“Not Only the Players”

Monday, May 1st, 2017

The football season in the various European lands is coming to a close, usually meaning that tension mounts over which team will end up at the top of those various leagues,* while at the same time the main cup-competitions proceed to their final stages. Then, since this is an odd year, we can look forward to a peaceful summer devoid of the big football competitions between national teams (and of any Olympics).

Not so fast, though: Had you forgotten about the Confederations Cup? That involves national teams, although not as many, since it’s a somewhat more abbreviated tournament that FIFA puts on only for the champion national teams of the six world regional football confederations, together with the current World Cup champion and the host nation.

And there’s the problem: That host nation is traditionally the same one scheduled to host the World Cup itself the very next year; you could say that the Confederations Cup, in a minor way, serves as a sort of dress-rehearsal to make sure the country can handle the big show coming around after another 12 months’s time. For 2017/2018, then, we are talking about the Russian Federation. And that is a problem.


(more…)

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Yes We Can – Take Bribes

Friday, January 15th, 2016

Here’s another bit of news that I am surprised has not been reported more – or maybe it’s just that it has only been reported in Spanish and not yet crossed the language barrier.

15JANPodemos
The headline is fairly straightforward: “The DEA of the US reveals that Venezuela and Iran agreed to finance Podemos through Hispan TV.” “US,” “Venezuela” and “Iran” should be no problem; “DEA” is the Drug Enforcement Administration of the US federal government; “Hispan TV” is a worldwide Spanish-language TV station operated by the public television authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran; and Podemos (SP: “[Yes] We can”) – here we come to the point of all this – is a new, insurgent, left-wing, anti-austerity Spanish political party which did fairly well in the pre-Christmas Spain nationwide elections. (It’s not in government yet, though; no party is yet in government. The old government is still there as caretaker because, unfortunately, several other parties also did well in those elections.)

This is not good news for Podemos. Accepting political contributions from foreign sources, at best, puts any political party in bad odor. At worst, it is illegal; and that is the case in Spain (emphases in the original):

The Law for Party Financing of 2007 prohibited receiving funds from foreign governments but did not impose sanctions on those who evaded this restriction. Nonetheless, last 1 July a reform of the Penal Code came into force which prescribed up to four years’ jail and fines of up to five times the amount of the donation received by formations gaining more than 100,000 euros from another country . . .

Podemos is alleged to have received €5 million from Iranian sources, and undisclosed other amounts from the Venezuelan government. Further, Pablo Iglesias, Podemos‘ leader, is alleged to have received personal payments of between €2,000 and €3,000 numerous times. Again, Hispan TV was used as the main vehicle to move these monies and make things look legal, through inflated invoices and the like. All this is coming to light now – allegedly – because a Venezuelan government insider with knowledge about what has been going on has started talking to the DEA.

The affinity between Podemos and the Venezuelan government is easy to see: both are left-wing. But neither are Muslim; indeed, there has not been a strong Muslim political presence in Spain sine 1492. So why would Iran want to buy influence in an up-and-coming force in Spanish politics this way? For that matter, what is the Iranian government doing in the first place splashing out the cash for a television network to push it views throughout the Spanish-speaking world?

And, really, why haven’t we all heard a lot more about this? Could it be just a journalistic hack-job from a media outlet, El Confidencial, that is hostile to Podemos‘ politics. I have to confess that I really do not know; for what it is worth, El Confidencial seems quite a newcomer to the Spanish media scene, and I’m not even sure whether it has or ever had a paper/sold-on-the-streets version.

Still, as hinted above, the Spanish political situation remain in limbo after that December 20 election because, for the first time, no party won a majority enabling it to govern alone. The parties which did well (including Podemos) have been thrust into the very unfamiliar task of forming a coalition government, something that has never been required before in post-Franco Spain. They are not doing well at it so far; and if it turns out that they can’t work things out, then there would have to be new elections. That is when these allegations – if true – would start to really bite for Podemos.

UPDATE: Here we are in March, 2016 – there still is no new Spanish government yet – and there comes this report that this Podemos case has been brought before the Spanish Tribunal de Cuentas or Court of Accounts:

PodemosII
The facts at issue are pretty much as described in the initial blog-post (above): “the alleged illegal financing of Podemos via Iran’s television station in Spain,” although in this piece there is no mention of Venezuela. So on the one hand this would seem to lend credibility to the accusation; on the other hand, this is once again a report from that same source, El Confidencial.

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A Troubling Failure to Explode

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Was it an April Fools joke? You would hope so; and this report from the official Czech ČTK news agency did come out yesterday:

Granaty
“Ministry of Defence wants 39 million [that’s CZK] back for allegedly faulty grenades.”

But no, it all seems serious. That said, the ČTK piece lags far behind a related one from the premier Czech newspaper Lidové noviny which provides many more vital details.

This all has to do with a 2009 contract to the Czech Army from the domestic firm Zeveta Bojkovice, a.s.*to deliver 3,000 “grenades,” actually meaning the explosive part delivered by an RPG personal anti-tank weapon. Several of these were found to be defective, and Zeveta has not been cooperative in its reaction. The Ministry of Defense started complaining back in 2011, but the firm has kept denying any defects and refusing any financial restitution, so that the affair has finally landed up in court. That Kč 39 million that the government is trying to win back amounts to around €1.4 million.

By itself, this sort of incident is not so surprising. Czech public procurement generally has gained an unsavoury reputation for mainly seeming to function to enrich insider businessmen, who deliver shoddy performance at high prices. The really interesting aspect here is that the Czechs discovered that this ammunition was faulty in Afghanistan, where back in 2010 they had a 700-man contingent under NATO.

That original ČTK piece just said “grenade,” which got me rather indignant; a hand grenade is a close-combat weapon whose failure to explode when expected easily results in serious consequences. But then I found out from Lidové noviny that this rather had to do with the RPGs. That’s a bit better, mainly because these are weapons that are meant to be fired at some range. Furthermore, given that the Taliban generally have no armored vehicles – i.e. the type of target one would expect to have to fire an RPG against in an emergency – these were likely generally fired under rather less urgent circumstances, probably against structures like buildings. One hopes that the defects discovered did not include any tendency for these munitions to actually explode when they were not supposed to. Still, even if we assume that – and even keeping in mind the rock-bottom Czech standard for government procurement – this sort of failure is deplorable.

* If you still are looking for a laughing matter, that link I provided previously was to the English version of the Zeveta Bojkovice website. This is the holding company that owns the ammunition firm, but anyway – what’s this appearing high-up on their homepage?

One can never capture every single moment in life. But it is possible to retain the moments which made it richer in some way, or just belong to the bright bits without which the colourful mosaic of the past years would not be complete…

For real! This is also no April Fool’s prank, I promise!

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Gross Metamorphosis

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

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

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

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“We’re Watching You in Sochi!”

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Sochi, Sochi, Sochi – yes, here comes that particular subject again, but after all, today are the opening ceremonies. Not that I care to write about those here; far more entertaining are the travails of those showing up to that “sub-tropical” town on the Black Sea coast only to confront the sad fact of how little that is tangible the equivalent of $51 billion will get you in Russia these days.

I already referred you in the last post to the excellent Twitter-feed @SochiProblems. That is already a roaring success, as we can see from the fact that 1) It already has more followers than the official @Sochi2014 feed; and 2) It has attracted a competitor, @SochiFails, which is smaller in its own follower-dom but still quite amusing and not all that redundant from what you see on @SochiProblems.

But the truly amusing development is the push-back to all these reports of “Sochi is not ready” recently offered from Russian Vice-Premier Dmitry Kozak:

Minister_Afviser
That’s “Minister rejects criticism of Olympic Games hotels: We are monitoring the rooms by video.” Imagine that! Now, it’s not too long in this article that DR makes reference to its source in the Wall Street Journal, so feel free to go there to get all the details in English.

Still, even before you do that, let me give you this from that WSJ piece:

Dimitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, seemed to reflect the view held among many Russian officials that some Western visitors are deliberately trying to sabotage Sochi’s big debut out of bias against Russia. “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day,” he said. An aide then pulled a reporter away before Mr. Kozak could be questioned further on surveillance in hotel rooms. “We’re doing a tour of the media center,” the aide said.

Whew, looks like that aide got Kozak out of the way just in time before he could insert foot-in-mouth further!

A spokesman for Mr. Kozak later on Thursday said there is absolutely no surveillance in hotel rooms or bathrooms occupied by guests. He said there was surveillance on premises during construction and cleaning of Sochi’s venues and hotels and that is likely what Mr. Kozak was referencing. A senior official at a company that built a number of the hotels also said there is no such surveillance in rooms occupied by guests.

Let’s see, that last would be a “senior official at a company” whose friend-of-Putin owner certainly received lavish overpayments in exchange for delivering up this late and sub-standard performance, right? As for there being “no such surveillance,” it has long been established that any electronic means of communication anyone takes there is going to get hacked.

And then all this alleged deliberate sabotage by people hell-bent on tarnishing Sochi’s reputation! Verily, the pressure is on now and these high Russian government officials are showing their true colors.

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Sochi Anti-Dissent Façade Cracking

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

“I can’t hold myself back” said the lesbian. Now hold on, this is no commonplace tale of lust run rampant, but rather what may turn out to be the first crack in Vladimir Putin’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics façade.

LesbSchaatsster
For it wasn’t just any ol’ lesbian but, as you can see there, a Lesbische schaatsster, or “lesbian skating star,” from Team Canada and by the name of Anastasia Bucsis, who found that she just couldn’t keep her mouth shut once in Sochi – and all this before the opening ceremonies (scheduled for tomorrow), even before the start of competition (scheduled for today)!

What she did Tuesday was talk at a Team Canada press conference about her “coming-out” last year, all within the context of both endorsing and revealing her participation in the AthleteAlly/Principle 6 Movement that is challenging the International Olympic Committee to do more at these Sochi Games to protest and counteract Russia’s notorious law against “homosexual propaganda.”

Those very same statements from Ms. Bucsis would seem to fit pretty neatly into the rather broad definition of “homosexual propaganda” which that law proscribes. So there you are, Russian authorities: you know her name, nationality, and location, and the ball is now in your court. There can be little doubt that this defiant declaration will be but the first of many of its sort at these Games – unless the local authorities do actually intervene in an intimidating manner to cut this off at the bud.

Meanwhile, there’s not much more doubt that the IOC has done just about all that it intends to do when it comes to actually insisting on the upholding of Olympic principles (e.g. against discrimination of any kind) at these Games – there’s simply too much money involved to rock the boat like that. As James Surowiecki puts it in the New Yorker, “one thing is certain: this Winter Olympics is the greatest financial boondoggle in the history of the Games.” Go and check out his piece, I recommend it – as I certainly also do the Twitter account that has sprung up out of nowhere to record how little that record $51 billion sum has actually brought, @SochiProblems.

SochiProbsI

SochiProbsII

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Doomed from the Start

Monday, January 27th, 2014

SobotkaBohuslav Sobotka: this 42-year-old fellow (to the left) is going to be the new Czech Prime Minister as of this upcoming Wednesday, and you can read a fairly good introduction to the man in the GlobalPost (via Agence France-Presse). Yes, in the Czech Republic top politicians are often quite young – public personalities above a certain age are often discredited by what they did during the bad old days – and it’s good to get the political scene there somewhat back to normal, after a 2013 that saw a caretaker PM in place whom nobody wanted, after the previous head of government had to resign in a corruption scandal.

From that GlobalPost piece we learn things about Sobotka such as that he likes science fiction and is even said to have a sweet tooth. Yet a couple of passages strike a strange tone: “known for being short on charisma but long on integrity” or his declaration in an interview “I would like politics to be a bit more matter-of-fact in the future.”

Specifically, these things sound rather odd to anyone who has followed The Fleet Sheet’s Final Word (a free, English- or Czech-language, Monday-through-Thursday daily comment on Czech politics) for any length of time. There, Bohuslav Sobotka has long been known as “Suitcase Sobotka,” an indication of his preferred method of accepting illegal money – in the past, at least, such as when he served as the Czech Republic’s Finance Minister from 2002 to 2006 under three successive Social Democratic prime ministers.

Is this the same guy? He is! A rather ominous sign for his own prime minstership, one would think. And one would think correctly, as we read in today’s Final Word:

By our count, three Czech PMs have left office as a direct result of some sort of financial scandal (Václav Klaus, Stanislav Gross [under whom Sobotka was Finance Minister], Peter Nečas [the last properly-elected PM before Sobotka]). What sets new PM Bohuslav Sobotka apart from these three, as well as from the other seven Czech PMs, is that a potential financial scandal is hanging over him before he takes office.

The exact nature of that scandal is unimportant here. (You can read further if you’re curious.) The point, basically, is that the Czech Republic is a rather corrupt place, and its citizens know it, which results in a constant stream of new “reform” parties emerging at elections claiming to want to do something about that. The latest is “ANO 2011” (ano in Czech means “yes”), founded and dominated by the Czech Republic’s second-richest man, Andrej Babiš, who of course is in line to become Sobotka’s Finance Minister.

It’s a sad situation. But at least you can realize that this new Czech government is destined to no good end. And you read it in the Final Word – or, at least, here – first.

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Oiling the Chinese Bureaucracy

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Granted, this is not something particularly calculated to arouse your sympathy, but Le Monde tells us today how the famed French hard alcohol company Rémy Cointreau – the result of a merger in the early 1990s between Rémy Martin and Cointreau – has fallen on hard times.

RemyC
Sales down 18.9% in IVQ 2013, down a total of 12.3% over the last three quarters of last year.

What seems to be driving most of this is a notable collapse in sales of the firm’s flagship Rémy Martin cognac: down 21% in that same April-to-December period. But it’s the hint as to why this is happening – contained in a link embedded within this article to another piece behind the Le Monde paywall – that is interesting. For sales are collapsing above all in China, where it seems a bottle of Rémy Martin is almost standard currency when it comes to “convincing” a local official to take some action in your favor. In other words, Rémy Cointreau is facing collateral damage from the People’s Republic’s current anti-corruption drive!

Look, don’t they teach these things at INSEAD, say? One must diversify one’s worldwide clientele of corrupt officialdoms! After all, there are so many to choose from!

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Reluctant Winter Olympians (2018)

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Yes, as if you don’t have enough to worry about these days . . . but the decision-process is now starting to get in gear for who will get to host the 2018 Winter Olympics! We’re reminded of this by Evi Simeoni with her article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, brought out on the occasion of the recent deadline for submission of official “bid-books” from candidate cities to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Understandably, Ms. Simeoni is particularly interested in Munich’s bid for the honor, which was delivered to Lausanne in person (because that’s simply what you do) earlier this week along with the documents of competitors Annecy (France) and Pyeongchang (South Korea). What follows from this point is inspections by the IOC’s Evaluation Committee to each site (to happen 1-3 March for the Bavarians), followed by formal presentations at the Lausanne headquarters on 18-19 May and the announcement of the decision at an IOC meeting in Durban, South Africa, on 6 July. (more…)

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Czech: Not As Bad As U Think!

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Let me reveal a dark secret here which I haven’t written about before (well, OK, just once) and may come as a surprise to many of you: The Czech Republic – yes, the land of Václav Havel and “living in Truth” – is, sadly, a corrupt sort of place. We were only recently reminded of that fact by the latest government scandal (the best English-language summary comes undoubtedly from the Economist’s “Eastern approaches” blog). The Environment Minister, one Pavel Drobil, was caught on tape not only manipulating expenditures from the state environmental fund to feather his own financial nest, but also covering the misdeeds up – to include offering the whistle-blower a promotion in exchange for destroying the recording. Drobil did have to resign (though the whistle-blower also lost his government job, but of course), and for a while the very existence of the current Czech coalition government (only 6 months old) hung in the balance, because the opposition tabled a motion of no-confidence in the parliament and, after all, two of the coalition parties (VV and TOP 09) were new on the political scene, propelled to prominence by citizen disgust over the country’s seeming political status quo – most especially, the corruption.

In the end though, President Klaus intervened, there were a lot of meetings, everyone forgot about how anti-corruption they were supposed to be, and the current government managed to sail on. With that settled, what do we now see – and in the pages of the country’s leading business newspaper, no less! – but today’s piece by one Petr Honzejk entitled The Czech Republic is better than it seems. Masaryk’s “do not fear and do not steal” is coming back in style.

Make no mistake: the title is the basic message, but I’m glad to give you the lede as well:

There’s no use in fooling oneself. It’s enough when we can use a little realism. We live in a better country than we ourselves think.

Talk about looking on the bright side! With this latest Environment Ministry affair everyone is wailing “Nothing has changed!” Honzejk writes – but they’re wrong! Hey, at least there was a whistle-blower in the first place, who resisted all the lucrative pressure exerted to shut him up! And look, the minister resigned the same day the charges came to light – that has never happened before! He goes on:

This isn’t some exercise in naïveté. Nor the obligatory pre-Christmas optimism. Only a mention that, so long as we choose anything other than a self-tormenting point-of-view, we will see a better country in all directions than a year ago.

Like: Hey, we got a new government this year and escaped that “Paroubek goulash populism” we were all stuck in coming into 2010! (Jiří Paroubek actually was Prime Minister from 2005-06, but I guess he has continued to have a lot of behind-the-scenes influence.) And it’s a new government committed to enacting reforms! he adds. Stipulated – but surely his position as a writer for Hospodářské noviny enables Honzejk to be aware of the shameful compromise that has kept this government propped up, as well?

It’s almost comical, the happy-talk rabbits he tries to pull out of his hat here while trying to retain an even-handed, judicious tone. “[The Czech political scene] is no utopia,” he concedes, “as the Motolska Hospital affair showed us this year.” (Wait, I never even heard about that one! But I probably don’t want to know!) But look, research shows that the amount of illegal software installed on Czech computers has declined! Hooray!

No, the Czech Republic can no longer be regarded as belonging to the “Wild East,” he asserts. After all, the EU has decided to put the office of its Galileo GPS program in Prague. And the British news paper The Telegraph recently named Prague “the best vacation destination in the world,” while no less than the New York Times back in April had a laudatory (if rather short) travel article about the country’s #3 city, Ostrava (over on the eastern border).

OK, Prague is very nice to visit, but about Ostrava I don’t know for sure, having never visited there. However, my suspicion is aroused by phrases in that NYT piece like “Ostrava’s most famous symbol was a 1,033-foot-high slag heap” and “grimy reputation” and “derelict sites.” I suspect the travel writer is trying rather too hard here to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – as is, for that matter, Petr Honzejk in his “don’t worry, be happy!” article. That his argument can be put forth in a leading business newspaper must certainly be the very definition of “protest[ing] rather too much“; we should rather all keep in mind the Economist’s rather more gloomy conclusion: for the Czech Republic “[t]he gloss is off.”

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