, whether in the German press or elsewhere. Ultimately it was the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that came through (where few others did), and my admiration for them extends to their revealing headline, Sisi warns about freedom of expression..

The piece states that the interview was in fact for a “private TV broadcaster” (what – closed-circuit TV or something?), and of course it was conducted in Arabic, so that helps explain why it almost slipped by European attention. No doubt the good ex-Field Marshal wishes that it had: I usually don’t like to include extensive quotations, but the two first paragraphs just state things so clearly.

The Egyptian presidential candidate Abdelfatah al-Sisi warned of the dangers of too much democratic freedom. In a talk with news-editors he called upon them not to insist too much on freedom of expression or other rights, for national security could thereby be put in danger. Egypt cannot be compared with stable Western lands, and a full democracy is an “idealistic” goal that possibly can be attained in 25 years, the former military chief said . . .

Sisi demanded that the approximately 20 editors of Egypt’s biggest newspapers not “scare” people or supply “skepticism.” The press should contribute to people getting behind the “strategic” aim of “protecting the Egyptian State,” he stipulated. According to his assertion, there should be “a balance between practice and freedom and national security.”

Well, there you have it! More dictatorial dumbing-down of discourse here, straight from before World War II, if not earlier. Don’t scare the people with your freedom of expression! Full democracy is still 25 years away!

Does that latter mean – something that has been cited before in an Arab electoral context – “one man, one vote, one time”? The article does acknowledge Sisi’s promise during the interview to step down if Egyptians ever rose up against him – oh sure, but the over 1,200 death sentences recently imposed on regime opponents would seem to argue against this. (Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi apparently made the same “I’ll step down” pledge when he was elected president.)

In light of that interview, it is refreshing to see the following from Al-Arabiya’s English twitter-feed:

Sisi
The linked article is of course also in English, and raises the question as to whether Egypt’s media landscape (or its population) is really as immature and in need of protection as the general asserts. It seems two Twitter parody accounts – one for Al-Sisi, the other purporting to represent his only rival in the presidential election, Hamdeen Sabahi – are going at each other with wild comic abandon. I’d love to give you a flavor of the repartee, but unfortunately they are in Arabic.

It is also interesting from the Al-Arabiya piece that the two parody accounts initially were @Alsisiiofficial and @HamdeenSabahi – too close to reality for someone, for they both quickly switched to the more truth-in-advertising handles @AlsisiParody and @HamdeenParody. Was that official pressure already? Whether it was or not, you know that Al-Sisi would shut them down – or at least the Al-Sisi parody account – immediately if he wasn’t in the middle of trying to fool all of the people all of the time in a presidential election campaign. You can be sure that, once he is elected, he’ll be in contact with the right officials at Twitter to do so.

The Al-Arabiya piece at least reports one recent tweet from the @AlsisiParody account in English (everything here is [sic]):

Those who will elect @HamdeenParody re-tweet this tweet…so I can jail you all once I become a president

Ain’t that the truth though?

UPDATE: The English site of Al-Arabiya has come through with an excellent piece about the interview(s) entitled Sisi’s electoral interviews: Was he a man or a marshal? The consensus among the interviewers – but not 100% – was “Yes, here we have someone just waiting to be a dictator.”

And let me give you the final paragraph:

This interview, and others to follow, will be the means by which Sisi’s program is made public, Mughazi [his campaign spokesman] added. “Sisi’s electoral program won’t be printed, but will reach the people through a series of interviews since interaction is always more effective,” he said. [Former president from the Muslim Brotherhood] Mursi “had a printed program that contained big dreams, none of which came true. Sisi, on the other hand, is a man of action.”

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Electoral Self-Absorption

Posted on May 9th, 2014 by MAO

Let me offer you a pair of neologisms, if I may, the first of which you see right here:

stemfie

That’s “stemfie,” a Dutch neologism constructed from a mix of stemmen (NL: to vote) and, of course, selfie, a word which now stretches far beyond just the English language and whose meaning I don’t have to tell you.

Now, about the second one. “Selfie” – such a childish-sounding word! Indeed, it basically describes a childish act, but I’d like to bring forward a replacement for it that describes even better what is going on: narcissie. That’s right, don’t call them “selfies,” call them “narcissies.”

I have no hope that this will ever actually catch on, but I am glad to offer it here just the same.

But back to the Dutch stemfie: A mini-craze arose at the time of the municipal elections last March 19 to photograph oneself with one’s ballot-paper, and indeed in this picture you see no less a personage doing that than Alexander Pechtold, leader of one of the main Dutch political parties, D66. Wait a second, objected the NGO whose name translates to “Platform for the Protection of Citizens’ Rights”: it’s never been allowed to make photographs within the voting-booth or of ballot-papers!

Well, now a panel of judges in The Hague has ruled that that is perfectly OK. That is actually the same thing as what the current Minister of the Interior (i.e. responsible for police and law-enforcement) was assuring everyone at the time of that election.

Which probably makes it opportune to remind ourselves why, under the “secret ballot,” it generally still is forbidden most other places to photograph inside the voting-booth. It’s all about some third party buying your vote, or otherwise forcing you to vote the way that this third party dictates: the “secret” in “secret ballot” means denying third parties any method to be able to verify that that vote has actually been carried out as they directed.

In the Netherlands that is again possible. Oh sure, people will claim that they are just having a laugh with that stemfie, but there will be no way to tell whether, in reality, they have been blackmailed or otherwise suborned to vote in a way that some other person wants them to. There has always been a reason, in other words, for that “No photographs!” prohibition; it’s unfortunate to see the Netherlands authorities throw that overboard in the cause of a passing fad.

Remember: “narcissie”! Far & wide may it spread, and you heard it hear first!

UPDATE: In today’s coverage of this matter on Flemish radio (VRT) they took pains to mention that the stemfie is certainly still illegal in Belgium.

LATER UPDATE: In the fast-moving world of social media, apparently yet another variant of “selfie” has come along: “belfie.” It means “butt selfie,” or “bum selfie” if you prefer.

But I’m cool with that, and can even offer my own recommended alternative designation: “rearcissie”!

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Dutch Scramble For Picketty

Posted on May 6th, 2014 by MAO

There’s just been an interesting entry on the nrc.nl>boeken blog which the leading Dutch quality newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, maintains over the subject of books.

Piketty_NL
Yes, this has to do with the French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century – not broadly noticed in his native France, but a run-away best-seller in the US and the UK, which is said to break new ground in the economic treatment of the causes of, and remedies to, societal inequality.

Especially in today’s book market, there’s nothing that excites publishers so much as what seems to be a sure-fire hit, certain money in the bank, so that NRC reporters Hanneke Chin-A-Fo and Toef Jaeger can write here about the unseemly scramble that broke out among Dutch-language publishing houses to gain exclusive rights to this work.

In the first round of bids to the French publisher Editions du Seuil the bidding went up to €40,000, an especially high amount for a non-fiction work. Yesterday the second round closed.

It turns out we have a winner! In an update to the post, the journalists reveal that the fairly prominent Amsterdam publishing house De Bezige Bij (yes, the name means “The Busy Bee”) has crowed in a tweet that it has gained the prize, although the winning price was not disclosed (only 140 characters, you know). They promise the Dutch version for January.

According to Chin-A-Fo and Jaeger there were further reasons to go hard for this work, in that not only is it likely to be assigned to be bought en masse by students in higher education, but it also promises to be a significant “prestige project” and so likely in the future to attract other star economists to want to publish in Dutch there.

Well, to the extent economists – or any other foreign non-fiction writer – want to publish in Dutch in the first place. In my view, for all the buzz that De Bezige Bij discerned around this book, I strongly suspect that they will soon be suffering from some buyer’s remorse. I mean, January 2015: Surely the sensation around this work will have died out by then!

In any case, the sort of educated Dutch (and Flemish) economists, and sundry other intellectuals, truly interested in reading this are certainly able, in the vast majority of cases, to read it just as well in the English version that is already out. (Which is said to currently be hard to get ahold of, admittedly – but surely way before January! Indeed, I’d venture that quite a few of these people could also read Piketty quite comfortably in the original French.)

Then there is also the evidence that led some observers to opine that people are mostly buying Piketty to display on their shelves rather than actually to read him. (Yes, he has a very readable style, peppered with references to popular literature and the like; but the book is also some 700 pages long.) Dutch readers probably are subject to the same temptation – but then surely that grandstanding function can be better fulfilled with the English version or, again, even better, the French!

In any case, the funny thing is that Dutch publishers had the chance to buy the rights way back last September, when the original French version came out. Cheeeeeeeeeeeep! No inequality on show there: they all passed.

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Cracking Down on Business-As-Usual

Posted on May 6th, 2014 by MAO

This came recently out of left field, or specifically from the Czech on-line news agency Aktuálně.cz. It might foreshadow something big; or it could mean nothing.

Egypt_podezira
“Egypt accuses Obama and European politicians of espionage. Investigation is said already to have begun.”

“Espionage”? How so? The piece continues:

. . . they are said to have commissioned agents to inform them on the political situation in Egypt ahead of the presidential election. The spies were supposedly to deliver information to secret services in Germany, USA [sic], Israel and Britain.

I can tell you already: these accusations are true! These “agents” have already been in place for a long time. For one thing, they can easily be found at any of the embassies of the countries named. Far from simply making available a local official country representative (“ambassador”) to call when needed, such diplomatic offices routinely see it as their additional mission to gather information about the host country for the benefit of their governments back home – and one would think that Egypt’s presidential election, due to be held on the 26th and 27th of this month, is naturally of prime interest. More »

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Putin: Banish Smurfs into Exile!

Posted on May 5th, 2014 by MAO

It’s the military clashes in eastern Ukraine that are deservedly getting all the media attention now, those between the Ukrainian “neo-fascist nazi’s” on the one hand and those pro-Russian “terrorists” on the other. But there is at the same time an undercurrent of reports about how Russian society itself has recently changed, and how it is changing as Vladimir Putin whips up war-fever to rally his citizens around his authoritarian rule.

It’s often very ugly, such as with the website that has been set up to list publicly the Russian Federations greatest “traitors” – check it out, the very URL (http://predatel.net) is the transliteration of the Russian word for “traitor” (предател). No surprise, at the top of the list you’ll find the anti-corruption blogger and Moscow mayor also-ran (but barely) Alexei Navalny, currently under house arrest and prohibited from communicating with anyone (including via Internet) other than his family.

But this can take a turn to the ludicrous as well:

Putin_noSmurfs
From the Czech Television website: “In the service of ideology. Putin wants to forbid the Smurfs.” (Šmouly – that’s “Smurfs” in Czech. I don’t know what their name is in Russian – reader tips are welcome! UPDATE: And they have arrived! It’s Смурфики.)

Of course, it’s not actually Putin himself. It’s rather the Russian Education Ministry which has proposed banning the Smurfs from Russian TV as “damaging to youth,” but Putin has given this his blessing. And that’s not all: other series such as South Park and the Simpsons are likely to be under similar review soon. More »

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Despotism That Can’t Laugh At Itself

Posted on May 2nd, 2014 by MAO

While writing that previous post on the refugee camp in Jordan for Syrian exiles, the thought suddenly occurred to me: “What ever happened to @Syrianpresident? I haven’t heard from that guy for a while!”

Now, by no means do I mean the real Syrian president, that former opthamologist turned child-torturer, inveterate public liar and chemical-weapons aficionado, Bashar Al-Assad – I wouldn’t be interested in communications coming from his office, on Twitter or otherwise. Rather, where was the parody account under that Twitter-handle that for quite a while after the Syrian rebellion broke out (caused, you’ll remember, by the police simply shooting down marching demonstrators) brilliantly skewered the murderous pretentions and absuridites of the ruling Syrian elite? Al-Assad’s current ludicrous scheme to run for re-election while otherwise busy with an ongoing project of having his own citizens butchered, up to 4 million of whom have therefore left the country, would alone provide endless material to work with.

It’s easy enough to enter into your browser http://twitter.com/Syrianpresident. Result: Account suspended.

I wish I could give you some screen-shots here of the excellent observations and wise-cracks whoever was behind that parody site produced, but I didn’t think to do that at the time. And now that is quite impossible, because once you get “Account suspended,” that’s it – down it goes down George Orwell’s classic memory-hole. The result of a decision from a private company, let it be noted – an arbitrary decision. More »

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Camp Shangri-La

Posted on May 1st, 2014 by MAO

The Syrian Civil War is now more than three years old, the death toll by now is surely over 150,000, while estimates of those who have fled the country run from two to four million out of a pre-war population of around 22 million. Worst of all, there is no end to the carnage (including most recently chlorine gas used in the barrel-bombs dropped by regime helicopters on defenseless cities) in sight.

How strange, then, to come across a Syria-related news article that is actually upbeat! This was in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen yesterday, and you can get some idea of its strangeness from the headline, Wifi and pita bars: In the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.

ZaatariThe Palestinians can surely claim seniority when it comes to such tent cities, but the dire current situation in their home country means Syrians win on volume: that largest refugee camp is at Al-Za’atari, in the Jordanian desert just 12km from the Syrian border – in fact from the border to the Deraa region which, like Leipzig in the old East Germany, like Gdańsk in Poland, and indeed like Boston in the United States, will be able to claim pride of place as the cradle of that country’s revolution, if that revolution ever succeeds.

This piece by Gidi Heesakkers* cites the Jordanian proverb that “only the devil lives in Za’atari,” only promptly to controvert that assertion as she writes about the two-day visit a certain Dutch photographer recently paid to that teeming encampment.

Refugee camps, those mean long lines, rice and tears? Seems not. In the largest refugee camp of the Middle East you can find a great pita bar. Photographer Henk Wildschut enjoyed a tasty sandwich there, in a shopping-street smelling of waterpipes, where shoes, festive dresses, lipstick and TVs were also for sale. The camp has Wifi and two supermarkets, with special sales, competitions and shelves full of cola.

Wild, eh? And you may well want to click through and take a look at the photos there (not all by Wildschut): the children look healthy, well-clothed, and reasonably cheerful; and the supermarket aisles look orderly and well-stocked indeed. Credit-card payment is even planned to be made possible – for those carrying them – in about a month. More »

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Gross Metamorphosis

Posted on April 30th, 2014 by MAO

Imagine being only 34 years old, yet hobnobbing with European heads-of-state, even with the American president, as an equal. This man lived that dream. (Even today he is only 44 years old – still looking pretty spry there, yes?)

SGross
That’s the “Grosse” (-> “Gross”) there, Stanislav Gross, premier of the Czech Republic for the ČSSD Social Democratic Party for roughly nine months from August 2004 to the end of April 2005. It’s remarkable to climb so high at such a young age, yet it was also reflective of Czech society at the time. First as Czechoslovakia, then as the Czech Republic, the country was suddenly thrust into the modern Western world with the “Velvet Revolution” of late 1989, and there immediately arose a sharp dichotomy between those coming to adulthood before and those after that turning-point. The former were largely considered much too tainted by forty years of Soviet-type attitudes – “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,” and the like; those of literary bent are referred here to the early works of Milan Kundera – to be much use in the new, real worlds of business and politics, so that the short history of the Czech Republic is already replete with many amazing tales of very young people with very great responsibilities. Stanislav Gross in 2004 was merely the tip of that pyramid. More »

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Conduct Unbecoming a Guest

Posted on April 29th, 2014 by MAO

The current sojourn by German President Joachim Gauck in Turkey has turned out to be far from your garden-variety Head-of-State visit (quite apart from the strange paranoia against mobile telephones exhibited by security services there that I tweeted about earlier). These sorts of occasions tend to be scheduled quite far in advance, but in this case you wonder just how far ahead – before the Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan started to see videos pop up on YouTube implicating him and those around him in corruption, before he started to get all sorts of nasty back-talk on Twitter, for example? Before he went so far as to ban – or to try to ban – both YouTube and Twitter in Turkey, for example?

Yes, before all those developments, you’d have to think. But the show must go on, and Gauck is a trooper for Germany. Let me hasten to add: not THAT kind of trooper for Germany, not at all, really rather a trooper for Truth and Justice. I am serious, he was a civil rights activitist in the former East Germany, which is one of the most unpleasant, pain-inducing job-descriptions you can come up with. But this also means that, although Gauck easily agreed to fulfill his previously-scheduled duty to visit Turkey, he did not intend to shut up about what he found there.

And so we have this:

Gauck in Turkey
“Erdogan rejects Gauck’s criticism.” Mind you, this is while Gauck is still in Turkey.
And the situation is rendered even more awkward by the fact that Prime Minister Erdogan is just one of a pair of Gauck’s official hosts for his visit, the other one of course being Turkish President Abdullah Gül, once almost as politically close to Erdogan as a brother, but now clearly worried about the anti-democratic direction his prime minister is taking the country. (And in addition, completely dismissive of Erdogan’s attempted Twitter-ban – an attitude he communicated via a tweet from his presidential account.) More »

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Ukraine Crisis: What a Gas!

Posted on April 28th, 2014 by MAO

There are some people – or institutions – that can’t help but look at the bright side of things. Over in Eastern Ukraine, seven European military officers working for the OSCE have just been put out for display at a press conference, unconvincingly insisting “We are not prisoners of war, we are guests of [Sloviansk] Mayor Ponomarev”; the Economist writes [subscription required] “Every day, incident by incident, the situation is deteriorating and moving towards major armed conflict of one form or another.”

Not to worry, though, at least if you read the Netherlands’ leading business newspaper Het Financiele Dagblad: The Ukraine crisis also has its winners. The lede:

The drift since the crisis in the Ukraine has been: Europe has to become less dependent on Russian gas. Who can profit from that?

Oh, a number of organizations can profit, and journalists Gijs den Brinker and Mathijs Schiffers have the run-down. More »

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Mirror-Imaging over Ukraine

Posted on April 26th, 2014 by MAO

Take a look at the latest word issuing from Voice of Russia, the international radio broadcasting “service,” and associated website, of the Russian government. Hubert Orzechowski of the Polish edition of Newsweek first picked this up.

NewsweekPolska
Translation: “Russian radio: Poles in Zhitomir want autonomy, and Warsaw pushes for the break-up of Ukraine.” Zhitomir is a province of Western Ukraine, with a lot of ethnic Poles in it (although, interestingly, it’s not one of the two Ukrainian provinces that actually abut Poland itself).

The lede (of the Voice of Russia article he cites):

Ethnic Poles living in Ukraine demand a referendum in the Zhitomir Region to create a Polish autonomy with broad self-governance rights. They also insist that the Polish language be granted the official status along with the Ukrainian language.

As I say, it’s the Polish Newsweek that points this out but, fortunately for us all, the article where Voice of Russia lays out this case of Polish agitation in Western Ukraine was published in the English-language section of their site (from where I took that above lede), so you can click that link to read it all, in English which is often less-than-perfect but still quite understandable.*

Just be aware that it’s all a crock. That’s the point of Orzechowski’s Newsweek piece. Yes, parts of Western Ukraine are what used to be Poland, before World War II; yes, there was considerable tension between Poles and Ukrainians over those lands – even leading to infamous massacres – in the 1930s and 40s. But for Poland a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that era, a lot of changes-of-regime, plenty of time for a change of attitude. Further, there has been no indication of this sort of alleged unrest among ethnic Polish citizens of Ukraine other than that cited in Voice of Russia’s fevered imaginings.

These days the Polish government acknowledges its special relationship with Ukraine in more positive ways, such as actively supporting its eventual EU membership, as well as having taken the lead (along with Germany, in fact) in EU diplomacy towards Ukraine and Russia back when the Maidan Square crisis was at its height the first couple months of this year. This leading Polish role is not so much the case anymore, probably because NATO is becoming a more important forum for Europe to confront these increasingly alarming developments to the East.

So the propaganda purpose of this sort of article is self-evident. As Orzechowski says at the end of his own commentary, “you can’t help feeling that this description fits perfectly yet another neighbor of Kiev’s”; one doesn’t know whether to mock Voice of Russia for its lack of imagination, or to admire it for its audacity, in trying to project onto Poland the very same irredentist trick its sponsor government is itself trying to pull in Eastern Ukraine.

* But do let me give credit to Voice of Russia’s English-language writers where it is due: they actually nail the subjunctive there (“. . . insist that the Polish language be granted . . .”), something far beyond, say, at least 75% of English native speakers.

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