Supermarket for Human Rights

Posted on October 11th, 2014 by MAO

The German government has lately been on a charm offensive towards the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, is today finishing a visit to Berlin which, as is pointed out in this piece in Die Welt by reporters Robin Alexander and Daniel-Dylan Böhmer, marks no less than the fourth time Chancellor Merkel has met with high-level Chinese officials this year.

LiInBerlin
“Merkel, China’s Minister-President and the Supermarket”: the notable bit of this get-together thrown out for appreciation by the public is the joint visit to a local Berlin supermarket made by Chancellor Merkel and her guest Li just yesterday (Friday) afternoon. You can see a photo of both of them at the check-out at the head of the article: Li is pointing at Merkel’s hand as she gathers her purchases there, having paid cash. (Good move: paying with any sort of card would naturally leave readers wondering who it is who provides the stock of money standing behind it.) At first glance, the absence of any sort of Secret Service-like figures is notable, although they must be those suited gentlemen – without sunglasses or earpieces – with their backs to the camera just behind the cigarette rack. And where is Li’s interpreter? I don’t think he is very fluent in English, let alone German.

All in all, a jolly, down-home moment. Meanwhile, you can be sure that other members of the visiting Chinese delegation were hard at work with their German counterparts in near-by government buildings, working out what are said to be no less than forty business/economic agreements that are the true purpose of this summit, including contracts worth billions of euros. What is more, it is sure to be full cabinet members that fill out much of the rest of that Chinese delegation: Merkel has taken a liking to staging cabinet-meets-cabinet get-togethers with neighboring countries (indeed, I recall one such with the Dutch cabinet earlier this year – not in Berlin, but over in northwestern Germany, close to the Dutch border) and clearly decided on the same format for meeting the Asian economic superpower.

Er . . . Human Rights?

That’s fine, but with China you get more baggage into the bargain – particularly now that Hong Kong demonstrators are still flooding the streets there demanding a democracy worthy of the name. Of course, Germany does have a robust free press, so that Premier Li at some point found himself  directly confronted by the question why citizens in Hong Kong should not be able to truly pick their own political representatives. As reported here, he looked impatiently at his watch as the query was translated for him, only to reply that that was a matter of “internal Chinese politics” only.

There was another question in that same vein, about local employees at the Chinese bureau of the renowned German newspaper Die Zeit who were recently arrested. This one Li ignored entirely. Merkel herself had called these Die Zeit incidents “news that really makes you think” (durchaus bedenkliche Nachricht) on an earlier occasion; it’s not clear from the article whether this interrogation of Premier Li happened in her presence. Alexander & Böhmer’s piece does point out that, at the joint news conference, the German authorities resisted Chinese pressure to disallow any questions, such as those above, which might be too awkward for the honored guest to handle. Other countries that top Chinese officials visit, it is said here, often cannot bring themselves to do so.

In the end, German President Joachim Gauck – famous for his past as a prominent East German dissident – was brought in to play “bad cop” to Merkel’s “good cop” and reproach Li for China’s human rights record at a one-on-one meeting. At least that session was scheduled at the very beginning of the two-day conference, and it did last about an hour. But economic times are hard in Europe, including – for an unwelcome change – in Germany; the worry has to arise that German interest in doing business with China will soon trump any influence that country could wield on the human rights situation there, if it has not done so already.

I think we can safely predict that 2014 will not see any fifth meeting between Chancellor Merkel and high Chinese officials, though. For this  year marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the self-liberation of most of Eastern Europe from decades of Communist dictatorship. Meeting the Chinese against that backdrop would just be too awkward, no matter what new profits any such meeting could promise. Better to get the year’s remaining Chinese business done, cabinet-to-cabinet, by early October.

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Dying Eyes on the Prize

Posted on October 7th, 2014 by MAO

It’s that time of year again, so that this week the world awaits the series of announcements about those famous Scandinavian awards that people in various fields of the arts and sciences are just dying to win: the Nobels.

Except wait: scientists, writers, economists, etc. are in fact not dying to win their respective Nobel prizes (as they are doing, for example, to be buried in a certain renowned or favorite cemetery) since it’s in the rules that they can only be awarded to living people! That stipulation, however, as we read in this piece from Belgium’s La Libre Belgique, is increasingly causing problems.

NobelExige
“The Nobel requires patience, perhaps too much.” Put plainly (and alliteratively), the perceived problem is that too many who deserve the prize are dying before they can be awarded it. It’s hardly a new concern: perhaps the most famous case was that of Leo Tolstoy, acclaimed as one of the world’s best novelists of all time, including during his own lifetime, who nonetheless never was recognized by the Nobel committee by the time he died in 1910.

Then again, that was the Literature Prize (first awarded, along with most of the others, in 1901), for which the relevant authorities have wielded through the years rather unfathomable selection criteria that, if anything, seem to have most to do with spreading that prize most broadly around the world – after Scandinavian writers are first covered most generously – rather than with more reasonable considerations such as general literary acclaim (example: Philip Roth). With the Nobel prizes for the sciences one might assume a more straightforward process. More »

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Take 2 Rocket-Launchers, Call In AM

Posted on September 28th, 2014 by MAO

“Something a bit like the flu” – does that phrase sum up for you the recent geopolitical struggle over the Eastern Ukraine? No? It doesn’t cut it for Polskie Radio, the Polish State radio & TV broadcaster, either.

PrezCzech
Translation: “Czech President is for lifting sanctions on Russia. He appeared at a conference organized by a colleague of Putin.”

That first individual mentioned would be President Miloš Zeman, the second is Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian railways. We all know that you don’t get that sort of high-profile executive job at a State agency in Russia without Vladimir Putin’s personal approval; in fact, Yakunin is originally from Leningrad, like the Russian dictator, and is a close neighbor at a restricted zone of country dachas fronting an idyllic lake just to the North of the city.

He is also President of something called “World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations,” which provided the occasion – on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, no less – for President Zeman’s disparaging remarks about the Ukraine confrontation. Zeman knew very well who was behind the conference, this article reports, as they happen yearly and he has attended them regularly – just not before as Czech President. What’s more, he delivered his remarks there in Russian. (But he is old-school enough to come from that period in Czechoslovak history when you had to learn Russian to get ahead.)

The Poles have quite a different evaluation of the situation in Ukraine; you can be sure that they are not pleased with this official Czech line, nor with Miloš Zeman’s choice of associates.

Swing Your Partner – If He’s There

In related news from Polskie Radio, Ukraine President Poroshenko recently announced an initial slate of 60 reforms to his country’s laws and legal practices designed to make it ready to become an EU member-state by the year 2020. “Without reform,” he declared, “we have only one road – to Russia.”

That’s very fine – and, Lord knows, the way business and government is run in the Ukraine is badly in need of such reform – but joining a club also depends on the willingness of that club to accept one as a new member. Is Poroshenko quite sure that the EU will be ready to admit the Ukraine in 2020, or ever? Has the EU offered the Ukraine any concrete indications or guidance on the question? (The European body-politic it purports to represent would surely like to know! There does exist an entire EU Commission DG/body of bureaucrats, named “Enlargement,” that is supposed to be on top of such matters.)

Or, having learned nothing from its 27-year-long Turkish tease (applied for full EU membership in 1987; still has no chance in Hell of getting it), is the EU about to embark upon another awkward, ultimately fruitless accession lap-dance with a geopolitically crucial country?

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MEPs Infiltrated by the KGB?

Posted on September 26th, 2014 by MAO

Boris Kálnoky, a Hungarian foreign correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, has quite a scoop today. So he’s been tweeting up a storm to make sure the world knows about it – also in English:

Kovacs
The Die Welt article in question is of course in German. (As usual, you can feed it through Google Translate for what good that will do.) So what’s this all about?

It’s all about some dogged investigation that has been undertaken, not by Mr. Kálnoky himself, but by another Hungarian journalist called Dezső András. At the center is Béla Kovács, a founder of the rabid anti-foreigner, anti-EU, right-wing Hungarian political party Jobbik and also a Member of the European Parliament. The accusation is that Kovács is a spy working for the Russians, that he has been that for quite some time.

Apparently there were suspicions that Kovács was a spy even in the period leading up to last May’s MEP elections; already there were calls then for the European Parliament to lift his immunity to prosecution as an MEP. But nothing yet was crystal-clear; so Mr. András did some more investigation. Now he has put his findings on-line (although in Hungarian; odds are very good this won’t be allowed to stay on the Net for long), and has even been able to confront Kovács with them.

The substance of those findings are a bit messy, occasionally seamy. What they amount to was that Kovács was a child given away for adoption while an infant, but whose father was likely Russian; that while living in Tokyo as a young man (his step-parents were minor staff there) he met and married a Russian lady who definitely was and continued to be a KGB agent (and who somehow managed to marry at least other two men while never divorcing Kovács); and that, when he started working back in Hungary to help found Jobbik starting in 2006, Kovács never lacked for money to accomplish whatever was needed. In explanation he claimed he had founded and run successful businesses in Japan and while studying in Moscow; no evidence of these exists.

It’s all rather good raw material for someone like John Le Carré to get to work on, and of course Kovács has denied everything. (Who knows? Maybe he really was not aware of some of the deeper secrets of his past, of his ancestry.) But it also has several severe implications arising from the facts that 1) Kovács was instrumental in setting up Jobbik, and 2) He is now trying to become a big cheese at the European Parliament by pushing the “Alliance of European National Movements” of which he is Chairman, which is a would-be faction of right-wing parties (recently abandoned by Marine Le Pen’s FN as too radical!) but which is as yet too small to be formally recognized as such by the European Parliament and thus to receive subsidies from the EU budget.

The clear question: Is Kovács just a Kremlin tool, being used first to up-end Hungarian and now European politics? As Mr. Kálnoky puts it: “Does Russia now use the European Right for its purposes, as it once did the Left?”

The Hungarian authorities are by now interested themselves in looking further into the matter of Kovács’s history and motivations. But he still holds MEP immunity.

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Next in the Intimidation Line

Posted on September 26th, 2014 by MAO

New bad news for the Ukraine:

Hunguk
“Hungary stops gas deliveries to Ukraine.” Would that have something to do with the visit by Gazprom chief Alexei Miller to Budapest on Monday of this week to speak with Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán?

Not if you ask the Hungarians. From the lede:

According to the government in Budapest and the State company responsible for the pipelines, FGSZ, the step was taken due to the rise in domestic demand for gas. Satisfying Hungarian demand has priority.

Yeah, right. Like the rest of us Europeans, Hungary has been enjoying the usual global warming-induced prolonged summer September weather, with temperatures dipping below 15ºC (59ºF) only at night. Demand for gas there – for heating – is due to rise maybe end November, beginning December, and not particularly now.

The real story here can be clearly seen from a couple weeks ago, when Gazprom similarly forced Poland to stop the “reverse supplies” of natural gas it was providing to the Ukraine by threatening to cut off the Poles’ supply they were diverting from. It’s just that the latter were willing to be rather more straightforward about what was happening than the Hungarians. Indeed, this Telegraaf piece speaks of a €10 billion Russian loan Orbán’s government is hoping to gain. How is such a thing even possible after the EU has collectively imposed repeated waves of sanctions – including of the financial kind – on Russia?

I’d like to derive two remarks from this data-point, which we can call “Major” and “Minor”:

  • Major: Putin really likes throwing Russia’s geopolitical weight around using the threat of energy cut-offs. I believe I read somewhere that the dissertation he wrote for whatever higher academic degree it was that he earned back in his KGB schooldays had precisely to do with that subject.The prevailing wisdom seems to be that, while the Ukraine has of course already been shoved out into the cold (literally) for the coming winter when it comes to Russian natural gas, Putin would not dare to do that to the rest of the EU because of the revenue loss that would entail. Then again, he seemed indifferent enough to the food-price inflation the Russian people have had to suffer resulting from his embargo on EU agricultural imports. Make no mistake: this coming winter is when the EU will be confronted in the bleakest and most direct way possible with the problem of how to do without Russian energy supplies.
  • Minor: Notice here as well the common thread of the involvement of Gazprom, which is supposed to be a private company. Well, at least it is a private company to the likes of FIFA, which allows it to pay the mega-price to be one of the commercial sponsors of the Champions League. (It is also the shirt-sponsor of the famous German football club Schalke 04.) Inevitably, those watching Champions League games at home have to put up with repeated commercials extolling Gazprom as a reliable energy-provider; if you watch closely, you’ll even notice how the characteristic Champions League graphic used when heading into and out of commercial breaks, in which spotlights come on in turn around a circular stadium, precisely recalls the pattern of gas-jets lighting up on a stove! How many of those looking on for the football actually realize that Gazprom will be glad to let them freeze next winter, if only Putin gives the order?
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Alibaba Not Skidproof

Posted on September 22nd, 2014 by MAO

One of the many harmless on-line diversions for those of a linguistic bent is “Chinglish”: those comic failures by the Chinese when it comes to properly translating English phrases. The subject is a sure-fire winner for newspaper Travel Section editors looking to fill some space. Here’s one example of a treatment by England’s Daily Mail, featuring photos of signs found in China printed with things like “Don’t Forget To Carry Your Thing” (a reminder not to leave one’s personal possessions on the train), “Advert Skidproof” (difficult: must be a warning about slippery conditions) and “When old man’s child go up hand ladder temporary need the family to accompany” (i.e. children must be accompanied on the escalator).

Amusing, but all this just comes from provincial officials too cheap to afford a proper translator, right? Maybe not.

Wegwerf
That’s a tweet referring to an article in the German paper Handelsblatt by reporter Anis Micijevic about how the German-language version of the Alibaba website is supposedly rife with whatever you might like to call the German counterpart to “Chinglish.”

This is where things aren’t quite as funny. As the article’s lede puts it:

With its record-IPO the Chinese on-line business Alibaba ensured worldwide attention. Still, the German version of the site was apparently chased through Google Translate. Much silly nonsense ensued.

The piece headlines with an eBay-style entry for Neues populäres Wegwerfbaby (minimum required order: 10,000 pieces) – that means “new popular disposable baby,” even as it apparently is trying to sell baby-wipes. Elsewhere you can encounter an offer of “body parts” for your shower, and other absurdities. Indeed, Micijevic claims that “[m]ost of the German product-descriptions are linguistically wrong and raise more questions than they answer.”

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But Will He Give Russia Any Stick?

Posted on September 20th, 2014 by MAO

I managed to catch a short but significant piece in today’s on-line Telegraaf which that Dutch tabloid paper did not even tweet (I did check): Russia still welcome at G20 Summit. That’s the one scheduled for Brisbane, Australia in November, and the Australian Minister of Finance was captured on-the-record as declaring that the Russian delegation – presumably headed by Vladimir Putin himself: this is after all a summit – is certainly still invited, despite the rather extensive bout of recent unpleasantness involving Russia about which I don’t have to go into detail here.

This raises the obvious question: Who decides these things? Note that I lay aside here the issue of whether a government’s Finance Minister should have any say on foreign policy matters of this kind. Rather, let’s focus on Australia: just because they are hosting that summit, does that mean they decide who can and cannot attend? Isn’t there rather a G20 secretariat somewhere through which a country can be banned by the other members if it misbehaves too egregiously? After all, Russia is certainly not welcome any longer to join G7 summits to make them into G8.

But now a confession: What really caught my eye about this piece was the name of that Australian Minister of Finance: Joe Hockey! Isn’t that great? I have a great affinity for short, punchy, Anglo-Saxon names in the first place; previously Jack Straw (a Labour politician, former Cabinet member including as Foreign Secretary) was my favorite, but now Mr. Hockey certainly has that particular competition iced!

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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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