Remaining Charlie Hebdo Trifles

Posted on January 13th, 2015 by MAO

I was leafing through Le Monde earlier (in a social-media type of way) and a couple more trifles concerning the Charlie Hebdo attacks last week and/or the massive marche républicaine on Sunday caught my eye.

CharlieHFirst, it’s good to see comment from such a good source on the parade of free-expression hypocrites that Sunday’s demonstration marche quickly became, in a nice piece entitled The embarrassing ones invited to the march. For one thing, the Le Monde staff (no byline) quotes from the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) communiqué about the march:

In the name of what did the representatives of regimes who are predators of freedom of the press come to parade in Paris in homage to a newspaper which always defended the highest conception of liberty of expression?

The piece goes on to list the RSF press-freedom rankings (180 = worst) of some of the leaders marching there: 98 (Gabon), 118 (UAE), 141 (Jordan), 148 (Russia) 154 (Turkey) and 159 (Egypt).

It all may make you want to ask . . .

VraiCharlie
“Who is a Real Charlie?” Well, it may be getting rather late for that . . . but anyway, this Le Monde piece is glad to adopt (at least for now) the solution Buzzfeed proposed, namely those newspapers willing to publish on their front pages (and/or at the top of their websites) the Mohammed cartoon that will be on the cover of the next edition of Charlie Hebdo (you see it at the top of this post) are the only true “Charlies.” More »

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The Greek Fire Next Time

Posted on January 13th, 2015 by MAO

Mark your calendars: there’s a serious Eurocrisis coming up, specifically on January 25 when Greece holds elections and the anti-austerity Syriza party will likely come out on top. There’s even a serious argument to be made that it should come out on top, made among others by Economics Prof. Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens, who has gone so far as to offer himself up as a Syriza candidate.

He explains why he did that, and what is going on between Greece and the EU generally, in an excellent segment that I’ve embedded for you below (starts at the 4:00 mark). Do keep in mind that, generally speaking, we should all be suspicious of anything coming out of RT (= “Russia Today,” brought to you by Vladimir Putin), and it is easy to be dismayed by the blonde-airhead TV anchorwoman. But this is truly very informative.

(H/t to Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.)

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Wouldn’t Miss It for the World!

Posted on January 12th, 2015 by MAO

Those following yesterday’s gigantic Paris “Charlie Hebdo” solidarity march along at home picked up the presence of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu among that gaggle of official freedom-of-expression hypocrites:

Netanya
Now an interesting revelation from – among others – the Belgian paper La Libre Belgique – he was never invited!

InviteSelf
[S]‘est invité: he invited himself! Originally, France President François Hollande’s office had actually requested that he not attend. The reason was quite straightforward: President Hollande did not want to muddy the waters by introducing the whole Israel-Palestine mess into the occasion.

But Netanyahu insisted. According to this account, this is why he insisted: he found out that his foreign minister (Avigdor Lieberman) and economy minister (Naftali Bennett) had already arranged to go to Paris. There’s an election campaign going on in Israel right now, you have to remember, and while they are both currently part of Netanyahu’s cabinet, they also both belong to another, competing political party, Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) and, accordingly, have consistently been even more reactionary and outrageous in their statements concerning Palestine and the Palestinians than Netanyahu himself, if that can be believed.

But if they were going to be there then, by all that is Holy, Netanyahu was going to be there as well. As French President, what can you do? Well, you can be sure you invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well. And he was there, parading, even though he had originally had no intention to attend and in fact had sent his regrets, constrained by a combination of his schedule and heavy snow impairing flights from that part of the world. Then again, if Netanyahu was going to be there – well, by all that is Holy, he would be there, too.

As a sordid coda to a sordid tale: One other thing Netanyahu did in Paris, after Hollande had graciously permitted him to come, is to tell a gathering of French Jews at the hostage-scene Jewish supermarket to emigrate to Israel, since they clearly weren’t safe in France! What a guy!

(He also apparently behaved rather boorishly during the solidarity march itself; this, and his emigration urgings mentioned above, are not in the Libre piece but you can read about them in English in this article from the Telegraph.)

UPDATE: Here we go:

JCole

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Journalistic Pluck

Posted on January 12th, 2015 by MAO

Yes, there was that giant Charlie Hebdo march yesterday in Paris, as well as in many other cities, but times remain tough for newspaper staffs (in physical security terms, that is – quite apart from their long-term economic prospects):

ZalKnallen
“Le Soir, things are going to blow up on your editors” is what it reads there, which was followed down the telephone-line by “You guys don’t take us seriously!” OK, so it’s a bomb-threat, called in yesterday afternoon (Sunday) to the downtown Brussels offices of Le Soir (“The Evening”) when probably most of those present would have preferred marching in Brussels own Charlie Hebdo solidarity demonstration but had to work instead.

Can’t newspapermen and -women catch a break these days? I mean, the offices of the Hamburger Morgenpost were also firebombed yesterday – yes, after that paper had reprinted some Charle Hebdo cartoons in a show of solidarity.

I don’t think Le Soir had done even that, but that seems not to have been the issue in that case. For as that De Morgen piece goes on to report, the police managed to arrest someone for that bomb-threat the same day, some fifty-two-year-old from out of the “extreme left” who in fact had been convicted for actually blowing up a telephone-booth (remember those?) in order to intimidate in Brussels back in 1999.

The good thing about this story is that the Le Soir staff, when ordered to evacuate on Sunday afternoon, simply took their laptops to a local hotel and resumed their work, as you can see from their tweet:

LeSoir

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Charlie! Send In the PC Police!

Posted on January 10th, 2015 by MAO

Remember when you were 23 years old? Didn’t you also say stupid things? (If you’re not there yet: don’t worry, you will.)

Talsmand
“23-year-old charged with rejoicing over terror on Facebook.” This guy is supposed to be a spokesman for a Danish organization named Kaldet til Islam – “Called to Islam” – and he wrote some asinine stuff on Facebook. Specifically – from what I can make out here, the problem is not language, it is the paucity of details the authorities are willing to release – he put a “smiley-face” next to a link to an article about the Charlie Hebdo murders and added, in Arabic, something to the effect that God had been honored.

Then the article continues:

The 23-year-old is charged according to Criminal Law paragraph 136. This prescribes that whoever “publicly condones” actions covered under terror legislation is to be punished by a fine or imprisonment up to two years. Copenhagen police have additionally made a thorough search of the residence of the man in question in Copenhagen’s north-west district.[!] . . .

The police and prosecution authorities have in the past months slowly and painstakingly sought juridical authority for charging and prosecuting Muslims with Danish backgrounds who have expressed sympathy on social media with terrorist attacks and the Islamic State, without having to be able to show that those in question themselves have been involved in carrying out or planning terror.

Indeed, this 23-year-old is only the latest target, the article goes on to list two other Danes awaiting prosecution on these grounds: one who put on-line a photo of himself in Syria surrounded by decapitated heads, another who published a video urging people to “terror.”

Actually, it is handy that Berlingske makes mention of these two latter cases, since those are the sort that do merit prosecution. Now, expression must be free – isn’t that what we’re all up in arms about after those Charlie Hebdo killings? But free without limit? No, of course not, but within very broad limits that only have to do with the maintenance of public safety. I happen to like the classic American First Amendment standard that only begins to bring the force of the law down on speech once it is equivalent to “crying ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

So that Danish Muslim in the photo surrounded by all the severed heads should not be prosecuted for the sheer fact of the photo; rather, such a photo can easily be used as evidence that he violated national laws about fighting for a terrorist organization. And that other Dane who urges everyone on to terrorism? I see that as equivalent to “‘Fire!’ in a public theater,” so set loose the law.

On the other hand, consider the 23-year-old. He puts something stupid up on Facebook and then finds himself arrested, and his apartment searched! What happened to just being able to dismiss such people as fools? Why can’t people be allowed to make up their own minds about something, rather than having society – through the law – impose its opinions by forbidding the very utterance of any alternatives? Were you aware that – way back in 1977 – the American Nazi party won a court case, which went all the way up to the US Supreme Court, that allowed it to march in uniform through a Chicago suburb (Skokie) where one-in-six of the inhabitants was a Holocaust survivor? Don’t you remember that, only a few centuries ago, people were persecuted if they questioned the doctrine that kings were God’s true emissaries, sent to rule over their lands with divine right?

For it’s all “Je suis Charlie!” now, don’t you know? That has to apply to all of us, whether we truly feel it or not; all of us must take a proud stand against limitations to free expression – and if you happen to express your disagreement with that, we’ll send in the police! That 23-year-old – foolish asshole though he clearly is – should be lauded rather than imprisoned: to be sure, not for what he wrote on his Facebook account (c’mon fellah, give us a wink that you didn’t really mean it!), but rather for his gesture that exposes the hollowness of all the “Je suis Charlie!” sanctimony.

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Armored Hostage-Saving

Posted on January 9th, 2015 by MAO

On this Friday mid-day the European press (and the French press in particular, as is understandable) is going crazy on social media about the stand-off with the Charlie Hebdo murderers at some industrial park to the north-east of Paris. Just now Le Figaro came up with the following:

tank
A tank! Note that this French paper had to give credit to the actual photo to the English, namely @Telegraph.

But wait! Following a few minutes afterwards:

Tanknotcert
“The nature of the vehicle is not certain. We will give you subsequent information as they are confirmed.”

Of course that is a tank! The first Twitter-commentator there, a certain François, suggests that it is an AMX-10 RC, but that can’t be right since what we see in the picture seems to be a tracked vehicle, whereas the AMX-10 RC is an armored car, a wheeled vehicle.

But these are mere details for the military enthusiast. More relevant is that all news reports agree that these fugitive militants have taken at least one hostage. What are the French authorities doing bringing in a tank to resolve a hostage situation?! That is more likely to worsen the situation than to make it better: the gunmen will be more ready to shoot their hostage when they contemplate being on the receiving-end of the massive cannon they see there on the vehicle.

Reports that some 88,000 police/soldiers had been mobilized to conduct the manhunt were bad enough. But now it seems the French police are starting to head along the same infamous path, brought out into the light with the Ferguson, MO disturbances of last August, of the over-militarization of the police that we see already in America.

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Charlie Hebdo: The Stark Viewpoint

Posted on January 8th, 2015 by MAO

For any sort of publication that puts “Euro” in its name, it would now seem that some sort of reaction to the massacre of the staff at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is expected, even required. I think I do have something to offer along those lines, boosted by the usual multi-lingual monitoring of the European press that I have been able to do since yesterday. As usual, I’ll try to shy away from any conventional wisdom; I apologize that that probably means that my slant is on the pessimistic side.

1) The attackers will achieve their objectives. Well, they already achieved their tactical objectives, in that it seems they managed to kill all of the skilled cartoonists (I believe there were four of them) there at the magazine. They managed this via the simple expedient of research to connect names and faces, combined with what appears to be some skilled use in wielding AK-47s to overcome security guards armed only with pistols.

By “objectives,” however, what I really mean is what we can presume were their more strategic objectives of deterring anyone who might want to insult the Prophet Mohamed in print in the future. (However, see also below.) Yes, I know that everyone is hammering on now about the need to protect free speech, in government pronouncements and in innumerable demonstrations around the world, most of them on some cold public square. But that is different from stepping up again to take up the flag of the “cause” of insulting Islam, one aspect of asserting one’s free speech. That sort of courage is rare; it’s the sort of courage that cannot reasonably be requested from anyone, including journalists or cartoonists who in most cases have not signed on to living every work-day with the dread of someone storming into their offices firing an automatic weapon. News reports from France today indicated that other big-name French newspapers (Le Monde, Libération, etc.) are ready to step in to provide funds and resources to get Charlie Hebdo back on its feet. That’s fine – but will they provide substitute writers and cartoonists to take up their places on the firing-line as well? I think not; I think those will be quite slow to come forward, if at all, since everyone will quite reasonably be intimidated – and so the attackers will win. (Indeed, at the personal level they may never even be caught.)

A related point: Let’s say that reasonably competent new writers and cartoonists with the right sort of attitude do come forward. What are the French authorities then supposed to do to protect them, and any other news publication which may want to indulge in offending fanatics? Post guards with sufficient firepower to have a chance against the next set of attackers to come along? No, we don’t want that as a society, we don’t want to be living perpetually in an armed camp. Nonetheless, something like that may happen anyway, and such incidents will inevitably provide further licence to government campaigns to further restrict civil liberties, to enlarge their surveillance over citizens (well, over everybody), and indeed possibly even to start torturing (or else to resume/broaden their torture activities – as in the USA, for example – if they have already been indulging). You can call this the “9/11 Effect”; people are scared again and, after all, you can’t exercise your civil liberties if you are dead. More »

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European One-Armed Banditry

Posted on January 7th, 2015 by MAO

No, we don’t mean there’s been a new crime-wave perpetrated by cripples criss-crossing the Old Continent; nor (even though this is a little bit more likely) some illicit fund-raising campaign undertaken by ISIS fighters having had to return from their MidEast adventures due to grievous upper-body injuries.

Rather, for “one-armed bandit” here we are referring to the slot machine, that most-insidious piece of gambling equipment capable of enchanting for hours – and many dollars, euros, or what have you lost – on end quite considerable cohorts of people with the particular psychological disposition to be so captivated. Especially in it most-modern incarnation, i.e. those machines governed by internal software, far from offering players any “fair” game it is rather carefully programmed to manipulate the sucker sitting before it so as to extract the maximum of money.

A modern-day societal plague, in short; yet thereby irresistible to those businesses, and occasionally even governments, which can manage to gain permission to make the investment into equipment and then set them up so as to start preying upon the passing parade of suckers.

In terms of the latest news from Europe on this score, as is so often the case we witness one step forward together with one back. Starting in Austria:

WienGamble
Ralf Leonhard is the Austrian correspondent for the Berlin newspaper the taz (Die Tageszeitung), and he reports about how, as of January 1, das kleine Glückspiel – “small-scale gambling” – has been banned within the city of Vienna. That basically boils down to one-armed bandits, which previously numbered some 2,600 in the city, spread out among 505 locations of which 69 were Spiellokale, that is, pure slot-machine halls. (The other establishments were places like bars and cafés; they’re now banned there, too.) More »

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Same As The Old Boss?

Posted on January 6th, 2015 by MAO

Let’s start this New Year out with a success-story: Tunisia. Famously, this is the land that, so far, has emerged in best shape from the Arab Spring. That is not to say that it is not making some peculiar-looking political choices.

Tunisia
The fellow you see in the picture there is Mohamed Beji Qaid Essebsi, sworn in just last December 31 as Tunisian President after having won a free and fair election for the post in November. He does have links to the regime of ousted dictator Ben Ali, but that was only as Tunisia’s ambassador to Germany, and then one year as as President of the country’s lower house of parliament.

Indeed, even before that Essebsi worked closely with Habib Bourguiba, considered the father of the modern Tunisian state as it emerged independent in 1957 from French colonial rule. This fact indirectly points to what is the main questionable thing about President Essebsi for the outside observer: he 88 years old. That has to be some kind of record for the age of a head of state freely chosen by a general election.

But OK, so the people of Tunisia chose a President who might soon turn out to need replacing, from sheer natural causes: the important thing is that they did choose him. The point of the tweet is not really about the new Tunisian President, Mr. Esebbsi, but rather the proposed new Prime Minister, and this official is not chosen directly by the people but rather by the party that forms the government, which presently is called Nidaa Tounès. The vice-president of that party just announced its choice, a certain Habib Essid, 65 years old. “What we have here is an independent personality,” the VP told the press, “with competences and experience,” particularly “his knowledge in the area of security.”

A Torturer’s Knowledge of Security?

Well I should say so: Mr. Essid was the number-two official in the Ministry of the Interior of ex-dictator Ben Ali at the time of his overthrow in 2011! Just as a reminder, that is the Ministry in charge of the police, and all that the police were allowed to do to people back during what was President Ben Ali’s repressive, authoritatian state.

Now, the fact that Ben Ali was overthrown – in fact, relatively quickly and easily, especially when you compare his situation with Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria – might indicate that Mr. Essid was not so effective in his job. Of course, this Le Monde piece also notes that he was also the first Minister of the Interior right after the Revolution succeeded, so he was obviously acceptable to the new regime for some reason – perhaps he played some double-role from his powerful position within the Ministry of the Interior to help it succeed.

For now, we don’t know: there’s no further background here on just what was Essid’s role in the Revolution. All we are left with – for now – is a new Tunisian state getting off the ground democratically while having to rely so much on pre-revolutionary governing expertise that its two most powerful positions are likely to be filled by, on the one hand, an 88-year-old, and, on the other, a former high-ranking policeman in the service of the deposed dictator.

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No Rwandan Christmas Cheer

Posted on December 22nd, 2014 by MAO

Looks like the Grinch has already stolen Christmas in Rwanda, as the Belgian state media are reporting.

Rwanda

Belgium will not release an amount of 40 million euros in development aid to Rwanda, an “incentive tranche” that the [Ministry for] Cooperation linked, in addition to other intended amounts, to the realization of a certain number of conditions such as good governance and respect for freedom of the press. Minister for Cooperation Alexander De Croo decided not to grant these 40 million euros, as the VRT [Flemish state broadcast network] reported Sunday.

So is this a Croo-el move? It’s hard to say. Rwanda should be encouraged to make the sort of progress in the behavior of its government of the types mentioned, but it’s hard for outside observers to reach any independent judgment as to whether this denial of money is justified. Perhaps there is too little international press coverage of the country generally; perhaps it’s also true that the progress being measured is a subtle thing. OK, we can recognize when freedom of the press has taken a hit, but remember that that is being judged not absolutely but relatively, i.e. in comparison to what it was before. Who other than the bureaucrats of the Belgian Ministry for Cooperation knows anything about that?

Probably more important to keep in mind is that this €40 million is just something extra to the development aid monies that Belgium is sending to Rwanda with no such strings attached: €160 million over the four years 2011 to 2014. In effect, then, that missed bonus is another year’s worth of payment.

Most important to keep in mind of all is Belgium’s history in Rwanda. From 1884 it had been a German colony, but was taken over by Belgium after World War I. Belgium authorities were after all right next door in the Belgian Congo which they governed in a particularly notorious and exploitative manner. That track-record could not have been good omen for Rwanda; a particular mistake on their part, though, was the identity-card system they introduced in 1935, which labeled people by tribe and so cemented and probably worsened the Tutsi vs. Hutu antagonism there. This would help lead to the infamous Rwandan Genocide of the mid-1990s.

So yeah, it’s good that Belgium assists Rwanda with some €40 million a year. You’d even think the Brussels authorities would cut them a break and give them their additional €40 million bonus, even if undeserved.

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Brazen North Korean Cheek

Posted on December 20th, 2014 by MAO

Verily, it’s an unpleasant sight in general, that of Kim Jong-Un laughing it up with his lackey Army generals.

KimJongUnlaugh
It’s all the more disagreeable considering what the North Korean dictator and his hacker army have recently accomplished. You’re surely aware of what happened with SONY Picture’s upcoming movie “The Interview,” but have you seen this as well?

DNKDisclaimer
But wait: there’s more to drive Kim Jong-Un and his minions into absolute hysterics! The North Korean government has now begun to deny its involvement in the SONY Pictures hack – before, it had been deliberately vague on the subject – but has not stopped there. Here’s the statement released today by some government minister, as reported by the French 20 Minutes newssite:

Since the United States is spreading allegations without foundation and defaming us, we want to propose a joint inquiry. Without going so far as to resort to torture, as the American CIA has done, we have the means to prove that we had nothing to do with the incident.

That allusion to CIA torture was sly, no?, but the American government has simply brought that upon itself – and no, not by releasing that executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report, but by committing the torture in the first place.  “Contrary to American values” and all that . . .

Apart from this, though – it’s the OJ Defense once again! “What, me, guilty? Perish the thought! In fact, I am so innocent that I am dying to assist you in an investigation to find the true culprit!”

Now add to that some additional reporting from Le Monde of the North Korean government coupling this with threats of “grave consequences” for the US should it continue insinuating Pyongyang’s guilt. Le Monde:

[North Korea] promised Saturday to boost its nuclear capabilities in response to Washington’s hostile policy, arguing that it had become clear that the US has as its goal an invasion of North Korea under the pretext of non-respect of human rights.

That is some Grade-A chutzpah, there.

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Cuba ♥ Americans!

Posted on December 18th, 2014 by MAO

Surprise and delight prevailed in Havana following yesterday’s simultaneous announcement by both governments of the resumption of full diplomatic relations. Our man/woman (no by-line) from Le Figaro was there, as reported by the French newssite L’actualité.com.

Vague_LaHavane
Well, OK: half-surprise. It seems people there in Havana, at least, had been aware for weeks that some sort of breakthrough in US relations was coming. There is no explanation how they knew.

Further, those in the US now raging against Obama’s move are at least right in one respect: Raúl Castro’s government really wanted this:

The Revolution moves no one to dreams anymore on the Communist island. Even if the regime of Raúl Castro is not in danger, or even hard-pressed (contrary to the repeated proclamations from the Cubans in Miami), the Cuban president had been preparing for this opening to the US for a long time.

Actually, the American authorities might have been pursuing exactly the wrong strategy for all these decades:

As an old Cuban Communist Party cadre, Mirta, confided recently: “How could the American authorities have followed such a stupid policy for fifty years? If they had raised the embargo, normalized relations with Cuba, the regime would have crumbled all by itself.”

Note well that, in fact, the embargo is not raised: that’s something only Congress can do. In any case, according to this piece American culture has long ruled on Havana’s streets anyway, with “caps, glasses [meaning sun- ?] and gadgets” bearing some variation of the Stars & Stripes representing highest style. One has to wonder, though, exactly what sort of “gadgets” the Figaro reporter witnessed there, considering Cuba’s well-known reputation for being a virtual open-air museum of lovingly cared-for fifties-vintage American cars. PalmPilots, maybe? Transistor radios?

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Polar Role-Reversal

Posted on December 18th, 2014 by MAO

Among the world turmoil occupying us in this run-up to the 2014 Christmas period, one alarming development that you may well have missed was Denmark’s filing of a formal claim on Monday to the area of the North Pole. For some years – and particularly now that the melting of the Northern icecap is laying them bare – the considerable oil & gas natural resources said to be just under the Arctic Sea floor have piqued the interest of those countries lying along its periphery in trying to extend their sovereignties as far as possible into that area, consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

You’re right, Denmark does not itself border the Arctic Ocean; what does is Greenland, whose foreign and defense policies Denmark still controls, even as it otherwise enjoys self-government. Indeed, it is an underwater ridge that extends from Greenland through the Arctic area that constitutes the legal basis for Denmark’s claim.

So now we have this self-reflective comment from the website of DR, or Danmarks Radio, the Danish government-owned national TV and radio network.

Forsker_Nordpol
You could say this is a bold, even audacious, move and those interests it challenges directly (aside from the well-known seasonal actors – Hello Santa!) are mainly Canada and Russia. Particularly Russia, as we realize from this quote in the linked DR piece from a Danish journalist who has written extensively about the Arctic:

This is a gigantic piece of the sea-floor that Denmark and Greenland are now claiming. This extends – and this is the surprising thing – the entire way over to Russia’s nautical border. Danish politicians have therefore chosen to use all means provided to them by the UN’s oceans commission.

It is a surprise; this is Denmark we are talking about here. Or, as the comedian Craig Ferguson just put it:

The Danes are causing a bit of trouble. The kingdom of Denmark claimed the North Pole as their own. Hey, you can’t just reach out and take something if you want it, Denmark. That’s Russia’s job.

Indeed. That DR Nyheder tweet literally reads “Russia as meek as a lamb in the Arctic – we are the aggressive ones.” How could this be? This is Putin’s Russia we are talking about, after all, and the Danes, whose neighbors haven’t had anything to complain about since Viking times.

Could it have something to do with the very recent drastic weakening of Putin’s geopolitical position brought about by the collapse of the oil price and the ruble? Is the lack (so far) of Russian reaction the first sign we have that these troubles will likely tone down Russia’s behavior after all? Not according to Jakob Busk Olsen, who wrote this DR piece; he instead reckons that Russian decision-makers are too aware how the region is so hostile to man that absolute lack of conflict is necessary for anyone to be able to safely make the substantial investments (in offshore drilling platforms, etc.) to exploit those resources. Better to not rock the boat.

And why is Denmark acting so aggressively to safeguard to itself access to those presumed oil and gas deposits, when that country is among the world’s pioneers in transitioning away from fossil fuels? The key thing to remember here is that the Kingdom is actually acting on behalf of its semi-ward Greenland; it clearly would like to be rid of its remaining obligations there, but Greenland will eventually be able to stand on its own feet economically mainly with its own trousseau of fossil-fuel assets.

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Wishing You Many Hot Returns

Posted on December 15th, 2014 by MAO

On a weekend when high EU representatives were decrying the violation of “European values” through the mass-arrests of journalists in the European continent’s southeastern corner, in Turkey, as we can read from Mathieu de Taillac in Le Figaro the very same sort of thing was happening in its southwestern corner – that is, in Spain, and therefore in what is already a member-state.

SpainAsylum
“Spain, the only land frontier between Europe and Africa, feels abandoned by an EU which is quick to give lessons.” Yes, that “land frontier” does exist, namely at Ceuta and Melilla, which are two small enclaves of Spanish sovereignty on the northern coast of the African mainland that have managed to survive there over the centuries. They are both marked off from surrounding territory by no less than three lines of barriers with surveillance cameras (as well as, if we are to believe the account in this article, “razor blades” – de lames de rasoir).

The thing is, these enclaves’ presence also means that if illegal immigrants somehow manage to get past all those barriers – and around 28,000 have accomplished that over the past ten years – then in effect they have successfully made it into Europe. According to current Spanish legislation, they have the right to request asylum and get free legal help to help the pursue that. In the meantime, they of course get to stay in “Europe” because their asylum case is being decided – it can take a long time – and who knows?, maybe they’ll ultimate get it. More »

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Asterix to French History

Posted on December 5th, 2014 by MAO

Anyone else out there into the Asterix & Obelix cartoons? It’s true that these cartoon tales of plucky Celtic warriors beating back the Romans in ancient Gaul were originally French, but they soon went international, with the requisite translations, and now seem to rival even Peanuts as an ongoing commercial vehicle for all sorts of lucrative tie-ins.

Astrix & Obelix originally meant Goscinny & Uderzo, the story-writer and cartoonist, respectively, but all that commercial money has been smoothing the retirement only of Albert Uderzo (now 87) for the longest time, as Goscinny died back in 1977. (The latter’s Wikipedia entry states he died “during a routine stress test at his doctor’s office” – whoops!) Uderzo recently re-emerged in public for an interview on the French radio station Europe 1.

Uderzo
The highlight of that interview was when he was asked “Which politician could incarnate Asterix?” His answer:

Maybe Asterix resembles the President of the Republic. He’s a person who doesn’t attach any great importance to what people say about him and who just goes on his merry way.

Curious! Could the Europe 1 producers have succeeded in enticing to their studio a representative of the 5% or so of the French electorate which stills supports François Hollande? It’s clear that, among the vast majority of the rest, President Hollande evokes rather less flattering images, most notably those of the tabloid-photo variety of someone riding a motorscooter with a silly helmet on his head, having slipped out the Elysée palace to go meet his mistress in the neighborhood, as it apparently was his wont to do roughly a year ago.

Still, it’s possible that Uderzo is indeed a Hollande fan, as he also displayed in the interview his rather low view of his countrymen. “The French don’t like success,” he declared on-air. “They envy success. They always find something so they can say that it’s no good.” And as evidence Uderzo mentioned the latest Asterix album he brought out (now on his own), Asterix Among the Picts, which in the end sold quite well in the face of mostly negative reviews.

As for drawing, he admitted “I don’t feel so much like it anymore. I have done so many [drawings]!” As I said, he’s 87 years old: he deserved to be done with all that long ago.

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Just Not Cricket!

Posted on December 4th, 2014 by MAO

Check out this photo, taken in Brussels, of a suspicious Muslim-type guy who for some reason is carrying under his arm what looks to be a rifle covered up in cloth. (Yes, I know that the surrounding text rather gives the game away, especially for those out there who can understand French.)

BrusselsTerrorist
There he was, waiting for a tram on a Sunday morning last August, on the Avenue Louise in one of the European capital’s most luxurious districts. This photo was taken out of the window by a security official at the Israeli embassy in Brussels who lives along the Avenue Louise, and who passed it on to the police – who in turn sent out an alert for the public to be on the look-out for this guy. (Wanted posters on post office walls and the like, one imagines, to the extent real-life post offices still exist in Brussels.) More »

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Just Confuse the Bastards!

Posted on November 15th, 2014 by MAO

The ongoing outrage over special tax arrangements for big multinational corporations rightly centers currently on Luxembourg and on the brand-new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, under whose premiership all of those advantageous arrangements were agreed there. The accompanying open secret, however, is how Luxembourg is not alone in its guilt in this regard. Ireland was actually pressured to take (limited) measures to rein in its own concessions to tax-avoiding corporations even before the issue blew up recently with the Luxembourg leaks, and EU Commission scrutiny is also being increased on some similar Netherlands measures, particularly what that country may have done to attract Starbucks.

Add to that infamous list Belgium, as well. However, a new report from La Libre Belgique describes one rather unique – indeed, some would say typically Belgian – approach taken there.

InBev
As you can see, the affair involves AB InBev, now the world’s largest brewing company, headquartered in Leuven, just to the East of Brussels. They have plenty of clout to force through their own sweetheart deal with any country that would want to host them, you would think. Indeed in 2011 the Belgian fiscal authorities permitted them to set up a “nameplate company” to which, in the usual fashion, they could use various accounting tricks to steer responsibility for more than €50 million of profits actually earned elsewhere and so be very lightly taxed on them, in most cases not at all.

This organization was set up in Brussels rather than in Leuven, perhaps to provide a sheen of “arms-length” propriety. Imagine its surprise when, last year, it found itself under investigation for its fishy tax arrangements by the Belgian tax inspectorate, the Inspection spéciale des impôts (ISI)!

Clearly, the left hand of Belgium’s tax authorities often does not know what the right hand is doing! This article does not reveal the final resolution of this investigation; it might still be ongoing, although in any event it’s likely that those authorities will go for consistency and call off the inspectors – rather than seize the opportunity presented by this bureaucratic cock-up, that is, to claim back what are surely millions of sorely needed tax-receipts from a scandalous arrangement that some official was browbeaten into approving in the past.

Really, given the mounting public outrage over these sweetheart tax deals you would think the relevant Belgian officials would think again about whether they might just want to shut this one down. It would be very good publicity; AB InBev (originally a truly Belgian company, anyway) is firmly embedded in the country so that it would be costly to move. At least these officials have effectively raised the cost of such arrangements to tax-avoiding multinationals, in the form of the uncertainty that henceforth must be part of their calculus as to whether to deal with the Belgian state.

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Bosses’ Ras-Le-Bol

Posted on November 7th, 2014 by MAO

Truly, it is the Autumn of Discontent in Europe. That’s why that phrase up in the headline might be a handy one to learn. It’s French of course: ras-le-bol, or “enough” as in “I/We’ve had enough!” People are unhappy with their governments and are taking to the streets. Just yesterday marchers representing Belgian unions flooded through downtown Brussels, while a minority topped off the day by setting fire to cars and skirmishing with the police. Such demonstrations are set to continue there today, while the Antwerp dockworkers and their local labor brethren are set to do the same there on November 24th.

Now that we’re talking about protesting crowds flooding the streets, the French surely cannot be far behind. Things are not going very well there economically either, and sure enough:

RasLeBol
Even if you don’t know French, you can make out the word décembre there: they’re going to hold their fire until December. But wait: the next words after that are le patronat, and that means “bosses,” not “workers.” (And indeed, that fat-cat in the suit there does not look very proletarian.)

But things are going bad for these guys, too, at least according to the vice-president of one large (French) employers’ organization (Medef), Geoffroy Roux:

One SME boss kills himself every two days, the treasuries are bone-dry, business bankruptcies are up and the government adds practically every day a little tax here, a measure increasing complexity there, so there is really a sense of “Enough!” [ras-le-bol!].

The plan is for things to truly go down on 1 December, when most of the various French employers’ associations are calling upon small business-owners to “hit the streets,” both in Paris and in Toulouse. But really: can it be true that French bosses will display their anger with the same sort of mass demonstrations (with occasional violence) that working-class organizations use?

That M. Roux I previously quoted declared in a TV interview that, yes, “some will perhaps hit the streets” on 1 December, but that there will also be meetings and témoignages, which literally translates as “testimonials.”

There’s another way these business organizations will mobilize to get what they want, too. M. Roux does not include it in his list, but the Le Monde writer (uncredited) does give it a mention: stepping up their institutional lobbying.

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Luxembourg Leopard & His Spots

Posted on November 6th, 2014 by MAO

Here’s the latest EU scandal – yes, with the new Commission not even a week old! – and it might be a biggie. It broke this morning:

accordssecrets
Oooh, «accords secrets» – secret accords! They’re linked with that “343,” that’s the number of multinational companies to which the Luxembourg granted sweetheart tax deals to come and operate there. This has just emerged from a leak from the offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers there, which itself earned handsomely in taking up the role of negotiating with the Luxembourg government on those companies’ behalf for these tax-breaks. According to the report cited in this piece in the Tribune de Genève,

While in Luxembourg the tax rate for companies is officially 29%, which is decent [honnête] in international terms, that often passes below 1% after negotiations with the tax authorities.

The important thing to remember here is that multinationals routinely distort their official accounts, through tricks that go under the general name of transfer pricing, to show as much income as they can as coming from a place like Luxembourg where it is subject to the least taxation. Of course, the income has really been overwhelmingly earned elsewhere, in other countries – and those countries thereby effectively have had legitimate tax revenues stolen from them, in often mind-boggling quantities.

The company names sampled in this brief piece are what you would expect: Apple, Amazon, Heinz, Pepsi, Ikea, Deutsche Bank, and also a handful of Swiss companies (as this Swiss newspaper notes): UBS, Credit Suisse, Lombard Odier private bankers (remind you at all of “odious”?), and others. Indeed, with respect to the American companies on this list, their management has to cheat governments out of taxes using techniques like these, in order to increase earnings – otherwise they can be sued by shareholders for breach of fiduciary duty! Behold the face of late twentieth-century/twenty-first century Capitalism!

What really makes this development juicy is of course the identity of the brand-new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who was Prime Minister of Luxembourg from 1995 to 2013 when presumably all or at least most of these sweetheart tax-deals were negotiated. Now, it’s true that it was pressure from the outgoing Commission that recently Ireland to close its notorious “double Irish” tax loophole (well, at least over the next four years) that enables multinationals to evade enormous amounts in taxes owed elsewhere. The legal justification wielded was that such generous tax terms in effect amounted to “state aid,” which is forbidden to EU member-states.

That same rationale can obviously be brought to bear now on these Luxembourgish arrangements. But will it? As @TeacherDude puts it:

TeacherDude
Juncker is going to have to change his spots, and quick. This development is precisely the last thing the EU needs after last May’s elections that saw so many new MEPs elected from extremist parties, reflecting a souring on the EU on the part of the European electorate. Already Marine Le Pen, whose Front National is prominent among those extremist parties, is calling on Juncker to resign from his very new Commission President position .

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ISIL Child-Soldier Recruitment

Posted on November 5th, 2014 by MAO

Check out this happy playground picture: that smiling boy in the foreground, the other ones playing on a balance-beam behind.

Rekruttering
Of course, it is not that at all. This picture was taken in Raqqa, the Syrian desert town now functioning as headquarters for the outlaw organization known as the Islamic State. The Danish there reads “IS steps up recruiting of children in Syria,” and what we see here is no less than military training, which for the young lad up front in particular involves crawling through that child-sized tunnel whose circular exit we see there.

The recruitment and use of child-soldiers in Syria is a growing problem, actually not isolated to IS but to almost all warring parties there, including groups such as the Free Syrian Army supported by the West. (I write “almost” because it’s possible that the forces of the Syrian government do not have to resort to recruiting children; they merely have a well-documented record of torturing and executing them.) But the IS forces take this beyond what has seen before, according to a child-protection advisor to UNICEF, Laurent Chapuis, who was interviewed for this Politiken article. Says Chapuis:

ISIS’ recruiting of children is possibly the clearest current example of of a new pattern of aggressive recruitment through ISIS’ use of social media. Social media are used to promote the group’s ideology, agenda and political vision, including the mobilization and use of children.

One obvious question, though: how do we really know about what the IS is allegedly doing with children at its own Syrian headquarters? After all, the deadly conditions for Western reporters wherever this Islamic group holds sway has been lamented for the “blindness” it results in, which both Western governments and publics have to deal with when trying to figure out what is really going on there.

It turns out, however, that there do exist certain information sources. That picture at the head of the Politiken article, and in the tweet, itself comes from a recently-formed group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” consisting of daring local residents there who gather photos and other information and then get that out to the wider world (yes, mainly via social media). This organization is headed by a certain Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi; here is his Twitter-feed (click on the image to go there):

Raqqawi
(“Raqqawi,” by the way, is Arabic for “from Raqqa,” just in case you had any doubts that this is an alias.)

Lea Wind-Friis, the Politiken reporter who wrote the article, mentions trying to contact Mr. Raqqawi to gain information for it but failing, which is understandable. However, a writer for the respected American journal Foreign Policy did manage to speak with him earlier on, and his accounts of what is going on there form a substantial part of her article entitled Children of the Caliphate – in English, free, and published only last week, which recounts IS child recruitment and mobilization in detail – including teaching very young boys to behead people and to operate as suicide-bombers.

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Academic (Journal) Revolution!

Posted on November 4th, 2014 by MAO

For those of you not of the higher education world, here’s a tip about one of the biggest scams plaguing it. For very many fields of study it’s the academic journals that make or break academic careers – publish or perish! – and those journals have in effect become monopoly providers. So they charge monopoly prices: universities pay incredible amounts yearly to leading publishers just for subscriptions. And as the cherry on the cake, those who write the scientific articles that are accepted for publication in these journals thereby give up all rights to them.

Doesn’t that sound like something that just shouldn’t exist in this glorious Internet Age, where “information just wants to be free”? I agree, but this piece from the Times Higher Education (formerly Supplement) shows that things are getting no better.

JournalSpending

[Researchers] found that the amount [for journal subscriptions] paid to Oxford University Press rose by 49.2 per cent between 2010 and 2014. The amount paid to Springer rose by 36.3 per cent and the amount to Wiley by 33.5 per cent. The smallest rise – 17.4 per cent – was in subscriptions to Elsevier journals. Overall expenditure increased by 23.9 per cent.

That’s interesting – but since when did EuroSavant turn into a higher education blog, rather than a European foreign press blog?

You’re quite right. But fear not: what I wanted to bring to your attention was a recent high-risk attempt by Netherlands universities to do something about that, reported by Martijn van Calmthout of the Volkskrant.

Elsevier
At issue is so-called “open access” (a phrase translated unchanged into Dutch), namely free access to such journal articles, whose publication would be financed by one-time university payments. Ironically, the first target is Elsevier, the (relative) best-behaver in the Times’ article, but also the only Dutch one. The consortium of Dutch universities, the VSNU, is pushing for open access as soon as possible and has proposed to Elsevier that its member-universities pay a year’s worth of subscription-fees to it one last time, but thereafter switch over to open access to the titles the company publishes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elsevier has rejected this offer; the company would prefer to keep getting the subscription-fees and charge extra for any open access. Talks have now broken off. These universities face the prospect, as of 1 JAN 2015, of having no more access to any new articles. (Old articles will still be available, though; furthermore, that is just on-line access that they will lose to new articles.)

The universities are not beaten yet, it would seem, as the State Secretary for Education in the Netherlands, Sander Dekker, has their back. He was publicly advocating back in early 2013 for the Netherlands to have een voortrekkersrol – that is, to be in the avant-garde – when it comes to open access. (Note that most Netherlands universities are publicly-funded; that scientific material scholars submit to journal publishers for them to make their monopoly profits on was likely heavily subsidized by the State.) The EU is also on the VSNU’s side – although, of course, the Commission has just changed regime, and scholarly journals are probably not top-priority for the new EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics.

Meanwhile, VSNU has taken up negotiations with Springer and Wiley. “These talks are proceeding more smoothly than those with Elsevier, insiders report.”

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Where’s the Fuel?

Posted on November 3rd, 2014 by MAO

Strange news from out of the Czech Republic, where it seems around 5.5 million liters (= 3,594 barrels) of oil from the state strategic reserve has just disappeared, according to Dagmar Klimovičová at Hospodářské noviny.

Nafty
It appears the Czech government subcontracted the task of managing its strategic reserve to Viktoriagruppe AG, a German company headquartered in Munich. That was its first mistake; allowing Viktoriagruppe to take part of that reserve outside of the Czech Republic was its second.

The Viktoriagruppe company . . . has not been able to explain reasonably since 23 September where 5.5 million liters of this material has gone to from its German storage facilities at Krailling [just outside of Munich]. Rather, it has been firing employees as it faces legal proceedings from Czech and German customs and financial authorities.

Viktoriagruppe also runs oil storage facilities for the Czech strategic reserve – for now – at three separate sites within the Czech Republic. Not surprisingly, that state petroleum reserve company (known as ČEPRO) is now busy having the oil Viktoriagruppe stores there – 15 million liters of it, or 94,347 barrels – transferred to other facilities under ČEPRO’s direct control; that, together with doing the same with the remaining oil stored in Germany, is now “our primary interest” according to under-fire ČEPRO head Pavel Švager.

That oil still in Germany, according to this piece, is “many times more” than the 15 million liters ČEPRO is seizing back from Viktoriagruppe’s Czech facilities; journalist Klimovičová understandably won’t give the precise figure since, even though no doubt such a figure exists somewhere in the books, the real one won’t be known until the comprehensive audit of just how much Viktoriagruppe is holding there in Krailling for the Czech Republic is complete.

This isn’t the first such run-in ČEPRO has had with Viktoriagruppe, writes Klimovičová: just last summer there was another discrepancy, of around 700 million liters, discovered during another audit of the latter’s German holdings of the Czech reserve. Viktoriagruppe officials tried to blame the shortfall on losses due to the transport and storage processes, but ended up paying a CZK 500,000 (€17,960) fine anyway.

The larger issue though, of course, is that of storing one’s national “family jewels” on foreign soil, and therefore outside of direct national control. Perhaps it’s something to be avoided, whenever possible, as the Czechs are finally finding out now.

At least we are not talking here about the analogous case of the national gold supply: it is true that many countries have theirs stored outside their borders, for various historical reasons, at places like New York (mainly at the New York Fed) and London. I don’t know whether that applies to the Czech national gold supply; who knows what happened to it between Nazi and Soviet occupations of the country last century, and in any case what was left of it presumably was split with Slovakia during the “Velvet Divorce” at the beginning of 1993. The good news here – while also bad news – is that that petroleum reserve is now steadily dropping in value anyway, what with the recent fall in oil prices worldwide.

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Where’s the Ka-CHING?

Posted on November 1st, 2014 by MAO

You would hardly know it – I write this on a sunny Netherlands 1 November Saturday afternoon with outside temperatures at roughly 18°C, a new historical record for the date – but a new speed-skating season is about to start here, as reporter John Volkers of the Volkskrant notes:

speedskate
Still, check out Volkers’ particular take on the subject: that Tweet-text translates to “Gold does not translate to money [in Dutch: goud/geld; the similarity is etymological] for skaters.” And from the lede:

Barely eight months after overwhelming Olympic success, the conclusion is already dawning that gleaming gold has brought little to sport-skating.

I must have missed it – because, frankly, I didn’t care and didn’t want to give Putin the satisfaction – but the Dutch really tore up the speed-skating events last February in Sochi. Six individual medals, four team medals. Nonetheless: “Rich is what the skaters have NOT become from that success.”

Because, as we know, sports today are basically just another career choice, so that if you are really good at something then you go do it, and train hard to keep doing it, just to earn some substantial coin, right?

Now, it seems that speed-skating was a more reliable source of big money in the past, according to this piece. You see, much like professional bicyclists, skaters would join competitive teams that would gladly be sponsored by publicity-hungry commercial enterprises and/or entrepreneurs.

But that is no longer so much the case; old sponsors have withdrawn and insufficient new ones have come to take their place. More ad hoc paths to riches – and again, that’s apparently what it is all about – have to be found. Like that of Sochi Olympic champion (team pursuit) and current 1500m record-holder Koen Verweij who, although he continues to race for a sponsored team, also has picked up some lucrative TV gigs. But that is not so surprising, for as anyone who wants to click on the various links to photos of him I’m scattering around here can attest, he is unusually handsome – think a long-haired blond shark. Plus, he of course has the physique required of a champion speed-skater, featuring thighs that can be classified as “redwood.”

His less-photogenic victorious colleagues from Sochi, though – like that pair up there in the Twitter-picture, eh? – are having a rougher time of it financially. And to think they all could have simply studied hard and become accountants instead, and where would they be today – right?

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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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