Archive for August, 2019

When In Rome… Some Littering Tips

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Rome is a strange place. Yeah, OK, there’s the 2,000+ years’ worth of architecture and memorials that have made it a perennial tourist “must-see” since the 18th-century days of the Grand Tour for sons of the English aristocracy. Yet that same Rome has now caught the “we hate tourists” fever, introducing new, tourist-unfriendly statutes which seem to cast the city’s storied history as a film-set into oblivion: NO more sitting on the Spanish steps as Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck did together in “Roman Holiday” (1953; that’ll be up to a €400 fine); NO more jumping into the Trevi Fountain as Anita Ekberg did in “La Dolce Vita” (1960; that could cost you up to €450).

(BTW I also note how in the same NYT piece it reports “Penalties for graffiti were toughened.” Quite right: No more graffiti scrawled after, say, 1400 CE, should be acceptable.)

The Rome authorities obviously think they can take up this martinet attitude because people will never stop wanting to come visit their city. But nowadays they really test visitors’ patience further with their manifest incompetence in running the city. Namely: garbage everywhere: “Landfills in flames and rats feasting on waste in the streets,” apparently caused (in part) by a NIMBY attitude towards waste incinerators. (The buses there also occasionally spontaneously burst into flame – another token of municipal incompetence.)

For those of the famously clean, Puritan districts of the Netherlands, all that could be enough just to stay home. After all, at least there they have their trash under control. But do they?

They do not, as Volkskrant columnist Harriët Duurvoort advises us in a recent column. Certainly not in Rotterdam – and she lives there. She can see the trash pile up excessively in the kliko’s – the dumpsters – right outside her front door. She has the buiten-beter app (“better outside”) provided by the city for complaining about trash, has likely signed her own name to the Vuilnisbelt Rotterdam (“Rotterdam’s a dump”) petition that is going around – but she has drawn the line at the city’s offer to have her “adopt” a dumpster:

To assist you in keeping the area around the container clean, you receive gratis a key for opening the container from the side to deal with any blockages, a stick, work-gloves and a broom for sweeping up garbage next to the container.

She also knows about Bert Wijbenga, the city councilor from the business-friendly VVD party, responsible for outside areas, who has opined “collecting trash less often doesn’t have to be disadvantageous” and who wants to save €17 million yearly from the city budget that way. But he still has enough budget for “flying squads” charged with catching people in the act of dumping excessive trash in, around or completely away from those dumpsters.

Also Pretty Trashy Elsewhere

Finally, she’s also well-aware that the problem is not confined to Rotterdam (the trick is Googling the phrase zooi naast kliko’s: “trash next to dumpsters”). She’s right about that. Amsterdam doesn’t have a particular phobia hosting incinerators, but the problem is that the ovens run by Afval Energie Bedrijf Amsterdam (AEB – wholly owned by the city of Amsterdam) recently had to shut down due to “serious technical problems.” That’s affecting not only Amsterdam but a host of neighboring cities and towns who also relied on being able to send AEB their trash.

What’s more, other countries relied on the same – mainly the UK. Yes, the Netherlands once had its garbage-act so together that it could handle disposing of the stuff from outside its own borders (for money, of course)! But no more: the authorities are now scrambling to cancel the contracts obliging them to do that. (Note that this has nothing to do with Brexit!) And the trash piles up alarmingly, everywhere. (If not as egregiously in Rome – yet!)

So maybe Netherlanders might as well head to the Eternal City after all? The food is much better there, for one thing; and just as is apparently true back home, when they’re through with their take-out margherita pizza they can simply drop the box and any uneaten remains pretty much where they like!

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Croatian State Sneaker Pimps

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

One winning concept emerging out of all the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and following was privatization. More than forty years of Communism had demonstrated how state-owned businesses meant low productivity, low quality, and basically “selling” output only to “customers” who had nowhere else to turn. A key task for each post-revolutionary government – Russia’s as well – was getting state economic assets back into private hands, subject to private-sector incentives, as soon as possible.

At least one state company fell through the cracks, however – and it is doing rather well, thank you! Recently one of the three national German radio stations, Deutschlandfunk, in the form of its excellent week-daily morning program Europa heute (“Europe Today”), devoted a week’s series of programs to Slavonia, which is basically that third-part of Croatia situated farthest away from the coastline. There on its eastern border (which happens to be the Danube; Serbia starts on the other river-bank) is located the Borovo shoe-factory complex, now fully in the hands of the Croatian State after a colorful and turbulent history.

The Borovo factory grounds today

Things looked promising way back at the start of that history, in 1932, for the factory installations were an extension of Bat’a Shoes, the company out of Zlín, Czechoslovakia, that had pioneered in developing shoe-manufacturing equipment and would go on to conquer markets in Europe and much of the rest of the world before World War II called a halt. There was no production during the war, indeed the facilities suffered damage, but then the Yugoslav state took them as its own, dusted them off a bit, incorporated them in a socialist-style “Kombinat” organization and labeled the products made there with the “Borovo” name. Thereafter, if you were a Yugoslav, that was likely where your shoes ultimately came from, including soldiers’ military boots. (In fact, vehicle-tires and machine-parts were also fabricated there at the time.)

Production also took a break – and there was again damage – during the civil wars that broke up former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The Borovo facility ended up in what turned out to be Croatian territory. From the visit Deutschlandfunk reporter Grit Eggerichs paid there, it seems little was ever done about that latest bout of military damage: many of the buildings on the premises still sit abandoned, with open holes where windows are supposed to be, foliage growing from the roofs and birds and animals wandering freely in and out.

Pare Down to Success!

But those buildings are simply unneeded, as the shoe-works have shrunk considerably from what they once were: around 600 work there now, when it was once it was 23,000. (They’re still not paid so well: Eggerichs’ report speaks of one master-sewer – female – who has worked there since 1982 and still earns only the equivalent of €400 per month.) Rest assured, though, there are no more tires manufactured, and in fact the company has narrowed down the range of shoes that it makes.

In particular, these days it is known for the stylish canvas sneakers (Completely “vegan”! No animal products used! Woke, man!) that it sells under the “Startas” brand (which itself traces back to Yugoslav times). Slate has called Borovo “Croatia’s hippest shoe company”; there’s an e-commerce site (“original non-aligned sneakers”) where you can order a pair of your own, as well as an Instagram account; and, in what is taken by the underpaid Borovo employees as a totemic cultural achievement, their pink-with-white-unicorns Startas sneakers were once featured in Vogue (scroll way down).

Buy a pair for the little girl in your life!

Things are going well for the company, then (although they could pay people better). Meanwhile, it is fighting against the very “finders-keepers” principle that made it Croatian in the first place by bringing lawsuits to try to regain ownership of the former Borovo sales outlets scattered throughout the other states that once collectively made up Yugoslavia. (So far only the Serbs are being recalcitrant about giving them back.) It seems state ownership does not preclude devoted experts putting out a good, stylish product – who knew?

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When Will Salvini Be Found Out?

Monday, August 12th, 2019

The Italian government is in crisis. Yes: again. Fresh from his role as beach-bum politico, the head of the Lega and most dominant member of the current ruling coalition by far, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has entered a motion of no-confidence in the current government. The pretext is the diametrically opposing positions of the ruling parties (the Lega and the 5 Star Movement, Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S) on the project to build a high-speed rail line between Lyon and Torino. But the real reason is likely to be last May’s European Parliament election: compared to the Lega attracting around 17% of the votes and the M5S in the low-thirties in the last general election in March 2018, those percentages were flipped around in the polling for Italian MEPs.

Some have called the Lega/M5S coalition ultimately resulting from March 2018 “Frankenstein” in that the partners were ill-suited to each other in multiple respects, and now it seems Salvini has decided this is his chance to blow it up and seize greater power – the Prime Minister’s position! – for himself. Never mind the video compilation the La Repubblica newspaper compiled of all the times Salvini had promised publicly that this marriage … er sorry, that the coalition government would last the entire five-year period before a general election would be required again.

Now, Salvini’s timing is slightly off, for as he well knows this is peak vacation-week in the Italian calendar (Ferragosto! – something about the Virgin Mary), so nobody who can afford it is at their usual job. Surely Salvini himself remains at the shore, among his bikini-clad constituency, and more power to him for that (which I mean only figuratively). What’s more, those in charge of the two houses of the Italian Parliament have made it clear there will be no accelerated procedure or other special treatment afforded for his motion to intrude on those bodies’ set calendar of business (although M5S head Luigi Di Maio is calling together members of his party so they can decide how to respond).

May I suggest the following item for their agenda?

OK, it may seem to be just about “flight records.” Actually, BuzzFeed first issued its report (“The Explosive Secret Recording That Shows How Russia Tried To Funnel Millions To The ‘European Trump'”!) a month ago; this new piece about “flight records” merely adds some detail, you could really rather interpret it as just a timely reminder, to sustain public interest in their allegations.

(more…)
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Corrupt Czech Wine in New Bottles

Friday, August 9th, 2019

It’s a momentous year, precisely thirty since 1989 defined a new era of European history with all the revolutions in the East overthrowing Soviet Russian hegemony and – as we’ve already seen here – this weblog will have no hesitation in picking up that theme.

Apparently this is also true of the Občanská demokratická strana (ODS), the Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, which recently announced its own public campaign (hashtag #30LetSvobody, “30 years of freedom”) to remind the public of the momentous happenings back then. That’s because, according to them, this eagerness to engage with 1989 is not shared by the present government. So far (and there are only three months to go) it has budgeted only Kč55 million (= €2.16 million) for a handful of events, such as exhibitions at the National Theater, and something called “Velvet Simulation” which will take place at the National Museum’s new next-door building (formerly the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament building; formerly the HQ of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).

This accusation of relative neglect towards commemorating 1989 seems credible enough, but anyone can see that the ODS’ ulterior motive is a political one. The current Babiš government is a minority regime in the first place, and now under considerable fire (including facing mass demonstrations demanding that it resign), so new elections are always a near-term possibility. And the ODS, you see, was one of the very earliest proper political parties to emerge on the Czech(oslovak) political scene back when that emerged from the chaos and euphoria of the so-called Velvet Revolution.

So at the announcement of their #30LetSvobody initiative the ODS wisely led with a renowned pre-1989 dissident (there weren’t too many of those; and there aren’t very many left) still within its ranks, namely Aleksandr Vondra: right-hand man to Václav Havel, ambassador to the US, etc. “Svoboda dnes dostává na frak” he declared (“Today freedom is really taking it on the nose”), “we’re governed by a former StB official [StB = Communist secret police; that’s PM Babiš] and his press.”

Vondra was followed by Pavel Žáček, not any dissident (he was only 20 years old in 1989) but subsequently Director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and now a member for the ODS of the Czech Parliament’s lower house. He was followed in turn by current ODS Chairman Petr Fiala, who said uplifting things about “Democracy and freedom, a return to the West and Capitalism, these are the values we want to defend.”

Nice, but by the time they got to Fiala the dissident magic was long gone. Most knowledgeable observers would agree with Vondra’s complaint about having a former secret police collaborator as head of government and about a national press divvied up between hostile camps of billionaire native oligarchs. How could it have come to this – as well as other, related corruptions of Czech society – over thirty years when 1989 offered in its immediate aftermath a clean slate for starting again combined with so much idealism and enthusiasm?

That’s a deep and very interesting question; I’m fully confident books will be written trying to answer it, and I’ll be on the look-out for them (even if, as likely, they’re written in Czech). But it’s at least clear that the ODS had much to do with that. They were in control of the government through much of the 1990s, led by Václav Klaus with his Thatcherite right-wing ideas about letting free markets work, keeping the government off to the sidelines. Who knows? Maybe that approach was precisely what nascent Czechoslovakia (then, from January, 1993, the Czech Republic) needed at the time; maybe Klaus’ scheme of “voucher privatization” (every citizen received a voucher representing share-ownership in government-owned firms; most promptly sold theirs off to businessmen who had at least a faint idea of what they might do with them) was a reasonable way to return the state-owned enterprises that made up just about all of the economy into the hands of the people.

ODS Is Guilty (ČSSD Too)

What’s also true is that the ODS did much to initiate the strong streak of corruption that plagues the country today. It wasn’t so much the violations of party-funding rules that led Klaus to resign the premiership in 1997 (he would later serve as President from 2003 to 2013); rather, under the ODS “hands off” government clever Czechs discovered the exciting new business game of “tunneling,” meaning sucking the value out of the company you were responsible for like a leech, by means of diverting money and assets into your personal accounts while fattening up the firm further by taking up loans you know it will never be able to pay back.

Many used those dubious means to get rich, and many of those remain rich today and have in the meantime taken ownership of media properties for whitewashing their histories and defending their reputations. For a good play-by-play of that ongoing process you’re referred to the Fleet Sheet’s Final Word e-newsletter, to which you can subscribe for free.

By the way, the ODS naturally did not rule through the 1990s unopposed – which was the other prominent party to emerge from the post-Revolution turmoil? Those were the socialists of the ČSSD and yes, they took over the government from ODS in 1998. (Actually, with the active assistance of the ODS – but never mind, the details are complicated.) Boy, was that group tarred with the brush of corruption, even more than the ODS! Their particular brand tended instead towards things like crooked sell-offs of government properties and corrupt processes for public procurement.

Both ČSSD and ODS are still present in Parliament. The ČSSD in fact is they key prop currently keeping Babiš’ government in power, but one has to think they would never be so brazen as to try to shore themselves up politically by reminding people of their history back to the Velvet Revolution (and beyond): the laughter would be deafening. The ODS has little more basis for doing the same, although they are giving it a try.

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This Little Piggie Won’t Blow

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

It was just a pink stuffed toy, a little piggie – ahhhh, cute! – found lying on the sidewalk in a side-street of the tony Ixelles/Elsene district of Brussels.

Problem: There seemed to be some sort of electrical wire around its neck. People walking past didn’t like that aspect very much. One way or another, word got out to the police.

As this piece puts it, they “took the for-sure over the unsure,” closed that side-street, the Rue Souveraine – and called in the SEDEE: the Service d’Enlèvement et de Destruction d’Engins Explosifs,” that is, the Belgian Army’s bomb-squad.

Nope, turned out it was no bomb. But this is 2019.

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Coming of Age in the DDR

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Wächst jetzt zusammen, was zusammengehört? For that was the great promise in the euphoria around the Fall of the Wall and German Reunification, almost thirty years ago: although by then very different from each other, ultimately the former West and East Germanies “belonged” together and would “grow together.”

Has that happened? That is the central question behind a new article-series from Der Spiegel entitled Wir seit ’89: literally “We since ’89.” Already a number of interesting pieces are out – you can survey them here, of course they’re all in German – but one in particular from today informed me about something I had not known about previously: the Jugendweihe.

That was the coming-of-age ceremony, for 14-year-olds, that was prevalent during the East German Communist regime: a formal, festive occasion for the young ones to get all dressed up in suits and dresses and collectively appear on a stage, in front of doting parents and relatives in the audience, to receive the traditional gifts: a certificate, flowers, and a book.

Of course, that was hardly all that there was to that. For one thing, that wasn’t any ol’ book, but rather (at least during the DDR’s later stages) Vom Sinn Unseres Lebens, or “On the Meaning of Our Lives”; you can be quite sure that “Meaning” had only to do with “defending Socialism and the International Working Class” and that sort of thing. Just to make sure that point didn’t get lost, the heart of the Jugendweihe ceremony had the celebrants repeatedly affirm publicly (“Yes, we pledge this!”) a four-part oath consisting of those and related elements: “I pledge to deepen further our solid friendship with the Soviet Union,” “to fight for the People’s happiness,” etc. If you didn’t participate in your scheduled Jugendweihe that would be a black mark on your records that would restrict the further opportunities the regime offered to you; yet in order to be allowed to do so, you had to attend a string of “ideology classes” which featured visits to instructional places: to factories, to museums, even to a former Nazi concentration camp, if not too far away, to contemplate Fascism.

Clearly then, for the young people the Jugendweihe was a chance to dress up, have one’s impending adulthood acknowledged, and even get some free stuff. (It also marked the point at which these youths were to be addressed as Sie – the formal pronoun, as opposed to du – by strangers.) How could you even think about missing it, when all your friends would be there? (And, indeed, even in the 1980s 90% of those eligible did participate.) For the Communist authorities, on the other hand, it was a super indoctrination tool.

Religion Erased

It was also a great alternative, for human societies have shown no particular shortage of ceremonies to mark a child making the transition into adulthood. In the Western tradition, in particular – that is, Christian – there has always been confirmation, for most denominations. OK, and also the bar/bat mitzvah. But in East Germany the regime was actively hostile to religious practice. They were ever able to expunge it entirely, but hey, what a great marketing move to introduce this Jugendweihe to drive the others out. Not that these authorities were being particularly original: the specific ceremony went back to 1852, when it was thought up precisely to offer an alternative to confirmation, namely by “free thinking” and “humanistic” groups who even back then wanted to rebel against the Christian Establishment. Under the Nazis the Jugendweihe was prohibited, but it only took the DDR leadership until 1954 to re-animate it as the effective propaganda tool it became.

But now the DDR has been gone for almost thirty years – is the Jugendweihe gone, too? Not at all! The article cites around 40,000 that were held this past Spring (that’s when they happen) in the former East Germany, not to mention a couple hundred in the former West Germany (but generally conducted there by East German “exiles”). Don’t worry: neither socialism nor international working-class solidarity have anything to do with the ceremony anymore; and the highest participation-rate, in Saxony, now amounts to 1/3 of all those eligible, so slightly lower in other eastern States. (Now local Jugendweihe foundations exist to run the ceremonies; it generally costs around €120 to participate, welcome to Capitalism!)

But you could say that is still an impressive amount, and religious confirmation ceremonies in the East run at less than half that amount . . . in stark contrast to the West. Here, then, what belongs together has not grown together, and likely never will because the former West Germany lacks the Jugendweihe tradition. Stated baldly, the legacy of the DDR lives on thirty years after its demise at least in the de-Christianization it successfully accomplished and left behind, in those Eastern lands where it once ruled.

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Gun Control Debate in Czech

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio (no, not Toledo!): Two mass-shootings in less than twenty-four hours understandably has again prompted much thinking about the problem of guns in American society (not that any remedial measures are likely to be taken). They have done the same in the Czech Republic, where in a commentary on the “Plus” State Radio channel (devoted to news, debate and current events) Washington-based correspondent Jan Fingerland takes up the old conundrum: Zabíjejí zbraně, nebo zbraně? (Basically meaning “Do guns kill or do people?”)

Why would anyone in the Czech Republic be exercised by such a question? Reports of gun-related crime there are exceedingly rare; they’ve clearly got the problem under control (despite the presence of several leading firearms manufacturing firms). But why is that? It’s because of their historical base of forty-one years of Communist dictatorship (with six years of German occupation before that), during which there was never any question of anyone bearing arms except those explicitly allowed to do so by the authorities. Current Czech society started anew only fairly recently, coming up on thirty years ago; given that in the piece Fingerland suggests that “American society is not mature enough for such a widespread right to bear arms,” surely that should also be a worry for the Czechs?

Against that context there’s the second parallel between the two cultures when it comes to guns: within both, debate on the subject is conducted “between two extreme options.” Now, in the States you can see these “options” reflected on the street: “In some places,” Fingerland writes, “even mothers in the parks have a pistol on them, for instance Marge Simpson in the famed [cartoon] serial; elsewhere it is difficult to encounter anyone who ever holds a gun in hand.” Needless to say, that first picture is not the case in the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, there as well the argument tends to rage between those who insist guns are necessary to defend oneself against criminals – against terrorists! – and those wanting to ban them all.

As one could expect, Fingerland looks for a solution somewhere in-between. He seizes onto the quite apparent key fact that the big problem in the two latest incidents was the extraordinary mechanical power and speed of the weapons (both of the Russian AK series) the gunmen in Texas and Ohio wielded – particularly in the latter case, where he managed to kill nine despite being “neutralized” by police within a minute of opening fire.

On the other hand: pistols. “Depriving people of the possibility of owning a pistol is nonsense,” Fingerland asserts, “and few really want to anyway. A pistol is enough to stop a thief, maybe even to stop some crazy shooter” – who, in his world, whether in Central Europe or the USA, would never get the chance to get close to high-powered weapons, restricted to the military, in the first place.

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Burqa-Clad Oxymorons

Monday, August 5th, 2019

Another Amsterdam [Gay] Pride Week has now come and gone, with the climactic – even notorious – Canal Parade making its along the Prinsengracht on Saturday afternoon. Make your way to the city center during this period, especially the final Friday-through-Sunday, and/or elbow a place for yourself to spectate at that Canal Parade, and you will definitely encounter all sorts of outrageous outfits. Usually not like we see in the following, however:

It’s Muslim burqas in rainbow colors! But wait, there’s more! You see the yellow one on the left, with the black shades and holding the “Burqa Queens” sign? That’s not even a woman, much less a Muslim, rather it’s Hendrik Jan Biemond, Amsterdam city councilor for the Dutch Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid – PvdA). Just last Thursday a nationwide burqa-ban went into effect in the Netherlands, although it’s applicable only in government buildings, in schools, in hospitals and on public transport. Biemond turned up here in solidarity to protest that: “I want people to have the freedom to clothe themselves as they want.”

Well, first of all, from this Het Parool piece it seems that Biemond himself is homosexual; should he turn to the Muslim community whose modes of dress he is defending, he might get an unpleasant surprise! (Indeed, sporadic harassment by local Muslims of homosexuals, including during Pride Week, continues to tarnish Amsterdam’s tolerant image.) But let’s take a look at those signs. “No Human Is Free Untill [sic] We Are All Free”: Fine, we dismiss that one as patently ridiculous. How about “My Burqa Is My Right And Pride”?

“My Right”: Not when you’re in schools, hospitals, etc. in the Netherlands, it isn’t anymore! But “[My] Pride”? Clearly “pride” in being Muslim, which somehow is to be expressed by draping oneself in an impractical, excessive arrangement of fabric that barely leaves an opening for the eyes, whose original purpose was to hide any bit of femininity from passing males lest they go mad and proceed immediately to sexual assault. Given what I’ve read about rates of sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo, the burqa may well have a point there, but it’s fair to say behavior is rather more restrained on Western sidewalks.

Related to this concept of “pride” is Biemond’s assertion of “freedom to clothe themselves as they want.” But as who wants? As the women themselves want – or as the patriarchy imposed over them by Muslim belief wants? As their fathers and other male relatives want, as their insistence that their womenfolk wear these ridiculous, anti-modern outfits is forced by means of brainwashing and intimidation?

Thankfully, another voice has just pitched in, that of Amsterdam city councilor Marjolein Moorman, head of the PvdA fraction there (so, in some soft way, Hendrik Jan Biemond’s boss). Her tweet:

For me a burqa symbolizes inequality between women and men. A man is allowed to freely show himself, but the woman must cover herself. For me that has nothing to do with freedom.

At the same time, a burqa can never constitute a licence to threaten or harass a woman.

Finally some sense – and note well, from a woman! (Not to say “sense” is especially rare from a woman; rather to say that in this context the viewpoint of another woman particularly resonates.) Of course, she’s also set off the sort of debate you would expect in the comments down below that tweet.

Perhaps pro-burqa activists next time could research a bit more thoroughly the inherent nature of Amsterdam [Gay] Pride Week, rather than use it as an opportunity to protest simply because it occurs to close to the introduction of that limited burqa-ban! I call for this in part because I am worried that they will next show up in a public demonstration upholding the Muslim ban on drinking alcohol – in Munich, on the occasion of the next Oktoberfest!

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