Jun 26th 2008 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
Was Poland’s greatest trade union leader a secret-police informer?
POLAND’S past has a long reach. An appeal court this week upheld the conviction of 14 policemen involved in killing nine miners protesting against martial law and the banning of Solidarity in 1981. And Lech Walesa, the trade union’s leader, whose contribution to the collapse of communism ranks with those of John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, faced allegations that he was once a secret-police informer.
The charge comes in a seemingly well-sourced, 780-page book by two historians working at the Institute of National Remembrance, the custodian of Poland’s surviving communist-era archives. Mr Walesa, they contend, was the informant known in the files as “Bolek”, recruited in 1970 and active until 1976. People on whom he snooped went to jail or lost their jobs, they claim. The circumstantial evidence, seen with a critical eye, is plentiful. But some note that the secret police habitually exaggerated and falsified records of their activities. Mr Walesa himself vehemently and repeatedly rejects the allegations as “lies” and says he will clear his name in court.
The flair he displayed in Solidarity’s heyday (he jumped, at least in legend, over a Gdansk shipyard wall to lead a strike there) and the guts he showed later under martial law (when he rejected all attempts by the communist regime to co-opt him) mean that many Poles would overlook a young man’s misjudgment. Polls give him high ratings for honesty.
What is harder to defend is his record as Poland’s first post-communist president from 1990 to 1995. He was erratic in manner, and surrounded himself with questionable advisers. Some say this was because the outgoing regime was blackmailing him to ensure a smooth switch from power to wealth—and back again. That is how the opposition Law and Justice party sees recent history: a conspiracy of ex-apparatchiks, spooks and dodgy businessmen, aided and abetted by weak-willed ex-dissidents. Discrediting Mr Walesa fits with a counter-attack against Civic Platform, the party that won last autumn’s election. Government figures dismiss the book; Law and Justice is promoting it. Their black-and-white world view leaves little room for human frailty, real or alleged.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Slovakia and the euro
Always the same winners
Jun 26th 2008 | BRATISLAVA
From The Economist print edition
Few care about crony capitalism when business booms and the euro is coming
ONLY two things in Slovakia matter to outsiders, cynics argue. One is that the country joins the euro smoothly next January—becoming the first country from the former Warsaw Pact to get in. The other is that the ruling left-nationalist coalition does not dismantle its predecessor’s free-market reforms.
Life is a bit more complicated than that. Slovakia’s finance minister, Jan Pociatek, is a guarantor of economic orthodoxy, but also at the centre of a scandal about the euro. The flamboyant minister is accused of leaking to an investment fund information about a planned revaluation of the national currency, the koruna, against the euro. The alleged leak, which Mr Pociatek denies, came to light after unusually heavy trading in the currency in the run-up to a 15% jump in the exchange rate that was announced on the evening of May 28th. It followed an informal meeting four days earlier between Mr Pociatek and tycoons from J&T, Slovakia’s leading investment fund, on a yacht in Monaco.
Mr Pociatek pooh-poohed suggestions that he had discussed the issue with his hosts. A notable playboy by Bratislava standards, he insisted that he was there only to “see chicks” and talk about the Monaco Grand Prix. However, when asked at a press conference who had won the race, he could not remember.
Hobnobbing with market participants before one of the most sensitive moments in the country’s 15-year financial history might be seen as unwise behaviour by Mr Pociatek, regardless of what was discussed. The central bank has launched an investigation; the opposition has put forward a no-confidence motion in parliament. The owners of J&T have fought back, accusing the government of treating them like “vermin”.
After some hesitation, the country’s populist prime minister, Robert Fico, backed Mr Pociatek, criticising him only for his “ostentation”. Slovakia’s flat tax, investment-friendly regime and sound public finances will survive. Yet the row highlights another feature of the country: the enduring ties between some of today’s politicians and the magnates who made their fortunes from dodgy privatisations in the 1990s. Mr Fico insists that he likes financial groups as “a goat likes a knife”. But a former finance minister, Ivan Miklos, notes that “their knife is at his throat”.
(thanks to Kristina Mikulova in Bratislava)
Dead, not buried
Jun 26th 2008 | SOFIA
From The Economist print edition
New light on an old murder
WHEN Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian émigré broadcaster, was murdered in London in 1978, few could have suspected that Communist rule in his country would collapse a decade or so later. But Bulgaria’s democratic rulers proved unable to help solve one of Britain’s most spectacular political murders. Key files were inexplicably destroyed; two senior officials died mysteriously. Though the cause of death—a pellet laden with a fatal poison, ricin, supposedly poked in with an umbrella—had long been known, the trail to those who ordered the killing seemed to have gone cold.
Now Scotland Yard officers have again been visiting Bulgaria, interviewing former secret-police officers and examining documents that they sought in vain in the early 1990s. At a time when Bulgaria’s reputation in the European Union has been dented by the seeming impunity enjoyed by its gangsters and their corrupt pals in officialdom, its willingness to co-operate with the British investigation will be an important test of good faith. “It will show to what extent former spies still control the country,” says Hristo Hristov, a Bulgarian journalist who follows the Markov case closely.
Bulgaria’s co-operation contrasts sharply with Russia’s intransigence over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen and vociferous critic of the Kremlin, who was poisoned in London in November 2006 by a rare radioactive element, polonium. British officials are convinced that Russia’s security service, the FSB, was involved in the murder. The prime suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, is now a celebrated Russian parliamentarian.
The Bulgarian authorities could obstruct the Markov investigation until after September 11th, the 30th anniversary of the murder, when the statute of limitations kicks in. But racing against time to find clues in heavily weeded archives in Sofia is unnecessary if the whole story is available elsewhere. Whether or not the Soviet KGB ordered Markov’s murder, their close Bulgarian allies would certainly have shared details of such a risky operation. Bulgaria asked Russia to declassify its Markov files in 1991 but did not pursue it. If the new man in the Kremlin, Dmitry Medvedev, truly wants to thaw his country’s icy relations with Britain, he could do worse than pass on whatever the closely-guarded archives of the old KGB contain on the Markov murder.
(in cooperation with the excellent Economist stringer Irina Novakova)
From The Economist print edition
FISHING, journalism, and the death throes of the Swedish social system are the unpromising ingredients of Andrew Brown’s thought-provoking autobiographical memoir. The story of a young drifter who rebels against a privileged upbringing in Britain and goes away to work in a pallet factory in provincial Sweden in the late 1970s might seem impossibly dull. But Mr Brown’s prose is as clear and bewitching as the lake waters in which he learns to fish. Having immersed himself, and the reader, in the all-encompassing conformism, thrift and diligence of the Sweden of that era, he charts the story of his own rebellion, disenchantment and ultimate reconciliation with a country that in the meantime changes almost beyond all recognition.
Having learnt his trade by jotting down choice phrases on bits of cardboard in the factory, Mr Brown becomes a journalist. Sweden proves surprisingly interesting: Soviet submarines haunt the coast, provoking panicky incomprehension in a public convinced that virtue equals untouchability. A secular priesthood of social workers snatch children from “elitist” parents (though that scandal, he later discovers, turns out to be not what it seems).
Flushed with success, he abandons small-town Sweden (and his first wife and child) for the delights of London. His time as Britain’s best reporter of religion and his early evangelism for the internet are all but omitted; material, perhaps, for another book. Instead the focus is on his regular trips back to Sweden, sometimes as a correspondent, sometimes in search of somewhere sufficiently remote to write books: swapping what he calls the mosquitoes of distraction in city life for the thought-inducing real ones of a Swedish forest in high summer.
Readers who know the Nordic countries will delight in the author’s keen ear and eye for the nuances of language, landscape and social customs. The polite incomprehension prompted by a papal visit to a place with almost no Roman Catholics is particularly well drawn. A Finnish journalist colleague invites Mr Brown to feel her thigh: she is wearing suspenders and a garter belt in what she coyly tells him is a protest against the church’s repressive sexual mores. She follows it up with an invitation to dinner in Helsinki later. In some parts of the world, that would count as quite unusual.
The fish and the weather don’t change (though Mr Brown’s growing prosperity as a journalist means that he can afford better kit). But Sweden does. As the harsh echoes of the impoverished, hierarchical system of the 1930s fade, so too does the moral tone of the society. It is only the memory of poverty that creates the social discipline necessary for prosperity, he suggests; once that is forgotten, the seeds of decay begin to sprout.
Mr Brown is an interesting man; introspective and with perhaps a touch of prissy self-importance. Much the same goes for Sweden; like him, it has become less unusual than it used to be. Once home to a system that seems to modern eyes as distant as communism, it is now a more-or-less normal capitalist country, troubled by the task of integrating the tenth of the population that consists of unhappy and often unseen immigrants. What comes next? Even the sapient Mr Brown does not venture a guess.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Not quiet on the eastern front
Jun 26th 2008
How to lose friends and alienate people
HAD it been cooked up in the Kremlin's department of fiendishly clever geopolitical plots it could hardly be more damaging. First, America arm-twists some of its most loyal European allies to do dreadful things in great secrecy. Then it boasts about them. The result: America's tattered moral authority frays further, and the allies look stupid in the eyes of their voters and neighbours.
Poland and other ex-captive nations still deny that they have had anything to do with the torture and illegal detention of terrorist suspects. But a report in the New York Times last weekend gives details of the interrogation (to put it euphemistically) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attack on September 11th 2001.
Seized in Pakistan on March 1st 2003, he was moved to Poland within days, to an intelligence-service base near Szymany Airport. The article features the success of a “soft-spoken” CIA agent, Deuce Martinez, in persuading the prisoner to provide information that “tough treatment” (described as “cold temperatures, sleeplessness, pain and fear”) had failed to dislodge.
That is a startling breach of secrecy, if not a huge surprise. A senior Polish official has already confirmed that CIA officers were based at the Stare Kiejkuty base, near Szymany. Flight logs show that CIA-chartered planes stopped off there en route between Kabul and Guantánamo. An entirely innocent explanation for that looks pretty unlikely.
Investigations by international human-rights bodies have already pieced together a picture of what are at best deplorable short-cuts involving not-quite-torture and at worst outrageous betrayals of everything the West claims to stand for.
Still, it is easy to see why Poland and other east European countries agreed to co-operate in the first place. America is the rock on which their security is based. America was grappling with the genuine legal difficulties of how to deal with people who are somewhere between criminals and prisoners-of-war. Presumably they thought that a bit of discreet help to their main ally would be repaid in other ways. They certainly did not expect to read the gory details in the New York Times a few years later.
Bogdan Klich, Poland's defence minister, expressed “outrage” at the claim in the article that James Pavitt, a former director of the CIA’s clandestine service, had described Poland as the “51st state”. He pointed out that Poland’s tough negotiations with America over a planned missile-defence base belie the idea that politicians in Warsaw do everything that their counterparts in Washington, DC ask of them.
That's true. But they clearly have done quite a lot. And the question for America is whether their allies would want to do it again. Public support in eastern Europe for the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has shrivelled. The same politicians who supported military involvement in those conflicts now look as though they also colluded in torture and received public humiliation in return.
The row also undermines the image of eastern Europe in western Europe. Many voters and politicians in “old Europe” already feel, sanctimoniously, that the new member-states are backward, crime-ridden, ill-governed and unreliable. That they have abetted George Bush's torture squads tarnishes their image further.
The paradox is that the more Europe is divided, the more that east European countries feel dependent on America. Spooked by Germany's closeness to Russia, countries such as Poland and the Baltic states trust the EU and NATO less than ever. The American security relationship has never been more important. But it is also alarmingly costly. Those who want to practise “divide and rule” on the European continent must be licking their lips.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Snap and crackle goes pop
From The Economist print edition
Life in the old wireless yet
PROPAGANDA, news, curiosity and even espionage were the fuel of short-wave radio broadcasts. Readers of a certain age may recall the thrill of hearing a crackly, venomously worded broadcast from far away, such as the Voice of Free China denouncing the communist bandits on the mainland, or Radio Peace and Progress in Moscow deriding the imperialist hullabaloo about human rights.
The huge advantage of short-wave was that such material was simple to send and hard to stop. Thanks to their high frequency and short wavelength, even low-powered signals can bounce off the ionosphere halfway round the world; anyone can listen. Jamming them—a favourite Soviet tactic, still practised by China today—is an expensive and patchy business.
The end of the cold war, deregulation and new technology made short-wave look out of date. The propaganda war between east and west abated. Poor countries liberalised their broadcasting regimes, turning information famine into abundance. New stations, transmitting on crackle-free FM, soaked up listeners. Many started partnerships with international broadcasters who had previously used short-wave. Satellite-television news from stations such as CNN provided powerful competition in meeting the needs of the news-hungry. Broadband internet connections and even mobile phones can be used to listen to a plethora of radio stations.
But short-wave's retreat has slowed. Though the BBC's World Service uses around 15 different technologies to reach its listeners, short-wave is still king: latest figures, published last week, show 105m of its 182m-strong global audience still listen that way, the majority of them in Africa. In Nigeria the short-wave audience even grew slightly last year. That's not going to change soon: the BBC is upgrading its transmitters on Ascension Island (to be powered, greenly, by a new wind farm). Mike Cronk, a BBC bigwig, says the business case was “compelling”.
As competition for slots on the spectrum has eased, private broadcasters are moving in, notably American-based religious ones such as Assemblies of Yahweh, Adventist World Radio and the Fundamental Broadcasting Network. Short-wave also stays useful after natural disasters or political crises. Foreign broadcasters such as Voice of America have been stepping up their short-wave offerings to Zimbabwe in recent weeks.
Perhaps the most loyal users of all are intelligence services. So-called “Numbers stations” such as the Cyprus-based Lincolnshire Poacher (named after the jaunty tune that precedes the broadcasts) allow Britain's MI6 and others to send messages to anyone anywhere in the world, untraceably and in unbreakable code. No other medium is as ubiquitous and as secure. The only snag would be if owning a short-wave radio were to come to be seen as so eccentric as to arouse suspicion. Indeed, fewer such sets are sold these days. But as Simon Spanswick of the Association for International Broadcasting, an industry umbrella group, notes, people rarely throw their radios away.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Poland, Russia and history
Dead leaves in the wind
From The Economist print edition
Russia inches towards reconciliation with Poland over the Katyn massacre
FEW things symbolised the Soviet attitude to truth more than the Katyn massacre: having shot 20,000 Polish officers in cold blood, the Kremlin then blamed it on the Nazis. And few things symbolise better modern Russia's lingering clinch with the Soviet past than the failure by relatives of the victims to get justice from the Russian legal system.
Last month a court in Moscow rejected a request to hear a case on two issues: the declassification of documents about Katyn and the judicial rehabilitation of the victims. That was shocking (imagine a German court telling Holocaust survivors that Auschwitz files were a military secret). But the Katyn relatives want to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and for that other legal avenues must be exhausted first.
Last week, however, an appeal court overturned the lower court's ruling and ordered it to hear the case. Other signals coming from the top, including an interview given to a Polish newspaper by an adviser to former President Vladimir Putin who called Katyn a “political crime”, suggest that the Russians are changing their attitude. One risk for them is a defeat at Strasbourg. Another is the effect on public opinion of a new film, “Katyn”, by Andrzej Wajda, Poland's best-known director, that is filling cinemas in the West and in Russia.
Yet the signals remain mixed. Plenty of Russians still argue that Katyn has been exaggerated by the Poles. Some mainstream media have resurrected Soviet-era falsifications. In Russia's ally, Belarus, the defence ministry's magazine says that the whole thing is a slanderous plot to defame the heroic anti-fascist struggle. Another Moscow court recently brushed aside an attempt by Memorial, a Russian human-rights group, to declassify the Katyn files.
The relatives pursuing cases over Katyn insist that they do not want financial compensation from the Russians. “It is about honour and justice,” says Ireneusz Kaminski, a Cracow law professor who has masterminded their campaign. If Russia's new leadership wants to distance itself from the revisionist Soviet nostalgia of recent times, coming clean about Katyn would be a good start.
Looking nice but doing nothing
From The Economist print edition
Is one of the best governments in Poland's history good enough?
A PREDECESSOR which outsiders regarded as rude, silly and incompetent is always a bonus. But the Polish government headed by Donald Tusk has two other big advantages: a booming economy and a lack of serious opposition. So despite its rather scanty record, the ruling coalition is popular at home and abroad.
Mr Tusk's Civic Platform party defeated its centre-right rival, Law and Justice, in a tight election last October. The outgoing prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, led a government bent on destroying the cosy deals between business and bureaucracy that took root in Poland after the collapse of communism in 1989. But it became preoccupied by bizarre intrigues over intelligence. It was spectacularly incompetent in foreign policy, picking pointless fights with Germany. Its efforts to fight corruption and reform the judicial system led to abuses of power, not cleaner government. It failed to reform public services or modernise creaking infrastructure.
It is not hard for Mr Tusk's government to look good in contrast. It has done best in foreign policy, thanks largely to a competent foreign minister, Radek Sikorski. Shifting from his hawkish anti-Kremlin past, he has charmed both Russia and Germany. He has forged a strong alliance with Poland's northern neighbour, Sweden, launching a joint plan for a new eastern partnership for the European Union.
Mr Sikorski has also been playing high-stakes poker with America, demanding money for military modernisation, and high-tech defences for Warsaw, in return for hosting a missile-defence base. Some in Washington think that having such a vital base on Polish soil should be honour enough. If Poland can strike a deal with Condoleezza Rice, America's secretary of state, when she visits Warsaw shortly, Mr Sikorski will be riding high. Some call him a future president. His bargaining position is strong: missile defence is unpopular with voters. Lithuania is eager to step into the breach if the Poles refuse the base, but Poland is the Americans' first choice.
The government's other success is a parliamentary commission to promote deregulation. Every Polish government has tried to scrape clean a barnacled bureaucracy, with a signal lack of success. Mr Tusk's brainwave was to hand the issue not to a special ministry (easily nobbled by Poland's change-resistant civil servants) but to lawmakers. Headed by the exuberant Janusz Palikot, the commission launched a public competition to identify the stupidest rules—eg, the requirement that most businesses handling cash must keep receipts in paper form for five years. As these are printed on thermal paper, they fade unless kept cold. That, and other sillinesses, should go next year. It is a small start, but hugely welcome.
On other fronts, the government's record is weaker. It nibbles at problems, sometimes usefully, more often ineffectually. It exudes an atmosphere of mild chaos, coupled with an unhealthy appetite for the spoils of power. Mr Tusk is charming and decent but not decisive. He has yet to be tested by a big crisis.
To be fair, the government faces one huge constraint: Law and Justice's Lech Kaczynski, twin brother of the former prime minister, who will be president until 2010. The opposition has enough votes to deprive the government of the majority it needs to override a presidential veto. One of Mr Tusk's aims seems to be to win the presidency later, rather than take any bold action in government now.
That may be politically astute, but it risks wasting valuable time. The congested and clapped-out road and rail networks cause problems not only for Poland but also for its neighbours. A combination of obsolescent power stations and tough EU rules on carbon emissions threatens huge rises in the cost of electricity. In 2012 Poland will co-host the next Euro football tournament with Ukraine, requiring huge investment in new roads and stadiums, which are badly behind schedule. Wasteful public spending subsidises an army of bogus welfare claimants. The economic outlook is less bright than it was. The sun is shining today, but such problems seem sure to cloud Mr Tusk's future.
Bottom of the heap
Jun 19th 2008 | BRUSSELS AND BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition
The dismal lives and unhappy prospects of Europe's biggest stateless minority
THE village of Vizuresti lies 35km (22 miles) from Bucharest and on the wrong side of the tracks. For the first few miles the road from the highway is paved, passing through a prosperous district with solid houses and well-tended fields. But once it crosses the railway, leading only to the Roma settlement, the tarmac stops. The way to Vizuresti is 20 minutes of deep potholes and ruts. Life for its 2,500 people, four-fifths of them Roma, is just as tough.
Mihai Sanda and his family, 37 of them, live in half-a-dozen self-built, mud-floored huts. In his two-room dwelling, seven people share one bedroom; chickens cluck in the other room. The dirt and smell, the lack of mains water, electricity, sewerage and telephone are all redolent of the poorest countries in the world. So is the illiteracy. Ionela Calin, a 34-year-old member of Mr Sanda's extended family, married at 15 without ever going to school. Of her eight children, four are unschooled. Two, Leonard, aged four and Narcissa, aged two, do not even have birth certificates; Ionela believes (wrongly, in fact) that she cannot register their birth because her own identity document has expired.
For the millions of Europeans—estimates range between 4m and 12m—loosely labelled as Roma or Gypsies, that is life: corralled into settlements that put them physically and psychologically at the edge of mainstream existence, with the gap between them and modernity growing rather than shrinking. The statistics are shocking: a Unicef report released in 2005 said that 84% of Roma in Bulgaria, 88% in Romania and 91% in Hungary lived below the poverty line. Perhaps even more shocking is the lack of a more detailed picture. Official indifference and Roma reluctance mean that data on life expectancy, infant mortality, employment and literacy rates are sparse. Yet all are deplorably lower than those of mainstream society.
The immediate response to this (as for most of eastern Europe's ills) is to blame history. The lot of the Roma has been miserable for a millennium, ever since their mysterious migration from Rajasthan in northern India sometime around 1000 AD. With the possible exception of a principality in Corfu around 1360, they have never had a state. In parts of the Balkans, Roma were traded as slaves until the middle of the 19th century. Mirroring America's history at the same time, emancipation proved a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for freedom. The Roma of Vizuresti went from being slaves to being landless peasants. Even now, seasonal agricultural labour of the most menial kind is the main source of income; that, and begging.
But a twist of history in the next century meant that Europe's Roma suffered even more than America's blacks. Hundreds of thousands perished in the Nazi Holocaust. Compensation has been stingy, belated and badly administered.
It would be even easier to blame the Roma's plight on communism. Certainly that system largely stamped out the Roma's traditional nomadism. Countries such as Czechoslovakia also practised forced sterilisation (though Sweden did that, too). But the paternalistic structures of state socialism to some extent sheltered, if usually in the most menial jobs, those unable or unwilling to compete in a market economy. And an ostensible commitment to the brotherhood of man restrained at least some racial prejudices. For the Roma, democracy unleashed their fellow-citizens' latent hostility, while capitalism offered them few prospects.
As eastern Europe prospered, the Roma fell further behind. Their surviving traditional skills (handicrafts, horsetrading) were out of date; they lacked the administrative skills to set up businesses in the formal economy; even those wanting to work found few factories or offices willing to employ them. And European Union membership has added a new bureaucratic burden even to the businesses in which they thrive. In Balteni, near Vizuresti, the local Gypsy chieftain or Bulibasha (at the age of 84 himself a Holocaust survivor) runs an immense informal scrapyard, where tractor-trailers, car shells drawn by horses and rickety lorries deliver precariously loaded piles of rusty metal to be sorted and then sold to a nearby metallurgy plant. A vast bonfire of copper cables fills the air with fumes as insulating material is burnt off. A ragged, shoeless workforce of all ages sorts the inventory by hand. There is not a safety notice, a glove or a visor in sight, and it is hard to imagine the business or its illiterate owner managing to cope with any kind of bureaucratic inspection.
The most conspicuous problem for the Roma is lack of education, which keeps them out of jobs. Others include hostility from the majority population, apathy in officialdom, dreadful public services and infrastructure, and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. It is hardly surprising that many tens of thousands of Roma have moved west in search of a better life. But if they did not fit in well at home, they adjust even worse to life in western Europe. Begging on the street, for example, often with young children, scandalises the citizenry, as do Roma encampments in public spaces such as parks or road junctions. A delegation of top Finnish politicians visiting Romania this month publicly complained. “In Finland, begging is not a job,” the country's president, Tarja Halonen, told her hosts with Nordic hauteur. Maybe not, but for Roma it may be the only choice they have.
West Europeans also tend to believe that Roma migrants are responsible for an epidemic of pickpocketing, shoplifting, mugging—and worse. In Italy, public patience snapped earlier this year after reports of gruesome muggings, rapes and the alleged stealing of a baby. Such reports were not matched by any change in the crime statistics. But coupled with some incendiary statements by the incoming right-of-centre government, they were enough to provoke something close to an anti-Roma pogrom in May in Naples and other cities. Rioters burned Roma caravans and huts; the authorities followed up with arrests and deportations.
West European attitudes differ little in essence from those of the ex-communist bureaucrats in the east. They want the problem to go away. Emma Bonino, a feisty Italian politician and former EU commissioner, says that Roma make a “perfect scapegoat” for politicians who have failed to deal with Italy's other, graver problems. The authorities' response has been milder than their rhetoric suggests, she says, but she laments the lack of any programme to help the Roma integrate into Italian society. The biggest danger, in her view, is that politicians have made anti-Roma racism respectable for the first time: “When you go down that road, you will not stop it just by saying ‘Enough is enough’.”
That is not just a moral cop-out. It is also bad economics. Excluding an Ireland-sized group of millions of people from the labour market, particularly when they typically have much larger families than the average in fast-greying Europe, is a colossal waste of human potential. But those looking for encouraging signs have to hunt hard indeed.
Europe is supposedly in the middle of a “Decade of Roma Inclusion”, launched in 2005 when the governments of the countries with big Roma populations (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia) agreed to close the gap in education, employment, health and housing. Fully €11 billion ($17 billion) is available from the EU's social fund, with a further €23 billion earmarked from the regional development fund in coming years.
Yet the main effect so far has been to create a well-paid elite of Roma lobbying outfits, fluent in bureaucratic jargon, adept at organising seminars and conferences and nobbling decision-makers. It has had little effect on the lives of the Roma themselves. As the Open Society Institute, funded by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, says in a recent report, most governments see the answer to the Roma problem in terms of “sporadic measures” rather than coherent policies. An official in Brussels says: “We don't lack the laws and we don't lack the money. The problem is political will.”
Certainly a bit of willpower can work wonders. In Vizuresti, for example, only 6% of the children never go to school at all—a triumph by local standards. But it is still nothing to cheer about. “When the girls reach nine or ten they are ready to get married, and it is shameful for them to come to school,” explains a local, firmly adding that “marriage” in this sense means betrothal, not conjugality. “The boys don't come if they are busy helping their fathers to collect scrap,” he continues, “and the boys drop out at 15 because then they have completed the eighth grade, which you need to get a driving licence.”
In much of eastern Europe Roma children are packed off to special schools for “backward” children, reinforcing stigma and prejudice and guaranteeing that they enter the labour market with a third-class ticket. Another obstacle is the lack of birth certificates: schools that do not want Roma children can simply refuse to register those without official papers. But perhaps the biggest barriers are parental reluctance and poverty. Children in school can't work. They need expensive uniforms and books. It may even be embarrassing if they can read when their parents can't. So why bother?
A well-run country can try to spend large amounts of taxpayers' money on alleviating social problems. The results may be patchy, but at least in western Europe they have got somewhere. Spain, for example, is regarded as a big success story. Its Roma were marginalised and neglected under authoritarian rule; now a mixture of good policy and generous EU funding has brought widespread literacy, better housing and integration in the labour market. But the ex-communist countries have much weaker public administration, and neither politicians nor voters consider Gypsies a priority.
Vizuresti is doing better than most places. Thanks to a charismatic and impressive head teacher, Ion Nila, lack of documents is no barrier to registration at the village school. His teachers go door to door in the mornings, cajoling parents into sending their children to class. The real breakthrough, he says, will come if he can get Roma children to attend the nursery attached to the school. But, says Mr Nila, parents are reluctant to send their young children, as they don't have the money to buy them shoes. He hopes that hot midday meals will be an incentive, if he can find the money to pay for them.
So, at the top, billions of euros are being pumped in; while, at the bottom, a teacher struggles to find the tiny amount needed simply to feed his charges. Indeed, most of the progress in Vizuresti comes not from taxpayers' money, which soaks away into bureaucracy far from the village, but from the work of a charity, Ovidiu Rom, headed by a fiery American philanthropist, Leslie Hawke. The charity, not the state, has paid for and helped with IDs, teacher training, student workbooks and a special summer programme designed to prepare 20 of the poorest children and their often illiterate parents for what seems, to them, scary school life.
So why is Europe floundering? The conventional answer is that the Roma's biggest problem is racism pure and simple. Enforcement of tough anti-discrimination laws, Roma-friendly curriculums in schools, cultural self-esteem, positive discrimination in both officialdom and private business are the necessary ingredients for change, say the politically correct.
But that is not the whole story. Even defining what “Roma” really means is exceptionally tricky. Europe has plenty of marginalised social groups, often with traditions of nomadism and their own languages: Irish Tinkers, for example, who speak Shelta. Their problems and history may in part be similar to the Roma's, but they are not the same. Even within the broad category of Roma (meaning those with some connection to the original migrants from Rajasthan) the subdivisions are complex. Some prefer not to use the word Roma at all, arguing that “Gypsy”, sometimes thought derogatory, is actually more inclusive. The impressive catalogue to the Roma Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale insists that Roma is too narrow a term, excluding as it does “Sintis, Romunglo, Beas, Gitanes, Manus etc”. Even ethnographers find it hard to nail down the differences and similarities between such groups.
Moreover, those more narrowly defined as Roma have surprisingly little in common. The Roma tongue—originally related to Sanskrit—has splintered into dozens of mutually incomprehensible dialects. The sprinkling of internationally active Roma activists have developed their own version (sometimes derisively known as “NGO Roma”), but it bears little relationship to the creoles still spoken in the settlements. The strongest common culture is traditional Roma music, where it survives. But its haunting chords and rhythms do not conquer tone-deaf bureaucracies.
The boundaries between the marginalised groups and “normal” society are fluid. One reason that a Roma middle class, which supposedly would provide role models, lessen prejudice and increase social and economic mobility, has failed so far to take root is that most Roma who become middle-class drop the “Roma” label at once. Hopes for a change rest on the new generation of thousands of young Roma graduates, who may be less shy about their origins.
Similarly, those not born into the Roma world can end up there—by marriage, adoption or choice. In Balteni, a blonde girl, Roxana, shyly shows off a necklace of seven big gold coins given to her as a mark of impending puberty; not born a Roma, she was adopted from an orphanage into the family of a local patriarch. A Roma—which comes from the Romani word “Rom”, meaning husband—is, ultimately, anyone who wants that label.
Furthermore, as Zoltan Barany, author of a controversial but acute book on the Gypsies of eastern Europe, points out, Roma lobbyists tend not to notice that the Roma's own habits and attitudes may aggravate their plight. Speaking off the record, a westerner engaged in Roma welfare tells the story of an exceptionally talented teenage pupil at her country's top academy. She was bound for university and a stellar career, but her family decided that this was too risky: she was bride-snatched, taken to a remote village, raped and kept in seclusion. From there she was trafficked to western Europe, where she is now in a group of beggars camping out near one of Europe's best-known stadiums. Well-wishers tried to rescue her, offering a safe-house where she could continue her studies; she refused, frightened that her family would find her.
The result of that is what a senior official dealing with the issue calls “self-decapitation”. A handful of Roma politicians have emerged, including a couple of impressive members of the European Parliament. But even their symbolic value is limited. The vast majority of Roma do not even vote in elections, let alone join the campaigns waged on their behalf. There is no sign of a Roma Martin Luther King, let alone a Barack Obama. But, notes the official, “There are lots of angry young men.”
Amid all this, the EU is tottering forward. A report due to be issued next week will criticise the “implementation gap” in the worthy policies conceived so far. It will rebuke governments for slow progress. Controversially, it is likely to say that formal equality before the law is only a starting point, and that American-style positive discrimination will be needed.
That may prove a risky course. As in America, race and a history of slavery make a potent combination, entrenching stereotypes and attitudes on all sides. But also as in America, it is unclear how far the problem is race, and how far it is a matter of poverty and other factors. Stop treating Roma as a racial minority, Ms Hawke argues, and concentrate on the poor level of public services they receive in housing, health and particularly education.
Seeing the problem only through an ethnic lens is great news for the “Roma industry”, as the campaigning groups are sometimes derisively known. Their activities turn all too quickly into a theoretical, nit-picking discussion about politically correct language, complete with internecine feuds between different lobbies. It plays badly with voters, who already tend to blame the Roma for their own misfortunes. In most ex-communist countries, polls show striking degrees of prejudice: as many as 80% of those asked say they would not want Roma neighbours, for example. In Hungary, the commendable idea of integrating Roma and non-Roma children in the same schools has sent parents scurrying elsewhere.
But there are some shoots of hope. One is that the violence in Italy has highlighted the Roma issue in a way that would never have happened if the misery had remained concentrated in the slums and ghettos of eastern Europe. “Just as Putin has galvanised Europe on energy policy, Berlusconi has galvanised Europe on Roma policy,” says Andre Wilkens, a thoughtful Brussels-based observer of the region who heads the Open Society Institute's Roma efforts. He believes that the new member states of the EU have a chance to derive advantage from the Roma by finding an economic niche for them—for example, by turning their tradition of scrap-dealing into the basis for a modern recycling industry.
Such hopeful nibbles abound. But even an optimist would have to concede that Europe's biggest social problem will persist for the lifetime of anyone reading this article, and probably far longer.
Hot love in the cold war
From The Economist print edition
TERROR, stagnation, exile, hope and disillusion are the fabric of Russian history in the last century. These are also the backdrop for Owen Matthews’s poignant history of his family’s battle with Soviet bureaucracy at its most callous and Western officialdom at its most complacent.
His father Mervyn was one of the earliest British graduates allowed to study in Russia in the 1950s. This changed his life. First, he fell in love with Lyudmila, the frail, brainy daughter of a senior communist purged in the 1930s. Second, he flirted with the KGB. They insisted that he work for them. When he refused, he was expelled, permanently, from the Soviet Union. Lyudmila’s repeated applications for an exit visa were denied.
That could have been the end, among millions of other commonplace tragedies in the decades that the Kremlin devoted to creating paradise on earth. But it wasn’t. Showing great reserves of determination, Mervyn Matthews spent the next five years running a threadbare but relentless campaign to get Lyudmila to Britain. He buttonholed any public figure who could help, harassed the press and infuriated Foreign Office mandarins who regarded the whole affair as an irrelevant nuisance. He travelled round Europe to try to lobby visiting Soviet bigwigs, and even managed twice to slip into the Soviet Union on visa-free day trips from Finland to see her.
In between he wrote daily to Lyudmila in spare but affectionate prose. He carefully kept copies of his own letters and of her replies, which are steeped with frustrated uxoriousness (love mixed with fussing about his diet and clothes). Through these extracts the reader can almost smell the longing and the willpower. They also show how the couple’s unhappy families—Mervyn’s father is absent because he disliked his relations, Lyudmila’s because he died in the Gulag—made them seem to match each other so neatly.
The campaign for Lyudmila cost Mervyn his academic career. He did not publish his work on Soviet sociology for fear of offending the Kremlin. After lobbying a visitor to his Oxford college too brusquely, he was eased out and took a job at another university which he despised. In Moscow, Lyudmila was hounded for her love affair with someone from the enemy camp.
Astonishingly, the sacrifices were vindicated. In 1969 the Matthews case and that of two other couples were bundled up with an East-West spy swap. Lyudmila came to Britain. The marriage proved less than blissful, although it was saved by dogged loyalty on both sides. Lyudmila adapted poorly to English life; her shy, spartan husband’s grit in adversity proved greater than his husbandly capabilities.
But the marriage did produce the author, a legendary hellraiser in Moscow in the 1990s, and now a respectable foreign correspondent. The crisp and admirably self-deprecating vignettes of his own life, both emotional and professional, give his parents’ story a fitting perspective. Few books say so much about Russia then and now, and its effect on those it touches.Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love and War.
By Owen Matthews.
Bloomsbury; 308 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Walker Books in September.
Few things make the bien pensants more uneasy than talk of right and wrong. They flinched when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet bloc, rightly, the “evil empire”. Sometimes that fastidiousness was simply based on wilful ignorance. Reports of Stalin’s terror, the Gulag, persecution of dissidents or the bullying of the captive nations were dismissed as tendentious or inaccurate. More often it was based on a feeling that the West’s own shortcomings were so appalling that we were in no position to judge anyone else. Amid the ruins of communism in Czechoslovakia in late 1989, I sat through an excruciating dinner with my then foreign editor where I explained that the Czechs wanted to become a “normal country”. He couldn’t share my enthusiasm. “What’s ‘normal’ about Britain?”, he asked scornfully — a country where mounted police charged striking miners, where a quarter of the population lived in poverty, and where you could be locked up for a decade just for having an Irish surname.
Yet the Czechs were right, and my distinguished boss, whose liberal conscience was tingling so painfully with the shortcomings of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain, was wrong. Their enthusiasm for welfare capitalism and political freedom was based not on a naive belief that everything we had was wonderful, but a realistic appreciation: when things went wrong in communist countries, you were powerless. In Western countries, you had a chance, either through politics, the law, or the media, to get something done about it.
I was reminded of this at another dinner last February in London, where a frail but determined Baroness Thatcher enjoyed a lengthy standing ovation from hundreds of Lithuanians gathered to celebrate the 90th anniversary of their country’s founding. The Lithuanian ambassador to London, Vygaudas Usackas, with a moral clarity and historical perspective that are seldom found in our own diplomatic service, explained eloquently how Mrs Thatcher’s tough talking had given hope to him and three million other Lithuanians, a captive nation in the Soviet empire. The Iron Lady beat the Iron Curtain. She may be the object of easy derision on the London stage and at the dinner table, but to those who tasted totalitarian rule, she is still a heroine.
If the political elite in the West found it hard to grasp that the old Cold War was a struggle of good against evil, they find it almost impossible to understand the moral dimension of what is going on now, particularly with regard to Russia. Readers will need little to remind them of that country’s descent into autocracy at home and bullying abroad. The events—it would be unfair on countries with real political freedom to call them “elections” — of December and March produced a sycophantic legislature and a docile successor, Dmitri Medvedev, in the Kremlin. But it is clear that real power will stay with the man — and the system — that has ruled in Russia for the past nine years.
Vladimir Putin has moved from being president to prime minister. He is also chairman—I nearly wrote General Secretary—of the ruling party. Together with his ex-KGB colleagues, he presents a profound challenge to the West, and never more so than now. Our economy is slumping just as theirs is booming. The idea that economic prosperity depends on political freedom seems to have been exploded. Russia has a system of authoritarian bureaucratic capitalism that at least on the surface seems to deliver the goods: high living standards, decisive leadership, and none of the messy complications of Western-style electoral democracy and separation of powers.
Even when the real shortcomings of the Kremlin’s crony capitalist system are pointed out, we in the West flinch from telling it like it is. So Russia’s economy and politics are distorted, monopolistic and corrupt? Surely that’s just like Italy — particularly with Mr Putin’s chum Silvio Berlusconi back in charge. So Russia incarcerates dissidents in psychiatric hospitals? Well, America has flung the innocent into the prison camps of Guantánamo Bay.
It is certainly true that the worst aspects of the Russian system are often a concentrated form of our own worst shortcomings. Indeed, the West has largely lost the moral authority that it enjoyed during the last Cold War. Once it was the Russian elite who feared us, and ordinary Russians who admired us. Now the elite despises us for our corruption and weakness, and ordinary Russians see little difference between one lot of rulers and another.
But just because we have many flaws does not mean that we are always wrong, or that somewhere else can’t be worse. Without some kind of moral self-confidence in our own system, we cannot defend it: we are in the same position as the kind of leftwingers who believe that mugging is a political action by the poor against the rich. The squirming reaction to the praise lavished by Nicolas Sarkozy on Britain’s dynamism, efficient institutions and deep historical traditions was a good example. His audience were so used to moaning about Britain’s crowded, vulgar, discredited (fill in blanks from either The Guardian or Daily Mail leader columns according to your choice) that they could hardly believe that a foreigner was coming here to tell us that we had something to be proud of.
Moral timidity is a gift to Kremlin propagandists. During the Cold War they were trained to use a technique that I dubbed “what-about-ism”. Any criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, political persecutions or censorship was met with a “what about” apartheid South Africa, (or trade union rights, American-supported dictatorships in Latin America, etc, etc).
Now they have a much easier job. Communism was a hard sell. Not only did it demand huge sacrifices of freedom, but it didn’t work. The painful truth for the Kremlin’s lie-mongers was that workers in the Soviet Union lived worse — a lot worse — than their counterparts in America. The crony capitalism of modern Russia is much less distinctive. And — lethally for us — it is highly tempting for the rich, powerful and unscrupulous elsewhere. That is particularly true now that the regime has taken some of its most sinister ex-KGB types out of the front line, and promoted the quiet, lawyerly Mr Medvedev. On close scrutiny, his well-honed phrases about liberty and the rule of law sit ill with the lawlessness and repression at home. But they are a perfect sugary coating for the bitter pill that the Kremlin wishes us to swallow: the Finlandisation of western Europe, and the recovery of its old eastern Empire.
The clearest example of this has been the Kremlin’s success in suborning Germany, once a pillar of the Atlantic Alliance and now almost Russia’s closest ally in Europe. During the old Cold War it would have been inconceivable that a serving German chancellor, in his last weeks in office, would have signed off a loan guarantee on a controversial Kremlin-backed energy project that directly threatened Europe’s collective security. It would have been even less conceivable that, having left office, the same German politician would then take a lucrative job as chairman of that project.
Yet that is exactly what Gerhard Schröder, the successor to such giant statesmen as Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, did in 2005, with the Nord Stream pipeline. This will take gas along the Baltic seabed directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing the countries in between (and thus making them vulnerable to energy blackmail). Even more shocking is that the German government of Angela Merkel has been unable to derail the project.
Worse, at the Nato summit in Bucharest in early April, it was Germany that blocked the chances of Ukraine and Georgia taking the next step towards Nato membership. Never before had the divisions in Nato been so cruelly — and dangerously — exposed. A compromise was cobbled together to disguise the split; but the damage had been done. When push comes to shove, Germany cares more about pleasing Russia than America. Now Georgia is paying the price, as Russia moves swiftly to annex, in effect, the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These two statelets have been Russian puppet states for 15 years. The pro-Western government in Georgia is humiliated; those in it who have argued for a peaceful approach to the separatists are undermined. And as the Kremlin flexes its muscles, the absence of any protest from Europe is painfully apparent.
That exemplifies one of the most successful tactics adopted by Vladimir Putin and his ex-spook sidekicks. He has successfully built up the Kremlin’s influence not only on the West, but also in the West. The growing business lobby tied to Russia represents a powerful fifth column of a kind unseen during the last Cold War. Once it was communist trade unions that undermined the West at the Kremlin’s behest. Now it is pro-Kremlin bankers and politicians who betray their countries for thirty silver roubles.
Nobody in Britain has any reason to get on a moral high horse where Germany is concerned, given the behaviour of our own commercial and financial elite. If someone turned up in the City of London with a suitcase full of Fabergé eggs purloined from a Russian museum, it is hardly likely that the slickest investment bankers, sharpest lawyers and smoothest PR firms would compete for the business of selling them in a legal and uncontroversial way. (At least I hope not.) But when Russians turn up with a stolen oil company, such as Rosneft, the story is quite different. Having gobbled up the eviscerated remains of Yukos, a company largely owned by Western shareholders, Rosneft came to London and successfully listed its shares, with barely an eyelid batted among the pinstriped accessories to the deal.
That sort of behaviour makes it much harder to draw a line between the law-governed liberty of the West and the lawless greed of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Why bash Russia when Germany is just as bad? The West is open to criticism that it uses double standards; even that it is racist. Why are we so hard on the behaviour of countries that dare to be assertive in their foreign policy (i.e. Russia) while overlooking those that play the Western game (i.e. Italy)?
It is that question which is now the central “ideological front” of the new Cold War. Does the West really believe in its own values? Do its rulers feel any sense of shame? And do voters mind? The broad path downwards is tempting. We will become more like Russia. Our rulers dip their snouts in the trough, paying lip service to conflict-of-interest rules, soaking up expenses and bribes while in office, and looking forward to lucrative directorships afterwards. Voters regard politics as a mildly entertaining soap opera, but lose any sense that it makes a difference to their daily lives. Public-spiritedness becomes a mugs’ game. Voting is something you do with your wallet and your feet. If politicians muck us about too badly, we stop paying taxes or move abroad. As public services fray, we go private. The rule of law remains, at least in theory — a ghostly reminder of a nobler age.
That is the broad path down, but a narrow and rugged way back to moral ascendancy is there, if we choose to tread it.
It requires first of all a clear understanding of the historical and geographical context in which we articulate our views. Stalinism, for example, should not be regarded as some distant abstraction, as irrelevant to modern-day politics as the Bismarckian militarism of 19th century Prussia. It is a powerful and toxic force that modern Russia has yet to confront. The fact that Vladimir Putin regards the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as lawful is not some curious historical footnote. It is as outrageous as if a German chancellor were to maintain that the Munich agreement on the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia had been “just another treaty”. Our ahistorical, optimistic age finds that difficult to grasp. Politicians with a strong sense of history are rare. “That was then, this is now” is an easy retort to those who raise the whiskery problems of the past.
A degree of historical amnesia is a necessary lubricant in politics. The postwar rapprochements between France and Germany, or more recently between Britain and Ireland, would not have been possible if either side had stuck rigidly to a script featuring past historical wrongs. But that presupposes goodwill. Germany and Poland get on pretty well — but it took Willy Brandt’s genuflection in Warsaw in 1970 to dent the Polish conviction that nothing could be forgotten or forgiven. Nobody should rub modern-day Russians’ noses in the Katyn massacre, or the mass deportations from the Baltic states to Siberia of 1941 and 1949. But the quid pro quo is that Russians do not speak of those years with pride or nostalgia.
Secondly, we have to be a lot blunter about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Why do we accept the language and citizenship policies in Estonia and Latvia, which the Kremlin portrays, now with increasing vehemence, as a discriminatory blot on the West’s record? Why do we think Kosovo deserved to be independent, while Transdniester (a breakaway region of Moldova) doesn’t? Is it solely because the Kosovan leadership is pro-American and the separatists in Transdniester are Lenin-loving Soviet holdovers? If so, it is hardly surprising that Russians and others think we are being hypocritical.
The answers to these questions are good ones, but too often understated. Estonia and Latvia have certainly inflicted some injustice on the Soviet-era migrants stranded on their territory when the empire collapsed. They must pass a language test if they want to become citizens of the reborn countries. That policy was unsettling, upsetting, and to some extent unjust; and this needs to be bluntly acknowledged. But it would have been an even greater injustice to have expected those much abused countries to give instant citizenship to a population still largely loyal to the old Soviet order, or to have allowed the russification policies of the past decades to become a new status quo. An honest Western policy would say this — and also point out that the Russians living in the Baltic states now enjoy far more political freedom and much higher living standards than their compatriots in the Motherland. Russia does not like that to be said, which is one reason why nobody says it. But it is still true. Our policy was tricky, but both right in principle and successful in practice. Such things deserve to be advertised, not mumbled.
Similarly with Kosovo: the truth is that we think that Europe’s “soft imperialism” gives us a chance of making a go of it. It is not just the thousands of lawyers and police — the continent’s most ambitious colonial adventure for decades — that the European Union is sending to give the new-born state a semblance of law-governed rule. It is also that Kosovo (and Serbia) have reservations on that clunky, puffing rattletrap of the enlargement train. EU expansion rarely gets the plaudits it deserves. It is easier to highlight the bad side-effects: unsettling migration, growing criminality, bad government and corruption. But overall it has been a stunning success, spreading freedom and security to tens of millions of people. For all its faults, Europe has a great deal to be proud of in the way it treats its citizens — nowhere else in the world do so many people enjoy such liberty or such good public services. And it is all the more commendable that this sphere of good-ish government is spreading east.
By contrast, Russia has nothing except cheap gas to offer tinpot statelets like Transdniestria. However muddled, ineffective and hypocritical the EU is in its influence on what it calls the “European Neighbourhood”, it is incomparably better than the thuggishness and mischief-making that are the hallmark of Kremlin policy in its former empire. We do not want Transdniester to become independent, because it will be like Russia. We do want Kosovo to be independent, because it will eventually be like us. Again, that is a blunt message, but one better spoken proudly than left unsaid.
Historical perspective and plain speaking are only part of the story. Real success will come only when we strengthen our own moral authority. That requires the West to become both more self-critical and more self-confident. On the face of it, that is a conundrum. In fact, it is the extent and effectiveness of self-criticism that distinguishes us from the authoritarian societies to the east. And it is on this that our self-confidence should rest. That is a task not just for politicians, but for everyone. Our cause — and our future — are corroded by bad government, apathetic citizens, sloppy journalists and, most of all, those who scoff at the very notion of right and wrong. If we do not use it, we will lose it.
Lithuania split by the atom
Energy security in the Baltics is getting worse
IT was a mistake to start with, compounded by procrastination. The consequences for the security of one of Europe’s most vulnerable corners are potentially appalling.
As part of the deal to join the European Union, Lithuania agreed to close its perfectly serviceable nuclear-power station at Ignalina. No engineering or safety case for this was ever made: the requirement was a political one, sprouting from a neurotic strand of greenery in western Europe.
Lithuanians can feel cross about that. But they should be furious with politicians of all stripes, who have failed to plan for the now imminent deadline of 2009. After that, Lithuania will be 90% dependent on fossil fuel, with around half of its supplies coming from Russia. Unscrambling the agreement on Ignalina would require the consent of every EU member, at a time when their patience has been taxed by Lithuania’s brave but unpopular veto on new talks with Russia.Lithuanian officials are looking for wiggle-room—for example, starting to close the power station in 2009, but not actually taking it off-stream. Few would bet much on that bearing fruit. The populist parties that are hoping to take power in this autumn's elections have a simpler message: they will simply ignore the requirement to close Ignalina. That would mean an almighty bust-up with Brussels.
The only bright side is that Lithuanian politicians will finally face the consequences of their actions, or lack of them. The sensible thing would have been to start several years ago building a new nuclear plant on the same site, to replace Ignalina. But the countries involved in the plan (Lithuania and the other two Baltic states, with the belated addition of Poland) still cannot agree how big it should be, or on shareholding structure. That exasperates those who urgently want the Baltic “energy islands” hooked up into the rest of Europe. But nobody seems able to bang heads together with sufficient force.
Other vital projects such as power links to Sweden and Poland are also woefully behind schedule. Lithuania still squanders energy; a programme to improve home insulation is pitifully inadequate.
Matters are even worse because Venezuela has stopped supplies of orimulsion, a bitumen-based fuel that formed an important part of Lithuania's energy imports. Whether that is due to Hugo Chavez's friendship with Vladimir Putin is a matter of dark speculation in Vilnius.
The immediate danger for Lithuania is that Russia will drive a hard bargain for the extra gas, most likely by demanding a bigger stake in Lithuania’s energy industry. In the long run, Russia says it will build a new nuclear power station in Kaliningrad, the exclave of territory it holds between Lithuania and Poland.
The truly galling prospect is that this gets built and hooks up to the European energy network, while the Lithuanians and their EU allies continue dithering about a replacement for Ignalina. That would be yet another victory for Russia's push into Europe, and yet another humiliating defeat for those who try to oppose it.
As so often in European security, hopes for a rescue rest on America. Lithuania is not only offering to host America's missile-defence base if the Poles decide they don't want it. It is also hoping that an American company will build the new nuclear reactor.
Perhaps—but these things don't happen overnight and Russia is hardly likely to find extra gas to heat a country set on hosting a missile base that it sees as a direct threat. It looks like 2009 will be a year of hot diplomacy and cold radiators in Lithuania.
The Future Is in the Pipeline
Petrostate (Published in the UK as Oilopoly: Putin, Power, and the Rise of the New Russia)
By Marshall Goldman
(Oxford, 244 pages, $27.95)
Natural gas is a monopolistic business: Building even one pipeline is expensive; building another makes no commercial sense. Russia, with its huge natural-gas reserves, uses its monopoly on east-west pipelines to promote Russia's political interests -- and reacts toughly when challenged. Marshall Goldman sets out these disturbing truths in "Petrostate," a bleak and yet spirited account of Russia's energy politics. The West, Mr. Goldman makes clear, should be wincing at its own vulnerability.
The story, as Mr. Goldman tells it, starts with the first oil boom in the czarist era, when Russia and America together produced 97% of the world's oil. Foreign companies were booted out of the Soviet Union by Lenin and Stalin, only to be invited back in again (on different terms) when their technological expertise was missed. After the fall of communism there was a reverse involvement: Foreigners rushed into Russia to help set up a post-communist economy, only to retreat a few years later.
In between came the era of Soviet go-it-alone energy policy, when oil and gas revenues became the vital prop for Leonid Brezhnev's ailing planned economy. As in so many other parts of the Soviet system, ingenuity battled with incompetence, and incompetence won. The Central Intelligence Agency may have helped matters along by encouraging the Saudis to crash the oil price in the 1980s -- Mr. Goldman suggests as much -- but in the end, he argues, it was the Kremlin's mismanagement of its energy reserves that doomed the Soviet system.
Such incompetence lingers. The greedy and shortsighted engineering practices of the past all but ruined many Russian oil fields: It was routine to pump water in to get oil out, regardless of the consequences. The challenge for current Russian engineers is to coax Russia's shattered geology to cough up more oil -- for example, by drilling horizontally, not vertically. That's a tricky technical challenge. Arguing over the best approach to oil-extraction is at the root of the current row between BP and its Russian partners. The Russians want a dash for cash, while BP is seeking careful, long-term management of the oil fields.
Russia shows more savvy when it comes to selling natural gas abroad, where it has used its pipelines to skewer Europe, striking bilateral deals that might make short-term sense for individual countries but that undermine the leverage and bargaining power of the continent as a whole. Europe is three times bigger than Russia by population and about 10 times bigger in economic terms, yet the eagerness of individual countries for Russia's terms makes Europe politically vulnerable to Moscow's divide-and-prosper strategy. As Russia builds relationships with energy companies that might have been in a position to seek other sources of gas, Europe's ability to diversify its suppliers diminishes -- and becomes a prohibitively costly proposition.
Standing in the nerve center of Gazprom's Moscow headquarters -- staring at a 100-foot wall that electronically displays the spiderweb of natural-gas pipelines spreading across Europe from Russia -- Mr. Goldman marvels: "What an empowering feeling! Should they choose to, those Gazprom functionaries could not only cut off natural gas from the furnaces and stoves of 40 percent of Germany's homes but also the natural gas that many German factories need for manufacturing."
In other words, Ronald Reagan's warnings in the 1980s, about the political dangers of Western Europe's dependence on Soviet gas, now seem prescient. Today Western Europe relies on Russia for half of its natural-gas imports.
It is sometimes argued that Russia's increasing energy consumption and its stagnant production -- its output of natural gas has been virtually flat for the past four years -- will lead to gas shortages in Europe. (They are already biting hard in Russia.) Mr. Goldman dismisses such fears, though much too briefly to be convincing. He also sees no danger of an international natural-gas cartel forming along the lines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, one that would presumably include Turkmenistan, Venezuela and Trinidad.
Russia would never let its decision-making be affected by others, Mr. Goldman says. That may be true in the case of price-setting (where the economics are quite different from the oil market, because oil is traded on the spot market, whereas the international gas business is mainly based on long-term contracts). But a possible Organization of Gas Exporting Countries could still help bolster Russia's position by consolidating producer power in exploration, pipeline routes and the market for liquefied natural gas.
The biggest hole in "Petrostate" is its skimpy treatment of the European Union. An important question facing the EU now, for instance, is whether its energy liberalization policy -- unbundling the wholesale and retail businesses in gas and electricity -- will help or hinder the Kremlin. A fragmented market may be even easier to manipulate. Mr. Goldman's sharp mind would be well-suited to untangling such intricacies.
The unanswerable question is whether the Kremlin -- or more precisely, Vladimir Putin -- will use gas as a weapon to gain international political influence. The optimistic view is that business normalizes politics -- in this case, that Russia's need to be a dependable partner will require it to soften its political edge and conform to international standards of behavior. Pessimists fear that gas dependency will lead to the Finlandization of Europe. On the evidence so far, the pessimists have the better chance of being right.
Mr. Lucas is the author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West" (Palgrave).
Friday, June 13, 2008
The Walesa question
Truth and memory conflict in post-communist Poland
DID the most famous living Pole, Lech Walesa, collaborate with the communist secret police? Over the past 15 years, he has vehemently denied it. The informant “Bolek” who features in the files is someone else, known to him. Mr Walesa has won a number of legal battles to clear his name.
A forthcoming book on the subject comes not from nutty conspiracy theorists, but from two respected Polish historians, Slawomir Cenckiewicz and Piotr Gontarczyk, who work at the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN, in its Polish acronym), the custodian of the communist regime's secret-police files.
They claim to have unearthed previously unknown documents linking Mr Walesa—who led the Solidarity union, served as president and won a Nobel prize—to the secret police, for a period up until 1976. That has prompted a furious row, with the incumbent president, Lech Kaczynski, trading bitter words with his erstwhile ally.The argument is not just about a possible lapse of judgement more than 30 years ago. It also affects Poland's more recent past. Some believe that Mr Walesa's seemingly erratic behaviour and poor choice of advisers as president from 1990-95 was the result of blackmail (he strongly denies this too). That goes straight to the most divisive question in modern Polish politics.
For a large chunk of Polish opinion, the “PRL”, as the Polish People's Republic is known, was fundamentally illegitimate. Everything that happened—including much so-called “dissident” activity—was a sham and a fraud, orchestrated by Polish or Soviet secret police. Others see the PRL as a pragmatic response to Poland's impossible position after 1945. Surely it was better to live as best as one could than to die senselessly in the forests or rot in jail.
Solidarity under Mr Walesa in 1980 and 1981 partially bridged that gap. The idea that dissident intellectuals could unite with industrial workers and strike a deal with communist bureaucrats set the precedent for the 1989 round table, when the one-party state negotiated its own demise.
The argument about whether that deal was an honourable segue from totalitarian rule to freedom, or a shameful cop-out in which traitors and criminals dodged responsibility for their deeds, is still raging. The dilemmas that may have faced Mr Walesa are those of millions of Poles, including most of those who have been running the country since 1990.
One response to this would be to say that Mr Walesa's behaviour in the early 1970s is simply irrelevant. From 1980 onward, with his remarkable negotiating abilities, charismatic personality and stubborn bravery under arrest, he redeemed himself for any youthful mistakes.
Like many public figures, he was great in his heyday, and it is better not to dwell too much on what happened before or afterwards. Winston Churchill drank too much, grossly misunderstood economics, and had deplorable views about race. Even the founding father of modern Poland, Josef Pilsudski, cooperated with the Czarist secret police, among other things.
From that viewpoint, Lech Walesa is a Polish trademark, symbolising the country's courageous struggle for freedom: damage him, and you damage Poland. As the years pass, and Poland's international image is anchored more firmly in the achievements of others, that argument is diminishing. But it still counts.
Mr Kaczynski's intervention looks vindictive and ill-judged. Some would even say that the historians of the IPN should devote their attention to other subjects. But neglect won't make the problem go away. If the arguments for discretion are strong, the argument for truth is stronger. If the proof is overwhelming, Mr Walesa can still admit his lapse. If it is not, many people won't believe it. But a public cover-up would be the worst of both worlds.
Thursday, June 05, 2008
All at sea
From The Economist print edition
The ideal international summit is a dinner party with a waiting list
ON ANY list of international organisations deserving the chop, the Council of the Baltic Sea States should have a high ranking. Its membership is illogical: non-Baltic Norway and faraway Iceland are in (thanks to their Nordic status), nearby Belarus is not. And its purpose is fuzzy.
Set up in 1992 after the collapse of communism to bridge the east-west gap across the Baltic, the 11-country body, complete with a secretariat, a rotating presidency and working groups and committees, plods on. Leaden but lavishly produced publicity material discusses “Balticness” and highlights such gems as the “expert group dealing with social inclusion, healthy lifestyles and work ability” and the members' supposedly common tastes in jazz and photography.
To its critics, such activities demonstrate a waste of taxpayers' money and busy people's time. Oddly, the biggest advocates of chopping are the members themselves. The main agenda item at this week's summit in Latvia was how to trim the CBSS's activities. If the sceptics have their way, it will become little more than an annual dinner party.
That could be a promising niche. “The CBSS is now so boring that the Russians don't try to disrupt it,” admits a normally hawkish official. Russia was represented in Riga not by the abrasive Vladimir Putin but by the man who was once his smooth summit sherpa, Igor Shuvalov (he is now the prime minister's senior deputy). Even when he was berated by countries prone to Russia-bashing, he remained impeccably, politely dull, insisting that the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline to Germany on the Baltic seabed threatens nobody.
Perhaps the biggest sign that the CBSS has a future is that France—which has no historical or cultural connections to the Baltic—is pressing to become a full member, possibly because it suspects that Germany is growing too important in the region. Existing members find this Gallic interest both puzzling and flattering. “It suggests that they don't really know what goes on here,” comments one official.
Yet if the CBSS is boring, the region is certainly not. Western governments are keeping a keen eye on the three Baltic countries' economic wobbles. They are also nervous about the spending power and energy clout of a resurgent Russia. That puts the Baltic in the front line of what one foreign minister calls “a sharp strategic conflict”. Not the kind of cosy, phoney Balticness that the CBSS purports to promote.
The Latvian puzzle
Strong institutions and weak politics make a rum mixture
LOOK just at the politics, and it is easy to be concerned about Latvia. Under the previous prime minister, Aigars Kalvitis, the government seemed particularly set on cosying up to Russia and castrating troublesome public bodies. “Government depends on business and business depends on Russia” seemed to be Latvia's philosophy in a nutshell. That worried its neighbours.
Yet there is a paradox: Latvia's strong public institutions proved able to defend themselves, thanks also to a vocal bunch of do-gooding bodies, and a citizenry that protests in the streets when politicians get out of line. Although a government propagandist refers to them as the “axis of evil”, organisations such as the KNAB anti-corruption bureau, the SAB intelligence and security service, the central bank, the prosecutors' office, the supreme court, and the bodies dealing with competition and public auditing all function commendably well by the standards of the region.Even the departure from office of the steely Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who as president helped quash some of Mr Kalvitis's plans, has not tipped the balance much. True, the new president, Valdis Zatlers, was manoeuvred into office in a startlingly crude political fix by the party barons from the ruling coalition.
But since then the “dodgy doctor” (as his detractors dubbed him) has confounded those who said he was too personally naïve and politically weak to be an effective president. At the NATO summit in Bucharest, almost alone among east European leaders, he publicly rebuked the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for threatening to dismember Ukraine.
The same may be true of Ivars Godmanis, who took over from Mr Kalvitis in December. As the leader of the government during Latvia’s struggle to regain independence, Mr Godmanis has the personal standing to face down the country's Berlusconi-like powerbrokers if they demand something too outrageous.
Yet avoiding disaster is nothing to cheer about. Drift is quite bad enough. The central bank alone cannot steer Latvia's economy through the coming downturn: that will need a government firmly committed to fiscal restraint in next year’s budget.
While Estonia and Lithuania are trying hard to diversify energy supplies, Latvia seems intent on increasing its dependence on Russia by building a gas-fired power station. The integration ministry, which is supposed to help the non-citizen population become Latvian, has been hijacked by monomaniac gay-bashers. Naturalisation applications have dwindled. If Latvia's previously apathetic russophone population starts looking east for leadership, the social and political costs will be huge.
Latvia's politics looks like a kitchen where the cooking is guided by the smoke alarm. It prevents catastrophe—but is no guarantee of edible food. Two groups of new cooks are trying to get to the stove.
One, led by two ex-ministers, Aigars Stokenbergs and Artis Pabriks, is not yet a political party. The “Society for Different Politics” hopes to attract new faces from business and elsewhere who have been repelled by the seamy cronyism of politics in recent years. That's a good idea—it was the genesis of Civic Platform, which now runs Poland—but it sits oddly with the cynical populism of the leadership's policy on pensions.
The other is led by the heavyweight Sandra Kalniete. She was nominated as a European commissioner only to be recalled because of political feuding at home. Together with allies from the ultra-patriot wing of Latvian politics, her Civic Union so far has also failed to enthuse the voters.
Meanwhile, Mr Kalvitis is setting up a new ice-hockey club in Riga, with some eyebrow-raising shareholders from the energy business. It will play in the Russian league. That would have seemed scandalous until recently. Now, apparently, it is acceptable.