Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Putin

From Russia with Love Part 2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on August 13 2020

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/from-russia-with-love-part-2

Why Would Putin Interfere?

Misha Glenny is an experienced and distinguished journalist and an expert on Russia. He wrote the non-fiction book on which the TV series McMafia was based. In an article on Open Democracy, Glenny attempts to answer the question: “Why would Putin want to interfere in UK elections?” The motivation seems to be to drive a wedge between the UK and Europe. Putin’s Russia is a capitalist (albeit of a crony variety) not a communist state and is much more integrated into global trade than the Soviet Union was. The EU is by far Russia’s largest trading partner, importing 30% of its oil and 40% of its gas from Russia. The UK imports very little of its oil and gas from Russia – it is not a significant market.

Russia Struggles to Be a World Power

Focusing on foreign policy is a way of deflecting attention from Putin’s domestic problems, such as over-dependence on the export of hydrocarbons (60% of its exports and 40% of revenue) to the federal budget, rising discontent among Russia’s urban middle class, which has resulted in ever-more brazen authoritarianism, and a declining population. Putin’s aim is to present Russia as one of the four decisive forces in international politics, along with the US, China and the EU.

Because he cannot hope to compete with the US and China in economic capacity or weapons and military strength, his aim is to drive wedges to weaken the ability to co-ordinate policy on Ukraine and the Nord Stream II pipeline, which takes oil directly from Russia to Germany.

London – Haven for Russian Oligarchs

Since the early 1990s, the UK, and particularly London, has been a prime location for rich Russians to hoard their ill-gotten gains. As Richard Brooke has shown in his special report for Private Eye, Lootin’ with Putin, supposedly pukka British professionals were quick to establish themselves in Moscow when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989. “‘Magic Circle’ law firm Clifford Chance led the way for the lawyers in 1991, by which time the Big Six accountancy firms, led by Ernst & Young (now EY), had also set up shop in Moscow.” In the second wave of privatisations of Soviet industry, a new breed of oligarchs who had taken advantage of the vouchers originally offered to ordinary Russians took control of the new corporations. In return for favouring the Putin regime with special deals for the president and his cronies, the oligarchs get safe deals and a luxury life-style. The kleptocrats need safe places to stash the loot and much of it ends up in Britain. In 1996, the UK government offered special “investor visas” for those with £1m. By 2015, 700 visas had been granted to Russians. Realtors Knight Frank stated that Russians were the largest spenders on “prime” London property. The following year, Savills estimated that one in 12 buyers of £2m+ houses was Russian.

Luke Harding: “Under Putin, Russia had become a virtual Mafia state in which the government, its spy agencies, and organized crime had merged into a single entity.” Russia Today broadcasts propaganda material, with the help of British politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond and George Galloway, to bolster Putin and together with the GRU’s data-mining hacking factories, to undermine western democracy.

Komplicity with Kleptocrats

As Misha Glenny put it: “For two decades, oligarchs have used British lawyers, courts, PR companies and politicians to cajole and intimidate their domestic enemies along with independent investigators or journalists. They have exerted influence in buying newspapers and football clubs.” Roman Abramovich enjoys a close relationship with Putin and owned Chelsea football club for years. When Alexander Litvinenko was killed on British soil in 2006 after being poisoned with radioactive polonium-210, there was never the slightest possibility that oligarchs like Abramovich would be investigated. Over ten years later, Theresa May, after the Skripal case, denied Abramovich a work permit as a snub aimed specifically at Putin.

Jonathan Freedland called her stance “Janus-faced.” “Noisy about Salisbury, hushed about sabotage of the 2016 Vote.” In the US the special counsel’s inquiry identified dozens of Russian conspirators. May refused to carry out a similar exercise in Britain. Carole Cadwalladr won a Pulitzer nomination for her investigative reporting of Cambridge Analytica’s illegal harvesting of personal data taken from at least eighty-seven million Facebook users. Her exposé led to a $134 billion slump in Facebook’s market capitalization.

Insecurity

Brexit was a favour to Putin because it severed the co-operation and intelligence-sharing of the agreement known as Five Eyes. As part of the EU, the UK shared the criminal and intelligence databases of the European Union, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. On leaving the EU, the UK left Europol and will now be able to access European terrorism, espionage and organised crime data banks only through a lengthy application process, which will make the information useless. A win for Putin.

The Malevolence of Russia Today

Vasily Gatov once worked for Russia Today and many of the people who currently work for the broadcaster used to be his friends. He sees them as mainly motivated by disappointment with the west. They feel the west has betrayed them by thwarting their bourgeois ambitions. ‘There’s no algorithm in RT’s malevolence, no scrupulous propaganda technology. What powers it is the burning hatred of smart boys and girls who once thought of the West — and particularly Western media — as the ‘shining city on the hill’, but now feel offended and deceived. The ingenuity of broken illusions is the fuel of RT, coupled with lavish state funding and emotional reimbursement.” There are also western staffers who feel rejected by their own countries. “The broadcaster’s staff share the employer’s passionate position against liberal values, free and independent journalism, impartial and balanced reporting — and do their best to perform.”

Shadow State

Luke Harding’s book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West provides a great deal of detail on how the Russian hackers operate to interfere with UK and US democracy (and who knows what other states!).  “Latterly the Putin regime switched targets. It now concentrated on the political systems in democratic countries. This was a genius approach. Moscow correctly concluded that Western politics was wide open—a soft underbelly. You could buy distressed newspapers, get émigrés to donate to certain political parties, and acquire troubled industries and infrastructure.”

Cyber-raids are carried out from the GRU’s military unit 26165 a yellow-painted neo-classical building in the heart of Moscow at 20 Komsomolsky Prospekt.  The GRU unit is also known as Fancy Bear and AP28 and has been operating globally since the mid-2000s, hacking the Bundestag and the French television station TV5.

The fact that Russia Today and the GRU are also interfering in US politics further weakens the UK’s position. Luke Harding: “The implication was explosive: that the Conservatives had put party political considerations above potential national security concerns. A post-Brexit trade deal with the US was evidently important. But so was the question of whether Trump was under obligation to Moscow or being blackmailed in some way—a strategic threat to the UK, if correct.”

Taking Back Control?

Paul Waugh writes on Huffington Post: “Where does all this leave the very thing that was supposed to be the ambition of the Brexit referendum: greater UK sovereignty? Some believe we are now more reliant on America than ever.” With the added disadvantage of the US and the UK being compromised by Russia. Taking back control?

Liberalism

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/35234

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 12 2019.

Putin

Vladimir Putin has caused a stir, which no doubt he intended, by saying, in an interview with the Financial Times, “The liberal idea has become obsolete.” He has often expressed the view that Western-style liberalism has failed, leaving the kind of authoritarianism he practises as the sole viable option. “The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. The migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected”.

“Deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules and moral values. In this sense, traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea, which, in my opinion, is really ceasing to exist.” Those who express such views are, of course, more than willing to decide what the fundamentals are and to do the authoritarian dirty work for us weak-willed lesser mortals

Definitions

According to Raymond Williams in Keywords: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier”. Williams was writing in 1976 and the situation has become more confused since.

One standard dictionary definition is “generous, noble-minded” which is clearly not apt for any context involving politicians. “Liberal democracy” is defined as “a state or system which combines the right to individual freedom with the right to representative government”. Surely, not even the Tea Partiers and Christian fundamentalists could object to that!

According to Professor Will Kimlicka in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts (different beliefs about the meaning of life), but rather provides a ‘neutral’ framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life. Liberalism, on this view, is the only human response to the inevitable pluralism and diversity of modern societies”.

Who could possibly object to this benign philosophy?

Trump

The president of the US, not for the first time, completely missed the point when asked about Putin’s interview. He thought his buddy was talking about the decadence of California and blamed the Democrats for that. Trump is consistently inconsistent but has consistently praised dictators. He has mocked Kim Jong-un but envies his power within North Korea. He envies Putin because his Russian buddy does not have to worry about political opposition. Jonathan Chait writes: “His contempt for democratic norms is sub-ideological, a pure product of his narcissistic fear of disobedience and innate belief in natural hierarchy. He hates democracy deep in his soul, but does not understand why.”

Orbán

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has said that his aim is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations,” citing as models China, Russia and Turkey. He denied that these plans conflicted with Hungary’s EU membership. If Hungary gets away with using sovereignty as a justification for passing laws that directly contradict important democratic and human rights principles, this could undermine the whole ethos of the EU. As the EU expands to include a more diverse array of countries and cultures with different versions of democracy, it needs to examine its economic, social, and political values.

Liberalism Attacked from the Right

Putin was not talking about the decadence of California but the longer historical tradition of liberalism that emerged from the laissez faire theories of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and other philosophers whose writings laid the foundation for democratic government.

When we discuss ‘liberalism’ we are again in Humpty Dumpty territory. I mentioned in a previous column that distinguished linguistic philosopher Humpty Dumpty who  told Alice:  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

To right-wingers in the USA, it seems, liberal means radical, immoderate. What the American right wing, as typified by such great intellects as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, mean by “liberal”, does not have to mean anyone as dangerous as a real communist or socialist of any kind. More extreme elements of the right wing see liberals as bloodthirsty revolutionaries determined to overthrow the state and destroy the family as an institution. The word “liberal” has become a code word in certain circles in the USA for all the kind of things that right-wing conservatives detest. The right hated John Kerry because he spoke French, liked fine wines and had an extremely rich wife. He represented the hated élite, unlike GW Bush, who was also rich and privileged but affected folksy ways and was of limited accomplishment or intellect. Right-wing Americans see ‘liberalism” as an obscenity and basically alien to the American Way. Ruder conservatives use terms like “libtard” which conflates their contempt for human rights and their lack of respect for people with mental health problems.

Liberalism Attacked from the Left

Liberals get attacked from the left as well. Liberalism is anathema to strict socialists because it is the highest form of thought within bourgeois society and is the philosophy of capitalism. Liberalism is based on individualist theories of man and society so it must be in fundamental conflict with strictly social theories and command economies.

These days we have ‘neo-liberalism’ which is blamed for all the ills the planet is heir to, and quite rightly so. The term was invented at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek were delegates. They saw the social democracy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the evolution of Britain’s welfare state, as dangerous collectivism that occupied philosophical territory akin to Nazism and Communism. In neoliberalism, laissez faire means huge tax cuts for the rich, neutering of trade unions, deregulation of financial institutions, privatisation of everything including impractical things such as probation services, outsourcing and competition in public services, even where it means fatalities among patients because of private firms providing catering and cleaning for profit.

Neoliberal doctrines according to George Monbiot, “played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump”.

Let Professor Kimlicka have the last word:

“Dire warnings about liberalism’s inability to contain the centrifugal tendencies of individual freedom can be found in every generation for the last three centuries, yet it appears that liberal societies have managed to endure while various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism, and communism have come and gone… the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies.”

The Goulash Archipelago

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 2 2014

Colman's Column3

Imagine a country where a populist leader wins a two-thirds majority in parliament and uses it to make radical constitutional changes, which were not in his election manifesto. The opposition is negligible and ineffectual. The popular leader sees his electoral success as a mandate to restructure the justice system and to place his acolytes in important institutional positions. He clamps down on the media, undermines religious organisations and imposes a nationalist viewpoint, citing national sovereignty when subject to international criticism. Checks on executive power are removed. Transparency International condemns widespread corruption. NGOs (including some based in Norway) are intimidated by police raids. Slum clearance is making people homeless. The leader seems to regard himself as a monarch. Where is this country?

map2

It is not some failed state in Africa or Asia. It is right at the heart of Europe and of the “ethical” project known as the European Union.

Will Hungary become a dictatorship and remain within the EU?

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has said that his aim is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations,” citing as models China, Russia and Turkey. He denied that these plans conflicted with Hungary’s EU membership.

EU Values

The EU presents itself as a moral model to the world. Any European nation wishing to become a member of the EU must, in theory, respect the values set out in Article I-2 of the Constitution. Turkey has been trying to get into the EU for a long time, but, despite its ongoing electoral success, the Erdoğan government makes the EU uncomfortable. The EU takes steps to ensure that a prospective member state meets certain criteria about democratic practices. This has delayed Turkey’s acceptance. What happens when a state is accepted into the EU, and then reneges?

Although Viktor Orbán has made no secret of his plans to use his popular support to make sweeping constitutional changes, to muzzle the media and reshape Hungarian institutions to suit his own purpose, the European Commission agreed in August 2014 to provide Hungary with nearly 22 billion euros of economic assistance. The money will arrive between 2014 and 2020 to boost competitiveness and growth. Hungary will also get €3.45 billion for rural development and €39m for fisheries.

Collapse of Communism

Hungary was the first Eastern European country to gain some economic freedom under “Goulash Communism”. Communist leader Janos Kádár, through the New Economic Mechanism, reintroduced some elements of a free market. Hungary was “the happiest barrack” in Central and Eastern Europe. However, Kádár had to borrow money and, in 1982, joined the IMF. The resultant debt contributed to the instability of subsequent governments.

In 1989, Hungary allowed thousands of East Germans to escape to the West by opening its border with Austria. Hungary began a programme of privatisation soon after the collapse of communism and within four years privatised half of the country’s economic enterprises. By 1998, nearly half of foreign direct investment in Central Europe was going to Hungary.

Hungary and the EU

In 1988, Hungary was the first among the Central-Eastern European countries to establish diplomatic relations with the European Community and benefited from assistance programmes. Every political party elected to the Hungarian National Assembly after the first free elections of 1990 agreed that accession to the European Community had to be a priority.

At the EU Summit in Dublin on 25-26 June 1990, the twelve then existing members initiated talks with the Central-Eastern European countries to establish a “new type of relationship”. In 1998, the EU began negotiations with Hungary on full membership. In a 2003 national referendum, 85% voted in favour of joining the EU and Hungary became a full member on 1 May 2004.

Credit Crunch

Despite EU membership, a high level of private and state borrowing left Hungary vulnerable to the credit crunch of 2008, and in October of that year, the government was forced to appeal to the IMF and the ECB for huge sums to avoid disaster.

Fidesz

In 1992, Viktor Orbán became leader of the Fidesz party, which was originally founded by young democrats persecuted by the communist party. In 1998, Orbán formed a successful coalition and won that year’s parliamentary elections with 42% of the national vote. Orbán became Prime Minister of Hungary at the age of 35.

Fidesz does not have a coherent ideology, but draws on populist themes, including those espoused by extreme right wing groups- national sovereignty, distrust of foreigners and NGOs (an NGO that trains dogs to help disabled people was recently raided by police). Fidesz narrowly lost the 2002 elections to the Hungarian Socialist Party. Dissatisfaction with the Socialist government’s subsequent handling of the economy from 2002 to 2010 coincided with the rise of the right-wing nationalist party Jobbik. Fidesz moved to the right and won the parliamentary election in 2010. Fidesz scored another comfortable victory in the 2014 election and Jobbik increased its share of the vote from 17% to 20.5%.

New Constitution: Top-Down Coup d’État

The two-thirds parliamentary majority gained by Fidesz in 2010 allowed it to replace the comparatively liberal post-communist constitution. Critics say the new constitution removes essential checks and balances but Fidesz claims that the constitution needed to be changed to expunge vestigial traces of communism. However, deep constitutional change was not part of Fidesz’s electoral programme and it does not have a democratic mandate for the changes it has introduced.

NGOs were raided by the police. This was “completely unacceptable”, complained Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister for Europe. News services became centralised monopolies. Employees lost the right to strike. Dozens of religious organisations closed. The government looted private pension funds. Schools were nationalised and all headmasters replaced. The government attacked critical intellectuals. Fidesz loyalists gained long-term powerful posts, including the presidency, the office of the chief prosecutor and the audit court, as well as top jobs in cultural organizations. The Orbán government reduced the powers of the constitutional court and the budget council. Bill Clinton said Orbán was an admirer of “authoritarian capitalism” and never wanted to leave power. “Usually those guys just want to stay forever and make money”.

Corruption has worsened, says Transparency International. A recent report highlights “worryingly negative trends” in Hungary. In the Social Justice Index (SJI) Hungary scored 4.44% in 2014, down from 4.79 in 2011 and 5.07 in 2008. The report showed that 43% of children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Children are worse off in this respect only in Romania (52.2%) and Bulgaria (52.3%). Hungary ranks second to last with respect to the percentage of children suffering severe material deprivation (35%), with only Bulgaria (51%) behind it. In Miskolc, a slum-clearance programme has made many homeless.

Democracy in Danger?

According to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, Orbán’s politicisation of the constitution poses serious threats to democracy and the rule of law. The opposition had no say in the drafting of the new constitution. Further amendments weakened opportunities for political competition and removed checks on executive power.

In April 2013, the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly recommended monitoring of Hungary. Hungary would have been the first extant EU member state to have its democracy scrutinized. On June 25th, the European Parliament voted not to subject Hungary to the monitoring procedure but adopted a resolution, stating that according to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, the situation in Hungary is incompatible with EU values.

The Economy

When in opposition, Orbán accused the government of allowing the Hungarian economy to fall under foreign control. Fidesz bases its political appeal on an image of rescuing the country from an incompetent and corrupt Hungarian Socialist Party. Despite this populist stigmatising of foreign control, Hungary received a bailout of over $25 billion jointly from the EU, the IMF and the World Bank. Orbán was unwilling to make severe cuts in public spending and the IMF declined to provide the requested flexible credit line for Hungary.

Recently rating agency Standard and Poor’s warned that growth could slow to about 1% to 1.5% pointing to a large public sector, political uncertainty, weakness in the banking sector, and a regressive, complex tax system. Nevertheless, GDP rose in the second quarter at an annual rate of 3.9% and industrial output is up 11.3%. Tourism revenue has risen by more than 10% year-on-year.

Because Hungary is not a member of the Eurozone, it has the option of doing what ECB membership denies Greece and Ireland: printing more money and devaluing its currency. This could provide the sort of internal stimulus needed without additional borrowing. Orbán has said he has a duty to protect national sovereignty and preserve Hungary’s independence. Adopting the euro would mean local officials losing control over monetary policy. Hungary is required to introduce the euro eventually under its EU accession obligations. However, analysts believe there is not much chance of Hungary   adopting the euro before 2020.

EU Failure

International organizations like the IMF and the Council of Europe have criticised Hungary’s political direction but nothing practical was done to stop Orbán unpicking the framework of Hungarian democracy. The Council of Europe adopted an ineffectual resolution, which criticised undermining of European democratic standards in Hungary, but merely resolved “to closely follow” the situation in Hungary. The Hungarian government has agreed to a few constitutional changes after the latest Council of Europe Venice Commission report, but did nothing to withdraw measures on political advertising and recognition of religious groups.

Sweden’s EU Affairs Minister, Birgitta Ohlsson, proposed that EU funds – which Orbán distributes to his supporters – should be withheld and that he should be warned that Hungary’s EU voting rights could be suspended. The European Parliament on 15 September rejected a proposal by the liberal group for a plenary debate on Hungary at its session in Strasbourg.

A few years ago, Tibor Navracsics boasted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Navracsics has been appointed EU commissioner for education, culture, youth and citizenship.

Conclusion

Orbán has moved out of the Hungarian equivalent of the White House into a castle that formerly housed Hungary’s kings. Six million dollars from the exceptional provisions reserve fund will pay for renovation.

If Orbán succeeds in his stated ambition of building an illiberal state within the EU, existing or new members might copy him. Is the success of Fidesz and Jobbik a peculiarly Hungarian phenomenon, or is it an advanced symptom of a broader popular discontent with the “Europe Project”?

If Hungary gets away with using sovereignty as a justification for passing laws that directly contradict important democratic and human rights principles, this could undermine the whole ethos of the EU. As the EU expands to include a more diverse array of countries and cultures with different versions of democracy, it needs to examine its economic, social, and political values. Can the EU’s current mechanisms cope with further expansion?

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